Campaigners say alarm bells ‘not ringing loudly enough’ over the vacant premises in rural towns
Every day, on her way to and from work, Annemarie Ryan Shiner passes some of the 84 empty and unused buildings in Tipperary town. Many have been empty for years.
Ms Ryan Shiner worries people will stop noticing there is something wrong with this sight — a historic town centre blighted by dilapidation and disrepair.
New research by the Heritage Council shows nearly one in five of all buildings (18.6pc) in the town centre is vacant. About a third of the town centre retail spaces (31.2pc) are unoccupied.
Figures for the town appear to be higher than the norm. A Revenue analysis of property tax returns has indicated 3.2pc of homes around the country are lying empty.
Revenue said a vacancy rate of between 2.5pc and 6pc is considered normal in a properly functioning housing market, but the feeling in Tipp town is more homes than that are lying empty.
“There’s a feeling as you drive through town that you’re looking at a lot of empty units,” Ms Ryan Shiner says.
“The statistics say the town has 73 vacant non-residential buildings and 11 residential, but that’s only the town centre. We have a very high vacancy rate — and you nearly become used to it, which is worrying. It gets taken for granted and becomes normal. But it’s not the norm that a building could be lying empty for 15 or 20 years.
“There’s always going to be turnover of buildings, and some empty buildings, but you want to see them being brought back into use eventually — not lying there for ever, just crumbling away.”
Ms Ryan Shiner has run a cafe in Tipp town for about 15 years after she moved home from the UK. A few years ago she became part of a local group trying to improve the town. This led to her running in the local elections in 2019, when she was elected to Tipperary County Council.
“I’m an accidental councillor. I ran out of pure frustration at the state of Tipp town after years of neglect,” she says. “I’m part of a community activist group called March4Tipp, and we ran in the local elections because we’d been advocating for change. Much to my horror, I got elected!”
During her time as a councillor, Ms Ryan Shiner came into contact with the Heritage Council, the public body that advises the Government on our national heritage and carries out promotional work around it.
In recent years, it has carried out a series of Collaborative Town Centre Health Check (CTCHC) reports around the country to inform investment plans and strategies to improve communities. The reports measure local attitudes, footfall, land use and a town’s quality of life.
The vacancy rates in Tipperary were alarming, but Ms Ryan Shiner believes bells “aren’t ringing loudly enough”. Action was needed long before now, she says.
Previous Heritage Council studies have shown about 80pc of spaces above shops are empty, so Ms Ryan Shiner feels most of Tipperary’s vacant buildings have the potential to address huge local demand for housing.
In the middle of last week, 25 homes in and around Tipperary town were listed for sale on property website Daft.ie. Only two homes were available for rent.
Mark Ryan and his family had been renting a home in the town last year. Then, just before Christmas, they were told the property was being sold.
At the end of their four-month notice, they had to relocate to Limerick, 40km away, until they found a suitable home.
They were only able to move back to Tipperary a few weeks ago, six months after their search for a home began.
“There was nothing available anywhere near us,” Mr Ryan says. “We have three kids, aged 13, 11 and two. For a while there my wife, Jenny, had to bring the kids to school on a 25-mile run, which is far from ideal. It was very stressful — the thought of having to move schools and everything was daunting.”
Tipperary County Council says a local taskforce established in 2020 has developed an action plan to revitalise the town and is in the process of implementing it. Meanwhile, it is using the CTCHC data to engage with owners of vacant properties “with a view to establishing new uses and occupation”, and redevelopment plans are in place for three local buildings.
Other Heritage Council studies show Tipperary is not alone in recording high vacancy rates.
Since 2017, CTCHCs were carried out in 14 other towns. The total vacancy rates range from 9.7pc in Carrick-on-Shannon in 2020 to 24pc in Dundalk in 2019.
Sligo and Tralee recorded total vacancy rates of 17pc and 19pc respectively. Ballina, Mohill and Drumshanbo all recorded rates above 20pc.
When ground-floor retail use was measured, Tipperary fared worst (31.2pc), just ahead of Carrick-on-Shannon (30.5pc).
Bundoran, Drumshanbo, Donegal town and Mohill ranged between 10 and 13.5pc. Ennis, Ballyshannon, Letterkenny, Sligo and Ballina recorded rates of between 17 and 19pc. Monaghan town had a 25.5pc vacancy rate, according to a 2019 study.
Experts say gathering this data is important because tackling the problem is impossible without knowing the scale of it.
The founding coordinator of the CTCHC programme, Ali Harvey, who has a background in economics and planning, says “boots on the ground” data can be used to find cost-effective ways of tackling vacancy and gives a true sense of what communities are experiencing.
Mapping the vacant units means it is possible to identify clusters for redevelopment. Working on these together will be cheaper than developing them individually, she adds.
Fifty other towns are on a waiting list to take part in the initiative.
The Programme for Government commits to prioritising “a town-centres-first collaborative and strategic approach to the regeneration of our villages and towns using the CTCHC”, but further resourcing of the scheme is needed to meet targets to bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use.
“The issue for me is that we are at full capacity, and have been for about two years,” Ms Harvey says. “What we need is a technical team, as well as the funding to run this programme. We don’t have the team or support staff necessary to carry out this work, as per the commitment in the Programme for Government.
“We’re trying to build something better for the country with a system that keeps all the key local stakeholders involved. This is best-practice planning.
“You can’t come up with solutions without the data. It would mean more vitality and more vibrancy for our towns.”
Housing Europe research coordinator Dara Turnbull says vacancy happens for several reasons — but it is typically a symptom of a wider societal issue.
Vacancy can be associated with depopulation of an area, but Mr Turnbull says some vacancies in Dublin may be attributable to the “financialisation of housing”, where investors leave a new home empty while waiting for it to increase in value to sell without the need to manage or evict a tenant.
Different countries have taken different approaches. Mr Turnbull says a region in southern Belgium is fining the owners of vacant properties for leaving homes idle by examining utility bills and energy usage to identify if a house is in use.
In France, owners of a vacant property can be fined 12.5pc of the potential rental value. The fine increases annually up to 25pc.
Mr Turnbull says a similar scheme might work well in Dublin, but given the rate of property price increases in the capital recently, he suggests it might be necessary to consider setting such a tax at the full increase in the value of the property in the previous year – or close to it – plus the 12.5pc.
Ultimately, he says, we need to address the volume of vacant stock.
“If we had vacant schools and hospitals and treated healthcare or education in the same way we have come to treat homes, as a financial asset, people wouldn’t stand for it. But with homes, we seem to have decoupled the need for a home, and the asset.”