Universal Books was once the last remaining business in Church Lane in Letterkenny town centre in Co Donegal. Now owner David Faughnan has no shortage of neighbours.
After the financial crash, he says, “we could barely hold on and pay the rent … I thought, we’ll take one more chance and go up here”.
His saviour was Donnan Harvey, now of the Cathedral Quarter Committee and Letterkenny Tidy Towns.
“That mad eejit came across the road and said: ‘I have got a great idea – we are going to rejuvenate the street’.
“We hosed down the street, we painted all the doors. I thought he was nuts, but Donnan was thinking of the bigger picture, that if the place is clean and looks good, businesses will want to move in, and that’s what happened.”
Today, Church Lane is warm and welcoming. Twisting up from the town’s main street towards the cathedral, its buildings are brightly painted; there are flowers on every windowsill and murals on the walls.
Harvey grew up with Church Lane; the committee’s headquarters was once his grandmother’s home.
“This house is over 100 years old; I have lived here, generations have lived here,” he says. “Our derelict houses should have people living in them, it’s not rocket science.”
We can’t fix 15 years of lack of primary development, we understand that, but this could be a short-term fix
— Shane Grant of Letterkenny Chamber of Commerce
The Central Statistics Office (CSO) is due to release fresh data on housing from last year’s census, including on vacant homes, next week. According to figures it released in January, based on metered electricity consumption, on average 4.3 per cent of homes nationally were vacant in the fourth quarter of 2021, with counties in the north and west worst affected.
The figure in Donegal is 8.1 per cent. A conference organised by Harvey aimed at highlighting the issue of derelict and vacant homes in Donegal and across the State – and considering potential solutions – took place in Letterkenny yesterday.
“People are naturally attracted to the historic cores of towns, and it’s given Upper Main Street and this Cathedral Quarter area a new purpose and attracted tenants to come here,” says Harvey. “This could be a model for other places.”
These other places could include Lower Main Street. Though only a few minutes’ walk down the long street, it is a world away from the bustling atmosphere further up the town.
Here, only a few businesses survive, outnumbered by derelict properties, either commercial premises which have closed, or former homes which are now lying empty.
At a time of housing crisis, says Dr Rory Hearne, a lecturer in social policy at Maynooth University, and one of the speakers at Friday’s conference, it is a “travesty” when there are so many homeless and a “generation” locked out of home ownership.
“I talk to people all the time who are living the housing crisis, and they are devastated every day when they walk past derelict buildings, they think the country doesn’t care about them,” he said.
“They feel abandoned when they see that juxtaposition between vacant and derelict properties. Clearly, some people have a surplus of property and others have none, and it raises that question of how we manage our buildings, our urban infrastructure and our housing system – and, clearly, not very well or not very logically.”
Shane Grant has seen the impact first-hand. The director of facilities with financial services company PGIM Ireland and a member of the board of Letterkenny Chamber of Commerce is “struggling to bring new employees to Donegal because of, first of all, the lack of housing, there is a shortage of supply, and the rent has gone up quite significantly in the past three years”.
“We can’t fix 15 years of lack of primary development, we understand that, but this could be a short-term fix,” he said.
If you can change how a place looks, you can change the atmosphere, you can change the perception
— Gerard McCormick, co-chair of Letterkenny Tidy Towns
“The low-hanging fruit is: take those houses now, get them refurbished – either tax the landlord for derelict properties or purchase them to get them back into suitable hands and get them made into housing again. That would make a massive difference.”
Earlier this month, €4 million in funding was announced as part of the Government’s urban regeneration and development fund to tackle derelict and vacant properties in Donegal, which will allow the council to buy properties and resell to people who commit to use as a home.
Lower Main Street is also part of the Letterkenny 2040 master plan, a regeneration strategy which aims to tackle the “visible vacancy and dereliction”. The objective of the plan is create a shift in perceptions and attract people back into the area by integrating it into the town centre with “a renewed sense of civic pride through diverse use and a high-quality public realm”.
“The more work that can be done on those derelict properties, the more life that would be breathed back into it and people would see it as a viable place to do business or live in. It means it looks better, it feels better, and people are happier to be in it,” said Toni Forrester, the chamber of commerce’s chief executive.
“If you can change how a place looks, you can change the atmosphere, you can change the perception,” said Gerard McCormick, co-chair of Letterkenny Tidy Towns and owner of Magee’s Pharmacy in the Co Donegal town’s centre.
“Then you can get the feelgood factor and then you can get investment and there’ll be less antisocial behaviour, and the public, the community will come.”
What is needed, said Hearne, was a multifaceted approach which not only commits to seriously addressing the problem and investing in it, but which tackles it “from the principle of common good and not just private property interests”.
He continued: “The schemes the Government are doing are good, they’re a start, but I do think they’re a drop in the ocean in terms of providing a comprehensive kind of response to this, the scale of it and what’s possible.”
In conversations with The Irish Times, many in Letterkenny raise doubts, including around the speed of any purchasing process, legal red tape and about the need for greater commitment from Government.
Harvey advocates the establishment of development trusts where community groups could be resourced by Government to carry out regeneration work, and says the example of Church Lane proves it can be done. “If the political will is there, it could be replicated around the country.”
One of the street’s newest residents is Heera Singh, owner of the Himalayan Café, so named “because I come from the Himalayas, in India”.
His wife’s career in IT prompted their move from Co Kerry to Letterkenny. When the premises on Church Lane came up for sale, they bought it straight away.
“It’s not far away from town and it’s in a historical place, and we have plenty of customers, people come back again and again,” said Singh. “We are lucky to be in this place.”