At the back of Croke Park beside the National Handball Centre, a council flat complex, adorned with a Dublin GAA mural, is boarded up.
“Croke Villas Regeneration Project” reads the sign outside. The redevelopment was originally funded by the National Development Plan 2000 to 2006, it says.
Dublin City Council entered into a deal to redevelop the complex through a public-private partnership (PPP) with Bennett Developments, but that fell apart after the financial crash in 2008, according to the Irish Times.
In 2017 the council granted itself planning permission to build 61 new homes and a new boulevard on the site.
Dublin City Council didn’t respond in time for publication to queries sent Monday about why that 2017 plan didn’t proceed.
The council’s current plan is for around 70 homes on the site, again through a PPP, according to a recent presentation to the council’s housing committee, with a relatively swift timeline: to be built by the end of 2026.
They are among around 1,150 social homes across the city that the council plans to deliver through PPP deals within the next three and a half years, said Gareth Rowan, Senior Executive Officer, with Dublin City Council, at a meeting of the housing committee on 16 June.
PPPs are deals under which a private company gets private finance to build a project for the state. The company takes full responsibility for all the construction and maintenance. In return, the state pays them a monthly or yearly fee.
PPPs, though, are a divisive model – in part because of high-profile projects, including O’Devaney Gardens in Stoneybatter, that went belly up with the onset of the last economic crash.
The old PPP model included the council giving away some public land to the developer, but the current approach is different and is solely for building social housing, said David Dinnigan, the council’s director of housing delivery, at a recent meeting of the council’s housing committee.
It’s on council land and will remain on council land, Dinnigan said. “And come back into our ownership once the PPP period is over.”
Still, some politicians say that the approach is risky and there is a lack of transparency around the costs.
Social Democrats Councillor Karl Stanley says that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council ran into a roadblock just last month when a developer building a cycle lane went into liquidation.
“Builders go bust, developers go bust,” he says.
What is the plan?
Under the current PPP process, councils work together to group sites they own into bundles and then they tender for a private consortium to do detailed design work and to finance, build and manage all the homes in that bundle.
In Bundle 3 Dublin City Council has planning permission for around 240 homes across three sites – in Ballymun, East Wall and on Collins Avenue – which are scheduled for completion in 2025.
The council is currently procuring private companies to carry out the detailed design finance and build the homes, contained in Bundle 3.
The private company would maintain the homes for the next 25 years, while the council remains in charge of who gets the homes, and managing tenancies, according to a presentation to the housing committee on 16 June.
Dublin City Council is working up plans together with five other local authorities in the greater Dublin region for another 1,800 homes to be delivered, under bundles 4 and 5.
Those are scheduled to be built by the end of 2026.
Of those, 920 would be in the Dublin City Council area across 10 council-owned sites, including Croke Villas in Ballybough and Basin View in the Liberties, and several former council maintenance depot sites among others.
The presentation also included details of the council’s collaboration with the Land Development Agency to deliver a mix of social and cost-rental homes on large sites, as well as progress on the tenant-in-situ scheme, whereby the council buys homes of private tenants on the social housing list facing eviction.
At the housing committee meeting on 16 June, councillors welcomed the progress on plans for social housing across the city.
“It’s great to see so many homes coming on stream, and that collaboration, and also Dublin City Council leading it,” said Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland.
Said Right to Change Councillor Pat Dunne: “The various schemes and methods that we have for delivery are varied and that is to be welcomed.”
“I still don’t understand why we have a need for PPPs when we have billions lying in the government coffers,” he said.
A high price to pay?
Those who want to bid for public-private partnership contracts need to form a consortium, says Sinn Féin TD and housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin. The consortium is made up of a developer, a finance expert, a housing charity and a maintenance company, he says.
The state then pays the PPP consortium a monthly fee for 25 years, which is handy, says Ó Broin. “You don’t have to pay for it upfront.”
At least the council owns the home at the end, he says. “It’s not as bad as leasing, HAP or RAS.”
(Those are all schemes under which councils rent homes for social tenants, instead of building or buying them.)
“There are potential merits from a management point of view if there is value for money,” he says.
But there are also a lot of players involved in the consortium, so if there are any issues it can be unclear who is responsible, he said. “It’s cumbersome and complex.”
A council report from January said that the PPP contracts are tested to see if they provide value for money compared to traditional procurement and the contract is only awarded if it is assessed as costing less.
Ó Broin says he is not convinced about that comparison process. “That is a completely fictitious exercise,” he says.
There is a big gap in terms of transparency and accountability, he says. He hasn’t been able to find out how much councils have spent on PPP deals through Freedom of Information requests or parliamentary questions, he says.
The current PPP model is different from the old one because only social homes are being built, says Labour Councillor Darragh Moriarty.
Councillors are no longer willing to vote through deals that privatise public land, he says. “Public housing on public land is the mantra.”
Council managers are really keen to push the idea that PPPs deliver homes faster, he says.
In 2015, the first bundle of PPP deals were announced. Among them were 220 homes in Ayrfield on the Malahide Road and Scribblestown in Finglas, according to a council report.
In June 2021, the architects for the development said on social media that the homes were nearing completion.
Meanwhile, the Department of Housing report says that the homes in Ayrfield were completed by June 2021.
While not rapid, the PPP projects done so far in Dublin city may be faster than the council’s direct builds, which currently often involve protracted forward-and-back negotiations with the Department of Housing about costs.
Is it risky?
One major issue with PPP deals is that the entire project will fall apart – again, in the case of Croke Villas – if the developer runs into trouble.
Social Democrats Councillor Karl Stanley says that the PPP approach is likely to cost more because the developer’s profit margin has to be included. “I do have concerns that it could drive up costs.”
The council needs to be very careful about which developers it chooses to partner with, says Stanley. It needs to ensure that they are financially secure.
It isn’t that unusual for developers to go out of business, he says.
“There is a lot of risk involved,” says Ó Broin, the Sinn Féin housing spokesperson. “When things go wrong that risk always falls back on the state.”