An expert has said that the Government’s aim of balanced regional development appears impossible and that Ireland is at risk of becoming a city-state “like Luxembourg”.
While housing is scarce almost everywhere, house hunters outside of Dublin and its suburbs have even less chance of finding a home than their east coast counterparts.
Figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show that the best performing local authority area, South Dublin, had one new housing unit started for every 83 people who lived there last year.
The worst performer, Roscommon, had just one for every 648 people.
Over the past three years, the counties that have most frequently appeared in the top 10 have been Dublin City, Fingal, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, South Dublin, Wicklow, Meath, Kildare, Louth, Laois and the outlier, Cork County.
Longford, Roscommon, Tipperary, Leitrim, Kerry, Donegal, Mayo, Sligo, Cavan and Clare appeared most frequently in the bottom 10.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” said Michelle Murphy, a political analyst at the think tank Social Justice Ireland, who moved from Dublin to Donegal in recent years.
“I don’t know if all the house construction goes to the East Coast because that’s where the demand is, or if that’s where the demand is because that’s where the houses are being built.
“But I know the radio shows I listen to here and the newspapers I read locally are full of stories about people in need of housing.”
Professor Padraic Kenna, director of the Center for Housing Law, Rights and Policy at the University of Galway, agrees.
“It’s not a lack of demand, because there is demand across the country,” he said. “And it’s not a lack of money, because when you look at the number of initial mortgages drawn down, it’s as high as it was at the height of the Celtic Tiger.
“There are complex dynamics happening at the heart of the construction industry. It doesn’t make decisions based on population density.”
Whatever the dynamic, the result is clear. According to CSO figures cited by the Department of Housing, housing completions (which differ slightly from openings) last year grew by 21.9% in Dublin and 32.2% in the Midlands.
They increased by just 8.3% in the Southeast, 5.4% in the West and 1.2% in the Southwest.
In the Central-West region there was a drop of 1.4% and in the border region a drop of 1.7%.
“The rate of decline is slowing at the regional level,” the department said.
Maybe so, but the concentration of housing on the East Coast won’t be diluted anytime soon.
Lorcan Sirr, senior lecturer in housing at Dublin University of Technology, crunched more numbers.
“In Co Dublin, across the four local authorities, we have 28.5% of the population living on 1.3% of the land,” he said. “In the greater Dublin area, which includes counties Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow, you have 41% of the population living on 9.5% of the land.
“In Co Galway you have 5% of the population living on 9% of the land. In Connaught, you have 11% of the population living on 25% of the land.
“Development takes such a huge toll on the East Coast – how do we rebalance this unbalanced country?
“The country has come so far towards becoming a city-state like Luxembourg that Dublin is now like a bowling ball and everywhere else is like marbles.
“Balanced regional development is a politically convenient concept, but almost impossible to achieve.”
The difference between impossible and almost impossible?
“A hundred years,” said Dr. Sirr. “I think it would be a 100-year project.”
We should have been on this project for 20 years, since the National Spatial Strategy was designed in 2002 to achieve more balanced regional development. It didn’t have the desired effect.
The National Development Plan and the National Planning Framework set similar objectives, but their first versions were published in 2018 and evidence of progress is scarce.
Professor Kenna believes the construction industry “seems almost immune to all types of political decisions”.
“You can zone [for housing], but the local authority has no power to force people to build,” he said. “You can have a great county development plan that says exactly how many houses you need, but to deliver them? That’s the weakest link.”
When the Irish House Builders Association was asked what policies would increase housing supply in regional counties, director Conor O’Connell said trends were already improving.
“All regions are now seeing an increase in both the number of completions and starts,” he said in a statement, although this contradicts the OSC figures. “Some of the biggest percentage increases are occurring in counties outside of major urban centers. For example, Westmeath, which until recently has had little housing construction activity.”
O’Connell said government initiatives such as Housing For All, Project Tosaigh, Croí Cónaithe and discounts for development contributions and water connections are working
“Many of them are in their infancy, but they are driving an increase in housing production,” he said.
However, Dr. Sirr has doubts about its effectiveness. Croí Cónaithe is too restrictive, he said, requiring a density and level of development that goes beyond the experience and reach of most small and medium-sized construction companies operating in the regions. He is also concerned that the discount scheme may give a false impression at first.
“What people do is receive a start notice that costs 30 euros and lasts forever to take advantage of the exemption without necessarily intending to develop,” he said.
“They might put a man with a shovel on site to dig a hole within 28 days to ‘start’ the work, but then sit on the site and sell it when the market is convenient.”
It will take some time to see if this ploy becomes widespread.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has seen enough of Ireland’s attempts at balanced regional development to know that it is not working.
In a report published last December, he stated that the imbalance in regional development was accompanied by “unequal governance”.
“Policy development on issues of local and regional concern – the most pressing of which are investment in housing and transport infrastructure – largely takes place in Ireland’s capital, Dublin, where much of Ireland’s public sector is located. central government”, he stated.
He also highlighted an event that fueled his analysis.
“A presentation from the local authority in Sligo noted that the National Planning Framework targets are impressive and benefit the region – but delivery has been poor. For example, last year, around 170 units were built, against a need for around 600 to meet NFP targets.
“Despite the quality of life advantages that Co Sligo has, there is simply limited choice and, as a result, high prices for potential newcomers looking for somewhere to live.”
The Department of Housing insisted that the NPF would see “substantial growth occurring in the southern, northern and western regions”.
He stated that the various schemes already mentioned, plus the Vacant House Rehabilitation Grant, the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund (RRDF) and the Town and Village Renewal Scheme, would all produce results.
Murphy, from Social Justice Ireland, said she was concerned that the results would not come quickly enough or would not be as substantial as needed.
“Schemes like the vacant homes initiative are quite limited. The scale of work required in most unoccupied homes is so large that subsidies don’t help much,” she said.
She highlighted that the current guidelines for rural housing are 20 years old and a revised version promised since 2017 has not yet been published.
“We need these guidelines. It would give builders more security and could lead them to have a more favorable view of the regional market,” she said. “If we really want balanced regional development, people must have a place to live.”