A feature of grandly-titled conferences in the corporate and political worlds — Tomorrow’s Game-changing Solutions for Plasterboard, Democracy, and its New Frontiers — is that they do not always supply in the real world what they promise, certainly not for plasterboard or democracy.
If this week’s Dublin Castle conference (‘2040: Delivering the Vision for Housing’), organised by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, did produce any serious ideas for solving the country’s accommodation crisis — let’s not worry overmuch, for now, about 2040 — they have been pushed aside by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy’s comments on the housing emergency.
In explaining his support for so-called co-living developments — housing blocks comprising very small apartments and shared kitchens — the minister dressed them up as “exciting” choices for young people, adding usefully that “workers” have always made sacrifices.
The housing minister’s micro-flats would give people in our cities the opportunity to sacrifice space — quite a lot of it — for lower rents. The prototype development is planned for Dún Laoghaire. It will have 208 “single-occupancy bedspaces”, with en-suite bathrooms and communal kitchens, each of which will be shared — though not at the same time — by up to 42 residents.
Mr Murphy’s assertion that workers have always made sacrifices is unarguable. That has been the way of our wicked world, as described powerfully by Thomas Hobbes in his essay on life in societies without good government … “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
We can be sure, though, that Victorian slum landlords and housing ministers in the Soviet Union rarely, if ever, bothered to advertise their properties as exciting choices. Politics ought to be about improving standards — in housing, health, and neighbourhoods — not recreating environments that were tolerated in 1819.
The concept has been criticised, properly, by the country’s housing lobbies and the minister’s political rivals, who have dismissed the minister’s exciting opportunities for sacrifice as 21st-century bedsits smaller than disabled parking bays. But Mr Murphy appears to be undeterred, and has gone on to talk about the advantages of doing away with “arbitrary” height limits in cities and large towns and allowing much taller buildings, so as to address the housing crisis.
So, what does the minister have in mind for Cork, Dublin, and our large towns? Over-crowded, multi-storey tower blocks for young, single workers — since they would be no use for families, or anyone else who would prefer not to share a kitchen with 42 others — cut off from the traditional communities around them and beset by the toxic social problems that have afflicted such developments in the countries that threw them up in the 1960s and 1970s?
In which part of the National Planning Framework for the future of sustainable housing in Ireland can this vision be found? It’s tempting to call for the minister’s resignation. But here’s a better idea: make him live in one of these blocks, with their exciting, shared kitchens, for six months.