New survey to show extent of problems posed by 'ghost estates'


PLANS TO deal with so-called “ghost estates” will be considered next month when a nationwide survey of unfinished housing developments is complete, Minister of State for Planning Ciarán Cuffe has said.

The pilot phase of the survey, conducted in Co Laois by officials from the Department of the Environment, found that some such estates posed health and environmental dangers. It found these risks were caused by developers failing to complete sewerage systems, water contamination, unfinished roads and open manholes.

Mr Cuffe said the results of the nationwide survey would clarify the extent of the problems from unfinished housing and help define what actions could be taken.

He said in advance of this the Department of the Environment was preparing guidelines for local authorities, detailing the statutory powers available to address problems in such estates.

These include recommendations on public safety, environmental protection, building control and details on the provision of bonds or securities to cover the costs of finishing such developments. It may also include a provision to extend timescales on planning permissions for the estates.

A spokesman for Mr Cuffe said it would be four to six weeks before the nationwide survey was complete. The results would clarify the different ownership situations and indicate which of the properties would come under the ownership of Nama.

It is anticipated the study will provide a useful base for Nama to assess the value of loans to speculative builders which are secured against such unfinished estates.

The Maynooth-based National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis this year estimated there were 621 “ghost estates” and more than 300,000 empty homes in the State.

The pilot phase of the survey found there were 63 unfinished estates in Co Laois. It said 6,000 units were granted planning permission, only 2,800 were completed, and 23 per cent of the completed units were still vacant.

It said 800 properties were at various stages of construction, but activity was taking place on less than 200 units across 16 of the 63 development sites.

Mr Cuffe said: “It’s one thing having completed but unsold houses in your estate – however it’s far more serious a problem where half of the estate remains a building site and where there are open sewers, unsecured half-built units and other difficulties.”

He also pointed to the new Planning Act which he said gave authorities greater powers and flexibility to deal with unfinished estates such as taking them in charge after the expiration of the planning permission or the boarding off of unfinished sections for health and safety reasons.

The study, which assessed housing developments that were granted planning permission in Co Laois in the last five years, found a quarter of them had health and safety problems.

It also emerged that local authority requirements for builders’ bonds were in many cases seriously inadequate. The bonds are supposed to be taken out to ensure estates are completed. In some cases the requirements appeared to have been ignored.

Fine Gael housing spokesman Terence Flanagan said the Laois study added weight to calls for an independent investigation into what went wrong in the planning system during the boom years.

“This should go beyond the limited ‘review’ of some councils recently ordered by John Gormley, which is nothing more than an attempt to shift blame and give the impression of action.

“Home-owners who purchased their home in good faith deserve better. They should not be living on building sites which pose huge health and safety risks.”