David McManus: We need pragmatic housing policy, not Sinn Féin ideology

There remains a nostalgia for the large council schemes built in the last century – yet they were not built overnight but over decades at a time when building standards were far lower and cheaper

29th April, 2021
David McManus: We need pragmatic housing policy, not Sinn Féin ideology
‘Speed is needed in the short term as local authorities ramp up new public housing on public land.’ Picture: Getty

“Speed trumps perfection,” according to Michael Ryan of the World Health Organisation, and that attitude from more politicians here would result in getting more new homes built sooner and more families out of hotels.

For the first time in decades, councils are back building their own housing under Fine Gael’s Rebuilding Ireland programme which started in 2016. Since then, about 22,000 new social homes have been built – including direct builds by local authorities and approved housing bodies, extensive refurbishment of voids and Part V agreements.

This excludes any homes being rented or leased in addition. Speed is needed in the short term as local authorities ramp up new public housing on public land. Our housing crisis affects people differently, from unaffordable rents, homeless people in emergency accommodation and young families priced out of the housing market.

Finance and expertise have been made available to local authorities. The only obstacle to delivery is ideological politicians promising their version of perfection when all people want is a home. Sinn Féin appears to be on an ideological mission to prove that direct build by local authorities is always significantly cheaper than purchasing homes from a developer.

Eoin Ó Broin, the party’s housing spokesman, presented data from the Department of Housing that South Dublin County Council could build social housing for an average of €244,000 compared to €349,000 to purchase a turnkey off a developer.

This led to sweeping conclusions across social media rather than a calm interrogation of the data.

Local authorities build social housing on public land they own and submit construction costs to be recouped from the Department of Housing, but councils do not submit land costs in most cases.

Where land acquisition costs have been included, the true cost for South Dublin County Council to build new social homes across houses and apartments is €320,000.

In the future, local authorities in Dublin will need to build more apartments to meet greater density, but these cost more. Recent data from Dublin City Council suggest that apartments built for social housing are already costing €450,000, which does not include land costs.

Quick and simple comparisons between direct build and turnkeys may help win votes and please an ideological base but do little for people in need of a home today.

On large schemes, greater integration is desirable to avoid the mistakes of the past. A new private development will typically include 10 per cent social housing known as a Part V agreement sold at a discount to the local authority.

New large council-led developments will have a greater mix between social, affordable purchase and private housing. Cost rental, sometimes referred to as the Vienna model, is being built on several schemes in our cities, started by Fine Gael – this will see unaffordable market rents undercut by the state to deliver affordability.

Ideology has no hold in my party – what matters is what works. It can take four years to build new social housing so if leasing a home in the short term can get a family out of a hotel, it must be considered but not at any cost and not as a substitute for new social housing built by the State.

Recently on South Dublin County Council, Sinn Féin and parties of the left voted against 975 homes being built in Clondalkin, which included 30 per cent social housing, and opposed 500 homes in Tallaght, of which 80 per cent would be social or affordable purchase homes.

On such schemes, South Dublin County Council enters a joint venture with a developer to deliver integrated, mixed housing on site. The developer carries all the risk, agrees to deliver social and affordable purchase homes at a discount, and pays for all infrastructure and community facilities. Meanwhile our council uses the revenue generated to develop housing on other sites.

Sinn Féin’s housing policy has shifted in recent years from councils should build (which they already are), to let councils become developers and carry the full risk, to now their latest calls for a public construction company – despite a recent study by Dublin City Council management opposing such a move.

Sinn Féin at times praise a model delivered in Poppintree, Ballymun by housing co-operative O’Cualann which sold homes between €140,000 and €219,000. Dublin City Council owned the site and had valued each plot at €30,000 but sold to O’Cualann at €1,000 with zero development levies.

Councils giving away their land for free or with a hefty discount to deliver affordability is a trade-off but is not realistic on a grand scale.

Should Kildare County Council give away plots of public land to local families to build their own affordable homes? That might get some councillors elected next time. Sinn Féin’s alternative affordable housing policy has received almost no scrutiny despite its glaring drawbacks.

Sinn Féin officially wants people to pay €230,000 only to lease a home off the council. It’s leasehold, not freehold. The council owns the land forever and will dictate who can and cannot buy the property in the future, including the family’s children if they earn too much. This would raise eyebrows in the Soviet Union days and is not true home ownership.

Sinn Féin today has turned its back on the values of the Irish Land League. If Fine Gael had suggested this as a neat affordable trick for young families, we would be ridiculed by media and opposition. There remains a nostalgia for the large council schemes built in the last century – no one cares to mention that they were not built overnight but over decades and when building standards were far lower and cheaper.

Thankfully more than 6,000 new social homes were delivered in 2019 under then Fine Gael Minister Eoghan Murphy — the highest construction activity of all homes for a decade.

Delivery is increasing year on year, thanks to local councillors who support housing.

Even 100 per cent public housing on public land was recently opposed by Sinn Féin in Clondalkin in Dublin owing to local concerns – the party’s alternative articulated by Eoin Ó Broin for his constituency was to swap sites and delay construction by at least six months.

Fine Gael wants new secure social housing built quickly and effectively. I am yet to meet a person in need of housing who cares whether it is direct build by a local authority or a Part V agreement. Personally I do not care if the cat is black or white, I care that it catches mice.

The social housing waiting lists have fallen to 61,880 households in November 2020, a decrease of 29,720 or 32.4 per cent since Fine Gael’s Rebuilding Ireland started in 2016. Rather than focusing on delivery amid a housing crisis, Sinn Féin is obsessed with ideology and who lays the blocks on site.

Despite its opposition, South Dublin County Council will deliver 4,500 new homes to meet the need for social and affordable housing which started under Fine Gael in government.

In 2019, 428 new social homes were built within South Dublin County Council area and 569 new social homes within Dublin City Council. Between direct build, approved housing bodies and Part V agreements, there are many ways to build new social housing and now we need delivery, not ideology.

Councillor David McManus is the Fine Gael Deputy Mayor of South County Dublin

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