24 December, 2015

Low standards in high places

In a true democracy local government officials wouldn't feel obliged to issue a press release when a senior planner speaks their mind. 

However that's what happened when Dublin City Council Senior Planner Kieran Rose said that Minister Kelly ‘has been bamboozled by certain powerful vested property interests.’  Rose was referring to Kelly's newly published Design Standards for New Apartments which roll back on improvements made under previous Governments.

The Council under Chief Executive Owen Keegan issued a press release saying that “The comments, while made in a personal capacity, are both inappropriate and regrettable and do not reflect the views and opinions of management of the City Council.If that isn't a slap-down then what is?  Group think and the 'uno duce, una voce' approach is precisely what got Ireland into difficulty in the first place. We're in trouble if public servants aren't allowed speak their mind.   The etymology of bamboozle lies in the French word embabouiner "to make a fool (literally 'baboon') of, and there is certainly a Neanderthal feel to those who are arguing for lower standards. Let's not forget that some years ago the Construction Industry Federation argued against mandatory insulation in new homes, saying it would drive up the price of housing. These same vested interests clearly have the ear of their Minister.

If Labour's Kelly really wants to increase housing supply he should spend more time talking to the European Investment Bank to release funding for housing. He could also legislate to ensure that a portion of semi-state pension funds are invested in new homes. It seems crazy that when there's over a billion euro in CIE pension funds yet none of these monies are obliged to be invested in housing as they are in other jurisdictions. He must also sit down with Credit Unions, Trade Unions and other bodies to ensure that they too play their part in tackling the housing crisis. He could modify the much heralded 'Living City' scheme for older buildings that has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Finally (dare I mention it) he could allocate sufficient funds to local authorities so that they can build as much housing as they did in previous times when there were housing shortages.

It would be shameful if Labour's legacy in the Customs House were to be smaller apartments, lower ceilings, less storage space, and new homes with no access to sunlight, yet this is now set to happen under Alan Kelly's watch. Kelly has bought into the 'starter homes' and 'first time buyers' language that characterised Liam Carroll's Zoe shoe-box apartments back in the last century. Five years ago the Government that I was part of phased out bedsits. Now, thanks to Alan Kelly they are on the way back. Earlier this year when a u-turn on bedsits was first mooted ALONE – a housing and advocacy charity for the vulnerable stated that they campaigned against this type of accommodation for over 30 years and we don’t want to go back. We would be concerned that it would be the most vulnerable who would be forced into this type of accommodation, often located in old buildings with sub-standard conditions.  ALONE believes the government needs to look at long term strategic solutions to providing quality housing instead of short term reactions to the current crisis.” It seems curious that the Labour Party isn’t doing more to provide quality state-built homes as they did when in Government previously.
The Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 introduces a vacant land levy to put pressure on land hoarders to build and make best use of their lands but its introduction had been long-fingered until 2018. If this provision was enacted sooner it might put pressure on land-owners to make better use of their sites to apply for planning permission and build the housing that is so badly needed. Further back-peddling is underway with the repeal of the new windfall/betterment tax of 80% on trading profits and capital gains arising from disposals of land that was built into the National Asset Management Act. This provision was a positive development to deter speculation and yet Fine Gael and Labour removed this provision in the 2014 Finance Act. This will encourage speculative rezoning and higher land and housing prices.

Minister Kelly hasn't provided for any public consultation prior to making these new standards. This means his changes may be in breach of the Aarhus Convention which states that Government shall endeavour to provide opportunities for public participation in the preparation of policies relating to the environment including housing. This one could run and run.