27 Jun 2022

The spectre of ghost estates loom large across parts of West Donegal

CPOs needed as the homeless break into houses for shelter

The spectre of ghost estates loom large across parts of West Donegal

Cllr Micheál Choilm Mac Giolla Easbuig has called for action on Dungloe's ghost estate

Ghost estates where over half of all the houses are either empty or unfinished are dotted around the county and in many cases for years.

Several are at varying stages of construction and others have not started at all; further building plans had obviously been abandoned as the property bubble burst.

Independent county councillor Micheál Choilm Mac Giolla Easbuig believes it's time for radical action to tackle these issues, particularly in his native west Donegal.

The degraded environment of such estates, with their unpaved footpaths and roads, piles of builders’ rubble and holes left unfilled, is not just aesthetically unpleasant, but also represents a real danger to children and indeed anyone who either lives nearby or strays into such a development.

It is surely a major worry for parents, adding to the woe of having to make unsustainable mortgage repayments for homes that have tumbled in value.

Cllr Mac Giolla Easbuig says it's time for real action by Government and local authorities in relation to planning, housing, building control and other matters towards resolving the emergence of unfinished housing developments.

He recently visited Radharc An Seascan, a 15-house estate at Meenmore overlooking Dungloe Bay to see first-hand the scale of the problem in his own area. This estate was largely completed in 2007-8 and sold mostly to people from Northern Ireland who bought the houses as holiday homes and investments.

Now it's fondly known locally as the Titanic due to the fact it's sinking into the ground it was built on. In fact within a year of completion of the estate the entire site suffered serious subsidence because it was built on a peat bog.

The owners say the subsidence caused water pipes in the houses to break, damaged central heating and drainage/sewage systems, caused steps and ramps to detach from walls, and tarmac to sink.

Some of the owners had used the houses to holiday themselves, while others had rented them out until the subsidence problems made them uninhabitable.

The houses now attract anti-social behaviour, and illegal dumping and have also been subjected to vandalism and theft, with the heating boilers from most of the houses stolen in October 2011, the owners say.

Holes up to a metre wide have appeared on the site, posing a serious danger, particularly for children. Most of the owners, who paid between €155,000 and €190,000 for the houses are reported to believe all the houses should be knocked because they could not be economically repaired.

“The first thing we need to do is secure the buildings. People can walk in and walk through these houses and that's dangerous. I fitted curtains and window blinds in some of them when they were built. People were proud and excited to live there,” says Cllr Mac Giolla Easbuig.

He points to another estate, Clos Naomh Conaill in Glenties where conditions were threatening the safety of up to 20 families there. These are outside rather than inside the houses.

“Such estates are a scourge on the community. When you are homeless and you see the likes of this happening it angers people. Many daughters, sons or loved ones are not in a position to have their own home yet things like this are allowed to happen.”

The independent councillor believes the onus is on the authorities to act immediately and whether they do it to accommodate refugees from Ukraine, re-home the people affected by the mica scandal or refurbish houses or flats to tackle the ever-growing homeless crisis, the time for talk is long over.

“What is going to happen to this estate in Dungloe? It will never have any productive use, it's a scar on the community of Dungloe and people there are annoyed and angry. It is a blot on their landscape.”

He said to add to the town's housing crisis there were two housing associations with properties lying vacant for years in some cases and nothing appears to be happening. Negotiations were ongoing with the HSE but there's been little good news to date.

“One of the properties has up to 15 apartments empty while we have people from Dungloe homeless. It shows the system they currently operate doesn't work and you have to remember, it was taxpayers' money that built these apartments.

“One of the housing associations even wanted to knock down perfectly good apartments. We fought them and won but now they and the HSE are dragging their feet over handing these over to the council.

“Things are now so wound up in bureaucracy and red tape you could choke yet as we saw clearly during Covid, answers can be found with the stroke of a pen. What this says to me is the State needs to stop looking at this way of working and money and staff need to be put into local government for much-needed housing projects.”

He claims that although he has raised these issues at full council and municipal district levels, the housing construction section does not attend their meetings. They say more can be done in workshops but these are private meetings.

“There is no place for private meetings in a democracy when we are discussing the future of our communities. Everyone needs to hear what is and what isn't getting done. There is no doubt we do have committed staff within our housing construction section but we need to start working in a different way to get houses built. The current ways are clearly not working.”

Cllr Mac Giolla Easbuig says there are plans to build houses in Dungloe, Gaoth Dobhair, Falcarragh, Creeslough and other areas yet still no sods have been broken.

He believes the overall blame for the housing crisis lies with the Government.

“They have chosen to look to the private market to meet the housing needs and this is about looking after the interests of the wealthy,” he said.

“In a Donegal setting, it's slightly different. You don't have multinational companies coming in buying sways of property here but you do in other places."

CPOs needed as the homeless break into houses for shelter

Homeless people are breaking into ghost estates to sleep, Compulsory Purchase Orders for holiday houses should be considered and Airbnb needs to be regulated.

These are just some of the suggestions Cllr Micheál Choilm Mac Giolla Easbuig, who has admitted to being homeless himself in the past, has made to help alleviate the housing crisis in Donegal.

“I do know of ghost estates where people are breaking in at night to sleep. This is unsafe and morally wrong people have to go to these extremes but people will do what they have to do.

“As we continue to develop the holiday market, especially in west Donegal, more and more people are choosing to go Airbnb instead of long-term renting. This needs to be regulated as a matter of priority.

“We live in a socio-economically deprived community and many need the money to put their children through college and they need the money.

“You have to bear in mind we have a low wages base economy, especially in west Donegal but that being said people need to have homes to rear their children and live independently in.

“We need to look at how communities in other parts of the world organise and challenge in the interest of what is best for their towns, villages, and rural communities.”

He is also concerned about the vacancy rates in housing estates that are really second houses for people who can afford them

“A lot of them are empty for long periods of time. Maybe they can't afford the mortgage or have been repossessed. I know of holiday houses in our community where no one has come to them for years. I think the Government should take these over making use of a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). These places are not homes, they are only used once or twice a year in some cases.

“I’m not saying all holiday houses fall into this bracket. Many people inherit houses but might be living abroad and can't come home just yet. They might have been forced to leave to find work in England, Australia, or Abu Dhabi These are different from those who can come in and buy a place.

Cllr Mac Giolla Easbuig reveals he has held discussions with senior management at council level about the CPO idea.

“I would like more councillors in Donegal to become more proactive to help in dealing with the housing situation. I have experienced homelessness myself on a number of occasions in my life and I can empathise strongly with those who find themselves in the sad situation of sleeping rough, couch surfing, or not having a forever home.

“I felt anger and maybe tears when I saw that estate in Dungloe when I know there is space available for them. If it takes CPOs to help, so be it,” he says.

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