Like buddleia sprouting from the upper storeys of an unloved building, urban dereliction is a highly visible signifier of civic underachievement. It is obvious to anyone who walks through parts of Dublin’s central core that too much of the city’s building stock is under-used and neglected. A recent series of articles in this newspaper support that observation with detailed data and research on the causes and consequences of high vacancy rates and long-term neglect. The picture is not pretty.
More than 12,000 homes and commercial properties are vacant across Dublin, and 40 per cent of these have lain empty for more than four years. A quarter of the city’s vacant buildings are between the canals, with maps showing significant clusters along the quays, in Dublin 8 and in the north inner city. Many of these vacant properties are residential and would provide good homes for thousands of people currently suffering the effects of the housing crisis. Many others are currently commercial or mixed-use and could with a little drive and imagination be repurposed and modernised.
Something is very wrong when the capital city of a country which purports to be one of the most economically advanced in the world is permitted to slide into such a ramshackle condition. The causes of vacancy and dereliction can be multi-faceted and individual cases may sometimes be complex. But the overall picture should be a deep embarrassment to everyone charged with implementing public policy at either national or local government level.
Property values have been on an upward curve over the last decade, so there has been little incentive to bring empty buildings to market. Now, after years of procrastination by successive governments, the Vacant Homes Tax, which finally comes into effect this year, may start to change that. But there is justifiable concern that the 0.3 per cent rate of tax is too low to have a significant impact. In any case, national strategies, while important, can only be part of the solution. Most of that rests with local government. It is depressing, therefore, to note that State bodies and Dublin City Council are among the worst culprits when it comes to leaving significant buildings to rot for years or even decades.
Generations of short-term policy-making, undue deference to property interests and a dreadful lack of imagination may now all be coming home to roost for Dublin. Global social trends, including the shift to remote working and online retail, mean that city centres are changing from places of business to places for living and leisure. Dublin, still lagging behind European norms on active travel and public transport, its empty late-night streets gap-toothed by undeveloped sites and boarded-up buildings, has become an international laggard.