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Newton Emerson: Britain has been helping to house key workers for two decades. What about Ireland?

It is time to look at subsidising homes for teachers, nurses, doctors

Between 2003 and 2006, bank surveys tracked house prices moving beyond the reach of key workers in Dublin, Galway, Cork, Waterford and finally Limerick. This was widely reported at the time, with newspapers demanding special housing provision be considered. But the government ignored it; nothing was to disrupt the property boom.

Little was heard on the subject again until 2020, when Google promised 46 apartments in the Boland’s Mill development in Dublin would be reserved for key workers at reduced rents. There has been no mention of this since.

Only in the past month have serious calls resumed for State assistance, due to a crisis in teacher recruitment. Kieran Christie, general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, says the Government should consider reserving accommodation for teachers, doctors and nurses in housing pressure zones.

“Something has to give,” he told RTÉ.


The past two decades of inaction are in contrast to Britain, where a constant stream of policies has embedded an expectation that key workers will receive assistance.

Providing accommodation directly, in properties owned by public bodies, is viewed as archaic and had largely vanished by the early 1990s. In 2001, Tony Blair’s government sought a modern approach by helping key workers become owner-occupiers. The Starter Homes Initiative offered homes to nurses, teachers and police officers across the southeast of England through shared ownership schemes run by housing associations.

It was succeeded in 2004 by the Key Worker Living Initiative, which added large loans to supplement private mortgages. The definition of key worker was widened to include firefighters, prison officers, social workers and highways staff.

From 2006, the initiative was rolled out across the rest of England and assistance was integrated into general help-to-buy schemes. For example, there might be quotas for key workers in a shared ownership programme for all first-time buyers. A consensus emerged on eligibility: a key worker should have a permanent job with at least five years until retirement, and be unable to buy a suitable home within a practical distance.

The Key Worker Living Initiative continued until 2019 under Labour, coalition and Conservative governments. It ended up encompassing schemes involving councils, developers, mortgage providers and public sector employers. Planning laws were changed so a proportion of new-build homes could be reserved for key workers. Subsidies were introduced for “intermediate renting” – people earning too little to buy but too much to qualify for social housing.

The Scottish government examined similar policies, covering a range of housing problems from scarcity in the highlands and islands to unaffordability in oil-rich Aberdeen.

In 2019, the UK government ended its direct involvement in key worker housing but all the other infrastructure continued to operate, mainly through councils and housing associations. Last year, government returned with the First Homes Scheme, where local people and key workers get a 30 per cent discount on a first home, provided that discount is passed on when they sell. Councils define an area’s key worker needs. In London, the definition now covers a third of the workforce, including providers of transport, utilities and “food and necessary goods”.

There is a great deal to criticise about Britain’s experience. Too little has been spent on house-building and too much on bidding up the price of existing stock. Even public sector unions have expressed disquiet at prioritising their members over people in greater need. Demand for renting has been overlooked and there are increasing suggestions that public bodies should once again own employee accommodation.

But it is bizarre the Republic has barely noticed this conversation. Many of Britain’s key workers come from Ireland, there is close contact between British and Irish trade unions, and the British experiment has been noted across the world, as no other country has tried anything on the same scale.

Northern Ireland has had no key worker housing programmes for two reasons: affordability has not been an issue; and social housing has historically been contentious, so allocation is strictly by need.

That could change as public sector wages fall behind inflation. Even if housing remains affordable, support could be justified as an alternative to pay increases that Stormont can no longer fund. There would be broader attractions to including key workers in housing programmes. They could help destigmatise and desegregate social and affordable housing and encourage mixed tenure developments.

As in the rest of the UK and Ireland, the planning system permits a proportion of social and affordable homes to be required in private developments, at the developer’s expense, yet this is virtually unknown in Northern Ireland due to a terror of “problem neighbours”.

The prospect of a teacher or nurse next door might begin to assuage that concern.