Just catching up on the day’s papers when I came across this in the Irish Times.

Houses on ghost estates could be given to Irish emigrants seeking to return to their home counties or even to religious fundamentalists, Labour TD and presidential aspirant Michael D Higgins has proposed. … Some years ago, we discovered the diaspora. Some of our emigrants living in England, for example, are retired and can’t afford to come back. We should give them all these empty houses and let them look after them for three or four months at a time.

Okay, so I didn’t hear the whole talk, but this seems worthy of a bit of scrutiny.

Who from the diaspora gets to live in these houses?  What’s the selection criteria?  Is it only those that can’t afford to fund their own trips back?  Will they have support services when they’re here?  What about transport, etc?  Difficult to live in  many rural estates without private transport as there’s no or limited public transport.  Is this purely an altrustic move or is it designed to help the local economy/community?  If this is simply to provide a base whilst the diaspora spend a short time in Ireland, surely we’d be better off giving very low rates for hotels and self-catering cottages (which are also struggling) where there would at least be some services, etc. and it would support local businesses?  I appreciate all the arguments about the need to give something back to the diaspora who supported the country during the 1950s and 1980s, in particular, and I’d support initiatives such as the Aisling Project, but this needs a bit of thought.

What would be the logic in giving houses to religious fundamentalists?  Is that what Ireland needs – religious fundamentalism?

Beyond an extension to initiatives such as Aisling Project, why would we give houses to the diaspora or religious fundamentalists when there are local people who need houses?  Or perhaps local people who might like to trade-up or swap their house for one of these.  I’ve been to a lot of ghost estates and many of them are pretty nice, with fine houses.  The problem isn’t the houses or estate, it’s the market.  As a recent firesale in Drumshanbo has shown, if you reduce the price sufficiently, houses do sell.  Why give away when there is a market?  In the Drumshanbo case a local market, not simply investor-led.

I can’t help wondering if the only way giving houses away is going to help local housing markets, and those in negative equity, is by getting some houses off the market and thus squeezing supply?

There are many questions surrounding ghost estates.  I’m just not sure how giving houses away, in whatever form, helps address many of them in a constructive and productive way.  And if I’d bought and lived on one of these estates (and there are only a handful that are completely empty) then I’d be pretty cheesed off if the remaining properties were given away.  If the properties are going to be short term lets to the diaspora, I’d also be sceptical about how this is going to help build a long-term community.

There seems to be a lot of throw-away comments concerning what to do with ghost estates, some of which do not seem to be thought all the way through and do little to advance the debate or help the people living on them.  The starting point for what to do with ghost estates has to start with their existing residents, the local economy, and the local housing market (including issues of housing need, social housing and affordability).  Once all avenues around those have been explored and exhausted we can consider giving them away or finding alternative uses.

In the same article: ‘Dublin City Council’s chief planning officer, Dick Gleeson, complained that “the people who say ‘no’ have had too much influence” in blocking progress, and he emphasised that sustainability “rooted in good governance” was at the heart of the new city plan.’

I’ll admit that the planning process can be used to slow down or block development, sometimes excessively so, but the presumption for development at seemingly any cost over the boom years would seem to suggest the opposite – people who say ‘no’ had little or not enough influence.  In fact, a big part of the bust is the fact that those that said ‘no’ were sidelined and their warnings not heeded.  I’m not going to argue about good governance.  We need good governance and good government.  In spade fulls.

Rob Kitchin

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