A worker earning the average industrial wage should be able to afford a home. As a society, we have yet to fully embrace cradle-to-grave, holistic thinking to provide for our people. The impact of this failure can be seen in a legacy of environmental degradation, from unoccupied one-off houses to ghost estates and developments that are not fit for purpose. Reorientating politics to focus on the progressive, long-term improvement of our society requires integrated thinking.
The state has managed social housing schemes for decades, and will continue to have a role in their management in the future. Ireland’s housing policy must start planning for inter-generational needs, so that there are options for the elderly to move into accommodation that is suited to their needs later in life.
Younger people have few options to live alone due to a lack of well-equipped high quality studios. Similarly, we have too few affordable family units within a reasonable commuting distance of where jobs are being created.
In the short-term, targeted demand side measures can be used to improve access to housing for people that have become homeless or are at risk of losing their access to housing. Rent controls are not the solution, as it will weaken the incentives for developers to build homes – especially where there is a planning requirement for social and affordable units.
We believe that the state’s main role in the housing market is to oversee a regulatory regime that can generate a base of affordable housing stock for its citizens. High-density, high-quality, affordable, mixed-tenure housing developments should be built on state-owned land.
We believe that the state should work with local authorities to identify sites that are close to existing services and amenities and develop high-density, mixed-tenure housing. These developments will provide family homes, starter homes, studios and accessible homes for the elderly.
Empty commercial sites should be levied with additional charges until they are de-rated and used as residential property or refurbished and re-let as commercial properties. Similarly, vacant or derelict buildings and land banks that have planning permission should face levies where they are being hoarded, whether by the state or by private land owners.
Simplification of the planning process
It currently takes, on average, roughly 2 years from the time planning permission is first applied for until permission is granted and the first brick is laid on a site. If we cannot increase the speed at which planning is granted, or rejected, the planning process will function as a bottleneck in the system.
As such one of the most important things we can do here is to standardise the planning requirements for new builds across the country – currently the standards differ from area to area, which increases the complexity of housing as each area must have its plan tailor made to the liking of the county manager. Such a move, from a system of partially discretionary building regulations to a system of minimum national standards, would decrease time in the planning process and allow developers to more effectively plan the delivery of houses.
Additionally an individual could be sent to every development region, hired by the Department and sent with the explicit goal of overseeing the region’s housing and cutting through the backlog, to ensure that things are brought to heel. IBEC and industry sources have been consistent in their statements that local authorities are a substantial part of this problem, and this movement should avoid that issue, particularly when combined with national standards.
Beyond that we can class developments over a certain size, in particular regions such as Dublin, to be of strategic interest to the state and so require a final decision to be made on any planning application within 4 months.
Build up, not out
Cities, Dublin in particular, need to build up as opposed to sprawl out endlessly – that’s not good for the city, because it makes service provision difficult or impossible, and it’s not good for the counties that Dublin has started to eat into. The standardisation of planning regulations will involve the setting of height caps, allowing us to push for the building of high-rises in cities with little objection.
Allow the building of smaller ‘studio’ apartments
We should reverse the decision to ban smaller apartments and allow the building trade to supply high-numbers of single-occupant, sub 40sqm, apartments. These apartments will provide a lost-cost alternative to larger apartments, providing opportunities to those on lower-incomes.
Lessen the cost associated with building
There are a number of ways that we can go about bringing down the per unit cost of housing, and the building of high-rises is one simple way which is also discussed in this document, but the simplest would appear to be lowering the costs added to a build by regulation and the planning process.
Material cost is a major factor in the unit cost, and this is mentioned here as the various regions have certified suppliers and minimum material standards that they require builders to use if they wish to have their planning application accepted. The standardisation mentioned above will cut this down, and we should be open to working with IBEC and the Construction Federation of Ireland to drive down these unnecessary costs as far as possible. Similarly the move towards high-rises, and the allowance of smaller apartments, will allow developers to generate higher returns without a substantial increase in costs, which will bring in competition and lower the per unit price.
An option to consider here is direct tax rebates and lowering of taxes on housing and construction material. The Government has tried to do this, badly, but something like a reduction in VAT on housing and building materials could be effective, particularly if VAT is dropped to 9%, although a political argument could be made that dropping the VAT on housing to 0%, for a limited time, could be seen as both prudent, politically powerful, and radical.