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Why Cork has so many vacant homes and derelict sites
And why "use it or lose it" isn't likely to move the dial
No 42 Cornmarket Street
This April, 42 Cornmarket Street will celebrate an ignominious anniversary: 28 years on Cork City Council’s derelict sites register.
Twenty-eight years doing nothing slap bang in the middle of the city.
If you’ve ever been up or down the Coal Quay, you’ll have walked past no 42, and if, on the off chance you’ve paused to consider it, well, suffice to say, there’s not much to consider.
No 42 is part of a significant chunk of vacant land between The Bodega and the The Cornstore Restaurant, directly opposite the Rising Sons Brewery. It straddles Portney’s Lane, a narrow residential alleyway that cuts across to North Main Street. The site is nominally used as a private car park.
Some years ago a dozen outdoor planting boxes were deposited just opposite no 42, in the empty strip of land at no 44, which has been on the derelict sites register since 2003.
Weeds grow here and there, rubbish blows in and out, and some half-arsed graffiti is on the wall of the disused Paint Well building. Whatever buildings were on the sites have long since fallen down or been torn down. There’s nothing to see, and so you move on.
These two derelict, empty spaces are long-term residents on the city council’s derelict sites register: no 42 since 1993, and no 44 since 2003. They’re joined by nearly 100 other sites around the city, but no 42 sits atop the city council’s spreadsheet.
They’ve been derelict through the boom, the bust, the pandemic, and even managed to escape unscathed when the city spent €4m on the redevelopment of the Coal Quay more than a decade ago. Which, when you think about it is quite an achievement.
It takes quite an amount of time and layers of bureaucracy to get added to the council’s limbo list, and, as in the case of 42 and 44 Cornmarket Street, it can take an awful long time to be removed from that list.
Both sites also symbolize a great deal about what’s not working with planning laws and property rights in Ireland.
I’m guessing most people would argue that the right thing to do here - especially in a city struggling to provide affordable houses - would be to transform these sites. Get busy, get building, and quickly.
A Twitter thread
One way to understand and witness the volume of vacant and derelict sites in Cork is on a Twitter thread started by Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry, designers who moved to the city in 2018.
Previously the couple lived and worked in Cardiff and Amsterdam, and when they made the decision to return to live in Ireland, it was inevitable they would live in a city. In the end they chose Cork.
In their work with Anois, the design agency they established, the pair spend a great deal amount of time thinking about cities, especially how cities are designed to facilitate three basic aspects of human nature: work, rest and play.
On moving to Cork, Frank and Jude set out on foot to learn more about their new surroundings. Frank can, in a way that most people might notice but not be able to name, point out a whole array of architectural styles that all converge over a few streets in the city.
Both of them are endlessly fascinated by the history, architecture and culture of their adopted city.
Their Twitter thread, which came to life last June, is about something different, but also related. While it doesn’t have a name, essentially it’s an unending volume of boarded up homes and buildings that they have come across while navigating the city.
Frank and Jude told me they normally go by each derelict site or vacant property a few times and they’ll try and chat with people nearby to get some background, a sense of the building’s past, before they post on Frank’s Twitter account.
Sometimes, they’ll add a brief historical bio, outlining the form and function of a building that has fallen into disuse and disrepair.
And then they’ll deploy an army of hastags such as #dereliction #Heritage # Housingforall #Wellbeing, give the tweet a number and tag in the city council.
Currently the couple have documented 270 properties, some of which have subsequently been sold or refurbished and brought back to life.
On moving to Cork, Frank was struck by the dissonance of a homeless crisis and a surfeit of boarded up buildings.
“To come back and realise there was so many homes in the city were vacant, derelict, decaying, but also there were so many homeless people as well - it stopped us in our tracks to be honest,” said Frank.
Both Frank and Jude say that to solve the problem, we should be looking to international models.
As Jude explains, Amsterdam had many of the same problems with dereliction, homelessness and residents leaving the city for the suburbs throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties.
They solved the problem though politics, legislation and no small amount of philosophical reckoning.
“It was a combination of things. I think society decided it wasn’t right for people to hoard property and (for) other people to go without homes. I think that was a big turning point,” says Jude.
Other policies adopted by Amsterdam helped enforce against longterm dereliction and vacancy such as enforcing property owners to make sure a property is kept structurally sound and to maintain the land around a property.
“The Dutch are very pragmatic. When they say they are going to have a policy, they’ll always implement the policy,” said Frank.
The numbers play out. Dutch authorities have again gone on an aggressive spree of converting disused and vacant sites into housing. According to the Holland Times:
In 2017, more than 7,570 new residences were transformed from 1,900 vacant office buildings, stores and factories that were no longer operational. Since the 2008 economic crisis, the amount of vacant office space has grown considerably in the Netherlands, primarily caused by company downsizing and an increase in remote working.
Which brings us back to the sites on Cornmarket Street.
While they’re not much to look at, the sites are, as is all land anywhere, worth something. (In 2019, The Irish Examiner reported that the city council’s 100 derelict sites were worth an estimated market value of €30m). Because of their official dereliction status, the council are entitled to collect an annual levy of 7% of the lands value, up from 3% since last year.
Also, the council can go down the route of compulsory acquisition, or a CPO (compulsory purchase order).
There’s a lot frustration that the city doesn’t go down this route more often. But, as Fearghal Reidy who oversees the city’s derelict sites as director of strategic and economic development with Cork City Council, explained in an interview, for the state to step in and force the handover of private land, well, it’s not at all straight forward.
(In next week’s newsletter Fearghal will outline the “carrot and stick” approach the council are taking to get more derelict sites off the register.)
A Fair Deal?
Mick Finn, a former Lord Mayor of the city and independent councillor for the south central ward, says that the official figure of derelict sites - around the 100 mark - does not reflect the true number of derelict sites, which includes houses and sites.
There’s a few reasons the unofficial number, the Twitter count, is higher: sometimes an empty property won’t get reported and might live on in limbo, but stay off the council’s official register.
Other times, as Cllr. Finn points out, an empty unused house could be tied up in the “Fair Deal” scheme, where property is used as collateral for nursing home residents.
Of the 30 houses on the terraced street where Finn lives, six are unused, and from those six three are in the nursing home scheme. Effectively, these houses are empty and could stay like so for years.
Finn raised the issue a few years back at council level in order to get these houses back in use, through some form of rental structure.
I don’t know how many houses are tied up in that scheme, but I’d imagine it’s in the thousands (for the country), says Cllr. Finn.
It’s an inefficiency of that scheme and it’s a waste of a house knowing that people are sleeping on the street rough or staying in B&B accommodation when you consider these houses are livable and empty.
Of the longterm derelict sites and properties, Finn ascribes to the policy of “use it or lose it,” which has been gaining traction in Ireland, at least on a rhetorical level. In an Irish Times column last December the economist David McWilliams put the number of vacant buildings at 199,740.
McWilliams likens dereliction to a form of vandalism, and lays the blame with landowners hoarding sites until the market makes it worthwhile to sell. His solution, along with many others is to use it, or lose it.
The problem here, as Finn points out, is that under current Irish property legislation while “use it or lose it” is a pithy and powerful slogan, it’s got no teeth.
Councillors and city managers have been asking the central government for years to strengthen the legislation and increase the fines and the frequency of them in order to punish property owners who are prepared to sit it out and let a site go to shit.
Finn says that’s particularly unfair on residents who take pride in their homes and their streets.
The legislation hasn’t been changed and it’s in favour of property owners and a lot of those are sitting on it to wait for an increase in the market, but in the meantime those properties are a blight on society.
I think the council need to get increased powers and move on that and put it up to the owners.
Pot holes and black holes
What you begin to see and appreciate, or not appreciate, is that derelict sites, even relatively new additions to the register are protected by layers of bureaucracy, complex ownership, and an unclear path to a resolution.
Sometimes it feels like the laws make an ass of us.
Take for instance the pot holes near the community centre in Mahon, on the south side of the city. Independent councillor Kieran McCarthy has been lobbying the council on what seems like a fairly basic task; to get the pot holes filled in. (He calls them craters).
The problem is the pot holes are on private land on a derelict site. Since 2018, when the site was placed on the city’s derelict sites register, the owner has been listed as the Office of Public Works (OPW). However, the OPW pointed out in reply to a question by Cllr. McCarthy that the original owners, according to the Land Registry, is a company called Morningford Ltd. which dissolved in 2003, but never liquidated.
To make a complicated excuse simple, what all this means in practice is that neither the council nor the OPW will go in and fill in the pot holes.
As Cllr. McCarthy says of the process to manage and transform derelict sites:
It’s frustrating. And it’s frustrating for a public representative like me when we’re going ‘Can we start looking at these mechanisms and trying to improve them?’
So it’s just slow and cumbersome and I don’t think there’s any one answer, any one silver bullet. But it is very frustrating and I know there are people looking at these going why are they empty?
If a few potholes on land managed by a public organisation can’t be fixed, then what chance have we in transforming a derelict site?
It doesn’t leave much room for faith in the process or that transformation of the city’s many derelict sites is just around the corner.
One economist who works in the construction industry told me that there’s no one factor for the surfeit of derelict sites. As he put it:
In a purely efficient market, the owners should be incentivised to sell them to people who want to either live in them or develop them to make them inhabitable.
But here again is another reason why the market is not always the remedy. Likewise, humans are not always efficient. It’s hard enough sometimes just cleaning out a garage; try dealing with a property that’s run down, racking up fines and owned by multiple partners.
What is clearly needed is a more efficient system to crack the code. That in turn will require resources - money and personnel - but also a lot more Dutch courage and resolve.
(In next week’s newsletter Fearghal Reidy from the City Council will outline the incentives -the “carrot and stick” approach - the council are taking to get more derelict sites off the register).