Councillors face housing backlash, but little prospect of short-term solution 01/10/17 : the chronicle.ie

Councillors face housing backlash, but little prospect of short-term solution 01/10/17

| October 1, 2017

Although the next local elections are still more than twenty months away a general election is expected early next summer and the prospect of both contests within a year of each other is beginning to raise the political temperature at all levels and nowhere is this more evident than in the increasingly fraught discussions about the housing crisis in the county.

The county does have a housing and homelessness problem but it is nothing when compared to the scale of the difficulties being encountered in Dublin. However, local politicians will tell you that it is still the number one problem which they encounter in their offices, clinics and as they go about their daily lives.

It is more evident in the towns and across North Wexford than it is in some of the rural areas where property is relatively cheap and rents are lower.

Now it is beginning to dawn on councillors that this problem is not going away anytime soon and will be a live problem for many of them at the time of the next local elections, a fact which has  contributed to growing anger and hostility towards officials being displayed by some councillors.

Wexford Co. Council will soon hold a full meeting to discuss the crisis, a gathering which will no doubt help some members feel a little better because it will allow them to take plenty of pot shots at the government, the Minister for Housing, landlords, builders and developers and even the Executive of Wexford Co. Council.

However, when the debate is closed it is unlikely that any magic formula will have been found to wipe out the problem in the county in the short or medium term.

Some councillors are advocating the building of large scale social housing projects, the type of projects which were favoured from the 1950s to the 1980s. Council boss Tom Enright is strongly opposed to the building of large estates of social housing, insisting that a mix of solutions will have to be the formula to tackle the problem.

And he points out that if  the Council did decide to go on a mass building spree it would still be at least two years from now before the keys to the first house could be handed over to new tenants.

But Enright’s opposition to building standalone large scale social housing developments is not part of any ideology which says that private sector house building should be favoured over public constructions.

Instead it is based on the evidence of the mistakes of the past which saw huge problems and disadvantage and social problems in areas where very large numbers of social housing units were constructed together.

Many of today’s councillors seem to be unaware of the type of social difficulties which were created in urban areas by the building of  these large scale social housing estates.

And if the same model was adopted today it would lead to the same difficulties because the big estates would be built in places without proper services and would house many families with the type of problems which are only acerbated in this type of environment.

Such a large scale development might provide some sort of medium term fix for the problem but far from being a type of Holy Grail it would inevitably lead to considerable social problems in the future.

So no matter how loud some councillors shout in favour of this type of construction solution it simply is not going to happen because the government does not favour the approach.

However, it is easy to understand why councillors are frustrated and grasping for any solution which might bring some hope to the situation because the pace of progress to date does appear to be painfully slow.

The promise is that once  the early delaying hurdles of planning, procurement and the like are overcome the new housing units will start to flow. However, many of those at the coalface remain to be convinced and a look at the figures gives an indication as to why they are concerned.

Early this year councillors approved the Council’s Social Housing Supply programme for 2017-2019. The latest quarter update on the programme provides some pretty stark figures.

The target for houses to be delivered from construction projects, for example, for the period is 245 with 87 coming on stream this year. So far the number delivered is just 5.

Approved Housing Bodies are expected to deliver 117 houses this year and to date they have provided 36.

A dozen houses were earmarked this year under the buy and renew scheme but so far no a single unit has been delivered while just 51 of the 150 units to be provided through acquisitions has so far been delivered.

In total just over 1,000 are to be provided under the programme with 420 earmarked for this year and to date just 109 have been delivered.

During the period of the programme a greater number of units, 1,757, are to be provided through the private rental sector. Some councillors are bitterly opposed to the inclusion of the private sector in the provision of social units but in the short term at least it looks as if they will have to accept reality unless they would prefer to see families staying in B&B accommodation.

A total of 176 families have been housed through the private sector so far this year against a full year target of 453 which indicates that the targets through the private rental sector seem more likely to be met at this stage than the slightly less ambitious targets set out under direct provision of properties by the Council.

While councillors like Davy Hynes, the members of Sinn Fein and People Before Profit’s Deirdre Wadding have been firmly of the view for some time that the solution to the problem is to be found through the mass building of social housing by the Council some Fianna Fail councillors are now beginning to sing off the same hymn sheet.

The most notable contribution in this regard was the heated and passionate performance of Lisa McDonald at the September meeting of the Council when she harshly criticised the Chief Executive for his approach and suggested that a large scale programme of Council housebuilding could begin immediately without the delays and challenges of planning which private housebuilding faced.

Many councillors are uneasy about what they see as the over reliance on private sector landlords with many regarding them as profiteering beasts who have no regard for their tenants.

However, while these views are the most common ones articulated in public they are also the views most shared by those who feel they are entitled to a Council house and entitled to it now.

The private views of many Councillors are probably closer to those publicly expressed by Fine Gael’s soft-spoken Willie Fitzharris.

Willie has a background in construction and dares to point out that there is no instant solution. There is no magic way of building houses and many of those who would previously have been in the market to construct new homes no longer have the means to do it.

Only the rebuilding of the construction industry itself to bring about a greater supply of houses and a mix of public and private solutions will eventually solve the problem but there is no magic formula.

He does not exactly get a round of applause from his colleagues when he makes the point. Indeed it is often difficult to hear what he has to say due to the groans of dismissal and contempt which several members have for what he has to say.

However, regardless of how unpalatable it is, Willie’s view of the future and the eventual solution may be the closest to reality.

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