Looking beyond the pandemic: The Irish Times view on housing provision

Government must avoid blockages which stymied the previous administration

 

The impact of the pandemic – and more recently Brexit – has tended to overshadow other critical policy areas in what has been an extraordinary year. Covid-19 will continue to cast a long shadow in 2021 but other issues will again come to the fore, including housing, a key focus of debate in the general election campaign.

A report published by the Economic and Social Research Institute and funded by the Department of Housing and Local Government provides a useful input and outlines the challenges faced by policy makers. It examines regional demographics and structural housing demand at a county level, and estimates that on average 28,000 new homes would be needed every year out to 2040 to keep up with housing demand.

This underlines the major challenge facing the Government, local authorities and the construction sector. The report outlines a likely increase in the population of 926,000 by 2040, bringing it to more than 5.6 million. A different level of international migration could alter the projections, in either direction, but on any assumptions the level of house-building needed is way ahead of what has been achieved in recent years.

Completions had started to rise up to 2019 – albeit not quickly enough to keep pace with demand. The pandemic has seen an unavoidable hiatus, though construction kept going through the latest lockdown and completions have picked up again. However further acceleration will be needed and while the Government is trying to accelerate housing provision, it must avoid the blockages which stymied the previous administration.

The value of the ESRI report is its detailed work, scoping out the likely requirements at a local level and looking at a variety of scenarios in terms of spatial growth patterns. A plan is in place to feed this into local authority and national development. We know from past experience, however, how difficult it can be to make progress. Delivering affordable properties, of a correct size, in the right location will not be easy and will require a big implementation effort across national and local government.

The Government is looking at the appropriate delivery models – a topic long-discussed in housing policy – and some new approaches are being introduced. A much higher level of State involvement is inevitable, and necessary, but must be properly directed.

As the pandemic crisis passes – and we’re not there yet – the huge policy challenge facing the Government in this area will come back into focus. The younger generation, worst hit by the pandemic fall-out, is most exposed, facing the risk of ongoing supply shortages and high costs in both the house buying and rental market. State grants in areas like help-to-buy schemes will not fix this problem. The only answer is more supply, in the right areas and at an appropriate cost.

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