31 December, 2016

Apollo House: time for a new space programme?

Rows about Apollo House aren't in anyone's best interests,  least of all those in chronic need of housing.

 I only wish though that more of the goodwill and endorsement channelled towards Home Sweet Home could be directed towards accepting higher taxes to pay for decent housing for those in need.The remarks of Dublin City Council's Chief Executive Owen Keegan in an interview in the Irish Independent didn't help however. He dismissed the occupation of Apollo House as a stunt, and this was bound to cause anger and resentment. I suspect his remarks were prompted by a certain frustration over the work that the Council does that isn't recognised. The provision of 70 bed spaces at Little Britain Street, another 70 on Benburb Street and on Francis Street, and 20 more in the Civil Defence building at Wolfe Tone Quay haven't been in the limelight, even though they amount to five times as many as are currently being provided by Home Sweet home at Apollo House.

What many people also fail to recognise is that most of the capital funding for housing comes from central government, and Dublin City Council doesn't have the powers to simply get out there and build, much as we would like to. Ultimately Minister Simon Coveney and his colleagues in cabinet make the call on how much is spent on housing. In recent years this has been informed by the Fiscal Space that we operate under, and this is determined by European Union rules and in a nutshell limits the amount of money that we can spend on housing. What we should be doing though is shifting the capital spending around significantly. It simply doesn't make sense for Government to be be spending €400 million on gold-plated road schemes when thousands of families are living in sub-standard temporary accommodation. We must spend more money on homes and less on roads, and this is what Coveney should be arguing for at Cabinet.

We've also got to recognise that Housing Associations are not the only game in town when it comes to housing for those on lower incomes.  Local Authorities should be funded to build decent quality housing schemes, just as they did in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s. We also need to ensure that such housing isn't just reserved for people on the lowest 10% of incomes, we need to implement a Cost Rental model that encourages people on different incomes to lives in the same building and thus combat the segregation that bedevils housing policy in Ireland.

New forms of funding are also required. We should redouble our efforts to draw down European Investment Bank funding for housing. If we can do it for motorways, surely we can do it for homes. We must also follow the lead of other European countries and use some of our semi-state pension funds for housing. The irony of the CIE group having €1.5 Bn. in a pension fund that goes into the UK markets while the sons and daughters of Dublin Bus workers can't access housing is acute. Its also worth noting that over one hundred years ago the privately owned Midland Great Western Railway Company built the beautiful Great Western Square in Phibsborough for their key workers, this should also happen in the twenty-first century.

Vacancy rates need to be looked at in existing housing. In Dublin's North Inner City, the area that I represent as a councillor there were 67,309 residents in 2011. However there were also 5,095 vacant households. an astonishingly high number. Sure there will always be vacant homes, but reforms are required. Probate should be speeded up so that buildings aren't left empty for years. The Derelict Sites levy should be increased from 3% to 10% of the value per years, so that owners of vacant property refurbish them and let them out more quickly, (and that should include state owned buildings), and vacant sites should be built on or the owners forced to sell them on. The Living City Scheme should be simplified and extended so that older buildings become a good refurbishment opportunity. I look forward to someone answering the phone in Dublin City Council and saying "Living City Scheme, how can I help?" 

Self-build housing can also contribute to solving the housing crisis. In Amsterdam groups of prospective home owners are being sold sites by the City Council, and are pooling their resources to put a roof over their heads. This can and should be an objective of Dublin City Council.

As NAMA recoups a significant amount of the value from the loans that it manages, and as Ireland's economy improves we should consider legislative changes that would focus its mission statement more firmly on the housing crisis, and ensure that  key sites have a significant proportion of affordable housing linked into their development.

The Home Sweet Home initiative at Apollo House is working, as it is putting pressure on Simon Coveney, the Minister for Housing to deliver and prioritise housing. However we should recognise the work that is being engaged in by Dublin City Council to tackle homelessness as well as the constraints that they operate under.

The name Apollo House reminds me of America's Space Program, which was kick-started by JFK's speech in 1962 where he announced that "We choose to go to the Moon". The moon landing occurred less than  eight years after he gave that speech. In 2016 we need a space program in Ireland, but one that resolves to provide living space for all, and end homelessness before a decade is out.

20 August, 2016

Debtors' Prison Occupation

Called in to the Debtors' Prison today and had a chat with Ania, James and some others who've been squatting there for the last week. They seem to have moved there from the Grangegorman squat on North King Street.  That site is due to become student housing. Back in the 1990s as a member of the Green Street Trust I worked with some creative people to save the building.  At that stage it was due to be demolished for road widening, but thankfully things have moved on. It's good to see another occupation drawing attention to the significant number of underused and empty buildings in the city while we're in the midst of a housing crisis. Here's a few scattered notes of my thoughts at this stage.

1. It's good to see new life in this historic old building, and hopefully this action will put pressure on the Office of Public Works to find a new long-term tenant for the building.

2. On 15 August 2016 Mr Justice Michael Hanna granted Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works (OPW) an injunction compelling the group to leave the building so it looks like eviction may happen soon.

3. The building currently has electricity, but not working toilets, so a long-term occupation would be challenging.

4. Although the building has been empty for the best part of a generation, the OPW has undertaken some much needed lighting, drainage and structural improvements over the last ten years. Income from filming has contributed to funding this.

5. Over the last couple of years I've been in the building several times. Several arts organisations such as Block T and Broadstone Studios may be interested in taking space in the building. It would be worth meeting with them to further the project.

6. Build alliances with local representatives and residents.  It is  worth seeking support from the eight local city councillors, and the three local TDs, as well as Minister Seán Canney, Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief.

7. Show that you're safety conscious. The building has holes in the floor, and doesn't have a working fire alarm system. This probably means that the City Council will want to move you out sooner rather than later, and this may be an insurmountable problem. Unless you can show that you're on top of this you'll be moved out really quickly.

8. Produce a clear vision for what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. People will find it difficult to support you unless you have clear aims and objectives.

9. Once you have a clear idea on what you want to achieve, move quickly to establish a structure to achieve this. This may be a cooperative, a company or a charity, but unless there's clarity on this it'll be hard to convince others to support you.

10. Spread the word. Flyers and a Facebook page with lots of likes is a start, but you'll need a website, a spokesperson and a clear concise message for the media, the general public and everyone else.

They're having an open day on Sunday 21st August 2016 at 4pm.

I hope it goes well for them.

05 August, 2016

Any thoughts on improving road safety?

A few days ago I tweeted “At @DubCityCouncil Road Safety Strategy meeting. Any thoughts on improving road safety? Fatalities up nationwide, but down in Dublin”. The replies came flooding in.  Thanks for the comments, I’m going to try and incorporate them into the strategy. You can see our old Road Safety Plan here if you'd like to read further on this. When we talk about road safety we usually mention the three E’s. That’s engineering, education and enforcement. Most of your comments fell under these categories. 

Under enforcement you suggested that cyclists wear lights at night, that speed limits must be adhered to, the five-axle ban in the city centre upheld and clearways respected. You also wanted more use of red-light running cameras. There were lots of comments about making sure speed limits are respected. This is crucial. All of this should  figure in the Strategy. 

There were lots of engineering suggestions. Everyone it seems wants more zebra crossings, and I am pushing to make this happen. The only downside here is that people with restricted vision can find it hard to feel confident using them. Maintaining road markings also came up, and I have no doubt that faded markings are contributing to to accidents. 

Education is also crucial. The ‘Staying Alive at 1.5’ campaign to ensure cars stay 1.5m away from vehicles could get greater prominence in Dublin. The suggestion that we should all experience what it is like to use other modes is a great idea. I’d love to get taxi-drivers behind the handlebars, and it would be great for pedestrians to see what the view is like when you’re driving a Luas.

A crucial element of the strategy will be a fourth ‘E’ - evaluation. We’re already looking at where accidents happen and what the contributory factors are. This will inform the strategy itself. Certainly lower speed limits seem to be reducing the number of serious accidents in places like Marino and the City Centre, but narrower roads also help in these areas. To roll out the Strategy we’ll need the Road Safety Authority to help out with key messages, and in that regard we have to move beyond the more high-viz vests approach to vulnerable road users. More funding for traffic calming would also help. The emphasis in recent years has moved away from speed bumps towards carriageway narrowing and tighter curve radii at junctions. Even the planting of street trees can send out a subtle message to slow down that can compliments signage and safer speed limits. However this requires money, and I’ll be looking for Minister Shane Ross to move money out of gold-plated new road projects such as the New Ross Bypass, and into area wide traffic calming which save lives at less cost. We’ll also require An Garda Síochána to focus more on offences, particularly those that impact on the more vulnerable such as speeding, and parking on footpaths and cycle lanes.

Finally someone suggested that we should ‘ban culchies’. I won’t be trying to roll that out anytime soon, but I think what it does show is that the public realm has become overly complicated in recent years. Simple signage, and less visual clutter can make our streets safer for all. @CoasainGalway said ‘Think environment not individual’. That brings us up to five ‘E’s: Education, Engineering, Enforcement, Evaluation and Environment. As Stephen McManus pointed out we need to move focus from safe to livable. That to me is a clear message to feed into the strategy.

With thanks to @conankwrites @cosaingalway @cosaingalway @lorcansirr @maerkelig @OnlyOneMUFC @Servicecharged @surball @tampopo2236 ‏@tdlegge ‏ @TheKavOfficial @Virginian_x @zynks