FEATURE: Limerick is a lifelong Labour of love for Leddin

Labour councillor Joe Leddin took a walk in the People's Park with Limerick Post reporter Alan Jacques. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

LABOUR’S Joe Leddin is a local councillor of 25 years and is now gearing up for the Local Elections where he has his eyes on a sixth term as a member of Limerick City and County Council.

Joe is an old school politician, passionate and straight-talking. It’s hard not to like the approach he takes to his work, no nonsense. Coming from a family with a strong history of public service, one might expect no less from the City West representative.

Leddin’s granduncle, Michael Keyes, was a former Mayor of Limerick. He was also the first senior minister appointed to cabinet from Limerick.

Both his late uncles, Tim and Frank, also served on the former city council. Both served as mayor on a number of occasions, the same as his aunt Kathleen in 2013.

Joe got his own time in the chain too, serving as Mayor of Limerick in 2007.

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With a quarter of a century of service already under his belt, the Labour man has seen a lot of changes in that time. When this reporter caught up with him in Zest Cafe in the Limerick City Gallery of Art, he says that a majority of these changes have been positive.

A man with a planning issue

“Limerick has come on in leaps and bounds,” he enthuses as coffee is ordered.

“A huge thing was the merger of the city and county councils. That was the right thing to do. One local authority, one chief executive, one plan, one vision. I often say ‘we’re not in New York’. We don’t need two housing departments, two roads departments, two CEOs. One authority was definitely the way to do it.”

But Limerick has also sailed rough seas in recent years, and Joe’s frustration over the lack of urgency in tackling the housing crisis is clear, with a view to planning regulations in particular.

“We are in a housing crisis seven years now, why haven’t government brought in emergency legislation to tackle planning?” he declares.

“You or I in the morning could put in a planning objection to 200 houses being built up in Donegal that we know nothing about. There are serial objectors in this city objecting to developments. You can put in an objection after an objection with an appeal.

“I am not against objections, but there must be a time limit so that whoever is building the apartments or the houses knows when I put in my application, and if there’s appeals or objections or submissions, they will get out the other side within six or 12 months.”

The veteran councillor deems it farcical that anyone can take judicial reviews to the High Court at no cost. This is part of his major gripe with government.

“If they were serious about addressing housing, we have the land, but planning is the single biggest impediment to building houses. I see that in our own city. I can name four sites that are still before the courts or An Bord Pleanála with judicial reviews delaying the building of houses.

“If the Government were serious, they should have radically brought in emergency planning legislation to deal with the housing issue, but they didn’t do it and it’s too late now.”

Expressing frustration over a Punches Cross site, which developers are eight years trying to get approval to build 100 apartments on, Joe says that he considers the planning system “broken”.

“People have an absolute right to object if they feel the planning application will have a significant negative impact on them, but it must be time bound to give certainty to anyone who wants to potentially develop.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, planning is the big issue, and bearing in mind, we last year, for the first time ever, saw the population of Limerick over 200,000. We are projecting a population increase of about 50 per cent. That could be another 100,000 by 2040, and they all have to live somewhere.”

Cllr Leddin took issue with planning objections around a housing development at Punches Cross.

The planning issue, he believes, is holding Limerick back on a number of fronts.

“Look at the jobs that are coming into the city. Eli Lily, a state-of-the-art life sciences company. Meridion, a tech company, 400 jobs in the heart of the city. These people are going to have to live somewhere. If we are bringing jobs in, people from Limerick, or people returning to Limerick, or wishing to come to Limerick to live and work, they need somewhere to live.”

With coffees served, Joe takes aim at the Land Development Agency (LDA), claiming that it has failed to deliver one house on State-owned land in Limerick since its establishment by Fine Gael in 2018.

“We, in our Development Plan, said we would build 11,000 houses. But of that 11,000 houses, several thousand are to come from the Land Development Agency – which in my view is a quango.

“We’ve gone to so many launches to do with Colbert Station and we’re still waiting for plans to be submitted. There’s a site down on the corner of O’Curry Street, less than a kilometre from the heart of the city, that we could probably put 300 apartments in, and we’re told that they will come back to us in two or three years with designs.

“We’re in a crisis. It’s not good enough.

“When my uncles were on the council, back in the sixties and seventies, and my cousins the Keyes were on the council back in the forties and fifties, we were building houses and the country was broke.

“We employed bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers. We had our own tradespeople. That’s all gone now.

The council, he maintains, if given the resources and the autonomy, could build the necessary housing.

“Only last year we opened up 17 apartments on Rosbrien Road opposite Lidl. People objected. If we are given the autonomy, and given the wherewithal and the resources of the council to do it, we can do it.

“People talk about the living city, but to have the living city people have to be able to live in the city. There are commercial buildings now for sale, former banks, we can develop them back with the supports and have them turned into city centre apartments to give that building a new sense of purpose. It might have had a commercial purpose for 50 or 100 years. Now let it have a residential purpose.”

A walk down memory lane

Health and the lack of Gardai are the two other issues, Joe tells me, he is hearing from people at the doors while out canvassing for Local Election 2024.

“We are still paying for decisions made 10, 15, 20 years ago by successive governments, particularly in the health side of it,” he hits out.

“They tried to centralise everything out in Dooradoyle, when you have a growing population, when you have two-tier hospitals in Ennis and Nenagh, despite the fact there’s extensions going on and fantastic work being done.

“The reality is, if the population is growing or predicted to grow another 50 per cent, UHL in the morning cannot cope with the current population – how’s it going to cope a 50 per cent increase in the next 10 or 15 years?

“It is hugely frustrating for people that have worked all their lives, paid their taxes, and then they go to access a service and to be treated in a less than satisfactory manner. It’s a sad reflection on us as a society. They say you benchmark society on how you treat the most vulnerable, whether they be elderly or disabled or young children for that matter.”

As we walk and talk through the city, we approach the People’s Park, a place with a lot of happy childhood memories for Joe – his mother’s family having come originally from Hyde Road.

“God be good to her, she died very young. My father was born and reared in Catherine Street, so we were true city people. I was born and reared out in Lansdowne Park, just off the Ennis Road there. I would have gone to school in John F Kennedy, then Nessan’s, which is now Thomond College, and then onto TUS to college, originally LIT.

“I can remember as a small boy being brought to mass over in the Dominicans by my parents and then going over to the People’s Park and the fountain, and my dad and my mom hiding pennies around it and we as kids running around trying to find the pennies and going off to buy sweets or ice cream.”

As we stop at the park’s Victorian water fountain, Leddin beams as he recalls many happy childhood memories of playing here and his lifelong affinity with this public amenity in the heart of the city.

The People’s Park holds a real familial significance for Cllr Leddin. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

The father-of-three, a nature lover at heart, also has high praise for the Baggot Estate Nature Park on the south side of the city, near where he lives today with his family.

“It’s an absolute fantastic hidden gem in the heart of Limerick. I walk through it. I run through it. When my kids were much younger I brought them over there to learn how to cycle and it’s just a magnificent facility there. You see people of all walks of life going through that park at different hours of the day and it’s absolutely a sanctuary, a haven.”

On the subject of recent commentary on a decline of retail options and life in the city, the Labour man thinks that “the more people we have living in the city, it goes without saying, you are going to increase footfall, and that has to help the retail sector, the indigenous retailer, the family-owned retailer”.

The council, he believes, has a large role to play in restoring that sense of city life.

“Yes, we need the Penneys and all them, but Limerick has such a rich mixture of family-owned businesses, whether it is the butcher, the bookshop, the pharmacist, the jeweller.

“We, as a council, need to reach out to them and support them more. I think we need to do more there and we are not doing enough just in terms of the greater synergy between those retailers, who are all employing three, four, and five people. I think as a council we need to do more there. But the city is definitely on the move, without a shadow of a doubt.”

I don’t know whether it is the fresh air of the People’s Park around us, the stirring of childhood memories, or just the opportunity to express his views publicly before the Local Elections roll around, but Joe is firing out ideas at a rate of knots.

He is a man of clear vision and ideas, you can say that of him no doubt, and he has high hopes for the city before him.