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Is it time for radical thinking on housing provision?

Over the last few months, our housing and homelessness figures have continued to fall short of the targets that have been set. With more than 12,000 households now living in emergency accommodation, tens of thousands of people seeking international protection and a significant growth in our population, we cannot continue to deliver the same targets and expect to meet the overwhelming demand there is for housing of all types, writes John Hannigan, CEO of Circle VHA.

In recent weeks there has been a call for radical thinking and specifically a call to consider the development of a National Home Building Agency, tasked with the national delivery of housing of all tenures to reduce the “over-reliance” on the private market. There are elements of the approach that are workable and over a period of time, this approach may even be successful, however, it is the time that this would take to set up and the unintended consequences that could be catastrophic in the short term.

To create a National Home Building Agency (and by the way, we used to have one, it was subsumed into the Housing and Sustainable Agency in the early 2000s due to the inability to make it work at the time), we would have to make substantial changes to our planning laws (making them less democratic), probably subsume most of the building companies in the State (a form of nationalising of companies), build a workforce and management of an organisation that was efficient enough to reduce the costs of housing (despite significant inflationary pressures), and ensure that there was no direct political involvement in the process or the organisation. The potential costs of assembling such an organisation would be very significant and would be very time consuming. And what would happen in the meantime? The current mechanism of delivery would either stop or slow to a trickle while the government of the time works out what they are going to do and how they were going to do it, thus exacerbating the current housing crisis, which by the way, in my opinion, is now a housing emergency! I am for radical thinking, but I do not think this is the way forward.

So, what other means of radical thinking should we be considering?

I actually think that the current Housing for All plan has its merits, and we are beginning to see some real positive results from a number of the initiatives that have been started through the plan. Unfortunately, in Ireland, as in any country, it takes time to deliver homes, and sometimes in the intervening period, things get worse.

The reality is, we have all the elements present (albeit we could do with some more people to build or manufacture homes), we just do not have them connected, in my opinion, in the right way. The idea of a National Home Building Agency, as I said at the start of this article, is not a bad idea, but let us re-imagine it, not as a single monolith, government-run entity, but a connection of organisations, with one goal and with an efficient and effective pathway from inception to delivery of a home.

We need to change the objectives and the purpose of some of the key actors, for example, local authorities are not efficient delivery agents for house or apartment building. They will need such a huge investment in resources to enable that to happen, something that is in very short supply in Ireland right now. However, local authorities, their officers, and their elected members, are experts in housing need, State infrastructure requirements and have some land with which to make this happen. They should be re-tasked as the Strategic Enablers for all housing need within the state.

The State has set up and enabled the Land Development Agency, its original purpose was to accumulate both State land and private sector strategic land banks to enable master planning of homes across the State. It has now strayed into the building and management of those homes, the reality of that is that key resources have been pumped into developing management and development resources that already exist in other sectors. Imagine having an agency whose sole purpose was to masterplan and ensure that planning was achieved on a consensual basis in all our communities. This is one of the areas where we see the greatest delays in the delivery of homes, through the planning system. The Government has set about making this system more streamlined and efficient, and it will be a while before we see the fruits of their work.

So now we have the locations of homes, and we have the planning resolved. How do we get them built and who manages the social and affordable homes once built?

There is a place for the private sector in this. I agree with most commentators that builders and developers need to ensure that they have moderated their profit margins. The reality is that most builders make a small enough margin on what they build, due to inflationary pressures. It tends to be the landowners, who have sat on land banks for decades, that make the very significant profits. It is they who governments need to continue to target and to tax to the extent that it begins to change their thinking. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

A well-managed contract process, either by the LDA, or approved housing bodies, will ensure that a contract, and homes, are delivered efficiently and at the agreed price. Government have provided sufficient funding resources, but the private sector should be enabled to partner in that funding process. It is true that the State has not always gotten the best deal for the delivery of their homes, but we have new mechanisms and a means by which it can be managed, already in existence, with significant expertise and experience.

Finally, approved housing bodies, with the significant regulation that they undergo, their significant tenant focus, and their ability to work in partnership with all of the above actors across the housing provision process, will provide excellent value for money for the State and excellent homes and communities for tenants and residents across Ireland. At this time, approved housing bodies work in every county, and across most towns and communities, delivering excellent value for money for the State and a sense of home for so many families.

So yes, it is time for radical thinking, but it is not the same that others are suggesting!