Photo by James Deeges

On Thursday, councillors will gather at City Hall and consider a plan to redevelop a 34-hectare site in the south-east of the city, which includes the long-idle Irish Glass Bottle site.

Key to the debate over the draft Poolbeg SDZ Planning Scheme will be how much of any housing built there must be social housing, and how much must be affordable housing.

The council’s press office says councillors can go no further than requiring that 10 percent of any homes built on the site be social housing, with no provision for affordable housing.

But councillors and a local residents’ group are calling for far more than that. Sinn Fein, which has the largest group of councillors, wants 30 percent social and 20 percent affordable, and others want even more.

On Friday evening, Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan, through a report, told councillors that the percentage of social or affordable housing could only be increased if the landowners and the Department of Housing agree to it. (The land is controlled by Dublin Port Company and NAMA.)

But councillors have the power to block the redevelopment if they don’t get what want. So there may be a showdown coming.

At stake is the question of who will be able to afford to live in the estimated 3,500 homes that the department and the council hope a private developer or developers will build  on the site once the planning approval is in place.

“Step up to the Plate”

While political parties on the council are demanding different percentages of social and affordable housing at Poolbeg, one thing is clear: 10 percent social housing and 0 percent affordable housing is a no-go.

Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, head of the council’s housing committee, is standing firm and 16 of the 63 councillors are Sinn Féin.

“We’re looking for 30 percent social, 20 percent affordable,” Doolan says. “We’re looking for the Minister to step up to the plate and support us in our pursuit of 30 percent social, 20 percent affordable.”

Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello says his party is seeking even more: 33 percent social, 33 percent affordable cost-rental, and 33 percent private housing.

He says the Green Party has suggested that the special development zone (SDZ) could be a test site for cost-rental, managed by a housing association or the local authority.

Under this “cost-rental” system, the state would fund the development of new dwellings on the site, and collect a full rental return to cover the cost of construction.

Cost of construction is, therefore, lower because the developer’s profit is no longer an issue because the state is building the homes.

Independent Councillor Ruairí McGinley says he would like see 30 percent social housing and 20 percent affordable housing. “It’s to ensure that the people of Ringsend, Irishtown have the prospect to live in their own area,” he says.

Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey says less might be more realistic. “I suspect what most local councillors, if they’re being honest, would accept is a figure of about 35 percent, which would be broken up into social, affordable rental and affordable purchase,” he says.

That would provide roughly 1,000 homes that could “go local”, says Lacey. That would be fairly significant, he reckons. “Whereas, at the moment the plan has only 10 percent, and I’m just not voting for this.”

If councillors get some affordable housing added to the plan, there’s still the question of what “affordable” means.

McGinley says that, in the current climate, it would mean a purchase price of about €250,000. “In an ideal situation, I’d like to see it as being buying,” he says.

Doolan says he’d be happy to get into the detail of affordable housing down the line, but that either rental and or purchase would suit him.

A Mixed-Tenure Approach

Of course it remains to be seen whether councillors will get their wish for an increase in social housing and some affordable housing at Poolbeg.

As councillors see it, it’s the minister’s move now. Last week’s response from Chief Executive Keegan made that much clear.

The only leeway, as some councillors see it, that has been offered by Minister Coveney’s Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government was in the form of a submission made during the public consultation on the Poolbeg SDZ.

“In order to accord with ‘Rebuilding Ireland‘, the DHPCLG considers the Planning Scheme should be amended to enable implementation of new models for the maximisation of a mixed tenure approach,” the submission said.

In addition to the 10 percent social-housing requirement under the Planning and Development Act the department suggests, in its submission, that the Poolbeg SDZ scheme could also include 10 percent of housing that would be accessible to households on the average industrial wage. However, landowners and potential developers would have to agree to this.

The Department also considers it “crucial” that people who need social housing and key workers (those providing essential services like nurses or the Gardaí) can avail of affordable housing in places like Poolbeg, the submission noted.

Meanwhile, in Ringsend and Irishtown, local residents have been pushing for the last year for an increase in social and affordable housing on the site. 

With Thursday looming, they’re concerned it may all come to naught.

Shuffling the Deck

Patsy Doolin, of the Irish Glass Bottle Housing Action Group (IGBHAG), says it has been “beyond active” since last May, rallying locals to meetings and pushing the department for more social and affordable housing.

In their public submission, the group requested a breakdown of 25 percent market-led, 25 percent social housing and 25 percent of houses to be built by a locally approved-housing association.

A further 25 percent, they suggest, should be either affordable (to purchase and not rent) or co-housing schemes.

“Special consideration,” noted the submission, “is to be given to co-housing schemes or similar user-led initiatives.”

“We’ve literally had three meetings a week,” says Doolin, commenting on the group’s activity. Doolin says the group would like to see mostly affordable-purchase housing built on the site.

She says affordable purchase schemes have already been built in the Ringsend-Irishtown area. “Local people worked tirelessly to get these off the ground,” she says.

And they’ve been successful, says Labour’s Lacey. “There are at least three schemes down there that have been delivered by locals,” he says. “Some of them are houses and the third is apartments.”

The IGBHAG, says Doolin, say that approved housing bodies, independent not-for-profit organisations like Cluíd, should have more power to build and manage units at Poolbeg, and that a statutory instrument should set out the requirements for mixed-tenure to include social housing, affordable housing, co-housing and co-operating housing models.

However, Dublin City Council is a local authority and is not in a position to issue statutory instruments that might define mixed-tenure, noted Chief Executive Keegan in his response to submissions.

The IGBHAG also suggest that the Irish Glass Bottle site be handed over to Dublin City Council from NAMA.

Doolin of IGBHAG says an increase in social and affordable housing at Poolbeg is vital for the community.

Shuffled now between council officials and the Department of Housing she’s worried. “If [the Minister] doesn’t come in with something positive by Thursday we don’t think [a plan] is going to go ahead.”

Back to the Drawing Board?

It’s hard to gauge what form discussions between officials at the council and the department have taken. And just who has asked for what and from whom.

Labour’s Lacey says that meetings have taken place between officials at the council and the department, but that councillors “were not privy” to them.

He says there was one on-site meeting with the minister, councillors, department officials and the local community several weeks ago.

Sinn Féin’s Doolan says that he is unaware of who at the council has met with the minister on the matter. But the council aren’t commenting on that either.

According to DCC City Planner John O’ Hara, Minister Coveney could change the amount of social housing through legislation, or through strong guidance to local authorities.

But the council did not respond by the time this was published to queries asking exactly what defines “strong guidance”, whether the minister has exercised it, and what type of discussions have taken place between council officials and the department.

The council’s press office stated that it would be “premature” of the council to comment ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

Similarly, the department did not respond to queries relating to “strong guidance”, the type of discussions that have taken place, and what incentive the department proposes to offer landowners/developers to make 10 percent of housing accessible to those those earning an average industrial wage.

Minister Coveney is due to release plans for an “affordable rental” strategy at some point. Is it worth the councillors holding off until then?

“That’s on the horizon. We could hold off on making our decision,” says Councillor McGinley. “We did speak directly with the minister in connection with O’Devaney Gardens.”

The problem with comparing the two redevelopment projects, however, is that the council owns O’Devaney Gardens. It does not own the lands at Poolbeg.

Some 18.2 of the 34 hectares is owned by Dublin Port Company. The Irish Glass Bottle site (10.1 hectares) is managed by NAMA, as is the adjoining Fabrizia site (4.6 hectares).

McGinley says, in any case, time is running out. “Ultimately it’s a political decision. The minister really does need to budge,” he says. “I hope we move off from the chief executive’s report. It’s a reserve function and the councillors aren’t going to vote [for 10 percent].”

In other words, granting planning approval for the Poolbeg SDZ is something councillors have the final say on, so they can block the redevelopment of the site if it doesn’t include the mix of housing they want.

Sinn Féin’s Doolan agrees. “I think there’s an opportunity for us to work together,” he says. “We have proven that we can work with the minister in reaching a position on the Lands Initiative. He needs to step up to the mark.”

(The Lands Initiative is a council-led proposal that comprises three council-owned sites: Oscar Traynor Road in Coolock, O’Devaney Gardens, and St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore. It’s proposed to build roughly 1,345 homes on these sites.)

Doolan says Minister Simon Coveney must do two things and councillors a third.

First, Coveney must support the pursuit of 30-percent social housing and 20-percent affordable housing. Second, he must design a model of affordability, i.e. an affordable housing scheme.

Third, there must be cooperation among councillors. “I think there has been an awakening in all parties about the need to increase social housing,” says Doolan.

While it’s too early for the blame game should the plan to redevelop the Poolbeg SDZ fall apart, says Labour’s Lacey, the minister must come up with a viable scheme.

“If he helps us with a package, he’ll get support from me, and if he doesn’t he’ll get the blame from me,” says Lacey.

For Patsy Doolin, of the IGBHAG, it’s the councillors who must come through for the community.

“If they go in and vote on it as it is they know it is going to upset the whole community from Blackrock to Sheriff Street,” says Doolin. “But we are telling them that they can’t let that happen.”

“We’re pushing since last May and we haven’t stopped pushing,” says Doolin. “So we’re hoping that it doesn’t fall asunder and go back to the drawing board because if that happens then that site will lie there again.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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