As the general election looms into view, the political and economic discourse is increasingly framed by a post crash narrative of economic recovery and political stability. Budget 2015 was dubbed an ‘election’ giveaway because the government engaged in a modest redistribution of some of the fruits of the emerging economic recovery. Ministers Noonan and Howlin both engaged in a fit of hubris to trumpet the recovery. They argued that the budget was beginning the process of repaying people for their sacrifices endured during six years of austere budgets. While listening to the budget speeches one was reminded of the opening soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III:

‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried’ (Richard III, Act 1 Scene 1)

While the ‘winter’ may indeed be behind us, stark reminders of its dark legacy have a rather inconvenient way of making themselves visible. And so it was that amidst the debate and discussions that preceded and followed the budget, problems with fire safety in a residential building emerged. This time it was in Longboat Quay, an apartment complex in Dublin’s Docklands – once more a grim reminder of the unresolved inadequacy of the regulatory system in the construction industry during the boom.

Longboat Quay on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay Dublin

Longboat Quay on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay Dublin

The 600 residents occupying 299 apartments located in Longboat Quay face a repair bill of €18,000 each, the overall repairs are estimated at €4.75 million. This development was built in 2006 by Bernard McNamara, who like so many of his developer colleagues massively over extended their portfolios. When the crash inevitably arrived he sought refuge in the UKs bankruptcy process. Consequently when it comes to fronting up for the repair work in Longboat Quay, McNamara will not be put upon, despite the fact that the apartment complex was built to a shoddy standard. A number of critical features were lacking: walls were not built with proper fire stops, important smoke vents were not installed resulting in a highly dangerous disregard for fire safety. These regulatory failures could have resulted in a tragedy of multiple fatalities given the numbers of people residing there.

Priory Hall undergoing refurbishment

Priory Hall undergoing refurbishment

The issues in Longboat Quay have emerged just as another icon of regulatory failure, Priory Hall, is nearing the completion of the first phase of its refurbishment and is apparently being readied for market (although from a recent visit to the site it would seem that the development is far from finished). Priory Hall in North East Dublin is in many ways a monument to the years of property driven excess in Ireland. Built in 2007 by developer Tim Mc Feeley, it contains 189 apartment units and was home to 249 residents. However, on November 17 2011, the residents were evacuated when concerns emerged about fire safety of the building.

This evacuation sparked a controversial saga that spanned the next two years, a period that saw the re-housing of the residents, the developer going bust, and the tragedy of one resident committing suicide due to the pressures of the situation. McFeeley, like McNamara, fled to the UK to declare bankruptcy. He was initially successful but it was later rescinded as court proceedings were taken against him in Ireland. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the High Court in Ireland. Finally due to the sustained and determined campaign by the residents of Priory Hall for justice a deal was reached whereby the owner occupiers had their mortgages written off and owners of buy-to-let properties were given a moratorium on their mortgage payments. The overall cost of refurbishment is estimated at €27 million, borne by Dublin City Council – although the owner occupier apartments will be sold to recoup some of the cost to the council. This is a tale symptomatic of the crash, whereby the state is required to step in for the failures of the private market.

The hopes and aspirations of most of the former Priory Hall residents now lie elsewhere. The Priory Hall development is slowly being re-launched. Interestingly the name ‘Priory Hall’ is notably absent from advertising hoarding surrounding the redevelopment works and now the name, and its sordid story, seems consigned to history.

Priory Hall residents protest outside Dáil Éireann

Longboat Quay, Priory Hall and other developments such as Riverwalk in Ratoath, County Meath that have come to light thus far, pose the question: are these simply isolated or coincidental examples? The geographic spread and the different developers involved would suggest that coincidence is an unlikely explanation. The other common factor they share is that they were all built in 2006-2007, the final furlongs of what had been a marathon of building frenzy in Irish property development.

The reality is that these developments illustrate a more generalised problem with the certification of building regulations that was particularly exposed in the building frenzy of the Celtic Tiger. It also reveals both the failure of the state’s enforcement powers but particularly the unwillingness of the state to monitor and control private development in any meaningful way.

The foundations of these regulatory failures were laid in 1990 when the building control regulations were relaxed by the then Fianna Fail Minister for the Environment, Padraig Flynn. This represented an attempt to remove obstacles that would be seen as a disincentive to the construction industry. It also reflected broader changes aimed at enticing and encouraging private finance into urban development, such as the introduction of the Urban Renewal Act in 1986 and the Finance Act in 1987, which used tax incentives and financial inducements to encourage the private sector. In a further illustration of this new founded entrepreneurial ethos by policy makers this period also heralded the establishment of the IFSC and its new low corporate tax structure.

The easing of building regulations represented a system of light-touch regulation aimed at speeding up and facilitating construction projects. However, it was a move that has proven to be a disaster for many people in the ensuing property frenzy. Annual housing construction output increased rapidly in the boom, reaching a phenomenal 93,419 housing units in 2006. Local authorities are responsible for the monitoring and enforcement of the building regulations. They simply did not have the staff to effectively monitor this scale of construction nor were they provided with the financial resources to recruit more personnel. Hence there was little independent oversight of building standards, meaning in effect a system of self certification existed whereby an employee of the developer could sign the certificate of compliance. The consequences of this model is plain to see in Priory Hall and Longboat Quay.

There has been no national audit of the quality of the residential construction undertaken during the Celtic Tiger, so given the short cuts and shoddy practices that have emerged thus far, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many more properties could be at risk. In 2014 the regulatory situation was tightened under the Code of Practice for Inspecting and Certifying Buildings and Works. The technical documentation that accompanies developments on commencement and completion must now identify a person in the design team as an ‘assigned certifier’. This individual must be an architect, an engineer or a surveyor who is named and can be held responsible if issues arise at some future point. Clearly this is welcome but it is not without its problems. Firstly, there is no obligation for the assigned certifier to be independent of the developer or the project and secondly, concerns have been raised that the indemnity falls on the shoulders of the ‘assigned certifier’ who in reality is signing off on a project on behalf of the builder – meaning that they can be the ‘fall guy’ between the builder and the consumer.

These changes don’t mean that a new Priory Hall couldn’t re-occur. In many respects they are attempts to deal with a situation if and when a problem arises. There needs to be more emphasis on prevention under the guidance of some form of Building Control Agency which would maintain independent oversight. Responsibility is critical but someone being held responsible after a person or people have died is, while worthy, scant consolation to people potentially left behind, as is all too graphically illustrated in the recent tragedy in Carrickmines.

Michael Murphy

Michael Murphy is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at Maynooth University.

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.

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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

The recent An Taisce submission to Dublin City Council mentioned on this site in the last few days makes for very interesting viewing. It is a fascinating and detailed insight into the lack of planning enforcement in parts of Dublin city centre in recent years. While agreeing that planning enforcement and architectural conservation are both extremely pertinent issues, I feel the submission raises important questions about exactly what is, or should be, enforced in the first place. Although An Taisce  emphasise  shopfronts and signage, they also take issue with the amount of fast-food, convenience stores,  and discount shops, which are collectively referred to as ‘lower-order’ shops, within the streets that are surveyed (Westmoreland St., Dame St., Parliament St., and the South Quays between Westmoreland St. and Parliament St.).

Throughout the document, An Taisce focus on the connections between poor signage, planning enforcement, and quality of land-use. A key factor which they highlight is how many of the offending businesses are fast-food or convenience stores. They also try to push the link further. For example, in the first part of the document, they state that The lack of enforcement and active management of streets is a contributing factor in the ongoing loss of independent shops and businesses with ‘personality’ – as exampled by the recent closures of the Gruel and Mermaid Cafe restaurants on Dame Street.” Unfortunately, why this is the case is not expanded upon. Perhaps, when looked at on a broad level the so-called lower-order shops are better able to pay higher rents, thus placing pressure on the independent businesses? However, the exact nature of the connections between land-use, vacancy, and enforcement is something that I would argue needs far greater amounts of scrutiny.

Moving beyond issues related to enforcement and signage, the submission raises  some pertinent questions about what are deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable forms of land-use in Dublin city centre (here I am referring to the broad approach to planning in Dublin). Following from the work of Brian J.L Berry, the definition of lower-order and higher-order goods (and shops) used within Scheme’s of Special Planning Control by Dublin City council is as follows: “Lower order goods are those goods, which consumers need frequently and therefore are willing to travel only short distances for them. Higher order goods are needed less frequently so consumers are willing to travel further for them. These longer trips are usually undertaken for not only purchasing purposes but other activities as well.” In practice, lower-order shops have come to mean the likes of fast-food stores, convenience shops and discount stores, or anything else deemed undesirable in the city centre retail environment. The reasons for their domination in particular areas is often  linked to a combination of market forces and a lack of planning enforcement. The reasons often cited for why the concentration of such uses is deemed undesirable in the first place is that they are perceived to be connected to the economic decline of the city centre, due, in part, to their appearance (health issues, particularly in relation to  fast-food, might also be a fair argument, but do not seem to  ever have been raised as a factor. It would also prove a particularly difficult issue to address). Again the causal relationship here needs more detailed scrutiny, and surely proper enforcement of acceptable signage would serve to address questions of appearance.

Following from the above, and for the purposes of clarity, the issue might be divided into two overlapping, yet connected, sub-issues. On the one hand, there is the location of more permanent uses, such as fast-food and convenience stores. On the other hand, there are the temporary uses – often discount stores – which tend to operate within recently vacated stores (and often for prolonged periods). Focusing on the former, there seems to be a need to question the actually existing relationships between different land-uses within the city centre. To speculate on this, is there not a connection between fast-food and pubs/bars in a city which, since the early 1990s, has been re-orientated towards the night-time economy? In short, a starting point might be to address why these so-called lower-order functions seem to locate on the main thoroughfares in the city centre. It does not seem enough to conclude that their mere presence is a cause of economic decline. Leading on from this, and to comment briefly on the second sub-issue raised above, another important question might be orientated towards the dominance of temporary stores in recently vacated premises; ie, what are the predominant factors in these premises becoming vacant in the first place? This would include, but expand on, the issue of rents. Moreover, how can those proprietors responsible for the uses which are now there be enticed to take a more active interest in their shop-front and surrounding street.

I am not trying to state that certain parts of the city are inherently suited or given over to particular forms of land-use. Nor am I in favour of a laissezfaire approach. I do feel that there is a need to question with a great level of detail why certain types of retail or related functions are drawn to particular parts of the city,  why exactly their presence is perceived as negative, and what impact their removal might have on the city centre.

Philip Lawton