Planning


The National Spatial Strategy was officially scrapped in 2013 by then Minister, Phil Hogan TD.  Soon after, the development of a replacement strategy, the National Planning Framework, was announced.  On Thursday the initial consultation document was published by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, and launched at Maynooth University by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, the Minister for DHPCLG, Simon Coveney TD, and Minister for State for Housing and Urban Renewal, Damien English TD.  It sets out the process and timeline for formulating the full NPF and provides an initial framing of government thinking with respect to what should be included in the plan.

The NSS was widely considered an unmitigated failure for a number of reasons: there were too many gateways and hubs; it was misaligned with its funding stream the NDP; it was not supported by government, agencies and local authorities and was actively undermined; and it was not implemented on a statutory basis (see this post for a full history and explanation). So have lessons been learned?  The Taoiseach would like to think so, stating at the launch that in the NSS, ‘towns were placed against towns, politics against politics … and we are not going there again.’ Instead, the NPF will seek to be more cooperative, coordinated, and regionally based.

The rationale for the NPF is broadly the same as the NSS.  It is to coordinate spatially the development of sectoral areas (economy, transport, housing, energy, education, health) and guide and drive balanced regional development as the population continues to grow.  If development is not managed and it is left to business is usual to deliver shared national goals, then Dublin will continue to expand, the regional cities will have modest growth, and smaller towns and rural areas will stagnate or decline, the document argues.  Instead, the document argues that there needs to be:

  • a coordinated, strategic approach with a twenty year time horizon;
  • this approach needs to be backed by government across departments/agencies;
  • be aligned with public/private investment, including capital spend;
  • a focus on health and well-being, the environment, North-South relations, as well as economic and property development;
  • a recognition that it is a strategy, not a wish list and that it will involve making hard choices;
  • address all parts of Ireland, avoid the perception of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but avoid unrealistically seeking to treat all parts of the Country in the same way;
  • include a particular focus on implementation and evaluation, with capacity for review.

The proposed approach to organize and operationalize the NPF through the regional assemblies and in alignment with regional spatial economic strategies that are presently being prepared.  Rather than towns competing within a region, they should cooperate and work together as clusters.  And there should be stronger urban-rural interdependence, with large and small towns supporting rural communities.  Nonetheless, it is argued that there is a need for concentrated development of the five principal cities – Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford – and the towns around them, to create strong growth polls for business and to realise agglomeration effects and to create scales of economy/critical mass for service and infrastructure delivery.  Unlike other countries with a similar sized population – Scotland, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand – Ireland has a weak city structure with just five cities with a population above 50,000 (and only two above 100,000), that limits the ability to create balanced growth.  More modest growth will be sought in regional towns.  While growth would be welcome in rural areas, the priority is to stop further decline and to create resilience, sustainability and to improve quality of life.

There are a couple of big challenges in preparing the full NPF and getting it put on a statutory basis.  The first is the seeming paradox between ‘making hard choices’ and ‘addressing all parts of Ireland and avoiding the perception of winners and losers’.  The plan needs to make strategic decisions and prioritize areas for development and investment while also persuading everybody that those decisions are for the ‘national/regional good’ and that there is something there for them.  Given the legacy of the NSS, the localist/clientelist nature of Irish politics, and the siloed nature of government depts/agencies, that will be a challenge.  Second, and related, is given that the proposers are a minority government, the process of getting political support may involve a watering down of the plans aims, or the plan being tweaked in a way that undermines the plan’s logic to curry favour or ensure votes.  Third, in preparing the plan, it needs to be made clear how it will be implemented in practice, how it will be resourced, and how its progress will be tracked and steered back onto course if it falters, to persuade people to have faith that this isn’t a NSS v.2, but a strategic plan that will actually work in practice.

As someone who is in favour of a planned and coordinated approach – through a guiding framework, not a heavy-handed roadmap – the publication of the consultation documents for the NPF is a welcome first step.  The next step is to develop a full plan that can achieve political and public buy-in.  Part of the process to try and ensure this is, on the one hand, to produce a detailed evidence-base and various scenarios, and on the other to invite submissions as part of a consultative phase.

To make a submission about the proposed NPF go to the website and follow the instructions provided; or npf@housing.gov.ie; or write to:

NPF Submissions,
Forward Planning Section,
Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government,
Custom House,
Dublin D01 W6X0

The deadline for receipt of all submissions is 12 noon on Thursday 16th March 2017.

Some related media commentary: RTE 1, Drivetime interview; RTE Radio 1 News at One; RTE 1 Primetime.

For additional information see the Ireland 2040 website.

Rob Kitchin

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

 

A short animated film about rural Irish towns, directed and produced by Orla Murphy and Orla Mc Hardy in 2012

An excellent short animated film about the planning of rural Irish towns, directed and produced by Orla Murphy and Orla McHardy (2012), and presented at the recent MacGill Summer School session on ‘The Future of Rural Ireland – What Needs to be Done?’

Gavin Daly

Below is the text of the talk delivered at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Donegal by Lorcan Sirr as part of a panel on the future of housing policy in Ireland.

INTRODUCTION

At a zinc bar in Granada, I pondered how I would reply to Dr Mulholland’s invitation to speak here. As I did, the barman was playing Led Zeppelin on the stereo, a song called ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’, and from this of all things I got my cue about how to discuss Irish housing policy.

I’ve taken the liberty of changing it slightly as can be seen: what is, what should, and will never be.

WHAT IS

Ireland’s housing policy as it currently stands is a four page pdf document from June 2011 and one of those pages is a cover. It is called the ‘Housing Policy Statement’, a rather ambiguous title leading to confusion over whether it is actually policy or a statement about policy. Or indeed, just a statement.

The Housing Policy Statement is notable for three things.

Firstly, it reads as a form of mea culpa; an admission – if not quite an apology – of wrongdoing and a thinly veiled blaming of the previous administration’s approach.

Secondly, through its analysis of the role of housing in the crash, it is a detailed checklist of what not to do in housing.

Thirdly, it is more significant in being ignored and contradicted than implemented, which is somewhat ironic given its analysis of what went wrong.

The most positive aspect of the policy is the idea of basing the future of the housing sector on the concept of equity across tenures. Sensibly, it also proposes that the housing sector should make an appropriate contribution to the economy, rather than be a driver of it. There are subsequent strategies of course, but these should emanate from the policy, so it’s policy that’s crucial.

WHAT SHOULD BE

Although the economic role of housing (in job creation and asset wealth generation) is important, housing plays many more roles in Irish life. You wouldn’t know it from politicians, but housing is of critical importance in areas of health (and particularly mental health), in education, in human rights, in ageing, in quality of life and in general well-being. It is also deeply embedded with the concept of human dignity.

We now have a good handle on the issues that we face, and which a housing policy should provide guidance in tackling.

In terms of HOUSING, thanks to data from bodies like the Housing Agency, we know exactly how many houses we need and what locations we need them in. For example, we know that from 2014-2018 Clonmel will need 480; and the Dublin region will need 37,581 in the same period. This is significant step forward compared to previous housing practices where housing was provided with little or no regard to where housing was actually needed – the results of this crazy Late Late Show ‘one for everybody in the audience’ methodology can be seen in the ghost estates littering the country.

We know that supply of land isn’t the total problem – there is plenty of land ready to be built upon – the issue is an ability and willingness to build. We know we need to achieve housing affordability, but not necessarily at the expense of standards – there is a concerted attempt to reduce standards mostly from people who ignore other costs, especially social costs.

Our new-found ability to unearth uncomfortable evidence demonstrates that we have both an ageing population and a population with far more diverse household sizes (by 2018, nearly 60% of Dublin households will be one or two person, for example). So we know we need housing for people at difference stages of life and different household compositions: one-size fits all three- and four-bed semi D’s should no longer be the default position but yet are exactly what the industry is determined to build.

Connecting all this of course is the issue of increasing the supply of both private and social housing for both sale and rent. And in addressing issues of supply, of course, we also address issues of affordability, which should be the key component of any housing policy. Relying on traditional methods of housing supply, construction and location will not bring affordability, however, but this is what we are doing. And Einstein had a quote for that: doing the same thing twice but expecting a different result is the definition of ‘not quite being at the top of the class’, to put it politely.

Regarding the PRIVATE RENTED SECTOR, a housing policy should recognise the new importance of the PRS in Irish society.

In a very short space of time, the private rented sector has sprung from obscurity as a refuge for students, immigrants and separated fathers, to occupy a prominent position and role in Irish housing. In 2015, just under 20% of households currently rent their accommodation. The PRS still provides refuge for students, immigrants and separated fathers, but its function and importance has expanded in line with issues surrounding access to credit, new work practices, affordability and the availability of social housing.

The PRS additionally houses two new cohorts of renters: there are those who are actively choosing to rent, usually for reasons of quality of life. And then there are the multi-lingual, highly-educated, largely international workers in high-tech service industries such as Facebook, Oracle, AirBnB and, of course, Google. Affordability in the rental sector is now of economic importance because when rents rise one of two things happen: these bright young things will choose to go elsewhere to work, thus depriving Ireland of their potential taxable income; or if already here, their first concern is a pay rise to compensate for their expensive living costs (i.e. rent). The PRS therefore affects our ability to be competitive in a global marketplace.

By implementing things like the long-awaited deposit retention scheme for tenants (20 years plus waiting), full mortgage interest relief for landlords (or at least incremental in line with the length of time a tenant has been in situ), secure occupancy (governments seem to think that a long lease equates to security of tenure; it doesn’t – unless reasons for termination are addressed then the length of a lease is meaningless); by creating the conditions for viable long-term renting; and generally treating being a landlord like a business, we can make renting an attractive prospect for both sides of the economic supply and demand equation – that is, landlord and tenant.

There are OTHER ISSUES too, far too many to mention, but here are a few:

We know we need to have and maintain high building standards, although when the self-build lobby jumped up and down the floor in the minister’s office reverberated and the government reacted immediately by proposing reducing standards which given our history of poor construction is a very irresponsible thing to do.

There is no point in having standards if there is no inspection, however, and self certification causes more problems than it solves. Housing needs state building inspectors. We have more dog wardens than local authority building inspectors in Ireland, and given national and international building tragedies, we should not be attempting to scrimp on this (but we are…). The UK residential inspection rate is 100%; at our best we managed about 3%.

We know we need to exercise more financial prudence with lending. However, the government’s first – and unfortunately predictable – reaction to the Central Bank’s lending restrictions earlier this year was to criticise them, and then try to help purchasers circumvent them. It begs the question: why have a Central Bank if this is what government does?

Then there is also homelessness, asset-based welfare, and social housing delivery to be considered.

Everything I’ve mentioned we can do, and we have lots of GOOD IDEAS to supplement these facts.

The old hands-off leave-it-to-the-market ways no longer work. Methods of housing delivery, housing finance and housing typologies have moved on considerably since housing was last a driver of the Irish economy, and it is important not to revert to the laziest, lowest common denominator solution of a construction free-for-all which is currently what we’re heading for.

Instead, by delivering housing by bundling parcels of land where 500-1000 private and social housing units are needed at a time, we can tender across the EU for housing construction using a body like the National Development Finance Agency who manage all state accommodation works, to control the specifications and delivery, and thus we can control affordability. Building 50-100 housing units at a time has its place in Ireland, but will make little inroads into real housing supply needs.

And we’re not even thinking about new tenures such as temporal ownership whereby a property is bought via cash or a mortgage and ‘owned’ for a specified period of time (say ten years). Access to this housing tenure is easier and repayments more affordable than rent; and there is total secure occupancy for the purchaser.

There are also things like community land trusts, and we could do with land zoned exclusively for long-term rental.
So will this happen? Will we get a housing policy that addresses the real needs of housing in Ireland for the next half century, rather than the needs of those with access to the ministers?

I’m not so sure.

WHAT WILL NEVER BE

There are several reasons why I think we’ll struggle to produce a decent housing policy. Some of these are readily identifiable, and some are more obscure.

The factors that are readily identifiable, I call ‘waves’.

Examples of these barriers to a decent housing policy include:
* the power of, and a reverence for, the construction sector in all its forms from the CIF to self-builders;
* an essentially conservative civil service, especially at policy-formation level;
* the challenge of evidence-led policies versus evidence-free politics;
* the influence of a dominant rural ideology on political thinking and housing policy – as with 90 years ago, rural

Ireland’s housing issues are first to be solved – in 1914, rural Ireland was the best housed region in Europe as Dublin lived in slums; this ideology is also in total conflict with Ireland’s rapid rate of urbanisation;

* a preference for light-touch regulation in finance and building standards;
* the constant preferable treatment given to home-ownership and the reliance on the house as a welfare asset;
* a lack of creativity leading to a constant reversion to outdated but familiar practices;
* a Dáil where parochial canniness too frequently passes for political debate;
* a fear of cities and a reluctance to countenance real urbanisation as evidenced in the poorly thought out National Spatial Strategy;
* the individualisation of housing and the consequent reliance on family patrimony to house people through land or deposits; and
* a preponderance of poorly educated politicians compared to our European neighbours – at any one time c.30% of EU prime ministers will have a PhD: we have had one, ever.

This is the easy stuff.

Then there are the ‘undercurrents’ – or influential systemic issues – which flow beneath these waves.

And here it’s interesting in that Ireland has more in common with southern Europe than northern Europe. For both southern Europe and Ireland the driving impetus has always been to protect, facilitate and extend home ownership. For example, the Housing Policy Statements’s drive for equity across tenures is ignored when the ability to buy a property is potentially curtailed by the Central Bank – the first response is to reach for the state cheque book to provide assistance. Like much of southern Europe, we have also managed to muddle along so far to meet housing needs without developing a strong social housing sector or especially a strong private rental sector.

Most importantly, has been the strong conservative presence of the church.

Across southern Europe and also in Ireland, particularly in the last century the church has been an advocate of the withdrawal of the state from collective provision, including housing, thus promoting reliance on the family or the church’s charities – for housing this has meant the provision of accommodation whilst saving for housing, the supply of land on which to build and the donation of finance to assist building or purchase. The responsibility allocated to the family and other charitable institutions in safeguarding individuals against social exclusion is significant. Assets from – and dependence on – the family are, in fact, a major source in filling gaps in the welfare and housing system (see childcare in Ireland for example). It has also meant a reliance on ‘patrimony’ – the distribution of wealth, often property – through family structures.

The church has also been a strong advocate of home ownership (more for reasons of morality and preventing socialist tendencies than for improving housing stability), and an opposer of urbanisation and planning. And over many decades it has been a significant player in retarding the development of the welfare state since it viewed it as a competitor against its own welfare institutions.

A lot of this translated itself into housing reality through the individualisation of housing – transferring the obligation and risk for housing people onto individuals and away from the state. But this isn’t really workable any more, so now Ireland faces several housing challenges. These challenges are:

1) Accessing housing that is affordable (limited supply of private accommodation and social housing, growing demand, partly driven by…)

2) Changing family structures (divorces, children outside marriage etc.) are challenging traditional patrimony. Separation in particular increases demand for housing but with lowered financial resources. An economic crisis also reduces individual means with which to afford housing.

3) The state remains at one remove from supporting those in need (individualisation of housing provision), especially regarding social housing leading to a lack of supply, and driving people into an under-developed rental sector.

In effect, Ireland’s ‘spiritual’ home is with the other peripheral countries in southern Europe such as Spain, Malta, Italy and Greece, but its neighbours and recent ‘economic advisors’ are north European. And north European means high taxes for state provided services such as health, childcare, and education, and significant state involvement in housing provision, especially social housing. It also means a large functioning PRS and urbanisation. Housing in northern Europe frequently means the romanticisation of rural areas, which they do through protecting the countryside from development – definitely not conducive to one-off housing. There is less individualisation in most north European countries, less home ownership, less asset-based welfare and there is more social expenditure.

So there is an ideological conflict between doing what our geographical and economic neighbours and occasional masters do, and doing what has been traditional in the Irish system. This traditional approach is now severely out of date though. With effectively two ministers for building and no minister for housing, the government is listening to those who shout the loudest rather than to those with most to say, and what has resulted to date is housing policy stasis.

CONCLUSION

So, the obvious question is of course, what should be in a housing policy?

A housing policy needs to be a plan for say 100 years (as in Portugal) centred around three principles – for example, affordability…delivered by efficiency, creating accessibility – with goals and targets. It needs to anticipate where and in what properties the average Irish person will be living in thirty years, how much of their salary they will be paying for housing, and the security they will have, whether renting or owning.

Specifically, housing must be looked at as part of a broader, integrated national social and economic ecosystem: when was the last time you heard a minister for housing or the environment discuss housing in relation to education, mental health and welfare, childcare or road safety? Direct access to rural roads is a contributory factor in 15% of serious road collisions and fatalities, but you’ll never hear a minister for housing mention this because: a) they probably don’t know it; and b) even if they do, it doesn’t suit the narrative.

Secondly, housing should be regarded as a critical part of the country’s infrastructure to ensure control of quality and location and to assess how it fits into the state’s other infrastructure. Right now there’s little control over this crucial aspect of our lives, with developers deciding what should be built and where – and they’re qualified to do neither.

Finally, as we head for 2016 and the 2020s, it seems that Ireland’s housing policy is more akin to that of 1916 and the 1920s with overt political interference, an innate fear of urbanisation/densification and cities, and the continued dominance of a fundamentally rural ideology. We know the issues, we know the solutions – the question is do we have the political bottle to develop a housing policy that will last longer than five years and will efficiently deliver affordable and accessible housing for Ireland for the next hundred years.

Dr Lorcan Sirr

Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain
Lecturer in Housing, Dublin Institute of Technology

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