Ghost estates - Monuments we can really learn from

FIFTEEN miles northwest of the French town of Limoges stands one of Europe’s most articulate and challenging war memorials.

On June 10, 1944 a German SS unit invaded the quiet Limousin village of Oradour-sur-Glane. They ordered the women and children into the church and brought the village’s men together. They then shot or burned 642 people and destroyed the village.

It stands today more or less as it was left by the SS Das Reiche division when they had finished their slaughter. Razed but better known and more symbolic than ever. Silent but roaring. The shells of houses and schools symbolising the lives that were quenched and maybe too the lives that never came to be in Oradour-sur-Glane. Even its sterility speaks to the bestiality of the murderers. It nearly always leaves a life-long impression on visitors. The French ghost village is one of the world’s great indictments of the senselessness of war and hatred.

It may seem incongruous to compare a monument to the victims of evil and savagery to our 2,800 ghost estates but they, just as Oradour-sur-Glane does, remind us of the consequences of blind, irrational excess though on an altogether different plane.

Our ghost estates speak more articulately than we might care to acknowledge about our hubris, sense of infallibility and greed. About how we all conspired — banks, planners, developers, regulators, politicians, the media and aspiring homeowners with little or no choice — to ignore the understanding of economics and markets built up over centuries.

As we debate the size of the cuts needed in our budget to restore some sanity — Fine Gael’s Michael Noonan yesterday said €7 billion, others suggested a figure closer to €10bn — we will have plenty of time to consider our lunacy. The 426,900 people out of work have far more time than they wish to consider it.

The National Housing Development Survey yesterday published its report on the vacant or unfinished housing estates and apartment blocks. Some 23,000 completed but empty houses and apartments were identified. In some instances, these houses stand next to families trying to build lives and communities in unfinished developments. Many developments will have to be knocked and the land reverted to agricultural use. Fortunes have been lost and will be lost, dreams have been destroyed and will be destroyed and, almost inevitably, the taxpayer will pick up the tab one way or another.

Various proposals will be made about what can be done with these ghost estates. Some will be completed, some will be put in mothballs and others will be destroyed. Another option might be considered.

One, preferably one of the biggest and most remote, should be preserved as it is, like an Irish Oradour-sur- Glane. There could be an interpretative centre with extracts from politicians’ and bankers’ speeches, auctioneers’ marketing literature and maybe an example of one of those contracts offering a 110% mortgage.

After all in the midst of the deepest tragedy there must be hope and our ghost estates offer us a lesson that we must learn if we are to hope that we can ever rebuild and sustain a decent society.


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