Ombudsman welcomes ‘significant progress’ in improving dire conditions at Cork halting site

Previous report had heavily criticised council over Spring Lane site

The Ombudsman for Children has welcomed “significant progress” made in the last year to address dire living conditions at a halting site in Cork, while also noting that some families believe the improvements have come too slowly.

Conditions at Spring Lane, a Cork City Council site, were severely criticised in a report published by Dr Niall Muldoon’s office in May of last year. Problems noted included “extreme overcrowding”, inadequate waste disposal and heating systems, “unsafe electrical works”, as well as a high rate of childhood illness caused by the poor conditions.

Inspectors from his office visited the site at the time and found about 140 people using toilets and washing facilities designed for 40 people. Some 11 families had made complaints to the watchdog about the conditions.

The inspectors observed children sharing makeshift beds in cramped living areas; damp on the walls and ceilings; and children playing amid rubbish. The poor conditions had a “significant and prolonged adverse impact” on children living at Spring Lane, the ombudsman said.

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In a report tracking efforts to improve those conditions, published on Wednesday, the ombudsman says “significant progress” has been made by the council in addressing the failings. The local authority was “actively planning” to build more Traveller-specific housing, as well as taking steps to improve the living conditions for the families living on the site, it says.

The report notes a small number of families on the site believed their living conditions “remain unchanged” and were frustrated at the slow pace of improvement. “Some families remain dissatisfied with their individual living conditions,” it says, with some feeling there has been “no meaningful improvement to date”.

It also notes concerns including that “relationships between the local authority, the residents and their advocates can be strained at times” and that “little or no progress” has been made on a recommendation that a child-centred, multi-agency approach be taken to improve the lives of children living on the site.

The council spent more than €450,000 in the year up to April refurbishing the site in the wake of the critical investigation report. That spending included hiring a caretaker to log and report maintenance issues, as well as putting in 30 portaloos during the Covid-19 pandemic, 24 of which remained on site.

The local authority carried out improvement works on water pipes and plans to upgrade the electrics network at the site by next April, the report says.

Several mobile homes have since had maintenance work carried out on them, which included fixing showers, addressing plumbing issues, putting in new water mains and replacing broken windows and taps.

The site was designed for 10 housing bays, but there were currently nearly 50 families living there. The report acknowledges that the council is “actively” trying to purchase homes or find existing social housing for families who wanted to move from the site. A new Traveller group housing scheme was at the design stage that would accommodate several of the families, it adds.

Meanwhile, Cork City Council is among seven local authorities that have been told to “improve their Traveller accommodation” by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

In a statement published on Wednesday, the commission said following “repeated failures nationally to draw down ring-fenced capital budgets to meet human rights obligations on Traveller-specific accommodation” it was using its legal powers to “invite” Limerick city and county, South Dublin, Tipperary, Donegal, Mayo and Wicklow county councils, as well as Cork city, to “improve their service” to Travellers in need of Traveller specific social housing.

The move follows a 2019 audit by the commission, in collaboration with councils, of whether they were meeting obligations in equality reviews. “We have now invited [the seven local authorities] to improve their Traveller accommodation service” by drawing and enforcing equality action plans, it said.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times