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As Ireland searches for a more sustainable housing model, the group that spearheaded greener living in Cloughjordan is often held as an example but it wasn’t spared by the recession’s credit crunch. Through sheer willpower, its inhabitants have kept it afloat.
Laura Roddy, The Currency. March 2021
Behind the shop fronts and houses that line the main street of Cloughjordan in Tipperary lies Ireland’s only ecovillage.
Fifty-five carbon-friendly houses, a biodiversity garden, and a “community-assisted” farm span a 67-acre site, invisible from the road front. Turning right after the Post Office, a pathway leads into the village where plots of land with just their foundations stagger their way down a slope and towards a 32-bed hostel. The gardens and farm lay further on.
The empty sites are a stark reminder of the challenges the village has faced in its short history – mostly brought about by the 2008 recession, when some of the 80 members who had each placed a deposit on a plot came to the realization they wouldn’t be able to finance a new build.
While the villagers have since achieved their aim of living more sustainably, reducing their ecological footprint by less than half the national average, according to an independent study by the Tipperary Energy Agency in 2015, the project has been fighting the prospect of liquidation for the past decade.
Sustainable Projects Ireland, the charity established in 1999 to run the village, has been tasked with managing debts of €2 million, according to a former director and resident Peadar Kirby. The restructuring of bank and investor loans in 2015 has allowed the village to find its feet.
The organization is hopeful to continue the ambitious project and step into stage two of its development phase but roadblocks lie ahead – including the stall of site sales until a proper sewerage system is in place, something that puts the ecovillage and the local council at loggerheads.
Kirby says to fully understand the context of Cloughjordan, it is important to return to the late 1990s when members of a Dublin-based organic food co-operative came up with the idea of establishing a housing project in the city.
From Temple Bar to Tipperary
They had their eyes on the old CIE site in Temple Bar but decided a housing co-operative in the city would not address the wider issue of how to live more sustainably, which was their prime motivator. “That’s where the idea of the ecovillage was born and of course it couldn’t happen in a city,” Kirby says.
An advertisement placed in the Irish Farmers Journal piqued the interest of landowners around the country. Among those who replied, Cloughjordan emerged a clear winner, ticking many boxes for the founding members: Proximity to a train line allowed for easy access to Dublin, and the land’s connection to an existing village meant the project would not be isolated.
“The founders always say Cloughjordan was the only place where the local people really tried to convince them to come to. They saw it as a way of addressing rural decline,” Kirby says. According to census figures, the existing village had a population of 394 people in 2006, which increased to 612 inhabitants by 2016, with 123 of those living in the ecovillage.
It was certainly a feat that no objections were made when the group sought planning permission from North Tipperary County Council for houses, roads, and community buildings after buying the land for €975,000 in 2003, but Kirby does explain that members had started to engage with the local community before the acquisition.
“The founders worked with the two local primary schools and the children built a model of what the ecovillage could look like. They realized there was a need to get the local community involved,” he said. “There were all sorts of images around people who were interested in environmental issues at the time. Sometimes you hear the term ‘eco warriors’ and I think there were many local people who would have been a bit nervous.”
“The founders always say Cloughjordan was the only place where the local people really tried to convince them to come to,” says Peadar Kirby.
It was an easier task to get commitment from those interested in living in an ecovillage. The founders had traveled the country since 1999 to talk about their vision and 80 parties were onboard for joining the village.
“We were moving into the Celtic Tiger and money seemed to be no object. I think that helped people buy into it. There was a sense that you could do whatever you like, and banks were throwing money at people,” Kirby says.
Finances were raised from members, each party placed a €15,000 deposit before buying a plot outright, while other funding was secured from an unnamed investor and a bank loan.
In 2007, after an archaeological assessment took place and planning permission was granted, the sites were connected to electricity, water and a district heating system was built – it is the only one of its kind in Ireland, servicing each of the 132 sites with heat generated from the unused wood of a Ballinasloe-based sawmill.
An installation error means the solar panels that were intended to back up the district heating system are currently lying idle in a field in front of the village’s community center. It is not a major issue currently but will need to be remedied if more houses are built and energy demand increases.
“Site prices were €60,000 or €65,000,” Kirby says. “People could buy houses in the village of Cloughjordan for that price. I know people that did… If you have limited means, buying a site for the same amount as you could buy a house, was a lot to ask. I think that became obvious to us after the crash in 2008 and 2009 when selling sites became more difficult.”
“We leveraged the development and put in the infrastructure first… and we are carrying a legacy of debt from putting in that infrastructure.”
It wasn’t until 2013 that the project really felt the impact of the recession. At that stage, 55 homes had been built, alongside the hostel, and no sales had come through for further sites. “There was no building in the pipeline and we suddenly found that our income, which depended on sales, evaporated,” Kirby explains.
Four office staff that managed the sale of sites and everyday operations of the ecovillage were let go. Kirby says that work now depended on individual members of the group to volunteer their time: “To meet our borrowings and to remain afloat became a major challenge.”
The group had to put its plans on the back burner, including the installation of public lighting, the construction of footpaths, and other landscaping features. “To get the funding together to do that has taken some time,” Kirby says.
Cloughjordan ecovillage’s members have kept the project afloat with volunteer work.
The current director of the group, Michael Canney says all the frills were reduced when money became an issue: “We’d planned that when we cleared the debt, we would be left with a surplus which would have been the bells and whistles, the fancy landscaping features, but we’ve had to wait.”
Canney joined the project in 2007 and built a timber-framed house on his site, moving into the village in 2012. He took his place as a director of the board in February 2019, six months before Kirby retired from it.
“Looking back retrospectively, our model was very much contained within – though we thought we were working against it – the Celtic Tiger paradigm of debt and development,” Canney says. “We leveraged the development and put in the infrastructure first… and we are carrying a legacy of debt from putting in that infrastructure.”
For Canney, the main difference between Cloughjordan ecovillage and other housing developments around Ireland that were faced with similar problems surrounding finance, and a lack of it, is that those were built with the hope of selling later. “At Cloughjordan, the houses were built by the people who were going to live in them.”
The village is an unfinished estate, but unlike Ireland’s ghost estates, it has not encountered any of the social problems like vandalism and theft that others have.
Reeds to unlock €2 million property value
By 2018 and 2019, when the project looked like it could get back on track, Canney says it hit another dead end. “We ran into a problem with the wastewater treatment situation.”
The local plant in the Cloughjordan area is at full capacity, which means the ecovillage needs to put in place a sewage treatment system that will accommodate its inhabitants.
Though the village has a temporary measure in place until a new system accommodates present and future members, permission for housing on the existing sites cannot be granted. Sites cannot be sold in good faith, which is how the organization makes its money to operate. “Our liquid assets are the sites and if the sites can’t be sold then we are really in a bind.”
Canney says that though the organization is in a better position, It would be wrong to say it has “significantly reduced our debt.” Instead, it has created a roadmap through planning obstacles for when it can resume selling sites once more. “We have done the washout and we will be able to clear our debts.”
Though he declined to give exact figures for the current year, accounts filed for 2018 show current liabilities of €1.4 million, including a loan of €790,000 by an “ethical investor”, a €130,000 bank loan, and almost €200,000 of a loan to pay back to members. The accounts show that both the bank and the investor loan were reduced by 40 percent from the original value owed.
“We are very fortunate that we have supportive creditors who have afforded us significant forbearance over the years, and we hope that will continue,” Canney says. The organization got an independent valuation of its unsold sites in 2013, which stood at €2.5 million. On February 5, 2016, a second valuation priced them at €2.1 million.
The community’s new amphitheatre. Photo: just multimedia.com
Part of the organization’s blueprint is to put a reed bed system in place, which acts as a wetland to treat effluent and directs the treated water back into the soil to be used for drainage or surrounding waterways. The organization, however, has run into issues after applying for planning permission last year.
“The problem with these systems is that although they’re tried and tested at certain scales, they’re not really common in Ireland. So, we are dealing with a Local Authority which is trained and has spent its career dealing with municipal wastewater plants and does not sufficiently understand the new technologies,” Canney explains.
If it gets the go-ahead, Canney says the system will be representing a significant innovation in terms of wastewater treatment in Ireland – something which the organization strives for with its status as an educational charity. “These new technologies offer huge hope for the country. We have a massive problem with the pollution of groundwater into lakes out of septic tanks. Our rivers and lakes are red zones because we haven’t managed our wastewater properly.”
With little to no funds, Canney says it has been difficult for the ecovillage to respond to a further information request from the council: “They are expensive, it is going to cost between €60,000 and €70,000 to just do the reports and surveys but we are continuing to make progress.”
With the local authority’s wastewater treatment plant built in 1956, Canney sees no reason why the council can not invest in a more sustainable sewage plant that could benefit the entire area and help take the pressure off the village. “There is a need for local authorities to invest in infrastructure in rural Ireland, to encourage people to move back and to make sure towns and villages are liveable.”
“We’ve identified affordability and a better demographic mix as two strategic priorities for the second phase of the project.”
Another significant part of the organization’s roadmap is to put in place a dark sky public lighting system to avoid light pollution in the village. “That’s going to involve a particular color of the lantern, minimal lighting, and sophisticated dimming technologies that are biodiversity-friendly,” Canney says.
“I’m very excited about that. I think it will put us at the forefront again and is going to be another example of what can be done in Ireland.” He is hopeful it will be installed by early 2022, as it still needs to go through the planning process.
Once the wastewater treatment system has been built the organization plans to turn its attention to its sites and it intends to incorporate a larger mix of social and affordable options. “We’ve identified affordability and a better demographic mix as two strategic priorities for the second phase of the project.”
“We have been talking to various housing associations (for social housing) and there are various undeveloped site owners who are talking about clustering into housing co-operatives to find ways to make their own homes more affordable.”
While the financial pressure placed on the organization is great, Canney says the work put in by residents who volunteer their time has been huge.
“We are down to a tear-stretched budget. For an organization with such a national profile, we are operating on such a tiny budget. We only have one part-time administrator, a wholly voluntary board of trustees. It’s extraordinary what is achieved with just volunteer labor.”
A flick through the organization’s activity report for 2020 highlights the work that is undertaken at the village, from maintaining the biodiversity and wildlife corridors to the running of the district heating system and educational tours.
Educational tours are a key activity of Cloughjordan ecovillage.
With the pandemic, the organization had to pivot to bring its tours online, and while it’s lost 80 percent of that revenue, it’s started to see that pick back up by holding learning webinars for university students online.
Its farm hires two farmers from the local area and operates on a membership basis whereby 90 houses in the ecovillage and local area pay €60 a week for fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables. It hasn’t lost any of its customers throughout the pandemic.
For Canney, the largest success of the organization is that the vision of living a more sustainable lifestyle has been realized: “The idea that two or three people meeting in Dublin twenty years ago had no land, no money, no people – all they had was an idea.”
“To have been a housing developer and to have survived the biggest housing crash ever shows the resilience of a model that isn’t based on speculative development but on real people and communities,” Canney says.
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