Wednesday 28 September 2016

I hate to say it, but we really need to get developers back building houses again

Published 22/05/2014 | 02:30

What we obviously don’t need is Anglo-style development. AP
What we obviously don’t need is Anglo-style development. AP

DEEP breath. I never imagined the sentence that's about to follow would ever form in my brain, let along make it into print – but here goes. Bring back the developers.

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Not the flamboyant, social diary fixtures from before. No need to apply if you were one of the speculative types prone to throwing up developments in Ballygonowhere on a "build it and they will come" wing and a prayer.

But developers are best placed to deliver long-term solutions to the current homeless crisis. Preferably developers sitting on green-field sites suitable for social housing projects. This may not be a popular proposal as developers who left a trail of debts emerge from speedy UK bankruptcies, ready to start over. Or as others such as Sean Dunne are accused of a lack of co-operation when their finances are scrutinised: a US bankruptcy official says Mr Dunne tried to send him on "a wild goose chase" and claims he has been involved in a "cloak and dagger" game spanning three continents. The official also wants to question Gayle Killilea about assets and cash transferred to her by her husband.

So developers (and sometimes their wives) continue to be controversial figures, even now. Meanwhile, a housing emergency has been bubbling away for some time, with 90,000 people on social housing waiting lists. This is not an overnight occurrence.

But I can't see the problem being solved without developers. This is aggravating, granted, in view of the average NAMA write-down being 57pc, but when people are homeless we must park our vexation.

A range of long, medium and short-term solutions is needed. Quick fixes might help with people sleeping rough, but it will take long-term strategies to provide affordable and suitable homes.

Everyone craves their own front door to shut against the world. But to help them achieve it, an ambitious social housing building programme has to be put in place. To my mind, the money must be found. However, the Government has been leaving it up to the private rental sector to pick up the slack.

Whether we like it or not, developers have to be brought back in from the cold, because green-field sites need to be identified and developed for social housing. Some sites are held by developers already, waiting for an increase in value, but the time has come to incentivise them to get developing.

The carrot always works more effectively than the stick: rather than taxing owners of vacant sites and premises, let's introduce a tax stimulus, on offer for a strictly limited period, to get the ball rolling.

Besides, if NAMA has a lot of derelict or unused property which it intends to spruce up for the social housing market, a tax on the sector would effectively mean that we were taxing ourselves. When an industry grinds to a halt, as the building sector did during the collapse, it takes time to become operational again. Developers have gone out of business, their workers are unemployed and their loans or assets are either in NAMA or were sold to offset losses. The industry remains in the doldrums.

It needs help. Not for its sake but ours. Developers will need to access loans if they are to start building again. Banks must understand the importance of advancing finance, subject to prudent approval, and these loan applications ought to be fast-tracked. I'm not advocating Godzilla-sized loans for vanity developments, by the way.

Planning departments must also grant permissions quickly, subject to suitability. I don't suggest passing inappropriate plans, but actively working with the developer to improve them.

Close checks will need to be kept on developments – the sort of monitoring that planners and local councillors ought to have engaged in during the boom-time and didn't. It's in nobody's interests for building regulations to be waived. Or for property to be built in unsuitable locations without corresponding amenities. Planners need to show they have learned the lessons of the collapse too.

A problem faced by builders working on new developments is the layers of time-consuming bureaucracy they must negotiate. Obviously, safety is important and can never be compromised. But government representatives could be assigned to work with builders, moving developments speedily towards completion.

Another advantage to a social housing construction drive, beyond putting a roof over people's heads, is employment for the building sector. Consider the trades which will benefit: bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, tilers and roofers, as well as interiors fitters, architects, project managers and landscapers. Must every new job in the State be in IT?

And so to the medium term. A solution advanced in the Government's action plan involves commissioning builders to refurbish derelict public-owned accommodation and complete property left unfinished. By all means, get cracking. These homes can be brought into play quickly.

Others are available too. When I walk round my neighbourhood, I see vacant properties, some in need of repair. How can the owners be enticed to rent them out? An imaginative approach might be for the Government to assist with the repair bill, reclaiming expenditure from the rent paid.

Short-term, a swift response to the rent supplements impasse is required. Pay this money directly to landlords, circumventing complaints that some tenants are not always passing it on.

In addition, abolish the ban on social welfare tenants topping up the rent allowance. If their families can help them to pay a little extra, it seems nonsensical for the Government to pull up the drawbridge.

The ghost estate is one of the emblematic images of the bust. But how about building new estates to represent our recovery?

Developers are among the most vilified group in society – now is their chance to help others and themselves in the process.

Irish Independent

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