House Ireland: plenty of room to improve



Architect Dermot Bannon’s Room To Improve came up for mention a couple of weeks ago. I think we could do with a Dermot type to give Ireland a make- over. The place is like a house which is stuck in a time warp and where the rooms are no longer fit for purpose. We have outgrown the old model.

We need more room because we have more people with the one of the fastest growing populations in Europe – 5,056,935 and rising. Specifically we need more houses, affordable houses and homes which cost more than €450,000 to build in Dublin are fairly unaffordable. We need more public housing. Money isn’t the problem for the Government but we can’t get them built because there’s a capacity problem, as economist David McWilliams points out, and there aren’t enough skilled people to build them.

So what can be done? There are plenty of young men arriving here as asylum seekers, just the kind of lads to do the job (although some of them may already be qualified in other skills we need). But what has the State done with them? Locked them up for a minimum six months in hotels in out-of-the-way places where some of the locals will be a bit miffed because services there are already stretched and they like having hotels for their own use or for tourists.

So why not offer the new arrivals a place in apprenticeship schemes which Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris is wisely increasing, with more than 8,000 enrolled last year. Why was the apprentice system previously allowed to languish when we always need plumbers and electricians?

Do we really need existing builders to be busy with office blocks just now (these are surplus to requirement given the way many employees are WFO) when they could be building homes? And it isn’t just the about the capacity problem either because the lack of affordable housing causes other problems, with teachers, nurses and people who might keep restaurants and hotels running can’t afford to live where they are needed.

The difficulty with countries is that, like big ships it can take along time to get them to change course. Sometimes a tug can be used to help, like Michael O’Leary who came up with the bright idea of buying up 40 houses in Swords, Dublin (handy for Dublin Airport) for affordable rental for Ryanair’s employees. The only snag here is though that these homes become unavailable on the market for Joe and Josephine Soap.  And, come to think of it, the State builds some student accommodation – not enough given the way some students have to commute for hours to get to college – so why not accommodation for nurses and teachers or give them special allowances so they can afford to live in expensive cities?

The Government have finally upped their problem- solving skills, which have been sorely stretched by the arrival of more than 100,000 Ukrainians and 40,000 asylum seekers in the last two years, with plans for new reception and integration centres and have bought properties and modular accommodation on State land for asylum seekers.

But why can’t we use the same method to provide homes for the Joes and the Josephinas?

There’s another problem here and it begins with P for planning. Unbelievably, local planning authorities can and do pull down perfectly good homes, homes which can be built for as little as €50,000 to €80,000 complete with kitchens, bath rooms and services in a matter of weeks rather than months and months. If you build a log cabin on your property to house grown-up children, fed up being stuck in the box room, your local council will come and pull it down if they dare to live in it.

No planning permission whatsoever is allowed for residential log cabins. If you chance your arm and do so your only hope is to escape notice for seven years until retention is allowed or until hopefully the planning process is reformed and planning officers retrained with a positive mindset.

That’s not to say that the Government don’t deserve recognition for coping with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, the pandemic and the sudden arrival of so many refugees and asylum seekers. But beyond these crises we are living with a new kind of normal where there is a need to switch from the problem focus to solution focus.

Let’s hope that we are seeing the start of an imaginative makeover.

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