Ghost estates special report: Giving up on unfinished estates as solution to housing crisis

There are far fewer barren estates around the country, writes Seán McCártaigh but the idea of them as a solution to the housing crisis has been abandoned too.

Unfinished housing at Lios na Gréine, Lismire, Co Cork, which was earmarked for demolition in 2016, but is still standing. Pic: Larry Cummins
Unfinished housing at Lios na Gréine, Lismire, Co Cork, which was earmarked for demolition in 2016, but is still standing. Pic: Larry Cummins

It is a measure of the scale of the current housing crisis that the potential for so-called “ghost estates” to be part of the solution is something of a footnote in the Government’s masterplan to tackle the problem.

Whether it is also an indicator of the relative success of the housing authorities in removing the visible spectre of unfinished developments from the countryside is perhaps less clear.

The blight of half-built, partially landscaped housing estates, which only lacked billowing tufts of tumbleweed to complete the sense of total abandonment, may once have dominated public discourse about Ireland’s property market.

However, talk of ghost estates is less common today due to the slow but continual redress of problematic developments but also may be out of a collective desire to erase a painful memory from the national mindset.

Though less pervasive now, unfinished developments still dot the landscape as a stark and painful reminder of the national obsession with property that was a hallmark of the Celtic Tiger era.

At the peak of the recession, almost every town and village in the Republic could point to its own ghost estate (usually located on the outskirts of settlements) in one of the most enduring and visible legacies of the boom-bust years.

The latest annual progress report by the Department of Housing and the Housing Agency on official actions to tackle the problem of unfinished housing developments, which was published in March, presents a different picture.

Through a series of initiatives implemented by various Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led administrations the number of ghost estates has reduced by 85% since 2010 when almost 3,000 unfinished estates were recorded down to its current level of 420.

During 2016 a total of 248 developments containing 11,204 occupied dwellings and a further 2,325 units that were either vacant or near complete were “resolved,” including 30 in Cork city and county.

It was also the first year that one local authority — South Dublin County Council — could claim the problem no longer existed as it reported that all outstanding developments had been completed.

Launching the report, junior Housing Minister, Damien English observed: “This is a significant achievement in what is a complex process. The ghost estates of the past are largely gone, if not forgotten.”

While welcoming the latest set of figures, he also acknowledged that it was becoming harder to reduce the numbers further as most of the “low-hanging fruit” in terms of unfinished developments had already been sorted. Just 15 of the 420 schemes are still undergoing active construction.

Even in densely populated areas of Dublin’s commuter belt where there is a strong demand for housing, almost three dozen developments which once had planning permission for more than 3,230 homes remain on the government’s own snag list.

Originally 15 unfinished estates in Dublin city and county were meant to provide almost 2,240 homes but only 1,256 are fully built and occupied. A further 1,000 homes were planned for Kildare, Wicklow and Meath but only a third are inhabited.

While the description “ghost estates” is much loved by the media for the powerful imagery that it conjures up of half-finished, abandoned developments devoid of any residents, it is an inaccurate term.

It is often overlooked that such developments are home for thousands of people who over the years have had to make do with less than idyllic living conditions such as proper lighting, footpaths and roads as well as shells of other buildings. The latest progress report shows that more than 8,650 families are still living on so-called “ghost” estates.

However, 129 of the 420 housing projects still classified as unfinished developments — almost a third of the total — live up to the label as they have no residents.

At the time of the survey a total of 1,121 dwellings were complete but vacant, while almost 5,000 other units were at various stages of development.

Not surprisingly Cork, as the largest county by area with the second largest population, has the highest number of remaining ghost estates in the Republic.

A total of 59 unfinished developments are recorded in the Department of Housing’s latest annual report including three within the city’s administrative area. No active construction work was recorded at any of the sites.

Official figures show such projects were intended to provide 4,272 homes but at the end of last year just 1,500 houses and 24 apartments were occupied.

The latest data reveals that 138 houses and four apartments were vacant at the time of the survey.

A further 133 houses and 81 apartments are near completion but no building activity is under way to finish them.

In The Pastures, a development at Love Lane in Charleville, 13 of the 52 completed houses were vacant, while no residents were recorded in all 12 houses on the Inis Orga estate in Enniskeane in west Cork.

In Cork City, the largest of three unfinished developments is at Milestream in Shanakiel where only 31 of 45 planned houses are fully built and occupied, while none of 65 planned apartments have materialised.

Some 30 estates in Cork were removed from the list of unfinished developments last year after outstanding issues were resolved. Some of the largest included Broomfield in Midelton, Maryborough Ridge in Douglas, The Meadows in Gurranabraher, Harbour Heights in Passage West and the Quadrants apartment complex in Ballincollig.

On face value, such figures would appear to offer a neat, if not complete, solution for the current housing crisis.

But unfinished developments are the last entry in the fifth and final “pillar” of Rebuilding Ireland, the blueprint of Housing Minister, Simon Coveney for addressing the chronic shortage of residential accommodation and the stark rise in homelessness.

It proposes that the Government will “align” its social housing investment programme with ongoing work on resolving unfinished developments in order to target opportunities for strategic acquisition and development of brownfield sites.

In reply to a recent parliamentary question from Solidarity TD, Paul Murphy, Mr Coveney accepted the majority of remaining estates where there was no construction activity were experiencing legal issues between developers, receivers and financial institutions.

As a sign of the Government’s determination to not allow stakeholders abandon their responsibilities, the minister pointed out that local authorities had initiated 123 enforcement proceedings in relation to ghost estates within the past 12 months.

The minister also promised all options would be explored in seeking to resolve the remaining projects. Mr Coveney said his officials would “engage with relevant local authorities and the Housing Agency for the purpose of targeting opportunities in relation to the acquisition of vacant or nearly complete units in appropriate developments for social housing purposes.”

Lorcan Sirr, a lecturer in housing studies at the Dublin Institute of Technology, praises successive governments for getting the number of problematic developments down from almost 3,000 to their current levels through a couple of initiatives with a relatively modest budget of €15m, notwithstanding their obligation to make dangerous sites safe for the general public.

While the Government is right to explore every potential measure of increasing the country’s housing supply, Dr Sirr believes any contribution to be made by ghost estates can only be very limited.

“In the context of demand for 25,000 to 30,000 new homes every year, the remaining developments have no role to play essentially. It will be great to get them built and sold so that any investment hasn’t been wasted but their ability to address the problem is negligible given the scale of the housing crisis,” said Dr Sirr.

“It’s also a common misconception that every vacant house is suitable for social housing. It’s over-simplistic to suggest local authorities should take them all over,” he added.

And they don’t. Councils occasionally take the view that full clearance of a site is the best option as witnessed by the demolition of 69 partially-constructed housing units around the country last year – the majority on two estates: Ard Michael in Longford and Aisling in Ennis.

Simon Coveney will hope that his plans to solve the housing crisis, on which he has staked his political reputation and a bid to become leader of both Fine Gael and his country, will be built on steadier foundations.

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