Problems at 'ghost estates' highlighted


SO-CALLED “GHOST” housing estates are posing serious health and environmental dangers through problems such as incomplete sewerage systems, water contamination, unfinished roads and open manholes, a study has found.

The issues have been identified in a pilot study in Co Laois, ordered by the Department of the Environment, on the likely effects of the sudden end to the building boom, particularly in rural areas.

The study, which assessed housing developments that were granted planning permission in the county 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 are in many cases seriously inadequate.

The bonds are supposed to be taken out to ensure estates are completed. In some cases the requirements appear to have been ignored completely.

Minister of State with responsibility for planning Ciarán Cuffe said it was expected that most of the unfinished estates would end up in the hands of Nama. But he said local authorities would also be given the power in the new Planning and Development Bill to take over estates.

It is anticipated that the study will provide a useful base for Nama to assess the value of loans given out to speculative builders which are secured on such ghost estates.

But the findings have shown that in addition to financial consequences, there are also visual, environmental and pressing health implications.

Mr Cuffe said many people were facing significant difficulties because of incomplete facilities for new houses in rural villages and towns.

There were problems of estates where houses were partially built, but also where people were living in completed homes while neighbouring houses, roads and drainage systems remained unfinished, he said.

The Laois study raised public health and safety fears at one-quarter of sites surveyed. These included open sewers and manholes, water contamination and unsecured building sites, he said.

Almost one-third of housing developments recently completed in the county remain unoccupied. The study also found a significant 40 per cent of planning permissions for houses in Co Laois had not yet gone to construction.

Mr Cuffe said he was pushing for the full State-wide survey, which will include a county-by-county breakdown, to be published.

The Co Laois survey revealed a “maverick culture” in relation to the developers’ insurance bonds,where speculators simply ignored conditions and pressed ahead with their plans, according to a senior Government official.

While a lot of bonds were not paid at all, in other cases they were so minuscule that they are now deemed irrelevant given the scale of the clean-up operation.

“Even in some cases where there were conditions to pay bonds, a lot of them just went ahead and started developing without discharging any of the pre-commencement conditions,” he said.

The Department of the Environment believes there may be as many 620 ghost estates whose future remains uncertain. It will likely fall to Nama to decide whether to seek extensions to planning permission timescales, if they are to be completed.

In such circumstances, the new Planning Act will allow local authorities to set new bonds.

Otherwise, councils will be allowed to take charge of the estates and to complete unfinished roads and sewerage as well as demolish half-finished houses.