Brendan Behan once famously said of Canada that it would be a great place when it was finished.
But even if he were alive today, he'd surely hope that none of his audience travelled to Dublin – because Canadian visitors here would surely say the same about the capital, even in its present state.
Dubliners are well known for adopting a relaxed attitude to foreign concepts such as organisation and accountability. But while casual acceptance of mediocrity may have its charms, it hasn’t served the city’s citizens particularly well.
Housing is perhaps the most pressing example. It’s often said that Dublin has a housing crisis, and anybody who is trying to buy, struggling to rent or relying on homeless services will certainly attest to that. But really what we have isn’t a housing crisis – it’s a usage crisis.
Last weekend, I walked the 2km stretch from Kilmainham to Christchurch and counted 43 derelict buildings along the main route. That wasn’t including vacant offices or the countless empty ‘above the shop’ units.
Forty-three. Along just one short route.
Surely only Dublin could conspire to have simultaneous crises of not enough housing and too many empty homes?
The dereliction of this particular part of the city is all the more shocking given that it is a designated tourist trail, but this goes far beyond what sort of impression we’re giving tourists. The urban dereliction crisis goes right to the heart of what sort of city we want to create for ourselves.
Dublin is many things but it is not a lived-in city. Vibrant pockets of housing exist in places like Temple Bar, the Liberties and the Docklands, but across the city – from Dame Street to Merrion Square and all down the Quays – so many potential housing units have been boarded up or left to gather dust.
In a sense, Dublin is Ireland’s largest ghost estate, and that’s not a legacy of recession but rather of the culture that has neglected urban renewal in favour of suburban builds.
We’re constantly told that the answer to our housing problems is to find more green fields out near the M50 – but what about looking closer to home? What about looking at the buildings we already have?
Our derelict buildings hold the key to the future of Dublin. Turning just a fraction of them into urban homes would have so many spin-off benefits. Not only would it ease the housing crisis, but it would cut down on traffic, increase cycling rates and offer retail possibilities to shops currently surrounded by tumbleweed once the commuters have gone home.
When I raised this issue on Twitter, local Councillors spoke of their frustrated attempts to address it. In theory they have the legal right to issue a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) on derelict sites but actually doing so is a legal and bureaucratic nightmare. The result is that nothing happens.
The Council also has the right to apply a financial penalty of 3% of the market value for every year a site remains derelict. However, this applies only to sites officially declared derelict and so far a laughably small 56 such sites exist across the whole of the city, from Ballyfermot to Raheny. In reality, some individual streets have almost that many.
From a property owner’s point of view, renovating one of these sites is also incredibly difficult – not for reasons of construction, but once again, red tape. A friend who is currently attempting to make a home out of a city centre building that has been derelict for 30 years told me that she may not have undertaken the project had she realised the bureaucracy and cost involved.
There are two ways to tackle this problem.
Firstly, the various councils need to aggressively pursue land hoarders. The CPO process has to be simplified, even if that involves national legislation, while the councils themselves have to adopt a more proactive approach to adding buildings to the register of derelict sites and then actively applying financial levies in order to make land hoarding unviable.
We can all play our part in this by reporting derelict sites and forcing the Council to act. If nothing else, imagine the financial boost to the city a 3% of market value levy on derelict sites would create if it was actually applied.
Secondly, we need to make it as easy as possible for people to renovate urban derelict buildings. Grants, tax credits and property tax exemptions should all be employed to encourage people who want to bring parts of our city back to life.
Literally thousands of homes sit idle across this city, creating eyesores and fuelling a property crisis that has led to homeless people sleeping in the doorways of empty buildings.
It’s time we stopped the casual acceptance of the dereliction and decay that blights this city.
Dublin could be an incredible city to live in. Let’s finish it.