Construction sector ‘spin’ must be challenged, Soc Dems conference told

Prof Orla Hegarty highlights need for ‘missing middle’ properties in Ireland

‘Missing middle’ properties include terraced housing and mid-rise apartments. Photograph: Alan Betson/File

‘Missing middle’ properties include terraced housing and mid-rise apartments. Photograph: Alan Betson/File

 

The property market is building only for the top 10 per cent of dual earners and the top 1 per cent of single earners, and the “spin” of the construction sector has to be challenged, the Social Democrats national conference has been told.

Assistant professor of architecture at UCD Orla Hegarty highlighted the need for the “missing middle” properties including terraced housing and mid-rise apartments.

In a presentation to up to 700 delegates she suggested a regional development plan of €1 million per town to refurbish and retrofit 20 upper floor and vacant units in regional towns which could provide long-term jobs, create footfall and build sustainable communities.

Prof Hegarty said this option could be used for direct provision accommodation, homelessness and for one, two and three-person households on housing waiting lists who are not prioritised.

But the 3,000 plus co-living developments should not be “suddenly channelled into homeless or direct provision accommodation because that it just storing up problems for the future”.

She also warned of the need to guard against the State taking on very densely-built rental blocks for social housing “that are of a poor standard and will impact on people’s mental and physical health and will be very difficult to maintain on sustainable long-term”.

The conference also heard from a Kildare North delegate who said that in the past 18 months development land had been sold for between €892,000 and €1.2 million an acre, 57 times the price of agricultural land at €14,000 an acre.

Delegates agreed a motion to back the 50-year-old Kenny report recommending compulsory purchase orders of land for current value plus 25 per cent, which would price a Kildare acre at €17,500.

The party’s housing spokesman Cian O’Callaghan hit out at the Government ’s shared equity loan scheme which both the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Central Bank warned would increase prices.

Highlighting spin in a number of areas including density, Prof Hegarty said “we are presented with this false choice between suburban sprawl” or the only other option of high rise small apartments.

“They are two products in the market that are quite lucrative,” for developers but what is needed is the “missing middle – the in-between of sustainable densities in the type of homes that people want to live in”.

‘Sustainable densities’

This includes terraced housing, mid-rise apartments and “densifying the existing suburbs and building new suburbs and sustainable densities with outdoor space that is affordable”.

In this sustainable system people “are not driving everywhere but neither are they taking a lift to the 11th floor”.

Social Democrats co-leaders Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Social Democrats co-leaders Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

In a presentation at the Social Democrats national conference, she said people are also questioning their lifestyle, but the spin is that “millennials eat at work, they don’t need kitchens. People don’t really need daylight on balconies because by the time they come home it’s dark or they’re going out socialising for the evening”.

She said: “That’s a marketing lifestyle for a very particular demographic who are high earners at a certain stage in their lives.”

Prof Hegarty said it was not representative of the needs of communities as she pointed to Dublin’s north inner city “where about half of homes only have one bedroom”.

She also said the property sector spin on high costs had to be confronted. What they are really saying is that “we need subsidy to provide what we would like to provide”.

She said that “in the same week the industry said it cost €371,000 to develop a three-bed home in Dublin the same property sector is selling the same house for under €270,000 in Wexford and for €250,000 in the midlands”.

More spin included standards having to be dropped for affordability. “That has been really detrimental but not only were space standards were dropped, fire safety standards were dropped daylight standards were dropped and all of this impacts on public health,” she said.

“Ventilation is so critical to Covid spread but there was no discussion about the fact that a two-bedroom apartment for build to rent is now 20 per cent smaller in air volume than a two-bedroom apartment for build to sell” and “having hundreds of people sharing a small number of lifts is a public health issue”.

The pandemic was an “enormous opportunity” for skilled construction workers who might otherwise have emigrated to have long-term employment in the refurbishment and retrofitting of upper floors of commercial premises and vacant properties.

During a question and answer session Prof Hegarty said she was not anti-developer. “We need to incentivise more, smaller developers” in these areas, she said.

Opening night of the Social Democrats conference on Friday saw party delegates overwhelmingly back a motion to pursue options for growth in Northern Ireland.

It will set up a working group to explore all options, consult widely and prepare a report with recommendations for the next move, which may include a change in current policy not to contest elections there.