Thursday 23 May 2019

What housing minister needs now is courage

Murphy's policy document on height is imminent, but will it lift Dublin's skyline

'Eoghan Murphy has put through some measures but there's a lot more to do' Photo: Keith Arkins
'Eoghan Murphy has put through some measures but there's a lot more to do' Photo: Keith Arkins
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Just when you thought we had hit rock bottom in the housing crisis, we discovered we weren't even touching solid ground. It has transpired that for the past 50 years, Irish officials have been counting 'new' homes based on the number of units added to the ESB grid.

This means that even old boarded-up social housing that had eventually come back into use - and farm buildings such as cattle sheds - were being classified as new build homes and included in official figures as a sign of progress.

Only in Ireland, folks!

If it wasn't costing us all so dearly, you could almost laugh.

But it is costing us billions.

In sky-rocketing rent. In house prices stretching well beyond our means. In an economy that is set to lose out on billions if we cannot cater for the influx of the global talent who want to move here in their thousands, along with their multinational companies.

As it stands, we are now a further 30,000 residential units per year behind, in a race we had already been losing. Even before this latest setback, it was estimated that if - tomorrow morning - the Government started building the extra 30,000 new homes we need a year, every year, for the next several years, we would still fail to meet the needs of the population until at least 2021 or 2022.

And that is a population that has been increasing every year since 1990. The Government can't say it didn't know this was coming. As far back as 2013, house prices began to level off - the golden year to step up the level of construction activity. There has been much talk about Ireland experiencing a "lost decade" since the great fall of 2008 until 2018. But perhaps we are in the midst of a second lost decade, spanning 2013 to 2022, by failing to seize so many great opportunities.

So what now?

No one is suggesting the Government can wave a magic wand to solve the chronic shortage overnight but there is certainly an absence in its sense of urgency to solve this mess. In a few weeks' time, politicians will break for their summer holidays and several months will pass before the wheels of the Oireachtas trundle into motion again. By the time the Budget kicks in, another year will have been lost. But there are some very simple steps to get us where we want to go if only they would sit up and pay heed to experts.

One such man is Investec economist Philip O'Sullivan. Speaking to the Sunday Independent this weekend, he says one of the easiest steps the Government can take is to put a "call out" to construction workers who previously emigrated due to lack of work to say it is time to come home. In 2007, peak construction sector employment was 241,000. It is now 134,000. O'Sullivan believes we can entice thousands of skilled labourers to Ireland on the back of Brexit: "In addition to Irish expats, there are a lot of Eastern European construction workers in the UK who may be tempted to come here for a couple of years, given the weak sterling and strong euro. This would be a readily available source of labour."

Even more pressing is the need for "fundamental reforms of the planning system", which he highlights.

According to O'Sullivan, it is "beyond belief" our cities are low-rise compared to Europe's leading lights. The failure to build up, he says, is going to "ultimately cost us so much more in the long term".

"Join the dots. Is it any wonder we don't have a great public transport system? Go to any other major city and they have a metro and an underground where the majority of the population is concentrated. Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Dublin continues to spread out into the countryside. It is going to be a very expensive mistake to solve long-term. If we are to be a serious player on the world stage, the height of our buildings should match the height of our ambitions.

"The opportunities are open to Ireland at this point of the cycle and we have got to make sure we do the right things to make sure the country remains successful."

In one breath you could list a raft of other measures experts have been crying out for. They include: increasing density of developments on transportation nodes and drastically increasing the height of buildings near open space and water; joined-up thinking to speed up the planning process; reducing VAT on building houses from 13.5pc to 0pc for a three-year period to come in line with the UK, where it has proven to work (ministers will privately admit it is the right thing to do but fear Sinn Fein and Independents spinning the move as a break for developers when in reality it would reduce the cost of homes by up to €30,000 and help first-time buyers on to the property ladder).

Elsewhere, the Government could give tax breaks to convert old buildings over shops and Georgian houses to residential properties and, perhaps most importantly, build social housing. Even at our poorest of times, the government and local authorities built social housing, but this stopped 15 years ago.

The clock is ticking. We have politicians who are young and hungry but do they have the ability and guts to bring this country into the next century? Eoghan Murphy has put through some measures but there's a lot more to do. His key policy document on height and density is due out in July. What he needs now is courage.

Sunday Independent

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