Yesterday, the planning minister, Jan O’Sullivan TD, launched the Final Report of the Advisory Group on Unfinished Housing Developments.  The headline news is that 211 estates, 1 in 10, have been ‘resolved’.   Whilst it is welcome that some progress has been made with respect to unfinished estates, it is profoundly depressing that five years after the crash started, and the unfinished estates problem emerged, that so little progress has been made and the residents of 9 out of 10 estates are still living with ongoing issues (unfinished and unsafe units, poor roads and paths, no street lights, inadequate sewage systems, vandalised structures, and so on).

As the DECLG uses it, resolution is a contextual term.  It does not mean that the all the issues on an estate have been resolved.  The fact that only 75 of the 211 resolved estates have been taken in charge indicates that there are still outstanding issues preventing the local authority from taking over the management of the estate.  What DECLG means by resolution is largely addressing health and safety issues – boarding up, fencing off, filling in, fixing up – but not undertaking construction to complete buildings and finish off estates.  With a budget of just €5m to try and deal with the problems on the 2,066 estates that have outstanding building works, this is no surprise.  The strategy here is to make secure and mothball and to wait for the market to recover to deal with the bigger construction issues.

There are site resolution plans in place for 523 estates, but the remainder await attention.  €3.2m of €5m fund has been allocated for 128 of the worst estates.  29 estates are being dealt with by NAMA, and 20 are being looked at by the Health and Safety authority.  Enforcement proceedings are being undertaken against the developers of 636 estates.  Worryingly, it has not been possible to make contact with the developers of 140 estates.  Moreover, there is an uneven geography to site resolution – DLR have resolved 45 of 61 estates; Roscommon and Sligo which both have over 230 problem estates have resolved 14 and 4 estates each.

In sum, what the report indicates is that the government approach to unfinished estates has been a low effort, voluntaristic, minimal cost approach which gives the impression of policy-at-work, but to a large degree pushes the problem down the road to be hopefully corrected at a later date by the market.  In many areas that market correction is not going to happen any time soon due to oversupply.  In the meantime, estates wither on the vine and their residents continue to live with a variety of issues.

Rob Kitchin

 

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