In political struggles for publicly funded housing in Ireland since the 2010 crisis, the word ghetto has re-appeared. When proposals for social and public housing are put forward by activists, unions and others, one of the ways they are opposed, whether it be via mainstream media, or elsewhere is by the deployment of the word ‘ghetto’. Opponents of a massed public housing investment programme raise the spectre of the ghetto if we were to invest in a housing programme that meant more than a handful of public housing units in the same place. In this blog post I want to trace the birth and development of this use of the word ghetto in a public housing context in Ireland, not in a theoretical but an empirical way. This provides some evidence for a paper I am returning to again having put it to one side in late 2018.

The use of the word ghetto has been a feature of the story of local authority housing in Ireland since the 1980s. To understand the ways in which ghetto has become identified with public housing, we need to trace its origins. There is not a simple and defined correspondence with the use of the words ghetto and housing in Ireland. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the word ghetto appears closely aligned with public housing in the newspapers of the time. To show how this alignment occurs, I have analysed the content of a range of articles, features and editorials for the period 1960 to 2015 where the words ghetto, housing and Ireland appear together.

While initial usages in Irish newspapers were concerned with the sectarian housing policies in Northern Ireland, later usages of the words show significant concern among policy makers and others for the potential and the reality of social housing to become like a ghetto. It is evident that ghetto emerges as a euphemism for housing segregation based on class. It is also more than a euphemism, as I will show. A wide variety of individuals, from politicians to government officials to members of the public, cite examples of concentrations of public and social housing in Irish towns and cities as something to be avoided in any new programme. Usage of the terms ghetto and housing together from about 1992/3 in particular onwards implies that mistakes have been made in the past in concentrating public housing because it leads to undesirable, yet unspecified, social problems. My content analysis shows how the development of public housing and planning problems are represented from this time as attempts to avoid ghettoization. Content analysis is a way in which to draw out significant themes from a corpus of text across time periods and can be used to show how specific ideas are represented together (Limb and Dwyer, 2001).

The Irish Newspaper Archive found the phrase ‘ghetto’ near ‘housing’ in 316 results in the period 1920 to 2018.  An Irish Times Archive search for the words ‘ghetto’ and ‘housing’, confined to Ireland, for the period 1960 to 2018 was also done. This second search yielded 243 results. In both databases a shift in usage over time is apparent. The word ‘ghetto’ alongside housing only appears with any frequency from the 1960s when it was used to describe the housing of nationalists and Catholics in the sectarian state of Northern Ireland. Discounting this particular usage and its usage to describe historical events in other parts of the world, a number of themes emerge from this brief overview of their usage together. The first theme identified in my analysis is that housing planning by local authorities, by its very house building activity, has created ghettoes. A selection of these usages shows a close association with public housing in particular. It is important too that such usage is found across a wide range of actors from across political parties. As early as 1972, aspiring Labour Party candidate (later minister) Ruairi Quinn wrote about Ballyfermot as a “poor community, a working-class ghetto with a high factor of crowding” (Mar 1 1972) having earlier described it as “a gross distortion of normal community in our society”. In 1976, a new private housing development in the Kildare town of Celbridge was offering a “mixed community within the development” in which the developer “anticipates the end of the ‘ghetto mentality’ that has disfigured many other Irish housing developments” (April 9 1976). When the 19th century housing at Mountpleasant in the south Dublin suburb of Rathmines was demolished in 1979, locals blamed the Corporation’s own policy for turning it into a ghetto through neglect (Mar 5 1979). In 1985, in the Donegal News, Fianna Fáil Councillor Bernard McGlinchey was recorded as warning that the town of Letterkenny could have social problems like the Dublin suburb of Ballymun unless “there is a rapid rethink on housing policies”. He sought the Council’s plans for the Ballyboe area of the town to be re-examined for fear that “The Council [would] site more houses in the area when the next allocation comes” and that it was “frightening that we are creating a ghetto in that area”. A total of 59 Council houses were planned alongside some private houses in a nearby site.

In 1986, with a new surrender grant scheme in place, Ray Burke TD, then a Fianna Fail spokesman, warned that the £5,000 given to local authority tenants to purchase a private house out of their own area was “creating a ‘ghetto’ in a Dublin housing estate”. He claimed that this policy resulted in higher unemployment and poverty in the district of West Tallaght. Other opposition deputies pointed out that only tenants in employment could avail of the grant and so those left behind were “becoming more concentrated with the unemployed, and an undesirable demographic imbalance was taking place.” This concern was echoed in a later report on house building activity during an upper house debate on small business (April 18 1986). The implication here is that the Council was creating concentrated areas of poverty by following national policy. Before 1990, the ghetto is used in an anticipatory manner, something to be avoided but only sometimes discernible as a problem.

The second theme identified is that public policy needs to avoid the ghettoes created in the past. By the mid-1990s, ghetto was being used in a near-historical framework as is clear from a 1996 Irish Times series entitled The Roots of Crime. The journalist frames the problem of crime as one of definition: “we are no longer defined by our green fields, but by urban ghetto areas which [police] call ‘hostile territory’” (Jan 22 1996). Later that year, a conference for local authorities heard how some of these authorities “use housing estates to hide rural poverty, creating ghettos on the edge of towns”. These council-established areas “had been, to some extent, ghettoised by virtue of their location outside the central areas of small towns” said consultant Trutz Haase. While this refers to much smaller urban areas than Dublin, the identification of an unspecified ghettoisation caused by public housing itself is evident. More especially, ghettos are identified by their own nature and characteristics rather than via their relationship to other policy measures of class formation.

In 1999, the Tuam Herald recorded that the Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute (IAVI) had expressed concern that the Government’s new Planning Bill would hinder the development of affordable housing because it encouraged building by local authorities to shorten their housing waiting lists instead of making private housing more affordable. Their statement, broadly in support of the bill, felt that “ghettos may be created within future housing developments with ‘affordable housing’ being segregated by a high wall from the main site and accessed independently…”. “Quality residential enclaves” in these areas would undergo price increases because they will not have the social housing element of the mooted bill nearby. The concern of the IAVI was for (private) first-time buyers and the lack of flexibility in densities envisaged under the bill. By 2000, a new Fingal Council plan to expand the older suburb of Blanchardstown was written about by the Irish Times’s environment correspondent as “littered as it is with ghettoised low-density estates, both public and private” (Nov 23 2000).  Other accounts from the 1990s show how the phrase ‘mixed tenure’ came to dominate discussion of large new housing developments at the edge of Dublin.

In the period 2002 to 2006, about 300,000 new houses were built in Ireland. Like the word ‘ghetto’, the term ‘mixed tenure’ is a code word used to describe mostly private housing with some element of social and/or affordable within a scheme. Both terms obscure the class relations that are materialised within urban space. Fears of “ghettos in the making” are allayed by building developments with a majority of private housing with some element of affordable and social housing. This bracketing of public within large private developments came to dominate home building in Ireland (through policy instruments of an increasingly centralised state) until the debt-laden crises that began in 2008. There is evidence then to suggest that the word ghetto is used in newspaper reports of housing policy in two ways: firstly that local authorities, through policy instruments not always of their own making, created ghettos in public estates. These areas are unspecified but identified invariably with public housing. Secondly, and as the 21st century begins, that new housing developments (all tenures) need to avoid the mistakes of the past where public housing ghettoes were built. In a feature on the new suburb called Ongar on Dublin’s north-west fringe, concern was expressed that higher densities would bring about ghettos (December 2 2006). Later-expressed fears about ghettos are not exclusively related to public housing but to newer suburban forms and populations that are seen not to be integrating with other communities. Where public housing is aligned with the fear of a ghetto aids the expansion of private housing over a longer time frame. The Planning and Development Act 2000 in particular instituted a defined proportion of each new housing development to be designated as public housing. This housing tenure’s marginalisation as time goes on solidifies the place of public housing as a small part of housing provision more generally. Furthermore large concentrations of public housing become strongly associated with ghetto-creation in a way that was not evident before the 1980s.

Eoin O’Mahony (@EducGIS)

In the last couple of days I’ve been asked to comment on two issues around property data, both relating to vacancy (though we could easily have a similar discussion with regards to housing completions, homelessness, etc).  The first relates to housing vacancy and a report by Fingal County Council that contends that the vacancy levels in the local authority have been ‘grossly overstated’. The second about commercial vacancy and present rates. In both cases it’s difficult to provide strong answers because systematic data collection with respect to both is problematic and the state does not provide official data on either, except on housing vacancy every five years through the census which is a sub-optimal timeframe to be working from.

With respect to housing vacancy. I can’t find the report or press release from Fingal CC, but a story in the Irish Times reports that they believe vacancy levels are well below those reported in the census. It’s difficult to assess fully whether that’s the case without seeing the full methodology or data. What is reported in the IT is:

“The council initially conducted a desktop exercise on the 3,000 supposedly vacant properties. When commercial properties, as well as those in construction or in the planning process, were eliminated the figure fell to 361 properties. ”  They then visited 74 of the 361 homes to check on occupancy, though it’s not stated how those 74 were sampled.

Of those 74 visited, they discovered that only 13 were actually vacant. In other words, rather than having a vacancy rate of 5% (as reported in the 2016 census – 4,944 vacant units + 289 holiday homes), they have a rate of about 1% – far below what might be an expected base vacancy level of 6% (there are always some units vacant due to selling, gaps between renting, working temporarily elsewhere, people in healthcare, etc.). I have no doubt in the 18 months since the census in April 2016 properties that were vacant will have been occupied, however it seems unlikely that vacancy is so far below base vacancy, which is what the IT piece seems to be suggesting.

In terms of method it is unlikely that the CSO shared the individual addresses of vacant properties as identified in the census with Fingal. But if they were working from census data then it does not include commercial properties, nor properties under-construction, or in the planning process, or derelict. So removing those properties from census counts would make no sense – they were never counted by the CSO. Indeed, in a rebuttal story in the Irish Times, the CSO stand over their data and method – which is to send enumerators to every property in the country, to visit upwards of ten times if they fail to get an answer, and to talk to neighbours to try and ascertain the use status. I’m assuming that Fingal got their data instead from Geodirectory who source the information on occupancy from postal workers delivering or not mail. How accurate those data are I’m not sure and presumably the company would stand over their fidelity.

Regardless of the method, there is clearly a large discrepancy between what Fingal CC are finding on the ground in their small sample and what the census enumerators found 18 months ago, and presumably what An Post workers are finding. That discrepancy suggests we need a much more systematic and timely way of generating data on housing vacancy.  The government have set up a crowdsourcing means to generate vacancy information – vacanthomes.ie – where members of the public can log homes that they think are vacant, which can then be checked by local authority staff. There are well known problems with crowdsourcing such information, including coverage, representativeness and keeping the data up-to-date, and these data certainly could not be used as official statistics. Much more realistic would be a quarterly vacancy survey (much like the quarterly household survey) – probably carried out by the CSO who have no vested interest in local housing/planning data.

In terms of commercial vacancy, the state produces no statistics on the rates of vacancy for offices, retail units or industrial sites. It is a massive hole in our knowledge of the property sector. The only data that are produced are those by Geodirectory (which are limited in detail) or the property sector itself (hardly an unvested party, and the data are a product and can disappear from websites or go behind paywalls, and lack spatial granularity – usually just Dublin/rest of country or regions). In relation to commercial properties there is also a need to understand their characteristics, such as type, spec, condition, location, etc. as well as the size of space vacant, not just how many units. For example, imagine that there are ten units on a high street.  Nine of them are 1000 sqm in size and one is 5000 sqm.  If the larger unit is vacant then the vacancy rate per unit is 10 percent. However, the vacancy rate by floor area is 35 percent.  In other words, one cannot simply look at the absolute number of vacant units, rather we also need to consider the type and size of the units that are vacant. Trying to prepare local and county development plans with a fuzzy knowledge of existing development is a sub-optimal way of conducting planning and can lead to oversupply and property crashes (as per the last 20 years). Like housing, we therefore need good, reliable, timely data to understand the commercial property sector and we need the state to produce them.

In my view, there needs to be a branch-and-root review of property data in Ireland. This needs to start with asking the question: what data do we need to generate to best understand planning, housing, commercial property, infrastructure need, etc? Then to discover where the gaps are and to review the veracity and fidelity and fit-for-purpose of existing data generation and to fix as necessary. This includes assessing whether the data are being generated by the most appropriate generator. We then need to put in place the processes to produce those data.

With good quality data that people trust we might avoid different agencies producing wildly varying estimates of some element of housing or commercial property, such as vacancy rates, and we would greatly aid our planning and economic development. However, if we carry on as we are, we’re going to continue to fly half-blind and only have a partial or flawed understanding of present conditions and we are going to replicate mistakes of the past.

Rob Kitchin

The Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework (NPF) currently under preparation, is tasked with providing a ‘framework for future development and investment in Ireland’ (Issues and Choices Consultation Paper). The consultation document makes clear that the NPF is intended to provide a high-level strategic policy document, working to coordinate the spatial aspects of a wide range of sectoral policies concerned with ‘housing, jobs, transport, education, health, environment, energy and communications’. The potential of strategic spatial policy to be provide a frame for the coordination of broad-scale policy objectives such as quality of life, prosperity and environmental sustainability and the development of place-based policy is explicitly addressed. It is evident that the NPF is intended to provide more than a reformulation of the politically-sensitive issue of balanced or effective regional development. It is also evident that it is not to be understood as ‘national plan’, prescribing where development should take place, as discussed previously on this blog here). Whereas the NPF will hopefully provide a central guiding framework for planning authorities, informing their decision-making and placing their work in a wider strategic context, this should not be understood as its primary function.

The NPF is asking to be taken seriously as cross-sectoral overarching framework for investment, rather than treated as a national plan to be ‘implemented’ by local authorities. These strategic cross-sectoral policy coordination policy coordination objectives are to be welcomed. The current context of Brexit-induced uncertainty calls for open dialogue, cross-sectoral communication and strategic stakeholder engagement, as Ireland-UK and by default, Ireland-EU and North-South relations are simultaneously re-ordered and re-worked. Indeed, this period of uncertainty calls for spatial public diplomacy. The NPF can play an important function in this context providing in particular a framework for working out island-of-Ireland perspectives and reaffirming existing commitments to cooperation in matters of spatial planning and regional development on a North-South basis.

The experiences of Wales and Scotland with strategic spatial planning furthermore demonstrate the potential of spatial strategies with strong cross-sectoral ambitions. The Scottish National Planning Frameworks build on a strong Scottish tradition of strategic planning and have played an important role as part of a broader ‘national conversation’ post-devolution. More importantly, they have served to focus policy attention on key projects of national importance and ‘spatial priorities for change’. The Wales Spatial Plan similarly was designed from the outset as an over-arching cross-sectoral framework, placing the work of the then newly established Welsh Assembly in a strategic spatial context and supporting joined-up thinking at a sub-regional level.

In order to be taken seriously and to have relevance as a framework at a strategic policy level outside of the Department of Housing, Planning Community and Local Government, however, the NPF needs to be explicitly linked to public sector investment decision-making. The National Spatial Strategy was of course, designed to give spatial expression to the National Development Plan with the Gateway Investment Fund as the bridge linking spatial and capital investment planning. Unfortunately, the GIF was one of the first items to go when budgets were cut and the decentralisation fiasco characteristically served to make the worst out of a bad situation. We should nevertheless expect and demand that the NPF contain explicit commitments regarding major infrastructure projects of national and regional importance, aligning the spatial framework with national transportation policy and other key sectoral policies. Debate on the NPF should focus on concrete substantive issues of strategic spatial significance such as outstanding commitments under Transport 21, sustainable energy and climate adaptation policy and the future of the border region in a time of uncertainty. NPF scenarios could focus on the spatial development implications of infrastructure investments and policy choices, providing informed insights into possible regional development dynamics in Ireland 2040. This of course is based on the perhaps naive assumption that the Irish Government is prepared to commit public funds to strategic investment projects rather than relying on private sector investment.

The NPF might also be expected to make funding commitments to support innovative regional development initiatives emerging from the bottom-up. It is possible to envisage a scenario where local authorities, business and community stakeholders could apply for capacity-building or small-scale investment funding on a competitive basis from funds administered by the three regional assemblies. Projects would be required to support the objectives of the NPF and to cross local authority boundaries, working with ‘functional territories’ in order to ensure strategic regional importance. Lessons can be learnt from urban-rural partnership programmes organised on a similar basis in Germany which have challenged metropolitan and rural districts to identify potential synergies and means of working together. Closer to home, the experiences of three Border Area Networks and work of ICLRD in developing common projects and strategies on a cross-border basis demonstrate the potential of this approach in the Irish context.

It is time for a mature debate on the substantive issues the NPF can and should address on a cross-sectoral basis, and time for the Government to commit to public investment aligned with national spatial policy.

Reminder: Submissions on the NPF consultation can be made until this Thursday 16th March (12 noon).

Cormac Walsh

To make a submission about the proposed NPF go to the website and follow the instructions provided; or email 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 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

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

Article Published in the Irish Examiner, July 4th 2015.

GREECE is being told to follow Ireland’s crisis solution of harsh austerity and acceptance of bank-and-bailout debt. This narrative conveniently ignores that the Irish ‘recovery’ has been built on major human rights violations and the undermining of long-term social and economic development.

There is a dark side to Ireland’s ‘success’ that requires discussion about the most effective responses to financial and fiscal crises.

The eight austerity budgets between 2008 and 2014 involved €18.5bn in public-spending cuts and €12bn in tax-raising (revenue) measures. Key public services, in particular health and housing, have been weakened as a result.

Public service staff have been reduced by 10% (37,500). Health spending has been cut by 27% since 2008, resulting in an 81% increase in the number of patients waiting on trolleys and chairs in emergency departments. One-third of all children admitted to hospital suffering with mental-health difficulties have been put in adult wards and the waiting lists for youth mental-health services have increased to 2,818 people.

Funding for local authority housing was cut from €1.3bn, in 2007, to just €83m, in 2013. This meant a loss of 25,000 social-housing units. This is a major contribution to the homelessness crisis, with 1,000 children and 500 families now living in emergency accommodation in Dublin. Because of the decision to prioritise bank recapitalisation and developer debt write-down, homeowner mortgage arrears have escalated.

There are 37,000 homeowners in mortgage arrears of over 720 days, and legal repossession notices were issued to 50,000 homeowners.

The cuts to welfare have had devastating impacts.Affected areas include lone-parent supports, child benefit, youth payments, fuel, back-to-school clothing and footwear, rent supplement, and disability and carers’ allowance.

But charges were introduced where they did not exist before — putting a further burden on lower-income households. These charges are ‘regressive’, in that they were not tailored to income level. These include water, property, school transport, prescription, A&E and chemotherapy charges. Fees have effectively been reintroduced at third-level (increasing from €1,000 to €3,000). This will have major implications for participation rates from lower-income households.

Funding for local community development, youth organisations, drugs prevention, family support, and to combat rural and urban disadvantage was disproportionally hit. Programme funding was reduced by 50%.

We are likely to see the long-term social impacts of these cuts in the further exclusion from the labour force of youths in disadvantaged areas. Issues of drugs and crime will surely worsen.

An EU report on the impact of austerity showed that the quality of secondary- and primary-level education has also been reduced, with fewer teachers, rationalisation of teacher/student support services, and the abolition of school grants.

The report links early school-leaving to austerity measures, which are highly concentrated in low-income areas. This, along with the cuts in funding to third-level, will seriously damage our education system, the core of the country’s economic development.

Hundreds of thousands of families and children have been pushed into poverty. The child-poverty rate rose from 18%, in 2008, to 29.1%, in 2013.The deprivation rate increased from 26.9%, in 2012, to 30.5%, in 2013, while for lone-parent families it has risen to 63%. Food poverty affects 600,000 (up 13.2%). Austerity has also devastated rural areas and small towns, with unemployment levels remaining much higher in the south-east.

In one of the most disturbing pieces of research into the impact of austerity, UCC and the National Suicide Research Foundation found an increase in self-harm rates of 31% in men, and 22% in women, between 2008 and 2012, while the male suicide rate is 57% higher (that’s 500 additional deaths). They cited a number of factors, including reductions in public expenditure, cuts to welfare, substantial healthcare cuts, falling house prices and personal debt.

Capital expenditure on important public infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools, roads, transport, broadband, water and wastewater was drastically reduced, by 60%, between 2008 and 2014.
Such spending on infrastructure is the bedrock of sustainable and competitive economies, and the lost decade of investment in these will leave Ireland’s economy much more vulnerable into the future.
Don’t forget, also, €17bn of our national pension reserve — which was available to fund infrastructure development and future pensions — was put into the bailout.

The commitment by Irish governments to pay all the bank- and crisis-related debt will damage our long-term social and economic development, and result in ongoing crises in health, housing, and mental health, and in rising poverty and inequality. This is because funding that should be going to these much-needed public services will, instead, be going on debt interest payments. Debt interest payments rose from €2bn (3.4% of tax revenue), in 2007, to a staggering €7.5bn, or 18% of all tax revenue, in 2014. These interest payments will enforce a form of permanent austerity in the coming decade.
Then, there is the often-forgotten issue of forced emigration. Almost 10% of Irish young people emigrated during the recession and emigration worsened as austerity intensified. It rose from 20,000, in 2009, to 50,000, in 2013. Without emigration, the unemployment rate would be 20%.

Finally, almost half of Ireland’s dramatic increase in GDP is from multinational activity, which does not take place in Ireland.

Thus, much of Ireland’s growth is based on facilitating some of the most profitable global corporations and financial services in reducing the tax they otherwise would have to pay to countries across the world. This is an unethical, unfair, and ultimately unsustainable form of economic activity.

It is clear, as highlighted by a recent assessment by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, that austerity hit the most vulnerable and marginalised the hardest in Ireland. But there was, and remains, a choice about how countries such as Ireland and Greece, and the Troika, respond to debt and financial crises. Debt relief is an important option, as is taxing the wealthy, financial services or higher incomes, rather than taking it from public services, the poor and middle-income earners. The Troika and Irish governments favoured the latter and we can see the human misery and economic damage caused, as a result.

The Irish austerity-and-recovery model is being misrepresented on the international stage and should not be followed by Greece or other crises countries.

The Irish case actually points to the human and economic necessity of debt relief and alternative approaches to fiscal crises.

Rory Hearne

It is always useful to get a response to ideas and theories, and Prionnsias Breathnach’s reponse to our recent publications on rural Ireland will assist in furthering the debate on Ireland’s replacement spatial strategy.

Our fundamental point is that any Irish Planning Region without a city is going to struggle, as exemplified with the two-tier performance of the recent severe economic downturn, 2008-to-date. With the State’s fragile spatial mass and absence of significant population centres, a future strategy for balance must recognise the need for ‘lumpiness’: not to control or stultify the GDA but in having the imperative and urgent need to grow the provincial cities to a size that substantially reduces the 2011 71% deficiency in its Zipf Rank Order Gini-coefficient deficit, wherein if Dublin = 100, Cork = just 17.5, Limerick’s 8, etc. As I have shown, this aggregate city population-shortfall is over one million.

Successful implementation of EU Balanced Regional Development (BRD) is based on the underlying, necessary, assumption that there already exists a second tier of cities. Unfortunately, in Ireland’s (Republic) case and using George Zipf’s Rank Size Order Rule as the test, there is a conspicuous absence – a set of missing teeth – in not having in 2015, a range of 200,000 to 600,000 populated cities. Had Buchanan been implemented in 1969, by now both Cork and Limerick would have achieved these parameters.

Bluntly, the absence of intermediate-sized cities makes the task of implementing BRD outside of the GDA as being unattainable; at least until such time as this pre-requisite exists.

Accordingly, Lorcan Sirr and I are advocating that there is a pressing need for the replacement (new) spatial strategy to focus on developing at least one city or large urban centre in every Planning Region, which is capable of urban agglomerating. Alonso’s paper of 1970, (vide Balchin, 1995: 49) at Fig. 2.12, suggested an X-axis minimum city size of 100,000, with subsequent growth to its inflection points ‘C’, ‘D’ and with in-migration, to ‘E’. How much more so does the minimum threshold population of a modern Irish city need to be in this post-industrial ‘knowledge’ era, so as to reach a size, where it can capture the benefits of urban agglomeration growth, with its attendant clustering effects? It is encouraging to see the benefits of perhaps three specific ‘types’ of clustering in Galway City but this is altogether too few – Dublin has twenty-five or so types. Hence, Galway’s population can still be comfortably accommodated in the 82,500 capacity of Croke Park!

As a country with limited capital resources, there is little prospect of Ireland attaining such results unless our spatial and economic strategies are to be aligned and focused towards that end. In practice, this means a severe spatial planning implementation approach to:

  • controlling one-off housing,
  • reversing the proliferation trend of over 200 hundreds new villages and small towns since 1996,
  • providing affordable housing in our cities in locations close to employment,
  • reducing the traffic congestion of long-distant commuting resulting from enforced population deflection,
  • the re-use of hundreds of hectares of languishing brown-field sites and thereby utilising existing infrastructure and schools, of improved urban design with double-duplex family housing units which have ground-level and roof-level gardens, and
  • anticipating in advance the emergence and recognition of new cities…e.g. the emergence of a sixth city with the impending agglomeration of Drogheda and Laytown-Bettystown-Mornington with a current, closing, gap of just 800 metres (Colp West to Donacarney): not 59 km, the distance between Athlone and Mullingar, a la the NSS ‘linkage’.

The extended economic downturn for nearly the last decade has shown rural Ireland’s severe unemployment and enforced emigration vulnerability and the resultant two-speed economic penalty for regions without cities. Unfortunately, this is likely to be repeated during future cyclical downturns. Thus an all-island approach is needed to ‘lever’ the north-west to the City of Derry, to maximising the potential of the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor; to focusing growth on proven centres such as Portlaoise, where the land-use/ transportation interface is evident. Its 2006-2011, its population growth was equivalent to the aggregate of the NSS Midland Gateway of Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar. Why select Monaghan, Tuam, Mallow, etc. ahead of Portlaoise?

The ‘test’ for city-size thresholds would include locations that would be deemed suitable for ‘institutional-grade’ property investment locations acceptable to financial instruments such as Pension Funds, REITS, etc. Cities are a pre-requisite to economic ‘spillovers’.

Recent Regional Studies literature has focused on the prospects for New Economic Geography and New Urban Economic research combining to provide urban modelling. Our wish is for their scientific advancement, to include evidence-based empirical modelling. With empirical tools which could incorporate demographics, thereby advancing the earlier ’industrial era’ approach to city threshold size. Such modelling would be of particular value to smaller countries including Ireland – states that exhibit strong major city ‘primacy’.

One would wish for the new spatial and economic plan which is free of the harmful political ‘paw marks’ that bedevilled the 2002-2020 NSS, having perhaps fifteen or so nominated growth centres, limited to centres of 20,000 or more, with strong Daytime Working Population counts. Attempts to ‘twin’ or ‘treble’ linkages should be limited to locations that are already demonstrating urban agglomeration.

The World Bank (2008) correctly advocated ‘lumpiness’ and centripetal agglomeration as the way forward, for developing countries, to build their cities, nurture the nature and change of ‘work’ and thereby benefit from the ‘knowledge’ economy world that now is. Spatial planning-wise, Ireland is a ‘developing, country, so get cracking!

Dr Brian Hughes, urban and regional economist

Dr Lorcan Sirr, lecturer in DIT and visiting professor or housing at the Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain

New book by by Sean Phelan, Neoliberalism, Media and the Political, some of which discusses Ireland.

Neoliberalism, Media and the Political presents a novel critical analysis of the condition of media and journalism in neoliberal cultures. Emphasizing neoliberalism’s status as a political ideology that is simultaneously hostile to politics, the argument is grounded in empirical illustrations from different social contexts, including post-Rogernomics New Zealand, Celtic Tiger Ireland, the Leveson Inquiry into the UK press, and the climate-sceptic blogosphere. Phelan draws on a variety of theoretical sources, especially Laclau and Bourdieu, to affirm the importance of neoliberalism as an analytical concept. Yet, he also interrogates how critiques of neoliberalism – in media research and elsewhere – can reduce social practices to the category of neoliberal. Against the image of a monolithic free-market ideology that imposes itself on other domains, the book identifies the potential sites of a cultural politics within neoliberalized media regimes.

Table of contents
Introduction: Disfiguring Neoliberalism
1. Articulating Neoliberalism in Critical Media and Communication Studies
2. Neoliberal Discourse: Theory, History and Trajectories
3. Neoliberal Logics and Field Theory
4. Neoliberalism and Media Democracy: A Representative Anecdote from Post-Rogernomics New Zealand
5. The Journalistic Habitus and the Realist Style
6. Media Cultures, Anti-Politics and the ‘Climategate’ Affair
7. Neoliberal Imaginaries, Press Freedom and the Politics of Leveson
8. Media Rituals and the ‘Celtic Tiger’: The Neoliberal Nation and its Transnational Circulation
Conclusion: The Possibility of a Radical Media Politics

The ESRI published a report this morning concerning housing supply projections up to 2021. Along with the Housing Agency housing supply report published in April 2014 and the CSO regional population projections published in December 2013, it suggests the need to create substantial new supply in the Dublin region and the other principal cities — no surprise to anyone who has been trying to buy in the region or is on the social housing waiting list.

To summarise: housing need projections

The ESRI report details projected housing supply need until 2021. It argues that there will be an increase in household demand of 180,000 units, but because of oversupply in many parts of the country only 90,000 new units will need to be built, some 12,500 per year. 56,000 (60%) of these need to be in Dublin, 8000 per year. 26% more will need to be in the Dublin commuter counties of Meath, Kildare, Louth and Wicklow. Overall, 86% of all new build will need to be in the Greater Dublin region. However, in many counties, the report suggests that new supply will not be needed because of existing oversupply. Indeed, Donegal, Kerry, Mayo, Tipperary, and all the Upper Shannon counties of Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan, Roscommon and Longford are projected to still have oversupply in 2021.

The Housing Agency report analyzed housing need for 272 towns and cities across the country for the period 2014-18. It argued that there was a need for 80,000 new units, or 16,000 per annum. 37,500 units (47%) would need to be built in Dublin, or 7,500 units per annum.

Both reports use a fairly standard housing projection model using housing stock, population projections, household size, vacancy and obsolescence.

The CSO regional population projections gave a mid-term estimate of population numbers in 2031 using two scenarios. The projections predicted that Dublin population would grow by between 96,000 and 286,000, and the Mid-East region by 77,000 to 144,000. In the upper scenario the Greater Dublin region would therefore see its population grow by over 400,000. In contrast, in the lower scenario, the Border region population would increase by just 18,000 and the West by 17,000. Although these figures relate to population, they will clearly need to be housed and these figures suggest the need for substantially more housing stock over the next 17 years.

There is pretty good harmonisation between the ESRI and Housing Agency reports, both suggesting that c.8000 houses need to be built in Dublin per annum to meet demand.  The overall national required rate of between 12,500-16,000 per annum is actually quite modest.  Typically over the past forty five years new build has been 20-30,000 per annum, rising to 40,000+ post 1998.  12,500 is in fact lower that the lowest build rate going back to when DECLG records start in 1970.  In other words, this is by no means an excessive ambition.

So why do we need supply in Dublin given the crash, oversupply, emigration, etc?

In short, the oversupply of the boom for houses in Dublin as a whole was relatively small, and there wasn’t one in South Dublin. There was, however, a reasonably large overhang of apartments. However, since 2008 the three main drivers of housing demand have been growing: natural increase, in-migration to the city, and household fragmentation. These have soaked up the oversupply. On the other side of the equation housing supply has been minimal. In 2013 only 1360 units were built in the four Dublin local authorities (only 8301 nationwide, over half of which were one-offs and generally not for sale on the open market). In short, over the past seven years we’ve moved from having excess supply to excess demand in Dublin and some other urban locations.

So if there is demand why isn’t there supply?

Good question. Housing supply is shaped by a number of factors: demand, available zoned land, planning permission, building costs (materials, labour), regulatory conditions/costs (taxes, levies, fees, etc), finance (for developers and consumers), and ability to make a profit.

In theory a lot of the right criteria for creating supply exist. There is an excess of demand. There are 6400 acres of zoned serviced land available in the four Dublin authorities for 132,000 units. There are a lot of outstanding planning permissions still in effect and LAs want to give permission for developments that meet development plan/zoning criteria. Material and labour costs of significantly lower than the boom time.

And yet, supply does not seem to be coming on stream and there seem to be blockages across the board. With respect to land, it may be the case that owners are not bringing it to development because they bought it in the boom and can’t afford to develop at present house prices. With respect to planning, it may be that developers are seeking permissions that contravene development plans or are trying to alter existing permissions. The property industry also say that the system needs streamlining and simplifying. They also make the case that there are too many taxes and disincentives attached to building such as development levies, VAT, stamp duty, building reg costs, etc that amount to a sizable proportion of any sale price. Finance is a critical issue. Developers need a sizable amount of upfront cash to secure development loans, yet many are bust from the boom or do not have such reserves.

So what are we to do?

The government needs to quickly evaluate each of the potential blockages and work out solutions that are fair and do not undermine good planning and build quality or excessively boost profit at the state’s expense. By quickly I mean weeks, not months and certainly not years. The longer that supply is constrained the more demand there will be on existing stock and house prices will continue to rise. The Construction 2020 strategy is full of task forces, review groups, consultation exercises and very short on actual policy and implementation. We need supply coming on stream as quickly as possible in the Dublin region and some other urban locales (though certainly not in many parts of the country). Construction 2020 thus needs to be fast tracked. After all, 2020 is meant to be an end date, not the date ground is broken.

Rob Kitchin

Today the government announced a new Construction 2020 Straegy for Ireland – the full report can be found here.

The strategy is to be welcomed in that we’ve needed an overarching strategy re. construction, property and housing for some time.  It’s also good that it is wide in its remit, covering all the main areas.  It seems to me the strategy is about four things:

1.  creating a strong and sustainable construction sector
2.  producing new jobs and getting construction workers back to work – the plan is 60,000 by 2020
3.  Creating sustainable planning and communities
4.  dampening down the cyclical nature of property development

In other words the ‘Strategy aims to ensure that necessary and sensible development can take place, and that it is not held back by unnecessary obstacles.’  It sets out 75 action points, quite a few referring to initiatives that have already been announced previously, though the strategy does tie all the stuff together into a roughly coherent whole.

The question is whether these action points are going to address the various problems and issues.  At present, this is difficult to tell, because a lot of what the document sets out is a roadmap for finding solutions rather than providing solutions.  At one level this is good – we need well thought out solutions.  At another level it isn’t so great because we should have done the strategising a few years ago and now we’re trying to play catch-up whilst various forms of crises continue to play out around us – mortgage arrears, social housing waiting lists, rising prices, weak supply in some areas, oversupply in others, etc.  The report is full of proposed new committees, task forces, review groups, consultations.  Here’s a list of some:

  • will propose a new national planning framework
  • will publish a general scheme of a Planning Bill, along with a new Policy Statement on Planning, to implement the planning recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal and other planning concerns, and to establish an independent planning regulator.
  • will create a Housing Supply Coordination Task Force for Dublin
  • will produce a comprehensive strategy for Social Housing, setting out a vision for the sector.
  • will undertake a review of Part V of Planning and Development Act
  • will review Special Development Zones planning with the aim to streamline and speed up process
  • will explore mechanisms for private financing and greater use of Public Private Partnership models for infrastructure procurement
  • will engage with the banks, NAMA and other interested funding providers to ensure the availability of sufficient development finance
  • will create a High Level Working Group chaired by the Department of Finance will be established to explore the issue of sustainable bank financing for the construction sector.
  • will increase our engagement with the European Investment Banks (EIB) and European Investment Fund (EIF) in developing and implementing mechanisms designed to maximise the provision of financing to SMEs, including in the construction sector.

As it stands then, we have few concrete recommendations with respect to any of these things.  These need to be set up asap and to do their work quickly.  Ideally they will also be dealt with in some kind of a holistic way and not in isolation from each other.

There were a few concrete actions.

  • National Pensions Reserve Fund (NPRF) is to become the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) with a mandate to invest on a commercial basis to support economic activity and employment in Ireland.  Work with IDA and others to invest in offices/infrastructure.
  • A tenancy deposit protection scheme will be provided in law this year
  • Regional Planning Guidelines that co-ordinate local authority plans will be replaced by more broadly based Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies from 2016, with inputs from LAs, key infrastructure and economic development agencies

They are also proposing greater certainty and flexibility in planning:

  • flexibility around overall densities will be considered.
  • changes to existing planning permissions – though only after public consultation
  • streamlined planning process for certain types – ‘repeat’ or ‘change of house type’ applications – and also for appeals
  • enable local authorities to introduce a ‘use it or lose it’ provision with respect to land zoning to reduce land speculation
  • vacant site tax – examine the possibility for enabling a local authority, should it wish to do so, to adopt measures that incentivise the use and development of vacant sites
  • legislate for and introduce a registry of options on land for development purposes to ensure market transparency

Some issues seem to be in a holding pattern.

  • Homelessness – Mentions setting up of Homelessness Oversight Group and aim to eliminate homelessness by 2016 but gives no indication of how that will be achieved, esp. in light of rising homelessness levels.
  • Unfinished estates – no new policy just continue with Site Resolution Plans;

The strategy sets out then a roadmap for getting to actionable initiatives, rather than setting up many new initiatives.  It does not set out many concrete actions but rather proposes a roadmap for dealing with construction and property issues.  There are proposals for lots of task forces and reviews, some tinkering with existing legislation but no radical overhaul, but not a lot of new concrete, strongly cash-backed initiatives – schemes mentioned in the strategy are all relative small sums of money or restate existing public capital expenditure plans (which are a fraction of pre-crash levels).

What would have I liked to have seen?  I would have preferred something a bit more holistic, rather than trying to frame a whole bunch of stuff as a coodinated plan.  Personally, I would have started with a new NSS/NDP and worked down from there.  I think it would have been useful to be more proactive in setting out options re. financing.  How to get finance into initiating construction seems to be largely missing beyond saying the government will talk to and encourage NAMA, EIB, EIF, ISIF (Ireland Strategic Investment Fund) to make finance available and look at issues.  I would have liked the government to be a bit more proactive in terms of initiating and driving funding, seeking ways to increase public capital expenditure.  The strategy announced €200m of new investment into the various property related areas, but this is a tiny amount of funding vis-a-vis the issues that need to be addressed.  Hopefully when all these various task forces and committees report, suitable budgets and means of financing can be attached to the action points, otherwise they’ll remain just that – action points, rather than actioned items.

Rob Kitchin