August 2013


Just last June, former senior planner with Donegal County Council, Mr. Gerard Convie, was successful in his legal challenge in quashing the findings of the Internal Planning Review published by the Department of the Environment in respect of allegations of serious planning irregularities in County Donegal. As previously reported on this blog, the Department’s Review found that there was no evidence of irregularities or corruption in relation to the complaints. The quashing of the Review’s findings prompted Minister Jan O’Sullivan to reopen the Independent Planning Investigation previously proposed by former minister John Gormley. Mr. Convie and Donegal County Council certainly appear to have a colorful history having been involved in a number of legal tussles in recent years. As widely reported in the media, back in 2002 Mr. Convie alleged that a “golden circle of corruption” operated within the planning system in the county. Mr Convie himself was suspended from Donegal County Council in 1999, allegedly for not following proper procedures in relation to a planning application on a piece of land in which he had an interest. The claims and counter-claims of corruption and irregularities played out in the courts certainly have more than a whiff about them and certainly merit full scrutiny by the newly reopened independent planning investigation.

In the aftermath of the case, there have been a number of unfortunate episodes which certainly do not paint planning in Donegal in the best light and give credence to the contention that, at the very least,  some very fundamental questions need to be asked regarding planning procedures and practices in the County. For example, a row has broken out between the HSE and Letterkenny Town Council over the recent high profile flooding of the newly opened €22 million Emergency Unit at Letterkenny General Hospital. The damage caused by the flood forced the closure of the hospital, extensive damage estimated to run to over ten million euro and even prompting genuine fears that the new unit will need to be demolished. As reported in the Donegal Democrat, the flood waters entered from a blocked gully above the site, became mixed with sewage, causing millions of euro in medical equipment to be destroyed, thousands of patient files soaked in foul smelling polluted water, walls and floors contaminated and the hospital only able to offer extremely limited services for the people of the county.

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It since emerged that the granting of planning permission for the new unit was conditional on a flood attenuation report being submitted to the council prior to the commencement of construction and that the potential for serious flooding was known about for over a decade. In fact, two reports dating from 2002 to 2006 which are freely available to download from the OPW’s www.floodmap.ie website raised very serious concerns about local flooding at Letterkenny General Hospital with the 2006 report plainly concluding:

“L8. Letterkenny Hospital, Letterkenny – River overflows its banks once every 3 years after very heavy rain. The Hospital is liable to flood.”

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However, according to the Donegal News a senior council official stated that this condition of planning had not been fulfilled and the flood attenuation measures were never received. While it may seem grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented that Letterkenny Town Council could allow the construction and operation of a brand new medical facility (accommodating vulnerable emergency patients) of critical regional importance to commence without requiring the most basic risk management measures of a known risk to be complied with, other recent events point to a general ham-fisted approach to planning in the county which suggest that the malaise was not merely a once-off.

For example, a recent edition of the Today with Myles Dungan radio programme reported on the problem of raw sewage overflowing into the sea in Dungloe and Burtonport. Resident’s describe the two holding tanks for the town’s sewage overflowing; the local beach festooned with toilet paper and untreated human faeces; manholes in the children’s playground overflowing with sewage; sewage flowing out of toilets in housing estates; the closure of the local oysterbeds due to faecal pollution; and a foul stench causing nausea and creating public health issues. According to the wastewater treatment specialist interviewed by RTE residents were living in a ‘toxic environment’. This issue does not seem to be unique to Dungloe and Burtonport with similar issues reported all around Donegal including in Bundoran and Glenties.

The reason of course is simple – although none of these towns have sewerage treatment plants or have grossly inadequate treatment plants, Donegal County Council sanctioned a massive ad-hoc expansion of new development in these areas throughout the Celtic tiger. In fact, a quick look through the Donegal County Council’s online planning enquiry system shows that the Council granted planning permission for hundreds of homes, shops, commercial premises – all with temporary private domestic effluent treatment systems. In one case in Dungloe, the Council granted permission for 94 residential units all to be serviced by a temporary septic tank. In the case of the Altán estate in Burtonport (which featured in the RTE programme), the Council granted planning permission for a 22 unit residential development with what is described in the application documentation as a ‘temporary contract cess-pitt’ as its primary sewage disposal system.

Leaving aside for one moment Donegal County Council’s apparent lax attitude to enforcing planning conditions as exemplified by the Letterkenny General Hospital debacle and the fact that septic tanks were until recently completely unregulated, it does not require a skilled expert to decipher from the picture of the Altán housing development below that the nature of the soil in many of these areas may be unsuitable for a septic tank system. In fact, the North West River Basin Management Plan concludes that there are as many as 60,000 septic tanks in this region located in areas where the soil characteristics are unsuitable for septic tanks and that there has been a proliferation in recent years of private sewage treatment systems for multiple housing schemes causing significant pollution risks.

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*The Rear of the Altán Housing Development in Burtonport showing the percolation area for the waste water disposal system

Donegal is obviously an extreme example of the planning chaos which gripped Ireland throughout the Celtic tiger but is by no means unique. The legacy costs of the rush to allow development regardless of location will continue to unfold for decades and will not just affect the local residents. For example, a 2012 report by the EPA found that 17 of Donegal’s 33 settlements had no required secondary sewage treatment. Of the remaining 16 that did have secondary treatment, 12 did not meet the required standards. As a result, in order to avoid serious fines under the EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, a minimum tax payer investment of €120 million is required to be invested in Donegal, including in retrofitting small peripheral settlements where even a basic planning assessment would conclude that development of the scale permitted was completely inappropriate. In a time of extremely limited exchequer resources, this wasteful expenditure is causing investment to be diverted from elsewhere, including areas where there is significant potential for economic development and employment creation.

Gavin Daly

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After Thursday’s post looking at the house price register to gauge the level of market activity in Dublin, I’ve also now had a look at the mortgage draw down data produced by the Irish Banking Federation and PwC.  Their database runs from Q1 2005 to Q2 2013 and claims to include 95% of the Irish residential mortgage transactions; the data is not geographically disaggregated.

Thursday’s post revealed that the number of sales in Dublin had been steady year-on-year across quarters, with the exception of Q4 2012 when there was a spike in sales due to the ending of mortgage interest relief.  In other words, there has been little noticable difference in the volume of housing sales during 2013 compared with 2010.

The IBF PwC data reveals a similar pattern of purchasing, including the Q4 2012 spike.  If we compare Q2 volumes from 2010-2013, the volumes are Q2 2010 – 7,827; 2011 – 3,551; 2012 – 3,225; 2013 – 3,229.  In other words, there was a large drop from Q2 2010 to Q2 2011, and then the same volumes for the next three years.  For reference, draw downs in Q2 2013 were only 5.9% of those in Q2 2006 (53,499).

mortgage downturn - all

This pattern is consistent when we remove buy to let, re-mortgaging and top-up mortgages (though these were more prevalent in 2010) so that we only examine first-time buyer and purchaser mover figures.

mortgage downturn - ftb mp

As with the house price register data, the mortgage draw down data does not suggest that there is a pick up in the housing market to any great degree.  There was a brief surge in Q4 2012 due to MIR ending, but the market has since reverted to the same state of play as 2011 and 2012.

So that’s two pieces of hard evidence – one generated from Revenue data (inc cash sales) and one by the banking industry – that cast doubt on property sector rhetoric that there has been an upswing in the housing sales.  That’s not to say that there has not been an increase in market activity in terms of viewings and multiple bids on some properties, but that this is restricted to a select group of properties and is not translating into an overall increase in sales.

Rob Kitchin

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There’s been an awful lot of rhetoric recently that the housing market is picking up in Dublin and that trading is brisk relative to what it was a couple of years ago.  Most of that rhetoric is coming from the property sector backed up with ancedotal evidence.  The question is whether this is reflected in the hard data of the house price register? Here is a graph of the number of housing unit sales per month since January 2010 for Dublin.

house price sales 2010 2013

What the data shows is that housing unit sales are relatively consistent over the past three and a half years, except for a brief surge at the end of 2012, with December 2012 seeming to be anomaly (probably based around the ending of mortgage interest relief).  The first six months of 2013 are very similar in pattern to 2010.  In fact, in the first six months of 2013 only 328 more units have been sold than the first six months of 2010.  The data does not suggest then that there has been a bounce back in market activity to any significant degree.  What it shows instead is a relatively steady turnover of property.  Market activity in terms of increased viewings on properties, but not in sales, may well reflect a relatively restricted pool of some kinds of properties (family homes; which the property sector is saying is the case).

In general terms, the sales figures reveals that the market is still a very pale shadow of the height of the boom.  The Dublin housing market consists of 527,665 units (in 4 Dublin LAs according to Census 2011).  Normal market turnover would be 5-7% units (higher in a boom), meaning that we could realistically expect in a normally functioning market 2200-3100 sales per month.   So far in 2013 the average monthly sales is 593 (1.3% turnover).

The Dublin market may be stabilising at the bottom of the bust in terms of price falls, but it shows little sign of sales recovery, and it is a long, long way off of being a normal functioning market.

Rob Kitchin

A new paper by Richard Waldron and Declan Redmond on the mortgage crisis in Ireland has just been published in the journal Housing Studies.

The Extent of the Mortgage Crisis in Ireland and Policy Responses

From the mid-1990s, Ireland experienced a property bubble, fuelled by deregulation in the banking sector and government commitment to expanding home ownership. However, since 2007, the situation has dramatically reversed. The banking system and property market have
collapsed and pushed the Irish state into insolvency. National house prices have fallen by 50 per cent from the peak in 2007, whereas incomes have contracted and the unemployment rate has increased.  This has produced a serious situation regarding negative equity and mortgage arrears, a problem highlighted by the former U.S. President Bill Clinton on a visit to Ireland in 2011. This paper examines government responses to the mortgage crisis, particularly their emphasis on mortgage forbearance and reform of Ireland’s bankruptcy legislation. An overview of the drivers of the bubble and the extent of negative equity and arrears is provided firstly. In conclusion, the paper reflects upon the implications of the crisis for the homeownership model that Ireland has followed for the last two decades.

KEY WORDS: Ireland, mortgage market expansion, mortgage crisis, forbearance, restructuring

 

At the recent AESOP/ACSP conference in University College Dublin, which brought together 1,200 planning academics and scholars from all over the world, Minister Jan O’Sullivan announced her intention to shortly bring forward a new planning policy statement setting out a new vision for the Irish planning system.

After the past few years of fire fighting, whereby the Government was desperately attempting to reign in the excesses of the Celtic tiger era and impose some control on the often reckless conduct of planning authorities, there is no doubt that such a vision is now sorely needed so that we can begin to effectively plan for the future. Earlier posts on this blog pointed to the current period of crisis as an opportunity for rethinking accepted ideas, policies and practices in relation to future planning and development in Ireland.

According to Minister O’Sullivan “…if the public doesn’t understand how the planning system works, why certain things are permitted and certain other things aren’t, then your planning system isn’t doing its job.” It is true to say that other than a vague comprehension of the legacy costs of ‘bad planning’, the public appreciation of what purpose planning serves in society has hit rock bottom, mired as it is in a perception of corruption, cronyism and ineptitude. This has not been helped by the complete failure of both the professional institutes and academia to effectively communicate a cogent mission and rationale for planning.

Planning is, at least in the public mind, typically reduced to development control i.e. planning applications. This is demonstrated by each and every time surveys are published showing a drop in the number of planning applications, which are inevitably accompanied by a chorus of calls for a reduction in public planners. This narrow technocratic interpretation (such as that conveyed in the BBC documentary ‘The Planners’) is something to which many public planners have grown both resigned and accustomed to. To be fair, this state of affairs has also been created in no small part by a deep cultural antipathy to planning in Ireland and an unfettered attitude to private property rights.

In a famous 1973 critique of planning, Aaron Wildavsky mused “if planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing” and there is more than a modicum of truth in this observation. In recent years the planning system has been lumbered with an ever more complex range of regulatory functions. Planners have had to come to grips with a whole host of new skills as well as grappling with the novel challenges brought about by the recession, most of which they plainly have no training for. A review of any county or city development plan will quickly show that planning is now the vanguard for an ever growing and diverse range of complex agendas such as housing policy, nature protection, flood risk management, vacant housing, renewable energy production, water quality protection, retail impact assessment, town centre management, economic development, climate change mitigation, landscape protection, heritage, infrastructure delivery etc.

Planning has now become so large and complex that the public planner cannot encompass its dimensions. As a result, county and city development plans are largely obscure and voluminous documents extending to hundreds of pages with vague policies often wrapped up in impenetrable jargon and mutually exclusive policy goals. Planners now find themselves at the nexus of so many contentious and contested policy debates and it is little wonder that the profession has retreated to the high moral ground of blaming politicians and sought cover in the banality of development control. I do not argue that mediating competing economic, social and environmental agendas should not be a core function of planning into the future. However, we must be aware that extending planning to cover so much merely serves to obfuscate what it is precisely that planning is attempting to achieve. A cynical critique would indeed conclude that maybe that is indeed nothing.

Of course, collapsing the purpose of planning down to a core agenda is a process fraught with danger. This was well demonstrated by the England’s recently published National Planning Framework (NPF). The function of the new NPF is ostensibly to simplify the planning code. However, the real rationale is clearly the perennial Tory neoliberal agenda of planning retrenchment and foreclosing all but a narrow debate around the economic growth agenda and boosting housing supply.

If there is one thing that any new planning vision for Ireland should definitely not be about is economic growth. This may appear a rather taboo notion in an environment where the consensus demands that every public policy is compelled to fully justify itself on the basis of the economy. However, it is readily obvious with even a cursory analysis that it is not within the gift of planning to grow the economy. Including growth as a core goal of planning tends towards overproduction (e.g. housing, zoning etc.); heightens competitive pressures between regions favouring larger urban centres; and systematically excludes qualitative social and ecological considerations which must be at the heart of planning thinking. Indeed the origins of planning were in mitigating the crisis conditions brought about by rapid economic growth.

In order to avoid mission creep and reassert the relevance of planning for the daunting challenges of the coming 21st Century we must therefore firmly place the horse back at the front of the cart. Rebuilding public trust in the battered image of the planning system compels us to create a new mission for planning which is realistic, relevant and serves to build a shared public understanding of its value. This must first start with an explicit recognition that planning involves making choices – planning is politics.

Any future vision for Irish planning must therefore return to the welfare state origins upon which modern planning was founded, rooted in concepts of social and spatial justice. This requires an explicit move away from the depoliticised, entrepreneurial growth agenda aimed at boosting supply side activities such as housing and infrastructure provision. A new vision for planning must be centred upon the public goods and services for which the spatial distribution is within the remit of the State to achieve. The delivery of public services requires certain infrastructure networks including, for example, transport, waste, energy and communications infrastructure as well as facilities and services related to health, education, culture and recreation – all of which require an integrated approach to settlement planning. A simple mission for this new planning vision could be: “To ensure that a certain socially agreed and necessary base level of services that people need are provided when and where that need occurs”.

In many ways the disconnect between public service delivery on the one hand and the spatial distribution of population on the other sums up the failures of the Irish planning system over the past few decades. This was laid starkly evident with, for example, the debacle in west Dublin where little consideration was given to the fact that a rapid increase in new housing would soon yield a requirement for new schools. Equally, in many rural areas, the collapse of the Celtic tiger artifice and the accompanying severe programme of public service retrenchment has left many communities without necessary services. In many cases these are areas where a massive ad hoc proliferation of scattered housing was permitted necessitating many people to travel large distances to access services and employment opportunities, or to live without.

In Germany, for example, the overarching aim in the development of the spatial structure of the national territory is to establish equivalent living conditions in all parts of the country. The Iceland 2020 strategy, which was forged after the economic collapse of the state, similarly puts the welfare and quality of life of its citizens at the centre of its national planning policy. In effect, a policy of equivalent living conditions would primarily benefit peripheral regions, since there are usually greater structural weaknesses and imbalances in these regions. Equivalency, however, does not mean that all regions must have identical infrastructure or that the income of all people must be the same everywhere, which is neither practicable nor reasonable. Regional equivalence of living conditions means that as many citizens as possible are able to participate equally in development of society. To approach equality of opportunity it is necessary to ensure certain minimum standards with respect to access to and the availability of services of public interest, to options for earning a living, to infrastructure and environmental qualities.

Placing social security and the equality of citizens to the fore of the agenda for a new planning vision would require a fundamental rethink of how we plan and provide a compelling rationale for promoting public acceptance as to why we plan. Upholding this principle at a time when public resources are limited could help inform a, heretofore absent, rational national dialogue on settlement planning. Importantly, it could also help close the gaping lacuna which has been the achilles heel of the Irish planning system for decades – the dichotomy between planning policy decisions made by local authorities and the opportunity costs to society associated with those decisions. The model underpinning the Local Property Tax, for example, comprises numerous spatially derived variables including relative distance to services and amenities. Therefore, in theory, the more households with good accessibility to local services, the greater the return to the local authority to maintain those services, thus creating a virtuous circle.

Such a vision should not be alien to Jan O’Sullivan who is after all a Labour Party minister. However, in an era of consensus-seeking where planning has become a depoliticised, stage-managed process which attempts to please everyone through ‘win-win-win’ policy solutions, I have no doubt that when published the new vision will be the usual fuzzy policy muddle of irreconcilable policy goals which superficially offers something to everyone but achieves very little.

Gavin Daly

DSCF0973It has been three years since NIRSA published the Haunted Landscape report on the impacts of the property crash.  Since then, Ireland’s housing market has been through some turbulence.

At the same time, however, depressingly little has changed.

Overall we are still very much mired in the market-oriented approach to housing that propelled the bubble.  Only now, matters have been made worse by the extraordinary levels of debt that households are paying off for properties that have dramatically decreased in value.  Meanwhile, mortgage credit has all but seized up, while negative equity has created a spatial trap for many households.  This has all taken place against a backdrop of rising unemployment and deepening austerity.

Yet in mid-2013, we are once again hearing a resurgent chorus singing that well-worm refrain: market recovery.  Although the evidence of this ‘recovery’ is dubious at best – a selective reading of supposed demand for particular types of properties at particular prices in particular parts of Dublin used to indicate a more generalised upturn in the property market – the point has been reiterated in recent months in a range of media reports citing various vested interests.  Similarly, an article in the Irish Times last week talked of a “feeding frenzy” on Dublin properties – with international (vulture) capitalists ‘scrambling’ to pick up asset portfolios – as if this signalled something positive, rather than anodyne if not outright destructive, for the Irish economy.  This critical mass of uncritical property cheerleading is beginning to feel sadly familiar.

With all the effervescent talk of rising property values and calls for new (state-supported) construction projects, it is worth revisiting the unfinished estates that became the symbol of the crash.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, unfinished estates were singled out as symptomatic of an unambiguously dysfunctional approach to property development.  Five years on, despite site resolution plans, the social housing leasing initiative, and statistical solutions, very little has changed on many of these estates.  One of the major reasons for this lack of progress is that policy responses have continued to privilege the role of the market.

Residents on unfinished estates around the country are, in various ways, still experiencing the physical, financial, and emotional limbo of living in these incomplete environments.  Some are experiencing more acute problems than others.  But, given the suite of policy responses and market conditions that have followed the crash, it is fair to assume that none are devoid of problems.

Recently, I  paid a visit to the Red Arches estate, part of The Coast development in Baldoyle.  Overall, Red Arches is by no means one of the worst examples of an unfinished estate.  The estate constitutes a section of a larger development, which itself forms part of cluster of similar developments straddling Dublin’s North Fringe and Fingal County.  The Coast, built by Menolly Homes, is of a type of sprawling residential development more representative of suburban Dublin than any other part of the country.  When completed it was expected to house 20,000 people in a mixture of apartments, town houses, and family homes.  This was to be combined with “office, hospitality, and retail space”, which remains largely vacant, “and eighty acres of green space”.

DSCF0977Occupancy levels are quite high and the estate itself is lively.  These traits were in evidence during my visit with cars driving in and out, and pedestrians strolling, or working in the recently installed community garden.  The estate has a series of main roads running through it, which hive off into residential streets.  The apartments and houses on these streets also open onto nicely landscaped back gardens communally shared by adjoining neighbours.  On the whole it seems like a pleasant place to live.

That is, if it weren’t for the presence of the hulking shell of an abandoned tower block that has been sitting idle since the downturn.

Red Arches tower crop

Entering the estate from the Coast Road, the first thing you see is the red hoarding that surrounds the tower block. The latter protrudes on the skyline as you advance further in.  The fenced off site is sizable, much larger that the area covered by the tower block itself.  There are houses and apartments to the left of the hoardings and immediately in front of it.

The tower has been left derelict for more than five years.  For residents in its immediate vicinity, this has meant a long-standing vista of the derelict site, or worse still, the hoardings.

As tends to be the case more generally with residents on unfinished estates, it took those in Red Arches some time to realise that the tower block wasn’t going to be finished any time soon.  In October 2012 some of them started a Facebook campaign to have it demolished.  Using the catchy injunction “knock the block” as their campaign name, the residents sought to draw attention to some very pressing health and safety concerns posed by the presence of the tower.

When the developer downed tools the scaffolding was left there to rust, making of the tower an oversized jungle gym for the teenagers of the area.  The campaign’s Facebook page is replete with photos of groups of young people climbing the tower and exploring it inside.  The structure also includes an underground car park, which was prone to flooding.  When this happened, residents on the estate told me, the young people would build rafts to explore the flooded cavern.

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Photo from Knock the Block Facebook page

On the instruction of Fingal County Council, the developer responded to the flutter of media attention instigated by the campaign by removing the scaffolding, putting up more secure fencing, and closing off the underground car park.  The latter caused a bit of a short term crisis as the rats dispossessed of their derelict home fled into the estate proper. Thankfully, they dispersed again within a few weeks.  Despite the measures taken, however, the tower has remained accessible to those who seek to use it for exploration, as photos uploaded more recently depicting a group of young people on the top of the structure shows.

More significantly, the developer doesn’t appear to have any immediate plans to demolish the tower, and it is likely to remain in its current state of structural limbo for the foreseeable future.  This is an example of the types of problems that are produced by a housing policy that continues to privilege the role of the market.

Under the current planning and taxation legislation, which has not been significantly altered in the aftermath of the crash, once a developer has outstanding planning permission for a site that they own they are allowed to keep it in a partially built state.  They incur no financial penalties for doing so and, with the exception of forcing them to comply with some minimum safety standards, there is little the local authority can do to compel them to either finish or demolish partially built structures.

Naturally it suits developers to wait and see how things turn out before cutting their losses by demolition.  But this leaves residents in the frustrating and unjust position of having to live amidst these ruins until an undetermined time in the future when a change in market conditions will allow something to be done.

Although Red Arches is not in one of the select areas where the current upswing in sales prices is being celebrated as the return of the property market, the estate is in a desirable location that is close to Dublin and, therefore, likely to see a return of the market sooner than many other parts of the country.  However, judging by the current demand for family homes it still seems unlikely that an apartment block on the urban fringe will be considered a prime contender anytime soon.

For residents on unfinished estates, the uncertainties they have been forced to live with have, to a degree, put their lives on hold.  This is not to suggest that people are not making the most of their situation and getting on with their lives as best they can.  But the ambiguities regarding the places they live make it harder to plan for the future.   The supposed ‘stabilisation’ of the Dublin market will do little to alleviate the problems they face.  At a more general level, in a context of increasing market fragmentation, an upswing in property prices does nothing to address the spate of more serious housing crises Ireland is still facing.

For any real progress to be made in this regard there needs to be a shift away from the perspective that a rise in property prices will provide a panacea that will impact on housing conditions across the board.  Any benefits reaped from the alleged rise in prices are likely to affect only specific geographical areas and benefit particular social classes.

The measures that would need to be taken to enable the move away from a developer-led approach to housing would need to involve changes in national policy and to the mechanisms through which local authorities are financed, coupled with a broader shift in attitudes towards property and development.  Such a shift would take time, and the discussion of its intricacies is perhaps best left for another post.

But in dealing with the issues faced by residents in Red Arches, a good start would be to implement proposals from Fingal’s Cllr Cian O’Callaghan* to impose strong limits on planning permission durations, so that when a developer starts construction on a site they have a much shorter window (possibly one year for smaller developments and two years for larger developments) to complete it.  This could be coupled with the introduction of taxes on half-built houses.  These proposals hardly seem overly excessive and would immediately improve the lives of residents living on unfinished developments.

Rather than getting carried away on a wave of euphoria about market recovery – the hyperbole around which is more substantial than the underlying upswing it purports to represent – seriously considering proposals such as these will do much more to put us on the right road to addressing Ireland’s housing crises.

Cian O’Callaghan

* Not the current author