Housing Agency concerned about focus on ‘just building houses’

Chief executive John O’Connor says some developments may not be right

“There is a lot of pressure on delivering housing but no one will thank us in 10 or 20 years’ times if we deliver the wrong thing.” Photograph: Getty Images

“There is a lot of pressure on delivering housing but no one will thank us in 10 or 20 years’ times if we deliver the wrong thing.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

The chief executive of the Housing Agency has said he is concerned about a focus on “just building houses” that may not be sustainable into the future.

Speaking at the Planning Institute of Ireland Autumn Conference in Dublin on Friday, John O’Connor said providing places to live “can get lost in our rush to supply housing”.

“Whether you are in the private sector or in the public sector [we should ask] are we doing the right developments because there is a serious issue now in terms of such pressure to deliver housing that maybe some of the developments aren’t the right developments.”

Planners need to ask if developments are in the right places, and whether they are going to be sustainable into the future. “There is a lot of pressure on delivering housing, but no one will thank us in 10 or 20 years’ times if we deliver the wrong thing.”

He told more than 200 planners that some might say the three- and four-bed house was what people want. “But is it the right thing to be doing, and will we regret producing the wrong thing in a few years’ time? We’ve made massive mistakes in the past; we don’t want to make them in the future.”

He told delegates there needed to be an increase in density in a lot of towns, cities and villages, and there should be a mix of owner-occupied and rental accommodation.

He highlighted a study of owner-occupier and rented homes in Tyrrellstown in Dublin, which showed 200 people lived in 100 owner-occupier houses and 420 people lived in rented houses. “With rented accommodation you get a much better effective use of housing.”

Households

He also said in 2016, 70 per cent of all households had three people or less. There had been very dramatic changes in demographics in Ireland in the last 50 years, and there would be for the next 50 years given our aging population.

“The housing model that was right 20 years ago is not the right model now. We need to appreciate the types of households we are providing for.”

Mr O’Connor said the State needed to get involved not just in social housing but in supporting housing development.

He said the Housing Agency had 600 hectares of land across the country. It had looked at the potential of sites and prioritised them. Sites without potential for short to medium term use could be put to other use.

The agency had entered into agreements with “quite a number of sports clubs around the country”, he said, and it was better if land that could not be used for homes that it is put to some benefit for society.

Mr O’Connor highlighted one of the agency’s projects to develop a site on the Enniskerry Road, south Dublin. He said the 155 houses and apartments would be a mix of social housing and affordable rental housing and was at an advanced stage with Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council.

He also said the level of apartments in Ireland was way below the European average, and our demand for detached houses was “way above”.

“It is just not sustainable into the future to continue delivering the types of housing we have been delivering.”

He also said there were 28,000 commercial properties vacant for five years or more, and 5,000 were in Dublin alone. “That is very significant levels of vacancy – if you walk around Dublin you can see those.”

Pioneer

Chris McGarry, head of planning at the National Asset Management Agency, highlighted the value of a fund announced earlier this year by the Government. He said the Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund, worth €226 million, would “become a pioneer”. He said it embedded prioritisation of funding within the planning system. “Planning cannot solve all the problems, but the LIHAF will help.”

He also told planners he was in agreement with a vacant land levy, a tax for developers who do not make use of the land they own due to be introduced in 2018.

There might be tweaks about how it is operated, he said, but the principle of it was to “nudge people on” from acquiring and holding land to starting the design and consent process.

“As an exercise that contributes to the improvement of active land management, proper transparent taxation makes sense.”