Devil is in the detail when it comes to housing crisis solution

Devil is in the detail when it comes to housing crisis solution

It was hard not to groan at the news that a plan to build almost 300 homes in the Dublin suburb of Glasnevin has been turned down by the planning board.

Yet again, developers have aimed too high seeking to cram too much into a limited area and resident groups have pushed back.

We have had similar examples of rejections of large developments – the most interesting being that in Raheny, north Dublin, near St Paul’s school, close to a site where migratory birds gather.

They have been encouraged to do so under regulations pushed forward by a Government desperately keen to fill the huge gaps in housing supply. There is a way of addressing this conundrum, however.

We need to involve architects and planners at a much earlier stage in discussions between developers and local communities.

High density solutions can be crafted that allow for both decent accommodation and minimal disruption to local environment. But to achieve this, we need creativity and a bit of give on both sides.

The alternative is a battle of attrition with heavy legal costs added along the way, in which the developer returns again and again with similar proposals hoping to wear down the opposition.

Last Wednesday, Engineers Ireland published its annual State of Ireland report. The focus, this year, is housing – or the lack of it.

Interestingly, the organisation has worked closely with Father Peter McVerry, the radical advocate.

He participated in a panel discussion alongside John Moran, chair of the Land Development Agency and Eugene Lynch, chair of the McAvoy Group.

Engineers Ireland members have identified failures in housing as a huge concern.

The engineers do not go as far as Peter McVerry who is "sceptical about the Government's ability, even willingness, to solve the crisis."

A centrist political party like Fine Gael knows that ongoing failures in this area spell real electoral trouble even if part of its support base – landlords – benefit from the current supply shortage.

Fr McVerry also had some interesting solutions. He strongly endorses the use of modular building units, pointing to their durability - many have lasted 60 years or more.

He pointed not just to land hoarding, but to the existence of over 185,000 empty houses.

He praised Louth county council for its extensive use of compulsory purchase orders and he suggested with force that the current vacant site levy fails to deter hoarders.

Devil is in the detail when it comes to housing crisis solution

He suggested that the Tanaiste Simon Coveney, when housing minister, sought a cap on rents tied to the rise in the consumer price index, was overruled by the Department of Finance, which seeks a return for the taxpayer from the State’s investment in property via Nama.

John Moran response is of particular interest as he served as Secretary General at the Department. He accepted much of Fr McVerry’s basic argument.

We do need to tackle speculation as it is driving up the cost of housing, he agreed.

A much more robust carrot and stick approach around the use of compulsory purchase orders is required and the industry must move away from its obsession with three-bedroom semis as a solution to problems of supply.

The report contains plenty of practical solutions, particularly in the areas of infrastructure, spatial planning, regulatory reform, retro-fitting and the development of smart homes.

Some of the ideas are fairly radical.

Where infrastructure is limited, local authorities should be given priority. The idea of vacant site levies "should be embraced more vigorously".

Green belts should be put in place to promote "sustainable densification."

The report favours a concentration of high density projects near transport hubs. No surprise here.

It does not provide enough critical analysis of the apartment-based solutions it favours implicitly.

Many flat complexes are poorly designed and personally isolating.

It is accepted that "living at high density will require a change in mindset." Not least among officials and industry professionals, one might add.

On the plus side, its authors correctly recommend that officials look to other jurisdictions, particularly on the continent, for fresh ideas.

The role of developer contributions is questioned.

Are they rendering some residential projects uneconomic, perhaps delaying badly-needed activity. Better to place more of the burden on landowners.

The establishment of 'town teams' to promote the regeneration of towns and villages is proposed.

Why not revive some of the town councils which were scrapped in local government reforms?

Measures to promote the use of empty space above street level in town centres are proposed, but the real problem may be that insurers won’t provide cover at affordable prices and banks are reluctant to lend to owners and occupiers of old properties.

Devil is in the detail when it comes to housing crisis solution

The report recommends greater use of shared work spaces. The private sector is leading the way here in the cities.

The State needs to incentivise provision of such shared spaces away from the major centres, providing proper broadband as necessary back up.

Fr McVerry highlighted the fact that around 600,000 people live in poor quality housing that is damp or otherwise compromised. Much of this will have to be renovated at huge cost.

John Moran believes that the huge investment needed in housing will have to be met through innovative forms of low cost private finance, much of it from overseas.

Engineers Ireland estimates that the cost of retro-fitting our stock to the required standard will weigh in at between €35bn and €50bn – a staggering amount.

Careful planning will be needed. The organisation proposes that 'retrofit managers' be trained and hired and that many others be retrained.

Supply of labour - particularly skilled labour – looks set to be a key constraint. Just 5% of apprentices and 8% of engineering graduates are women.

Devil is in the detail when it comes to housing crisis solution

Eugene Lynch of the Northern-based McAvoy group warns that many builders are close to retirement.

Clearly, this state of affairs cannot continue. Failing a dramatic uptake in the number of entrants, the manner in which homes are constructed will have to change.

The climate crisis is also dictating fundamental change when it comes to energy consumption in homes and the use of materials in their construction.

Cement and concrete are major contributors to global warming. Their use will have to be curtailed.

Mr Lynch’s firm has begun to manufacture housing off site, allowing employees to pursue family-friendly working hours.

This and other approaches could tackle the looming labour shortage while providing housing solutions at affordable prices.

Firms in places like Germany are already supplying low cost, low carbon homes manufactured off site.

Perhaps, for now, this is a pipe dream, but certainly no more so than the promise of ‘smart homes’ – increasingly touted - which appear more like an expensive IT industry-led solution for the very well-off home buyer than a viable solution to the crisis of supply now weighing on so many.

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