Sunday 21 January 2018

Home Truths: Where are you Herbie Simms?

The government announced its Capital Development Plan last week aimed at tackling housing shortage in Dublin and around the country
The government announced its Capital Development Plan last week aimed at tackling housing shortage in Dublin and around the country
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

It is somewhat ironic that the classic Irish 'corpo' house last year ended up in the National Museum.

The dash-fronted homes built by the social housing department of Dublin Corporation from the 40s to the 60s were commemorated last August at Collins Barracks by planner Paul Kearns and architect Motti Ruimy who constructed a full-scale facade of a 50s 'corpo' in the yard.

A transparent skeletal steel frame was constructed behind it to represent the rest of the home. The installation was demolished and removed at Christmas but not before thousands of schoolchildren and museum visitors got to gawk at a representation of mass State supplied social housing - a concept that in Ireland long ago went the way of the penny farthing, the comptometer, valve radio sets and the plywood jet fighter (you'll find the T55 Vampire hanging inside the museum).

Kearns who works for Dublin City Council says: "The construction of tens of thousands of pebble-dash homes represents one of the most visionary, ambitious and successfully-enduring legacies of the then relatively young, and relatively impoverished Irish State. It imagined and, critically, delivered new living possibilities for tens of thousands of Dubliners."

So why can't we do it now?

The biggest housing drive the State has ever seen was relentlessly pushed and dragged to fruition with tenacity and genius by the London born Herbert Simms who became Dublin City Architect in 1932 and proved to be ultra talented in providing more with less.

Simms was equipped with a drive that bordered on despotic. His excellent palette of competent and solid poured concrete and dashed house designs were copied in other Irish cities and towns throughout the State. The Simms-led housing drive all but eliminated a city's entire housing problem in two decades.

Sadly the one casualty was Simms himself. On September 27 1948, he drank a bottle of whiskey and threw himself in front of a train at Dun Laoghaire. He left a suicide note claiming that overwork had driven him mad. But through this Londoner's vision and drive, almost 80,000 direly impoverished Dubliners were housed in sound homes and thousands more around the country by local authorities closely following his example.

Unfortunately social housing policy in Ireland has failed abysmally since the 1980s. In this decade the annual provision of the State-owned 'Corpo' house in substantial numbers more or less ceased. From this point, the State began aping Thatcher's Britain and the stock was sold to tenants for buttons - in what some assert was the biggest ever virtual handover of State property to private ownership.

From the 80s onwards State housing policy was driven largely by efforts to avoid the perceived social mistakes of the Simms estates (the effects of lumping the poorest families together in sprawl). This manifested itself through the almost exclusive pursuit of mixing social housing recipients into existing privately-owned rental accommodation.

But the result of two and half decades of fobbing to the private rented sector has seen a swing straight back to the pre-Simms slums, with thousands of families now squashed into tiny and poorly built high-rise buildings rented out at increasingly extortionate sums, and increasing numbers of them unable to find any accommodation at all.

In this way Irish State housing policy of the last 25 years has been a direct cause of homelessness.

Today, with almost 100,000 families on our housing waiting lists, we desperately need another 40s-style social housing rollout. We don't need rent caps, we don't need penalties for landlords who won't take social tenants - we need the blinking houses. We need them fast and we need them by the bucketload.

The Capital Development Plan unveiled by Government this week suggests we might get more than €3bn worth of new homes and purchased existing homes by 2021, amounting to 35,000 properties - albeit counting homes already promised in previous promises (like Construction 2020).

Social housing provision impacts on all of us. The shortage of it has poured families and single tenants into the private rental sector and driven the price of rent up, in turn this has driven up the purchase price of private housing stock everywhere. This Government has made promise upon promise and rolled last year's promises into this year's promises. Now they say 35,000 homes by 2021. But where are the first substantial tranche of homes promised 18 months ago by 2020?

It's a very Irish situation - big promises failing because there are no inspirational captains appointed, no determined drivers with skin in the game, no vanguard to lead the charge and none prepared to accept blame if results aren't achieved. We need housing leaders with buckets of dash. We need another Herbie Simms.

Indo Property

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