Housing is at crisis point – it is time to park ideology and build

Mutual public and private sector wariness must yield to creative construction

“That settled, we went to bed, our first few hours in Dublin giving us the impression of a shabby, down-at-heel city, pleasant and informal, not provincial, yet lacking the prosperous commercial air of most large cities. It rather suggested a city that never had a chance.”

So wrote Catharine Wellington, a young American woman visiting Dublin in 1918. A century on, Dublin has changed so immeasurably that it would be hardly recognisable to Catharine today.

Just over 60 years later, in November 1979, I was in trepidation about delivering my first speech on housing. I was 22 and while I didn’t work in a business that had a research department I was fortunate to have a father called Garret. I remember sitting with him at his old manual typewriter and he quizzing me about the market and, while I delivered the following lines later that night, I can’t claim any great credit for their origin.

“This means that as we approach the 1980s, Ireland with its large young population is going to face a severe housing shortage. In my view this problem is going to be most acute in Dublin, where already the city extends to a 12 to 15-mile radius, which for a city of 1,000,000 people implies a relatively low density of population. Part of this problem has been created by the attitude of the planners towards housing densities.”

Looking back on it now, it was just over a decade after the introduction of free education and we were, thankfully, beginning to retain our people rather than export them for good. Already at this point, Dublin wasn’t coping well with the influx of people. Research from the late 1970s shows that 25 per cent of all “Dublin” new homes being built for sale at that time were, in fact, built in the surrounding counties. Plus ça change.

Economic momentum

As long as we remained a largely agrarian country that exported our people, Dublin’s functionality as a city was ensured despite the extraordinarily limited geography of the environs. As soon as third-level education became more accessible, more and more people gravitated to Dublin to study and live, and an economic momentum ensued. Part of Dublin’s charm is the sea and the mountains and its many parks, but its topography prevents expansion of the city in an orthodox way. It so urgently needs a degree of imagination and a united civic purpose that has been lacking in the intervening 40 years.

Part of Dublin's charm is the sea and the mountains and its many parks, but its topography prevents expansion of the city in an orthodox way

The result of so many people gravitating to Dublin from other parts of Ireland meant that the city, in turn, drew international business to such a degree that the housing pressures have now grown to crisis level. Ironically, the economic crash and the Brexit referendum further internationalised Dublin at a pace that nobody in authority, or in any political party, could reasonably process.

The recent election and the unexpected outcome was, in large measure, influenced by a failure in national housing policy over the past 40 years. In fairness, Ireland 2040 is a serious strategic attempt to plan our country in terms of urban and regional development and does provide an excellent platform, albeit at this point its future housing demand projections are looking conservative.

If we are really passionate about solving our national housing crisis, we should draw inspiration from where we have been successful in the past.

In the case of Northern Ireland, it was the open-minded and collaborative mindset of the department of foreign affairs, combined with the continuity of leadership between the political parties, that delivered an outcome way beyond expectations.

Collaborative strategy

Do we have the courage to once again be truly ambitious for an efficient and a just Ireland? Do we have the competence to execute such a strategy?

When it comes to job creation, the public sector has done a remarkable job over the past 70 years working alongside the private sector, mainly in the form of the IDA. This success was achieved as a result of all arms of government committing to a collaborative strategy between the public and private sectors.

A lack of trust between private and public sectors has, in recent years, impacted housing output and affordability

When it comes to housing, a sense of wariness exists between the public and private sectors. This lack of mutual trust between these sectors has, in recent years, undoubtedly impacted housing output and affordability. Planning tribunals and the banking crash have also played their part in creating a lack of trust and their impact has been greater than is perhaps realised.

There is no doubt that the deep anger and frustration felt by so many of the electorate has delivered a shock to the political system. We are evolving into a social democratic country operating a pro-enterprise economy. This means we want to provide not just the privilege of opportunity but also to tackle inequality and injustice. It’s not about being blindly pro-business or indeed anti-business – it’s more about imagination, competence, compassion and efficiency. It means Sláintecare, it means a Nordic-type model of universal childcare, it means densification of our cities together with innovative and considered regional development plans moving work to where people live.

We simply will not deliver the required housing numbers at affordable levels, either social or private, and the sort of sustainable development that we require, unless the private and public sectors work hand-in-glove in the spirit of appropriate collaboration. There are plenty of smart people in the construction sector – their expertise, commitment to innovation, and imagination should be harnessed in the interests of creating not only an efficient country but also a just society.

Let’s park the ideology and get on with the job.

Mark FitzGerald is chairman of Sherry FitzGerald, deputy chairman of Property Industry Ireland (part of Ibec) and former national director of elections for Fine Gael