New paper: Post-politics, crisis, and Ireland’s ‘ghost estates’ by Cian O’Callaghan, Mark Boyle, and Rob Kitchin published in Political Geography. The paper is available here (open access until 27 September 2014).

Abstract: This paper argues that the global economic recession provides an instructive point to reconsider recent theorisations of post-politics for two reasons. First, theories of the post-political can help us to understand the current neoliberal impasse, and second, current transformations provide us with an empirical basis to test the limits of these explanatory frameworks. While the resurgence of neoliberal policies, evidenced through the state-sponsored rescue of the financial sector and the introduction of harsh austerity measures in many countries, appear to confirm post-politics, various protest movements have testified to a concurrent re-politicisation of the economy. Furthermore, crises constitute periods of disruption to the discursive and symbolic order, which open a space for hegemonic struggle, however fleeting. We focus our analysis on Ireland’s ‘ghost estates’ – residential developments left abandoned or unfinished after the property crash – and their treatment within mainstream print media. We argue that in the context of crash, the ‘ghost estate’ functioned as an ‘empty signifier’ through which hegemonic struggles over how to narrate, and thus re-inscribe, the event of the crisis were staged. We explore the double role played by ‘ghost estates’: firstly, as an opening for politics, and secondly, as a vehicle used to discursively contain the crisis through a neoliberal narrative of ‘excess’. We argue that our analysis offers an instructive example of how post-politicisation occurs as a process that is always contingent, contextual, and partial, and reliant on the cooption and coproduction of existing cultural signifiers with emergent narrations of crisis.


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

For the last couple of months there have been a number of media pieces suggesting that the Irish housing market is turning and house prices are starting to stablise more broadly and rise in parts of Dublin.  It certainly seems from government data and industry and buyers that for some types of property (family homes), in some select places (desirable parts of Dublin) house prices have levelled off and are growing marginally.  The proffered wisdom from these observations is that house building needs to start again.

There are two points to note, however.  First, any stabilisation and recovery in the market is highly segmented by type and geography.  Apartments are still in the doldrums, as is just about everywhere outside the M50.  Secondly, and more importantly, concentrating on house price rises and the shortage of family homes in South Dublin deflects attention away from the much more serious set of housing crises in Ireland.  They include:

Oversupply: The 2011 Census shows that there are 289,451 vacant units in the state, with an oversupply of c.110,000 (plus 17,032 under-construction units on unfinished estates) on a base vacancy of 6% and excluding holiday homes.  This oversupply has been very little eroded over the past two years.

Unfinished estates: In 2012 there were 1,770 estates that still required development work, with 1,100 of these estates in a ‘seriously problematic condition’ and only 250 estates (8.5%) active.  These estates suffer from a number of social issues.

Mortgage arrears: At the end of Q1 2013, the Central Bank reported there were 95,554 (12.3 per cent) private residential mortgage accounts were in arrears of over 90 days and 29,369 (19.7 per cent) of buy-to-let mortgages were in a similar position.

Negative equity: In 2012, Davy Stockbrokers estimated that over 50% of residential mortgage accounts were in negative equity.

Social housing shortage: the Dept of Environment reports that 98,318 people on the social housing waiting list in 2011 (65,643 of whom can’t afford the accommodation they are in).

An over-reliance on unaffordable private rental stock: In November 2011, the Department of Social Protection reported that 96,100 households were receiving rent supplement.  Much of the rental stock is sub-par in standards.

Stalled regeneration: Regeneration projects have largely halted leaving hundreds of families living in substandard and unhealthy accommodation whilst they wait for projects to restart.

Pyrite-infected homes: The government recognises that there are 74 estates, consisting of 12,250 units, whose foundation hardcore is contaminated with pyrite, though it seems clear that there are other infected estates.

Build quality: There are a number of estates affected by build quality issues, the highest profile of which has been Priory Hall.

These are all serious issues which are largely being ignored by the government and media beyond acknowleding occassionally that the issues exist.

Housing policy and the market in Ireland is largely broken.  New housing in South Dublin is not going to fix it and rising house prices is not evidence that things are getting better.

I’m not saying that there should be no new housing in South Dublin.  If there is sure-fire demand, then fine, the market and investment capital can supply.  Nobody is stopping anybody from developing such housing, certainly not the government.

Government investment, however, needs to targeted at sorting out the issues above, much of which has the potential at creating construction work and economic growth, whilst addressing serious social need.

What would be really nice to see is a comprehensive, integrated housing policy that puts together a five to ten year action plan that recognizes that all these issues are interrelated and need to be tackled in concert rather than in a piecemeal, ad hoc fashion.  Now why can’t the media and property professionals focus on persistently arguing for the need for that?  A cynic might think that it’s not property supplement friendly.

Rob Kitchin

We have come across some very detailed maps that identify precisely which 421 unfinished estates (or part of), and each of the 5,100 properties on them, are exempt from the local property tax.  An example of what the maps look like is below.  The red boundary denotes the exemption area, with any units inside exempt from the tax.

exemption map

The maps are organised into local authority files.  In the list below, the local authorities without a link do not have any exempt unfinished estates.

Carlow, Cavan, Clare, Cork City, Cork County, Donegal, D/L Rathdown, Dublin City, Fingal, Galway City, Galway County, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Leitrim, Limerick City, Limerick County, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, North Tipperary, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo, South Dublin, South Tipperary, Waterford City, Waterford County, Westmeath, Wexford, Wicklow


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.

Cian O’Callaghan

Yesterday Minister Phil Hogan announced the unfinished estates that will be exempt from the local property tax (LPT).  In total, 421 developments consisting of 5,100 households will be exempt (the full list can be found here).  This is significantly different to the number of estates (1,322) and households (43,000) that were exempt from the household charge.  Hogan argues that over the past year “The number of properties eligible for a waiver reflects the progress made in tackling unfinished housing developments, as well as the more objective approach to categorisation applied to the 2012 National Housing Development Survey.”

The press release gives no specific information on how the 421 estates were chosen, but we know from the property tax legislation and answers by Michael Noonan in the Dail on 3rd February that:

“Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government must satisfy himself or herself that the development in question is incomplete to a substantial extent. Examples of the criteria that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government should take into account in such a determination include the state of completion of roads, footpaths, lighting facilities, water and sewerage facilities within the development as well as compliance with the terms of any planning permission applicable to the development and the extent to which roads, open spaces, car parks, sewers, water mains, drains or other public facilities in the development have been taken in charge by the local authority concerned. These criteria are set out in section 10 of the Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012.”

In other words, the 421 estates are those that the Minister deems to have major outstanding development work.** [I’ve spoken to someone in the Department of Environment and have more info on how the estates/parts of estates were selected – see Addendum below]

So, the questions is: Has there been significant progress on unfinished estates that would mean that 901 estates and 38,000 households that were exempt from the household charge are no longer exempt?

Just four months ago in November 2012 the Department of Environment published a report on unfinished estates that stated: “1100 of these or parts thereof are in a seriously problematic condition.” ** [again, see addendum below]  Of the 1,770 unfinished estates (statistically adjusted down from 2,876 by changing their definition) only 252 (8.5%) are active.  There are 16,881 units are vacant and 17,032 units are under-construction.

Site Resolution Plans, funded by a €5m fund, basically tidy-up estates and try to make them safe and secure.  It is not used to do major development work such finishing roads, paths, lighting, sewage, water, etc.

It is therefore difficult to believe that there has been such major development work on unfinished estates over the past year that would move them out of the ‘seriously problematic condition’.

My sense then is the Minister Hogan is going to get a number of challenges from residents who were previously exempt, who may well have paid large stamp duty payments for the privelege of living on an unfinished development, who would like greater clarity as to how the 421 estates were chosen and why their estate is no longer exempt.  It will also be interesting to see how many units affected with pyrite he makes exempt.  Based on what has happened with unfinished estates I suspect there will be a similar attempt to minimize those that qualify.


For the household charge exemptions were given to all residents in category 3 and 4 estates regardless of the condition of the house and environs and the services they received.  For the local property tax an assessment was made of all units as to whether they have decent roads, lighting infrastructure, paving, sewage and water, and access to the usual services supplied by the local authority.  If a unit has those services and facilities then they have been deemed liable for the property tax in the same way as all other households have been.  The 901 estates and parts of estates that have dropped off the list either have all those services/facilities or they are fenced-off building sites in which no-one lives (thus seriously problematical, but unoccupied), so no-one is therefore liable.  The 421 remaining estates are those where residents do experience problems with services and facilities.

Rob Kitchin

Yesterday the Irish Times published a short piece of commentary written by me to accompany a map of housing vacancy and unfinished estates, as part of the AIRO Pictures of Ireland series.  I’d originally submitted a slightly longer piece, which got cut by fifty percent due to space considerations.  Here is the full text to accompany the map.

As early as 2006, David McWilliams had coined the term ‘ghost estates’ for the dozens of unfinished developments visible on any trip across Ireland.  As the crisis deepened, unfinished estates became a symbolic and tangible marker of the excesses and follies of the property bubble.  In every village and town in the country were half-built houses and apartments, where the developer had ceased work or where units were unoccupied.

In short, too many housing units had been built for demand, the problem compounded by development finance evaporating.

The families who had bought and moved into what became unfinished estates were left trapped on them, facing a number of related problems.  These included living on or next to building sites and their associated health and safety issues, a lack of services and infrastructure, negative equity, anti-social behaviour, and a diminished sense of place and community.

Move forward to 2013 and very little has changed.  Unfinished estates still litter the Irish landscape, the people living on them face many of the same problems they did in 2006, and there is still a large oversupply of residential property in many areas of the country.

To date, the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG) has undertaken three National Housing Surveys to monitor unfinished developments.  In the first survey, conducted in 2010, the number of unfinished estates were reported as 2,846, rising to 2,876 in 2011.  They were present in large numbers in every county in the country, but were particularly prevalent in the Upper Shannon area of Cavan, Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo, the result of the tax-incentivised development.

In 2012, the DECLG reported that the number of unfinished estates had fallen to 1,770.  Unfortunately, the fall in numbers is principally because the definition of what constitutes an unfinished estate was changed.  The definition used in 2010 and 2011 refers to estates that have issues of vacancy and oversupply as well as outstanding development work.  In 2012 the definition refers only to the latter.

The map shows the distribution of the 1,770 estates with outstanding development work (black dots; see below).  The shading is the level of residential vacancy as reported in the 2011 Census, where dark red is over 25 percent vacancy.

In total, the Census revealed that there were 289,451 vacant properties (14.5% of total stock) in April 2011.  Of these 59,395 were classed as holiday homes.  In any ordinary housing market, approximately six percent of properties would be expected to be vacant (120,000 in the Irish case), meaning that oversupply is about 110,000.  There are also 17,032 units still under-construction according to the DECLG 2012 survey, excluding one-off sites.

To try and tackle the issues facing unfinished estates, the government set up two schemes.  The first, the social housing leasing initiative has sought to make some properties available for social housing.  The second, site resolution plans, are designed to tackle health and safety issues arising from incomplete or poor construction, with a fund of €5m administered by DECLG.  The former has had little take up and the latter has had little effect beyond fencing off dangerous areas and filling in potholes.

Most worryingly, the DECLG acknowledges that 1,100 of the estates are in a ‘seriously problematic condition’, yet only 250 estates (8.5% of 1,770) are active; that is, the developer is on site and undertaking construction.  That means that 1,520 of the estates that require development work have been abandoned to their fate.

Given that their developers have gone bust they are not likely to move towards completion in the short to mid-term.  In other words, several years after the crisis started, families are still living on developments that are substandard, with huge negative equity that locks them in.

In November, the Housing and Planning Minister, Jan O’Sullivan, announced that decisions would be taken in early 2013 to establish which estates are commercially unviable and need to have parts of them demolished.  Regardless of whether this happens or not, the unfinished estates issue does not seem set to be resolved for a number of years to come.

Unfinished estates and residential vacancy in Ireland

Unfinished estates and residential vacancy in Ireland

Rob Kitchin

Following on from yesterday’s post regarding the 2012 National Housing Development Survey concerning unfinished estates we took a further look at the data and have produced an interactive data visualization of the comparing counties spreadsheet.  This spreadsheet concerns the 2,973 estates surveyed, not the 1,770 estates that the DECLG say now constitute unfinished estates.  Because we don’t have data that relates specifically to these 1,770 estates we can’t disentangle them from the 2,973 surveyed. With respect to the types of property, the data refers to all units started and planned for, rather than simply started.  We have tried to tidy up the infrastructure data so that it relates to units actually started as opposed to those started and planned.  We have also set out the rates of occupancy, vacancy and construction per county, and the extent to which planning permissions have expired.

unf est data viz

Eoghan McCarthy and Rob Kitchin

Yesterday Minister Jan O’Sullivan published the 2012 National Housing Development Survey.  The headline story from this is that the number of estates categorised as unfinished has fallen from 2,876 in 2011 to 1,770 in 2012, and that decisions will be taken in the new year on which estates are commercially unviable and need to have parts of them demolished (especially in the midlands and border region).

Along with the report, the Department of Environment also published the data they used in the report in three separate files comparing counties, profiling individual counties, and profiling individual estates.

So, have the number of unfinished estates fallen by 1,106 and is the problem of unfinished estates receding?

Technically, yes.  But this is where I link to the title of this post.  The drop is principally because the DECLG have changed the definition of an unfinished estate.  The definition used in 2010 and 2011 refers to estates that have issues of vacancy and oversupply as well as outstanding development works.  In 2012 the definition refers only to estates where there is outstanding development work.  At one level, this change makes sense.  The 1,770 estates that need development work are the most problematic.  At the same time, the issue of vacancy and oversupply has not gone away, affect the overall market, and have consequence re. anti-social behaviour, sense of place and community, etc.  Indeed, on the old definition the number of estates surveyed rose in 2012 to 2,973.

This is not the only bit of being creative with the numbers.  Oddly, the figures both work for and against the government.

For the government

Overall occupancy: the overall level of occupancy in unfinished is reported as 91,692 – this is occupancy across the 2,973 estates surveyed not the 1,770 we’re told now constitute unfinished estates.  It is useful to have the data for the 2,973 estates but it also needs to be reported specifically for the 1,770.

Complete and vacant units: the overall level of vacancy is reported as 16,881, down from 18,638 in 2011 – again this is refers to the 2,973 estates surveyed.

Vacancy per county: the report provides a table and map of vacancy per 1,000 households for each county.  This actually refers to vacancy in unfinished estates, not overall residential vacancy in a county.  Making sense of vacancy in unfinished estates needs to be contextualised with respect to overall vacancy and oversupply, not simply the number of households.  The housing market is not simply unfinished estates and the data as presented is misleading.

Against the government

Services: In the comparing counties data file the reported figures for services are all shockingly bad.  Across the 2,973 estates (again there is no specific data for the 1,770) 57% of units have incomplete roads, 40.1% have incomplete paths, 42.5% have no lighting, 41.1% have no potable (drinking) water, 39.3% have no storm water drainage, 41.3% have no water waste (sewage), with 91,693 families living on these estates.  Actually these figures are grossly overstated because of how they are calculated and the numbers are much less.  They have been calculated against all housing units that had original planning permission, not those that were started.  There are two problems here.  First, planning permission has expired for 24,864 units, second why calculate for units that don’t exist?  The fact that 60,055 phantom houses don’t have potable water, and these are included in the rate of units that don’t have potable water, doesn’t make any sense.  The rates are actually much smaller, though nonetheless are a significant problem on many estates.

What are my headline stories from the report?

I have two main observations from the report.  The first is that 1,100 of the estates are in a ‘seriously problematic condition‘.  Families in these estates are living on building sites.  Second is that only 250 estates (8.5% of 1,770) are active – that is, the developer is on site and is undertaking works.  In 2010 it was 429, in 2011 it was 244.  That means that 1,520 of the estates that require development work are not in receipt of it and given that developers have gone bust they are not likely to receive it in the short to mid-term. The number of underconstruction units in 2011 was 17,872 and in 2012 it was 17,032.  All but 38 of the reduction is ‘nearly complete’ units being fitted out.  Anything half-built is staying half-built.  In the vast majority of cases then, unfinished estates are being left to wither on the vine, the great majority of which are in a ‘seriously problematic condition’.

To be fair to Minister O’Sullivan she fully recognizes these issues.  On the other hand, the actions of the government are painfully slow, some would say pathetic.  As we’ve argued before, the policy of Site Resolution Plans (SRPs) is a minimal cost, minimal effort approach to unfinished estates that give the impression of policy-at-work, but is really a sticking plaster that tries to stop a problem getting worse before the ‘surgeon’ in the form of the market re-appears to fix things.  In the present and foreseeable property market that ‘surgeon’ is not going to appear any time soon.  In the meantime, families are left living on developments that are substandard with huge negative equity that locks them in.

Five years after the property crash started to plummet its time unfinished estates problem was tackled properly, rather than simply messing about with the numbers.  That’s not to say the numbers are not important – we need to know what is going on (preferably with non-creative and meaningless data) – but what we really need is action for the families living on these estates.

Rob Kitchin

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