Across Europe, local government is at the forefront of addressing the scourge of vacancy and dereliction in our town centres and communities. Unfortunately, like the housing crisis, there is no simple solution. While the metrics for defining vacancy and dereliction prove highly contested, GeoDirectory Residential Buildings Report Q4 2022 classified there as 83,662 vacant properties across Ireland – with Mayo County ranking as having the 2nd highest vacancy rate.
To find out just how Mayo County Council is tackling the issue head-on, LGIU’s Thomas Lynch spoke to Thomas Gilligan, Director of Services at Mayo County Council.
Housing for All (2021), the Irish Government’s housing plan to 2030, outlines vacancy and utilising existing housing stock to form one of the four pathways in the Plan.
In January 2023, The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien TD, published a new Vacant Homes Action Plan and launched a new €150m fund to enable local authorities to tackle vacancy and dereliction.
How do you define vacancy?
Defining vacancy and dereliction opens up a maze of metric qualms. No one really knows how many vacant properties there are. The census is a moment in time and vacancy is fluid – a property that is vacant today can be utilised in a month’s time. We in the Council are working with the Department to ensure there is a robust and live database and way of measuring vacancy and understanding the scale of it. We badly need to have those accurate figures to see what we are dealing with.
For me, it starts with the property being vacant. In terms of timeframe, the Croí Cónaithe (Towns) Fund scheme defines vacancy as a minimum of two years, in order to be eligible for the scheme. However, the key to understanding the issue is the link between vacancy and dereliction. Once properties are vacant for a while, properties then get on the derelict sites register. We would have probably 300 properties that are on our derelict sites register, and those properties are having a very negative impact on the surrounding areas. Such dereliction and vacancy will be impacting negatively on the community, from an economic point of view, from a society/housing point of view, and from a community point of view. If we can deal with the vacancy aspect of it, then we can prevent these properties from going into dereliction and so it is about intervening early.
Early intervention for vacant properties is crucial. Once you get into dereliction, you find that it becomes much more expensive, it becomes much more complex. So, if you can capture the property, when it’s vacant, and it hasn’t been vacant for that long, it’s much quicker, much easier, to bring it back into use.
“The most efficient home to deliver is one that already exists,” (Minister Darragh O’Brien).
When you think about it, an awful lot of the infrastructure is already there. You have your street lighting, you have your pavements, you have your roads, you have your utilities. And from a climate change point of view, there is 70% less Co2 when bringing a vacant property back into use, as opposed to building a new home.
What is the situation of vacancy and dereliction like in Mayo County Council?
Vacancy and dereliction are a scourge in Mayo. According to the 2022 census, we have 9,166 vacant properties and despite an improvement from the 2016 vacancy figures for Mayo we still have a long way to go.
We have a full time Vacant Homes Officer in the Council and they are vital for highlighting the issue of vacant homes, talking to the public, making the public aware of the various schemes and opportunities, particularly around the many opportunities that are available in relation to the Croí Cónaithe Scheme, which has 30,000 euro for vacant properties and 50,000 euro for derelict properties.
In Mayo, we are seeing a huge uptake in that scheme with over 350 expressions of interest made to the Council already. Nearly 60 applications are underway, and 15 of those have been approved so far. When that scheme first came out it was very much focused on town centres. And that’s in line with the Town’s First policy. More recently, the government then decided to expand the scheme, so that it could take account of rural areas, in particular.
Anyone can see that dereliction is complex, and it’s multifaceted. But the challenge also presents a lot of opportunities to bring homes back into use and I am passionate about bringing vacant homes, in particular, back into use.
What do you think about Compulsory Purchase Orders?
Housing for All specified that local authorities would CPO and resell a minimum of 2,500 vacant properties. In my opinion, a CPO essentially represents a failure to negotiate. It is the last resort as you will always try to negotiate and come to some agreement with the vacant homeowner to bring the property back into use.
But when this fails, it is crucial that local authorities have the legislative mandate of the CPO. It’s a necessary weapon in our armoury. We have the power, but it can take time, trying to identify the vacant home homeowners, on some occasions, there is maybe just one person, but for others there can be a number of people involved in relation to the ownership of the property. It means that we can bring muscle to the table and it is that stick which is needed from time to time to bring properties into use
You also need to have the processes in place to support what you do with that property and you need to communicate to the public throughout all of this. However, broadly speaking the public is behind this. People understand the negatives of dereliction and they want us to eradicate dereliction.
Why do you think placing town centres first is important?
Our approach ties in with Town Centres First. The reality is, the more we can encourage people to come into our town centres and utilise our town centres the greater community benefit will be. There are so many positives.
When you’re in the town, your social services are on your doorstep. From shops, doctors, hospitals, post offices, banks, etc.
From a climate and sustainability perspective, rejuvenating our town centres is key to increasing footfall whilst reducing reliance on cars so at the end of the day, we need to be encouraging more and more people to live in our town centres.
As a real example of what can be achieved, for example, and visible in our key towns like Castlebar, is Ellison Street. We identified a number of properties, acquired them and we are now in the process of doing up designs and getting them back into use for housing. A real win-win for everyone! Apart from the fact you are providing much-needed housing, you’re also protecting the businesses and the services around the buildings concerned. Also, because it’s increasing footfall, for example, in relation to our shops and services, the more people you can bring to your town centre, the greater vibrancy there is, re-enforcing the attraction of the town centre.
What we’re trying to do here in Mayo is to actually regenerate and rejuvenate our town centres. We’re currently in the process at this stage of appointing a town regeneration officer, whose remit will be working with our local communities, our vacant homes officer and other sections of the Council to mobilise and bring some of the vacant properties in our town centres into use.
The level of vacancy and dereliction in some of our streets is having such a negative impact. It is so disappointing when you see such vacancy and dereliction and we know there are opportunities out there to capitalise on. In Ballina, there was a former Garda barracks that we have managed to CPO which will bring 9 properties back on stream and in doing so will bring much more activity. There is thankfully an increasing number of examples I could refer to, each making a valuable contribution to vibrancy in out towns and villages.
Overall, we are in the middle of a housing crisis, so we have to do whatever we can to bring these properties back into use.
What are the drivers of vacancy?
There are so many different reasons and so many different complexities as to why these properties are vacant and that means you really have to listen to every story and deal with every story appropriately.
Historically, in Ireland, decades of emigration mean properties have simply had the lock turned and left empty. Anecdotally, when I was doing a Q&A on vacancy at the National Ploughing Championships, a couple told me they had not acted on a vacant property as they hoped their daughter who had emigrated would return and choose to live near them. And in Ballinrobe, when I asked a neighbour why is this property vacant, she told me the owner of the property went to Australia around 8 years ago and that they’ve never heard of them since.
Financially, people can inherit a vacant property and lack the financial means to bring it back into action and that is why Mayo County Council’s vacancy workshops are so important, showing them the available funding streams that they would otherwise not be aware of.
Legal issues offer another reason for vacancy. Properties are tied up in probate, and if someone does not make a will, then ownership throws up another issue which inevitably leaves it sitting empty.
Finally, there are people who are just not motivated. Some are probably quietly speculating on the fact that if they are lucky and leave it long enough someone will make an offer and take the vacant home off their hands.
What do you think of national initiatives such as Vacanthomes.ie?
Local people have the local knowledge and the idea behind vacanthomes.ie is based on crowdsourcing. The public has so much information and so much local knowledge that we need to utilise beyond just vacant homes but for other services as well. The vacanthomes.ie website gives everyone an opportunity to help solve the housing crisis.
The idea is that local people right around the country can come across a vacant home, they can log it on the website which will alert the relevant vacant home officer in each local authority and they can investigate that. In this way, vacanthomes.ie gives everyone the opportunity to provide a solution to this housing crisis.
Aside from the operational aspect of vacanthome.ie, what it also does is create an awareness to the problem of vacancy. It can guide people to the range of supports and grants and loans that they can get, such as schemes like the repair and lease scheme.
They may not realise it but they’ll give us that key piece of information to unlock that door and return it to the betterment of their own community.
Local authorities are the coalface of the community. Neighbours, local community activists and town groups have so much information and when they log a home, they can give us that key bit of information to unlock that property.
We have had a huge amount of enthusiasm for the whole project and it has really captured the public’s imagination of what we can do with these properties.
I am a huge fan of the idea of crowdsourcing. The public has so much information and so much local knowledge that we need to utilise beyond just vacant homes but for other services as well. As local authorities, we are representative institutions of the people and we have to show leadership and give people the necessary tools and resources to tackle vacancy and dereliction.
Where do you see the role of Mayo County Council in tackling vacancy going forward?
2023 will be very exciting in Mayo. We are finalising our vacant homes action plan up to 2026. We have organised a series of workshops from February, and with our vacant homes officer, we will go around Mayo hosting public information days to generate awareness of the schemes and opportunities out there and answer any questions that the public might have. No one wants to keep this as the best-kept secret, we need to get the information out there.
We also have an ongoing pilot between Mayo County Council and a housing solutions platform Homebuyer’s Hero. The idea is basically matchmaking vacant homeowners with potential buyers to show vacant homeowners the potential of their property. We want to show them that notwithstanding the condition of the building, there is often a market and an interest in purchasing and redeveloping such buildings. We can also help out by facilitating an engineer’s report.
There are so many buyers out there expressing a genuine interest in wanting to live in our towns and villages. These are people who are not buying a vacant property; they’re actually buying a new home.
The aim of the pilot is to create a mechanism whereby that property can be re-used. People can see the potential of these properties and it is an exciting pilot. We have written to vacant homeowners and we are encouraging them to take part in the scheme. Of course, in some cases, we might have to do a CPO. If the owner is not inclined or doesn’t have any plans for the property to bring it back into use, then the end game is a CPO, although this is a last resort.
Nonetheless, it’s an exciting, innovative pilot. We’ve got the Housing Finance Agency to support this pilot, and if successful, we can roll it out to the rest of the country. But what we want to do is bring vacant homeowners forward and match them up with buyers.
Mayo and Ireland, especially rural Ireland can and has the determination to rid our communities of the plague of dereliction and vacancy. Mayo County Council and all Councils across the Country are there to support local people to re-vitalise their communities and fortunately, we now have additional resources to do so. I am confident we will see a real improvement in our communities and am really committed to ensuring that as the local elected Authority we will play our leadership role in supporting our communities to rebuild with optimism for the future.
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