LITTLE wonder that the biggest welcomes for the government’s announcement of a Land Development Agency to help tackle the housing crisis have come from builders and developers. The director-general of their representative group, the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), Tom Parlon, said it could be a ‘game-changer’ for Ireland’s volatile housing market in the next decade, adding that the new land management agency ‘will fundamentally alter Ireland’s housing market.’
The government estimates that it could lead to the construction of more than 150,000 homes over the next 20 years. However, it will take a few years for this initiative – like many of the others announced so far by Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy – to manifest itself in terms of actual housing output and there are justified concerns about the plan’s intention to, effectively, have 60% of the State lands involved made available to private developers to build houses for their own benefit.
The government’s proposal is that just 10% of the units built on such land would be social housing and 30% would be what they term ‘affordable housing’ – but just how affordable they would be to people on lower incomes trying to get on the housing ladder is questionable.
The more trenchant critics of the proposed Land Development Agency, such as Solidarity TD Mick Barry, maintain that 100% of the public land available should be used for social and affordable housing – not 40% – deriding the government’s plans for the new agency as ‘the creation of a quango to organise the privatisation of State land to enrich developers’ and declaring that these proposals will not solve the housing crisis.
Certainly, the new Land Development Agency will not solve the housing crisis on its own – but, with a bit of refinement, it has the potential to be a vital cog in the overall process. During the course of bringing in the legislation, members of the Houses of the Oireachtas need to thoroughly debate its proposals and come up with a better ratio for the provision of social and affordable housing.
Much of the publicly-owned land that it is proposed to use is in the possession of local authorities and it is difficult to see any reason why they cannot devote the majority, if not all of the sites they own to social and affordable housing. In the past, they came up with designs for the housing, sought tenders for the construction and a lot of the contracts were won by local building firms who gave employment in the area; why is there a need now to involve a middle-man developer at all?
Local authorities were starved of funding to build social housing for most of the past decade during the economic downturn and it has only slowly been restored to them in recent years and the rate of building has not picked up to the extent that it should have since. If there is a lack of expertise in this area, the councils should be given the help and encouragement they need by central government to get things up and running again.
In theory, the advantages of having a Land Development Agency should ultimately outweigh the disadvantages, but only if our legislators get the balance right when formally setting it up. Whatever the final agreement is on what ratios of public and private housing there will be on those lands, the goal has to be getting quality housing units built as quickly and efficiently as possible where they are needed and not to repeat the costly mistakes of the Celtic Tiger era housing boom, which we are still paying for, with the national debt still up around the €200bn mark; Irish taxpayers simply cannot afford any extra to be piled upon that.
However, with an estimated 10,000 people homeless across the country and 100,000 on housing waiting lists, the government needs to step up its response to this crisis and start achieving tangible results in a more timely manner as it will be one of the biggest issues in the forthcoming elections, especially the 2019 local elections and the next general election – whenever that will be!
As the Dáil returned this week, Sinn Féin’s motion of no confidence in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy seemed destined for defeat, but it should certainly not be the end of the matter and needs to be taken as a wake-up call to concentrate minds on making better and faster progress on housing provision.