Fintan O’Toole: It is insane to look to developers to solve housing crisis

Developer-led planning has never met the basic need for shelter. Yet the Government clings to its blind ideological faith in the market.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar  at the launch of the Land Development Agency. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the launch of the Land Development Agency. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

Before she was married, my mother worked in the Player Wills cigarette factory on the South Circular Road in Dublin. It was a walled domain, a world to itself, with a restaurant, medical facilities, even a theatre. My mother worked there because she lived five minutes’ walk away, as in time I did myself. We lived in what was not yet called social housing, the 1940s local authority estate of Crumlin. Our house was built with public money in one of Europe’s poorest countries. It existed simply because the State saw the crying need for such housing and got its act together.

The Players Wills factory closed in 2005. And while this was very sad for the locality, it was also an obvious opportunity: to build another, smaller version of Crumlin just on the far side of the Grand Canal. The site has room for about 600 houses, a whole new community about 3km from the city centre, an easy walk or cycle. It is on existing bus routes. There are local schools and hospitals. The basic infrastructure like electricity and sewerage is all there. And there is even better news: it is in public ownership. After various private plans for the site fell foul of the bursting of the property bubble, it ended up under the control of Nama.

In any sane country, never mind one with a horrendous housing crisis, it would be obvious what would happen next. This perfect site would be developed by the local authority for social and affordable homes. But in an insane country, what is actually happening is that Nama is proposing to flog it off to private developers. Those developers, to get their money back and make a nice profit, will build and sell houses and apartments at prices that are completely out of reach for most families in Dublin.

Powerless to act

Asked about the sale by Jack Horgan-Jones in the Sunday Business Post, Nama said that “if the receiver for the project had decided that the best way to maximise the value of the asset was through an open sale process . . . the agency was powerless to intervene”.

It is not that the Government cannot build social and affordable housing. It is that it will not

But we own Nama and through it we own this site. Who decides on our behalf that flogging it off is the best way to maximise its value to us? And why is an agency that set aside more than €2 billion of our money for professional fees “powerless” to act on behalf of the people who pay those fees? Where, after all the pain, is the social dividend from Nama?

This is what is happening in all of our cities and it is, broadly, what will continue to happen when the new Land Development Agency is in operation. Ten years after the great property crash of 2008, and with all the suffering we have endured because of it, we are still ruled by the ideology that caused it: developer-led planning.

It is not that the Government cannot build social and affordable housing. It is that it will not. It won’t do it because it is wedded to a belief system in which a home is first and foremost a market commodity, a tradeable asset. The human need for shelter must be met only by the magical workings of the profit motive.

The Honeypark development in Dún Laoghaire, which included social and affordable housing. PHOTOGRAPH: ERIC LUKE
The Honeypark development in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, which included social and affordable housing. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

The other side of this ideology is a profound class prejudice against social housing. The architect of the LDA, Niall Cussen, said at the weekend that in the past “huge social housing developments were built, often with negative consequences”. More negative than homelessness? More negative than being fleeced in an unstable and exploitative rental market?

Commercial

The litmus test of zealotry is that it cannot be contradicted by evidence. The evidence is that there has never, ever been a time when developer-led housing has met the basic need for shelter of a very large part of the population.

It was not driven by the profit motive and was not obliged to wait on whims and deals of private individuals. It just did it

Even during the Celtic Tiger years, when we had a mania of private development, huge numbers of people remained in dire need of a decent home. Yet here we go again: under the LDA, private developers will be given control of public land and 60 per cent of the development will be commercial.

The Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund is designed to help pay for infrastructure to enable development of sites
"[The Government] is wedded to a belief system in which a home is first and foremost a market commodity, a tradeable asset. The human need for shelter must be met only by the magical workings of the profit motive."

To plumb the depth of historical ignorance, consider the Taoiseach’s breathless comparison of the launch of the LDA to the creation of the Electricity Supply Board in 1927. Does he really not know that the ESB was and is a public enterprise that set about meeting a public need by directly building power stations and connecting homes?

Even in conditions of national poverty, it went out and did what the Irish people needed to be done. It was not driven by the profit motive and it was not obliged to wait on the whims and deals of private individuals. It just did it.

If Leo Varadkar really wants the LDA to be his legacy in the way the ESB was the legacy of his party ancestors, he needs to get over his shallow ideological fixation with the sacredness of the profit motive.

Even the dour conservatives of the 1920s could see that sometimes the State has to provide directly for the public good. That means public housing built on public land.

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