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Planners are consistently a step behind demand when it comes to zoning for housing

Our public service appears to distrust the private sector when it comes to housing policy

Dublin City Council is still playing catch-up as it never zoned enough land for housing, and consistently zoned too much for industrial and commercial property

In November 1997, I stood in front of an audience of 600 people in the O’Reilly Hall in UCD. My job that day was to chair the Foresight property conference, sponsored by Roadstone. I didn’t have much of note to say but two of my then colleagues did.

Marian Finnegan spoke about the affordability challenges of the Dublin housing market, and Killian O’Higgins presented a paper that he and Marian had worked on, with accompanying data, showing that Dublin had far too much land zoned for industrial purposes (even with unemployment then at 10 per cent), and not nearly enough zoned for residential purposes to meet the demand of a burgeoning young population.

Fast forward nearly 27 years and we now have much greater affordability problems in the Dublin housing market. Dublin City Council is still playing catch-up as it never zoned enough land for housing, and consistently zoned too much for industrial and commercial property. The challenges for our young people in accessing affordable housing weren’t created in the past decade – they existed even before many of this generation were born.

I was reminded of the 1997 conference last week when I read about Dublin City Council’s plans, at long last, to rezone to residential the Dublin Industrial Estate in Glasnevin. This should have been done 25 years ago.


The continuing approach of being one step behind demand trends goes to the very heart of why we have such a dearth of affordable housing. Our public service, no doubt with the noblest of intentions, appears to distrust the private sector when it comes to housing policy. There are understandable historical reasons for this wariness, but civil servants tend to be overly concerned with not repeating mistakes so recently made that they end up making other ones instead.

In particular there appears to be a deeply ingrained, misplaced public service scepticism towards housebuilders. Like every segment of Irish society, housebuilders are not perfect but this generation are, by and large, reasonable people. They know it is not all about the economy and they understand and buy into the notion of a fair and decent society. Granted, when it comes to Irish housing policy they go through the red lane with something to declare. Yes, they need to make a profit, but while housebuilding needs to be viable they equally want it to be affordable for young people. Housebuilders are not separate from Irish society; they are a part of it.

An interdepartmental taskforce has recently been created to examine the possibilities of changing older office buildings into much-needed residential accommodation. There is no mention of any private sector involvement. Such a grouping is to be welcomed but it should have been created before now and should also include private sector expertise in order to have the best brains, ideas and insights around the one table.

The State, as a priority, needs to go on the offensive and take advantage of a commercial property market that is under pressure from higher interest rates and reduced tenant demand. Ireland, with its hoard of cash and access to low-cost money, should now be hoovering up commercial property suitable for the State’s occupational use or for housing. It is not doing this and indeed is still disposing of council houses to tenants at deep discounts when they should be retaining such properties.

The Land Development Agency (LDA), which is very much part of the solution, has been given more financial resources to build cost rental housing. But it, together with the local authorities, should be given even more capital to achieve a greater imprint in terms of housing supply. Now is the time to fill their coffers and allow the LDA to strike value deals with builders who have land with substantial planning permissions and for local authorities to also develop sites themselves.

This is the quickest way to get to 40,000 to 50,000 units annually, boost public housing and cost rental supply and, in the process, reduce market rents.

The notion that constraints in the building sector would lead to significant cost inflation if housebuilding is given the monumental push that it requires is overstated given the significant reduction in commercial construction, not just in the office building but also in the multinational tech sector. We have more capacity than we thought.

A defensive mindset on property needs to rapidly transition to an offensive mindset before we lose the hearts and minds of our young people. I would regard the current Government as social democratic in its actions in the spirit of Sean Lemass and Declan Costello. They are doing a lot of good things, including setting up the foundation of a mixed tenure housing system, but they need to change the decision-making system and devolve real autonomy to bodies like the LDA. The consequence of the housing crisis is that public mood is lurching to the left.

We don’t need to lurch to the left, which would just set back much-needed private housing supply. We need a more entrepreneurial public service mindset when it comes to property opportunities in general and for housing in particular. The challenges may be great but market opportunities at this moment for the State are very significant.

Mark FitzGerald is a former chairman and chief executive of Sherry FitzGerald