Rebuilding Ireland: Long on Promise, Short on Detail

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cov_housingIn July, the government announced a new housing plan. Called Rebuilding Ireland, it is designed to tackle the current shortage in housing supply. It is an ambitious plan with praise for itself as radical and innovative. In truth, it is neither of these things. This plan was put together after the previous Housing Strategy document of 2014 but states that this is “having a positive impact, but not at the pace necessary to meet current pressures and pent-up demands.” It is not at all clear how Rebuilding Ireland will address this question of pace. The central problem with Rebuilding Ireland, however, is that it relies on the notion of ‘access to a home’. At best this is a poorly worded substitute for the right to a place to live. At worst, Rebuilding Ireland’s underlying vision relies on a flawed model of provision. We have to give the plan some time to produce something tangible but the way the plan is written does not inspire any confidence that the shortage in housing here will be addressed.

The plan is structured under five ‘pillars’. These are billed as “high level actions [which] will support a range of actions across the five key pillars of the Action Plan”. The plan seeks to address homelessness, accelerate social housing, build more homes, improve the rental sector and utilise existing housing. In time worn tradition, these have targets and deadlines for delivery across government departments and local authorities. A few days after its launch, a senior public servant spoke on the radio and bumbled his way through some of these targets testily insisting that there would be 47,000 social houses available by 2021. Considering that local authorities acquired about 1,000 units in 2015 and constructed just 75 in the same year, there are a number of problems with these targets. Chief among these is a reliance on the private rented market and Approved Housing Bodies. Relying on the private and voluntary sector to provide that many units in five years would require an immediate four fold increase in both building programmes and municipal acquisitions.  The plan makes it clear that this figure would be supported by €5.3 billion worth of investment, including accelerated Housing Assistance Payment delivery. As recent high profile cases have shown us, the HAP scheme moves people seeking housing off the local authority housing lists in return for subsidy payments to private landlords. These landlords can evict the tenant if they sell this property later, throwing people back on to some housing safety net which does not yet exist.

Rebuilding Ireland is neither innovative nor radical. One of its guiding principles is a reliance on private providers of housing. This means more money given to landlords, both individual and institutional / financial ones. Why fall back on a model of housing provision which currently does not support people in vulnerable housing situations and which, on other scales, has shown that it can sell property from under people’s feet? One of the reasons identified for an oversupply in the years to 2008 was a reliance on private developer-led speculative building. Developers relied on the continuation of credit to provide home loans to people needing a place to live. More worrying still, the plan promises that it will “work closely with the ESRI and the Housing Agency to improve understanding of conditions in housing markets around the country”. Such understandings are already available: from the ESRI, the Housing Agency as well as the National Economic and Social Council and a number of other bodies concerned with housing rights. Measuring supply and demand is easily done, right now. The state keeps a property price register, is developing more detailed housing statistics and currently compiles a construction industry index. It uses some of these data to point toward wider housing trends but, tellingly, seeks to plan more effectively for generic housing provision:

“Particularly local authority land but also land in the ownership of other State bodies, needs to be managed in order to ensure adequate and affordable supply of suitable land at the right time and in the right location to deliver the necessary housing output.”

This is not only an echo of, but a central outcome from, the Kenny Report, now turning 43 years old and most of which remains unimplemented. Control of land prices, particularly in urban and suburban areas is a vital component of any housing building strategy, public or private.  The only mention of a Kenny in this plan is in the foreword, by Enda Kenny. Without the control of land values, ambitious plans cannot be innovative or radical. Land must be brought from merely having an exchange value to something closer to a use value. There is no commitment to a broad scale local authority house building programme that is not framed in terms of it being a housing of last resort. Here lies a particular problem for this plan: it cannot see housing built and funded directly by the state through its local authorities as a necessary part of provision. More worryingly still is the fact that NAMA is to be relied upon to aid the sourcing of adequate land to build housing. This will be an integrated part of another plan, the National Planning Framework, still in development. In the meantime, expressions of interest are to be sought to provide “a mix of tenures”.  In an Irish context, as we have seen in the last two decades, this envisages a small percentage of any development for those most in need. This too can be bought out by private developers, instead opting to provide badly needed social infrastructure.

The plan calls for the Housing Agency to purchase vacant houses held by banks and financial institutions as a means of addressing shortfalls. A national vacant housing re-use strategy is being compiled for mid-2017. Will the use of vacant houses begin then in late summer that year when the Department of Environment has already carried out an assessment of vacancy three years ago? Several pilot programmes are being mooted to get some of these housing units into use. The pilot scheme is the kiss of death among local authorities. They have neither that capacity nor the power to sufficiently argue for continuation or modification based on a pilot scheme. Bringing vacant units, especially those on first floors, will be regulated back into use according to the plan. Given the lack of success with other schemes such as Living Over the Shop in the early 2000s, it is unclear what place this will take in the current context.

In terms of private rental, the plan is little better. It states that:

“a strong rental sector should support a mobile labour market that is better able to adapt to new job opportunities and changing household circumstances. The rental sector must also cater for a diverse range of households, including students, low-income households and mobile professionals.”

These diverse range of households needs increasing standards, security of tenure and “altering some of the norms” of this sector. The pillar concerned with the rental sector foresees a strategy for the sector by the end of 2016. This will focus on supply, tenure security and standards. Among the measures proposed is:

“the scope for a move to indefinite leases, replacing the Part IV four-year tenancy, perhaps with incentives for landlords to waive their right to terminate a tenancy in the event of the sale of the property.”

This could not come with any more caveats. Considering that the landlord lobby remains a powerful force in the housing market, compromise after compromise will be sought in the lead up to any legislation. Dail deputies in government parties from the last twenty years are deeply involved themselves in private sector rental. The vagueness around standards is equally uninventive:

“A move towards enforcement of quality standards in rental accommodation on a regional basis.”

What is the regional authority to deal with this? How will oversight be maintained and what will the role of the Residential Tenancies Board be? A move toward enforcement is not a convincing measure, particularly when the private sector is beset by a large number of individual landlords with no interest in being rent gatherers for the longer term.

Finally, the plan foresees some considerable reform of the planning process. This is a long term aim of the plan and is rooted in a culture where elected members of local authorities have been shorn of many of their more effective powers. The plan hopes to streamline “the arrangements in relation to the making of modifications to Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) planning schemes”. In the context where the Dublin docklands SDZ was pushed through without much meaningful consultation for city residents makes this streamlining a contested political tool. The plan seeks to use more fast tracking of SDZs, many of which rely on the private developer to provide infrastructure in an area which can be effectively privatised away from local authority functions or completed to lower standards. Adamstown, one of the first SDZs in the republic, lies half completed and without significant numbers of people living there to support needed infrastructure. What would streamlining a process which remains under-evaluated do for those in need of housing this year and next? In trying to reform planning systems in 2017, the plan envisages “that a key driver to delivering a more responsive planning system will be the integration of technological efficiencies such as e-planning”. In a context where public service retrenchment has been widespread, what does this mean for local democratic accountability?

There is so much more that is lacking in Rebuilding Ireland. The lack of serious commitment to an enhanced apprenticeship programme for local authorities, the weakness of a provision model which puts the market front and centre, a lack of urgency on immediate homelessness, a view of student housing as an off-balance sheet viable market provider into the long term, and the reliance on a new model of starter homes when local authorities built only 75 units on 2015: all are problematic. Rebuilding Ireland will not vindicate the right to safe and secure homes. Instead it is pushing as many buttons as it can in the desire to be seen to be doing something in the short term. The dependent strategies it outlines have yet to emerge. In the meantime, the number of people and families being moved into hotel-based accommodation grows monthly. Rebuilding Ireland relies on too many unknown factors and a disregard of a long term commitment to municipal housing based on need.

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Eoin O'Mahony

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