Wednesday 23 October 2019

Cormac McQuinn: 'With an election looming, minister will hope pace of building picks up'

Expanding: Google has acquired large quantities of office space in Dublin’s Docklands, including this site at the former Boland’s Mills. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Expanding: Google has acquired large quantities of office space in Dublin’s Docklands, including this site at the former Boland’s Mills. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

When Google boss Sundar Pichai suggested the tech giant may get involved in helping to ease Ireland's accommodation crisis, he would not have expected it to cause a headache for Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.

But as today's revelations about red tape delaying the development of hundreds of homes demonstrates, in the perpetual pounding migraine of the housing crisis, he's surely reaching for the Nurofen on a regular basis anyway.

The situation that sees bureaucracy hold up social housing schemes appears to be an example of the old maxim, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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Local authorities are required to provide Mr Murphy's department with a cost effectiveness analysis (CEA) for developments costing more than €20m.

On the face of it, this is of course a prudent hurdle to have to overcome in the era of spiralling costs for projects like the national children's hospital and the roll-out of rural broadband. However, there is a lack of definitive guidelines on how to produce a CEA report and such analyses for two projects in Dublin were deemed insufficient by the Department of Housing.

So it's a great intention to ensure large housing projects are cost effective, but the confusion over the reports seems to be delaying much-needed housing units in the capital, adding to the hell for people seeking a place to live.

It is in Dublin that the housing crisis is most acute, whether it's people on the social housing list, first-time buyers struggling to save for a mortgage deposit, or workers in the Google Docks facing sky-high rents.

That's why Mr Pichai's intervention is sensitive and adds to Mr Murphy's woes. He suggested Google is willing to subsidise general housing in Dublin, saying: "It makes sense for us as a company to do it and it's also the right thing to do". He spoke of how "things like housing are issues we care about". Mr Pichai also said any sponsored housing intervention would have to have State support "in terms of development and planning matters". He added: "I think it would be a process of engagement rather than us just deciding what to do."

On the face of it, Google's apparent willingness to help with the housing crisis falls into the category of an offer that should be accepted with open arms.

However, it fuels fears that there is concern among multinationals that Ireland's housing situation may deter investment here in the future.

And aside from that, when a multinational is offering to help house Ireland's people it puts the Government's struggle to get on top of the accommodation crisis in sharp focus.

It opens it up to criticism from the Opposition, as the Irish Independent reports today. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Labour all pointed to the suggestion that Google may get involved in Ireland's housing market as further evidence of Government failure to tackle the crisis.

Mr Murphy's department rejects this, of course, insisting that supply is being ramped up and houses are being built "across Dublin and every county". It also said the Government would discuss proposals with any company that wants to provide accommodation for their workers or the general population and will "assist in any way it can", including fast-track planning.

But the department's response also included an undercurrent of irritation at the Google chief executive's comments. It pointed out that "anyone with money is free to build homes if they have land and planning".

And it added: "If a company does not have these two components, it will be two years before any homes are seen.

"In that time, 50,000 new homes will become available across Ireland." Mr Murphy often quotes house-building figures as he defends his and the Government's record.

This week at the Housing Committee, he outlined how construction is starting on more than 2,000 homes each month and 10,000 units are to be added to the social housing stock this year. On the flip-side there are the homelessness figures, with the numbers in emergency accommodation staying at more than 10,000 for several months now.

Mr Murphy argues that more people are leaving homelessness this year than in 2018.

To be fair to the minister, there is some progress being made and he is genuine in his efforts, but it's just not happening anywhere near fast enough. While the housing crisis is an ongoing headache for the Government, it affects real people around the country. With a general election looming and Fine Gael likely to be judged on its housing record, Mr Murphy will be hoping the pace picks up.

Irish Independent

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