Offered the housing portfolio in 2020, any politician would have needed to think long and hard before accepting. The housing crisis is so severe that a successful stint as Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage could make a political career. Realistically, though, failure is more likely, because Ireland’s housing problems are deep-rooted and acute. 

Before Covid, there was a gradually escalating pressure and anger over housing costs in Ireland. The mass protests started in the summer of 2018, after the Take Back the City group were forcibly removed from vacant houses in north inner city Dublin. Then, a rally brought thousands onto the street in October, culminating in a sit-in outside government buildings. Thousands marched again in March, May and December 2019, in Cork and Dublin. And the message came through clearly in the February 2020 general election. 

Eoghan Murphy’s message on housing didn’t connect with voters. The previous minister — whose political career was killed off by his time in the job — stressed the role of the private sector and institutional investors, in combination with greater social housing.

The crowd on the street, by contrast, wasn’t chanting “supply, supply, supply!” The crowd wanted social and affordable housing – and it wanted it built by the government. The crowd didn’t want a discussion of the role of the private sector in shifting supply curves. 

It’s fair to say Darragh O’Brien’s agenda as Minister for Housing is closer to Eoghan Murphy’s than that of Sinn Féin’s Eoin O’Broin. He agrees with the diagnosis that a supply shortage is the problem, and he’s in favour of more supply wherever he can get it. It’s not the popular answer but he thinks it’s the right one, the one that will deliver the goods and keep him in the job. 

Diagnosing the problem correctly is one hurdle. Another is getting houses built quickly. Given the scale of the problem, it’s going to take years if not decades for housing costs to be truly affordable in Ireland. O’Brien will be hoping that progress towards that goal will be sufficient.

In this extensive interview, Darragh O’Brien, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage talks about:

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Darragh O’Brien: “It is about trying to boost that supply up to the level that we need.” Photo: Bryan Meade

The diagnosis

Sean Keyes: The housing debate is tough for people to follow because there are so many programmes, so much detail, and so many points of view. It’s very easy to get lost in the weeds. So I think it’s worth stepping back a bit, to start with. What’s your theory of why housing costs have gone up in Ireland? What do you emphasise? 

Darragh O’Brien: There’s a number of elements to it. One is we don’t have a stable housing supply, and we haven’t had it for probably over 20 years. It’s been cyclical in relation to supply and in relation to price. We’re still dealing with the issues of the last bust effectively. And we lost a number of significant years in my view in the early teens, in particular – when we should have been investing more in capital and in homes, and we didn’t. And we’re catching up, frankly.

There are issues with regard to the cost side, in particular, I won’t deal with materials firstly, but capacity. Capacity is a really serious issue. Literally – the labour force and the right people to do that job. We lost a significant portion of our qualified people and tradespeople over that period of time and over the last five to 10 years. And that still needs to be replenished. And that does feed directly into costs as well, because even right now, we’re looking at, for the larger projects that we have, the same people doing the commercial, the state and the residential work. And it’s a relatively small pool. And that is an element of driving up costs. 

And then the other big one that we all know, this is land, and land costs. And the continued issue around speculation. How we can capture land value for the state, and make sure that the state is using more of its own land to bring down the overall cost of land. Because we haven’t been good in the recent decades and are using our own land and putting it into productive use.

SK: When you emphasise land cost there, you go straight to speculation. But don’t land prices mainly reflect the wealth, and the salaries that are on offer nearby? Is high land cost not a normal feature of rich cities? Is this idea of speculating developers not a diversion from the basic problem of needing to get more people living on plots of land at higher density?

DO’B: I suppose, look, land costs and land value is an issue. And it’s particularly acute in our cities, particularly here in Dublin. If you look at our brownfield sites and the difficulties that we’ve had in developing them, progress hasn’t really been made in that regard. And I think we’ve got to have a complete rethink about what we need to do. 

Let’s look at it this way: right now, in this year, the state is the biggest builder, and effectively the biggest developer of property, okay. The state, in my view needs to intervene at this stage, because we are in a crisis situation that is resolvable. Cost is an element of it. And land value is an element of it. And labour cost is an element of it. But – delivery and getting supply up. And fundamentally, at the end of the day, it is about trying to boost that supply up to the level that we need. And until we get up to that we’re going to continue having issues with regard to costs and house prices and home prices. 

The good and the bad of institutional investors

SK: The topic of the day is institutional investors. There is, at the very least, a messaging problem. Where it seems as though institutional investors are good where they fund the construction of new apartments, and when they lease social housing, and when they build offices, but then they’re bad when they buy houses. So it just can be hard to discern exactly what role the government sees for them. So can you help me clarify that.

DO’B: First I’d say investment is needed. And investment is welcome. We do need investment in our country and in housing and in our cities, no question about that. Anyone who says anything to the contrary is just being completely disingenuous.

SK: And are institutional investors the right people to do it?

DO’B: Yes. But what I’m saying is this. We’ve been pretty clear this week, in the changes Paschal and I have made. What we want to be able to do is to focus the investment on areas that are needed. Okay, and there is as we’ve just discussed, certainly an issue with regard to developing out apartments. We don’t have enough housing units full stop. Okay, so we need to get up to that 33,000. So having a situation whereby, as some called for, banning all investment funds, would have had, in my view, a really, potentially a catastrophic effect. 

But what we don’t want, and why we brought the measures in is that these funds are competing against the people that I’m advocating for. Who are the first time buyers trying to get into the market. And that’s why I’m bringing in the affordability measures. So we have been clear that, you know, that family homes and homes for individuals that are starter homes should not be, an area where investors or local authorities are competing to buy homes in a shrunken market. We need to develop our own. And that’s what we’re doing. I think we’ve been very clear where we see the role for them currently. Okay, I think that that role is in relation to city developments, but we want ownership in our cities. And that’s why the affordability measures are there, too. 

So it’s been portrayed as, you know, it’s one thing or the other. It’s part of what we’re doing in housing. But we the taxpayer, we the state, are the biggest investor and the biggest builder in housing right now in Ireland.

When you fundamentally get down to it, people can be averse to change.

SK: So that’s the situation now. And we’re near the beginning of the journey in Ireland, with international investors taking part in the market. In other places, the institutional market is more mature. You look at Germany and the Netherlands. There’s a single German company that owns 300,000 apartments. 

DO’B: Is that Vonovia?

SK: Correct. And Vesteda, they’re over in the Netherlands. They have 27,000 homes. So the question is, do you foresee in 10 years time, when all these plans come to fruition, do you foresee the likes of Vonovia and Vesteda playing a big role in the Irish housing market? 

DO’B: I don’t. I don’t see them having the same proportional of role as they have in Germany or in parts of continental Europe. 

And I think you’ll see that homeownership in the countries you mentioned is growing too, where our homeownership rates have been declining. I see there being a big role for cost rental. And we could have ethical funds involved in cost rental. It’s interesting that some on the left have already said you can’t even allow any type of a margin on cost rental, which I’m permitting in the affordable bill. That’s important that we do, because we can allow ethical funds to come in and help develop out. Including the LDA, by the way. So I see cost rental being in 10 years time, being a major part of our housing tenure here in Ireland. And I think that’s a good thing. Okay, long term secure, state-backed rents that are just covering the cost and maintenance of the development itself. I think we have a real opportunity. 

I’ll tell you who’s going to be the main driver of that initially is going to be the Land Development Agency. And so that’s why I really wanted this year to make sure that we have cost rental tenancies in place. 

SK: You say you don’t want a future where institutional investors pay as big a role in Ireland as they do in places like the Netherlands and Germany. But as you know the ESRI is forecasting we need 33,000 homes a year. Dermot O’Leary of Goodbody estimated that as much as 87 per cent of the funding for those 33,000 homes will need to come from international sources. If you’re saying they’re not to play as big a role here as they have in other European countries, who’s going to fund the houses?

DO’B: No, I think in fairness to the government, we’ve been very prudent in our approach. And I think Goodbody, which you mentioned there as well, have described the moves that myself and Paschal have made as sensible. I think they are sensible, and they are proportionate. If you look at what one half of the Dáil has been calling for, you would really be shutting down investment into Ireland. So we’ve got to take a realistic approach.

There were two things in your question. One was in relation to, you used the example of an Vonovia and mass rental. Of rental through investor funds owning rental property. That’s one thing. I don’t see us being at that level in Ireland, no. That’s not something I would see being done. 

But, the second part of the question is investing in developing housing. Okay, that’s a different thing. Where the funds are funding the development of housing estates or apartments for sale. They’re going to be involved in that. There’s no issue with that. So if a builder is receiving his or her capital from investment funds to develop out, there is no issue with that. 

I think that’s what the ESRI was saying, as well is that, if you look at where finance is coming from for development here in Ireland right now, we have effectively two banks. Okay, we have the HBFI which is ramping up to be fair, but it’s still at a very small level. So where do you get development finance from? So it depends on what type of finance you’re getting. If you’re getting investor financing, ‘you need to develop this, and you need to develop it just to rent it,’ that’s one thing. But there are others that are being developed for sale. And I see that having a big role in it, too. 

Resistance from local authorities

SK: Japan is a country that’s notable because it has very big, wealthy cities and relatively cheap housing. One of the things the Japanese do is centralise planning decisions at the national level, so local governments don’t block nationally important urban planning goals. Looking at the trouble the government has had with certain local authorities – Dublin City Council springs to mind – would you be in favour of that kind of planning reform? Or is there another solution?

DO’B: Well, there is a lot to be said for it. No question. I think it’s obvious that our planning system needs reform. And it needs reform to be focused on delivery. And I obviously can’t talk about any specific instances, because as planning minister, I’m not allowed to. 

But, there is a problem with the way in my view that judicial reviews are used. And there’s also an issue with consistency across our local authority areas. Now, one of the positives is that, okay, we do have a national planning framework that obviously looks to rebalance development. But, anecdotally, the evidence from the ground is that some of that is quite problematic. And that needs to be looked at as well. It’s based on 2016 population figures. In fairness, when it was put together, I don’t think it took into account the housing crisis that we are in where we have a serious issue, with getting supply, and getting supply up and running at a relatively mass scale to reach our 33,000 per year. We probably need more than that, if the truth be known. 

People have to be honest with themselves. If we need homes for our people, every development isn’t going to suit everybody. But at the end of the day, there’s a greater good.

So to get back to planning, I’m bringing forward a planning reform bill in the autumn. And there are a number of elements being looked at within that. One of them being and the whole area of judicial review. The second one being the environmental Court, which is a commitment in the programme for government as well – that you would have a specialised court for environmental matters. And a lot of issues around planning matters, I would imagine a number of them can be dealt with in that space. 

So, in my view, our planning system doesn’t work to the extent that it should, I think it’s too disjointed. And it’s inconsistent. And it doesn’t take into account in many instances, the strategic goals the state has. Not just on residential, but commercial development and strategic state infrastructure. So we have an opportunity to do some quite radical changes in that space whilst ensuring that we keep the public consultation aspects of the planning system very much central to it. 

If you look, to be fair, at the experience communities have had with the SHD process, the SHD process was one that I understood in the sense of being able to try to expedite and streamline planning. But if you look at the output at the other end, it hasn’t delivered on the development side. In percentage terms of planning permission granted, versus actual development started. So whilst it has seemed to have helped in relation to getting applications through the system, it certainly hasn’t led to delivery. 

And also certain elements do concern me about the lack of regard for – this is another way of looking at it, which is the flip side to your own point you made earlier on – it’s planning authorities not having regard to county development plans or local area plans in some instances. And that has caused difficulty for communities. But the SHDs will not be extended past February. And so I won’t be extending them further. They expire at the end of February, but it gives us a chance to look at some of the mechanisms within it that were positive. And you know, to see in the planning reform bill that I’m bringing forward in the autumn, other things that we can do to improve the situation.

Resistance in the courts

Darragh O’Brien: “They’re doing it without cost. And the state is carrying that cost.” Photo: Bryan Meade

SK: You mentioned big ambitious goals around housing, metros, airports, and so on. One example of that is that we’ve got a five gigawatts target, as you know, for offshore wind. But then, your department gave permits to three boats to go off and drop sonar buoys and start doing some exploratory work. And each one of those permits were held up in the courts. And that’s just one example of legal challenges holding back the government’s infrastructure agenda. So my question to you then is, do you see the problem as the legislation itself, the way it’s drafted? Or the way legislation is being interpreted in the courts?

DO’B: I think it’s both, to be straight with you. You’ve mentioned the marine – I do just want to cover the offshore wind, because that is a really important and strategic goal for the state. Even if we forget about the government in relation to energy security, and developing our offshore wind capacity. So we will have published before the summer and intend to move to the second stage, the marine planning bill. As the first time that we will have dedicated planning for our offshore wind. And it’s badly needed. And that will deal with a number of the issues that you’ve just raised there, particularly on the marine offshore and offshore offshore development. So that’s a must. And that’s an absolute priority. Because of two things: one, energy security and being able to meet our 2030, and indeed our 2050 target by harnessing offshore wind. But secondly is the capacity and the potential to deliver energy at scale for export as well is absolutely colossal. And I’ve been very firm with that, that we need to do this. And it needs to be done, urgently. Other parties have already tried to block that. We would have seen how, with the marine planning framework, Sinn Féin in particular tried to delay that at committee. And are trying to say, ‘well, we can’t bring this in until our marine protected areas are in place’. And they know that process could take a couple of years. 

But on transport, we are, I would say decades behind comparable cities in Europe. We literally are decades behind. 

So when you mention issues with regard to planning. Regarding the courts – yes, it can be the courts’ interpretation. I can’t comment on individual cases, obviously.

But thirdly, the political system. And there is an element whereby, across the board on development, housing in particular, where you have people who are calling for us to tackle the housing crisis. And then you see what they’re doing on the ground. They, and their parties, are objecting and stymieing development. So we can’t have it both ways. People have to be honest with themselves. If we need homes for our people, every development isn’t going to suit everybody. But at the end of the day, there’s a greater good. And I think we do have parties of the left in particular, who are speaking out of both sides of their mouth, saying one thing in the Dáil, and doing a completely different thing on the ground. I think it’s pretty reprehensible.

SK: You say it’s partially the legislation itself, and partially how the legislation is being interpreted in the courts. Sticking with the interpretation side of things. The judicial review process was designed to take four months. But cases are taking longer than a year now, and there’s a huge backlog. How can it be speeded up?

DO’B: It is a courts matter – but judicial review needs to be reformed. And we’re going to do that. And we said we’d do that in the programme for government. Because in some instances, it’s being misused. And it’s also being used without consequence. And that is an issue too.

SK: So do you think it’s right objectors face very little cost if their objection fails?

DO’B: If it’s deemed that it’s in the national interest, or if there is a strategic interest, I think that’s fine. But there are other objections that, in my view, and I think most people would see are, are spurious. And they have held up significant projects in the state. And there’s no downside for them. They’re doing it without cost. And the state is carrying that cost. 

The “puzzle” of high Irish construction costs 

Construction costs in Ireland are high by international standards – particularly for mid-sized apartment blocks, the buildings Ireland is most in need of. The consultancy Arcadis ranked Dublin the ninth most expensive city in the world to build in, out of 104 surveyed in 2020. The consultancy Turner and Townsend ranked Dublin as the third most-expensive rich world market out of 19 in which to build mid-size apartments in 2019. Higher construction costs mean fewer projects are viable for private developers. And it means the state gets less bang for its buck on social housing.

SK: Construction costs are something everyone agrees is very important, but on which there is very little clarity. The Central Bank did a long report on the housing market in Ireland, I’m sure you’ve seen it, and it drilled down deeply into Irish construction costs. And in the end, it said Irish construction costs were a puzzle. Because it showed that Irish materials costs were in line with peer countries; likewise labour costs were more or less in line with what you see elsewhere. So there was this remainder. The Central Bank speculated that there’s a couple of things it could be: the scale of development maybe isn’t as big here; maybe it’s the complexity of projects; maybe it’s building regulations. So there’s something going on here other than lots of Irish builders going down to Australia.

DO’B: I’m not saying that’s the only issue, not for a moment. I’m just saying that’s part of it. Part of it is in relation to the resources that we have and the capacity we have to deliver the scale that we need. So we’re set on a number of 33,000 housing units per annum based on the research I commissioned with the ESRI. That’s what we need now. And we’re a while off that. And while the construction sector is dealing with residential, it’s also got to deal with commercial, it’s also got to deal with state infrastructure, etc, etc. So you do need to build that capacity that’s just a given.

In relation to the other aspects of the cost piece. When you break it down, it is a puzzle, as the central bank has said. There’s no question. And one thing won’t fix it. Scale can be an issue because of procurement. Orla Hegarty has written quite extensively about this. If we could pool the construction resources together and procure our materials as a block, that could lead to significant savings. I agree it could, but the question is how you get to that. Right now this year, and I’m anecdotally receiving quite a lot of evidence, there’s a serious increase in the cost of materials already. That might be acute in the third quarter of this year. Particularly around plastics.

SK: And lumber. 

DO’B: Lumber, big time. Because, on lumber, the US and China seem to have really front-loaded all their orders and hoovered up a lot of that supply.

So anyway, getting back to it, planning is an issue. I think that’s an issue that’s kind of unique enough in Ireland. Because it’s not as streamlined as it should be. We do want people to be involved in the sense that people have absolutely a right to have a say.

SK: Planning is one aspect of it – but what about construction regulations? That’s what the Central Bank report would have been referring to. 

DO’B: People will argue that. But we build really good homes here. I think that’s a good thing. And, we build good apartments now. I don’t want to see us dumbing down our standards. What I would say to you, though – I had a meeting recently with the SCSI. And they also did a very interesting report in relation to construction costs and build costs. They have found that particularly developments up to eight storeys have seen a reduction in cost of between about two and nine per cent. Because we’re moving to off-site construction and prefabricated construction. We have a couple of companies here in Ireland, they’re doing that. But we need to build that scale up. That I think, can have a significant enough impact into the build cost itself, which is making the process more efficient. And while it’s making the process more efficient, it’s also helping us in relation to our climate action goals. 

SK: The prefab stuff is interesting. And it’s how other places have been doing it for a while. 

DO’B: Scale is important in that though.

SK: Scale, exactly. And then we’ve got Ireland, a small country, it’s got its own unique building regulations. That makes it difficult to get that scale in prefab manufacturing. Is there an idea in bringing our building regs into line with other jurisdictions, so that we can benefit from greater scale? That way, we could import what we need cheaply from somewhere like Germany.

DO’B: I want to say two things here, because we have a unit here established specifically looking at the whole area of precast, prefab and off site construction. And how we can drive down costs in relation to construction. And it also has a function that monitors the market. Scale is an issue with this. Okay, to give you one example. There’s one Dublin City Council project for social housing on Bunratty Road that has been developed using off site construction and precast. It was delayed due to COVID unfortunately, but it was well in train. We could do that at scale, potentially, from the state’s building perspective. 

SK: Like yourself, I’m trying to get to grips with construction costs. And it’s so complicated. As the Central Bank says, it’s a puzzle. And I’m thinking, wait a minute – is there not a simpler solution here? Why not just offer tax breaks for residential construction? Section 23. We did it before, it resulted in massive supply increases. And it delivered. To the extent that supply is a problem in this country, and that supply is being held back by project viability – tax breaks are a ready-made solution that you could roll out tomorrow.

DO’B: What we need to do first is target the measures that we have for those who need it most. So you take construction costs, and you take supply. The focus of what I’ve been doing is getting our public house building back up to a level that it should be at and providing the resources for our local authorities to do that. So this week, for example, I’ll be announcing a project management team for each local authority to give them the resources to manage the projects themselves – housing delivery teams.

And to get to the point in relation to ‘well, what do you do to help with regard to costs?’ It’s not just cost. I think it comes down to affordability. Because why do you want to bring the cost down? Because you want to make that property accessible to someone to buy it. 

So we have affordability measures. Then there’s the cost of the orders or how you drive costs down. But if you talk about a broad tax break, a broad tax break affects the cost of delivery for everybody. What I’m saying is, areas that that could be looked at, I think, would be particularly around potentially brownfield developments. There is an issue with apartment viability, okay. Because of some of the reasons that you mentioned earlier on around specification, things like that. 

Darragh O’Brien: “. Docklands still hasn’t reached its potential, yet, in my view.” Photo: Bryan Meade

SK: The original section 23 had a rural and urban variant. The rural one is the ghost estate one. But the urban one was successful. So tax breaks could be targeted.

DO’B: Yes, and you’re right. Some of those measures lasted for too long, and weren’t targeted in places where they were needed. If we want to build sustainable communities in our cities, we’re gonna have to do things a little bit differently if we’re going to crack the nut of affordability. And that’s not just going to be having debates about it. It’s going to be doing things. 

But I wouldn’t rule out any measure that would require a government decision that would help us unlock the potential of some of our brownfield sites within our cities. 

Like, I’m a Dub, right. I grew up up the road from here. I remember when the docklands was being built. Docklands still hasn’t reached its potential, yet, in my view. And there’s still much more that can be done. But we all know, big sites around the city that could be used much better, and should be used much better, and should be helped. Why I mentioned state land earlier on was we have a big role to play in that ourselves. And that’s why the Land Development Agency bill and getting that through this summer is really important. Because we need our state agencies, and through the Land Development Agency, that we’re putting our own land to productive use. We can’t have ongoing delay, delay, delay with some very significant sites that could deliver thousands of homes for people in the middle of a housing crisis. That’s not going to be permitted anymore. 

Transport and quality of life

SK: When it comes to housing, the conversation is all about price and cost. Because that’s obviously so important. Understandably then, the conversation about the qualitative stuff gets relegated, such as: what kind of housing? How do we want our cities to look? How do we want to commute? All these very important questions, which get pushed down the list. 

So everyone agrees in the Irish establishment that we want to densify our cities, rather than build in the exurbs. But that’s hard because the shape of the city is a function of transport. Our settlement patterns right now are a function of cars, and you don’t get dense cities without dense transport. So what specifically are you doing to work through that? How are you working with the Department of Transport? How are you increasing density along transport links? And how are you improving transport links so that we can get the sort of density that we want?

DO’B: That’s a really, really good point, because if we want densification, if we want people to live in the cities, and if we want to stop sprawl, which I think has stopped to a degree, we need to improve our public transport links. Right up to before I was appointed Minister, I was a daily commuter. I get the DART in, and I live in North Dublin. I’ve lived experience of it, because I’ve seen my own area of Fingal develop greatly as a suburb of the city, with not bad transport links. Not great. 

SK: But as good as it gets in Ireland. 

DO’B: As good as it gets. You’re right. So what do we need to do about it? Eamon Ryan and myself, obviously, have a major role to play in that together. What we’re doing right now is the National Development Plan review. People recoil when they hear the word review, and they go ‘Jesus, another review.’ This is targeted at what we can deliver now. So if you use one example, is in relation to the metro. Metro will happen. We need a metro link to our airport and beyond. That is not just an impact that will positively affect the whole, east Meath, North Dublin, Louth area. All of that. But particularly for an airport, which is of such international importance. Three per cent of GNP, derived out of that campus, per year, prior to COVID. 

SK: A specific point – Los Angeles has spent more than $10 billion on its metro system. But the system is a failure because Los Angeles didn’t zone for higher density near metro stops. Are you going to zone for higher density in suburban Dublin along metro stops?

DO’B: Absolutely. And to be fair, particularly on the metro corridor, and I think it’s a really good example, those times are absolutely there. And if you see the plans for Swords, in relation to the master plan for Swords, it is on the metro route. 

SK: DART Plus as well?

DO’B: Yes, exactly. So that’s exactly what needs to happen. Now, you get resistance in Ireland any time you think of anything above six or seven storeys for some reason. Like, look at our docklands. I think there’s much greater potential in our cities for, you know, more densified mixed developments, commercial, hotel, residential. Like what you would see in London and other cities as well. So are those plans in place? Yes, they are. Will they be adhered to? Absolutely, they will. And I’m acutely familiar with the metro corridor. And looking at the densification along that route. 

Where I live myself is a mix of houses, duplexes, apartments, less car parking, communal areas, no back gardens. And it works. But it’s a much better use of space. And you know what, it’s a better way of living.

SK: You talked a bit about objections to building in the city. And that’s obviously a major impediment to delivering the kind of denser cities that we’re talking about. Is there any way around that? Any policy way around that? For example, there are ideas out there. Like there are ideas for community-led development plans, where you start with the local buy-in. 

DO’B: And that has worked pretty well in some areas. A lot of planning works, okay, that’s the first thing I think we need to say. When it doesn’t work, that’s when it becomes acutely obvious. So the issues in planning are accentuated and are publicised, and rightly so. 

So is there more to be done from the community up? Yes, I think we can do that. But when you fundamentally get down to it, people can be averse to change. And particularly when we’re looking at newer types of living, more densified developments that can be problematic for some people. So you need to bring them along and explain what the benefits of this are. It can’t just be housing, and nothing else. So one of the more common refrains, when there’s plans for more intensified development, is ‘We don’t have the facility to back them up. Our trains are full. We don’t have a train. We don’t have enough buses. We don’t have enough schools. ‘That shows you what’s so important about planning. Has that always happened in Ireland? No, but I think we’re better at it now than we used to be. But on transport, we are, I would say decades behind comparable cities in Europe. We literally are decades behind. 

You can’t have a situation whereby the housing Minister and the Department are involved in every single site.

There have been issues. Okay, we’ve got a historic core of our city. I think one of the things when you look at continental Europe and a lot of the European cities as well, there was a rebuilding post World War Two, and there was just a reality that cities were destroyed, and they were able to build modern transit infrastructure in the cities afterwards. 

But the NDP review, which we’ll publish this year is going to be really important. Because it’s going to focus on the projects that will be done. Like Metro has started, the preparatory works, and the testing is being done right now. It’s really important it happens because for an international airport, and for our city, we need another rail link. We need DART Plus. You might remember the political debate around Luas – that it would never be used, that it would be a white elephant, that it wouldn’t work, etc, etc. Like on big infrastructure projects, I was there at the launch of terminal two in Dublin Airport in 2009. I remember many people who are still in Dáil Eireann, and many commentators saying, ‘it’ll be a white elephant, it’ll be another Taj Mahal, it’ll never be used.’ And now, up to the pandemic, it was full. And we’re talking about a third terminal. So why I’m saying that is, you need to have foresight, you need to have vision in relation to delivery on the capital infrastructure side. And we do need more rail. 

And not just in Dublin. This is in relation to Cork and in relation to Limerick. Limerick is an incredible city with unbelievable potential. And I’ve been there a couple of times meeting with Limerick 2030. And what they’re doing is, the development company that’s owned effectively by the local authority, own the major strategic sites within the city. It’s so impressive. So it made it so easy for us here to support it through the URDF for the Opera site and other things. So I think there are cities like Limerick, where we have a real opportunity in a very short space of time to create a literally a powerhouse there in that region. With good rail, good transport links within the city, and intensify developments along the river. And it can be done in Dublin too. 

But again, it gets back to the point I was making earlier, what we need to see is delivery. And we need to see delivery on housing. And that’s why I’ve been so anxious to move forward quickly with the legislative building blocks so we can deliver affordability. So people don’t have to despair, and say, ‘we’re going to have to continue renting for the next five years’. I don’t want that to be the case. And that’s why I made the point in relation to homeownership. I think only very recently has the main opposition party started to talk about homeownership. And I still believe they’re reluctant converts to it. They’re definitely late converts. 

The divide over housing policy

SK: You’ll be as aware as anybody that housing is considered to be the defining issue in the country at the moment. That’s what everyone says. But I personally don’t know how true it is. Because if it were true that lowering housing costs was the average person’s number one priority, there would be support for land value taxes. Higher land value taxes are a simple, proven way to increase affordability because they encourage supply. They’re found in other European countries, and experts agree they work. But yet, no party in Ireland supports them, from the left to the right. It strikes me that if the housing crisis really were so acute for the average person, we’d have higher property taxes or land value taxes. So my question is, why has the Irish political system resisted these sorts of common-sense solutions? 

DO’B: Well, firstly, I’d say this – it is the number one priority for me, and for the government. Housing affects most families in whatever facet, whether it is sons or daughters who can’t buy a home, parents watching that, sons or daughters living with their folks, or paying rents, homelessness – all of those issues. So people do feel it right. And those need to be resolved. I do think it will be the defining issue. It is one that we have to approach from a crisis perspective, a whole of government approach on this. And what I mean by that is, we have areas within the government. If I look at one arm of government, stymying developments in another, as happened in the past – I think we’re moving past that now. And so what you’ll see in the Housing For all Plan that we publish in July, with the Taoiseach, and the Tánaiste is a whole of government approach. And actions on housing, across government.

I don’t see [institutional investors] having the same proportional of role as they have Germany or in parts of continental Europe.  

Now, to get to your particular question about land value tax. That is true. And we are working on a whole suite of urban development zones and how you could capture the uplift in the value of land. And indeed, on the other side, to penalise the non-use of land. A lot of detailed work has been done on that. Right up to cabinet and cabinet subcommittee on housing, I can’t go into it in too much detail. But I think you’re right. When you look at how other countries use mechanisms around value and mechanisms around tax to ensure that land is used productively. We’re looking at that right now. And I would see measures in that space being brought forward this year. 

I think there’s another context maybe to put it in, in the hour or so that we’ve been talking. You see all the different facets within housing. There is a lot to do. And there really is a lot to do. It can’t all be done in 10 or 11 months. 

But having said that, when you look at one is finance – the state getting involved, which we are because we’re the biggest builder in the country. We’re the biggest investor in the country, the state itself. Two is getting the affordable legislation through so we can get those schemes up and running to help people get back and own their own homes at affordable rates. And indeed rent at affordable rates with state-backed cost-rental. But then you’re looking at the issues we’ve discussed around planning, future delivery. How that coexists with the national planning framework. And then all the other issues around reform of the planning system and, all the different pieces of legislation that we need to put in place. Because if you look from the delivery side, to affordability, to cost of construction, to land speculation. And then the state using its own land. Indeed, if the state were to tax itself for not using land, it would owe itself a fortune. Because the state is the biggest hoarder of land in the country. 

SK: Taxing state bodies for hoarding land would help. 

DO’B: It certainly would. And that’s why the other piece of legislation is so important, which I’m going into committee with on Tuesday – the Land Development Agency. Because regardless of what people think about its genesis, every state needs a Land Management Agency to manage its land, and to see what it’s doing with its land and what it owns. And I think once we get the LDA bill passed, which will pass by this summer, we’ll be able to capitalise the Land Development Agencies to the tune of €1.25 billion, they’ll borrow another €1.25 billion, and get on building on the nine sites that they have. And starting this year, which is really important, in Shanganagh Castle. People need to see that – I need to see it too. And I’ve been insisting on that with the LGA, I think they’re in good shape to start doing that. So without going off on a tangent, that is the reason why we need a management agency, though, is to really look at what lands we have, and how they’re used. 

Take the infamous one, though. We have land that’s designated for housing by local authorities. Now, look at Oscar Traynor. You have a whole system in, a political system, effectively, a council level, stopping the development of hundreds of homes in a perfect site, that’s serviced. That’s beside schools. Good public transport links, everything. And being stopped because people want to continue arguing around tenure types and partnering with the private sector. We will not solve the housing crisis with public sector building alone. Like this idea that Sinn Féin put out to just build 20,000 public homes. Never say how they’re going to be built, who’s going to build them. How long that’s going to take. We need public and private. And you need the private sector involved. And that’s why it’s incredibly frustrating for people to see situations like Oscar Traynor. Now I’m getting involved to try to sort it out. But if a government minister and a government need to get involved in every site, around the country, I think that just tells you. 

People again say one thing in the Dáil, that they want housing. And then look at their record on the ground, what they’re doing, stymying development there. And thankfully, other local authorities are more progressive and indeed their members. We’ve a scheme now, in Fingal, really significant, at Ballamastone for 1,200 homes. That is a partnership between the council and Glenveagh that’s going to deliver 238 affordable purchase, 238 social, some cost rental and the rest for private sale. And Fingal County Council and its members will pass that scheme. You know the gas thing about Ballamastone? They started the Ballamastone process three years after they started the Oscar Traynor road process at Dublin City Council. And Fingal will have passed the scheme, which we’re going to be able to start building pretty much this year. 

We’ve city councillors, on the left in particular, arguing the toss over, what their perfect should be. I really believe in some instances, some people just don’t want to see progress in housing. Because it doesn’t suit them politically. And it doesn’t suit their own political position – if we were to go back into an election in four years’ time with real progress being made on housing. And that’s what I’m absolutely determined to do.

SK: But to circle around to my earlier question – it’s in the interest of counsellors to represent their constituents as they see fit. So what happens if this stalemate continues?

DO’B: Well, I think it’s unacceptable that it continues. I will be getting involved in seeing what we can do by way of improving the affordability within the site through variations to the service sites fund. But at the end of the day, yes, counsellors are entitled to different views. Absolutely. But at the end of the day, I think really the first question people need to ask themselves is, is their position helping deliver homes for people? And it’s not. 

Now I’m confident we can resolve Oscar Traynor. But then there are many other sites around the country, and you can’t have a situation whereby the housing Minister and the department are involved in every single site to get it passed. Now we support these sites financially, we have a big financial subvention. It will be paid to Dublin City Council to help them develop Oscar Traynor. And I want to see that happen. So I’ve met with senior officials, and both the city manager and the head of housing there. And I’m confident we’re going to be able to move it forward. 

But we do need the cooperation of counsellors too. I’ve been dealing with a number of them, also. And we do need that cooperation. And it’s a pity. I don’t want everything to focus on just one site. There’s a lot of other good things happening. Like I was up in Lusk a couple of weeks ago, where we launched an affordable purchase development. Where you’re looking at house prices between €165,000 and €265,000, supported by pretty much all parties in Fingal. That’s the way you want it. These are real homes for people.

So look, we’ll get there. It will be a long road. But we need to see progress along that road. And that’s what I’m absolutely determined to do.

Further reading

Stephen Kinsella: The social physics of housing