Problems at 'ghost estates' identified

 

Options on how to deal with “ghost” estates will be examined next month once a nationwide survey of unfinished housing developments is complete, Minister of State for Planning Ciarán Cuffe said today.

Mr Cuffe said the Department of the Environment was preparing guidelines for local authorities detailing the statutory powers available to them to address such estates.

The guidelines 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.

Officials from the Department of the Environment are currently undertaking a comprehensive national survey to quantify and categorise the scale and distribution of unfinished and vacant housing developments across the country.

The pilot phase of the study, conducted in Co Laois, said incomplete housing estates are posing serious health and environmental dangers through problems such as incomplete sewerage systems, water contamination, unfinished roads and open manholes.

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.

Mr Cuffe said it was expected that most of the unfinished estates would end up in the hands of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama). 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 Co 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,” Mr Cuffe 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.
Fine Gael housing spokesman Terence Flanagan said the Laois study added huge 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 Minister Gormley which is nothing more than an attempt to shift blame and give the impression of action,” he said.

“Homeowners who purchased their home in good faith deserve better. They should not be living on building sites which pose huge health and safety risks. We need strong action from the Government to deal with this problem they helped create and not further empty talk.”