Ireland's ghost estate nightmare

RESIDENTS in just 421 unfinished housing developments have been granted a waiver from the property tax, even though there are 466 housing estates around Munster alone where the occupants must live with the dreaded title “ghost estate” — and that is according to the Government’s own figures.

The bulk of those 466 estates — with 31,550 units — would have been among the 1,322 developments which were exempt from the household charge just a couple of years ago.

However, as well as claiming that a number of estates are now “substantially complete” or that the development had never commenced, the Government also upped the numbers liable for the property tax by changing — tightening — the criteria for eligibility for the waiver.

Opposition parties reacted with dismay when the revised total of waivers was announced.

Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath queried why, when a housing report last year found there were 1,100 unfinished developments in a “seriously problematic condition”, this number has been reduced to just 421 estates.

One Government source said there had been a “scatter-gun” approach to the survey which had assessed eligibility for exemption from the household charge and that, for the property tax, they had been able to be much more thorough.

He said in the first survey, even on whole estates where only one or two houses were unfinished, the whole estates were benefiting from the waiver, and pointed to one house akin to “Southfork in Dallas” which had been given an exemption.

However, many people around the country are certainly not living in a home which is anything like a fictional US ideal.

In some estates, shells of houses grow more decayed and residents look out over common areas which should be expertly manicured, but are merely earthen building sites.

In Munster, of 31,550 units that should be in these estates, more than 13,000 have not even had a brick laid, or have expired planning permission.

A further 2,453 are empty, 1,664 are only “near completion”, and 1,186 fall under the depressing title of “part-built”. That means just 12,599, or less than 40% of the total units, are actually occupied.

Cork, as Munster’s largest county, has by far the largest number of ghost estates at 178.

Not surprisingly, given Cork City’s commercial size, many of the estates are in areas within 45 minutes’ drive of the city. In the Celtic Tiger era, when house prices close to the centre were high, many chose to buy in the commuter areas and so developers embarked on major property drives there.

Mallow is one of the worst affected of the towns with 12 ghost estates. Macroom (10) and Midleton, Bandon, and Youghal (all 6) fare little better.

In one estate on the southside of Cork City, Eden, the residents of the 256 houses which have been occupied must look at the yawning gaps which should contain a further 293 units, but which have either not started or no longer have planning.

Of the 15,578 units available in Cork’s ghost estates, just 6,364 are occupied. A staggering 6,402 units have either not started or have seen their planning permission expire.

Macroom’s Fine Gael TD Michael Creed said the unfinished estates were a legacy of the “disastrous” construction boom which the country was now trying to work through. He said residents in the affected estates had been through “hell and back”.

“One of the estates has been on a boil notice for a number of years,” he said, adding it should hopefully finally receive proper water services before Christmas.

In Kerry, it is again large towns which are scarred by the unfinished housing developments.

Listowel would appear from the figures to be the worst affected with 13 ghost estates. Killarney has 12, Tralee has 11, and Kenmare has nine. In all, the county has 3,865 units in 118 unfinished estates. Just 1,459 of those units are occupied.

Listowel councillor Maria Gorman said she disputed the figures.

She said a number of the estates listed as being Listowel were actually outside the Listowel Town Council area and were in the county council area. “We do not have a problem with ghost estates in Listowel,” she said, adding that she had asked the council officials to clarify the matter.

Tipperary has 70 ghost estates, the second largest in Munster. The true effect of the downturn can be seen in the fact that, of the 5,067 units which should be there, 2,158 — more than 40% — have not even started construction.

In Waterford, it is the city itself which has seen its landscape blighted by the effects of the downturn. Waterford City has nine unfinished estates which should have had a combined 1,178 units if completed. At present, just 503 of those units are occupied. County-wide, there are 30 estates which, between them, have 901 units which have not even started.

It is a similar story in Limerick and Clare. In Limerick, there are 37 estates which have the capacity for 2,681 homes but which have 965 occupied.

In Clare, the shocking statistic is that of the 2,681 units which should be completed in its 30 ghost estates, almost half, or 1,331, have not even started construction.

One crumb of comfort for those in ghost estates is that, just as they were exempted from paying the household charge, they are exempt from paying the new property tax for three years. However, it is likely many would happily pay the taxes if it meant their estates were completed to a standard that matched the images on the glossy brochures through which they were sold their homes.

At the end of last month, it emerged that more than 1,100 ghost estates around the county remained a major problem over their unfinished condition and that some faced the prospect of being bulldozed. The figures revealed that little or no building work had taken place on more than 69,000 houses identified on those estates — about 37% of the total.

Housing and Planning Minister Jan O’Sullivan said her department would be focused in the coming months on the 1,110 most problematic estates, with action plans for these developments due to be finalised by the first half of 2013.

She did, however, admit that some developments were commercially unviable due to their location and poor quality of the housing. Those will probably have to be demolished.

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