The quiet and lonely life of a ghost estate
Families all over Ireland are feeling stranded in semi-deserted and unfinished estates, says Hilary A White
Crumpled railings lie about the place. Beer cans and plastic bags litter the weedy corners and unkempt green areas. Footprints of houses-to-be sit next to shells, derelict structures and the odd showroom.
In among this static landscape are those premises that are inhabited.
Welcome to a 'ghost estate'.
These malfunctioning housing schemes have been widely publicised of late, but it is an expansive topic, one that saw Pat Kenny conclude on The Frontline last Monday: "I think we raised more issues than we resolved tonight."
Two principal discussions are doing the rounds at the moment. The first seeks to attribute blame to the Government, the banks, the builders or the planners. The other asks what the future of the ghost estate will be.
None of this particularly matters right now to those having to live in these places. They have more immediate issues to contend with, and that's not even taking into account the sheer drop in value of their homes. These people have the added distress of raising families in the precarious silence of half-finished developments, trying to nab AWOL builders to repair shoddy workmanship while, outside, their urban environment lacks infrastructure, amenities, or any stimulation for their children.
Mary and James moved from Dublin to a housing scheme in the midlands with their young family. "We've been here for three years. Have I seen any changes in that time? None at all," Mary says, grimacing.
The couple are feeling understandably hard done by. "We were promised everything," James explains. "'If there's any problems, we'll be there.' We were told before we moved in the roads would be tarmacked and street lights would be going up. We have a leak in the ceiling that keeps coming back. The chimneys around here are too low, so if you light a fire when it's windy, smoke comes back down the chimney. On the wall outside, some idiot decided to render around the wood, so when it rains, the wood expands and the rendering comes off. If we had known, we wouldn't have bothered moving at all, because it's just one thing after the other all the time. No one will listen. Not even the builder gives a s***. But you couldn't even find him if you wanted to."
These are small concerns compared to the safety hazards their children face.
"It's not safe for them," Mary tells me, seated at her kitchen table. "At the very beginning, my daughter was nine, and she was playing with friends around the corner. Next thing I heard a big scream, and a boy was saying she was after falling down a hole. She fell down a swamp hole just beside the house up to her chest. I had to go to the guards about it. They got the builder to come back and fill in that hole."
James interrupts: "There's no ramps on the roads so there's cars speeding up and down. There was a young boy in this estate who actually got hit by a car on his way to the playground. He nearly died. Now I won't let my girls go up there because it's too dangerous." Mary shrugs. "I think they're probably waiting for an accident to happen before they do something."
There is another burning issue not being mentioned, and that is the importance of community, not only for atmosphere, but for security. This is hard to achieve with 10-15 per cent occupancy.
"The more people around, the more safety," insists James. "As the builders finished off the heating in the houses, they were all topped up with oil. Now there's young lads going around with a pipe and a drum and siphoning it all out. It's too dark, you can't see anybody. Someone put a petition together to say we wanted the street lights turned on, but nothing's been done."
The living conditions are no better for those in the rental market. Peter and his wife live with their two young boys near Longford town and he feels uneasy about the environment beyond his hall door.
"It's too quiet, especially at night time. And it's too dark because there's no security lighting." Isabel from Poland lives in another scheme in Longford, and while she finds the atmosphere "okay", she cannot vouch for the houses themselves. "Every single house has a problem -- heating, no water, walls falling down. My hot water is connected to the washing machine, not the sink, which is ridiculous. I've had no heating for the last week. The last problem I had was fixed only because I refused to pay the full rent."
For the elderly, a sense of security is important. John and Eileen are a retired couple living in a deadly quiet estate in Westmeath. They tell me about their move from Ashbourne, where they had four or five years left on a large mortgage, but decided to jettison it after health problems.
"I'm a private person," Eileen tells me, "but you'd still feel more secure if you knew there were less empty houses sitting there."
Although largely happy with their house, their move 18 months ago was not without its problems. "There's been two lots of builders here since the receiver took it over because they found a lot of faults, like the sewage system. It was completely wrong, so they had to dig up the whole estate. Also, the road level is wrong, but they couldn't bring it up because the drains had to be all dug up and re-rerouted."
John shows me the ramp-like step up to their hall door. "These were put in by the builder and they're illegal. The council made the receiver change the steps on the houses that were for sale, but not on the ones that were already sold and occupied. We've approached him to change ours because it cannot be sold until this is corrected." "I've slipped on that a few times now," nods Eileen. John continues: "The receiver sent in a first builder, and he agreed to do it. But now this company has been received by another company! We've asked this new company to do it and they've said, 'we know nothing about it'. If we had our way, we'd sell up, but we'd lose too much money. We're luckier than some at least."
They certainly are. Noel is a father of two in one of Mullingar's six ghost estates. Noel had all the obligatory problems with water supply, heating, plumbing, unsurfaced roads and sewage that seem to go hand-in-hand with these developments. However, it is this issue of security that particularly troubles him. He has had numerous "run-ins" with youths from adjacent housing developments. The couple have had to tolerate smashed beer bottles where their children play, fires and vandalism to the unfinished premises opposite and a general sense of derelict isolation. "There's no one here. There was meant to be security, but there hasn't been in ages. I've seen people walking up and down and you know they don't live here. For the first two months, there was no street lights. I was coming home in the pitch dark.
"It'd be different if I lived here on my own -- I wouldn't mind -- but we have a little girl. She doesn't want to be seeing that either. It bothers me how empty the place is. There's no other kids for her to play with. You come in in the evening and you just don't know who's going to be around. I've had people coming in here, jumping the fences, robbing timbers or whatever they want and driving off."
There exist no avenues of recompense for all of these people. Everyone involved in the planning, authorising and construction of these schemes is passing the responsibility like a hot potato. Foolishly, I ask Noel if a local councillor or political figure could help.
"One local politician came around," he laughs, "saying 'if you vote for us, we'll get these roads done, the whole lot'. He got in and we haven't seen him since. They don't care because they know they don't have any money either now."
What is the outlook for these people, tied to sinking ships rather than nests on which to build a life? As Noel explains, there may not be much choice.
"We just have to ride it out. We can't afford to buy another house. They make no effort to sell these houses either. When you walk in here all you see is the place in a very bad state. The council will probably take it over and turn it into a council estate. If that happens, I wouldn't be too happy. My sister had to move out of a council estate -- the kids were too rough. I don't want my daughter to be around that."