Photos by Caroline Brady

Earlier this year, councillors began to decry the condition of some sanitary units in Labre Park, the Traveller halting site in Ballyfermot. Most of the caravans and trailers there don’t have electricity or water, so they rely on the units for those vital services.

Before July, the mildew-caked ceilings, exposed electrical wires and damp, damaged walls had been barely mentioned for a long time. That month, though, councillors deemed them “not fit for purpose” and passed a number of motions demanding that they be refurbished.

Now, renovations are finally underway. But questions remain about who let the sanitary units fall into such a state of disrepair, the large amount of money spent on renting them as they crumbled, and whether the same thing will happen again.

Are the Refurbished Units up to Scratch?

The first two refurbished sanitary units arrived back on the site last week.

From the outside of one of the units, it would appear that little has changed. The blue paint is still faded and gritty in parts. A reservoir of water sits atop in a clear plastic container.

But the inside is unrecognisable. There’s the scent of paint. The wet, hole-filled plasterboard that previously left electrical wires exposed has been replaced with washable bathroom wall panels.

The floor looks bright with a fresh cut of linoleum. The new electric shower is also welcomed, as is the rewiring that the council promised.

It’s progress, but these sanitary units still wouldn’t meet most people’s standards.

The council said it would salvage any fittings that were serviceable. In this case the toilet, sink and window were retained.

The new glass door in the shower isn’t completely watertight and, when opened, it hits the porcelain sink – an accident waiting to happen.

The other unit returned by the council was badly in need of repair after it caught fire in January, and has been renovated in the same way as the first.

When Lorraine McMahon peeked under the already-loose lino flooring, dark black marks are visible on the wood. It is hard to decipher whether these are burn marks caused by the fire, or another kind of stain.

Either way, McMahon, who is coordinator of the Ballyfermot Traveller Action Programme, isn’t impressed.

“The issue is that they are bringing these back saying they have been completely refurbished,” she said, “but it’s definitely not new, that’s for sure.”

Mixed Emotions

Residents seem to have mixed feelings toward the units, with one saying she was happy, even if the units aren’t perfect. “You have water and electricity and that’s a big, big thing. It’s something,” she said.

These units provide vital services to the families of Labre Park and go toward fulfilling their basic human rights, says McMahon. “Absolutely, it’s better than having nothing,” she adds. “But it’s still not good enough.”

Parents still have to bring their children outside in all kinds of weather to use the toilet, she says, pointing out that “it’s still a steel shed”.

When asked by a contractor working for the council if she was happy with the work, she gave him the same, long response. He didn’t seem to care much, saying Travellers choose to live in trailers.

(To which McMahon replied with a tirade beginning with: “They don’t choose substandard conditions.” She often comes across this type of attitude.)

He also said that he had noticed the problem with the shower door hitting the sink.

Who’s Fault Was This Again?

It remains unclear who – if anybody – was responsible for the maintenance of these units in the first place.

Who let them fall into such disrepair that councillors had to make an issue of it, and they had to be taken out and refurbished?

Dublin City Council did not respond when asked, and Portakabin Allspace, from which the units were rented, declined to comment.

Since 2011, the council spent €300,000 on renting these 13 units for Labre Park as they deteriorated.

Then it came to an agreement in July to purchase some of these decrepit sanitary units from Portakabin Allspace, a spokesperson for the council confirmed. (The press office said it purchased nine, but a Freedom of Information request said ten.) Each unit cost the council €2,500 plus VAT.

Now it is paying to fix them up. Though it wasn’t put down in writing, both McMahon and People Before Profit councillor Bríd Smith say the council stated at a Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee meeting that the refurbishment of each unit was set to cost approximately €10,000 to €12,000.

(Sinn Féin councillor Anthony Connaghan also attended this meeting, but he could not be reached to confirm the figure.)

A spokesperson in the council’s press office said the units were bought at a discounted price and that it was the most economic method of upgrading the existing facilities”.

Right additional units have been rented from Des Adams Construction since 2014 to supplement the refurbished units now, which now belong to the council.

Mad Money

In July, Smith described the cost of renting the rundown units as the worst value for money she’d ever seen in her life.

Now that the council has forked out an extra €2,500 for each unit and is covering refurbishment costs, she is even more appalled.

“It’s mad money,” says Smith. “I mean, I got an extension built for that.”

At the time, she asked if she could submit a list of contractors who could do the work, but the council has its own list.

“I was shocked at how much it has cost us . . . I know for sure that it could be done cheaper than what we were charged,” she says.

Smith says this experience with the sanitary units at Labre Park has affected her view of the modular housing put forward by the council to tackle homelessness.

“Obviously, it’s majorly different,” she said. “But again, with these I would be concerned if there was no maintenance contract.”

Portakabin was one of the companies expected to be bidding to provide modular homes to the council.

Lessons Learnt?

It’s now clearer who is responsible for maintenance going forward.

For the ten sanitary units owned by the council, Dublin City Council is responsible. For the eight units rented from Des Adams Construction since 2014, the company is responsible.

It is unclear, however, whether the €500 per month rent paid by the council to Des Adams includes these maintenance costs. Des Adams would only take our query by old-fashioned post, which I’ll post tomorrow.

The work on the rest of the council’s newly acquired units should be done before Christmas. It’s a welcome gift for many of the Travellers in Labre Park. McMahon has already been in touch with the council regarding issues with the new units, and hopes that they can be resolved.

The units will be in place until a long-planned redevelopment of Labre Park eventually happens; another indicator suggesting that this redevelopment won’t be happening anytime soon.

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