A couple of years into the present crisis and we’re still trying to get a handle on the extent of the problem.  Along with all the other failures, we clearly have a data and evidence deficit.  As way of illustration, let’s take the property sector, the root cause of a lot of Ireland’s homegrown problems.

Various estimates suggest that somewhere between 228-280K housing units are vacant excluding holiday homes, and somewhere between 120-170K of these are in excess of an expected base vacancy (some property is always vacant in a normal functioning market).  We don’t actually know the real number and all we can do is estimate using CSO and DEHLG data.  This is why the DEHLG is in the process of undertaking a national, one-off survey of unfinished housing estates to determine the extent of new build vacancy and ghost estates – there is no other way of discovering such information as beyond connections to the electricity grid there has been little to no monitoring of new housing coming on stream, and no monitoring of existing housing except for the five-yearly census.

With respect to commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors, both buildings and land, we have even less publicly accessible data.  At present, such data is periodically and partly generated by the CSO, or is generated by the private sector, such as Frank Knight (agricultural sales), Savills/HOK (office space in Dublin) and CBRE (retail space).  This data is released in highly aggregate forms and is often geographically delimited (either a national picture not broken down into smaller spatial scales or restricted to Dublin).  It provides a snap shot of a sector with little detail or resolution and is of little use to planners or analysts trying to work out what is happening at a local scale.  What we know from such data is the following:

  • In Dublin, 23% of office space (some 782,500 sqm) is vacant (see here).  As far as I’m aware, we have no idea of office vacancy levels elsewhere in the country.
  • By the end of 2010 there will be over 2m sqm of shopping centre space and 1.32m sqm of retail park space in the state, double that of 2005  (see here).  We have no central government database of retail space and little idea as to levels of vacancy across the country.
  • Agricultural land has more than halved in value nationally (see here).  There is a regional breakdown in price falls, but that seems to be about it.
  • We have an excess supply of hotels and hotel rooms.  At the end of 2008 there were 905 hotels with 58,467 rooms, 15,000 of which are deemed excess to supply (26%) (see here).  Again, as far as I can tell, we have no government data on property in this or other commercial sectors.
  • Neither is there an open database on the industrial property sector (the CSO census of industrial production gives number of businesses etc, but does not directly cover property or vacancy, sales, etc.)

Recent calls in the media focus on the creation of a house price database.  We need much, much more than that.  We need a comprehensive system for monitoring all elements of the property sector – housing and commercial, retail,  agricultural and industrial property – and various kinds of information associated with them (sale price, rents, size, vacancy, obsolescence, etc).  These data need to be generated/updated annually where appropriate (such as new build and sales price), and be at spatial scales that enable local analysis (not simply national and county scales as much of it presently is).  Such data generation and dissemination is routine in other European countries and we are lacking someway behind.

We’ve had a situation where we have been planning half-blind, making decisions based on a weak evidence base.  We need to rectify this situation as soon as possible to enable everyone involved in trying to rebuild the economy and make long-term planning decisions to be able to undertake robust and sophisticated evidence-informed analysis that might maximise benefits and limit the kinds of mistakes that have been made over the past decade.  (We also need to follow this path to comply with the EU INSPIRE directive that dictates what data the government is obliged to generate for EU reporting, at what scales and to what data standards.)

The fact that it is very difficult to determine the exact state of play in the property sector, across all forms of property, speaks volumes.  We cannot let such a data and evidence deficit continue if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past few years.

Rob Kitchin