Dublin City Council officials have known since 2015 that they would have to put together a vacant sites register by 1 January 2017.
So when that register appeared online that day, and it was entirely blank, some were dismayed.
“It seems to me they could have started this whole process in the middle of last year,” said Green Party Councillor Ciaran Cuffe.
“We knew this legislation was passed by the Dáil over a year ago, so they could have worked on it before now.”
What about the Council’s Land?
Under the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015, each local authority is required to establish and maintain a register of sites that were, in the local authority’s opinion, vacant for the preceding year.
The measure is aimed at tackling vacancy by listing the owners of vacant sites, and serving them with an annual levy of 3 percent of the market value of the site.
That includes council land, but Dublin City Council didn’t include its own vacant properties on the vacant site register it published earlier this month. It’s unclear why.
The minimum size requirement for a site to be placed on the register is 0.05 hectares. Of 112 sites owned by Dublin City Council in the city, 85 are this size or larger, according to a list given to People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh.
Cuffe said that information on the council’s own vacant properties would be clearly available. “I gave [Dublin City Council Chief Executive] Owen Keegan a list of city-council owned properties over a year ago,” he says.
“We should have taken our own sites and included them on the register at this stage, but there may be a reluctance to do that from senior management,” he said.
Dublin City Council’s press office has yet to respond to queries relating to the listing of its own properties on the register, why they didn’t list them, and what prevented them starting the whole process earlier.
When asked after Monday’s monthly council meeting at City Hall, Assistant Chief Executive Declan Wallace didn’t give a direct answer as to why the council’s sites hadn’t been loaded up onto the vacant site register yet.
The council is “a big organisation”, said Wallace. “Different pieces of land are internally owned by housing, by development, by parks, by a whole range of interests.”
They will be loaded up, he said.
Cuffe says there are plenty of vacant sites the council could have inspected and determined the owners of prior to publishing their register.
“I think it’s an own goal, not just by Dublin City Council, but by all four local authorities,” he says. “I mean you couldn’t make this up.”
It could have at least more details explaining the complexities of the process, said Cuffe.
Cuffe wrote to Chief Executive Owen Keegan about the vacant vacant sites register. It takes time to determine which sites to place on the register, Keegan replied, in an email to Cuffe.
“It is also a requirement of the Act that for a site to be entered on the Register the Council must be satisfied that it has been vacant for the preceding 12 months,” he wrote. “Details of ownership, title to the site and the market value pertaining to the site must also be ascertained.”
Information on the ownership of a site and its market value, wrote Keegan, “is not always readily available and it can be time consuming and labour intensive to get the required information”.
So, the problem could be a resource issue within the council, said Cuffe – a suspicion shared by Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey.
“Part of the problem for local-authority staff, given the amount of cutbacks over the last number of years, is that they do what they have to do today and their isn’t sufficient time to do what you can put off until tomorrow,” says Lacey.
That’s an issue that has come up in relation to the slow progress on social housing projects, too.
Lacey says Dublin City Council no longer has the number of planning and architectural staff it once had. Because of this, he’s willing to be patient with the filling in of the vacant sites register.
“I would be prepared to give the council the month of January to produce the register,” he says. “I got the impression that there was a sense that we want to be really careful about this because if a site goes on public display that is not owned by the person they say it’s owned by, or if it’s under the size, or if there’s an active planning permission being pursued on it, it could discredit the whole process in the early stages.”
But it will likely take longer than the rest of January to fill in the register.
In reply to the Green Party’s Cuffe, Keegan wrote that the council intends to write to the owners of 60 properties in the inner city by mid-January, “giving them the required notice of our intention to place their properties on the Register”.
Owners then have 28 days to appeal the council’s decision to place their property on the register to An Bord Pleanála.
Resources and Outreach
As Cuffe sees it, there are two takeaway lessons from publishing the blank register. Sufficient resources need to be put in place to tackle vacant sites, and the council management has to communicate better with councillors and the public, he said.
In his letter to Cuffe, Keegan said council management are “reviewing out [our?] very conservative approach” in determining whether a building or site is derelict – something he’s been saying for a while.
At Monday’s council meeting, Labour Councillor Mary Freehill said that councillors were told some time ago how much vacant land there was in the city, and that she wanted regular updates on the progress of the register and levy.
“I’m earnestly asking you that you make all the resources available,” she said. “This is absolutely essential to supply.”
Says Cuffe: “I find it frustrating and I think we need to up our game in terms of communication as a council, and incidents like this don’t help.”