Page last updated at 13:42 GMT, Friday, 30 April 2010 14:42 UK

Ghost estates testify to Irish boom and bust

Estate in County Laois, Ireland
One in five Irish homes is unoccupied

By Paul Henley
BBC News, Republic of Ireland

David McWilliams is the man who coined the phrase "ghost estate" when he wrote about the first signs of a disastrous over-build in the Irish Republic back in 2006.

Now, it is a concept the whole country is depressingly familiar with. Most Irish people have one on their doorstep - an ugly reminder, says the economist and broadcaster, of wounded national pride.

"Emotionally, we have all taken a battering," he says. "Like every infectious virus, the housing boom got into our pores. You could feel it.

"You'd go to the pub and people would be talking about what house they'd bought. And now a lot of people, myself included, think 'God, we were conned'."

'Emotional thing'

Mr McWilliams paints Irish history as one of "economic failure".

"So to have risen so quickly and seemingly in the right direction and then to have that pulled away from us," he says, "it's more of an emotional thing than a financial thing."

Deirdre Redmond on living on a 'ghost estate'

There are 621 ghost estates across the Irish Republic now, a legacy of those hopeful years. One in five Irish homes is unoccupied.

If the country immediately used them to house every person on the social housing list, there would still be hundreds of thousands left over.

The obvious question of who people imagined would live in all these new-builds makes Irish people wince now.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Only a few years ago, developers feeding money into local government coffers were getting free rein to build row upon row of five-bedroom detached houses on the green outskirts of towns nobody had even thought of commuting from before.

'Raised eyebrows'

Banks were throwing money at members of the public who saw these houses either as an escape to a better lifestyle or an investment route to riches.

Builders from eastern Europe were working overtime to create homes, the value of which was sometimes three times what it is now.

Ciaran Cuffe
People thought... that this golden goose would continue to lay golden eggs for ever
Green Party minister Ciaran Cuffe

As the slump set in, the immigrant workers went back home, the banks ceased lending on the scale that had fuelled the frenzy and the market disappeared.

Property supply had become completely divorced from property demand.

County Leitrim alone would have needed about 590 new houses between 2006 and 2009 to accommodate its population growth. It got 2,945.

The resulting mess is currently being addressed by a nationwide audit of empty and unfinished housing.

It has raised eyebrows that precise numbers are not already clear, even to the local councils who gave planning permission for the homes in the first place.

'Everyone was buzzing'

Ciaran Cuffe is the Green Party minister of state in charge of the audit.

"It's one heck of a challenge", he says, "because we have the legacy of many years of poor planning, and an economy that was overheated, paid far too much attention to construction and was more interested in the quantity than the quality of homes".

He says the state's perceived wealth was part of the problem.

"I think there was a view that demand would continue indefinitely at a time when we had very high levels of immigration.

"People thought the housing was needed not only for the people of Ireland but also for others that had come here, and that this golden goose would continue to lay golden eggs for ever."

David McWilliams
People are looking around and saying - 'what happened? Was that us?'
Economist David McWilliams

Nobody expects the majority of the Republic's surplus new housing simply to be ploughed down by the bulldozers now.

But Mr Cuffe admits some of the recent headlines in the Irish press on the subject are not completely wide of the mark.

"I certainly think demolition could be part of the solution in cases where we have housing estates that are unoccupied, that are miles away from where people want to live and that were badly built in the first place."

And indeed, many of the Irish ghost estates are in the unlikeliest, most isolated places.

It is strange, looking down vast rows of immaculate new-builds, taking in their optimistically-planted front gardens and peering through curtain-less windows into unwanted granite-topped fitted kitchens, to comprehend the fact that they might never be occupied.

Mr McWilliams says the whole of the Irish Republic is having to come to terms with what he compares to a collective addiction.

"Everyone took the property drug at the same time", he says, "everyone was up at the same time, everyone was buzzing.

"Now we are all in the middle of this huge comedown. And people are looking around and saying - 'what happened? Was that us?' And then we look at our bank statements and we realise - 'yes, it was'".

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