Housing cure needs careful consideration of all options, not a knee-jerk reaction

Housing cure needs careful consideration of all options, not a knee-jerk reaction

We are in the middle of a housing crisis. That much is clear.

Various solutions have been proposed in the election manifestos unveiled by political parties in recent days.

How many of these will pass muster?

The Green Party, for example, has unveiled plans for a “deep retrofitting scheme” to make 75,000 houses a year energyefficient.

This would appear ambitious, though, if implemented, theinvestment would surely pay for itself, in what is likely to be acarbon-constrained world.

The largest parties are all focusing on new-builds, with Sinn Féin promising hundreds of thousands of social houses.

The Fianna Fáil proposals are more nuanced.

They are promising to build 50,000 social housing units by 2025, while pushing total housing output up to 40,000 a year. It was 21,500 in 2019.

A few obvious questions should be asked.

Do we need to dramatically increase housing provision, given the number of vacant properties — residential and non-residential — across the country?

Housing cure needs careful consideration of all options, not a knee-jerk reaction

Even if we wanted to, could we increase this production without inflating construction costs, across the board, given the shortage of people who have the necessary building skills?

Moreover, it is worth asking if the debate on future home provision is not dominated — to an excessive degree — by a generation of builders who have not been particularly open to innovation, quality, or cost control?

Many builders have highstandards and their buildings stand as testament to their skills.

But, as a society, and as homeowners, we will be paying for many years for the shoddy workmanship that was a feature of so many developments from the 1990s onwards.

According to the CSO, there were 230,000 vacant homes in 2011, and 183,000 by the time of the 2016 census.

However, the CSO reckons that just 65,000 of the homes vacant in 2016 were already vacant in 2011.

As for the rest? They were properties on sale, in probate, or unoccupied because the owner was away (probably in hospital or in long-term care).

However, these figures, arguably, do not capture the large number of properties — many in town and city centres — that are under-used, with the floors above ground level effectively unoccupied.

We should be squeezing a lot more people into the more central areas of our towns and cities.

The task of ramping up production is complicated by the dearth of building skills and also by a lack of capacity in quality inspection.

But the building trade may itself be on the cusp of change, with a move away from traditional, on-site activity to the production of much — if not all — of the building off-site.

The off-site option has manyattractions.

It could greatly reduce the demand for traditional building crafts, freeing up labour to work on renovations and on very high-quality new-builds. The new generation of off-site plants can be located well away from major population centres, providing jobs where they are needed.

Incumbents who do not invest in this area could find themselves losing much of their business and being downgraded.

One concern is that if we end reliance on factories for our homes, our new housing estates might appear more monotonous than ever.

This may suit the new generation of off-site building empires, which see profit in sameness. The planners and architects must step in to ensure that this does not happen.

Housing cure needs careful consideration of all options, not a knee-jerk reaction

Our municipalities would be well-advised to build up teams committed to quality planning and construction.

We are clearly in a rush to address the deficits in home provision that have fostered misery and insecurity, but this is no time to expose ourselves to those who will seek to profiteer from panic.

There are developers who are keen to promote skyscrapersolutions at the expense ofwell-designed, lower-rise, but high-density alternatives.

The disaster at Grenfell Tower, in London, in 2017, should remind us of the dangers of going down that route. We have to be open to all new ideas, but we must not allow ourselves to be herded in one direction by those with profit in mind.

By all means, step up the supply of apprentices, while maintaining high standards of training. The high levels of local charges and Vat on construction activity simply do not make sense. They have been choking off activity.

These charges should bereduced. They are illogical, given the huge expenditure on rental subsidies, never mind the long-term costs associated with parking children in confined hotel and B&B spaces or damp flats.

Homeowners cannot, however, have it both ways.

They cannot expect local authorities to fund ambitious social housing programmes, while declining to provide local government with adequate income.

Our local institutions, in turn, need to develop a value-for-money mindset, along with the necessary skills in cost control.

Nor should we imagine thatthe problems associated with homelessness can be swept away through an upsurge in house provision.

Such a ramping-up in supply would, however, represent a huge step in the right direction.

It is not beyond us. We made up huge ground in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1970s.

We can do so again.

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