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Taking the long view to get to grips with our housing problem

We might need to more than double our housing stock over the next century

We have had a long and challenging history in the area of housing and my family’s story in 19th century Ireland is probably no different from many others when we were one of the poorest countries in Europe.

My grandfather, Desmond FitzGerald, came from a family who had known considerable deprivation. His father and uncle were impoverished labourers who moved from Tipperary to London to seek work.

In 1878, the investigative journalist William O’Brien visited the Galtee Mountains in Tipperary and recorded the plight of people living there. One of those he met was my grandfather’s aunt, Johanna FitzGerald, and her four children, my grandfather’s first cousins.

“At the other side of the boreen lives one of the ‘settled’ tenants, the most wretched I had met yet. This is the woman, Johanna FitzGerald, whose husband has gone to England as a labourer to earn bread for her four children. Mrs FitzGerald had not been seen at the chapel that morning, but her bare feet and coarse petticoat made a pretty eloquent apology. The children, who played about the door, had clean faces and clean rags, and the earthen floor was newly swept.”


My grandparents’ generation, many of whom had families with similar backgrounds, took huge risks to gain our independence. They were motivated by the dream of a dramatically different Ireland and had a long-term vision for the country. When the 1916 Proclamation talked about ‘the prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally’, it set a high bar for the type of Ireland they envisaged.

Much has, indeed, been achieved. We can see a tolerant, social democratic society, beginning to emerge, benefiting from a supportive business sector with pro-business Government policies.

In the areas of housing and health, decisions have tended to deal with the immediate rather than the strategic

Success has often been achieved when forward-thinking people in roles of responsibility in the State, at critical moments, took decisions that had a long-term perspective. There are many examples of such successes: the founding of Aer Lingus and the IDA and, perhaps most importantly of all, the opening up of free education for all.

On the other hand, in the areas of housing and health, decisions have tended to deal with the immediate rather than the strategic.

Rancorous debate

We all hope that Sláintecare will deliver long-term solutions for our healthcare system. However, discussion of, and decision-making about housing is largely addressed in immediate problems and short-term needs. In all the rancorous debate about how we should address the issue, there has been little discussion of long-term demographic projections; How large is our society going to be?

We have 2 million homes currently and research indicates we will require an additional 500,000 houses by 2050.

The more successful, tolerant and fair Ireland becomes, the more the diaspora will want to return. This, when coupled with our favourable geographical position in relation to climate change, would indicate that our population could grow dramatically over the next century, and we may well require a total of 4.5 million houses by 2122, which would be an increase of 2.5 million houses from where we stand today.

This will be a Herculean challenge, particularly as two of our four major cities, Dublin and Galway, are geographically restricted.

Part of the answer is to build more apartments in our cities, but we need, in a post-Covid world, to be a lot less doctrinaire, as people passionately want space and actual houses. It is possible to deliver the right densities in a sustainable fashion, in our cities, towns and villages, in the style of the mid-density housing that is being built in a city such as Cambridge.

Taking a long-term view to re-locate Dublin Port which consists of 640 acres, will result in freeing up a huge amount of land for housing

Furthermore, there is significant and growing demand for houses of 110-150sq m (1,200-1,600sq ft) in all parts of Ireland, something the planning regulator fails to take into account. It took imagination to solve the Northern Ireland problem, to build up Aer Lingus, the IDA, and our education system, and we now require the same type of imagination in the area of housing.

Much more flexibility around land use is required, particularly in a city such as Dublin. Taking a long-term view to re-locate Dublin Port which consists of 640 acres, will result in freeing up a huge amount of land for housing. There are other housing opportunities, from industrial land on the ring road, to 40-acre sites such as Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines.

In the short to medium term, the Government is right to focus on the supply of houses on land that is already zoned, but it also needs to, concurrently, look at our cities, towns and villages to model an Ireland of 4.5 million houses rather than 2 million - what it would look like, and where these houses would be and, in the process, listen to our citizens.