What is – and isn’t – being done about Ireland’s 180,000 vacant and derelict buildings
29th July 2021
WHEN JUDE SHERRY and Frank O’Connor first moved to Cork city in late 2018 they were surprised by the sheer number of derelict buildings in the city centre.
“We were struck by the beauty of the city but, coming from Amsterdam, we were also struck by the dereliction and decaying heritage, and the housing crisis and the homeless crisis, and I suppose those combined,” said O’Connor.
“And we felt a responsibility to do something about it.”
O’Connor and Sherry work as design consultants with their company Anois, working with different political and private organisations to develop ethical, sustainable systems and products.
The pair have a philosophy around urban living:
“We have a very simple model which is: rest, play, work. Everyone should have access to a home, access to a place to play and create, and access to meaningful work,” said O’Connor.
As soon as they arrived in Cork, they took it upon themselves to start looking at dereliction in the city and what could be done about it.
In their free time they set out on what Frank called “an immersive piece of research”, walking and mapping the city centre area and all the derelict buildings they found.
In June of last year, O’Connor started an ongoing Twitter thread, highlighting a different derelict building in Cork every day. According to O’Connor, the thread contains the details of 400+ derelict buildings in Cork city centre alone.
Following this, Sherry completed a report – This is Derelict Ireland – which Anois published in March of this year, looking into the causes of dereliction and putting forward possible solutions.
The report addresses what it calls the ten deadly myths of dereliction – common assumptions around planning, taxing and other factors related to derelict or vacant housing.
They say the purpose of their work – done completely voluntarily – is to “shine a light” on the issue of dereliction in Ireland, challenge it, and then come up with workable solutions.
The issue with vacant and derelict sites
Empty, boarded-up buildings and overgrown lots are a feature of every city and many towns across Ireland.
Derelict buildings, along with vacant properties and sites (that are empty, but not necessarily run down or in need of repair), contribute significantly to Ireland’s housing crisis.
According to the 2016 Census, there were 183,000 vacant dwellings in the country on the night of the Census (not including holiday homes). More recently, the GeoView directory Q4 2020 report (which lists addresses in the state using data from An Post) found 92,251 vacant addresses in Ireland, representing 4.6% of building stock.
The difference in numbers can be understood through different approaches and methodologies used, with the Census capturing vacant homes once every five years on a single night (including short-term and long-term vacancy), and the GeoView report providing more real-time, regular data, providing a more up to date figure.
Successive governments have attempted to tackle the issue of vacant and derelict properties. A key pillar of Rebuilding Ireland, the then-government’s 2016 Housing Action Plan, was bringing homes back into use.
A National Vacant Housing Reuse Strategy was published in 2018, which included objectives around having consistent data on vacancies and bringing forward workable measures to tackle the issue.
“One of the strands of Rebuilding Ireland five years ago was that vacant properties would be used for housing, but that hasn’t really been pushed or advanced,” said Orla Hegarty, assistant professor of Architecture at UCD.
“Which is a shame because we have a huge untapped reserve of property there that could be housing, and it could be done more quickly than new builds and it’s more sustainable because it’s already in urban areas and it already has infrastructure.”
The problem is not only with abandoned or derelict housing stock. A recent report from The Journal found that three of the country’s main banks have around 600 vacant properties on their books.
As well as vacant or derelict housing, successive governments have attempted to get to grips with the issue of vacant sites across the country. These are sites that would be suitable to build housing on, but for various reasons remain undeveloped.
To tackle this issue, the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act (2015) introduced the vacant site levy. Since 2017 local authorities have had to keep a register of vacant sites in their area, and since 2018 they were to charge 3% of the value of the site, rising to 7% in 2019, payable in 2020.
The purpose of the levy was to discourage companies or individuals from hoarding land. However the levy has been beset by difficulties since its introduction. A report last year from the Oireachtas Parliamentary Budget Committee found that less than a third of the money owed to councils was paid in 2019.
According to the report, local councils identified persistent difficulties with the levy, including confusion over what constitutes a “vacant site”, administration difficulties and staff shortages. The report found eight local authorities had no active register of vacant sites at the end of 2019.
More recently, a report from the Business Post found less than 1% of funds owed in 2020 from the levy were paid to local councils.
“It just hasn’t been collected. The legislation is there but it’s not being enforced,” said Hegarty.
“That’s frequently what happens when something is legislated for, but it’s not enforced or they don’t give the resources to the local authority to enforce it.”
Over the years, various solutions have been put forward to tackle the issue of vacancy and dereliction and to bring homes back into use.
Under Rebuilding Ireland, targets were set around buy and renew schemes (where local authorities buy and refurbish existing housing stock), repair and lease schemes for private landlords, and a €70 million Housing Agency fund to buy vacant housing.
However, recent figures show that most of these schemes have failed significantly to meet their delivery targets. In particular the repair and lease scheme fell far short of its targets, delivering just 247 units out of a target of 3,500 by April of this year.
In recent weeks, suggestions of a vacant property tax have been put forward, which would charge the owners of accommodation that has been left idle. However, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe recently ruled out the tax being announced in the next Budget until more accurate data on vacancies is available.
“One of the issues that we have had… is that we have not had an accurate enough data set to understand genuinely what is the quantity of property that is completely unused,” Donohoe told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland earlier this month.
However, he said such a tax could inform future policy choices.
In relation to the Vacant Site Levy, a Housing Department spokesperson said that the department had received and was now assessing recent figures for the actual collection of the levy from local authorities across the country.
The spokesperson said the department was focusing on improving enforcement around the levy, and would undertake a review later this year and bring forward amendments.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien said that he “has made it clear that in the midst of a housing crisis he does not want to see any homes lying vacant whether they are luxury apartments or void social housing stock”.
“To that end, measures to address vacancy and to improve usage of existing stock will be announced as part of the new Housing for All plan to be announced in July.”
Recently, plans were put forward for 3,000 vacant local authority homes to be refurbished and re-let across the country, at a total cost to the Housing Department of €44.7 million.
Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin has called for more action on vacant properties and sites. Increasing the use of Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) for long-term vacant and derelict buildings and supplying each local authority with a dedicated vacant homes officer are some of the possible improvements put forward.
Assessing the true problem
For Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry in Cork, local authorities need to be better resourced and also supported more in collecting the vacant site levy, or in implementing charges against derelict buildings.
The funds they collect can then be directed back to councils to help them properly identify derelict and vacant properties in their areas and come up with workable, sustainable solutions for bringing them back into use.
“What we would like to see on a national level is a change in the regulations for Revenue to collect the levy. Then you’d see a much bigger increase in the collection of it,” said Sherry.
“And then that money could go back into the council and would make a huge difference.”
But first, they say the simplest and most important thing the council can do is to map the extent of the problem by putting every derelict building on the register.
“The first thing is to complete the registry with all the derelict properties. Map all the dereliction and put it on the registry,” said Sherry.
A Cork City Council spokesperson said that it worked with owners to assist in the redevelopment of derelict sites. This included informal negotiations and using provisions set out in the Derelict Sites Act (1990). The spokesperson said the council offered a number of grants to allow for the improvement and regeneration of buildings.
Recently, the council advanced Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on four buildings on North Main Street and two buildings on Barrack Street under the powers of the Derelict Sites Act.
“It is our attention to expand on this programme, subject to a site business case appraisals and appropriate development briefs,” they said.
The spokesperson also mentioned a number of redevelopment and construction schemes completed and ongoing in different parts of the city, which will collectively deliver over 300 homes when finished.
Reframing the issue
Understanding the extent of the problem, and properly assessing vacant properties, are also some of the main recommendations put forward in a recent report by Dr Kathleen Stokes and Dr Cian O’Callaghan of TCD’s Department of Geography.
The report – Taking Stock of Dublin’s Vacant Sites and Properties – is part of the Rethinking Urban Vacancy project and seeks to offer a deeper understanding of how vacancy is politically understood and responded to in the capital and in Ireland generally.
Its purpose is to work towards a more nuanced understanding of vacancy in Dublin, moving away from the binary choice of vacancy being bad in and of itself and seeing it instead as part of any urban environment.
With this understanding in place, effective responses could target the most pressing vacant or derelict properties and provide better results than are currently managed.
“There should be a move towards thinking about smarter ways to capture vacancy data, to think about what kinds of vacancy data are useful to capture and why and what we are going to do with those,” said O’Callaghan.
The report highlights how much of the figures around vacancy (like the CSO or GeoView numbers given above) can be unreliable for understanding the true scale of the problem, and that a more accurate picture is needed.
“We also have to think about: what are we wanting to see for the future of the city and how does that relate to the question of vacancy as well,” said Stokes.
“Hopefully this is an opportunity. In looking at what sites and spaces are vacant or derelict we can also be thinking about how the future of the city could be reshaped or formed through better use of those spaces.”
For O’Connor and Sherry, their work charting Cork’s dereliction is inspired by a belief that the city can be a much better place to live and work if the dereliction is tackled head on.
“Coming back to Ireland and seeing the amount of homelessness and people struggling with the housing crisis was a real shock to us.” said O’Connor.
This, coupled with hundreds of derelict buildings and Cork’s built heritage and architecture crumbling, just “didn’t make sense” to them.
“That’s the bit for us that we’ve struggled with here: how does this make sense?” said O’Connor.
“It cannot make sense for the economy and it cannot make sense for the people who live here.”
This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.