Yesterday bought the tragic news that a two year old boy had died on an unfinished estate near to Athlone.  He had followed his pet dog in through a gap in the fence and drowned in a pool of water.  His family have my deepest sympathy and condolences.

The death is likely to focus attention back onto unfinished estates and what is happening with respect to them.  Minister Hogan has already asked Westmeath County Council for a report on the estate in question.  Our working paper, which sets out the issue in detail can be found here.

Unfinished estates have been posing problems since the start of the crash and building work largely stopped on developments.  The Department of Environment survey in 2011 revealed there were 2,876 unfinished estates in the county.  2,066 have outstanding development work.  1,822 of these have no development activity occurring.

Problems facing estates include incomplete development work, security, health and safety, antisocial behaviour, lack of finance to address issues, lack of sense of place/community, planning and building reg compliance, and negative equity.

We are five years in since the start of the crash and two years on since the announcement by Minister Finneran of the setting up of the unfinished estates advisory board by the Dept of Environment.  That Board only reported in June 2011, with Minister Penrose setting out how the government would tackle what was supposedly an urgent issue.  The Manual followed a few months later.

The solution was: (a) a 5 million fund to tackle health and safety issues on the worst of the estates; (b) Site Resolution Plans (SRPs).  SRPs are stakeholder groups that plan how to tackle issues on an estate by estate basis (stakeholders would be Local Authorities, developers, banks, residents, estate management companies, etc).

The fund is not adequate to address the issues facing estates and is principally aimed at tackling significant health and safety concerns in a low cost way (filling in, fencing off, pulling down unsafe structures, etc).  Here, it must be acknowledged that many of the worst estates have been fenced off (as was the case in Athlone), though often vandalism has opened up gaps and on-going repairs are not necessarily as timely as they should be.  Nevertheless, €5m is a paltry sum and for that kind of minimal investment one would have thought that high priority health and safety issues would have been addressed already.

SRPs are non-mandatory and voluntaristic, time frames are suggestive, there are no conflict resolution mechanisms, local authorities are being given no additional resources to manage the process, and the issue of lack of finance and insolvency is ignored.  SRPs are likely to be slow and haphazard. The aim is to have 300 SRPs in place by the end of 2012, which hardly suggests a speedy response given the number of estates with outstanding development work (a handful per local authority).

Basically, there has been an inadequate response to the issue.  The fund is too small and SRPs are a limited effort, minimal cost approach to unfinished estates that tries to use existing legislation to resolve issues (but largely avoids court cases).  It gives the impression of policy-at-work, but to a large degree pushes the problem down the road to be corrected at a later date by the market.  In the meantime, estates wither on the vine and residents live with the consequences of worst features of the housing bust.

We are long past the point of needing a proper policy to deal with the issue of unfinished estates, one that is backed by finance and stronger powers to local authorities to compel developers/banks to complete works.  A one-off report concerning the estate in question might suggest that action is being taken, but it simply delays further any real change to how unfinished estates are being addressed by the state.

This is an issue that has been for too long kicked down the road; it’s time for a more proactive, muscular strategy.  €5m is 0.16% of the €3bn we’re about to pay back in Anglo promissory notes.  It’s a paltry sum in the grand scheme of things and the people living on them or near them deserve better.

Rob Kitchin

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