Is the Government’s newest housing initiative, announced last week, the first sign of panic that the problem will not have eased by the next general election, and so will remain a political millstone around the Coalition’s neck? And that something, anything, must be done – which always means spending a bag of money – quickly? It’s beginning to look that way.
Everyone agrees that housing supply is inadequate and must be increased as soon as possible. But there the agreement ends. There is little consensus on how best to achieve that, and such progress as the Government made last year in its numbers is beginning to stutter this year.
Debates on housing are ubiquitous in politics and the media. We hear frequently from Government, Opposition, the many housing campaigners and – rightly – from those affected at the sharp end of the housing shortage. We tend to hear a lot less from an important group in all this: the men and women (though they are nearly all men) who actually build the houses and apartments. Last week I spoke to a number of people, who all run development/building companies. They range in age, the size of their companies, and location; some I know personally, some not; all know their business inside out. They spoke on the basis that they would not be identified.
All builders cited extreme bureaucratic tardiness on the State’s part, from obtaining planning permission to securing funding for public projects
Their diagnoses of the continuing housing shortage differ in some respects – but on a number of pivotal issues they all agree. And they were not optimistic that the situation would improve. Their comments are obviously not an objective critique of the system, but they are honest views from the coalface of the construction industry. And it is – let’s face it – the construction industry that is going to actually build the homes that many people desperately need. If these guys and people like them are not building houses and apartments, we have a problem. So what did they say?
All cited extreme bureaucratic tardiness on the State’s part, from obtaining planning permission to securing funding for public projects.
“Bureaucracy is a huge problem,” says one developer, who cited not just official bodies but also some of the approved housing bodies, which are responsible for many of the social housing builds. “I have one site in [a town] and I’ve been ready to do it since March of last year. I’m waiting for the approval from [an approved housing body]. If they don’t get to it at the next board meeting, then it’s July. And then I won’t start until the autumn.”
He later sends me a flow chart detailing the 17 steps (yes, 17) in the process of getting approval and funding for building social and affordable housing. It is mind-bogglingly complex and – to my layman’s eyes – preposterously time-consuming. It takes a year, at best. One box in the chart reads: “Note at step No 9, should the building costs increase then the process begins again at Point 2.″ You should be able do it in three months, he says. And this process only begins after planning permission has been obtained for the site, a process that takes at least another two years, and that’s if you don’t end up in the courts.
So how long does your medium-sized social and affordable housing development take? At least: two years planning, one year securing approval and financing, two years construction. Five years. In the middle of a housing crisis, this is nuts.
Don’t start them on the planning process. One is waiting more than a year for two decisions from An Bord Pleanála. “I complained to my planning consultant. She said I was one of eight people she had waiting over a year for decisions,” he said.
Others have been delayed for years by judicial reviews. In the private sector, especially as interest rates have jumped, time is money. The longer the wait for a decision, the more expensive the house. “All of this goes on to the costs of the house because it goes on to my costs,” says another.
“It makes it so difficult to react to the market ... All we want is certainty. How long is this going to take us? We need to know,” adds one.
All rail against the vacant site levy, with one saying he is being charged the levy on a site awaiting a planning decision.
They all want to build more but say they face these and other obstacles. “If I don’t build, I don’t make money,” says one. “If a guard and a nurse don’t have a chance of buying a house, then I don’t have a business,” says another.
Seventy-five thousand Ukrainians are in beds every night because it was done as an emergency. But the housing shortage is not being treated as an emergency
There is one final point they all agree on: the housing situation is not being treated as an emergency. One tells a story of being called by a local authority and asked could he accommodate 90 Ukrainians in properties he owns. Sorry, he said, I’m full. Later they rang back. What about the hotel in a neighbouring county? Jeez, he said, I didn’t think of that. Can you take them on Friday? Give me three weeks to get the place ready, he said. And they were in three weeks later.
“Seventy-five thousand Ukrainians are in beds every night because it was done as an emergency,” he says. “But the housing shortage is not being treated as an emergency.”
“If this was health,” says another, “the patients would be all dead.”
“If it was being treated as a real emergency,” agrees another, “it would mean we proceed with everything as soon as we can.” All say that is very far from the reality.
“We are not turning the corner,” says the most experienced of the group. “I’d love to say we are, but we’re nowhere near it.”