In Foxrock, Work Continues on Apartments after the Developer and Property Finance Company Close down

At Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, on a recent Saturday cars whizz by on the Stillorgan road.

Across the busy road, behind an old stone wall is a development of luxury apartments that look half finished.

There is a crane to the left of the concrete shell of the building surrounded by yellow scaffolding and a large sign that reads “ONE Springfield Park”.

One Springfield Park is set to be a luxury development of 20 apartments but in April the developer Wardville Ltd, owned by Ben Devey, went into receivership.

In recent weeks the funder for the project, Cullaun Capital, closed up too.

Cullaun Capital is now closed to new business, says founder Stephen Bell by email.

He said that existing financing remains in place for the developers who have loans from Cullaun and that “those projects continue to move ahead with the loans serviced by a standalone business”.

Earlier this month, another property finance company, Pepper Money, announced that it was leaving the commercial lending market in Irish, citing “increasingly challenging market conditions.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance said he couldn’t rule out other commercial property lenders going out of business. “It is not possible to be definitive but in any economic downturn it is likely some firms will face difficulty,” he says.

The spokesperson says:“If the impact of a downturn differentially impacts a specific sector or subsector, then any specialist lender operating in, or dependent, on the same sector or subsector is likely to experience difficulties.”

One Springfield Park

In March 2018 Stephen Bell, a former senior executive with Ulster Bank and AIB, set up Cullaun Capital, a specialist lender to finance housing projects and nursing home developments.

According to the Irish Times, by September 2019, Cullaun Capital was helping to finance some of the city’s big developers including Bartra Capital — and its loan book was approaching €140m.

A spokesperson for the Central Bank says that Cullaun Capital was not regulated by the financial regulator because it is a special purpose vehicle.

Now Cullaun Capital has stopped funding new developments, says Stephen Bell, by email.

The Cullaun Capital website says that existing developers will have “ongoing dedicated attention” from a servicing company called CC Loan Servicing.

One Springfield Park used to be part of the grounds of Loreto College, Foxrock and sold for €3.6m in 2018, according to Ronald Quinlan writing in the Irish Independent.

There is planning permission in place for 20 homes, that is 16 two-bedroom apartments and four three-bedroom apartments, giving an average site value of €180,000 per apartment.

The construction in Foxrock will be completed, says Bell. “Construction of the apartments at the ‘Wardville’ site is being completed by a replacement contractor after the owners of that scheme requested that a receiver be appointed over the project,” he says by email.

Architect and housing commentator Mel Reynolds says that if there is oversupply in any section of the market, someone will get stung.

“The private sector is speculative development, it is a high risk, high reward model,” he says.

If any developer has overpaid for a site they have to wait for house prices to rise before they build, he says, or else they will make a loss on the development. If they borrowed to buy the site then “the clock is ticking,” says Reynolds. But he says while some lenders had stopped releasing finance during the lockdown, money is flowing again now and land prices don’t appear to have dropped.

In some cases they are actually rising. “Sites are being bid up,” says Reynolds. “This may be a sign of a resilient market or of an end of cycle acceleration,” he says. “We will only know this in retrospect.” End of cycle acceleration is a phenomenon in economics whereby there is a flurry of investment just before a downturn, he says.

Covid Momentum Fund

Bell didn’t directly answer questions as to what led to the closure of Cullaun Capital.

Pepper Money, the other company which recently pulled out of the Irish market, did so due to increasingly challenging market conditions, reduced availability of funding from wholesale lending markets and ongoing volatility and uncertainty in global financial markets brought about by the impact of Covid-19, according to its website.

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance says that Home Building Finance Ireland, a government fund that lends to builders, has trebled its lending in recent months. From €114m up to January 2020 to €340m by end of July 2020.

In May, Home Building Finance Ireland launched its €200m Covid Momentum Fund, included in lending figures above. Last week it added another €100m to ensure that construction will continue even if funding dries up.

“House builders have experienced unprecedented challenges since the onset of Covid disruption and we moved quickly to establish a range of effective supports to ensure continuity in the supply of new homes,” said Dara Deering, chief executive of Home Building Finance Ireland, in a press release.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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