A few weeks ago, before the return of the snow and rain, I spent a cold bright day visiting a number of unfinished estates in North Tipperary. A former resident of one such estate kindly took me on a tour of some of the local unfinished developments. Being from the area himself, and having worked on construction projects in the past, he was in a position to impart to me some background information about the developments. Anecdotally, he was able to tell me that, having visited the estates himself in the past, some minor demolition work had been carried out in places. Rather than finished houses, the demolition that had been carried out had been of partially completed structures: essentially where construction had been started but had barely gotten beyond the foundations. Additionally, there had been some attempts to erect more secure fencing around the unfinished portions of the estates.
As a student of quantity surveying, my guide also had a research interest in what was being done about these estates from a policy perspective. And during the day we also talked about the overall response to the problem. I gave him my personal opinion that not enough was being done by the state to combat the problems posed by the estates. Whilst it was clear that some small progress had been achieved with regard to individual estates, the mechanisms that had been put in place (primarily site resolution plans) were voluntaristic and somewhat ad-hoc and, consequently, offered little guarantee that uniform progress would be made. We both agreed that the most pressing concern was the health and safety problems posed by the estates that, despite the €5 million safety fund made available by the Government, clearly remained an issue affecting residents on most estates.
We visited four estates that day. All but one of the estates had residents living on them. What we saw there was perhaps not shocking. To a certain extent unfinished estates have become a normalised part the Irish landscape, places we anticipate and expect, especially in the more rural parts of the country. But equally, these estates are not, nor should they be considered, ‘normal’ places for people to live. I say this despite the fact that, for thousands of households around the country, living on estates such as these is the new normal.
We are now over four years into a crisis that was both precipitated by and reflected in a catastrophic property crash. Unfinished estates quickly became the symbol of the crash, and the iconic monument of the ideologies and development politics that drove the Celtic Tiger era; the vast glut of physical excess all too perfectly symbolising Ireland’s ‘era of excess’, our ‘greedy decade’ (as various newspaper articles deigned to dub it). For a while these estates were big news, offering an empty (or at least partially vacant) signifier into which various commentators could pour their anxieties and outrages about the crisis and their hopes for the future. But four years on the media frenzy has died down and the estates and their residents have receded from public view. In the intervening years the unfinished estates of the Celtic Tiger have been engulfed in the general din of the ongoing crisis, swallowed by the war of attrition that is austerity. They became one more problem in a country beset by a million problems.
Within this context it is easy to forget just how shocking these estates initially were. In the initial reportage (even allowing for a level of hyperbole) these were truly alien landscapes that left journalists reaching for visceral language and allusions to grasp the social and moral catastrophe that the estates represented. Take, for example, these two descriptions from May 2010:
“It was like a scene from one of those Chernobyl documentaries. Empty houses rotting away, broken pavements, no street lighting, rubble everywhere and pools of water that you just knew stank to high heaven. Except there were some people living there, young homeowners who were trapped paying premium mortgages to live in an unfinished estate where sewage bubbled up outside their door in houses they knew were worthless because they were unsellable” (Irish Times, 15 May 2010).
“How do you know you are in a ‘ghost estate”? Often, from the outside, they look like any other new housing estate. The houses are neat and freshly painted, lending an air of suburban order and respectability. They are quiet, but that could just be because the adults are at work and the children are at school. But when you get closer, you can tell. You notice, for instance, that the manhole covers and storm drains stick up out of the street because the final layer of the road surface hasn’t been laid. And there are little lumps outside every door which, on closer inspection, turn out to be decaying phone directories and copies of the Golden Pages. Where the doorbell should be, there is only a dangling wire…” (Irish Independent, 22 May 2010).
These examples are from a time period that perhaps constituted the most intense debates about unfinished estates. And, of course, there is a certain inevitability that as these landscapes become more familiar they become less strange. But paradoxically the inverse is equally true. In a kind of parallax view reminiscent of a David Lynch film, these estates are so strange because for us they are now so normal.
This week the Government’s announced that of the 1,322 developments that were previously exempt from the household change only 421 developments would be exempt from the local property tax. As Rob Kitchin suggested in his post yesterday, this substantial drop in eligible developments is the result of a reclassification of types of estates that qualify. Thus, it is by no means guaranteed that substantial work has been completed on all of the developments that have dropped off the list, whilst it is extremely doubtful that these estates are now free of problems. Furthermore, this latest episode follows similar statistical adjustments to the 2012 National Housing Development Survey that changed the definition of an unfinished estate. There is a sort of politics of numbers happening here. Judging by the figures being released by the Government, to the (very) casual observer it would appear that the number of unfinished estates that constitute a serious problem has reduced from 2,876 in 2011 to just 421 in 2013. Any bit of research into the issue will suggest that this is not the case, particularly when we consider that housing vacancy (in the absence of outstanding construction work) is no longer considered a problem by the Government.
The estates I visited in Tipperary are all (with the exception of the completely vacant development) exempt from the local property tax. It could be argued then that they constitute some of the more severe cases. However, they didn’t particularly strike me as better or worse than many other estates I have visited, some of which have dropped off the list of exemptions. Unfinished estates are not a homogenous category and individual estates face diverse problems. ‘Unfinished’ is a slippery category and it is disingenuous to label any estate that is ‘complete’ as unproblematic when there are high levels of vacancy. A vacant house may soon become again an unfinished house if it is not being maintained. And the simple fact remains, the vast majority of these estates are still not the places they were planned to be and that were promised to the residents who moved into them. They remain unfinished. Before we find ourselves too jaded by crisis, it is worth reminding ourselves that we once found these estates very strange indeed. They were not ‘normal’. They are still not.