It’s not them, it’s us, said Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan on Monday.
Councillors were debating the council’s programme of capital projects – the big projects that are planned for the city over the next three years.
The talk in the chamber focused on how much social housing the council plans to build during that period. The programme sets a target of 1,780 new social housing units, made up of 1,300 to be built or refurbished, and 480 acquisitions.
A motion put forward by Sinn Fein, Labour, the Green Party, and some independents said that the money available to spend on housing is not enough.
They asked for an urgent delegation meeting with the Minister for Housing Simon Coveney “at which the Minister will set out how he intends to provide the required capital allocation for housing for Dublin City Council” in the coming three years.
But Keegan said there isn’t any delay on schemes at the moment from the side of the Department of Housing. “I’m not aware of any social housing scheme that is being delayed in the department at the moment,” he said.
“There has been a record turnaround in terms of getting approvals and sanctions for social housing,” he said.
The main constraining factor at the moment is the inability of the council to get schemes up to a stage where they can send them to the department, said Keegan. “His department is not delaying schemes.”
In the council’s budget, the manager notes plans to recruit more architects and planners.
“Dublin City Council is committed to increasing housing supply in the [c]ity and especially social housing supply,” the budget notes. “To this end, I have provided for a significant recruitment programme of architects and planners, primarily to support the housing construction programme.”
“I suspect we don’t have the planners and the architects and the in-house teams capable of pushing stuff along,” he said. “That’s my guess.”
Keegan’s comments seemed to support that. Part of the issue is that it is taking the council time to gear up and do preliminary designs, he told councillors.
Every single request for additional staffing was sanctioned by the department, said Keegan. “I think you need to be careful if you are going down to the department.”
“I have every confidence that as we require more funding, that funding will be forthcoming,” said Keegan. “Our problem is that we cannot get the schemes down to the department.”
Keegan also pointed to some projects that the council executive had been pushing, but which had faced opposition from some local councillors.
“If you go down to the minister, the minister may want to know why this council […] stopped the construction of local housing in St Teresa’s Gardens, at Bridgefoot Street, at Marrowbone Lane,” he said.
There are all kinds of reasons why different schemes being developed in the city have taken a while.
After all, Bridgefoot Street was a zoning issue, not a design-stage issue. St Teresa’s Gardens was delayed, in part, because of contamination at the site. And Marrowbone Lane is a working depot – so she isn’t sure how that really comes into it, she said.
There are some legitimate objections, says Ciaran Cuffe of the Green Party. But “I would echo the manager’s concerns that some councillors have opposed some schemes and that has been difficult,” he said. He thinks there is often room for compromise.
But not every delay has been at the council’s end, said Cuffe. Plans for Dominick Street have been tied up in red tape for two years going between the council and the Department of Housing, he says. “I just feel like we’re not allowed too much flexibility as a council by the Department of Housing.”
Sinn Fein’s Daithi Doolan, who is head of the council’s housing committee, said that – despite Keegan’s assertion that there is no problem with funding – they needed more funding released.
“We simply haven’t received enough funding to build housing in Dublin,” he said. (As of May 2016, there were 22,600 applicants on the social housing list in Dublin.)
Independent Councillor Ruairi McGinley, who is head of the council’s finance committee, pointed out how the budget for housing tapers.
There is around €390 million earmarked for housing and building in 2017, and €291 million in 2018, and €157 million in 2019. “It’s a declining trend there,” he said.
The budget is front-loaded because that’s where the council has the most certainty in funding and he understands that, but there needs to be long-term planning, said McGinley.
“I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that relying on the private model on its own, with the best will in the world, is not going to do the best job,” he said.
Doolan says he also wants to meet with the minister to discuss how land in NAMA could play more of a role in tackling the housing crisis. (Whether NAMA is the right vehicle to deal with the housing shortage has been debated frequently in the past.)
He also wants to look at whether the council can borrow from the Housing Finance Agency themselves to build new homes, or to regenerate old flat complexes, he said.