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Majority living in 'ghost estates' won't escape household charge

MOST people living in unfinished housing developments will have to pay the controversial annual household charge, the Government confirmed last night.

Despite living in largely vacant estates that are still in need of further work, thousands of families will have to pay the €100 charge by March 31, with fewer than 300 estates exempt from the tax.

The Department of the Environment confirmed that people living in most of the 2,066 'ghost estates' across the country will have to pay the charge.

This will come as a blow to homeowners who have seen their unfinished estates abandoned by developers.

Just over 14,000 people have signed up to pay the charge with 3,000 choosing to pay in instalments, the department said last night -- adding that a full list of exempt estates would be published within days.

Environment Minister Phil Hogan said it was "not acceptable" to look for the €100 charge in estates which were a "worst-case scenario" and that posed public health and safety risks.

The department has categorised unfinished developments into four categories; ranging from estates needing minor works, such as finishing open spaces, to more substantial problems including open manholes, no footpaths, roads, public lighting or sewerage.

Homeowners living in estates that present the greatest challenges and require the most work will be exempt.

But the minister was forced to respond to criticism from Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes, who raised concerns about plans to use ESB records to pursue non-payers. Mr Hawkes said it was a "disturbing development" and an "extension of the power of the State" to gather information about its citizens from private companies.

Restrictions on releasing personal data for the purposes of collecting "any tax, duty or other moneys owed or payable to the State" is allowed under the Data Protection Act, but the legislation was designed to only be used in exceptional circumstances, Mr Hawkes said.

"The provision is permissive only and does not impose a legal obligation and is only intended for use in individual cases," he told the Irish Independent.

"The concern is with the blanket nature of the provision as well as the proportionality of requiring a commercial company to hand over customer data, given that the law already allows access to Revenue, Social Protection and Private Residential Tenancy Board information."

But Mr Hogan said any concerns raised by the Commissioner would be addressed, adding that despite announcing the introduction of the charge last summer he could not consult with the Commissioner until it became law.

"The Data Protection Commissioner has a job to do and we have a job to do," he said.

"The legislation was published in December and enacted in December, and we have been in contact with the Commissioner's office on a number of occasions since and there is a meeting due next week.

"All of those issues he's speaking about are in the legislation, they've been cleared by the Attorney General. We need to track down people who don't pay, in some way. It's not fair if somebody pays and others don't. We have to find a mechanism, in conjunction with the Data Protection Commissioner, in order to ensure we actually trace those people.

"As soon as the legislation was enacted, we got in touch with the Commissioner and the meeting was set up for next week as well so he has identified a number of valid issues which we will be glad to discuss. We are going to work together with the Commissioner to ensure we comply with information and respect privacy."

Irish Independent