Wednesday 28 September 2016

Paul Melia: A new housing minister will need vision - and real power

Published 24/03/2016 | 02:30

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If the new government, whatever its political hue, is serious about appointing a housing minister, the least of their worries should be whether they sit in the Department of the Taoiseach or of the Environment.

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In Scotland, planning and housing rests with the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners' Rights, while in Western Australia it's a Minister for Housing, Racing and Gaming.

The first priority should be to give the minister the powers necessary to secure delivery of homes. The location of their office is irrelevant. The most crucial decision will be appointing someone with real vision and a willingness to step on toes, who also has an in-depth knowledge of the housing and rental markets.

A large part of the problem to date is the fact that so many agencies set different aspects of housing policy, or are responsible for delivery of associated services.

What the sector needs is better integration between the players already on the pitch.

The Department of the Environment deals with planning and housing, but Finance decides property tax breaks and has responsibility for Nama. Energy deals with residential energy efficiency, while Education dictates where schools are built. A housing minister will have to take overall control of these issues, but wresting powers from the Department of Finance will be essential, as control over taxation is key.

Residential landlords are treated less favourably than commercial ones, for example paying USC on rental income - both should enjoy the same tax regime to encourage more to enter the rental market. VAT on house construction is a huge issue, and a reduction could facilitate development of social, private and rental homes.

But any changes should be capped to secure delivery of units up to a certain price point, such as €450,000 in Dublin. The State should not be supporting expensive housing.

The minister would also have to control planning, and have a level of control or direction in relation to capital investment plans by the ESB, EirGrid, Irish Water and other agencies.

They should certainly be able to advise where projects are needed to facilitate housing development, and direct investment if a proven need is not being addressed.

Some transport powers will also be required - housing should be built near good public transport links, or services provided where needed. They will need powers to deliver what is required, to prevent car-based commuting.

Nama also needs direction. While it may be the best commercial return to sell its land banks, the minister could direct they build social, rental or starter homes, rather than see land banks sold and remaining undeveloped until prices rise.

In the UK, the government is providing development funding for those who build to rent. This should be considered.

There's also a case to be made that professional bodies including architects and planners fall under the minister's remit. They could also help shape policy. Crucially, the minister needs to take control of social housing policy and budgets, including regeneration, and work to develop a sustainable mortgage-lending policy.

Finally, they must be prepared to be innovative. High-quality pre-fabricated homes, such as the German Huf Haus, could help deliver units quicker. The minister must also ensure that what is built is high-quality, energy- and water-efficient and located in well-designed communities. It's not just quantity we need, but quality too.

Irish Independent

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