Thursday, 15 April 2010

Nama setting up committee on 'ghost' estates, says Minister

NAMA IS establishing a committee, consisting of professional planners and architects, to examine what should be done with “ghost” housing estates, Minister of State for Planning Ciarán Cuffe will tell planners today.

It is understood from other sources that the committee will be chaired by former Fingal county manager Willie Soffe and that its membership will include Michael Wall, an architect, planner, barrister and former member of An Bord Pleanála.

In his first major speech since taking office, Mr Cuffe will tell the Irish Planning Institute’s annual conference in Tullamore, Co Offaly, that a new group has been set up in the Department of the Environment to advise on uncompleted estates.

“The work of the team will include assessment of the situation across the country, to be completed by the end of the summer. It will categorise, on a city and county basis: the overall numbers of housing developments, completed and occupied developments, units ready for sale, units near completion, units at specific earlier stages of construction, and units not started at all.

“The group will also develop a practical manual by the end of the summer to be used in resolving sites and in ensuring that every local authority in the State has a proper strategy to deal with any uncompleted housing development in their area”, Mr Cuffe will say.

In the short term, the priority would be to “ensure that the owners of sites, be they developers or financial institutions, honour their obligations on making sites safe and secure and we will work with local authorities to ensure this is the immediate priority for their attention.”

In “some extreme cases”, the Minister of State will tell planners attending the conference that for safety and other reasons, developers and or owners of sites “may have to be compelled to demolish partly completed but unstable or deteriorating developments. But bulldozers won’t be the only solution. These estates will have to be transformed into viable, sustainable communities, and we must ensure that qualified planners and architects are centrally involved in that. It will provide much-needed work for these professionals and also ensure that the mistakes of the past are addressed.”

Mr Cuffe will say he sees Nama as having a key role in this process as the toxic debts agency will be assuming the loans associated with many of these uncompleted developments, and that expert planners and architects “must be involved at the outset”.

Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore said he did not favour bulldozing unfinished properties, as has been suggested by the chief executive of Nama, Brendan McDonagh.

“I think we should try now to find a use for buildings that were put up and which nobody is in. We have a need in this country, for example, for sheltered housing for older people. The Labour Party has long argued, for example, that some of our emigrants, particularly people who emigrated to Britain in the 50s and 60s and who are living in lonely conditions . . . they might like to take the opportunity of coming back home. I think we should try to find some use for the empty estates,” he said, pointing out that there were 60,000 families on local authority housing waiting lists.

He said confirmation by Nama’s chief executive that just a third of loans being acquired by Nama were generating interest payments was proof that Nama was a mistake.

He said it now turned out the business plan they produced was not accurate.

Meanwhile, when asked if he agreed that unfinished properties should now be demolished, the Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said: “Well I’m not sure what specific ones Brendan McDonagh is speaking about”.

Mr McDonagh’s comments showed the extent of recklessness and lack of scrutiny and regulation and accountability in relation to how loans were handed out in the first place, he said.

But he warned the move from having no regulation at all to over-regulation now “could bring about a complete standstill to elements of the construction sector in general”.

Housing agencies gave a mixed response yesterday to the suggestion by the head of Nama that the agency may be forced to consider knocking down unfinished housing developments.

Respond, a not-for-profit housing agency, said knocking down such houses and estates should only be a “very last resort”.

The organisation said it was “crucial” that a national audit of all so-called ghost estates and empty properties be conducted before demolition was even considered.

Aoife Walsh of Respond said her organisation was receiving conflicting reports on how many empty properties are located throughout the State, with numbers ranging from 40,000 to 345,000.

“It is vital we know exactly how many empty properties there are, where they are located, what condition they are in and what services and transport links are available in the surrounding area,” she said.

Irish Times

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