Ireland's ghost housing estates

With critics of the UK planning reforms using semi-abandoned housing projects in Ireland to back their case, Steve Melia went to see the problems for himself.

Ballyhooly, County Cork: housebuilding came to an abrupt halt with the end of the country's economic boom
Ballyhooly, County Cork: housebuilding came to an abrupt halt with the end of the country's economic boom

That's where they were going to build a playground," says Denise Bullman pointing to wasteland behind wire mesh. A caravan and cement mixer stand among detritus left when building work stopped. Like many other residents of Ireland's "ghost estates", she and her husband bought at the height of the boom and are now trapped in negative equity. Their home is among 40 to 50 finished properties - half of them empty - across three such estates in Ballyhooly, a village 20 miles north of Cork.

A neighbour, who asked not to be named, is in a similar situation. She points to manhole covers protruding from the unfinished road surface and street lighting left unconnected. Cork County Council has refused to adopt the road in its incomplete state, but the woman mainly blames the developer. "We just want them to finish what they started," she says.

The property boom, which turned to slump after 2007, followed a policy of "growth derived from asset price inflation, fuelled by a combination of low interest rates, reckless lending and speculation", according to government advisory body the National Competitiveness Council. In 2007, Ireland was building more homes per head than any other European country and five times more than the UK, according to data from economic consultancy DKM and forecasting network Euroconstruct. Between 1991 and 2007, the price of second-hand homes rose nearly fivefold, official figures show. But then rising unemployment, emigration and shrinking mortgage availability led to a collapse in demand, leaving 300,000 homes, or 15 per cent of the national stock, empty, according to the 2011 Irish census. Some of these are individual properties in rural areas. Others are clustered in the unoccupied or partially occupied ghost estates, where work remains unfinished.

But unfettered finance isn't the only thing blamed for these abandoned estates. "As well as a catastrophic failure in Ireland's banking and financial regulatory system, there has been a catastrophic failure of the planning system," says A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland Landscapes. This 2010 report from the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, forced the profession onto the defensive in ways that will seem both familiar and ironic to UK planners. It blamed planners for failing to restrain the excesses of developers and a government obsessed with short-term economic and housing growth in a culture of "clientelism, cronyism and localism".

Faced with public anger over this issue, Irish Planning Institute president Gordon Daly argued in the Irish Times that planners were not to blame. "Many of these estates were approved against professional advice," he wrote. But Andrew Hind, Daly's predecessor as institute president, downplays the argument that professional advice was regularly ignored. "It happens about as often as a planning committee in England overrides the officers' advice," says Hind, who now works as a senior planner for Cork County Council, but who is originally from Staffordshire.

However, Ireland's planning system has significant differences to England's. For one thing, local councillors have no direct role in determining applications. Instead, decisions are made by council chief executives on planners' advice, with councillors and Teachta Dalas - the Irish equivalent to MPs - often petitioning in support of applications, Hind says. Even more crucially, unlike in the UK, public and political pressure has favoured more rather than less development, he says. According to Hind, many councillors would like to gain control over application decisions, but their sole current planning role is to approve local area plans. "As this is the only power they have, the reaction of many was to zone as much land as they could for homes," he says.

"Some local plans were poor in the past and this is where the profession must hold up its hands," says Hind. "Some of them made no reference to population or household projections." Yet they are a key part of each county's plans for development, he says. In County Cork, for example, his council's development plan does not apply to the unitary Cork city, nor to the nine "town councils". Some of these are no bigger than English villages, but each has its own local area plan.

In response to the zoning problems, an amendment to the Planning and Development Act 2000 was passed last year, introducing a system similar to the one the UK is soon to axe. National housing targets are now derived from demographic projections. Indirectly elected regional authorities divide these into targets for each planning authority, whose local plans must conform to regional planning guidance. Cian O'Callaghan, one of the authors of A Haunted Landscape, sees this as a good start, but says that more is needed. "We need to change many other things, like the way land is zoned," he says.

In several counties, the process of dezoning land so it is no longer earmarked for development has begun. A Haunted Landscape called for a moratorium on open market housebuilding, but Hind argues that household growth and economic recovery will eventually resuscitate demand. "Ghost estates close to main employment centres will sort themselves out, but some in more rural counties may have to be demolished," he says, although it is unclear who would pay to restore the land to its original state.

O'Callaghan partly agrees: "Around Dublin, the market will pick up sooner rather than later, but there's a major overhang in many other places. We need to get supply and demand back on track before any more houses are built." He concurs that some of the ghost estates may have to be knocked down.

What lessons can planners in other countries learn from Ireland's situation? "I'm not sure the lessons are about planning. They're really about economic management," Hind says. "When the brake was needed, around 2004, someone decided to step on the accelerator." But O'Callaghan sees things differently. "The main lesson is that development must be regulated," he says. "Planners need to make spatial choices. Our problem was that the whole thing was too market-led."

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