The Department of Housing will encourage local authorities across the country to scale up their use of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) to take over vacant and derelict housing, Prime Time has learned.

As part of a new plan to tackle dereliction, which is expected to be announced in the coming weeks, the Department told Prime Time that it is hoping that local authorities will acquire at least 2,500 vacant units by 2026 and present them for sale.

The new messaging will coincide with the introduction of a purchasers' grant of between €20,000 and €30,000 for those willing to take on derelict property, a measure recently proposed by Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien.

Local Authorities will also be expected combine more CPOs and ordinary acquisitions with their existing schemes to convert derelict buildings into social housing.

A central advisory service in the Housing Agency is currently being set up to assist local authorities with these measures, while the Housing Finance Agency will provide a bridging finance facility to fund the local authority CPOs.

The main schemes are known as "Buy & Renew", where a local authority buys and refurbishes a derelict building for social housing, and "Repair & Lease", where a private owner is given a loan to carry out refurbishment in exchange for providing long-term council tenancies.

Some local councillors are sceptical that the measures will have the desired impact, however.

The Government is proposing a purchasers' grant for those who buy derelict property (stock image)

The Mayor of Galway City, Colette Connolly, told Prime Time that people are weary of failed policies in tackling dereliction.

From the urban renewal schemes in the 1980s onwards, to the more recent Derelict Sites Register, which allows authorities to order a clean up, levy a fine or issue CPOs on properties, few have converted vacant properties into homes in great numbers.

"Many people come to me, 15 years on the [housing] list, their children have grown up – and they're looking at these derelict sites and no action. They are very frustrated," Mayor Connolly said.

She said that such a scale-up of activity on CPOs is hard to envisage.

"We take years to go down the compulsory purchase route. The chief executive and the staff are very loathe to follow that route because it's lengthy, it's complicated, it involves a lot of legal process and it's a very expensive route."

Information released to Prime Time by Galway City Council shows that it has completed just three CPOs on derelict properties in the last decade.

Similarly, there are currently just nine properties on the council’s Derelict Sites Register.

By contrast, a Government report published last week on behalf of the Northern and Western Assembly identified 444 vacant and derelict buildings in Galway city and its suburbs last year.

The problem, according to Mayor Connolly, is that current planning policy, which allows five-year planning permissions to be extended, conflicts with a policy to properly classify buildings as derelict.

There are around 1,400 properties on the Derelict Site Registers nationally (stock image)

"It allows a huge amount of time for the dereliction to be dealt with by the owner," she said.

Galway City is not alone in failing to tackle dereliction. Information from the Department of Housing shows that there were just 111 CPOs between 2018 and 2020 across all 31 local authorities.

There are just 1,369 properties on the Derelict Site Registers nationally, 6% of the 22,096 derelict addresses reported in the GeoDirectory Residential Buildings Report from the last quarter of 2021.

The Repair & Lease and the Buy & Renew schemes have converted just 1,008 derelict buildings into social homes across the country since 2017.

The Government’s upcoming plans on dereliction are part of its Croí Cónaithe, or Living Heart, programme, which it hopes will invigorate both cities and towns, and also its Town Centre First policy on community regeneration.

One man eagerly awaiting the full details is Owen Coughlan, an architect in Loughrea, Co Galway, which has 115 derelict buildings. He is currently drawing up plans for a prospective purchaser of a derelict commercial premises with living space above it.

The premises is representative of many vacant properties in the town, Mr Coughlan said.

"If you take Loughrea, there's maybe a handful of families that still live over their commercial units. After that, the floors above all the rest of the units are basically vacant or used for storage."

He welcomed the Government’s plan to offer financial support to buyers, who will look for a family home, rather than builders or developers who will look for a short-term gain.

The Government is expected to announce its plan to tackle dereliction in the coming weeks (stock image)

However, he said that a grant of between €20,000 and €30,000 would not be enough.

"In terms of this property, it's not near enough to be economically viable to start renovating this property," Mr Coughlan said.

Renovation works could cost as much as €300,000 to convert the property into a suitable living space, he said.

One city council which has bucked the trend and eradicated a significant amount of dereliction in its centre is Waterford. It serves as a ray of hope for the Department of Housing.

Waterford City and County CEO Paul Johnston puts it down to the council’s decision to focus on dereliction six years ago and the determination of its Vacant Homes Office.

After the council determined that 25% of housing list applicants wanted to live in Waterford city centre, it concluded that there were "quite a number" of vacant properties in the city, he said.

Since 2017, the council has purchased 45 properties using CPOs and acquired 25 others by agreement.

Those 45 have now been refurbished and turned into social housing in the city, under the Buy & Renew scheme. There are a further 70 individual units in progress, according to Mr Johnston.

The council also pioneered the Repair & Lease scheme, before it was rolled out nationally.

The Croí Cónaithe, or Living Heart, programme, hopes to invigorate cities and towns (stock image)

"We have approximately just over 300 units in the pipeline, and there'd be roughly 140 units completed," Mr Johnston said.

Local woman Mary Power, who owns a building in Waterford city, heard the council’s call and engaged with the Repair & Lease scheme.

The upper three floors of her property were derelict and vacant for the last 17 years, she said.

But because her business on the ground floor, which supplied fire places, was struggling, the bank would not give her a loan to renovate them.

Now three years on, she has three council tenants and she couldn’t be happier.

"So the rent that we get on the three apartments, which is slightly below market value, that pays back the loan in its entirety over 10 years, and then we owe nothing on it," she said.

While the value for money on the Repair & Lease scheme has yet to be fully scrutinised, local advocates say it’s providing people with secure homes.

Another participant in the Repair & Lease scheme is developer Owen Sheehan, who is engaged in a project to provide 71 homes for elderly people on the vacant site of St Joseph’s House in Manor Hill in Waterford City.

Although the Government is moving away from long term-leasing from developers on new builds on so-called "green field" sites, Mr Sheehan said the council’s involvement is essential for "brown field", or derelict, sites.

Getting funding from elsewhere for a project like would be "next to impossible", he said, since it is a derelict site subject to a preservation order.

The developer also recently turned a defunct pub, Ryan’s on Cork City’s Barrack Street, into eight apartments.

Between 2018 and 2020 across all 31 local authorities, there were just 111 CPOs

He said the Department of Housing’s plan for a planning permission exemption for the conversion of pubs or restaurants into housing, means they’ll be built faster.

Mr Johnston said a huge part of Waterford's success in tackling dereliction has been the work ethic of its Vacant Homes Office, which has taken on age-old problems of tracing owners and verifying property titles, along with selling the message to the owners of derelict buildings.

To date, only three local authorities have full-time Vacant Homes Officers, with others only employing people part-time in the role.

The Department told Prime Time that the Minister intends to make it a requirement that all local authorities appoint full-time Vacant Homes Officers in order to avail of an increase of funding to €60,000 for the Vacant Homes Offices.

In addition to increasing the housing supply, Mr Johnston said that tackling dereliction brings life "back to properties, communities and streets" and is "a win for everyone".

But he said that local authorities need determination.

"To make this work, you have to go out there and chase this. Owners of vacant property don't necessarily come to the door," he said.

"You have to put yourself out there through the Vacant Homes Office, make people aware of what we can give them, what's available and what the local authorities can bring to them."