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Housebuilding: Dublin’s urban sprawl is only getting worse

Smart Money: First-time buyers again being pushed out to commuter counties

Urban sprawl is spreading again, out from the greater Dublin region, raising big questions for housing and planning. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

New figures show an extraordinary surge in house-building in Dublin’s commuter counties. The Mid-East region is expanding – at an extraordinary rate. With the economy growing strongly and house-hunters priced out of Dublin, house-building in the region – including Meath, Kildare, Wicklow and Louth – was running 57 per cent ahead on an annual basis in the third quarter, according to figures in a report by Goodbody Stockbrokers, using official data sources. Urban sprawl is spreading again, out from the greater Dublin region, raising big questions for housing and planning – and leaving many families facing long, car-based commutes. This is the opposite of what was intended under the spatial plan set down by the Government – but it is what is happening. What does the evidence show?

1. Where are houses being built? The first part of the story is familiar. First-time buyers are being priced out of many parts of the Dublin market, while more expensive properties appropriate to those trading up are often not selling. The reality of affordability – or unaffordability – is hitting home. The Goodbody data, compiled largely using BER (Building Energy Regulation) data, shows a big 34 per cent year on year jump in house completions nationally in the third quarter. However, the market is still in a strange place. The biggest contributor to the annual growth was the 57 per cent rise in new dwelling completions in the Mid-East region – the Dublin commuter counties. In contrast, completions grew just 9 per cent in Dublin itself. Apartments represent around 44 per cent of completions in Dublin. Outside Dublin, almost half of the completions are semi-detached and not far off another quarter are detached. As Goodbody put it, apartments only seem viable in Dublin "resulting in a sprawl of lower density housing outside the capital". The brokers estimate that over the past year around 5,100 completions have taken place in the Mid-East, not far off one quarter of the national total.

2. Why is this happening? Houses – and apartments – in many parts of Dublin are too expensive for first-time buyers. Dublin new home sales fell by 15 per cent in the nine months to the end of September, compared with the same period the previous year, but sales outside Dublin rose by 14 per cent. Houses in the €325,000-€400,000 bracket in Dublin are selling, according to Goodbody,but more expensive ones are not.

Sales in this same price bracket also rose strongly outside Dublin, as did sales of cheaper properties. Families are simply getting priced out of the capital. For a €400,000 house and assuming a 10 per cent deposit, you would still need a household income of at least €100,000, under the Central Bank rules.


Prices, not surprisingly, get more affordable the further you are from Dublin. Average prices in Greystones were €425,000, according to the latest CSO data, but further down in Wicklow town, the figure falls to €303,000 and in Arklow it is €205,000. Go as far as Gorey and the figure falls below €200,000. Urban sprawl and long commutes are being driven purely by price.The combination of your income, savings and the Central Bank rules dictate what you can pay – though some get a little more under rule exemptions.

3. So will the commuter counties just grow and grow? The Central Statistics Office has done some interesting work on this. It suggests that high house prices have driven people out of Dublin in the past as well – thought the CSO work looks at the figures rather than the causes.

At each census the CSO took a measure of people moving house from one region to another. Remember that population in each region is also affected by migration to and from other countries and by births and death. But the internal migration figures tell a story.

Looking at the years in which the CSO undertakes its census, the 1991 and 1996 versions showed that Dublin and the Mid-East were both growing, while there was a net outflow from other regions. By the censuses taken in 2002 and 2006, however, house prices were on the rise, in Dublin in particular. The 2002 census showed a net outflow of 12,600 from Dublin to other regions and the 2006 data showed a 10,200 outflow. The CSO doesn’t say so, but it seems reasonable to surmise that , like now, many people were being priced out of the capital.

By 2011, there was a small net inflow back into Dublin – house prices had collapsed by that stage. But by the latest census in 2016, with house prices and rents soaring, people were leaving Dublin again, with a net outflow of 4,400 – and the Mid-East being the main beneficiary.

The CSO then went on to look at what might happen in future, looking at a range of scenarios in which one of the key factors was whether there was an outflow or inflow of people to Dublin to or from other parts of Ireland in the years ahead. If the outflow from Dublin continued at its 2016 rate, then the population of the Mid-East could surge by 35-40 per cent by 2037, rising from 690,000 to possibly more than 950,000. Dublin will also grow – at what rate would depend a lot of international migration trends.

In a scenario where there is an inflow to Dublin – the more traditional pattern over a long period of years – Dublin could grow by 30-40 per cent by 2037, but the Mid-East population would still grow, possibly by 25 per cent or more.

4. Why is this important?

Government strategy, as outlined in the National Plan to 2040 – and regional plans including the one for the Eastern part of the country – is to promote more “compact” living. This means people living in smaller spaces, closer to their work. It means the end of urban sprawl.

As the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy drawn up for the East and Midlands part of the country says: “Long-distance car-based commuting is a key challenge that is leading to congestion of transport networks and negative impacts on people’s quality of life and on the environment.”

The strategy, as outlined in this document, is to build a lot of new living houses and apartments in Dublin and concentrate much of the rest of it in the larger centres of Athlone, Drogheda and Dundalk. This is to allow people to live much closer to their work, to schools and to other services.

But the latest pattern of building is much more diffuse, covering towns and villages across the region as developments spring up where land is available and planning has been granted.

To move from this to the vision outlined by the Government and regional planning authorities will be a huge step. Among the key problems are the apparent difficulty in building apartments or other denser living options at reasonable prices in the Dublin region – and the related pressure on younger people buying their first home to move out of Dublin and often commute long distances. In turn this increases reliance on car journeys, going against the strategy of having people commute shorter distances, ideally by public transport, also seen as vital to meet environmental goals.

Development across the eastern region in the past decade has happened in a whole range of locations (see map), generally attached to towns, and in all cases except central Dublin there are much fewer local jobs than would be needed for the locally living population. Now the sprawl is getting sprawlier again.

Reversing this trend and moving to a new way of living is a huge political and economic challenge – and remember how other spatial plans, many designed to move activity away from Dublin, have failed. The latest plan accepts that Dublin will remain vital, but also looks for major development in regional cities.

There is another key factor here. The traditional way of living in Ireland in urban or town areas has been the semi-detached house. The Government plan is for people in future to live in smaller houses or apartments closer to their work. For the moment such properties are not available – or if they are they cost too much. But even if they were, how would families trade off space against price in future? Denser, more compact living is going to be a hard sell.