Hugh Wallace: All I want for Christmas is to change the way we deliver housing

The time for moaning is over. We must shake things up to bring an end to our housing crisis

Dear Santa, it’s been a good year and I’ve been very well-behaved, relatively speaking, so I’m assuming I’m on the “nice” list. Aside from my usual festive requests – some colourful argyle socks, a delectable chocolate orange and a linen scarf from the wonderful Stable – all I want this Christmas is change. Our planning system is broken, and the housing crisis is only getting worse. The only thing that can fix it is change.

It’s a bit of a cheeky one because, of course, there’s more than one part to this wishful gift and the first part must be the desire to do things differently. I genuinely think there is an abundance of that desire. I don’t think there’s anyone in this country who wants our housing crisis to continue. And the only way we’re going to make it go away is to shake things up a bit.

Straight up, no gift wrapping necessary, the second part is a national strategic planning executive. I’ve mentioned this before. Quite a few times, actually. The potential positive impact of such a group would be enormous. If established and structured correctly, it would have the means and the influence to deliver on our Government’s planning policy at national and local level. The impact on our housing crisis would be immense.

The hope is that this executive would be able to provide clarity on exactly who is responsible for delivering our homes, building our libraries and providing schools, public transport and health centres for our communities. Maybe then we would be able to see lights above the shops. Maybe then we would be able to create sustainable 15-minute villages, towns and cities across the whole country. How fantastic would it be to see young people and families out and about, shopping in busy local markets, living and proud to be part of something great.

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The Government knows that living-above-the-shop is one of the many strands from which we can weave a solution to creating sustainable, thriving communities. But as we know, knowing it and doing it are two completely different things.

Another challenge for the executive to address would be public transport. In my job, I travel a lot. I’d love to be able to use public transport, but I can’t, not if I want to get where I need to be on time. Cycle lanes fascinate me. Their intention is spot on, but their effect is the opposite. On many streets their presence put cars in single lanes which makes turning right, and the havoc it creates, an interesting action. Here we are, trying to free up the streets, offering an improved transport service, but all we’ve done is blocked things up. The very thing we’re trying to fix, we’ve nobbled. If we need to have an honest conversation about cars in our cities, or not, then let’s have it and whatever we decide, commit to it and do it. We make these big grand gestures, offer up big announcements but then muck it but with restrictions making it unworkable.

One of the things this executive wouldn’t have issue with is money. Our Government appears to have an abundance of it and has created a broad and varied system of grants that have all been designed to help us build or renovate our own homes – if we qualify. As I’ve just said, grand gestures coupled with restrictions make it impossible. As an example, Croí Cónaithe is a wonderful initiative, but seriously, banks aren’t going to give first-time buyers a mortgage for a derelict property without knowing how much it will cost or how long it’s going to take to complete. So, while its purpose is unquestionable, it’s not reasonable or sensible.

So, let’s iron all these creases out.

There are several key specialisms that have the power to effect change, including transport, services, planning, building control and regulation, rates, incentives and heritage.

To help Santa deliver my gift and really summon change, it would be invaluable to bring all these specialisms together in one room and leave them there until a connected solution is found. Our change needs joined-up thinking.

Once the new taoiseach takes office, it would be great to get a commitment from our Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to step outside the box and do just this. I’d love to see it happen. It would be the best Christmas gift ever, but at the moment, I just can’t see it; I’m in a fog.

Ireland is an amazing and progressive country, but we do give it a terrible bashing – I include myself in this statement. But the time for moaning is over. As the late, great Maureen Potter used to say to those who didn’t enjoy the Gaiety pantomime, “keep your breath to cool your porridge” – or if you don’t eat porridge, use it to lobby your councillors and TDs and let’s provoke some change.

On that note, in the season of goodwill, Nollaig shona daoibh go léir and I hope Santa brings you everything on your Christmas list.

Hugh Wallace

Hugh Wallace

Hugh Wallace, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founding partner of the Douglas Wallace architectural practice and presenter of The Great House Revival on RTÉ