After the recession virtually destroyed the construction industry, ghost estates of unpopulated houses littered the country. Not quite as visible as the unoccupied houses are the unoccupied building sites, land bought during the boom years that went undeveloped when the country went bust. The legacy of plans for extravagant projects thought up during the Celtic Tiger is plots of unused land bought for millions lying unused around the country.
Fingal County Council is one of the major victims of the recession, with almost €70 million worth of land sitting unused for almost seven years.
Auditor Marice O’Neill raised concerns in audit reports three years in a row that the sites had not been revalued, citing the council’s accounting policy on fixed assets which is to revalue them at intervals of “not more than five years”, meaning that Fingal’s assets were due to be revalued in 2009.
However, he noted: “As with other local authorities no revaluation has been carried out to date.”
READ: Full pdf of audit reports for Fingal County Council from 2009-2011 available here:
The decision not to revalue the site was defended by the County Manager, who said that the council was waiting for a “direction” from the government “in relation to the revaluation of the fixed assets”, and was backed up by a spokeswoman for the council, who claimed that the sites have not been revalued “as the need has not arisen”.
When Mr O’Neill raised the same concerns in the 2010 report that he had raised in the 2009 report he received the same response from the County Manager, who claimed that the council was still waiting for direction from government two years later.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Local Government said that current policy of re-evaluation is unlikely to be changed in the short term, although they added that the policy is “being considered as part of the Accounting Code of Practice review”.
The Fingal County Manager had to defend the purchase of the sites each year from 2009-2012, as it has been raised as an issue on an annual basis by Mr O’Neill, who questioned the decision to buy the sites due to the current market for land. The standard reply from County Manager’s has been that the sites were bought “in the context of a strategic long term investment”.
The five sites are at Dubber Cross in Finglas, Balheary in Swords, Bremore Port near Balbriggan, Hacketstown in Skerries and Stephenstown industrial estate in Balbriggan. Four sites were bought either in late 2007 or early 2008, while the Stephenstown site was bought “in the late 90’s in a number of different lots, as they became available”, according to the council.
Two of the most expensive sites, a €16.6 million site at Balheary and a €27 million site at Dubber Cross in Saint Margaret’s are both located in areas where the proposed Metro North transport system was to be built.
The site at Dubber Cross was initially listed as costing €37 million in 2009, which was changed to €27 million in subsequent years. A council spokeswoman explained that “the €10 million listed in recent audit reports for Dubber Cross is accounted for by an allocation from the Department of Environment Community and Local Government. This figure is a recoupable sum towards the provision of Local Authority housing.”
A spokeswoman for Fingal County Council said that the site at Balheary is “zoned for science and technology. It is envisioned that these lands will be developed in conjunction with the development of the Metro North light-rail system”.
However, plans for the Metro North system were shelved following the economic crash, with Transport Minister Leo Varadkar calling the project “simply unaffordable” in a statement in 2012.
In a letter to local councillors in 2012 he said that it would take 100 years to build the Metro North system with the funds currently available, adding that he was “as disappointed as anyone that Metro North has been deferred indefinitely”. At this stage an estimated €165 million had already been spent on preparatory work for the transport system.
According to the council development for the site at Dubber Cross is also in limbo, with a spokeswoman saying that “there are currently no plans to develop these lands…at present”.
€2.8 million was also spent on land at a site at Bremore, where a new, modern port had been intended to be built. The project was intended to see approximately €350 million worth of investment, and would have provided an alternative to Dublin port. However, there is doubt on whether the venture is still going ahead or not.
The site at Stephenstown is currently zoned for industry. According to the council development is “dependent on local demand and the general economic climate”. The site received €8 million in development funding in 2012, although there is still over €15 million worth of land which has had no funding identified for it.
The last site, at Hacketstown, cost €7.7 million. Part of the site was zoned for housing and has been transferred a government housing agency, while part is currently being used “for allotments”.
While the council claims that the sites “lands represent a valuable asset”, with many of the projects planned being postponed or delayed indefinitely how true that will prove remains to be seen.