A legacy of ghost estates


A POETICALLY-titled report, A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, estimated last July that there were more than 620 such estates where over half of all the houses were either empty or unfinished – exceeding 300,000 units in all. Now we are being told by the Department of the Environment, following an on-the-ground survey of over 2,800 developments, that the phenomenon is not quite so widespread. Of the total of 180,000 houses or apartments involved, 77,000 were found to be occupied, 33,000 were completed and vacant, 10,000 were at varying stages of construction and the remaining 60,000 were not started at all; further building plans had obviously been abandoned as the property bubble burst.

The photograph in yesterday’s editions of two children playing on a “street” in Co Cork with everything unfinished around them shows that there are are real victims of this “legacy issue”. The degraded environment of such estates, with their unpaved footpaths and roads, piles of builders’ rubble and holes left unfilled, is not just aesthetically unpleasant, but also represents a real danger to children in particular. It is surely a major worry for parents, adding to the woe of having to make unsustainable mortgage repayments for homes that have tumbled in value.

According to the Department of the Environment, its survey “establishes a proper evidence basis for further action by Government and local authorities in relation to planning, housing, building control and other matters towards resolving the emergence of unfinished housing developments”. Indeed, Minister of State for Housing Michael Finneran said it was “already initiating an action plan” to address all of these issues.

Mr Finneran was quick to deny that Government tax incentives which inflated the property bubble so catastrophically had much to do with generating unfinished housing estates. Yet it is clear from research carried out by NUI Maynooth’s National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (Nirsa) for its Haunted Landscape report that there was a massive over-production of housing in Cavan, Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo, and this was fuelled by the wholly misconceived Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme introduced in 1998 by then minister for finance Charlie McCreevy and only wound down on a phased basis by his successor Brian Cowen. Both of them must accept their share of responsibility for the ghost estates in these five counties.

Nirsa called last July for an independent inquiry into all aspects of how the planning system operated, including charges of “localism, cronyism and clientilism”. Its call was echoed this week by housing association Respond!, which said the ghost estates phenomenon indicated a “complete failure” of the planning system: “Without doubt the banks were a key player, but there would not have been the same demand for credit to purchase land or property had zonings and planning permission not been so easily available”. Blame must be apportioned before we can move on.