Sunday 17 February 2019

How can living in Dublin cost more than Geneva?

As young workers up sticks for the likes of Switzerland, those left behind may want to protest at the ballot box

HOT PROPERTY: Workers take a lunch break in the shadow of the apartment blocks around Dublin’s Grand Canal Dock. Photo: Tony Gavin
HOT PROPERTY: Workers take a lunch break in the shadow of the apartment blocks around Dublin’s Grand Canal Dock. Photo: Tony Gavin
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

During the World Cup the pubs around central Dublin found themselves unexpectedly thronged by flash mobs of young Poles, Germans, Brazilians and assorted other nationalities in team shirts, who gathered by text message to support their compatriots. One embarrassed barman sent out for a large Polish flag which arrived just in time for the team's exit from the tournament. But not before we had both taken on board the complaints of his new-found customers about the rental crisis in Dublin.

One couple from Poznan, both working, had given up the struggle: faced with a bill of €2,300 per month for a two-bedroomed apartment in Milltown, they had decided to move to Geneva, where they had job offers and expected to find a decent apartment at €1,500 or less.

They were not being naive either: they had checked it out with Poles already living there and on Swiss property websites. When housing policy has delivered rents uncompetitive with Switzerland, it is time to acknowledge that reality is imparting a message: rents in the capital are out of control.

Of course the failures of housing policy create social inequity for people less employable, and less mobile, than the Polish couple, and need to be addressed for that reason alone. But the situation in Dublin, now featuring regularly in the premier league of Europe's most expensive cities, is a threat to investment and future prosperity. Regional development is fine and dandy but the economic success or failure of Dublin has national consequences. Apartment rents in Dublin are now about 35pc higher than they were at the height of the bubble. Firms in the expanding sectors are already facing retention problems and pushback from potential recruits. Somebody will have to replace the two departing Poles.

The housing crisis in Ireland is invariably described by politicians as national in character. It is essentially a Dublin, not a national, crisis. In most parts of the country, house prices and rents have been rising sharply but accommodation remains affordable. People in most counties earning average incomes can borrow enough to buy a starter home inside the mortgage lending caps.

In Dublin, even in the outer suburbs and into adjoining counties, young couples earning everyday incomes are abandoning any expectation of buying a home. If they wish to live close to the city proper they are faced with rents now among the highest anywhere in Europe.

The sop that politicians of all parties have been offering is the pledge to build more local authority housing on publicly-owned land. This is a cop-out on every level. Most victims of the current Dublin mess will never qualify for subsidised public housing unless a recession sufficient to impoverish them is in the works. Most of the derelict land in the Dublin area is not in public ownership anyway.

Campaigns to deny planning permission to would-be builders of apartments and houses on vacant land zoned residential, in both inner and outer suburbs of Dublin, are invariably led by local councillors. In several cases, the leaders are TDs and even ministers committed simultaneously to affordable housing and to the frustration of any attempt by builders to provide some. The 'I'm all right Jack' mentality of residents' associations has in practice been translated into the housing policy on the ground of all political groupings.

In south Dublin alone, there has been a fresh example every couple of weeks through the summer, in Donnybrook, Sandymount, Stillorgan and various other locations. In each case the press reports of the latest planning row contain statements of explicit support from identified councillors who clearly expect voter gratitude in return. They can hardly be in touch with voters under the age of 40.

The diminished supply of local authority accommodation is due in part to the absence of new construction but also to the policy, suspended in recent years, of selling off local authority units to tenants at bargain prices. The current intention is to reintroduce this bizarre practice nationwide. Long local authority waiting lists are due in part to the steady depletion of the available stock through failure to build and to the sell-off, but it is also due to the disappearance, especially in Dublin, of affordable rental accommodation on the private market. People on the waiting lists for subsidised public housing, which understandably are growing, include many who would be happily accommodated in the private market at affordable rents if the politicians had been less successful in preventing builders from meeting demand.

There is no shortage of land for residential construction, both houses and apartments, in the greater Dublin area. To convert vacant land into affordable housing the builder needs the land to be zoned residential, the necessary local authority services, especially roads and water, to be available and permission from the planners to proceed to construction. In many recent cases in the city and inner suburbs, the projects being frustrated are in areas zoned residential and fully supplied with roads and water infrastructure, not to mention schools and public transport. The denial of planning permission is the last chance available to residents in these areas to deny affordable housing to their younger fellow citizens.

On the city's outskirts, the pre-emptive strategy is to ensure that derelict land is zoned for agriculture or 'amenity', whatever that means. The M50 orbital motorway is about eight or nine kilometres from the city centre for most of its length. There are swathes of unused land inside the M50 which have not been rezoned, and outside the M50 there are rolling prairies of perverse zoning, including land adjoining the Luas and suburban rail lines, off to the far horizon.

Meanwhile, Dublin's would-be first-time buyers are redirected to distant towns in the midlands, there to endure the dreary daily commute through the empty countryside. One inspired Dail deputy recently proposed a high-speed rail line from Galway to Dublin, uncosted of course, with a one-hour journey time, affording future generations the opportunity to traverse the entire country twice a day.

This land-use policy, courtesy of the 1963 Planning Act and its successors, is a direct if barely conscious replication of the green belt imposed around London consequent on the UK's Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which has prevented residential supply in Europe's largest city and made housing unaffordable for generations of Londoners.

The green belt around London covers an area four times the size of the city proper. Nearly all of it is private land unavailable to the public for recreational activity. The green belt is not even green - livestock farming on grass is impractical close to built-up areas and most of the land actually farmed around London is devoted to intensive tillage, a brown belt in reality. This pattern is also emerging in the sterilised expanses of Co Dublin.

The next local elections in Ireland are due on May 24, 2019 and will be held on the same day as the European Parliament poll. It would be nice to think that young voters can be mobilised, as they were during the recent referendum, on an issue of such central importance as intergenerational equity. Remember that for local elections, people from Poland can get on the register too.

Sunday Independent

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