Cllr Aengus O’Rourke: voiced frustration at “perfectly good, three-bedroom houses” being left idle in Athlone’s Sarsfield Square.

Long-vacant homes in Athlone's Sarsfield Square to be put back into use

Several houses in Athlone's Sarsfield Square which have been vacant for some time will be refurbished and put back into use next year, the annual budget meeting of Westmeath County Council was told recently.

The issue was raised by councillor Aengus O'Rourke, who voiced his frustration at "perfectly good" houses in the town being left idle during a housing crisis.

The homes in question are under the control of the Respond Housing Association, and in his comments at the budget meeting Cllr O'Rourke referred to the recent financial issues at a separate housing body.

"We've seen the issues around the Fr Peter McVerry Trust. It has been unsettling, I think, in the housing area, especially among the housing bodies," he said.

"We in Athlone have had our issues with Respond, particularly in relation to Sarsfield Square, where five houses today remain boarded-up.

"Five perfectly good, three-bedroom houses, some of which have been more than five years derelict.

"They've attracted anti-social behaviour and dumping, but apart from that they are five three-bedroom houses that should have five families living in them today.

"I think we, as a local authority, have given Respond all of the time that they've needed over the last year and a half to get their house in order - excuse the pun - and they haven't."

Cllr O'Rourke said he believed the council should "take control of those houses by whatever means are within our ability," and this call was seconded by Cllr Paul Hogan.

"I think we have proven, as a local authority, that we always address a house that becomes idle, and we have done so very quickly. We don't have idle properties - we don't stand by and allow houses to sit there vacant," said Cllr O'Rourke.

However, a response from Antonia Smyth, head of housing at Westmeath County Council, said progress was expected on the vacant units in the new year.

Ms Smyth indicated there were four vacant houses in Sarsfield Square which were under the control of Respond, and she said it was planning to refurbish these first, before going on to carry out upgrades of its currently-occupied houses in the estate.

She said that current tenants in Respond houses in Sarsfield Square would be temporarily moved into the refurbished vacant units while upgrades of their homes took place.

"We would share your frustration with the vacant units in Sarsfield Square, but we have had very productive conversations with (Respond) in the past few days," Ms Smyth told the meeting.

"There is significant engagement at senior management level to bring those units back into stock next year.

"They have committed to me that there are four void units belonging to them, and they are in the process of assessing the works to be done. There's obviously a deep retrofit and other complex works required.

"They are due to give us a timeline at the end of January, and this falls into part of a schedule of upgrade works in Sarsfield Square on their 16 units next year.

"The four (vacant) units are pivotal to that, in that they'll upgrade those voids and then they'll decant their existing tenants into those houses, once complete, to allow them to do work on the other units in the development."

Ms Smyth also pointed out that Respond had undertaken "€100,000 worth of health and safety works" on its existing housing stock in the estate this year.