Between 2005 and 2016, Dublin City Council bought just one derelict property with a compulsory purchase order, according to Galway-based researcher Lauren Norton.
It sounds like a surprising figure to some, but it is one that the chairperson of the council’s planning committee, Andrew Montague, would believe.
“I know in recent times, there have been very little if any, so that sounds about right for the last 10 years,” said Montague, a Labour councillor.
(Dublin City Council Press Office confirmed that no sites were CPO-ed in 2015 and 2016 under the 1990 Act.)
Now though, things seem to be beginning to change.
As a reminder, local authorities have been able to force private owners to sell derelict sites to them since the 1990 Derelict Sites Act came into force.
In this context, derelict means “any land which detracts, or is likely to detract, to a material degree from the amenity, character or appearance of land in the neighbourhood of the land in question”.
The act was passed during a time when the city of Dublin had passed through a bleak era of depopulation and urban blight, according to Norton’s report.
But the powers to take over the sites weren’t used as much by council officials as some argued they should be. In 2017, though, there are glimmers of change.
“The council are in the process of CPOing 20 different sites around the city,” said Montague.
It’s unclear what stage the other 10 sites are at or where they are. There are a number of sites being considered but it’s too early to list them, said a Dublin City Council spokesperson.
Once the council begins the CPO process, the owner has one month to come forward and contest the purchase.
If no one claims ownership, a “vesting order” can be placed on the site. This means the local authority can take possession of the property without paying compensation to the owner.
There’s a big question looming over all this, though: why has it taken the council so long to crack down and start buying up derelict properties?
Norton’s report on her findings says that the 1990 act was worded so broadly that it “empowered local authorities to do so much, and also excused them for doing very little”.
Norton uses the example of a 2006 court case where the judge ruled a property had not complied with the 1990 definition of a derelict site, even though – as she tells it – it was in an obvious state of ruin. In that case, the private owners kept it.
Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe says complicated legalities and unfavourable court rulings in the past have deterred councillors from pursuing CPOs.
“On a couple of occasions when they did carry out work, they were sued by the owners of the buildings and had to pay out,” he said.
At 32 Reuben Avenue in Rialto, one boarded-up, empty home has has large weeds growing from its roof and garden.
According to official records, a CPO was placed on the property in December. A vesting order was added on 2 February, and on 1 March, Dublin City Council took ownership of the site. The entire process took only four months.
Another house in Rialto, at 3 St Anthony’s Road, has been in a state of dereliction for about five years, neighbours say.
The windows of the house were smashed by kids a couple of years ago, and the site has now also been vested by the council. Unlike 32 Reuben Avenue, however, there isn’t a notice explaining the CPO on the door yet.
A property in Cabra, 11 Annamoe Terrace, has been left abandoned for at least 10 years, and unlike the other two sites, has yet to be vested by the council.
Cuffe says the current push by officials to CPO more derelict sites comes from a place of necessity.
“I think the scale of dereliction and the scale of the housing crisis is putting pressure on the chief executives, particularly in Dublin City Council, to take more action,” he says.
“I’ve been very frustrated. I’ve sent a detailed presentation to the chief executive, outlining about 20 sites in the city that I was concerned about, and I’m glad to say he has pursued them.”
While there are 60 properties on the Derelict Site Register, only 20 are in the CPO process. This is not due to laziness says Cuffe, but a need to prioritise sites that are problematic.
“Senior staff are looking at the length of time the property has been vacant and the engagement they’ve had with the owners,” he says.
Owners of derelict sites are often given warnings by the council to improve the state of their property or face the possibility of a CPO.
“If they feel the owners aren’t moving, and if they feel the sites can contribute to the housing crisis, we’re moving them on,” Cuffe said.
Not all CPOed properties are being used for social housing, however. Some sites have been developed into pocket parks, and others have been put up for sale.
Either way, says Cuffe, there’s “no excuse for sites to lie empty for generations in the inner city”.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on Friday 5 May at 16:50pm to more accurately reflect what Laura Norton’s report said about Dublin in the 1980s. The error is regretted.]