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Affordable housing: Can Land Development Agency succeed where others have failed?

Scale, money and a singular focus are set to be brought to bear on the housing crisis

Few believed local authorities can churn out new houses, but the recent revelation that bringing a project from the first work on plans to starting work on building takes up to six years in Dublin, nevertheless, stuns.

Clearly, there is a desperate need to reduce this, since speed is of the essence. The Land Development Agency (LDA) Bill is currently making its way through the Dáil, so can the LDA succeed where other State bodies have failed?

The agency's singular focus must be on efficiency and speed, said LDA chief executive John Coleman by quickly building social and affordable housing on land "that's immediately available to us" and, then, by making sure that enough building land is "coming through the system".

Conjuring up images that have more to do with fast cars than houses, Mr Coleman said the system must be “turbocharged” by creating “a team of architects, engineers, finance people, a real machine that can rinse and repeat, site after site”.


Operating at scale, with a steady pipeline of projects, exclusively-focused professionals could make a substantial difference, even though they must abide by European public procurement rules, “one of the largest thieves of time”, according to many in the construction trade.

“We have to live with the public procurement process,” said Mr Coleman “but while that is a factor, it is not intrinsically insurmountable, it’s just a challenge that has to be managed”.

Major advantage

Professionals dedicated to procurement should speed up that process, but “scale” will be the big benefit, he said. Currently just a small number of contractors apply for public housing jobs and often those that do are not offering what local authorities want, which can result in projects going back to the drawing board. More work coming through the system will give greater numbers of contractors confidence there will be a consistent flow of projects, Mr Coleman said, which will reduce wasted time and drive down prices.

Another major advantage the LDA has over local authorities, is having its own cash – a total of €2.5 billion, half coming from the Government, the rest in loans from the likes of the European Investment Bank. This will mean, unlike local authorities, it will not have to go cap in hand to the Department of Housing every time it wants to build.

“We won’t have the four-stage approval process to live with. We will have our own capital balance sheet we will have to manage, and will be building our own processes and structures, and we will streamline that into a very slick process.”

'There is a misconception that the LDA is going to end up privatising State land'

Brendan Kenny, head of housing with Dublin City Council, argues that department approval is not delaying matters: "It's getting approval from our own councillors, even getting agreement on what a sites is to be used for.

“We could have a site for five or six years before we even get agreement that it is to be used for housing, and everything we do meets strong resistance locally. If it’s taking us years to being a site to the department, we can’t really blame the department for that.”

Here, the LDA might be of use, too, since the Bill would allow local authority managers to transfer land to the LDA without requiring the vote of councillors. It is one of the Bill’s most controversial bits but it is seen as an essential backstop.

If getting councillors to agree on the use of a site takes great persuasion, getting them to agree to relinquish power to the LDA might require even greater skills.

Even in Dún Laoghaire Rathdown, dominated by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors, it took some cajolery on behalf of council management to convince councillors the LDA was not coming in to rob the family silver when the idea of transferring lands at Shanganagh Castle in Shankill was first floated.

Mr Coleman would rather it was not seen that way.

“There is some fear that comes from a concern about what the LDA might do. There is a misconception that the LDA is going to end up privatising State land, and develop non-affordable market housing on State land. I want to stress the LDA is squarely focused on social and affordable housing. The idea that we will be engaging in flipping sites on to make a profit is simply not the case.”

This fear is haunting Dublin city councillors, who recently voted to scrap plans in the works since 2017 for private, social and affordable housing at Oscar Traynor Road in Santry and are hoping the department will approve 100 per cent public housing on the site.

While Mr Kenny stresses no decisions have been made on the future of the site, with more than 800 social, cost-rental and affordable homes proposed “it would make sense for one organisation to do the whole lot there”, he said. “No decision has been taken in relation to using he LDA to develop that site but that is the kind of project, a big site with mixed use housing, that might well be suited to the LDA.”

While not wanting to speculate either on the future for the site, Mr Coleman also stresses the councillors have nothing to fear from the LDA.

“Shanganagh proves what we are about. It is a development of 100 per cent social and affordable housing.” While the Bill currently provides for a minimum of 50 per cert social and affordable housing on State lands, that is to allow flexibility for dealing with the specifics of sites, Mr Coleman said, and in the vast majority of cases the percentage of social and affordable housing will be significantly higher “especially in Dublin where the need is so acute”.

‘Running out of land’

The city council is already working with the LDA in relation to the redevelopment of the former St Teresa’s Gardens site in Dolphin’s Barn, now called the Donore Project, where 700 homes are planned – a mix of social and cost-rental housing – and is having “lot of discussions” with the agency in relation to other council sites including large landbanks at Park West and Cherry Orchard.

However, Mr Kenny said the real benefit of the LDA will come from making new sites available.

The chief of the Irish Council for Social Housing said securing State lands for housing has always been difficult

“We are running out of land,” he said. “We already have a very strong pipeline of sites for development and all our energy is going into that, but in light of the housing crises, and the scarcity of land in our ownership, the LDA will be of great benefit in bringing new sites forward.”

The expertise brought by the LDA “particularly in the area of cost-rental, and developing bigger mixed tenure sites” would also be welcome, he said.

Ultimately, Mr Kenny said there is too much focus on who builds housing on public lands. “Families who need somewhere to live, they don’t care at all who built the house.”

Donal McManus, chief executive of the Irish Council for Social Housing, whose members are involved in the delivery of both social and cost-rental homes, said securing State lands for housing has always been difficult.

“Our members are very dependent on public land, as we don’t have our own land banks. Local authorities provide us with land, but not really other State bodies,” he said. “There is a lot inadvertent land hoarding by public bodies.” The ability of the LDA to release that land will be a huge fillip to approved housing bodies, Mr McManus said.

“The HSE, for example, might have land suitable for sheltered housing but that’s not their core activity so it’s not top of their list, even if they might be open to it, there’s no real impetus to do anything about it.”

The LDA has begun compiling a register of public land, but the Bill will require State organisations to report the land in their ownership within a specified period of time.

“Having a comprehensive register on a statutory basis is more important than it might sound. We need to find out where the land is and what it could be used for, and bring a bit of speed to that process. There’s quite a bit of work in doing that and if it isn’t on a statutory basis who is going to do it, realistically?

The LDA will also take on the task of site assembly, which would also be a relief for housing bodies, Mr McManus said.

Predictable delivery

“It’s the co-ordination the LDA will bring that will help our ability to develop. You encounter a lot of land that has a lot of different stakeholders involved, which means you can be trying to deal with multiple different interests, which makes it very difficult to achieve predicable delivery.

“Assembling land is difficult when there are multiple different stakeholders and it’s often the case, particularly in the cities, that you would have two or three different landowners.”

This site assembly power will become increasingly important in the future, when the LDA begins to acquire privately-owned sites adjoining State lands, something which has been prohibitively expensive for housing bodies, Mr McManus said.

“It doesn’t attract a lot of attention but getting the land assembly done and having a co-ordinating agency will be a key driver to increasing the scale of delivery of social and affordable housing on public land.”

So how much, typically, could the LDA strip out of the torturous six-year process, which can, as Mr Kenny said, be even longer when local authorities struggle to reach agreement on the use of sites, and does not even include time for the actual construction of homes?

Given the size and complexity of the sites the LDA is likely to be working on, Mr Coleman is reluctant to give ambitious time scales that would become hostage to fortune, however, his broad estimate to have homes available for renters or buyers, is considerably shorter.

“There’s no such thing as a vanilla project,” he said, “to have a raw piece of land and to bring that to the stage of having housing on it, realistically that will take four years”.