Housing Minister Simon Coveney wants to lead this country out of its housing emergency and he has a number ideas to facilitate the fast-tracking of housing development, while keeping a robust planning process, writes Juno McEnroe
Children sleeping in cars; spiralling rents; a stalled construction industry; restricted mortgage lending; evictions and over a 100 families becoming homeless a month.
This is modern Ireland and a deep rooted housing emergency has now gripped the country. Solving it or even just easing the crisis is no easy task. There are families crying out for affordable rents or house-buying schemes but also so-called nervous landlords who want tax cuts or financial incentives to build. The Government doesn’t have a bottomless money pit to throw cash at the problem. Nonetheless, intervention is necessary. It will need to be done with surgical precision, quickly and with the support of groups dealing with the housing shortage.
Simon Coveney, the new housing minister, is betting his political future on tackling the crisis. It could “damage” him if he fails, he admits, but he wanted the job.
In a lengthy interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr Coveney, seen as a potential future leader of Fine Gael, talks about ways to tackle the emergency, about supporting growth in the house building sector and about trying to end homelessness.
Fast-tracking planning permission for large developments, a special local authorities fund to build facilities and purchasing unused land banks are some of the options being considered.
The 43-year-old politician also, for the first time, flags that the agreed nine-month suspension of water charges may be extended out further.
Mr Coveney also reveals his hope of changing the image of Fine Gael as he refutes claims the party is “arrogant”.
“One of the reasons I asked for this job is, I think this Government is likely to last two, maybe three, years, and I think with focus on priority we can do a lot to improve the current housing situation in that period of time. I want to be the person who has the leadership doing that.”
The Programme for Government pledges to build 25,000 housing units a year by 2020. In truth, admits the minister, the amount will need to be higher, possibly up to 35,000, to make up for the deficit over the last decade.
Building close to 25,000 in two years’ time is possible, he says.
“I need to find ways of facilitating the building of significantly more houses than are being planned or delivered as soon as possible.”
One such method being worked on by his department would involve allowing developers by-pass certain planning permission stages, so large scale numbers of new units, of both private and social housing, could be built.
Instead of planning for developments of 250 units or more going before a local authority, they would be fast-tracked directly to An Bord Pleanála.
Such a speedier approach to big builds though would not ignore citizens rights or objections.
“In terms of emergency response, what we’re weighing up is should we look at planning decisions for developments above a certain size? Should we look at facilitating those going directly to Bord Pleanála, for example, or should we insist on going through the full local authority planning system first, because they will all be appealed to An Bord Pleanála anyway?”
Planning for a typically large development can last anywhere between 18 months to two years with a local authority. This includes addressing issues such as design, density, amenities, road access and engineering problems.
Instead, the timescale could be significantly reduced if a project went straight to An Bord Pleanála.
“The time difference is massive,” insists Mr Coveney. “The question is, do we try to speed up the existing process or do we try to change the process and say ‘we do have a housing emergency in certain parts of the country, we should allow developments go straight to Bord Pleanála for consideration’?”
Developments could instead pass through planning in just six months as opposed to two and a half years, he says, but also adds: “We have to make sure if we change anything that we still have a very robust planning process, a public consultation process. We can’t simply bypass people’s rights.”
Advancing big builds straight to An Bord Pleanála could require changes to strategic infrastructure rules, which fast-track the construction of special projects, or fresh legislation.
The other big issue delaying house building is the cost, as well as how they are financed.
Mr Coveney is examining a ‘use or it lose it’ fund for local authorities, who would compete for cash to build facilities that would ease the cost of constructing homes.
City councils would open up sites by building bridges, roads, water or electricity link ups and thereby reduce costs for developers.
The minister says it would be a “considerable” fund and his department is in talks with the Department of Public Expenditure about it.
“We will encourage local authorities to compete for that fund on the basis of a project-by-project approach. The best ideas get the money. It will be time limited and use it or lose it,” explains the minister.”
The logic for this fund is supported by startling housing statistics which exemplify the dearth of housing construction under way in Dublin, for example.
Currently, there is planning permission for 27,000 houses but there is in fact enough zoned land around Dublin for some 88,000 units. Nonetheless, only 4,400 units are currently in construction. The cost of building is the reason for the huge differences.
Another option which could speed up housing development is to use unused land banks, in particular those owned by semi-state companies, such as Irish Rail.
Mr Coveney says: “If you look at an organisation like Irish Rail, they have a lot of strategic land banks in urban centres in Dublin, in Athlone, in Limerick, but particularly in Cork.”
The minister is keen to have development begin on one of Cork’s great underdeveloped sites, over the River Lee and key to any dockland renewal ambitions. The Horgan’s Quay site has been the focus of redevelopment ambitions for over two decades.
This and adjacent sites are “clearly not going to be used for rail purposes in the future,” says the minister.
But semi-states are required to make a commercial profit on their land sales, which means that some new arrangement is needed if sites like Horgan’s Quay can be bought and used by another arm of the state for housing.
Mr Coveney adds: “We need to be talking to state companies like Irish Rail with a view to ensuring that those land banks are used where they are needed most, which is for housing, a combination of social housing and private housing.
“What I don’t think we should allow is different state bodies just doing their own thing... we should certainly look at buying it [Horgan’s Quay].”
The four Dublin local authorities also have significant underused land banks, says the minister. A low-cost purchase model could facilitate their use, he explains, and not just for housing.
“It would involve commercial opportunity, education, leisure, sport, residential, and mixed developments from apartments to affordable housing, to rent and lease options, to social housing.”
Using these land banks could help build thousands upon thousands of homes, says the minister, in a similar way to how the former Irish Glass Bottle site will be developed in Dublin.
Mr Coveney also says the Government is examining speeding up the introduction of the vacant site levy for developers — due to come into effect in 2019. Bringing it in sooner to force developers to move on empty sites will depend on the legal advice the Government gets, he says.
“Some people who own these land banks have no intention of building at all, they’re simply waiting for it to appreciate in value and be sold on.”
Another part of the minister’s remit is overseeing the thorny issue of water charges, which Brussels last week said must be paid by Ireland. Mr Coveney said he had spoken to the EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella last week in detail about Ireland’s plan for charges.
The minister indicates that the nine-month suspension of charges could be far longer.
“What I’m hoping, and I think will be the case, is that the commission will give us some flexibility in terms of the nine-month suspension, in order to allow Ireland go through the review process and the experts.”
This admission comes ahead of the Government setting up an expert commission later this month to set out the future for water charges in Ireland.
“I explained the reasoning behind the nine-month suspension. I think he [the commissioner] understands that reasoning, but as regards how the commission responds to that, we’ll have to wait and see.
“If Ireland decides to just abolish water charges in the Dáil, I think the commission will have a real problem with that.”
Mr Coveney is viewed as a future leader of Fine Gael but he refuses to divulge what his intentions are, saying only that the leadership is not on his mind currently.
Moving close the end of his second decade in politics, he says a bigger focus will be his attempt to reshape the public’s perception of Fine Gael.
He rejects assertions by some, including one independent junior minister, that Fine Gael ministers are “arrogant”.
“Politically, why I wanted this brief, apart from getting houses built for people, is because I want to change the perception of Fine Gael. I’m very serious about that.
“I find it both frustrating and inaccurate that the view of many people of Fine Gael is that we don’t care about poor people, that we [don’t] connect emotionally with working class communities, that we’re not doing community-led projects and so on. That’s simply not true.”
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