Housing


Last month saw the publication of the latest government effort at an action plan for rural development.  Realising Our Rural Potential takes the now familiar glossy format of recent government action plans replete with 276 actions, slickly produced with accompanying promo video and, for sake of appearances, an official launch in the suitably rural location of Ballymahon’s (soon to be staffless) public library.

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The plan places a welcome, and long overdue, emphasis on rejuvenating rural towns and villages which are recognised as essential lynchpins to sustain and improve the living and working environment of rural dwellers.  It is acknowledged that, as the populations of rural settlement centres have diminished, so too has the demand for and provisioning of essential services, hindering their capacity to compete for investment and employment opportunities. A new town and village renewal scheme is therefore proposed (a rehash of a scheme launched last August), at a cost of €12 million per annum, to encourage increased residential occupancy in over 600 town and village centres (€20,000 each!).

In these so-called ‘post-factual’ times, it is without any sense of irony, however, that the plan completely glosses over the inconvenient reality that it was the assiduous political commitment over successive decades for policies favouring unfettered suburban one-off housing sprawl that has done most to undermine and depopulate rural towns and villages. Between 2001 and 2011, 104,058 one-off dwellings were constructed in rural areas, 85% within 5km of a town or village. Since 2011, a further 18,500 have been permitted. The level of cognitive dissonance on this issue is all the more striking when you consider that the final report of the Commission for Economic Development in Rural Areas (CEDRA), upon which the action plan is largely based, also makes the same glaring omission. The reality is that, nationally, over 70% of dwellings in defined rural areas are built outside settlement centres, and higher still in some counties. This hemorrhaging of population is not deterministic but as a direct result of a sustained and deliberate policy intervention. As one insightful letter writer to The Irish Times noted, what is killing rural towns and villages is not population decline, but their irrelevance, as rural areas become progressively (r)urbanised and assimilated into the functional reaches of larger cities. No amount of fiscal incentives will reverse this trend in the absence of corresponding firm policy measures to restrict and reverse dispersed suburban housing in the countryside. Of course, such an idea would be an anathema in Ireland against a backdrop of political short-termism and patronage. So instead, the action plan includes a rather insipid reference to increase delivery of small housing schemes in towns and villages as an alternative to one-off housing.

Aside from the umpteenth re-launch of the national broadband strategy, one of the more eye-catching objectives of the action plan is the highly misleading target to create 135,000 new jobs and increase by 40% Foreign Direct Investment in ‘rural Ireland’ by 2020.  Ensconced behind the attention-grabbing target is the actuality that the action plan opportunistically conflates ‘rural development’ with ‘regional development’ for the sake of appearances. What is, in fact, targeted is the creation of 135,000 jobs outside Dublin i.e. primarily in cities outside Dublin. This sleight of hand epitomises the policy churning over successive decades on rural development issues in an effort to give the impression of doing something. As I have argued before, in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem, in order to defer and displace the political strife that accompanies an implicitly urban-led national growth strategy, we have instead sanctioned the widespread (r)urbanisation of the countryside. Vague, populist and anachronistic concepts like ‘Rural Ireland’ and ‘Action Plans for Rural Development’ simply serve as a symbolic gesture to paper over and silence a more fundamental political discussion on the nature of urbanisation in Ireland – which is off-course the great taboo in Irish political discourse. Our lack of collective memory is all the more alarming when you consider that almost twenty years ago the White Paper on Rural Development (still available on DAFF’s website) was published which contained all of the symbolic rhetoric of the current action plan (including, as today, a commitment to create a twenty-year spatial strategy to promote balanced regional development – sound familiar?). Unfortunately, this latest action plan is simply yet another episode of opportunism over strategy where we are failing to accurately conceive the true nature of the problem. No doubt twenty years hence we will be back having the same discussion again.

Gavin Daly

 

Rule #1 of the neoliberal playbook – when faced with a construction crisis, attack the planning system! It has been ever so since Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s environment secretary in the 1980s, launched his broadside against the “jobs locked up in the dusty filing cabinets of planning departments”. Of course, it matters little whether there is any evidence that the planning system is indeed stifling construction – the ideology demands that planning regulation remains firmly in the crosshairs. As Michael Gunder puts it – planning is “the chief remaining scapegoat of neoliberal governance”, a convenient patsy for contemporary policy failures.

Simon Coveney’s glossy production ‘Rebuilding Ireland – An Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness’ launched last month to much fanfare promises a ‘root and branch’ review of the planning system. A headline element of the strategy is to speed-up the planning process – an ever-present feature of neoliberal planning reforms – by allowing large housing applications of a hundred units or more to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. This is proposed as a temporary measure for four years to incentivise large-scale housing production in a manner similar to strategic infrastructure applications. The apparent rationale for this fast-tracked planning consent system is that: “with almost all planning approvals of larger housing developments for 100 new homes or more being appealed to An Bord Pleanála, this has meant that there is in effect a two-stage planning application process which can take 18 to 24 months to secure ultimate approval to go on site and start to build.” (Pg 62)Of course, no evidence is presented to support this assertion. Indeed, An Bord Pleanála’s own annual report, published earlier this month, states that: “The number of appeal cases for housing developments received over the past two years has remained low, 35 cases of 30+ units in 2014 versus the peak of 568 in 2007. While the number of 30+ housing appeals received has increased slightly (60 to the end of 2015), the number of such cases remains low.” (Pg 35). All of these appeals, according to An Bord Pleanála, have been disposed of within the statutory compliance time of eighteen weeks. Furthermore, there is also no evidence whatsoever that the strategic infrastructure process actually speeds-up the planning system, with just half of such applications over the past ten years decided upon within eighteen weeks and, only then, after lengthy pre-application consultations.

The reality is that, despite the assiduous commitment by influential commentators over the past few years to successfully paint a picture of planning as the chief villain and bugbear in impeding housing supply, permission is currently in place for 27,000 shovel ready homes in Dublin alone. According to the strategy, just 4,809 or 18% of these potential units are currently under active construction i.e. 82% of potential homes with planning permission are not commenced at all. The planning system is clearly not the impediment here. The strategy even includes a proposal that the lifetime of these extant planning permissions be extended further. This would mean that often poor quality and poorly located Celtic Tiger era housing could still be constructed as far out as 2021. Furthermore, according to the Residential Land Availability Survey, as I have written previously, nationwide, there is enough zoned land to provide for 16 years of new housing supply based on an annual projected requirement of 25,000 units.

In order to maximise the efficiency of the process under the new system, the strategy proposes that An Bord Pleanála will be required to make a decision within eighteen weeks and will only be able to seek requests for further information or to hold oral hearings in “exceptional circumstances”. For local authority own development under Part VIII (social housing, roads, community facilities etc.), the whole process is to be streamlined to a maximum of twenty weeks. Proposals for major housing developments and other infrastructure are complex undertakings which are irreversible and shape places and communities for generations. The idea that adequate consideration could be given to such proposals, while fulfilling all requirements pursuant to EU and national law, within these compressed timeframes and without recourse to seeking further environmental or technical information or giving adequate consideration to local concerns or right of appeal, is a recipe for yet another great planning disaster. While the need to intensify use of vacant space in town centres is paramount, the proposal in the strategy to exempt from planning permission residential development over shops and commercial units also seems neither sensible nor workable.

Of course, if the history of strategies in Ireland is any yardstick, we should not get too carried away about Rebuilding Ireland actually ever being implemented and it will most likely remain just a paper strategy. All of the targets in it seem hopelessly optimistic and the funding proposals tenuous. It is interesting, however, that its publication was uncritically welcomed by pretty much everyone from the Construction Industry Federation to the Peter McVerry Trust – for in the teeth of a ‘crisis’ who could be against a housing strategy? This is the trump card of lobby groups such as the CIF – to position their vested interests as an illusory societal interest. The Irish Planning Institute, not an organisation given to mounting robust defences against planning scapegoating, were among the few to release an insipid statement expressing “concern”. However, there are very good reasons to be vigilant about the prevailing anti-planning rhetoric and the ‘root and branch’ review of planning proposed by Coveney. Over the past five years, the government has shown scant interest in implementing the crucial regulatory reforms recommended by the Mahon Tribunal and have consistently shown de-regulatory tendencies. Completely absent from this strategy are any measures to provide a pro-active role for planning in delivering housing and other infrastructure – like ensuring local authorities are staffed with the requisite range of planners and other expertise? The only reference to local authority resources is the introduction of new on-line planning services, again in the name of efficiency.

It is perhaps the greatest indictment of the impotence of the state that, in a Circular Letter issued by Coveney subsequent to the publication of the strategy, the so called ‘active land management’ measures involve politely asking developers to sell their lands to housing providers and, if not, local authorities should identify alternative lands elsewhere. Absent is the one measure, as recommended by pretty much everyone, that could actually release hoarded zoned and serviced land into productive use, re-invigorate under-utilised town centre properties and simultaneously contribute to the finances of broke local authorities – a site value tax. Instead, the state has once again capitulated to the development lobby and opted to subsidise developers through a new infrastructure fund, abolition of windfall taxes on sale of zoned lands, reduced development contribution levies, much weakened Part V social housing requirements and lowered apartment standards.

Gavin Daly

The prelim results for Census 2016 make it clear that housing vacancy continues to be a serious issue in Ireland.  Given that new housing units grew by only 18,981 to 2,022,895 and population grew by 169,724 to 4,757,976m between 2011 and 2016, one might have expected vacancy to have fallen substantially.  However, housing unit vacancy fell by only 29,889 to 259,562.  Of these 61,204 are holiday homes (HHs), a slight growth of 1,809 from 2011.  On a base level vacancy of 6%, oversupply is 76,984.

Vacancy and oversupply varies geographically as Map 1 demonstrates.  Excluding holiday homes all but three local authorities – South Dublin (4%), Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (5.7%) and Fingal (5.3%) – having vacancy rates (exc. HHs) above base vacancy.  In several cases housing vacancy (exc. HHs) is running above 10% and four local authorities have rates above 15%.  The issue is particularly acute in the north west.

Map 1: Housing vacancy (exc. HHs) in Ireland

Map 1: Housing vacancy (exc. HHs) in Ireland

One might expect that the vacancy rate has been declining everywhere, but this is far from the case.  In fact, vacancy has been rising in many EDs.  In Figure 1, each dot is an ED, with each dot above the line representing an increase in vacancy (exc. HHs).  In some cases the increase is quite dramatic.

07_Scatterplot_BxPltSo, the question is what has led some EDs to increase in vacancy?  Some of it is obsolescence – in any housing market 3-5 properties drop out of use in a year.  Some of it might be properties under-construction and on unfinished estates being completed (and thus counted) but are not yet occupied.  And some of it will be related to population change and migration.

Here, we want to look at the latter since a large number of EDs lost population between 2011-2016, especially those in rural areas (with towns in rural counties growing).

Map 2 shows population and vacancy (exc. HHs) categorised into four classes.

  1. (light blue): population decreased and vacancy decreased (687)
  2. (blue): population decreased and vacancy increased (705)
  3. (red): population increased and vacancy decreased (1497)
  4. (light red): population increased and vacancy increased (517)

06_PopChg_and_VacChgThe relationship we would expect would be classes 2 and 3 – where population decreased, vacancy increased, and where population increased, vacancy decreased.  And that happens in 2022 EDs (out of 3406).  However, in 1204 cases (c. a third), something odd happens: as population increases, vacancy increases (517 cases), or as population decreases, vacancy decreases (687 cases).  In the case of the latter this might be explained by obsolescence and household fragmentation.  We would be interested to hear of other possible explanations.

Without further analysis it’s not possible to determine the causes of this inverse relationship.  However, what the data does show us is that how housing vacancy is unfolding is not universal and there are different social and spatial processes at work.

Rob Kitchin and Martin Charlton

Much of the coverage concerning the preliminary Census release from yesterday has focused on vacancy. This has meant distinguishing between those housing units classed as holidays homes in each area and units that are ordinarily vacant. One of the more puzzling statistics to emerge from this distinction is the 190% increase in the number of holiday homes in Dublin city since 2011. In that year, there were 322 vacant holiday houses in the city but those rose dramatically to 937 in April’s census.

What might account for this near trebling in five years? In particular why, in the middle of a housing shortage, is there almost twice as many housing units classed as holiday homes in a dense urban area when compared with five years previously? Speculation with some others on twitter concentrated on the possibility of these being AirBnB properties. I decided to put some focus on this explanation to see if there’s any truth to it.

In recent months there has been a number of online features concerned with how AirBnB (a company which matches bodies with beds across the world) might be affecting rents. If people are renting their city property through AirBnB for much of the year, how might this affect people seeking to live and work in the city full time? For example, in a number of North American cities there are concerns that full-time AirBnB rentals are displacing residents (e.g. see here or here) who are in lower paid jobs and subject to ever-increasing rents. Some city authorities are coming under pressure to restrict the use of full-time rentals through the company. A property owner can make far more renting out short term lets to passers-by than s/he can from locals who are seeking merely to continue living in a city they work and have a life in.

There is a vital politics to this displacement where AirBnB rentals are pricing people of lesser means out of particular areas of a city bustling with tourists. It is an extreme example of gentrification by displacement, almost making the popular term redundant in its bluntness. The uneven geographies of AirBnB rentals hits home for many in this city too.

In Dublin in June, the city council raised the prospect that full-time AirBnB rentals in Temple Bar, a particular zone of intense tourist activity, would be subject to planning permission. The Council argued that a particular property in the neighbourhood was effectively a material change of use from residential to commercial. It insisted of course that this ruling was “site specific” and did not cover the entire Temple Bar area. The prospect of an imposition of a change of use for the area as a whole is remote though: this seemed like a shot across the bow.

Luckily for us, InsideAirBnB allows us all access to data for rentals across a large number of cities to determine if the company is facilitating displacement. I took the January 2016 data from this site and, aside from knowing the first names of each of the renters, the database contains a number of interesting data.

There are 3,772 properties in the AirBnB database in the four local authority areas. Of this number, 3,116 (83%) are in the Dublin City Council area. 1,222 or 39% of this subtotal are for rent, according to the dataset available under Creative Commons, for 300 days or more per year. The heatmap below (Map 1) shows that near-year long rentals are broadly clustered within the Temple Bar, Cow’s Lane and north Docklands areas. Those rented 365 days per year (249 properties) are distributed slightly differently. They are by no means overlooking the splendour of Dublin Bay.

Map 1: a heatmap of the 1,222 properties available for 300 days or more on AirBnB. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors.

Map 1: a heatmap of the 1,222 properties available for 300 days or more on AirBnB. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors.

They are scattered across the city with some clusters in Drumcondra, Rathmines and Portobello. Map 2 below shows the distribution of these year-long AirBnB properties across the Dublin City area, Map 3 shows the distribution of entire house/apt available for rent for 300 plus days a year (as opposed to a room in an already occupied dwelling).  It is not beyond the realm of possibility therefore that the >300 days per annum rentals in this database includes a figure of 937 holiday houses recorded in the census. In fact, there are 934 properties rented out for 335 days or more per annum in the database. If you spent the month of December in your own city centre apartment, and rented it out for the remaining 335 days of the year, you might well be among the 937 recorded in the Census.

Map 2: Year-long AirBnB rental properties (n=249) in the Dublin city area. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors.

Map 2: Year-long AirBnB rental properties (n=249) in the Dublin city area. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors.

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Map 3: 300 plus days per year of entire housing unit /apartment for rent on Airbnb. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors

But this is a numbers game. We’ll have a better sense of the distribution of the city’s holidays homes when the more extensive data release begins in April 2017.

Eoin O’Mahoney

 

For the past couple of years the housing discourse for Dublin city has been one of housing shortages and a homeless crisis. The preliminary census figures published yesterday reveal that while the vacancy rates (exc holiday homes) for South Dublin (4%), Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (5.7%) and Fingal (5.3%) are below a base vacancy level of 6% (in a ‘normal’ market we would expect c.6% of stock to be vacant due to selling/rental gaps, deaths, etc), suggesting that they have housing undersupply, Dublin City Council has a vacancy rate of 8.6% (exc. holiday homes).

In total DCC has 21,781 vacant units (20,844 exc holiday homes).  On a base vacancy of 6% (14,544 units) that suggests an oversupply of 6,300.

In other words, there is something pretty odd going on given the homeless rate has been increasing, large numbers are on the housing waiting list, and there’s a widespread belief that the city desperately needs to build housing.

So, what constitutes these 6,300 excess vacant units?

It’s somewhat difficult to know without visiting them and doing an on-the-ground survey, but let’s start with looking at the geography of vacancy in DCC.  Map 1 shows the % vacancy in the city minus holiday homes, and Map 2 shows change in the number of vacant units since 2011.

Map 1: DCC vacancy rates (exc holiday homes)

Map 1: DCC vacancy rates (exc holiday homes)

 

Map 2: DCC vacancy change 2011-16

Map 2: DCC vacancy change 2011-16

In Map 1, all the areas not shaded pale yellow has a vacancy rate (exc. holiday homes) above 6% base vacancy.  Much of the city centre and to the south have rates above 10%, and two EDs have rates above 20% (Mansion House B, Pembroke West B).  In Map 2, the blue areas have seen vacancy rates decline between 2011 and 2016, whereas red areas have seen an increase.  Interestingly, a number of areas have seen quite large increases in vacancy, especially within the canals near to the city centre, Ballsbridge and Rathmines.

Here’s some speculation as to what constitutes the excess vacancy:

  • some unreported airbnb/similar stock;
  • some second homes (used during week, but primary residence recorded as somewhere else);
  • some investment stock left empty;
  • some bedsits not yet converted after change in regulations that made them illegal;
  • some inner city obsolescence.

I’d be interested to hear about other possibilities.

Whatever the reason for the vacancy, it appears that this stock is not presently available to the market and therefore there continues to be a shortage of housing in the capital.

Rob Kitchin

Housing LandOne of the great innovations of the past few years has been the increasing availability of spatial data. User-friendly and freely accessible online interactive tools such as Myplan and AIRO provide easy access to a wide-range of mapped datasets and other resources to help inform policymaking, research and those commenting on matters of public interest. However, despite this, the problem of what Carol Weiss refers to as the ‘problem of little effect’ remains i.e. that a great deal of this evidence tends to sit on the shelf (or on the web) completely unnoticed and has, in fact, very limited impact on policy debates.

This is certainly true of Colm McCarthy’s most recent commentary on housing supply in Dublin. McCarthy’s long-standing thesis has been that the planning system (zoning) caused an artificial scarcity in the supply of development land for housing in and around Dublin throughout the Celtic Tiger, inflating a massive property bubble and simultaneously scattering new residential development to the four winds and far-flung corners of the Midlands and beyond. He further maintains that it is these same restrictive practices, with local authority planners and politicians unwilling to confront vested interests and local communities to zone more land, which is the root cause of the current lack of housing supply in Dublin. Instead, McCarthy argues, that the power to zone underutilised land should be removed from local authorities and centralised. (On this last point, he overlooks that zoning powers were de facto centralised with the introduction of the 2010 Planning Act.)

While this simple supply/demand thesis may, at first glance, appear convincing, it is undermined by one basic flaw. Throughout the Celtic Tiger period there was in fact an enormous surfeit of zoned residential land within Dublin and its environs. An audit carried out by the DoECLG in 2010 found that a total of 3,302 hectares of undeveloped residential zoned land existed within the four Dublin local authorities. Even with conservative residential densities of 35 units per hectare, this was sufficient for at least 115,000 new homes. Within the adjoining Greater Dublin Area (GDA) counties of Kildare, Meath and Wicklow there was a further 4,120 hectares. Most, if not all, of this land was initially zoned in the late 1990s and early 2000s and remained undeveloped throughout the Celtic Tiger period. For example, the 220 hectare Adamstown site in South Dublin was originally zoned in 2001 and was intended to provide 9,950 homes via a ‘fast-track’ planning scheme approved in 2003. Similarly, large greenfield tracts of land at Carrickmines, Clongriffin, Pelletstown, Phoenix Park Racecourse and Hansfield were all zoned well over a decade ago and remain undeveloped or only partially complete. The figures above are exclusive of the abundant supply of brownfield development land, infill sites and mixed-use zonings readily available throughout Dublin and which could potentially have provided for tens of thousands of additional new homes.

It is evident, therefore, that a deficiency in the availability of zoned land was not the cause of the extreme property price inflation in Dublin throughout the Celtic Tiger. Nor is it the cause of new housing undersupply today. The most recent 2014 residential land availability survey by the DoECLG shows that there are currently 2,654 hectares of ‘Stage 2’ zoned land available in Dublin i.e. lands which have been prioritised as potentially available for immediate development, much of it already benefiting from significant public investment in capital infrastructure and services. This is reported to be sufficient to provide approximately 117,000 new dwellings at modest densities i.e. an increase in the total number of dwellings in Dublin by one-quarter. In addition to being zoned and serviced, many of these sites currently also have extant planning permissions. In the remainder of the GDA there is enough land zoned for a further 95,000 dwellings, while zoned residential land nationally could currently accommodate approximately 415,000 units (The DoECLG have even gone to the trouble of mapping the precise location of each of these zoned land parcels). Despite the vast array of evidence to the contrary, it is therefore remarkable how the notion persists, particularly amongst leading economists, that an obstructive planning system is hindering the operation of the housing market and was, and remains, a chief cause of the undersupply of new dwellings to meet demand. For example, earlier this week in his evidence to the Banking Inquiry the former chief economist of the Central Bank, Tom O’Connell, submitted that: “the demand mania for property took off against the background of restrictive zoning which limited the supply of housing, the inevitable result was huge property price inflation”.

Zoned Land

The extent of zoned land currently available in the Dublin metropolitan area for new housing

What this analysis also plainly overlooks is that the simple act of zoning land (colouring in a map) does not ipso facto result in an increased housing supply. Urban development is a complex and heavily capital intensive enterprise on both the supply-side (buildings, roads, sewers, schools etc) and on the demand-side (mortgages) and requires a functioning credit system, state intervention through public planning and a means to bring zoned land into production (i.e. to prevent speculative hoarding). While it may seem counter-intuitive to economists , it was in fact a massive oversupply of zoned land (Ireland had c.44,000 hectares of undeveloped zoned residential land at the end of the Celtic Tiger) that caused the rapid price inflation and poor spatial outcomes of the property bubble. Within Dublin, planning typically operated with a certain modicum of probity (albeit not without serious deficiencies), requiring that development on zoned land took place somewhat in tandem with physical and social infrastructure delivery. Outside Dublin local authorities generally had no such compunction, zoning land and permitting massive developments willy-nilly, including regularly on land with no zoning whatsoever. Facilitated by the shiny new radial motorway network and cheap credit, developers simply leapfrogged the suburbs and extensive hinterlands were turned into fields of gold leaving a disastrous economic, social, environmental and spatial legacy. Amongst the Dublin developer cartel, there were few complaints at the slow pace of real development as paper asset prices continued to soar. Ironically, had restrictive zoning measures actually been put in place and enforced in accordance with the National Spatial Strategy, it would have precipitated the early confrontation of the supply/demand/location problem – and history would have perhaps taken a different trajectory. Such problems  were of course foreseen by the Kenny Report as far back as 1974.

Rail Focussed

Strategic rail focussed housing land-banks available in Dublin  

The solutions to today’s housing supply issues are not to be found in simplistic calls for more zoning.  One of the curious outcomes of the relatively slower pace of development in Dublin during the Celtic Tiger is that we now have more than sufficient suitably zoned and serviced land available to meet current demand. The National Transport Authority, for example, has identified strategic locations where thousands of new homes could be sustainably delivered focussed along rail and light-rail corridors. In a number of cases rail stations have already been constructed in anticipation of future development. What is needed is a means of prioritisation and to bring this land into production. Earlier this year, the Department of Finance launched a public consultation on precisely this question. The current Housing and Urban Regeneration Bill 2015 proposes the introduction of a vacant site levy to disincentivise the underutilisation of brownfield land. What is now also urgently required is the introduction of a similar Site Value Tax (SVT) as a recurring annual charge on all undeveloped zoned land as recommended by the Commission of Taxation in 2009 and by the ‘Thornhill Report’ in 2012. The numerous compelling arguments commending the merits of a progressive SVT have been well rehearsed elsewhere and McCarthy, of-course, will be well familiar with same, having previously written the preface for a notable book on the subject. We need smart future-orientated solutions to make best-use of available resources to solve Dublin’s housing supply issues and not a return to failed past thinking and the exclusively supply-side logic of the Celtic Tiger.

Gavin Daly

gavin.daly@nuim.ie