The State has been frustratingly slow at freeing up its own land for housing

Michael D Higgins’s comments were on the button regarding the public policy failure around housing, but when will the Government’s elaborate excuses stop?

President Michael D Higgins has once again caught the public mood with his comments about the public failure in policy terms around housing. “It isn’t a crisis any more — it is a disaster,” he said. The President is utterly correct — and is right to hold the Government accountable in some shape or form for the public inability to get to grips with an essential social problem.

The housing problem has been thrown into even sharper relief because of the arrival of Ukrainian refugees in our country due to the horrific conflict on Europe’s boundaries with Russia. Michael D, as ever, got his timing right with his intervention.

The usual debate around the subject has evolved, with commentators questioning the propriety of the President’s words. The Government appears, behind the scenes, to be a little uncomfortable with his comments. Housing featured in the last election in a significant way. Housing ministers came and went in the previous government — Simon Coveney and Eoghan Murphy — and still no sign of a solution. Former taoiseach Brian Cowen once described the Department of Health as being the policy equivalent of Angola — now housing is surely the appointment most ministers want to get away from.

What is presumably frustrating the President is the obvious. Without going into huge legal reform, there are clear places where sites can be opened up and houses built. The State itself has a huge land bank of sites. All sorts of bodies, agencies, departments and commercial State outfits hoard land for some alleged “strategic” purpose. Only recently the Taoiseach was again forlornly asking the bureaucrats to have a rummage through their portfolio again and see where a few acres could be spared. This request is ritual and was frequently made in my own time in government — but rarely in earnest or followed up by incumbent taoisigh or ministers.


The evidence, on a very superficial look, is very stark. Dublin Bus, for instance, has no less than four major bus garages within the inner commuter core of Dublin city. These are Donnybrook, Summerhill, Cunningham Road and Broadstone. These four sites would provide thousands of social housing units without any recourse to expensive car parking of any sort. This has been spoken about for years but little or nothing has happened. It makes no sense housing buses in the inner city while office and retail workers have to commute hours to come into work. Equally, there have been repeated failed attempts over the years to get people housed over traditional shop fronts in the city. Again this is spoken about a lot, but few real solutions have been offered despite the obvious trend from retail to online.

Elsewhere around the country there are hundreds of sites belonging to the HSE that are tied up and lying empty. When in politics I often had to make representations on behalf of people who felt these sites could be better utilised. One would give up in despair as elaborate excuse after excuse appeared to justify the dead hand of the State clinging on to parcels of land.

When Charles Haughey wanted to create the IFSC and Temple Bar, there were a myriad of conflicting property owners and interests. In fairness to Haughey, he knocked heads and got civil servants such as the late Pádraig Ó hUiginn to push the various stakeholders into doing something. There were a lot fewer public agencies and bureaucracies at the time than there are now — but there appeared to be people at the highest levels of government with an administrative and executive competence to pursue, as well as implement, ambitious plans.

We need new approaches. One of the most impressive planning changes in London of recent years was a new device called Permitted Development. This allowed developers — for a very small fee and administrative overhead — to fast-track the conversion of older office blocks into domestic apartments. This was typically allowed near transport nodes. A similar adjusted version of this could be done in Ireland with greater latitude.

The city of Dublin is hugely lopsided in favour of the south inner city. Capel Street and the whole area behind the GPO as well as the urban north inner city should be designated a priority for urban dwelling. The Hammerson site behind O’Connell Street should be reimagined to cater for residential dwellers rather than intensified further retail development. The area adjacent to Moore Street and Henry Place could become a bohemian alternative to Temple Bar, but with the benefit of permanent dwellers built into the neighbourhood from the outset.

The historic significance of the 1916 Rising in these small streets has been the subject of an intense and committed campaign which should not just be acknowledged but underpinned by bringing a living population back into that unique part of our capital city. Many of the issues that afflict the O’Connell Street area are to do with transient populations and the absence of a permanent population in its living heart.

Conor Lenihan is a former minister for science, technology and innovation and served 14 years as a Dublin TD