Dublin’s skyline bristles with cranes these days. It echoes the scene at the height of the height of the Celtic Tiger building boom. But the similarity is superficial. Most of the cranes are located on building sites for offices, hotels and tax-driven student accommodation. Home building is very much in the back seat – at least in the city centre.
Building costs are rising and trade unions in the sector are seeking 12% increases as supply of skilled building workers lags behind demand. The Government is responding by altering the immigration rules for construction workers in the hope of avoiding very serious labour shortages and consequent bottle necks in the roll out of its infrastructural programmes.
The Government is pinning its hopes on the private sector to address the homes shortage crisis. Its infant Land Development Agency has yet to be given statutory powers of compulsory acquisition.
One instance of the LDA’s weakness is evident in its dispute with Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Council over lands at Shanganagh Castle in South Dublin which became public this last week.
As Minister for Justice, I obtained Government approval for the closure of Mount joy prison and its replacement by a new prison complex at Thornton Hall in north County Dublin.
The plan included the sale of Shanganagh Castle, an open prison on about 30 acres for low-risk offenders, and the application of the proceeds ( about €30 million) to buy a large campus in north Dublin where we hoped to build a large, modern prison complex more suitable for the drug free rehabilitation of prisoners, including space for recreation and a variety of prison units with different security gradings and a separate space for a proper psychiatric hospital facility for offenders to replace the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum.
The 150 acres at Thornton Hall are closer as the crow flies to the GPO than the 30 acres at Shanganagh.
At the time, we reasonably believed that the sale for development of the 13 acres complex at Mountjoy and the sale of the CMH lands at Dundrum would more than finance the cost of the new facilities. Outline plans for the development of high-rise apartments with water features at Mountjoy to be developed on the banks of the Royal Canal were commissioned by the Dept of Justice.
What appeared to be a win-win solution for the tax-payer came unstuck with the property crash after my term as minister.
However the 30 acres of lands at Shanganagh were sold in two parcels – one to private developers for home building and the other to Dun Laoghaire Rathdown council for social and affordable housing. The private houses were built. But the Council’s share of the lands has remained derelict and undeveloped for 14 years now. Plans to build 600 homes on those lands have as yet come to nothing.
The Land Development Agency is now engaged in a turf-war with the Council over who gets to develop the lands. And in the meantime 14 years of inactivity seems destined to continue. Someone should be able to knock together the heads of two public bodies so that badly needed homes are built.
And the Victorian prison at Mountjoy still occupies 13 acres of prime development lad for home-building in the city centre. Site development works at Thornton Hall, including a separate access road with a fly-over, lie derelict too.
I have no problem with the Land Development Agency being used to mobilise the State’s land resources with a view to addressing the shortage of home-building land at affordable prices. But it needs powers to achieve its ends.
And I strongly believe that proper urban planning and renewal needs the intervention of a statutory body with CPO powers.
But the idea that Dublin will be satisfactorily transformed by private developers building on private lands and public authorities building on publicly owned lands is delusional.
The powers that be in the 18th and 19th centuries realised that the right way to go was to vest CPO powers in the Dublin Wide Streets Commissioners which could secure the rebuilding of the core of the city by a combination of prescriptive urban planning powers and the use of private developers to implement them. Most of the Dublin we admire was built in this way.
We badly need a vision for Dublin and we badly need to have people and agencies that will implement that vision. We need a different model of home-building and home ownership suitable to needs of a modern sustainable city.
On the subject of home ownership, there is every indication that, for want of any public policy, home ownership is being rapidly transferred to REIT landlords. Owner occupation is escaping the grasp of the younger generation. Developers are selling apartment complexes “off the plans” to large scale corporate investors who in turn plan to become landlords to an entire generation of tenants.
This trend will inevitably transform the economic DNA of Irish society. Part of liberal society’s answer to the crude Marxist dialect has been to expand the middle class so as to subsume what would otherwise be an economic underclass. The dispersal of property across society is politically and economically significant; a society where the majority has no significant property is chemically different from a society where a majority have significant capital assets. This balance is crucial to self-perception as dependent or independent.
Of course it is possible to have two views as to how that balance should be struck. But security of tenure in one’s home has been up till now a cherished value and one which is guaranteed by home ownership.
Security of tenure is hard to reconcile with the proliferation of “buy to let” small investors in the property. The more the balance of rights swings towards the tenant the more reluctant ordinary individuals will be to becoming or remaining buy-to-let landlords.
There is a vast difference between the outlook and interests of an individual who lets out a single investment property as a fully furnished short-term residential letting with even cutlery provided, on the one hand, and those of a REIT that lets out unfurnished apartment complexes as long term residential lettings to tenants with an expectation of medium to long term tenure, on the other hand.
Our models and the continental models of home ownership differ vastly. And if Dublin is to function as a sustainable thriving city, we will have to re-model large swathes of its centre, abandoning the idea that every family needs a front and back garden. If we are going to live increasingly in apartments, they will have, in many cases, to be large enough to accommodate families of five and more people.
All sorts of issues present themselves. What is the best model for home ownership in an urban context? How should a sustainable balance be struck as between owners and tenants, and as between different types of tenancies? Should we spend more money developing Dublin port where it is now (even banning cruise ships as planned) or should we relocate it to Bremore? How should transport issues such as Metrolink, new Luas lines, Dart Underground, BusConnects, be decided on?
What role has local democracy in all of this? What role would elected mayors have to play? What is the future of local property tax?
Do we plan anything or muddle along with serendipity?
Why do I get the horrible feeling that there is no-one at the wheel?