Wednesday 28 September 2016

It's not rocket science - we just need to build more houses

Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30

'Many local authorities are responsible for holding up progress. It is easy to hide behind bureaucracy when you’re not namechecked in
the media' Stock photo: Graham Moore
'Many local authorities are responsible for holding up progress. It is easy to hide behind bureaucracy when you’re not namechecked in the media' Stock photo: Graham Moore

It is early days, but the new Housing Minister Simon Coveney appears to be taking a very pragmatic approach to the housing crisis. He has already had direct meetings with Focus Ireland, Father Peter McVerry and the chief executives of various local authorities.

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Even the Master of the High Court has spoken on the subject, addressing the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness. As an equitable alternative to the banks repossessing homes in cases where the purchaser has lost their job and fallen into arrears, Edmund Honohan suggests that the local authority should buy back these houses from the vulture funds, and rent them as social housing to the occupants. That way, nobody is evicted, and the children remain in their home instead of going to school from a hotel room. Society has no idea what effects these evictions will have on a generation of socially disadvantaged children - and the fallout will be as a result of the mess made by the last two governments.

It might seem rather obvious, but the key to solving the social and affordable housing crisis is to build. The money has been allocated, the will is there, the need is there in abundance - but the last five years have produced little more than token pre-fabricated dwellings at €243,000 each, and 6,000 homeless people in hotels at a cost of €45m in the last year. Further funding can be borrowed at 1pc for buying back property. There really is no excuse for further inaction. At this point, local authorities are well aware of the zoned land, vacant sites and derelict dwellings with former bedsits available to them.

The problem is, while we all know what ministers to blame, many local authorities are responsible for holding up progress. It is easy to hide behind bureaucracy when you are not namechecked in the media.

The State can take emergency measures under Section 31 of the Planning and Development Act. The minister may intervene if the development plan fails to set out an overall strategy for planning and sustainable development and he may direct the local authority to take specific measures. The responsibility for compulsorily acquiring land lies with An Bord Pleanála.

To enable contractors to get on with the job, the Government must now consider a reduction in VAT from 13.5pc to 9pc on new affordable housing, as well as practical reform of the planning process to reduce uncertainty and delay.

Between all stakeholders, a thoroughly businesslike approach needs to be taken.

As most of the next generation can ill-afford to buy their own home, the new 'social and affordable' housing schemes must be carefully planned to avoid them becoming ghettos.

This is precisely where the new minister needs to make his mark. Social housing must no longer be stigmatised. The vast estates built out in Tallaght, Coolock, and Finglas are characterised not so much by the poor house design but by the isolation, the monotony of design and the prairie-like tracts of land separating the 'council estate' from the 'private owners'.

Making matters worse, the tedious similarity of these housing estates has tenants sticking on fake brick or stone façades, or installing fake Tudor windows. To avoid this in future, local authorities will have to enforce standard planning regulations just as it does with private owners.

HISTORIC schemes such as that at Marino, the first 'garden suburb' of its kind in Ireland, were designed around small runs of housing with several design types and proportionate green space. Admittedly, the architect, FG Hicks, did not foresee the rise of the car, and some roads within the development are just wide enough for a horse and trap.

The scheme was proposed in 1918 as a post-war housing programme of 600 houses. The usual public inquiry was held in 1920, despite the absence of a key figure, chairman of the Housing Committee, Alderman Thomas Kelly MP, who was being detained without charge in Wormwood Scrubs Prison at the time. Work commenced in 1923 and the carefully considered character, design, materials, size and layout survives intact. A less elaborate scheme followed in Crumlin and Drumcondra. Even in the midst of a far worse crisis than the present day, post-World War I and mid-Civil War, and with no technology, Dublin Corporation managed to provide substantial social housing of a high standard.

Land in certain areas is at a premium, so it is inevitable that larger developments will not be built close to cities, but they should have public transport available.

Recently, I have watched two terraces of six houses being constructed. They are nicely proportioned and finished, but they don't have front gardens, just a small communal car park and bin area. This layout would not suit some people on housing lists - there have been reports of houses being declined because there isn't a garden big enough for a trampoline and a driveway for two cars. I say anybody who refuses a house on this basis should go to the bottom of the list.

Finally, if the same zeal that went into setting up Irish Water had been applied to housing, there would not have been a crisis.

It is time for the disconnect between central and local government on housing to end.

Irish Independent

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