ATTRACTING YOUNG FAMILIES is one of the key solutions to the problems of depopulation and ageing demographics on our offshore islands.
This is exactly what the islanders of Arranmore off the Donegal coast set out to do with their Coming Home campaign – working to bring the country’s first offshore remote working hub to the island with connection speeds that would make any rural mainland dweller jealous.
In a bid to attract residents to the island, the islanders put out open letters appealing to the likes of Australians and Americans to swap the hustle and bustle of the city for a peaceful island life.
The campaign was a massive success, with endless enquiries landing in the inbox of the island’s community council, according to its chair Adrian Begley. However, the enquiries brought up another problem – housing.
“We probably knew at the back of our minds that housing was an issue [but] it didn’t really get highlighted until our story went viral and we had so many people wanting to move to Arranmore.
“And then it became quite clear that the housing stock wasn’t as plentiful as you would have thought it was. There needs to be initiatives put in place by the Government to make those houses available.”
- This article is part of the ISLAND NATION series by Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, examining depopulation concerns on our offshore islands.
Top concern across all islands
Lack of housing on offshore islands is an EU-wide problem. This is all too true in Ireland, according to Rhoda Twombly, secretary of Comhdhail Oileain na hEireann or the Irish Islands Federation, a representative group for the offshore inhabited islands.
Unlike issues specific to individual islands, the threat of population decline directly linked to the housing shortage sprung up across all islands consulted by the Federation for its submission on the State’s new proposed islands policy. “The number one challenge is housing because if you don’t have housing, you can’t attract people,” Twombly said.
Building on the work of the Federation, researchers at University College Cork (UCC) are currently conducting a national survey to determine the level of housing needs on offshore islands.
While still in the early stages of data collection, researcher Dr Conor Cashman said the feedback from community forums reflects the findings of the Federation in their own 2021 survey. “It speaks to that issue of depopulation and the concern around what we need to do to sustain island communities,” Cashman added.
Cork islands at depopulation risk
The national island study is modelled on another UCC study on housing on the West Cork islands released last month. It found similar concerns raised across the islands of Bere, Sherkin and Oileán Chléire that combined account for 86% of the population of the West Cork isles.
The UCC report is the most comprehensive look at housing on islands to date, with 238 respondents pointing to a wide-range of issues including planning restrictions, affordability, lack of rental properties, unused State lands and derelict houses.
According to the report’s co-author Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan, the lack of affordable and good quality housing, alongside higher than average building costs on islands, is “causing serious risk to the ability of islands to sustain themselves and to prevent depopulation”.
“I’ve been working in housing research for some time and for anyone who’s facing housing precarity and insecurity, this is obviously a huge stress for people. Housing is a big security, and so, if you don’t have access to adequate housing, this has really significant personal and family impacts.”
Housing a ‘long-term barrier’
Residents on the West Cork islands have called for support to improve housing on the island for two decades. The 2002 Bere Island Conservation Plan, for example, stated that “affordable housing should be available on the island for all existing and permanent residents”.
Unfortunately this is still not the case, according to John Walsh, a man of many hats as coordinator of the Bere Island Projects Group, board member of the Irish Islands Federation and chair of the European Small Islands Federation.
“We are trying to encourage people, particularly young families, to live on islands,” Walsh told us, but housing remains a “huge blockage” to getting young families to move there to counter an ageing population trend – a challenge to the ongoing viability of the islands as places to live.
Ali Curry and her family are one such example, moving to the island from London during the pandemic with her husband – whose family is from the island – and their two young children.
Taking advantage of the ability to work from home, having more space surrounded by natural beauty and being part of a tight-knit community were all driving factors for Curry.
“We love it so much,” she said. So much so that “we dragged friends and family here to celebrate our wedding” – creating a “mini-music festival” vibe on the island.
However, while Curry’s family are set-up well for the short-term, availing of a family home, they face barriers to their future on the island.
“We’re incredibly lucky because we can use this [family] home but for a family of four, long-term it’s not quite fit for purpose,” she said.
“There’s a lack of housing stock, there’s some quite restrictive planning regulations, and then you’re adding 30-50% [in costs] when you’re building on an island. So that’s a long-term barrier for us.”
This is compounded by other issues, such as lack of childcare services after the island lost its creche several years ago, largely as a result of population decline over the years. This means that Curry and her partner were left in a position where full-time work for both of them was not feasible.
“There’s this whole vicious circle as people migrate out, services are reduced, making it less attractive to live here.
“There used to be a 24-hour nurse, the population went down, now it’s a Monday to Friday, nine-to-five nurse. So those [services] become diminished as people move out and then as the population decreases the island’s voice diminishes too,” Curry added.
This is a big fear of John Walsh, especially for the running of vital services such as healthcare and education.
“We’re lucky that the nurse is from the island, she has her own house, but if she retires tomorrow, and a nurse has to come in, there’s no place for her to go at the moment. And it’s the same as the [school] principal. They are renting at the moment and they can’t get a house.”
Impact on island business
Private businesses on the island are also impacted, not least one of the island’s biggest employers, the Bere Island Boat Yard run by Gerard Sullivan.
Sullivan can have up to 20 people working at full tilt in the summer repairing and painting vessels. On a regular basis, he has seven or eight staff on the island and brings in another handful from the mainland.
The business has boomed since Sullivan constructed a cover for the dry dock business a few years back, operating in any season and ensuring vital year-round employment for islanders.
“We have to make a living, and people have to live and work here, so I think it’s critical that we have people from the area living and working [on the island],” he told us.
Yet, any further plans to grow are hamstrung by the lack of housing, with no long-term tenancies available. Luckily, Sullivan said that they managed to source accommodation last year for several staff, without which “we would have been in dire straits”.
He even managed to attract an island-native engineer back to Bere from Cork City, but only with the offer of housing. “If we couldn’t offer accommodation, he wouldn’t have come back, no matter how much money we offered him. Housing from our perspective is absolutely crucial.”
‘Call to action’
The UCC report has several very clear actionable recommendations including a full-scale housing audit to assess the existing housing situation for each island, alongside appointing a vacant homes officer who would also be responsible for tackling derelict houses.
Further recommendations include setting viable population targets for each island, greater provision of social and affordable homes, addressing precarity of renters and offering higher retrofitting grants to enhance the quality and energy efficiency of islanders’ homes.
The recommendations are not just something that the researchers want to see remain on paper, according to Elaine Desmond, co-author of the report, which she said is really a “call to action” with the risk of permanent depopulation “really acute on the West Cork islands”.
“More than half of islanders over the age of 18 completed [the survey] so it’s really important to us that these recommendations are seen as something to inform policy and to be acted upon,” she said.
“Housing policy needs to be innovative and diverse given the need to attract a diverse population,” Desmond said, and must be done in “collaboration with island residents”. This is all that islanders want, according to Gerard Sullivan.
“It is absolutely crucial for the future of these places to have a system that we can get accommodation that is affordable and a way for people to get on the ladder here,” Sullivan said.
If this doesn’t happen, he fears that “we’re not gonna keep them. And if we don’t, we’re going to get older, retired people here and that’s not going to lead to a very vibrant community”.
Not only will the communities be less vibrant, but UCC’s Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan said they may no longer exist as we know them today. “If housing isn’t delivered, along with other services to sustain the islands, there’s a risk they will just become sites of tourism rather than areas for full-time habitation.
“And then we’re going to lose that vital part of Ireland’s heritage, as well as having an obvious massive impact on people’s lives.”
INVESTIGATING ISLAND DEPOPULATION - FULL SERIES OUT NOW
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By Niall Sargent of Noteworthy