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Colette Browne: 'Real people are suffering as department and council bicker and argue over how to deliver affordable homes'


There is no finer metaphor for wasteful insanity of the housing crisis than the stalled project and public spats over O’Devaney Gardens. Photo: Steve Humphreys

There is no finer metaphor for wasteful insanity of the housing crisis than the stalled project and public spats over O’Devaney Gardens. Photo: Steve Humphreys

There is no finer metaphor for wasteful insanity of the housing crisis than the stalled project and public spats over O’Devaney Gardens. Photo: Steve Humphreys

How many politicians does it take to fail to build some houses? The answer is 65 - 63 councillors in Dublin City Council to agree a plan and two TDs in the Department of Housing to rip it up and start again.

Cynics, reading about the latest catastrophic housing and homelessness figures, could be forgiven for assuming politicians in Dublin couldn't organise the proverbial p**s-up in a brewery. They would be wrong.

In fact, one area where councillors have a proven track record is serving beers. When former Lord Mayor Nial Ring twice ran out of his sizeable allocation of free booze for entertaining, during his tenure in office, the drinks kept flowing.

First, Diageo supplied 30 extra kegs, but they didn't last too long. Two months to be exact. Next, Dublin City Council stepped in and stumped up for a further 72 kegs of beer, costing €15,280, so the good times in the Mansion House continued to roll.

News of Mr Ring's booze bailout even made Russian news site rt.com underneath the headline, "Irish taxpayers forced to fork out after Dublin mayor spends entire beer allowance… twice".

Even the Russians, known to enjoy a drink or two, were impressed at the capacity of the Irish public service to replenish barren beer taps.

Alas, the ingenuity in evidence when it comes to finding alternative revenue streams for pints has been sadly lacking when it comes to delivering houses. It would be enough to drive anyone to drink - presuming it hasn't already run out.

People all over the country are crying out for houses. Instead, all they get from politicians is a circular firing squad of bitter recrimination. Ministers blame councillors for blocking schemes and councillors blame ministers for failing to provide adequate funding and being needlessly bureaucratic.

The latest dust-up concerns plans for the redevelopment of O'Devaney Gardens, which was first mooted more than 10 years ago but came a cropper during the recession.

There are Israeli settlements in the West Bank that have proven less contentious than O'Devaney Gardens. In fact, there is no finer metaphor for the wasteful insanity of the Irish housing crisis than the stalled project.

A prime publicly owned site, beside excellent transport links and a short stroll to O'Connell Street, inexplicably derelict despite years spent attempting to sign off on a plan.

After two years of negotiations between the Department of Housing and Dublin City Council, a development scheme was finally agreed in January 2017. Then, a public procurement process to appoint a developer began.

That protracted process didn't come to a conclusion until September this year, when the council announced that Bartra had won the tender, at which point newly elected councillors wanted to change the mix of the scheme.

Instead of 50pc private, 30pc social and 20pc affordable housing, councillors wanted an affordable rental element. So, they did a unilateral deal with the developer, cutting out Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, and announced last week Bartra would sell 30pc of the private housing to the council or approved housing bodies for use as affordable rental.

This breakthrough prompted smelling salts to be passed around the Department of Housing with the minister, after he had recovered, writing a strongly worded letter to councillors warning there was no money in his kitty for their revised plan.

"Without a clear and sustainable position on the legal basis, funding, and operation of the suggested plan, it seems highly unlikely that the purchase of private units from the developer as outlined by [councillors] can deliver its intended goal of affordable rental," said Murphy.

This letter was then seized on by Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin, clearly smarting at the implication that the plan initially supported by that party's councillors in 2017 was a bad deal.

He wondered if councillors who had done a solo run with the developer, and announced an affordable rental scheme without bothering to secure funding in advance for that element of the plan, were merely "incompetent" or had "misled" the public.

The net result is that nobody is quite sure what is going on, what is going to be delivered or if another long delay is going to now plague the project.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, this newspaper reported that a family were living in a "cold, uninhabitable shed with no cooking facilities in north Co Dublin" - a story that would once have dominated headlines, but sank without trace at the weekend because families living in sheds are no longer that unusual.

The inability of the Department of Housing and Dublin City Council to work together to achieve a common goal, the alleviation of the housing crisis, is an indictment of both public institutions.

While they bicker and argue, real people - families, children, young adults and elderly people - are enduring appalling conditions, unimaginable stress and genuine despair at the lack of any progress.

Speaking in the Dáil in July, in response to a question from Labour leader Brendan Howlin, the minister said the all-in average cost of social housing units - which includes "the cost of construction, land cost, professional fees, utility connections, site investigations/surveys, archaeology where appropriate, VAT and [bizarrely] contribution to public art" - ranged from €201,359 for a one-bed, €212,624 for a two-bed, €234,571 for a three-bed and €252,047 for a four-bed unit.

Given housing can, notionally at least, be delivered so cheaply by the State, why are these kinds of units not being constructed in their tens of thousands?

Why is it that last year local authorities built just 2,022 social houses, while approved housing bodies delivered 1,388 - a total of 3,410?

An additional 841 homes were delivered through the Part V programme, which requires 10pc of private developments to be allocated for social and affordable housing. Some 560 vacant local authority dwellings were brought back into use last year following refurbishment and while these units are obviously welcome, they do not comprise new housing stock.

Even if that number is included with the final tally, 4,811 social housing units were delivered last year - as more than 14,000 new households joined housing lists in 2018. The level of delivery is minuscule compared to the demand.

Instead of engaging in public spats, the Department of Housing and local authorities need to work together to figure out how to remove needless red tape from the planning and procurement processes, how to speed up the approval process for housing schemes and, most importantly, how to deliver the highest number of low-cost high-quality social housing possible.

The alternative is that, when it comes to the next election, the view from the public will be a plague on all your houses - those lucky enough to have one.

Irish Independent