Residents at 'unsafe' estate seek home swap scheme

Tue, Oct 30, 2012, 00:00

RESIDENTS AT a Longford housing estate declared “fundamentally unsafe” by the HSE are urging State agencies to facilitate a property swap with vacant homes in the region.

Longford County Council has applied to the Department of the Environment for funding to repair the sewerage network at Gleann Riada estate, where the build-up of natural gases underground has led to explosions in two homes.

However, many residents believe the estate is beyond repair and are calling for a more radical solution, starting with immediate evacuation of the almost 80 remaining occupied houses.

Last March an explosion blew the front window from one house. A smaller explosion took place in a different house earlier this month. The occupants of both houses where the explosions took place have left the estate.

The council has so far evacuated and rehoused one homeowner. The plea for a house-swap scheme comes amid a complaint from that homeowner, Anne Heffernan, that the council has stopped paying her rent on alternative accommodation.

Ms Heffernan said the council initially put her up in a hotel after deeming her home unsafe last July, due to dangerously high levels of hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide.

She subsequently moved into an apartment and “the council paid my rent for August and September”, she said.

“But in mid-September, they contacted my solicitors and said they would not longer pay for accommodation and I should seek alternative accommodation. The attitude seems to be: We have done our bit.”

The council was unable to answer detailed questions about its management of the estate late last week, while the department said it was limited in what it could say as the matter was the subject of legal proceedings.

But Ms Heffernan accused the authorities of “using the legal action as an excuse. They don’t want to communicate with us and yet they were the ones who told me I had to move out of my house.”

Almost 30 residents on the estate have contacted a solicitor about taking action against the council and other parties including Antrim-based developer Alastair Jackson, whose company Eassda Ireland built the estate before it folded it 2010 with massive debts.

Residents believe the council had knowledge that the area was a flood plain, with Ms Heffernan pointing out: “no one from Longford bought there”.

But, in a short statement, the council said: “It must be emphasised the problems arising were caused by substandard construction work.”

The council added it had made a funding submission to the department, and was “working closely with the residents to establish how best to deal with the issues identified in Gleann Riada”.

Echoing the view of most residents, Noelle McHale, a native of Co Mayo who bought her home in 2006 for €172,000, said: “I think evacuation is the only solution.

“I’ve still 25 years on the mortgage but if I sold it now I would only get €30,000 . . . Everyone knows about these houses now and what’s wrong with them.”

She said she had lived in different parts of Ireland before moving to Longford and was attracted to the estate’s location, about a mile from the town.

“It was nice, but I did notice a smell right from the start.” Within a month of moving in, she found a problem with the waste water. “Whenever I’d flush upstairs it would come up into the washbasins downstairs.”

The builders came back to fix it, requiring the relaying of floorboards and tiles at her own expense. “Within a month the problem was back again and it was only then I noticed neighbours two doors down from me had a JCB in their garden. The same thing was happening there.

“Everyone feels robbed and cheated. It’s very, very stressful. There have been two explosions already. You could be covering a story next time of someone killed or injured.

“The council is not sorting the problem out. If we could do a house swap, or if our mortgages were swapped with another property, that would be ideal.”

John McNamara, an engineer who represents more than 40 households at the estate, pointed out there were several hundred vacant homes in the area. “Nama was created overnight. Why can’t the Government act with the same urgency for these people?”

He claimed the council had also not properly assessed the impact on the estate of a new primary care centre, due to open on a neighbouring site in December, which would use the same mains network as Gleann Riada.

Ms Heffernan, originally from Co Offaly, said she saw potential in a property swap, although her preference was to “knock the estate and compensate us; pay us what we paid for the houses and let us go to live wherever we want.”


WITH WINTER setting in, Lena Solovjov faces a stark choice. Sleep with her bedroom windows open, or risk being poisoned by odourless gases during the night.“We are not allowed to light a fire, and we are told to keep the windows open, but now it’s getting colder and colder.”

Sitting in her home of eight years at the Gleann Riada estate, where there have been two explosions and where one home has been evacuated due to methane-like gases seeping from faulty sewerage works below, Solovjov speaks with a soft but anxious tone.

“The first explosion was on one side of the estate, the other in the middle of the estate, and the house evacuated was at the end of the estate.

“So we don’t know where it’s going to strike next. We are just living in danger now.”

Solovjov, who moved to Ireland from Estonia 12 years ago and has since become an Irish citizen, bought the two-bed house for €150,000 in December 2004.

“We were so happy when we moved in. We were living on the floors, with nothing, but we were happy.”

The home, which she shares with her husband, who works as a joiner in Longford (“and with our cat”, she adds, lest it be forgotten), ­ bears the hallmarks of years of loving improvements. Displayed in her kitchen are various souvenirs collected from trips around Europe by their daughter.

Outside the back door, some decking leads to a miniature rock waterfall and tall picket fencing, beyond which lies a marshy field where the second phase of the housing development was due to be built.

If only that was the sole problem. The house next door is up for sale, and many of their neighbours have vacated their homes and are being put up by extended family.

“If we move out, the house will be vandalised in one night because everyone knows people are evacuating the estate,” she says. “It would be very hard to leave because we have put our heart and soul into it but I know we can’t stay because it’s not safe.”

Solovjov, who works at the town’s Backstage Theatre, says she suffers from headaches and dizziness and collapsed three times in her home. The first time was about a year after moving in.

“At that stage I had no idea there was a problem. The residents didn’t communicate with each other. Now we are talking to one another and asking are all these things connected?

“What we can’t understand is if the HSE finds we have high levels of the dangerous gas in our estate why they didn’t do a test to check the health condition of the people here. There was a pipe analysis done on some houses but there has been no investigation of how it’s affecting people.”

Her doctor has written a note for the county council advising that she be evacuated as a precautionary measure but “I have the feeling they don’t want to listen to us”.

The council has offered home owners air monitors but Solovjov says: “It’s pointless because if you find out the levels are too high – you have nowhere to go. What’s the solution – to sit outside your house all night?”