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Column: 'I loved living in Priory Hall. I loved this apartment'

Sinéad O’Carroll took a trip out to Donaghmede to see the ill-fated complex for herself – and found the ending to an Irish story of bad planning, weak regulation and greedy lenders.

Sinead O'Carroll

ON THE DAY the Mahon Tribunal reported its final findings, it seemed fitting to be on Dublin’s northside, looking at 189 empty homes which are unsuitable for inhabiting because of bad planning rules and weak regulation.

Driving to Priory Hall from Dublin city centre, I passed a giant Tesco just off the main road at Clare Hall. The monster supermarket is an indicator of the up-and-coming area this was supposed to be, what it was advertised – and sold – as. Amenities were promised at every empty space but none (other than the Tesco) have ever materialised.

Before hitting Priory Hall, I notice Belmayne – another problem development. That housing estate still has the snazzy boarding surrounding it, advertising stylish living quarters and a lavish Celtic Tiger lifestyle. That, obviously, is not the reality.

The area is now a poster child of how the construction industry was run during the boom years.

Priory Hall and Belmayne have more in common than bad planning and fire hazards. They also share this view – a wasteland between two property boom dreams gone bad.

Priory Hall itself is dreary from the moment it appears. There are two boarded up businesses – a tanning salon that never opened despite its chirpy, purple appearance and a small corner Centra store.

There are also a number of security men – four in total – who ask me my name and business. “I’m just meeting a friend to help her move furniture,” I say, hiding my camera.

That friend is Ursula Graham, a young professional who bought her dream apartment in the complex. She is a member of the hard-working residents’ committee who has not been afraid to speak out to ensure her safety and that of the other 255 people who lived in Priory Hall.

On 17 October 2011, all the residents of the four apartment blocks were evacuated by orders from Dublin City Council. The substandard fire safety work had created an environment so hazardous that the Council could not allow anyone to live there until repair works were carried out.

The work needed is so extensive that the bill will come to at least €7.3 million. However, no one can afford to pay for it – the developer Tom McFeely has been declared bankrupt in England and the council says it can’t take on the responsibility of fixing what obviously needs fixing.

At the moment, to an amateur eye, the place looks closer to demolition than repair.

But, as I observed the uncovered buildings, exposed to the elements, and the uneven brickwork, it wasn’t just the safety issues that came to mind. Even if the development met the required safety standards, the workmanship across the whole development seems more than shabby.

Hallways and lobbies look like the pre-fabricated structures one would find on a building site, complete with builders’ tea stations and odd piles of rubbish.

Some of the metalwork looks like it could have been done more professionally by Transition Year students and the elevator looks as trustworthy as one in the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

And then there’s the car park. Wires hang from places wires shouldn’t hang from, water collects in areas and never evaporates and cars have not been able to park there since 2007 because of flooding. One morning, residents came down to find their cars floating, yes floating, out of the underground space.

“How were these things looked over at building stage?” I ask Ursula. And it all comes back to an Irish system of weak regulation and, more specifically, self-regulation. The apartments came with all the requisite sign-offs (engineers, fire safety officers and surveyors) and documents. Fire plans are signed off on at planning/drawing stages so nobody actually inspects the building after it is complete – and as unbelievable as that seems, it is legally fine.

The lenders giving out the mortgages are also required to send a surveyor but during those busy boom years, that surveyor was more akin to a valuer. His or her job could be completed by merely driving by the complex in Donaghmede (yes, it exists; yes, it should be priced at market rates).

It’s pretty simple to see how Ursula and the other residents ended up here.

However, it is less easy to explain how Dublin City Council spent millions on 26 of the apartments without scrutinising the development more. It is, afterall, taxpayer’s money it was spending.

A first-time buyer’s nightmare

The fallout for residents is, from what I could see, three-fold. They were unsafe for years in homes that were fire hazards and substandard. They now face paying rent on top of mortgages on homes that are pretty much worthless, which will render most if not all bankrupt or insolvent. Finally, they have all lost homes that they were happy in – that they wanted to purchase. Many, like Ursula, are first-time buyers.

As we look around Ursula’s own apartment, she tells me: “I loved living here. I loved this apartment.”

There is a beautiful wooden floor in the spacious living room, a newly-installed bathroom and a lonely bottle of champagne left sitting in a box in the middle of the floor.

“When I bought it, I was delighted. It was just around the corner from my family and it had the promise of becoming a great area,” she says.

“But as long as I am safe – that’s the main thing,” she adds, pragmatically.

As we walk along the back patio of her apartment block, I ask about some of the broken tiles. “I presume this has happened since you moved out?” thinking that kids had made their way in and messed the place up a bit more. “No, they were always like that,” she answers.

Even the unbroken tiles don’t feel steady under my feet, and – as if reading my mind – a security man walks by and tells me to mind my footing. “The steps up there are quite slippy,” he warns. I’m pretty sure by now he knows I’m not there to move furniture.

D-day for the residents is 24 April, when the Supreme Court will decide if Dublin City Council will remain responsible for paying for the temporary housing they are currently in. The apartment owners have been broken up and placed in Nama and Belmayne properties (the decent ones) since last Christmas. The council have already paid out about €700,000 in rent and do not want to continue to do so. But the alternative is for residents to pay rent for their temporary accommodation, plus mortgage repayments on a home they cannot live in.

Basically, they’ll be on their own to fend for themselves.

Negotiations with the banks are not that hopeful as interest and capital continues to accrue on the minimum €250,000 loans despite moratoriums on monthly installments.

And what of the developer of this complex? McFeely was sentenced to three months in prison and fined €1 million but has since got this overturned in the Irish courts.

Ursula says the residents will fight on – with the banks, with McFeely and with the Council.

Even if the remedial works are carried out and the building gets the all-clear, many residents do not want to move back and as I walk back to my car, I’m not surprised. Negative equity aside, the buildings are not only personal dreams gone bad, they are an epitome of our national nightmare.

Column: 'I loved living in Priory Hall. I loved this apartment'
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