Last March there was an explosion at a semi-detached house on the Gleann Riada estate in Longford, seventy miles north-west of Dublin. The blast – which blew out the sitting-room window and left a hole in a ground floor wall – was caused by methane that had accumulated underneath the property. The two men who rented it were in the kitchen. In October, Ireland’s Health Service Executive said that Gleann Riada was ‘unsafe’ and called for ‘necessary and immediate remedial work’. Residents were told not to light fires and to keep their windows open.
Ireland has more than two thousand ‘ghost estates’ like Gleann Riada: rows of poorly built houses thrown up during the boom, many of them empty, in various stages of completion. Estates within commuting distance of major cities, particularly Dublin, are being completed, gradually. But development has stopped entirely on 1822 estates, most of them in rural counties like Longford. Many should never have been built in the first place.
When I was growing up in Longford the marshy fields just south of the town often flooded. The shallow pools that collected from early October were too large for cattle to graze the land. In wet winters the water would flow onto the nearby main road. Then one Christmas about ten years ago, during my university holidays, there were articulated lorries parked in the field. Next time I went back there were houses and apartments. What was once sodden farmland was now the Gleann Riada estate, with a three-bedroom semi going for more than €170,000.
Longford County Council gave planning permission for 227 housing units at Gleann Riada in 2000. Over the next five years, plans for a four-storey, 110-bedroom hotel with a leisure centre and swimming pool, industrial units, a crèche and a service station were also approved. Proposals for a drive-through restaurant and a car showroom were successful, although an application for a neighbourhood centre was turned down. Only the first stage of Gleann Riada was ever completed: around a hundred houses were built by Eassda Ireland Limited, owned by the Northern Irish property developer Alastair Jackson, who has since gone bankrupt.
A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon in Gleann Riada. One of the residents told me she was worried ‘there could be an explosion at any time.’ All her windows were open. A bank of plug-in air fresheners barely masked the smell of sewage inside the door. The ceiling was so low my head almost touched it (I’m under six foot). ‘If these things are visible to the eye, what short cuts were taken in places people can’t see,’ said John McNamara, an engineer and residents’ spokesman. Nearby, an occupied three-storey block of flats had no proper fire door.
Gleann Riada is a legacy of Ireland’s property-driven boom: between January 1996 and December 2005, 553,267 housing units were built; during the same period the number of households rose by only 346,460. Ireland does not only have an oversupply of housing; it has an oversupply of substandard and dangerous housing. Thousands of buildings have pyrite in their foundations, a naturally occurring mineral that becomes unstable when exposed to air, causing walls and floors to crack. In Dublin last year, hundreds of people had to move out of the Priory Hall apartment complex after it was judged unsafe. The developer, the former IRA hunger striker Tom McFeely, was declared bankrupt in July.
Also in July, an unoccupied block of flats at Gleann Riada was the first property controlled by the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) to be demolished. NAMA was set up in the wake of the financial collapse, inheriting €74 billion of property debt from Ireland’s moribund banking sector. Many residents would like to see the rest of Gleann Riada torn down and their (negative) equity moved to any one of a number of safe, unoccupied properties in Longford. For now, this is not an option: private individuals and bankrupt developers own most of Gleann Riada. The local authority in Longford maintains that, as it’s a private development, residents must pay for repairs to the estate. McNamara estimates the cost of the work needed at more than €4 million. The total budget of an emergency fund set up by the government to make unfinished estates across Ireland safe is €5 million.
‘The government strategy is to try and deal with the health and safety issues in the best way they can and hope for market correction,’ said Rob Kitchin, director of the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at NUI Maynooth. There is little hope of a surge in demand for houses in Longford, where unemployment is well over 20 per cent and emigration is high. A three-bedroom house on another estate in the town recently went for €32,000.