Minister O’Brien announces plans to boost social housing delivery

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien TD, has announced plans to support the delivery of social housing stock following a 14 week construction sector shut-down.

The announcement comes on the back of the launch earlier today of a new report called ‘Job Quality in the Construction Sector’, produced by TASC, the Think Tank for Action on Social Change, in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB).

Speaking at the online launch the minister accepted that COVID-19 restrictions would hit social housing construction this year: “The COVID-19 restrictions introduced by Government at the start of the year were necessary to curtail the movement of people and to protect public health. With the exception of limited social housing sites, residential construction has been stopped for three months and there will be a significant impact on output, with many projects delayed until 2022.”

The report entitled recommends that the Government, as the biggest client for the sector, can play a direct role in ending the cyclical nature of construction by prioritising a clear, long term pipeline of directly built social and affordable housing.

“The arrival of COVID-19 has thrown a spanner in the works of the recovery which was underway in the construction sector after the last crisis,” said Dr Robert Sweeney, senior policy analyst with TASC and lead author of the report.

“Important questions now are whether the sector is primed to meet the pent-up demand that has been building since before the pandemic, and whether the public sector will re-enter the housing development space,” he continued.

The report finds that construction provides for meaningful work and a greater sense of autonomy for those involved. Most in the sector feel that they are doing something useful and producing a tangible product to the benefit of society.

“The reputation for cyclicality in the construction industry in Ireland is holding back the sector and its output,” said Joseph Kilroy, Ireland Policy and Public Affairs manager with the CIOB. “Historically career guidance counsellors have been reluctant to send students into the sector due to its unpredictability, leading to a shortage in professional and craft skills and a lack of diversity in the sector. Compare this with countries like Germany for example where there is positive emphasis on the value of trades and practical work. We have to tackle job quality and stability if we want the sector to be able to deliver on future demands.”

On dealing with the social housing shortfall Minister O’Brien said: “In the short term, we need to ensure that all existing local authority stock is available to allocate to households on the social housing waiting lists, including households in homeless emergency accommodation.  For this reason, I am providing funding to local authorities for the remediation of approximately 3,000 vacant social housing units this year.

The plan includes:

  • A voids programme which will target almost 3,000 vacant properties to be remediated for re-letting this year
  • An increased focus on Buy and Renew construction with a particular emphasis on rundown vacant properties that local authorities can repurpose as social housing units
  • A programme of targeted acquisitions by local authorities
  • Evaluation of local authority resources

“I also want to ensure that local authorities can quickly increase their stock and meet priority housing needs. I am providing increased flexibility for local authorities to undertake a programme of targeted acquisitions, primarily focused on one and four-bedroom units, which are in short supply, and specific properties for those with disabilities.  All acquisitions will be in line with my Department’s Acquisition Cost Guidelines and local authorities have also been instructed to avoid acquisitions that compete with private buyers (owner occupiers).

“I have also asked local authorities to examine opportunities for the delivery of new social housing by addressing vacancy and underutilised properties through Buy and Renew Construction and Repair and Leasing.  Repurposing vacant and under-utilised properties, including commercial properties, can deliver much needed social homes, while also supporting the regeneration of our towns and villages. Last year I made changes to the Repair and Lease scheme, increasing the maximum funding available from €40,000 to €60,000. At the time I signalled that I also wanted to examine changes to the Buy and Renew scheme to make it easier for local authorities to purchase private vacant properties for use as social housing. We will now give local authorities delegated sanction to complete units within certain parameters, meaning they can get to work quickly purchasing, refurbishing or converting properties for use as social housing.

“A key focus of this Government has been to get local authorities back building. Having visited a number of local authorities over the past eight months I am acutely aware of the pressures they are under in terms of capacity and resource requirements. My Department are working on an evaluation of existing resources and will develop proposals to strengthen capacity and address resource constraints. These combined measures will help us to boost our supply of social housing as we get homebuilding back on track,” concluded Minister O’Brien.