Enniskerry planning battles are a microcosm of State’s housing challenges

Crisis won’t be solved without massive construction, but try telling locals they have to sit back and say nothing

Like many Irish teenagers who grew up in a small village, I spent most of my youth planning how I might get out of the place. Yet I have spent much of my adulthood coveting a return to live in Enniskerry, the Wicklow village near the Dublin border where I grew up. Invariably over the years, it was just too expensive to move there. The current vertiginous spike in house prices puts it out of reach for all but the most affluent.

Why is it so sought after? Apart from its status as a country location within commuting distance of the city, Enniskerry is a place so easy on the eye that Disney commandeered the entire village as a film set last year.

But over the past few weeks, I have watched, conflicted, as it also has become a microcosm of the tensions boiling over due to the housing crisis, which the Government this week argued will soon see a turning of the tide as building supply ramps up above 30,000 new units per year.

A recent barrage of planning applications for Enniskerry that would more than double the village’s housing stock – dangling the possibility of renewed buying opportunities for people like me who would like to live there – have also stirred local anger and are meeting a wall of resistance.

If the Government’s Housing For All strategy is to deliver on its aim to spur the building required to solve the current crisis, it is also bound to spur bitter battles in many places like Enniskerry.

The housing crisis is tearing away at the fabric of Irish society. Many younger people who cannot find, much less afford, a house to buy feel they have no clause in the social contract. Yet existing local residents in some areas fear being steamrolled into accepting inappropriate change to their local areas. There are no easy answers to such quandaries. But answers still must be found.

When I drove out to Enniskerry last week to meet friends for a walk, local residents were streaming down to a community centre; couples, families, people of all ages. “Must be a fair or a festival,” I thought to myself. There always seems to be some class of a fair on in the village, which is home to Powerscourt Estate. This was not a fair. It was a meeting to harness local anger and rally opposition to the planned development; the launch of the Save Enniskerry campaign.

Cairn Homes, the stock-market listed builder run by Michael Stanley, has already seen one of its proposals for Enniskerry, a 164-unit scheme close to Powerscourt's entrance, tied up in judicial review proceedings after An Bord Pleanála gave it the green light last year under fast-track planning laws. Now Cairn has lobbed in another application for 84 units in one of the most verdant parts of the village, barely a few hundred metres from its well-known town clock.

Longford builder Michael Whelan, whose Moritz Group had assets of more than €500 million at the zenith of the Celtic Tiger before it went bust, has gone back in for permission for another scheme under the same fast-track laws, after being knocked back previously. His Capami development company wants permission for 219 units on a sensitive site overlooking the Knocksink nature reserve; I used to drive golf balls into the field that is the proposed site when I was a teenager.

Northern Ireland developer Gerry McGreevy recently put in an application for a scheme in a nearby picturesque location. Another entity calling itself Enniskerry Partnership recently sought, and has in recent days been refused, permission from the local authority for a separate development on a high-profile riverbank site, on an old garage right at the eastern entrance to the village.

The partnership has a separate application outstanding for commercial units on an adjacent site. Land registry documents show that the lands on which the Enniskerry Partnership is trying to build are co-owned by the professional boxer, Luke Keeler, who lost a world title bid in 2020, along with members of his family from Ballyfermot. Former government minister Shane Ross, who lives across the river, was among the objectors to the partnership's proposals.

Well-known developer Francis Rhatigan recently built yet another scheme, Sika Woods, within a kilometre of the village, and which had already irritated some local residents during its construction phase. In all, the volume of new houses planned for Enniskerry, or where construction recently finished, is almost 60 per cent beyond the level of building envisaged under the Wicklow County Development Plan. Yet there is almost no social housing being built in the area, sowing despair among young families.

Enniskerry needs new houses. It cannot remain an untouched monument, a pretty little village where its existing residents have a veto to stymie any and all developments of scale in the area. Yet in our haste to meet the dizzying challenges presented by the current housing crisis, the reasonable concerns of existing residents in areas such cannot simply be wished away.

How do you double the housing stock of a small village in a handful of years without creaking its infrastructure or changing its innate character? Yet how can you solve the biggest issue facing the State, the housing crisis, without forcing through development over the heads of inevitable opposition in towns and villages all across the country? There is always opposition to every scheme.

I have the privilege of sitting on the sidelines, looking on at the problems that are enveloping the place where I was raised, and of playing both sides. Ultimately, policymakers must reach decisions and come up with solutions.

Listening in on a technical briefing last week from the State officials responsible for addressing the housing crisis, the scale of the challenge was obvious. About €12 billion of development finance is needed to hit the target of 33,000 houses per year and there is currently a gap of about €4 billion in the resources available in Ireland, so it must be filled by foreign investors.

At least 27,000 more construction workers are required to deliver on existing housebuilding targets, and anybody who was tried to find a tradesperson in recent years will tell you just how difficult that is going to be. More than 20,000 private landlords have fled the market in the last five years; who is going to take their place? Meanwhile, inflation is sky-rocketing, materials are scarce and productivity in the building sector is far off where it needs to be.

On top of all this, the Government is limbering up to drive through a tightening of planning laws, while it also wants to staunch the volume of judicial reviews. No matter what way this is sliced or diced by policymakers, the aim of such policies is to make it harder for opposition to planning applications to succeed, and to make the housing crisis easier to address.

That doesn’t come without risk, either.