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We were promised 15-minute cities. Instead we got 90-minute commutes

Housing policy is being set by the older generation, who are generally living in their own homes, for a younger generation - and it shows

Commuters drive in freezing fog on the M50 motorway in Dublin. Photograph: Damien Storan/PA

The Government has gone in deep on the housing market – a key issue for the next general election campaign – with large supports for increasing supply and also supporting demand by helping borrowers. But a big problem for potential buyers remains finding somewhere affordable near city centres. And so urban sprawl continues, and a lot of new buyers in Dublin can afford to purchase only on the outskirts of the county or in the commuter counties of Meath, Kildare, Wicklow and Louth, leading to the kind of car-based lifestyle that Ireland’s spatial planning is meant to be trying to avoid.

Instead of a Luas or even a Metro swooshing them into town, or a trip along a cycle path to nearby work or school – the dream of city centre living that is part of our national spatial planning – they spend their day in the car.

The latest CSO commuting figures show that times travelling to work continue to rise, with more than six out of every 10 travelling by car, many leaving before 7am. Three of the commuter counties – Meath, Kildare and Wicklow – have the highest proportion of commuters travelling for more than an hour to work.

And the problem is that some of the Government incentives, notably the help-to-buy scheme, are incentivising the building of housing in the suburban counties. With builders struggling to construct and sell new properties in city centres under the help-to-buy limit of €500,000, the incentives now reward more building in the commuter counties around Dublin, where land and costs are cheaper and the tax refund of up to €30,000 available under the scheme helps to close the gap.

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The figures tell the story. Looking at Revenue Commissioners’ data for the number of help-to-buy claims in the first three-quarters of this year, the county with the largest claims is Kildare, at 860. Also high on the list is Meath, with 592. Dublin, despite its vastly higher population base, has just 568 claims.

Over the life of the scheme since 2016, Dublin still has the highest number by a distance – suggesting that the price limit has really started to bite in the past few years, pushing more people farther from their workplace at precisely the time when national policy is aiming for denser living close to city centres. Meanwhile, the lack of supply on the second-hand housing market is cutting options for first-time buyers. More and more are being forced farther out of the city centre. The intention is the 15-minute city – the reality, for many, is the 1½-hour commute.

As with many such policies, the scheme helps those who benefit directly, but is it also pushing up prices, with new homes up 10.4 per cent on last year compared with an average of 2.3 per cent for all properties

The property price register also tells a story of how the market is being shaped by help-to-buy. Up to early December about 1,600 of the 9,500-plus new homes sold nationwide so far in 2023 went for €450,000-€500,000 – what you might call the help-to-buy sweet spot. About 250 properties were priced at €495,000-€500,000, a significant number of them right on the €499,000 mark. The division of gains between developer and purchaser here is surely questionable.

About 2,700 new homes that would qualify for the scheme have been sold in the year to date in the four commuter counties compared with 1,400 in Dublin, mostly towards the borders of the county. Obviously not all new homes qualify for help-to-buy, with some bought by mover purchasers and others by local authorities, housing bodies and investors. But for many buyers - including those building their own home - it is the magic sauce that helps them get over the line.

And the same push to the periphery will apply in the first home scheme, in which the State takes an equity stake in the property. Here, the house price ceiling in the four Dublin local authorities and in Cork is €475,000 (€500,000 for an apartment), while in Meath and Kildare it is €425,000. While this scheme is just ramping up this year, figures to date show that 39 per cent of live applications are from Kildare, Meath and Wicklow combined, compared with 24 per cent in Dublin.

The final piece of statistical evidence is that there were fewer than 800 new homes sold to first-time buyers in Dublin in the first 10 months of 2023, compared with close to 1,100 in Meath and Kildare combined, according to CSO data. Given that the population of the two smaller counties combined is fewer than one-third Dublin’s population, this is striking.

Does “denser” living imply more renting as a longer-term option – after all, a lot of construction in recent years has been build-to-rent? And what does this mean for people’s finances?

It is probably little wonder that the extent of the housing crisis and the resulting political pressure has led to a whole range of policies, some of which are pulling against each other. And few would begrudge first-time buyers some help. But parts of national housing policy – the schemes helping first-time buyers – are now pulling against a spatial policy designed to get people living closer to city centres for environmental and lifestyle reasons. And as with many such policies, the scheme helps those who benefit directly, but is it also pushing up prices, with new homes up 10.4 per cent on last year compared with an average of 2.3 per cent for all properties. Rising building costs, too, have been an issue for new homes.

In the mix of housing supply and demand policies, some questions remain unanswered. What exactly are we aiming for in terms of a mix between ownership and rental and what are the implications of this? Does “denser” living imply more renting as a longer-term option – after all, a lot of construction in recent years has been build-to-rent? And what does this mean for people’s finances?

As we talk about this new way of living, new buyers are voting with their feet and moving farther out so that they can afford to buy – helped by State incentives.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers here – or even most of them. But you would fear that housing policy is being set by my generation – older and generally living in their own homes – for a younger generation, many of whom have not been asked to buy into what is being proposed. It is a dreadful cliche to say that we need a national conversation on this. But we kind of do.