It was a scathing report on the appalling living conditions facing children on what is widely regarded as one of Ireland’s worst Traveller halting sites.
While the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) didn’t identify the local authority halting site in its 72-page report published last week, it was prepared following a full statutory investigation into the living conditions of children on the overcrowded Spring Lane site near Blackpool in Cork City.
Its investigation was launched following contact from a Traveller advocacy group in 2018, which led to 11 families, and their children, being interviewed about their complaints.
Following three years of investigative work, the OCO found that Cork City Council failed to consider the best interests of children living on the site by allowing them to live in filthy, overcrowded, rat-infested, and unsafe living conditions.
It found the council failed to maintain the site, including the upkeep of the toilet and showering facilities known as ‘welfare units’, ensuring consistent waste management and pest control, and providing a clear and safe passage to school, as well as areas for children to play.
It found record-keeping was not transparent or accountable, that housing applications were incomplete or not processed, meaning families may have missed out on getting a home or did not move up the list, and that overcrowding on the site was another result of poor administration.
The OCO also found the local authority failed to account for the disadvantages experienced by Travellers in effectively securing accommodation and they did not meet their obligations in relation to the Traveller accommodation programme.
The council told the OCO’s investigators that intimidation by some halting site residents and several refusals of housing offers over years have hampered their efforts to improve conditions on the site but the OCO said it found these explanations either untrue or inadequate.
The OCO’s findings are shocking. But they are not new. Efforts to resolve them have been tried, but have failed.
The most significant efforts began in 2013, when former junior minister Kathleen Lynch, who had responsibility for equality, established an independent review of the complex issues linked to the site. This led to the publication the following year of a comprehensive roadmap for improvement, which, if implemented, could have led to the phased closure of the site by March 2020.
Traveller advocacy groups deny allegations that site residents walked away from this process at the 11th hour. And like so many other reports on the site, that report has been left to gather dust.
Traveller families lost faith in the engagement processes and site conditions have worsened. Relations between residents and the council have deteriorated further, condemning another generation to grow up in an overcrowded and unsafe halting site.
Spring Lane, a former sand and gravel quarry, opened in 1989 as a 10-bay halting site. As family numbers expanded over the years, there was unauthorised expansion into adjoining fields. Today, the site is home to about 38 families, including 66 children, with 140 people sharing toilets and washing facilities designed for just 40.
Council proposals to extend the site into the adjoining council-owned Ellis’s Yard site to accommodate the increased numbers were voted down by city councillors in 2011.
In March 2014, therevealed details of three previously unpublished reports from 2012, one by an engineer, one by an environmental health officer, and the third by a director of public health nursing, which flagged serious concerns about conditions on the site.
The engineering report highlighted faults with the site’s drainage system which had led to the creation of a very large lagoon of water and raw sewage, up to 80cm deep, with human excrement clearly visible at its edges.
The report said it posed a danger to the health and wellbeing of residents and could also pose a drowning risk, and it also pointed to concerns about two vertical slopes more than 20m high towering over the site.
The public health report focused on high infection rates among children, with conditions including upper respiratory, lower urinary tract infections, and skin infections, they raised concerns about Traveller women attending GPs for stress-related illnesses, mental health illnesses, chest and skin infections, and said there was a high percentage of children with special needs, speech and language, and learning difficulties.
Aware of the details of those reports, Ms Lynch, who was a TD for the area, chaired an inter-agency group process in a bid to find a resolution.
When that process broke down, she invited the former county manager of South Dublin County Council, Joe Horan, to head up an independent review of the city’s Traveller Interagency Group.
As well as helping to deliver major infrastructural projects such as Tallaght Stadium, the highly regarded, and at times controversial, local authority boss had led a range of social inclusion projects and an inter-agency group that spearheaded the provision of services and supports which transformed the lives of almost 200 Traveller families in his administrative area.
Ms Lynch said at the time that his track record of working successfully with Travellers would be invaluable in dealing with the Spring Lane issue.
“He doesn’t just talk about accommodation. He talks about employment, education, health outcomes, family structures and disputes resolution. If you concentrate on accommodation alone, you’re lost,” she said.
Mr Horan set about his task in Cork with energy and enthusiasm, which included visits to St Anthony's Park and Spring Lane, where he sat in every single caravan to get a real sense for himself of the living conditions there.
In June 2014, Mr Horan issued 21 recommendations, including:
- The need to explore the role for social housing in the delivery of a project in Spring Lane;
- The need to boost staff numbers in the council’s Traveller Unit;
- To increase the role of other council staff in relation to Travellers such as in the Social Inclusion Unit, in libraries, community and parks;
- The need to advance a horse project in the city;
- To address the issues that create conflict with the settled community.
Sadly, he fell ill around the same time and died in November 2016.
Louise Harrington, an outreach development worker with the Cork Traveller Women's Network, paid tribute to him and to his work.
She said his report contained good recommendations and processes, and was adopted by a lot of relevant committees but that ultimately it failed because of “a lack of outcomes”.
“There has to be a commitment to outcomes. There has to be someone at a high level overseeing the delivery of key targets and residents have to be part of that,” she said.
“So many plans have been made. Many are under-ambitious or don’t meet statutory requirements and there are so many reports and plans that didn’t get implemented.
By contrast, less than a year after the Horan report was published, residents of the old St Anthony’s halting site, in the shadow of the sprawling Apple plant in Hollyhill, relocated some 200m to a new purpose-built group housing scheme to facilitate ongoing expansion of the tech giant’s campus.
Ms Harrington suggested that if an expanding global tech giant was located in Blackpool or Ballyvolane, the Spring Lane issues would have been resolved years ago.
Frustrated with the lack of improvements in their conditions, the Travellers published their own manifesto in 2014 which included calls for the renovations; local authority homes for the families; and for city council support for establishing a rental scheme for grazing land nearby for horses.
But again, conditions did not improve. A report to city councillors in April 2016 revealed just how bad things had become.
They were told that city attempts to resolve certain issues on the site had been frustrated, leading to substantial cost overruns on contracts and the triggering of several court proceedings.
Delays caused one electrical contract to soar 98% – rising from €171,820 to €340,000. Four court dates were required to secure an injunction to support contractors engaged in cliff face stabilisation works.
The council said it had made 13 court appearances in relation to the site since December 2014. The city fire brigade was called to the site 46 times in 2015 alone to deal with 39 fires, and seven false alarms.
The council spent €620,000 removing illegally dumped waste from the adjoining Ellis’s Yard site between January 2003 and February 2015.
As well as repeated antisocial behaviour on the site, which has plagued the residents of nearby housing estates, the report cited severe and regular intimidation of contractors and council officials, including one incident where an axe was thrown at one contractor working on the site, and a pellet gun was involved in another incident.
In 2018, the city council spent some €430,000 replacing 33 mobile homes on the site. In February 2019, the council had to organise a massive clean-up operation to remove an estimated 200 tonnes of illegally dumped rubbish, including asbestos, from Ellis’s Yard, at a cost to the council of about €53,000.
The Traveller Visibility Group condemned the illegal dumping and said those responsible were either living in, or were known to the residents of the site. It urged residents to pass any potential evidence on to the authorities.
In May of that year, a gang of masked men armed with bats and golf clubs threatened security staff guarding the site, forcing them to withdraw. Days later, the security hut was burned out.
Ms Harrington said no one condones illegal dumping or behaviour which “creates bad circumstances for any worker” carrying out repairs on the site. She also said a lot of repair work on site has been done without incident.
There was another setback in 2019 when city council efforts to deliver a Traveller horse project on a 35-acre site on the northern banks of the River Lee near Leemount were abandoned after Cork County Council refused planning permission for it. It was also opposed by local residents.
Ms Harrington says Travellers are frustrated and exhausted after over a decade of lobbying and pleading for improvements, with little or no success.
“Residents want to see change and that change happening smoothly but engagement with residents is key,” she said.
In a joint statement on Thursday, the Traveller Visibility Group and the Cork Traveller Women’s Network said children in Spring Lane could reach for the stars, but only with solid foundations under their feet, and that a major shift towards valuing the Traveller community is necessary.
They said the city council needs to have a strong vision for the Traveller community thriving in Cork City, where children can learn about, and share their culture and heritage with their heads held high, believing their dreams for the future are possible.
But at the moment, they said, the community doesn’t have the basic building blocks in place for this to happen because of just how much Cork City Council has let the community at Spring Lane down.
“We need safe and secure accommodation, an ability for our community to live together in a way that respects our customs and values, that allows children to grow up in dignity, security and community,” the groups said.
TVG director Breda O’Donoghue said: “My hope for the families in Spring Lane is that they would have good quality Traveller specific homes in the very near future. I think two years is not an unrealistic time frame to provide this if the local authority prioritises it. I would like to see real and meaningful consultation with the families with a focus on the basis that you can give a family a house or you can give a family a home.”
The OCO has set out a raft of recommendations and the council has agreed to a number of specific actions, including a pledge to conduct a risk assessment of the site later this year, to provide new temporary welfare pods by the third quarter of the year, at the latest, and the complete refurbishment of the original 10 bays, including the welfare units, electrics, water, and sanitary services.
There are clear timelines and targets in place and the OCO will request six- and 12-month updates on the progress.
Ms Harrington said residents on the site are hopeful that this is the report that will finally trigger change.
“The families on this site are very resilient. They have worked tirelessly to campaign for improvements, to be heard," she said.
“This report doesn’t just set out what needs to be done. It focuses on the need for change, it has targets in place, it recommends oversight to ensure it happens, and there is a follow-up structure. Change needs to happen.”
As ombudsman Niall Muldoon, says: “Paralysis in the system cannot continue.”