Ireland needs a housing policy for five million people

Pat Farrell: Census figures show we need to build close to 50,000 houses per annum over the next decade

Workers monitor a crane lifting materials at a construction site in the Sandyford district of Dublin, Ireland, on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. The mass purchase of affordable houses — on the market for about 400,000 euros ($490,000) — set off a public firestorm and highlights the growing tension over the squeeze in urban housing and the role of large investors. Photographer: Paulo Nunes dos Santos/Bloomberg

The debate relating to housing in this country often involves an alliance of interests that object to housing of every type and tenure in every location and every community.

But every now and then the facts intervene and remind policymakers that, despite the objectors, they must build. The latest wake-up call came from the Central Statistics Office which last month reported that the population of the State now stands at 5.1 million – far ahead of many previous projections.

The CSO census data shows what many of us have been saying for some time – that some local authorities are not being ambitious enough when it comes to assessing the housing needs for their localities in the coming years.

The fact that the State’s population already stands at over five million means that some city and county development plans currently being drawn up do not include provision of nearly enough zoned residential land, and – to put it bluntly – have failed to properly assess future housing need for people living in their area.


The census numbers are a sign of how Ireland is thriving, encouraging Irish people to stay in their home country whilst also attracting new people to our shores. But with that success comes our greatest challenge – housing those growing numbers.

It is vital that we now reassess the number of houses we will need to build in the coming years, so that we not only solve the housing crisis we are now experiencing but we prevent a further crisis in years to come.

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Astonishingly, and despite the census data that is staring us in the face, some local authorities are on the cusp of finalising development plans that seek to bake in fundamental undersupply of housing over the lifetime of the plans which in many cases are already wholly inadequate, even before publication of the census results.

As if to highlight the problem, as part of the process of developing these plans a number of local authorities’ draft proposals actually call for restrictions on some land currently zoned for residential use, which has the effect of excluding residential development on these lands for the plan’s lifetime.

Such restrictions should be immediately postponed pending an assessment of each local authority’s development plan in light of the increased population reported in recent weeks, and that population’s increased housing need.

In recent years, what mostly passes for analysis of the housing crisis often flies on one wing; facts and hard data are often ignored lest they get in the way of a good story.

It is equally depressing that the purveyors of these narratives are rarely if ever held to account or indeed required to offer a scintilla of evidence to back up their largely spurious claims based on dubious and at times highly selective research.

Even a cursory examination of some of the more egregious of these illustrates the point.

Take, for example, the funding required to meet our housing needs. Some would have you believe that institutional investors, in the main pension funds which includes Irish pension savers, should have little or no role in funding housing.

This is despite the fact that government’s own detailed analysis in its first quarter update on funding of Housing for All states that “a proportion of this funding will be provided by the domestic banking sector, however the vast majority will be required from international sources, underlining the critical importance of institutional investment in generating additional housing supply. Without such investment, activity in the housing market would be much reduced and would increase the significant pressure already facing renters and prospective home-owners”.

Despite this sober analysis, many commentators say their piece and leave the stage, safe in the knowledge that they are not required to provide any explanation as to how we will secure an alternative source of supply for the billions of annual additional funding that would be needed to secure their objective of displacing institutional investment.

The answer usually trotted out by proponents is that Government will provide. That means the taxpayer – a taxpayer that would face a huge tax increase to fund this pipedream.

Similar arguments are made against the development of build-to-rent apartment developments, but the proponents of those arguments are rarely called upon to explain themselves whenever respected research sources points out the huge supply squeeze on rental properties in our cities.

And then there are the objections about the total supply needed – an argument which the census figures effectively demolish.

In a recent report commissioned by Irish Institutional Property, Prof Ronan Lyons argues we need to build close to 50,000 houses per annum over the next decade.

His detailed research argues cogently and persuasively that we need to build that number of homes, based on the reasonable assumption that Ireland continues to experience continued convergence towards UK and European headship formation norms

Research by the Central Bank of Ireland, using the same assumptions, has reached broadly similar conclusions.

Policymakers must now confront these forces and over-provide zoned land, thus ensuring that an abundance of housing will become available for sale and for rent, which in turn will exercise a moderating influence and over time downward pressure on prices. To do otherwise is populist and irresponsible.

Pat Farrell is chief executive of Irish Institutional Property