Why Some Social Housing Schemes Have Taken Years to Progress

Before it could build social homes at Cornamona Court in Ballyfermot, it took Dublin City Council four years to get final-stage approval from the Department of Housing for the 61 homes there, documents show.

In the meantime, the cost of building these social homes for older people increased by around €146,000 per home, the documents suggest.

Meanwhile, it also took the council a couple of months shy of four years to get final-stage approval from the department for 30 social homes at North King Street, near Smithfield.

In that time, the cost of building the homes almost doubled, according to correspondence between the council and the Department of Housing.

By contrast, the council applied for funding in June 2017 for a rapid-build scheme in Cherry Orchard totalling 72 homes, got through the Department of Housing’s approval process in a year, came in roughly on budget, and handed over the key to new tenants by August 2019.

Some councillors say that the approval process for social homes, which is laid down by the Department of Housing, is overly bureaucratic and needs to be tweaked or totally overhauled. Others say the council itself is to blame for the delays.

A closer look at three social-housing developments, chosen at random from the council’s housing programme, suggests that delays are caused by both the Department of Housing and the council – with the estimated costs climbing as they move slowly along.

Neither the Department of Housing or Dublin City Council responded in time for publication to queries.

In Ballyfermot

When planning social homes, Dublin City Council goes through a four-stage approval process with the Department of Housing – with formal correspondence and informal consultations between the two about costings, tenders, and designs.

At a site in Cornamona Court, delays may have been caused by a dispute over whether the development should be built by the council alone, or with a private developer, as well as the back and forth over costs.

In March 2015, Dublin City Council wrote to the Department of Housing looking for early-stage approval to build about 75 homes for elderly people at Cornamona Court, at an estimated cost of €220,000 each.

In May 2015, the department wrote back. They could build 45 homes – rather than 75 homes – on that site, officials said, and the homes should cost an estimated €205,000 each.

Early in the process, in June 2015, the Department of Housing said its view was that the site should be “developed as a mixed use scheme with a developer” .

Bringing in a developer “would minimise the funding requirement and allow delivery of an appropriate mix of units on the site”, said the department’s letter.

After the June letter, there was no written correspondence between the two public bodies in relation to the site for more than two years. (There may have been verbal exchanges.)

Dublin City Council did not respond in time for publication to questions as to why this delay happened.

Daithí Doolan, the Sinn Féin councillor who represents the area, says he thinks there were delays on the Cornamona Court development because of the Department of Housing’s reluctance to fund the whole project for social housing.

“The department said, ‘We are not going to fund that many units because there is such a high percentage of social housing in the area,’” Doolan says. The council argued against that, he says.

“We disagreed. We said, ‘But hang on, this is the needs of the area, we have hundreds of people waiting,’” says Doolan.

The Department of Housing Press Office hasn’t responded to queries about this.

Then, in August 2017, the council submitted a “stage 2” request to build not 45, but 61 homes for older people at Cornamona Court. By that time, its estimated cost per home had risen considerably from €220,000 to €346,000.

In September 2017, the Department of Housing wrote that since the total cost for the project had risen above €20 million, a full cost-benefit analysis was required by the Department of Public Expenditure.

In December 2017, the department asked for another “more developed” cost-benefit analysis, which included looking at the potential benefit of bringing in a private developer.

The department recommended that if the council didn’t have sufficient quantity surveyor staff to carry out the “cost effectiveness assessment” within the cost-benefit analysis that they should engage external consultants to do it “as a matter of urgency”.

In January 2018, Dublin City Council wrote back: “It was considered that a joint venture was not an option for this site.”

They also sent a full breakdown of the costs, which included €6.2 million for “abnormal costs”. The Department of Housing queried that figure and, after some back and forth about this and other issues, the council submitted a breakdown for those.

In March 2019, the department approved the final budget for the scheme. By this stage, the cost per home had gone up again to €362,000.

Dublin City Council didn’t answer in time for publication as to why the cost of building the 61 homes had gone up so much from their original estimate of €220,000 each in 2015.

“The whole process is highly bureaucratic,” says Doolan, the Sinn Féin councillor. He thinks it is deliberately set up in that way and says that European Union rules could be satisfied with a simpler process.

“My view is that it is a way of controlling the flow of money to Dublin City Council,” he says.

If all the projects were approved quickly, the department would run out of money as there isn’t a sufficient budget in place for capital housing projects, Doolan says.

Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland said she too thinks the process might be designed to slow down the transfer of money to the council.

Doolan thinks there is also a shortage of architects and planners in the council too, he says.

“It is a structural problem and I think the department and the government are quite happy to allow that to slow down everything,” he says. “Then they can blame us for not building.”

The Department of Housing Press Office didn’t respond to queries as to why the development was delayed, why they cut the number of homes, and whether money was an issue that delayed the project.

In the North Inner-City

At North King Street, council plans to build 30 homes should have been more straightforward as a cost-benefit analysis was not required. However, it also took close to four years for them to get the final approval.

At one stage, there was a peculiar lengthy delay in the council’s written responses to the department, and the council repeated both the planning process and the tendering process which slowed the project too.

In March 2015, the council estimated that the total cost of building 30 homes, and a shop and a community space, in North King Street near Smithfield would be around €7 million.

In May, the Department of Housing set the estimated budget at €6.4 million, for just the homes – giving the council approval to move to the next stage of the process.

By the time the approval and tender process wrapped up in January 2019, the agreed budget had risen to €12.67 million for 30 homes. That works out at €422,000 per home.

Because it came in at less than €20 million, the council didn’t have to do a full cost-benefit analysis.

At one stage, across 2016 and 2017, the council took 485 days to produce a detailed cost plan for the project, and a nearly zero-energy building report, to move from stage 2 to stage 3 approval. It didn’t manage to do it within the department’s recommended budget.

Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam says these delays were definitely the council’s fault. Funding was allocated to this project in 2015 and planning permission had been approved for it in 2009, he says.

That planning permission doesn’t expire, he says. But in 2015, the city council decided it needed to go back through the planning process again, he says. “Despite the fact it got funding because it was shovel ready.”

It’s unclear why this was. Dublin City Council hasn’t yet responded to queries about this. A blog post from Dublin City Architects in December 2017 does note that the council and department had picked the scheme as a pilot to be built as a “nearly zero-energy building”. But it’s unclear when that decision was taken or whether that had anything to do with it.

McAdam has consistently pushed for answers within Dublin City Council regarding these delays, he says.

“There is no earthly reason for this inordinate delay, I’m repeatedly on the record trying to get answers on these delays on North King Street and Infirmary Road,” said McAdam.

The council went to tender in late 2017. But decided not to accept the lowest bidder, and the next lowest dropped out. They had to go through the tender process for a second time to get a builder, documents show.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said they would respond the week after next to questions regarding the reasons for the delays, the re-tendering and the increase in spending.

Quicker in Cherry Orchard

For another patch of land, in Cherry Orchard, the council sought approval and funding to build 53 rapid-build homes.

The project whipped along in contrast with the thorny earlier projects. The application – filed first in June 2017 – was approved quickly, built quickly and came in on budget.

One key difference was that the council sped up the process by skipping stages 1 and 2 of the approvals process.

In June 2018, there was a slight change to the earlier plans, when the council asked the department if it could add 19 more homes to the development.

In August 2018, the department approved funding for those 19 homes, as well as the earlier batch of 53 homes, already agreed.

In August 2019, the council had handed over keys for the first batch of the homes to people on the social housing list.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said this week that all of those homes are now occupied.

At the beginning of the process, Dublin City Council estimated the cost of the rapid-build homes at around €220,000. The final approved budget was for €222,000 each.

But a letter in July 2017 from the Department of Housing suggests that the council couldn’t take the same approach, and skip the first two stages, for any rapid build projects in future.

“It is a concern that no prior budget applications were submitted by the Council for these projects,” said the Department of Housing official. “Please note, that in future, there will be no funding obligations on the Department until issue of Stage 1 approval.”

The success of the rapid-build homes in Cherry Orchard “debunks the myth that we can’t build good quality houses quickly”, says Doolan, who was chair of the council’s housing committee during the last term, when these projects were underway.

The rapid-build model is the way to go, he says. In Cherry Orchard, “they used emergency planning legislation to proceed”, he says. “It was wham, bam – job done, which makes way more sense.”

The government should declare a housing emergency to facilitate that, he says.

Dublin City Council and approved housing bodies currently have 1,218 social homes under construction in the city, according to a recent council report.

Meanwhile, 754 homes are at tender stage, 1,512 are somewhere in the approvals processes which can vary by scheme and 1,626 are at the earlier planning or design stage.

The council built 92 homes last year, the report says.

At the end of last year, Fianna Fáil Housing Spokesperson Darragh O’Brienasked the Minister for Housing whether the government planned to change the spending threshold at which councils could go through a single-stage approval process for social housing projects.

At the moment, if projects cost less than €2 million, councils can go through a quicker, single-stage process, rather than the four-stage one.

Raising the threshold “would remove significant oversight from the Department over a substantial element of the social housing build programme, leading potentially to an increased risk of cost overruns or time delays or both”, said Fine Gael Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, in the Dáil.

“The time involved in approving projects is only a small element in the process of bringing social housing projects from initial conception all the way through to construction,” Murphy said. The process has already been streamlined, he said.

The Department of Housing didn’t respond in time for publication to queries as to whether rapid-build projects should be able to skip part of the approvals process, or whether they would change the system.

Labour Party Councillor Alison Gilliland, who chairs the council’s housing committee, said the process “is very convoluted and tends to be very repetitive”.

The process has been reduced from eight steps to four “but even within each step there is a huge amount of back and forth”, she says. “Anecdotally council officials have told me it is soul destroying.”

She says that the solution is to give the council a budget to build a certain number of homes and the autonomy to build – then put in place checks and balances: “There is a spending framework there, operate within that and off you go.”

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

Reader responses

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Ian Dempsey
at 23 January at 10:53

An Excellent, though profoundly depressing piece.

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