On the 10 May the master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan, speaking at the new Dáil committee on homelessness highlighted many of the lessons that can be learnt from the rapid construction of social housing projects without detailed planning stating: ‘I personally don’t want to see another Ballymun again’. Honohan was highlighting that the town had become a byword for the mismanagement of urban planning and management. Perhaps it is important as the state appears set on a new phrase of rapid construction of social housing to re-examine the history of Ballymun, to see what lessons we can learn from it and if those lessons are being implemented.
Ballymun was a direct response to a housing crisis which Dublin was experiencing in the 1950s and 60s. Dublin’s housing stock was not only under pressure from a rising population but also, in the city, extremely poorly maintained. Between the summer and end of 1963 tenements across the city collapsed or were evacuated due to safety concerns. House collapses in Bolton Street and Fenian Street led to the death of four people, forcing Dublin Corporation to adopt ‘emergency measures’ to deal with the crisis. These measures included the removal of over 1,000 people from homes deemed to be dangerous, leading to a doubling of the Corporation’s housing list.
The answer to the surge in housing demand quickly came from central government: pre-fabricated buildings. Such building techniques had become popular in Britain and Europe in the 1950s/60s and offered the government a relatively cheap and rapid way to construct homes. For some the use of such modern construction techniques and the introduction of high-rise living also signalled that Ireland was entering the modern age of public housing. Alongside the provision of spacious homes, constructed to high standards, the planners and government would meet the other needs of the new community, these included: shops, schools, green spaces, playgrounds, community halls and meeting rooms, a health clinic, a swimming pool and landscaped parks. It was to be a model of high-rise living, providing families with every amenity they required. However, as highlighted by Robert Somerville-Woodward, by the time construction began, in 1965, states across Europe were already abandoning such developments due to many of the problems that would scourge the new town, including poor maintenance of communal areas and the social isolation of residents.
The first residents began arriving in the new town in 1966 and were delighted by the homes that greeted them. For many coming from inner-city tenements and others after years in cramped conditions on the Corporation’s housing list, the provision of three and four bedroom flats and houses, with central heating and hot water on demand, was warmly welcomed. However, while the homes were deemed adequate, the lack of facilities, many of which were incomplete even in the 1970s, led to the unravelling of the project. In particular, the town centre, to primarily consist of a shopping centre was not completed until after the completion of all the residential units, meaning that some tenants now housed miles from Dublin city-centre were literally years without access to shopping facilities. Added to this, the inclusion, and hence delay, of much of the town’s social facilities and a health centre as part of the new town centre further alienated the residents. Thus, when the town was formally taken over by Dublin Corporation in February 1969 it lacked much basic infrastructure that was essential for a properly functioning urban area.
By the 1970s the socio-economic demographics of the new town changed as more affluent tenants began to leave the area. This problem was exacerbated in 1985 by the introduction of the Surrender Grant Scheme. This scheme gave £5,000 to residents who decided to purchase their house, but as flats were not covered by the scheme many residents seeking to purchase their home sought transfers to houses. The scheme was an un-mitigating disaster for Ballymun, and in 1985 over 1,000 flats contained new tenants. This turnover of residents was to continue into the future and was in a large part responsible for difficulties creating a sense of community within the town. In tangent with this, many offers of housing in the area were declined, leading to the accumulation of a high percent of those from a social-economic deprived background or with substance abuse problems being housed there, by the 1980s the area suffered from a severe drugs problem.
Despite, and perhaps because of, the difficulties that the community faced, many groups and organisations were formed to aid in the development of facilities and supports. These ranged from youth groups, to the establishment of a credit union, to other groups pushing for improvements in housing and the built environment. In the 1980s/90s a number of reports were commissioned to seek a way to solve the many difficulties that the town’s population faced. The results of these was the establishment of Ballymun Regeneration Ltd. in 1997, which was responsible for the demolition of all flat complex’s in the estate and their replacement with housing. The planners of the ‘new’ Ballymun would seek to address many of the failures of the original project. As well as the replacement of existing social housing, private housing would also be constructed to change the social-economic demographic of the area; schools would be upgraded; a new, modern shopping centre would also be part of the plans, as would a theatre and other recreational facilities. The area would be provided ample playgrounds and of extreme importance would be an investment in the human as well as the built capital of the area. A renewed focus on educational attainment and training would seek to improve not only the physical environment of the area but also provide greater opportunities to engage in the ‘Celtic tiger’. For this was truly a creation of that tiger, Ireland now had the money to correct the mistakes of the past, indeed break with the past, and what better way to demonstrate that the economic miracle was benefitting everyone than the erasure of those tower blocks that had come to signify the inequality of Irish society?
The regeneration of Ballymun has seen the demolition of all flat complexes and the construction of some of the promised facilities including a new swimming pool and the axis theatre. However, with the economic downturn much of the promised amenities have not been delivered. In particular, with the closure of Tesco’s in 2014, the shopping centre’s anchor tenant and one of the last remaining shops, Ballymun is again without a proper shopping centre. (The site of the new proposed centre remains vacate).
Thus, have we learnt the lessons of Ballymun? Like Edmund Honohan, the state has no desire to build large-scale social housing estates again. Rather the ideal for urban planners is a social mix, which house’s tenants from a range of social and economic backgrounds. This type of housing means that those engaged in anti-social behaviour will not become an overarching feature of any area; that amenities for the whole community can be funded by the community; that commercial enterprises, such as shops, will see the benefits of serving such communities. It is these lessons that the government and local authorities seem to have taken from the experience of Ballymun. But for residents of such large-scale social housing projects many of these lessons have been ignored during the recession. As can be seen in Ballymun, the lack of a shopping centre was deemed one of the central concerns of tenants arriving in the 1960s, and yet the same problem exists in 2016. Throughout the town’s existence external financial factors and economic downturn have affect the provision of services. This should be the primary lesson that we take from this case study: that short-term savings lead to long-term problems that are also much costlier to resolve.
Robert Somerville-Woodward, Ballymun, a history (2 vol., Dublin, 2002) i & ii; see also Robert Somerville-Woodward, Ballymun, a history, Synopsis (Dublin, 2002), available at Ballymun Regeneration Ltd. (http://www.brl.ie/pdf/ballymun_a_history_1600_1997_synopsis.pdf) (20 May 2016).
Boyle M and Rogerson R J (2006) ‘“Third Way” urban policy and the new moral politics of community: A comparative analysis of Ballymun in Dublin and the Gorbals in Glasgow’ in Urban Geography, xxvii, pp 201-227, available at (http://strathprints.strath.ac.uk/681/1/strathprints000681.pdf) (20 May 2016).
Ballymun regeneration Ltd., Sustaining regeneration: a social plan for Ballymun, available at Ballymun Regeneration Ltd. (http://www.brl.ie/pdf/SRBallymunLowRes_FA.pdf) (23 May 2016).
And for a look at the community’s view of the regeneration:
Ballymun Community Action Program (CAP), On the Balcony of a new millennium, regenerating Ballymun: Building on 30 years of community experience, expertise and energy (Dublin, 2000), available at (https://uniteyouthdublin.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/on-the-balcony-regenerating-ballymun.pdf) (20 May 2016).
Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.