Fingal County Council finished building three social homes in Portrane in the first half of this year, show Department of Housing reports.
The council, together with housing charities, is on-site building 169 more social homes at the moment.
Building only small numbers itself leaves Fingal County Council heavily reliant on the private sector to meet the needs of the more than 6,000 households on its social-housing list.
That means buying what are known as turn-keys and Part V homes, the portion of big private developments that homebuilders have to offer up to the council.
Mel Reynolds, the architect and housing commentator, says this can lead to state agencies competing with each other to buy homes, which tends to drive up house prices.
“It’s a massive demand-side measure and is pushing up prices,” Reynolds says.
Also, “the market is so variable and so prone to ups and downs, what is going to happen if we have another crash?” asks Philip Lawton, assistant professor of geography at Trinity College Dublin.
A spokesperson for Fingal County Council said it had met its targets for social homes in recent years, with 3,637 new homes “through build, acquisition and leasing”. (They didn’t say within what period.)
“Delivery at the start of 2023 has been contracted temporarily,” they said. “This is a factor of programming and issues affecting delivery on site.”
In November 2022, in the Dáil, Fianna Fáil Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien TD said the plan is to move towards building rather than buying.
“Our clear focus is to increase the stock of social housing through new build projects delivered by local authorities and Approved Housing Bodies (AHB) and, with this, to reduce the numbers of social homes delivered through acquisition programmes,” O’Brien said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that turnkeys are “in the main, homes built by developers on private land under contract for local authorities or an AHB” and often the houses would not be built without funding from the council.
“Government places a high priority on the use of appropriate State lands to support social and affordable housing delivery,” says the spokesperson. It funded 250 extra staff specifically for local authority social housing delivery and set up the Land Development Agency, they said.
Unlike the three new homes that Fingal County Council built at St Ita’s in Portrane, most of the new social homes in the first half of this year weren’t direct builds.
A housing charity bought 18 homes in a private development, and the council itself bought 13 homes under Part V rules, whereby councils purchase a percentage of private developments of more than nine homes.
Fingal County Council does mean to lean on bought social homes to meet its targets, shows its housing delivery action plan.
Of the 691 new social homes it aims for this year, it intends to buy 343 from private developers under Part V. And for housing charities to buy another 162 as turnkeys.
Its goal, along with housing charities, for direct builds this year, is 180 social homes.
But – with just three already built and most of the homes under construction due to be finished in 2024 or 2025 – it can’t meet that.
Robert O’Donoghue, the Labour councillor who chairs Fingal County Council’s housing committee, said that hitting this year’s targets was always going to be challenging, given the jump from 361 last year to 691 this year.
“This year was always going to be difficult,” he said.
Does it matter?
Right now though, it doesn’t matter greatly to him how social housing is delivered, said O’Donoghue. “As long as targets are being hit and supply follows.”
But he would be concerned that if a downturn comes, and private development seizes up, and so too does the construction of social homes – as in the last crisis, he said.
Private-sector housing commencements in Fingal County dropped a bit last year compared with 2020 and 2021.
In 2020, there were 2,380 new homes started. Commencements grew in 2021 to 2,447 but then dropped down to 1,995 last year, according to statistics from the Department of Housing.
O’Donoghue would like councils to have their own building departments, he said, rather than relying on the private market and contractors.
Reynolds, the architect and commentator, says he sees that reliance as an issue too: “The real problem with that is that they are not in control of it.”
As does Lawton, the assistant professor. The state might not have the ability to keep going, he says, if the private sector contracts.
Since the 1980s, the state has been pulling back from providing housing directly, says Lawton. “It’s very difficult to get back to a scenario where the state is hiring builders.”
Another criticism is that when councils and housing charities buy from the private market, they squeeze out private individuals searching for a home to buy.
Housing charities have argued that most homes listed as turnkey purchases were in developments that only got off the ground because they offered funding up front.
“There is almost a moral question,” says Lawton. “Who should be relied upon to build what is a necessary good?”
It is good that social housing is being provided now, he says, whereas a couple of years ago there was very little social housing of any kind being delivered.
But also there’s variation, he says. There are examples where councils are building more homes directly, he says, and places where they are doing less – so it’s interesting to look at why.
A spokesperson for Clúid, the housing charity that bought 18 social homes in Portmarnock this year, says that there are benefits to buying social homes in private developments.
These include “improvement in quality of life for residents of all tenures, reduction in stigma associated with social housing and combatting socio-spatial segregation,” she says, citing a Housing Agency report issued last year.
It can assist the developer to secure finance, if they already have a deal done with a housing charity to purchase some of the homes, says the spokesperson for Clúid.
Looking at why
Reynolds, the architect and commentator, says he cannot understand why local authorities like Fingal County Council, which owns hundreds of acres of land, don’t build more social housing on it.
“They have a monstrous amount of land,” says Reynolds, who regularly crunches the numbers for social-housing delivery across the country. “Fingal have really underperformed.”
It is cheaper, particularly in the Dublin region where land costs are high, to build on land you already own, says Reynolds. “It’s madness paying full market price for turnkeys when the councils have vast tracts of land.”
Kieran Dennison, a Fine Gael councillor who also sits on the Fingal housing committee, says the county doesn’t have that much land that is zoned for housing. “They’re looking now for land to buy.”
The biggest projects that the council has underway on its own lands are for around 1,000 homes on its site at Church Fields, and 1,200 homes at Ballymastone in Donabate.
The homes at Church Fields are going to be a mix of social, cost-rental and affordable, according to a spokesperson for Fingal Council.
In Ballymastone, where the council has teamed up with the developer Glenveagh, 60 percent of the homes are set to be sold at full market price as private housing, 20 percent as affordable housing and 20 percent social housing.
Dennison, the Fine Gael councillor, said that policy has been to have a mix of ownership and social housing to avoid problems of the past. “Where you had kids growing up feeling stigmatised.”
That reading of the past has been countered by some housing experts who have said that de-industrialisation was a driver of social problems in the 1980s and 1990s, rather than large social-housing estates – and that tenure mixing can increase feelings of stigma.
Lawton says that ultimately councils not building much themselves is a political choice. “They don’t have a desire to do it that way, they would prefer to rely on the private market to do it instead.”
The spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that the government established the Land Development Agency (LDA) to develop housing on state-owned land.
Its focus at the moment is on managing state land to develop new homes and regenerate underused sites, said the spokesperson.
“In the longer-term, it will assemble strategic land-banks from a mix of public and private lands making these available for housing in a controlled manner, which is expected to bring essential more long-term stability to the Irish housing market,” they said.
So far the government has transferred 28 sites nationwide to the LDA. These include sites Castlelands in Balbriggan and Hacketstown in Skerries, he says.