Over the last five or so weeks this series has not made for comfortable reading.
By focusing on a representative number of towns across Munster the series has highlighted the endemic nature of dereliction right across the country and the generally slow and fragmented response to it by both local authorities and central government.
So widespread is the problem, many of us have probably become inured to it, not fully realising the demoralising and corrosive effect these abandoned buildings have on our communities as well as on our long-term architectural and historical heritage.
Whether it’s the ruins of a military barracks in Nenagh, a collapsed building in Mitchelstown, a ghost estate in Abbeyfeale or the not so ‘Grand Hotel’ in Tramore, vacant and derelict buildings represent a legacy of neglect for our physical environment.
Whilst we know it is a major problem, the full extent of dereliction remains unknown due to the lack of accurate data.
The CSO put the figure of vacant building at over 180,000 back in 2016 while the GeoView Directory by An Post from 2020 indicates there were more than 92,000 vacant addresses across the state. It’s important to note that not all vacant buildings are derelict.
In its recently launched ‘Housing for All’ programme, the Government promises that data will be collected to determine the full extent of vacant properties, who owns them and that taxes will be charged on them. However, details of how this will work in practice are limited.
Until we know the scale of the problem, we are in ‘known unknowns’ territory which makes it very difficult to put effective plans in place. The collection and collation of accurate data on vacant and derelict buildings will be a critical first step in addressing this issue.
What causes dereliction? Morris Conway, a County Council architect went a long way toward explaining this in the piece on Co. Waterford when he said: “Each building has a story; there’s a reason why it’s vacant and there’s a reason why its derelict.”
So every one has its own individual story and while there might be a main reason, there are often a range of complicating factors. For example it could be economic. There is a direct correlation between economic activity and dereliction.
That’s why it isn’t such an issue in affluent areas such as Montenotti/Tivoli in Cork, the Ennis Road in Limerick or south Co. Dublin but is more prevalent in locations across the state which have experienced population and economic decline.
Other reasons include commercial viability, where the costs of refurbishment simply outweigh the end value while securing planning permission, ownership disputes, indebtedness, finance and legal issues, indifference on the part of property owners can all be contributory factors.
In addition, changing consumer habits, out-of-town retail parks and the rise and rise of online shopping have had a huge impact on our town centres, particularly commercial/retail premises. There is no specific national plan to deal with these buildings and once vacancy takes hold, it becomes increasingly difficult for landlords to attract new tenants.
Added to this, vacant buildings currently get commercial rates relief leading to lower funding for local authorities in the provision of services.
Because each building’s story is different, there is no one-size-fits-all approach which can be applied to this problem. Nor is there a legal framework that specifically addresses dereliction.
Local Authorities do have powers of compulsory purchase (CPO) but these are mainly used to develop roads and other infrastructural projects, and are rarely used in matters of dereliction. It may be an inconvenient truth, but irrespective of the level and extent of dereliction, individual property rights are protected by our constitution.
Within its ‘Housing For All’ plan, the Government says it will promote four pathways to delivering new housing stock, one of which is addressing vacancy and efficient use of existing stock.
They have devised a stick-and-carrot approach with both funding and financial incentives together with proposals to tax those who leave buildings vacant.
Again, the details are rather limited, but the success of these initiatives will depend on the resolve of government to pass legislation as well as its willingness to put the necessary resources in place to ensure they are fully implemented.
With a construction sector at full capacity, the question arises - who exactly is going to undertake the work of restoring these buildings?
Right now, we are experiencing a significant shortage of both professional and skilled trades people.
Many returned to their home countries due to Covid and have not returned.
More resources are required to promote vocational trades and apprenticeships if we are to create a sufficiently large pool of skilled people capable of turning around voids in a sympathetic way.
While the last 18 months has been an extremely challenging period for so many people on many different levels, unlikely as it seems, some positives have emerged. One has been the move to remote working.
For the first time, employees now have an opportunity to relocate to smaller provincial locations, possibly where they are from or where family members live.
This presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-populate smaller rural areas many of which have been in decline. Increased population will help support economic activity and encourage the re-use of numerous vacant buildings both for residential and commercial use.
This sits well with the National Development Plan which encourages more balanced regional development.
Up to now, vacancy and dereliction have been to a large extent hidden in plain sight. Many of these buildings have been lying derelict for so long they have become fixtures of the landscape – sucking the economic life out of our towns and eroding the confidence and pride of people in their home place.
Sad to relate, but because the issue has been left largely unaddressed for so long, we have actually allowed it to become part of who we are.
Breaking that cycle won’t be easy but with the proper mindset and leadership at national, regional and community level it can be done, if the steps outlined here – see panel below – are implemented.
Covid did leave us with some other positives. Among them – and possibly due to several lockdowns - a keener sense of our physical environment and a newfound sense of community. It also presented us with an opportunity to take stock and to focus on what’s really important in our lives.
Amid an ongoing housing crisis, there is a compelling and indeed moral obligation on us to address this issue of dereliction in a comprehensive way for the public good.
- Concerted action from government departments working in collaboration.
- A substantial funding commitment over consecutive governments so that the state can play a more active role when the private sector has failed to.
- Attractive and effective retrofit schemes with a lack of red tape. This has the added benefit of upgrading our older building stock to become more energy efficient and helping to reduce our carbon emissions.
- An effective property tax which will act as a financial disincentive for property owners to leave properties vacant.
- Tax incentives offered to those that redevelop properties in our most deprived areas.
- Remove the requirement of obtaining planning permission for some straight forward developments.
- The widescale development of work-hubs that support remote working such as the Western Development Commission are developing along the Atlantic Seaboard.
- Introduce large scale apprenticeships and trading programs to address the skills shortages within the construction sector.
- Local Authorities to adopt a more proactive approach to address major eye sores by utilising their CPO powers.
- Encourage participation by local community and development groups.
- Gerard O’Toole is a Chartered Surveyor and member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland Planning and Development Committee. He is a Director of Tuohy O’Toole in Westport.