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What we can learn from Ireland's new housing strategy

31 October 2016 Author:


Ireland’s ‘Celtic tiger’ era housing and planning policy is often seen as an example of ‘what not to do’ in order to deliver sustainable development, which is why the recently published housing strategy gives pause for thought.

The clue is in the name: strategy.

For a nation that spent a decade throwing up houses faster than you can say ‘110% mortgage’, it is a welcome change of tack for Ireland to be taking a holistic approach to housing delivery.

On paper at least.

Published in the first month of the new government taking office, the strategy provides concrete actions, timelines and – crucially - financial resources for the delivery of enough housing to meet Ireland’s many and varied needs. It gives due regard to the importance of place, and acknowledges the interrelatedness of housing with other policy areas.

The strategy emphasises the importance of locating housing in the right place thus providing the opportunity for wider family and social networks to thrive, maximising access to employment opportunities and to services such as education, public transport, health and amenities, while also delivering on sustainability objectives related to efficiency in service delivery and investment provision. Bearing in mind what we have been saying since our centenary year, this is music to the RTPI’s ears.

England’s piecemeal housing policy

Arguably what has been lacking in England is an overall strategy like the one on the table in Ireland. Whilst there was a housing green paper in 2007, housing policies still tends to be made in isolation, a characteristic emblematised by measures such as Right to Buy, Help to Buy, and Green Belts.

On the latter - while it is crucial to make decisions about where we do and do not want development to be - depending on 350 different local planning authorities independently to come up with sufficient housing allocations in the right places is a big challenge.

In order to lay the foundations for a coherent strategy there need to be measures taken to accompany Green Belt policy (and policies like Right to Buy and Help to Buy) which would enable more affordable homes to be built for sale and rent in the places where the economy is creating new jobs. Reform of Compulsory Purchase is encouraging in this context, but more needs to be done to address the financialisation of the land market, which has seen land become primarily a tradable asset rather than something to build houses on. Bolstered by a regime of proactive land assembly, green belts can form part of a coherent housing strategy. Indications that releasing public sector land will form part of the upcoming UK Government's Housing White paper are welcome in this context.

Housing: the intersection for policies

Ireland’s housing strategy is notable not only because it exists in the first place, but also because it treats of not just housing, but also a range of related issues: health, education, quality of life, transport, and employment. The current housing debate in England is often confined to housing, and - counterintuitive though it may sound - that is the problem. Housing’s complexity and relatedness to other policy areas creates something of a wicked problem that is both difficult to characterise and respond to.

Nevertheless, responses until now have tended to focus on single issues: home ownership; supply; first time buyers. Responses that focus on one tenure and specific housing supply targets are rarely evidence based and therefore often ineffective. The housing sector is dynamic and at times volatile. It is institutionally fragmented, and interdependent with other major systems such as employment and transport. Single issue policy fixes fail to acknowledge this.

We look forward hopefully to the White Paper in November to address the complex links between different areas of public policy which all impact on us getting the homes we need, in places we need to live in and at prices we can afford.

What actually works?

The figures clearly indicate that there is a spatial dimension to housing that is often overlooked: nationally there are plenty of homes – the problem is that there is a shortage where they are most needed, and in areas where they are plentiful their condition is often poor. This nuance is often lost in public debate as the myopic focus on housing numbers overlooks the importance of place: where houses are and what is beside them. The housing sector is a complex system with important economic, social, spatial, political and environmental dimensions, and until policy makers recognise this - as they gradually seem to be in Ireland - we are doomed to hear the same debates and see the same policy failures ad nauseam.

The RTPI’s new work stream Better Planning: Housing Affordability will consider how proactive planning can deliver housing affordability. We are proposing an inverted approach to policy making whereby policy is devised on the basis of successful practitioner experiences, rather than economic theory. As part of Better Planning we will be engaging with planners who are successfully delivering housing affordability. We will consider the lessons that can be learned from their work which could be used to inform housing policy going forward.

Further information is available on our website: /knowledge/better-planning/