Why hundreds of finished homes lie empty across Ireland

Updated / Wednesday, 6 Oct 2021 09:53
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By Fran McNulty

Castle View, a brand-new housing estate with 100 residential units in Lucan, Co Dublin, was completed in May. Pristine and picture perfect, the houses are energy-efficient, and the development also comes with a playing field for children and a huge playground.

But the playground is eerily empty, with swings that blow in the wind. Flowers planted nearby are the only signs of life in what should be a happy space, filled with the sounds of playful children.

The entire estate has lain idle for months, enclosed by security fences and ominous "Keep Out" signs.

Primarily due to delays in connecting the water mains and the main sewer, it was only this week that three new tenants got their keys, five long months after the estate was finished.

Respond, the housing charity that manages the estate, told Prime Time that there was a three-and-a-half-month delay connecting the homes to the mains water supply, and a five-and-a-half-month delay connecting them to the main sewer.

Irish Water said there were complications with the connection to the sewer, which required a "complete redesign".

The 100 residential units at Castle View have been completed since May

Covid lockdowns and builders holidays in May, along with some supply shortages, also delayed the project.

It has meant that many of Respond's clients have been in a perilous position, not knowing when to give notice in their current rental.

In the case of one woman who spoke to Prime Time, the delay meant she has spent the past four months couch surfing with her two children after she lost her last rental.

The delays at Castleview are not unusual. Respond said it has seen similar delays across the country.

At the moment, Respond has 274 houses sitting empty awaiting connecting to water services. In the midst of a house crisis, it is deeply frustrating for them and other housing providers, who have similar stories to tell.

"It has impacted a number of sites that we are working on and it is impacting other sites that we are working on at the moment, in Malahide, in Waterford and in Galway - with delays there of three and five months," said Niamh Randall, the head of advocacy at Respond.

Standing in the empty Castleview development, she told Prime Time that, while the Department of Housing has committed to working with utilities to speed up the roll-out, urgent action is needed to ensure delays connecting new homes don't continue into the future.

There was a three-and-a-half-month delay in connecting homes to the mains water supply

Between delays with Irish Water and the impact of Covid, the opening of the estate is now 11 months behind target.

On Monday, there was finally some light in the windows of the homes of the three new tenants. But 97 other homes in the estate sat in darkness.

Nearby in Adamstown, where hundreds of homes are currently under construction, builders are critical of Irish Water for the pace at which water connections are being made.

"Our members up and down the country are reporting a series of delays arising from legacy issues inherited by Irish Water and also additional delays that appear to be related to funding, resources and processes," said James Benson, a director of the Irish Homebuilders Association.

"While our members may accept that some of those delays are legacy issues, we would also expect that those in the sector - all those responsible for housing delivery - would show the same sense of urgency and efficiency that private industry delivers on a daily basis."

Mr Benson told Prime Time that, while his members can build a house in 16 to 20 weeks, it is taking twice as long for Irish Water to sort out a connection to the mains.

Only three tenants have been given the keys to their homes in the development

Irish Water said it is dealing with legacy issues that often present problems when they dig ground to make connections.

While even their harshest critics concede that this is an issue, Mr Benson said the impact on families, many of whom are waiting years for homes, is immense.

"It's incredible – and we need to see greater efficiency in the processes, especially during a housing crisis," he said.

On Friday, despite initially being told they would be in their new home 10 months ago, Sinéad Egan and Philip Geoghegan walked through their new front door for the first time, after 12 years on the housing list.

In her pram, their six month-old daughter babbled and giggled, watching her proud parents blooming and content with their spacious home.

"We'll be settled now, not worrying about the rent going up, or our home being sold. It means a lot to the whole family," said Philip.

Sinéad said the delays made life more difficult in their two-bedroom apartment.

"We were all squashed together, with three children in one room and myself and Philip and the new baby in the other room," she said.

Irish Water said the vast majority of developments are connected on time

"The dates kept changing so much and the kids kept getting excited. So, in the end, we stopped mentioning dates and said, when we get it, we get it."

Irish Water rejects the criticism and told Prime Time that, last year, it gave permission to connect 34,579 homes, with only 125 homes being rejected.

In a statement, it said that "the vast majority of sites are connected on time and without any issues".

It also rejects the suggestion that it's taking twice as long to connect water as it is to build a house.

"We continue to improve our turnaround times on initial enquires with the vast majority of responses being much shorter than the 16 weeks timeline," it said.

The Government's Housing for All plan acknowledges that utility connection is an issue and sets out some solutions.

Additional funding for Irish Water in the new National Development Plan might also help address basic problems.

But many in the sector warn that something as basic as a connection to the water mains should not be an issue, given we’'e known about the huge housing need for some time.