Special report: Cork City on the rise, but crumbling to the point of collapse in places

A city rising, in places, but crumbling to the point of collapse in others.

Special report: Cork City on the rise, but crumbling to the point of collapse in places

A city rising, in places, but crumbling to the point of collapse in others.

With about a €1bn of soaring office, hotel and apartment developments underway and more than €1bn worth more planned for Cork’s sprawling docklands, the collapse of a long-time vacant building on the historic spine of the city centre has focused the spotlight on the blight of dereliction in the city.

Despite the reinvigoration of council efforts to tackle dereliction, councillors and business owners in the worst affected areas say a lot more needs to be done to protect and enhance the historic fabric and heritage of the city’s traditional island core as development begins to move eastwards, into the city’s docklands.

It has led to calls for a complete overhaul of the derelict sites process to include more legal powers, easier access to property ownership information, tougher fines and better mechanisms for the collection of levies.

Now, in a major new report, the city’s head of strategic development, Fearghal Reidy, has set out the full extent of dereliction in the city and the progress made in tackling the problem.

But he has also laid out the complications local authorities face and suggestions about what needs to change to make the process easier.

There are now more than 100 sites on the city’s derelict sites register, with an estimated market value of some €30m. There are another 83 files under active investigation.

In the current register, around 40% are individual houses, with many part of a terrace. But there are also large strategic sites, including one at Kyrl’s Quay and a massive 14-acre HSE-owned site around the landmark former St Kevin’s psychiatric hospital on the Lee Road, which was gutted in a suspected arson attack just over two years ago.

The owners of 15 sites are in the process of carrying out physical works to remove dereliction, 13 have secured planning permission or are in the planning process to carry out works, 10 sites are being considered for social housing proposals and 10 have been recommended for compulsory acquisition.

In 15 cases, there is no sign of action by the owner and they are being considered for the next tranche of compulsory acquisition.

In 2008, the council added just one site to its register but in the past five years, it has added 95 to the register, and compulsorily acquired six houses under the Derelict Sites Act - four of them in 2017.

It has opened 195 new files for investigation, closed 90 derelict sites files following the renovation or redevelopment of the properties, and inspected an additional 50 sites that were found not to be derelict.

It has also facilitated the development of social housing on some sites, and sold others with legal arrangements in place to remove dereliction.

Figures show that almost half of the 583 sites investigated for dereliction since 2010 are in the south central area, where 269, or 46% were investigated.

The report shows that dereliction in general is concentrated in the historic part of the city, including the central island.

A total of 161 sites, or 28% of the sites investigated are in the north west, with the lowest rates, in the south east and south west respectively, representing 6% and 5% of the overall sites investigated.

The registration of derelict sites in city effectively stalled during the recession, with just one site added in 2008. Not a single site was registered in 2011, with eight added in 2012, followed by just one each in 2013 and 2014.

But as economic conditions improved, the process ramped up with 15 sites added in 2015, 20 in 2016, 25 in 2017, 26 in 2018 and nine so far this year.

Officials have been quick to point out that just because the city has 100 sites registered, it doesn’t mean that dereliction is worse in Cork compared to any other city: it just means that the city has adopted a more aggressive approach in tackling the issue.

The most recently available statistics would appear to bear this out.

Figures from the Department of Housing in 2017 show that on average, local authorities added four properties to their derelict sites register that year.

But Cork and Dublin city councils each added 25 sites to their registers that year.

In 2017, Cork city had 75 sites on its register, ranking fourth behind Cork county, with 197, Westmeath with 105 and Kerry with 88.

Cork city’s compulsorily acquisition activity in 2017 ranking third after Monaghan with 20 and Dublin City with 11.

Cork city levied the most derelict sites, hitting the owners of 65 sites with derelict sites levies, following by Dublin City with 47.

A total of 16 local authorities imposed no derelict sites levies at all, despite having sites listed on their registers.

But just because levies are being imposed, it doesn’t mean the money is being collected.

Cork City Council collected just under €40,000 in derelict sites levies in 2017, second behind Dublin City which collected €193,000. The levy collection rate in Cork city has improved significantly since, with some €140,000 already collected so far this year.

Waterford, Limerick and Galway City reported no collection of levies in 2017, with Cork county reporting a collection of just €900.

The process from inspecting a suspected derelict site to actually registering it derelict and securing improvements to remove dereliction is long and complex, with the work coordinated across several sections of the local authority.

The ability of local authorities to pursue the owners of these problem sites is set out in national legislation, the Derelict Sites Act 1990. It involves technical investigation and a mountain of administration.

The definition of ‘derelict’ as set out in the act is broad, to include structures or land that are “neglected, unsightly or objectionable” and structures that are in a “ruinous, derelict or dangerous condition” and that as a result materially “detract from the character or appearance of land in the neighbourhood”.

The indications of dereliction can include partially demolished or ruinous buildings, broken, missing or boarded-up windows, holes in the roof, graffiti, loose masonry or falling plaster, broken rainwater gutters, rotten timber, illegal dumping on the site, uninhabitable or incapable of economic use due to the state of the interior.

And while derelict sites and buildings are usually vacant, vacancy alone, even long-term vacancy, does not qualify a house as derelict.

If a house is in good, liveable condition but is vacant, it is classified as a “vacant home” and is not classed as derelict and there is no specific legislation or penalties applying to vacant homes at the moment.

The Derelict Sites Act does not deal with risk to public health from dangerous buildings either. This area is covered by the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act 1964, and is pursued by a different local authority department, called the Building Control Division.

Officials in the derelict sites process often coordinate with and colleagues in building control to address sites which are both derelict and dangerous, as was the case in relation to the recent partial collapse of 63 North Main St in Cork - one of four adjoining properties registered derelict in 2015.

The Derelict Sites Act gives local authorities three key powers - they can add a property to the derelict sites register; they can serve a Section 11 notice on the owner; or they can move to compulsory acquisition.

But property owners must first be identified before anything can be done - a process Mr Reidy describes as “challenging and time-consuming process”.

Many of the properties at the centre of investigation are not in the land registry. Staff in the derelict sites section then have to trawl the Registry of Deeds and other public records, such as planning applications.

GDPR rules further complicate matters, with internal legal advice in Cork City Council advising that the rates section, which may know who owns a particular property, can’t share that information with colleagues in the derelict sites team.

Ownership is often complicated by mortgages being held by receivers while the property is still legally in the name of the original property owner.

Local authorities often have to turn to the public for help tracing owners, by placing notices in a newspaper seeking information.

In some recent cases, where properties or their mortgages were tied up in NAMA, local authority staff often had to spend months engaging with layers of bureaucracy in NAMA or in vulture funds, before they could identify the legal owner of particular properties.

Once ownership is established, the local authorities then engage with the owner to determine the various issues at play, and whether any steps are being taken to resolve dereliction.

Mr Reidy said while some cases of dereliction may simply be a result of land hoarding, in other cases there are more unusual circumstances and complex reasons such as financial difficulties; lack of clear title; family disagreements; mental or physical health problems; or sentimental attachments to a property, that may take considerable time to resolve.

Legal notices must be served first, in accordance with the Derelict Sites Act, and submissions from the property owner must be considered before a decision is made to place the property on the register.

Once the decision is made to register a property as derelict, it makes the owners name and details public. This can often lead to an offer from someone to buy the site. But it also allows the local authority to charge the annual derelict sites levy (DSL) - 3% of the market value of the site, and set to increase to 7% next year.

Even that valuation process takes some time. It’s carried out by an independent panel of valuers, with the owner having the right to appeal the valuation to the Valuations Tribunal.

“In summary, placing a property on the Derelict Sites Register is not an instant process. It requires a number of technical and legal steps, and frequently identifying solutions to address the dereliction,” Mr Reidy said in his report.

The collection of DSLs raises a whole other range of complications.

So while in 2017, Cork city had the highest rate of levying of any local authority, invoicing every property owner on its register, it collected just a fraction of what was owed.

Mr Reidy said there are few mechanisms to force owners to pay and the collection of DSLs can often be “a waiting game”.

Both Dublin and Cork City councils have initiated court proceedings to pursue those who owe DSLs, but they have found it a “time-consuming process with “limited returns”, Mr Reidy said.

Both local authorities collect DSLs in two main ways, by attaching the DSL as a charge on the property, which means the new owner inherits the charge if the previous owner doesn’t resolve it at the time of sale, or through compulsory acquisition, by paying the owner the market value, less any levies owed.

New mechanisms for collection are being considered by officials in Cork, Mr Reidy said.

The serving of a Section 11 notice allows a local authority to specify that works need to be carried out within a certain time period to remove dereliction. If the work isn’t done, the local authority has the power to take the owner to court for non-compliance, and to enter the property and carry out the works directly.

However, this power is rarely exercised, with officials preferring instead to issue a list of proposed works informally.

This approach is favoured because even if a local authority takes someone to court for ignoring a Section 11, the maximum fine upon conviction in the district court is just €1,270 and a judge still has no legal power to direct a landowner to carry out the works.

“In general, the resources that it would take to prosecute offences would typically cost more than the maximum fine that could be imposed on the owner, and the prosecution would still not ensure the removal of dereliction. Therefore, other tools are favoured by the city council,” Mr Reidy said.

And in general, council’s prefer not to have to enter such sites and be faced with carrying out extensive works themselves at their own expense, and having to recoup those costs at a later date.

The city council has also worked with owners in specific cases to improve the visual appearance of a property until dereliction can be removed but Mr Reidy said “dressing up the front of a property” without getting the root of the problem and returning it to active use is only a short-term fix.

Finally, the compulsory purchase process allows local authorities to acquire a site, and to use it as it sees fit or to sell them on. While it’s a powerful tool, it too poses challenges.

It’s a time consuming process which requires a lot of manpower and money.

And the acquisition can be appealed to An Bórd Pleanála.

In 2017, the council moved to compulsorily acquire four houses, some of which had been vacant for over 15-years. All four were appealed to An Bord Pleanála, with one also subject to judicial review in the High Court. All were ultimately successful, however.

Mr Reidy said local authorities must be conscious of why a property is derelict in the first place - it may be because the site is difficult to develop with limited prospects of returns or profits.

A local authority could actually lose money through the acquisition process, and while Mr Reidy said this may be necessary in some cases for the good of the community, the acquisition of such complicated sites may not resolve the dereliction issue at all.

Pending any changes at national level, Mr Reidy said the council will continue to take a strong stance on dereliction.

And the Lord Mayor, Cllr John Sheehan, said there are tax incentives in place to help the owners of old buildings.

Some 92 residential units across 69 city properties have either been, or are about to be refurbished under a tax incentive scheme launched in 2015.

The Living Cities initiative, which gives tax relief on refurbishment costs to pre-1915 properties in designated areas, is designed to encourage people to live in the historic inner city areas of Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Galway and Kilkenny.

It was broadened in 2017 to include residential investors and landlords but is due to expire in May 2020.

There were just two applications in Cork city the first year but it rose to 24 last year to bring to 67 the total number of applications. Of those, 34 are owner-occupier and 33 are rented out for residential usage.

Mr Sheehan said the measure of a housing scheme’s success is when local communities are seeking to have it extended into their areas.

“And that is happening with Living Cities. Such initiatives help create a vibrant and sustainable city. We need a variety of housing solutions and this is clearly one that is working,” he said.


Extensive efforts undertaken before way cleared for council to acquire derelict sites

Efforts to tackle dereliction at four Cork City centre houses highlight the difficulties in addressing the issue, says Eoin English.

Records of efforts to tackle enduring dereliction at four Cork city centre houses, some of which were vacant for 15 years, highlight the difficulties facing local authorities trying to address the issue.

The files show how in the case of two of the houses, owned by the same man who died in 2002, it took over a decade from the first formal contacts between the city council and the owner’s legal representatives, and extensive efforts to resolve the matter through negotiation, before the council was finally cleared to acquire the properties compulsorily.

Both houses are close to Cork’s Lough amenity and just a few minutes walk from the city centre.

They have been boarded up since last June, when the acquisition process was legally completed and the properties were formally vested in the city. Work is advancing to return them to use soon.

The properties were among four specifically targeted by the council when it reactivated a programme of compulsory acquisition in 2017.

In each of the cases, the council’s application for consent for compulsory acquisition was appealed to Bord Pleanála, but was subsequently approved.

In one case, the matter was appealed to the High Court, unsuccessfully.

Two of the properties were owned by the same man, who died in 2002. By 2006, both properties were derelict.

The are a terraced house at Lough View Terrace, with a 52m stretch of overgrown land running down to the edge of the Lough, and a one-storey terraced house at nearby Gould St,opposite the Lough Church.

The owner lived at the Gould St property before his death. According to documents from the High Court, his will did not mention this property.

The council had been in contact with the owner’s legal representatives over the condition of both properties for over a decade before it launched parallel processes in 2017 to compulsorily acquire them.

The properties were among a number which were held in trust by a legal firm, which had been given discretion by the owner to dispose of the properties to charities.

Contacts between City Hall and the legal firm about the condition of the Gould St property began in 2007.

Complaints from neighbours are on file from 2010, including concerns about the dilapidated condition of the building, problems with drains and leakage, and a vermin problem in the connecting wall with a neighbouring house.

An inspection followed, the site was deemed derelict and it was recommended that it be entered on the derelict sites register. A year later, the council issued a pre-Section 11 notice to the solicitors directing remedial works. Nothing was done.

The property was entered on the derelict sites register in December 2012.

The city wrote to and met the same solicitor in an attempt to address the dereliction matters at the house at Lough View Terrace, but title issues emerged which the solicitor said he was trying to resolve, without success.

Planners made a number of site visits to the house over the years and noted ongoing dereliction.

A letter in 2010 from the planning department to the solicitor requesting a “clean-up” was not acted upon, and the property was formally placed on the derelict sites register in December 2012.

In the absence of meaningful progress on the removal of dereliction at either property, the council met the solicitor one final time in June 2017 but an agreement could not be reached.

A notice to compulsorily acquire both premises was published in September 2017 and the moves were appealed to Bord Pleanála.

The same board inspector visited both houses on the same day in January 2018 and said there was no evidence of any substantive attempts to remove dereliction at either. She found broken glass to windows and the front door of the Lough View Terrace house.

“I witnessed a rotten timber door and window frames and plants growing out of the roof of the building, from views into the interior of the dwelling, it appeared water damaged, mouldy, dilapidated and uninhabitable,” she said.

The area of ground to the front of the dwelling/ front garden was extensively overgrown with scrub, briar, bushes and a large mattress was dumped on this part of the site.

"The garden shed is generally dilapidated and [in] visually poor state, from views into the garage through openings in the front facade, is appeared full with jumble.”

Its condition was in stark contrast to the well-kept nature of other buildings along the terrace, which is a ‘designated historic street character area’,” she said.

She found the Gould St premises vacant, dilapidated and in an extremely poor visual state with boarded-up windows and door.

“There was no glass in the windows, there were holes surrounding the boarded-up door and windows, opening the property to the elements, with cracks and loose masonry holes in the walls, in stark contrast to the well-kept buildings next door,” she said.

In both cases, she said the houses were in a derelict, neglected, unsightly and objectionable condition, and the owners had not put forward an any substantial reason why no remediation works were undertaken or could not be carried out.

She granted the application to compulsorily acquire both premises, bringing an end of a near 17-year saga.

It was June 2018 before the properties were finally vested in the council.

The council’s efforts to tackle dereliction at a two-storey detached house on Pouladuff Road, which had been disused for over a decade and boarded up for four years, proved equally difficult.

The house had been bought in 2004 by a man with an address in Dublin who rented it out until 2006, at which point he was refused planning for upgrades. It remained vacant since.

He used the house as a “home office and for storage” but neighbours complained it attracted anti-social behaviour, with teenagers gathering on site, late-night noise, rubbish being dumped in the front garden, and broken windows. The property was subject to an extensive leak, a number of break-ins and vandalism, and there were also reports of a fire on site

The planning department wrote to the owner at his Dublin address in 2013 but got no reply. A site inspection in April 2015 found ground-floor windows and doors were boarded up, with an upper-floor window broken.

When the council notified the owner in early 2015 that it intended to place it on the derelict sites register, the owner said he considered it to be his legal address to which post should be sent, that he didn’t consider the site derelict and he intended to lodge another planning application.

Neighbours said they observed him collecting post from the property regularly but he said he did not spend the night there and that he “goes in and out”.

In December 2015, the council wrote to the owner at the Pouladuff address and to his Dublin address advising him that the property had been placed on the derelict sites register, with a valuation of €150,000.

When the council moved in late 2017 to compulsorily acquire the house, the owner said he was “distressed and horrified” to learn through Bórd Pleanála that the property was on the register.

He claimed that works were done that August to clean up and secure the property and that a planning application was being prepared for it.

However, the council said while this was welcome, it gave no guarantee that dereliction would be removed. It said it had “no confidence” that the problem of dereliction will be resolved, and that compulsory acquisition was the only available option at this stage.

The board inspector’s report charts the interaction between the owner and the council, dating back to 2013, including:

  • September 30, 2013: a letter issued to the owner requesting short-term remedial action. No response was received
  • December 6, 2013: following a site inspection, most of the rubbish had been removed from the garden but the house remained derelict and unsightly
  • March 2015: following another site inspection, rubbish had accumulated on-site again. A Section 29 notice was served, with no response
  • April 29, 2015: an executive planner made a note of a phone call with the owner who said he “did not plan to engage further”

In her report, the board inspector said while she found no evidence of rubbish or debris at the property at the time of her inspection in September 2017, there was no glass in the front door frame or in the front windows, with no evidence of any attempt to make the lands non-derelict, and no substantial reason put forward as to why repair works could not have been carried out.

She said it constituted a derelict site and she granted the council’s application for consent to compulsorily acquire it.

The process of tackling dereliction at the fourth property, Glasheen House on Dorgan’s Rd, was complicated by the involvement of a bank’s charge over the building, the appointment of a receiver and High Courtlitigation.

The building had been severely damaged by fire in February 2009, rendering it uninhabitable. Complaints from neighbours followed, relating to squatters, vermin, overgrown hedges, rubbish in the garden and general unsightliness.

The council was in contact with the owner for five years before it triggered the compulsory acquisition process. Some steps were taken to remove waste from the garden and to board up windows, and the property was placed for sale in 2013, but it remained derelict and unsold.

Records show the extent of contacts between the council, the owner and various legal representatives, from the first complaint on July 27, 2009, including:

  • November 4, 2010: Owner identified and contacted by property section
  • March 7, 2011: Phone call with the owner in which it was made clear that official action would take place if no works are undertaken to remove dereliction
  • April 11, 2011: Council writes to owner’s solicitor to say he was being afforded an opportunity to respond to concerns and indicate a course of action, before formal actions are triggered. Solicitor responds to indicate their client’s “financial difficulties”.
  • May 5, 2011: Letter to owner’s solicitor requesting short-term works and a proposal for phased removal of dereliction
  • August 3 2011: Letter from Waste Enforcement requesting removal of waste from the property
  • October 10, 2011: Meeting with the owner
  • October 20, 2011: Phone call requesting specific works
  • November 8, 2011: Letter from owner’s solicitor outlining short-term works taken to date and proposed future intentions
  • June 1, 2012: Letter to owner stating that further official action under the Derelicts Sites Act will be suspended on foot of works undertaken to date. However, the site would bekept under review until dereliction is removed and the property is brought back into use
  • June 4, 2014: Letter to owner’s solicitor acknowledging that the house is for sale and requesting temporary visual improvements to the property
  • June 5, 2013: Letter to owner’s solicitor requesting that the property be secured and updated status provided
  • June 20, 2014: Owner advised executive planner by phone that the sale is almost complete
  • March 4, 2015: Estate agent advised executive planner by phone that there were interested parties but no offer had been accepted
  • May 6, 2015: No progress. It’s recommended the house is placed on the Derelicts Sites Register
  • September 28, 2015: Site placed on the register
  • April 11, 2017: Owner provides executive planner with details of his new solicitor
  • May 3, 2017: Solicitor advised of intent to recommend property for compulsory purchase if immediate action is not taken. No response received

The board inspector said at the time of her inspection, in September 2017, there was no evidence of any substantive attempts to make the lands non-derelict, and that it was evident that basic maintenance works had been undertaken to improve the condition of the lands on foot of the notices served by the local authority.

She granted the council’s application for consent to compulsorily acquire it.

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