Una Mullally: A dark day for Dublin apartment dwellers

Smaller Dublin apartments? We have really learned nothing

‘We need to learn from this. We can’t keep building crap.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Dublin's motto is obedientia civium urbis felicitas (the citizen's obedience is the city's happiness). This is perhaps the most unDublin motto there could be. Dubliners are nothing if not disobedient, whizzing through red lights on their bikes, not paying their water charges, boozing after-hours, jumping off bridges into water for sport, selling packets of fags on the street corner, and Air BnBing their gaffs under the nose of landlords. I propose a different, more honest motto: nihilum didicimus (we have learned nothing).

Dublin City Council flew a kite last week about reducing the size and the number of windows in new apartments. Nihilum didicimus. The Construction Industry Federation has been calling for smaller apartment sizes for a while. More units per development equals more money. The city has gone through several phases of apartment building, including builders who were so clever they didn't even need architects. Now, as citizens are left wincing at so many terrible developments that got planning, the council is talking about rolling back on size standards for the sake of "kickstarting development". Nihilum didicimus.

Pokey accommodation

Less than 10 years ago, the council stipulated that one-bedroom apartments had to be, at a minimum, 55sq m. This is 10sq m bigger than the Department of Environment’s 45sq m minimum requirement. At the moment, most apartments have to have windows on both sides. The council proposes removing that requirement for some apartments. Apartments in the city are already a mess. You only have to notice washing machines and children’s toys and clothes drying on balconies to see how few have adequate storage. Bad floor layouts, pokey rooms, dark hallways, derelict communal areas, poor insulation and terrible light are common in many developments, as well as deteriorating and discoloured cheap building materials and cladding. We need to learn from this. We can’t keep building crap.

It was only in October of last year, when Olivia Kelly, writing in this newspaper, foresaw what is now happening. At that time, the executive manager of Dublin City Council's planning department, Jim Keoghan, "said he had no reason to advise councillors to reduce apartment sizes". In that same article, Kelly wrote that Críona Ní Dhálaigh of Sinn Féin and the chairwoman of the council's housing committee, "feared councillors would come under pressure to lower standards with the promise of construction of affordable housing to deal with the crisis". At the time, she said, "we can't expect people to live in dog boxes". Best of all, Labour councillor Andrew Montague, who chairs the council's planning committee, said, "There was huge resistance to these better standards when we brought them in, but we brought them in anyway. I would be surprised if anyone was sympathetic to this call . . . There are thousands of smaller apartments in the city, our job is not to reduce quality, our job is to make great places to live."


That very same Andrew Montague came out to bat for the draft plan on Newstalk last week. Montague said perhaps 5 per cent of new apartments could face a reduction in size. Montague also said, with misguided reassurance, that “it’s also only in the sector for rent only”. Our renters are not as entitled to sizeable homes? There is a conservative and completely unhelpful Irish school of thought that renters are not “long-term” people and that renting is a short-term activity, an out-of-date and unhelpful philosophy. Montague said that while previously 85 per cent of apartments had to have windows on both sides, that would be reduced to “half”, with a vague assurance that apartments with windows would only be north-facing “if you’re overlooking a park or a river, or, eh, something that looks very good”.

He offered the Liffey as an example, and the presenter Chris Donoghue wondered what new developments could there possibly be along the river. Montague offered "canals" instead. Right so.

If this really is about "kickstarting development" (and why development can't be "kickstarted" with the current apartments standards, I do not know), then why is it being done on the terms of what the construction industry wants? It is not the council's job to appease developers. It is their job to serve and service the city. I'm sure Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly would be delighted to see apartments flying up, given the absolute hames his government has made of housing, with homeless families ensconced in hostels and hotel rooms and the backs of cars. But housing, building homes to last that people enjoy living in, is not about the "right now".

Decent housing

More than anything else, what the draft plan shows is Dublin City Council sets out aspirations if often struggles to fulfil. What’s the point in having standards and regulations if they’re so easily rolled back on? When the builders and politicians talk about “kickstarting development”, what they’re really talking about is kickstarting bad development. There are enough bad apartments in Dublin to last generations. Let’s start building some decent ones.