‘We need to stand back and ask if housing is working’
Property Industry Ireland supports the establishment of a housing commission
Property Industry Ireland chairman David O’Connor
The housing crisis is just one manifestation of the difficulties that beset Ireland’s highly complex property sector. The numerous different actors involved in property delivery include local authorities to central government, the EU, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Health & Safety Authority, architects, contractors, developers and financial institutions.
“It’s an extraordinarily complex area,” says Property Industry Ireland (PPI) chairman David O’Connor. “And decisions come with myriad unintended consequences. “PII is a sectoral association of Ibec and is just 10 years old. It was founded in order to give a cross-discipline, cross-sector voice to the wider property and construction sector. We have quite a diverse membership and our council includes developers, architects, surveyors, financiers, solicitors, estate agents and so on. Pretty much every aspect of the industry is represented, and we draw great strength from that.”
O’Connor was first invited to become involved with the association four years ago. The invitation resulted from his background as an architect and long involvement with property generally and housing in particular. “I have been closely involved with housing since I qualified,” he recalls. “One of the first projects I worked on was for the Rural Housing Organisation. I worked in private practice for 10 years before joining Dublin City Council in 1985.”
He later became county architect with the newly established Fingal County Council in 1995. “That was a great opportunity to work with a blank canvas,” he adds. “Fingal covers a very large and diverse area including parts of the city, rural environments and seaside areas. I was lucky enough to become county manager in 2006 and retired from that position in 2013. I’ve been asked to do bits and pieces in relation to property since then. I have a personal passion for the built environment.”
The role of PII is to provide evidence-based information to national debates on property policies and strategies, O’Connor explains. “When I joined PII I was invited to join one of its committees and was asked to become chair in 2019. I have found the collaborative nature of what PII does very interesting and rewarding. It takes a very broad perspective on things.”
He points to the Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness as an example of where PII has had an influence on policy formation. “We had a strong input into the Strategic Housing Development policy. There was a review of Strategic Housing Developments nearly two years ago when they had only been in place for about 18 months. They came in just before the National Planning Framework and the two have become tangled up with each other in public perception. A lot of the issues with Strategic Housing Developments turned out to be as much to do with the National Planning Framework as with anything else.”
He welcomes the Government commitment to establish a Commission on Housing. “That was one of the most hopeful signs last year. I thought it was a really good idea. We need to stand back and ask if housing is working and if it’s not working, ask why. The commission will give more focus to the debate and I strongly urge the Minister to establish it as soon as possible. It will help to achieve consensus on the way forward for housing.”
O’Connor has a particularly strong interest in housing density. “As an architect I have to keep in mind the kind of places we are going to make. I am very concerned about that. We have had a chance to look at what has happened in the past and learn from that.”
He argues that high density doesn’t necessarily mean lower-quality housing or an unattractive place to live. “Look at the density in Stoneybatter, it’s 112 houses per hectare. Apartment developments wouldn’t get that. Of course, Stoneybatter has the advantage of being close to Phoenix Park and other amenities. The area is dominated by small houses with tiny gardens and people are very happy to live there. I really wonder if we are right to be applying certain standards when people are more than comfortable with others.”
Another example he points to is the Mount Brown area of Kilmainham “That is 70 homes per hectare and housing there is very much in demand. It is seen as a very desirable location but it wouldn’t get planning permission today.”
Looking overseas he cites the award-winning high density Accordia development in the city of Cambridge.
“Developments like Accordia and others like them demonstrate the need for a wider debate on housing in this country,” he concludes. “Property Industry Ireland is about getting that debate going.”