DSCF0973It has been three years since NIRSA published the Haunted Landscape report on the impacts of the property crash.  Since then, Ireland’s housing market has been through some turbulence.

At the same time, however, depressingly little has changed.

Overall we are still very much mired in the market-oriented approach to housing that propelled the bubble.  Only now, matters have been made worse by the extraordinary levels of debt that households are paying off for properties that have dramatically decreased in value.  Meanwhile, mortgage credit has all but seized up, while negative equity has created a spatial trap for many households.  This has all taken place against a backdrop of rising unemployment and deepening austerity.

Yet in mid-2013, we are once again hearing a resurgent chorus singing that well-worm refrain: market recovery.  Although the evidence of this ‘recovery’ is dubious at best – a selective reading of supposed demand for particular types of properties at particular prices in particular parts of Dublin used to indicate a more generalised upturn in the property market – the point has been reiterated in recent months in a range of media reports citing various vested interests.  Similarly, an article in the Irish Times last week talked of a “feeding frenzy” on Dublin properties – with international (vulture) capitalists ‘scrambling’ to pick up asset portfolios – as if this signalled something positive, rather than anodyne if not outright destructive, for the Irish economy.  This critical mass of uncritical property cheerleading is beginning to feel sadly familiar.

With all the effervescent talk of rising property values and calls for new (state-supported) construction projects, it is worth revisiting the unfinished estates that became the symbol of the crash.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, unfinished estates were singled out as symptomatic of an unambiguously dysfunctional approach to property development.  Five years on, despite site resolution plans, the social housing leasing initiative, and statistical solutions, very little has changed on many of these estates.  One of the major reasons for this lack of progress is that policy responses have continued to privilege the role of the market.

Residents on unfinished estates around the country are, in various ways, still experiencing the physical, financial, and emotional limbo of living in these incomplete environments.  Some are experiencing more acute problems than others.  But, given the suite of policy responses and market conditions that have followed the crash, it is fair to assume that none are devoid of problems.

Recently, I  paid a visit to the Red Arches estate, part of The Coast development in Baldoyle.  Overall, Red Arches is by no means one of the worst examples of an unfinished estate.  The estate constitutes a section of a larger development, which itself forms part of cluster of similar developments straddling Dublin’s North Fringe and Fingal County.  The Coast, built by Menolly Homes, is of a type of sprawling residential development more representative of suburban Dublin than any other part of the country.  When completed it was expected to house 20,000 people in a mixture of apartments, town houses, and family homes.  This was to be combined with “office, hospitality, and retail space”, which remains largely vacant, “and eighty acres of green space”.

DSCF0977Occupancy levels are quite high and the estate itself is lively.  These traits were in evidence during my visit with cars driving in and out, and pedestrians strolling, or working in the recently installed community garden.  The estate has a series of main roads running through it, which hive off into residential streets.  The apartments and houses on these streets also open onto nicely landscaped back gardens communally shared by adjoining neighbours.  On the whole it seems like a pleasant place to live.

That is, if it weren’t for the presence of the hulking shell of an abandoned tower block that has been sitting idle since the downturn.

Red Arches tower crop

Entering the estate from the Coast Road, the first thing you see is the red hoarding that surrounds the tower block. The latter protrudes on the skyline as you advance further in.  The fenced off site is sizable, much larger that the area covered by the tower block itself.  There are houses and apartments to the left of the hoardings and immediately in front of it.

The tower has been left derelict for more than five years.  For residents in its immediate vicinity, this has meant a long-standing vista of the derelict site, or worse still, the hoardings.

As tends to be the case more generally with residents on unfinished estates, it took those in Red Arches some time to realise that the tower block wasn’t going to be finished any time soon.  In October 2012 some of them started a Facebook campaign to have it demolished.  Using the catchy injunction “knock the block” as their campaign name, the residents sought to draw attention to some very pressing health and safety concerns posed by the presence of the tower.

When the developer downed tools the scaffolding was left there to rust, making of the tower an oversized jungle gym for the teenagers of the area.  The campaign’s Facebook page is replete with photos of groups of young people climbing the tower and exploring it inside.  The structure also includes an underground car park, which was prone to flooding.  When this happened, residents on the estate told me, the young people would build rafts to explore the flooded cavern.


Photo from Knock the Block Facebook page

On the instruction of Fingal County Council, the developer responded to the flutter of media attention instigated by the campaign by removing the scaffolding, putting up more secure fencing, and closing off the underground car park.  The latter caused a bit of a short term crisis as the rats dispossessed of their derelict home fled into the estate proper. Thankfully, they dispersed again within a few weeks.  Despite the measures taken, however, the tower has remained accessible to those who seek to use it for exploration, as photos uploaded more recently depicting a group of young people on the top of the structure shows.

More significantly, the developer doesn’t appear to have any immediate plans to demolish the tower, and it is likely to remain in its current state of structural limbo for the foreseeable future.  This is an example of the types of problems that are produced by a housing policy that continues to privilege the role of the market.

Under the current planning and taxation legislation, which has not been significantly altered in the aftermath of the crash, once a developer has outstanding planning permission for a site that they own they are allowed to keep it in a partially built state.  They incur no financial penalties for doing so and, with the exception of forcing them to comply with some minimum safety standards, there is little the local authority can do to compel them to either finish or demolish partially built structures.

Naturally it suits developers to wait and see how things turn out before cutting their losses by demolition.  But this leaves residents in the frustrating and unjust position of having to live amidst these ruins until an undetermined time in the future when a change in market conditions will allow something to be done.

Although Red Arches is not in one of the select areas where the current upswing in sales prices is being celebrated as the return of the property market, the estate is in a desirable location that is close to Dublin and, therefore, likely to see a return of the market sooner than many other parts of the country.  However, judging by the current demand for family homes it still seems unlikely that an apartment block on the urban fringe will be considered a prime contender anytime soon.

For residents on unfinished estates, the uncertainties they have been forced to live with have, to a degree, put their lives on hold.  This is not to suggest that people are not making the most of their situation and getting on with their lives as best they can.  But the ambiguities regarding the places they live make it harder to plan for the future.   The supposed ‘stabilisation’ of the Dublin market will do little to alleviate the problems they face.  At a more general level, in a context of increasing market fragmentation, an upswing in property prices does nothing to address the spate of more serious housing crises Ireland is still facing.

For any real progress to be made in this regard there needs to be a shift away from the perspective that a rise in property prices will provide a panacea that will impact on housing conditions across the board.  Any benefits reaped from the alleged rise in prices are likely to affect only specific geographical areas and benefit particular social classes.

The measures that would need to be taken to enable the move away from a developer-led approach to housing would need to involve changes in national policy and to the mechanisms through which local authorities are financed, coupled with a broader shift in attitudes towards property and development.  Such a shift would take time, and the discussion of its intricacies is perhaps best left for another post.

But in dealing with the issues faced by residents in Red Arches, a good start would be to implement proposals from Fingal’s Cllr Cian O’Callaghan* to impose strong limits on planning permission durations, so that when a developer starts construction on a site they have a much shorter window (possibly one year for smaller developments and two years for larger developments) to complete it.  This could be coupled with the introduction of taxes on half-built houses.  These proposals hardly seem overly excessive and would immediately improve the lives of residents living on unfinished developments.

Rather than getting carried away on a wave of euphoria about market recovery – the hyperbole around which is more substantial than the underlying upswing it purports to represent – seriously considering proposals such as these will do much more to put us on the right road to addressing Ireland’s housing crises.

Cian O’Callaghan

* Not the current author