Why we need Labour's ambition on housing - Ivana Bacik TD

In addressing our recent Labour Party national conference in Cork, I stated our ambition for one million homes in ten years. I proposed that the State can and must deliver 50,000 new builds and 50,000 refurbished homes per year for the next decade.    

This level of ambition for housing is imperative, even before the Government’s callous decision to lift the temporary ban on no-fault evictions – a decision made without introducing any effective contingency plans for those facing homelessness. The record figure of over 11,700 people already homeless is a shocking indictment of this Government’s failure on housing.   

To my surprise, the stated Labour ambition for housing has been met with derision from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who have poured scorn on our proposal. This dismissive attitude from Government Ministers, hidebound by their own conservatism, is truly extraordinary.  Instead of wasting their time thinking up reasons why they can’t deliver one million homes in ten years, they should be thinking about how to deliver the homes that our communities desperately need.   

Because what may sound like a bold statement of ambition from Labour is in fact a sensible and realistic proposal, based on the Government’s own targets and projections for housing need, and recognising the scale of the housing disaster now confronting our society and economy.   

Let’s look at the facts.   

The Taoiseach has cast doubt on his own building plan, acknowledging that we currently have a shortfall of 250,000 homes. That means that we must build a quarter of a million new homes just to meet existing needs. In a growing economy, this need is increasing rapidly.   

The Government’s own Housing Commission has recently said that Ireland will require up to 62,000 new homes built per year until 2050 to meet demographic demand – almost double the annual target in the Government’s master plan for this decade. Under Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien’s Housing for All strategy, the average annual target in the period to 2030 is set at just 33,000 homes – far too low but not even met.    

According to IBEC, the ESRI and the Government’s own advisers, this target will have to increase accordingly, with the chronic shortage of housing clearly hampering job creation, economic growth and employers’ capacity to hire much-needed staff across all sectors – healthcare, retail, hospitality and construction itself.   

So the Labour target for new builds (50,000 per year until 2033) is simply based on a well-established need.   

The Labour target for refurbishment is also based on the Government’s own figures. Each year for the next decade, we have called for the refurbishment and retrofitting of 50,000 derelict, vacant, unaffordable or unliveable dwellings.  One year ago, the Government set a target to deep retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030. So far only about 20,000 have been done up to a B2 BER rating, so the pace of construction will need to increase rapidly to meet targets already in place. Clearly, many of these homes will be occupied – but due to high energy costs are often unaffordable for many households, urgently requiring a deep retrofit to make them sustainable.   

Moreover, the Government’s own Vacant Homes Action Plan published in January identifies a figure of 166,752 vacant homes nationwide – representing 7.8 per cent of the housing stock. If government is serious about this plan, they would have included delivery targets for each local authority. Priority must be given to bringing vacant homes back into use as fast as possible.   

So how can we do this? Again, we have seen an extraordinary attitude taken by many Government representatives, in dismissing the idea that this level of ambition is in any way realistic. It shows a very disturbing fatalism from those in power; as if they have given up on any notion that might have real capacity to cut through the blockages and speed up housing delivery.   

By contrast, we saw during Covid just how quickly the State can and did pivot to address an emergency. It’s obvious that we need the same level of urgency and ambition now applied to housing by the very Ministers who have been so busy throwing insults at Labour ambition. Here’s how they should be responding.     

In recent months, we in Labour have been engaging with many experts who have provided creative and constructive proposals for speeding up delivery of homes. These proposals are also available to Government. For example, in December the ESRI published a paper on increasing housing supply, with practical measures proposed to increase the numbers of construction workers, tackle dereliction, and apply innovative technologies to deliver housing more quickly.   

To address labour shortages (there are now half the number of workers in construction in Ireland that we saw during the Celtic Tiger years), the ESRI have called for the addition of certain construction skills to the Critical Skills Employment Permit (CSEP) list. This list was historically used to attract highly skilled workers like ICT and medical professionals to this country – its use would enable the mounting of an aggressive recruitment campaign to bring in skilled building workers from abroad. In addition, increasing pay rates for those on apprenticeship programmes and tackling bogus self-employment could attract more school-leavers into construction training here.   

Further, modular housing firms have been offering solutions in housing delivery – they construct homes in factories off-site, a method requiring much less labour, which produces homes approximately 50 per cent faster than traditional methods and is typically 10-20 per cent cheaper. Such homes can be mass produced to see the delivery of a high volume of housing in a short space of time.   

Finally, while constraints in the planning process have undoubtedly caused blockages in housing delivery, we know that there are thousands of live residential planning permissions in place across the country – about 30,000 in Dublin City Council area alone. The Government need to adopt a ‘use it or lose it’ policy to incentivise developers to commence construction, rather than tolerating those speculators who continue to sit on inactive permissions.   

There are many other mechanisms available to the government to tackle land hoarding, and to make residential development land more affordable – like adopting the Labour Bill to implement the recommendations of the Kenny report.   

But the main point is that, in a housing crisis causing such distress to so many, this timid government need to show ambition. When we see a slowdown in construction commencements, we need the State to intervene, to end the over-reliance on the private market which has failed to deliver the homes that we need.    

We need ambition – because that’s what it takes to tackle a housing crisis. Many decades ago, Irish construction workers were recruited in their thousands to build British public infrastructure. During a previous boom, we built 60,000 new houses per year in Ireland. Despite economic recession, Labour Minister Jimmy Tully delivered 100,000 public homes during the 1973-77 government. We are now a prosperous state, running a 5.3 billion Euro surplus in 2022. Only ideology – not the economy – is holding us back. We can afford to deliver one million homes in ten years. What we cannot afford is this Government’s lack of ambition.  

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