Lack of housing policy is hurting community spirit

 

Economist and senior research officer at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) Edgar Morgenroth believes that huge damage has been done to Irish society in the past decade, which will not be undone for many decades to come.

The damage has been caused by the relatively unmanaged way in which so many tens of thousands of small, often badly built housing units have been constructed in the Dublin region during the past 10 years.

These houses, he says, so many of them built at a distance to the place of work of their inhabitants, involve a social and economic cost that is hard to measure but is self-evidently huge. He does a very blunt series of sums to give an idea of what is at issue.

The average person living in the greater Dublin area and working in Dublin, spends two hours per day commuting. The equivalent for a person living in established built-up Dublin is one hour.

In a 220-day public service year, a worker in the greater Dublin area therefore spends 440 hours commuting in his or her working year. That makes for 55 eight-hour days each year, "a lot of days, a lot of time".

Imagine half that time was spent working, at the minimum wage rate of €7.65 per hour. That would make for earnings of €1,663.20 in a year (220 x €7.56). There are approximately 70,000 people in the Dublin region who travel back and forth to work in Dublin city each day, making for €116.42 million in annual "lost earnings", so to speak.

"That's very crude and without a doubt a huge underestimate," says Dr Morgenroth. "It is not factoring in the actual transport costs, the environmental costs, and the social or community cost. There are also efficiency losses due to the tiredness of the workers who are doing all this commuting.

"People don't see their children let alone get involved in activities in their community. This pattern has implications for children and their future well-being. That is speculation but I think it is reasonable."

The congestion caused by all this commuting by car also has economic costs. The time it takes to travel from the airport to the Intel plant in Leixlip, Co Kildare, is a lot longer now than it was when the plant was first established.

Dublin, says Dr Edgar, is almost unique in having so many people choosing or having to live so far away from where they work.

He also says that the urge so many people have to live in one- off houses outside our cities is "not normal" and would not exist if our cities were nicer. The phenomenon is not due to cultural factors or links to the land, he says.

"Our built environment is not attractive enough."

One of his main areas of research with the ESRI has been in the economics of regional development and he recently addressed a Heritage Council conference on the development of villages. The GAA has been on to him to discuss the issue of large housing estates being built alongside small rural villages, because of its concerns over how it affects the organisation.

"It's nice to know the GAA thinks about the implications of this sort of thing. I sometimes think that not enough policymakers think about it."

He points to investment in schools and says there seems to be a "disconnect" between the Department of Education and local authorities who are rezoning land. He points to investment being approved for schools that are soon going to have much lower attendances, while schools that are soon going to experience an explosion of demand are not assigned funds.

While generally not being in favour of intervention in the marketplace, he says the problem with housing in Dublin is that there is intervention in the market, but it is inefficient.

"Why not limit the tax advantages that are available to certain types of developments? For example, no tax breaks for developments that are not suitable for family living."

Large, low-quality developments made up of small one- and two-bedroom units "built for letting, where no-one would want to live" may be profitable for developers but are not in the national interest and are a waste of resources.

He says that, even where housing is being built alongside villages, far from the workplaces of the future residents, "we are making a mess of it", building low-quality "flatpack developments".

"If we are not going to house people near where they work, at least we should plan what we are doing properly."

Overall, however, what is needed is quality urban environments built close to where people are going to work.

There is a view, he says, that it is too late now, that the "horse has bolted".

However, projections for future economic growth and population growth suggest that the market for new housing units is likely to last for a number of years yet. So there is still some value in looking at what we can do in terms of policy.

"If we don't get it right then we will be left with what we've done for a long time. We've been waiting 10 years now to get it right and it hasn't happened. Ten years' housing stock must be a fairly large proportion of what is there and future generations are going to be left with it."

Because housing is now so much more dispersed than jobs are in the greater Dublin region, and because of the absence of good, integrated public transport, people in the region make unusually high use of cars.

"The greater Dublin area has a lower car ownership than the greater Munich area, but the usage and level of congestion is much higher here."

If economic growth continues, then the congestion and the commuting times, and the associated costs to the economy and society, will continue to grow.

Dr Morgenroth comes from Düsseldorf but came to the Republic when he was 16 years old. He sat his Leaving Certificate and studied at Maynooth University before doing his doctorate at Keele in England.

He spent five years farming in Co Monaghan and still lives there. He has been working with the ESRI for seven years.

He is sometimes asked to give briefings on the Irish economy for visiting groups, including ones from Germany.

"I tell them there has been a lot of economic growth, huge employment growth, the ending of unemployment, but that there are also housing market problems and a lot of congestion.

"I also say that the relative position of the poorer parts of the country is getting worse. I tell the truth. All that glitters is not gold."