MICHAEL WOLSEY: For the good of your wealth, stay home
If you fancy a three-bedroom semi in south Dublin it will cost you €413,000. If you would prefer to live among the homes of Donegal, a mere €100,000 will get you much the same house.
Those are the average prices paid in the past three months, according to a study by the Real Estate Alliance. The further you go from the capital, the cheaper the prices get. The average cost of that semi in County Wicklow is €283,000, in County Kilkenny it is €207,000 and in County Waterford, €178,000.
It is normal for house prices to be higher in a capital city but Ireland’s huge discrepancies are unusual. They reflect an extreme degree of centralisation, with the lion’s share of the economy centred on Dublin, sucking more than a quarter of the population into its urban sprawl.
For decades governments have been trying to rebalance the country but decentralisation has proved stubbornly hard to achieve. Now, in a matter of months, the Covid pandemic may have succeeded where governments failed.
Thousands of people have been working from home and I don’t think they will be in a hurry to go back to the old ways. Home-working has its drawbacks. I’ve been doing it for years and I know.
I miss the craic and the gossip and I have no doubt that the job goes more smoothly when there are colleagues on hand to discuss it.
But when people weigh these drawbacks against a commute that takes hours out of their lives every day, it really is no contest. And that’s before they calculate the advantage of cutting their mortgage by half or even three-quarters.
In any case, some of these stay-home problems will sort themselves out. Many towns now have work hubs which provide good broadband and office facilities. I can see a future where and more people will work from one of these hubs. It will get them out of the house and let them make and meet new friends.
Bigger companies may even find it worthwhile to set up their own hubs in some regional towns. Workers will commute to these hubs but it will be a short commute, nothing like the misery of travelling to Dublin on packed trains or congested motorways.
Larger companies will also need to call regular staff meetings, for, while home-working is practicable for many people, most have found remote conferencing to be a disaster, with loss of picture, loss of sound and colleagues talking across each other.
So there will be a need to get together once a month, maybe once a week, and these meetings will have the scope to merge into social occasions – a different sort of get-together but convivial nevertheless.
Home working can improve our lives and the towns we live in, including Dublin, which would benefit from having fewer people coming to work there every day.
But there is another legacy of the Covid crisis which could do our towns a lot of harm. As shops re-opened, it was noticeable that some doors stayed shut and clear that some might never open again.
The retail trade was already in trouble. We have lost some big names recently : Oasis, Monsoon, Mothercare and Debenhams. And we have lost many smaller shops whose names are not known outside the localities they have served for generations.
Figures from Britain show that while the value of clothing bought online has gone up by 46.4%, sales in shops have fallen by 50.2%.
Online sales of household goods there are up by 38.1% but sales in shops are down by 45.4%.
I can’t find comparable figures for Ireland but I have no reason to think that things are different here.
There has been talk of the need to support our pubs, rally round our tourist trade and get out to cafés and restaurants.
We also need to support our shops – real shops, that serve and employ real people. Without them, we won’t have cafés and restaurants or town centres as we know them. If the coronavirus kills them off it will have inflicted a sickness for which there can be no vaccine.