It Takes Government, On Average, More Than Two Years to Approve Plans for Social Homes – Instead of One

It should take councils 59 weeks to draw up designs for social housing projects, secure government approval and tender for a builder.

Instead, it has been taking an average of 109 weeks, according to minutes of a central government working group.

Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin TD and housing spokesperson, says that the homelessness crisis is continuing to deepen, so building more social housing is urgent.

Construction inflation means that a two-year wait could cost the taxpayer an extra 20 percent, he says. “Costs are going through the roof.”

A recent Department of Housing review has recommended ways to speed up new social homes, including providing standard design layouts, fast-tracking some projects, and improving communication.

“The Minister has committed to implementing a number of recommendations of practical actions to further improve the efficiency of the approvals processes for building social housing,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.

Ó Broin, Sinn Féin TD, says that the new recommendations won’t make much difference to the timelines.

They should scrap the process entirely, he says. “If we want the local authority to be delivering more homes more quickly, we need to remove the shackles from the councils and the AHBs [approved housing bodies].”

What’s the Current Process?

Councils get funding to build social homes through the Social Housing Investment Programme (SHIP) and to get it they apply to the Department of Housing using afour-stage approvals process.

Approved housing bodies (AHBs) are housing charities that buy, manage, and build social homes.

Karen Murphy, director of policy at the Irish Council for Social Housing, an umbrella group for AHBs, says that there are two different funding streams they can use to build social homes.

The Capital Advance Leasing Facility (CALF) is easier, faster and smoother, she says and most AHBs prefer to use it for mainstream housing projects.

CALF involves borrowing from the Housing Finance Agency or other lenders, says Murphy. That means that some smaller AHBs don’t have the expertise to get the finance through CALF.

The other funding model, the Capital Assistance Scheme (CAS) allows AHBs to build social homes that are fully funded by the state, she says.

Larger AHBs usually use CAS to build homes for people with additional needs, such as disabled people, older people, or people with a history of homelessness, she says. But getting the funding that way is “a very complex process”.

CAS will pay for special things like communal areas in a complex, or disabled access homes that are designed to meet the needs of a specific household.

The new strategy on housing for disabled people, launched recently, will create expectations, Murphy says. “It’s such a vital need and the demand is there.”

So it is really important that access to CAS funding is accelerated, she says. “It’s filling a gap that really [the private rental sector] is never going to meet.”

AHBs applying through CAS use the four-stage approval process, but they have to go to the council and to the department at each stage, she says. “It mirrors it but there is another layer,” she says.

The AHBs timeline target for CAS approvals is 75 weeks, she says.

AHBs have a longer timeline than the councils’ 59 weeks, because they have to apply for planning permission in the same way as private developers. Councils grant themselves planning permission for social homes through a process known as Part 8, she says.

Neither the AHBs nor the councils are managing to complete the approvals process within the target times, though, says Murphy.

In January 2021, in response to a query from Ó Broin about social housing figures, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien pointed to the work the Department of Housing had done to streamline the four-stage approval process. “As a result of this work a pre-construction programme of 59 weeks was agreed,” O’Brien said.

He gave the same timeline in November 2020, in a response to a question from Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton about red tape and building social homes.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that some changes have already been made to the system.

In September 2020, O’Brien introduced a single-stage approval process for social housing schemes costing up to €6 million, he said.

In December 2021, O’Brien announced 211 new jobs on council housing teams, nationally, to help to deliver more social housing, he says.

What’s the Hold Up?

Meeting minutes for the working group that looked last year at the approvals process for social housing, show that communication was raised as a big issue with the current system.

“Communication issues are regarded as a large factor in the delay of approvals,” say the minutes of a meeting in November 2021, released under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Greater pre-Stage 1 engagement and more open communication between stakeholders throughout the process were suggested, as well as the possibility of regular meetings of the DHLGH [Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage] and AHB’s,” they read.

Murphy, director of policy with the Irish Council for Social Housing, said AHBs would like to see clear information on what types of schemes the department will approve, to save them from doing a lot of preliminary work, called site investigation, for sites that have no chance.

“There are some parts of the process that can end up costing a lot of money and not going anywhere,” says Murphy.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that the 59-week timeline is just not achievable for some projects.

“The four-stage process provides an indicative timeline intended for social housing projects of a straightforward nature, such as small-scale projects or those to be developed on greenfield sites,” says the spokesperson by email.

All stakeholders recognise that it won’t be easy to meet the timeline for projects where there are added complications in planning, procurement, site conditions, design constraints, and community consultation, they said.

The four-stage approval process is micro-managing by the Department of Housing, said Ó Broin, the Sinn Féin TD.

“It’s an incredibly slow and cumbersome process and it’s delaying social housing projects by between two and four years in some cases,” he says.

There is a lot of haggling between the department and the councils over costs, he says, but ultimately those are decided by the private sector anyway.

What’s Changing?

Dublin City Councillors often point to the back and forth between the council and the Department of Housing as one reason why social housing projects are so slow to move from paper to bricks.

In January 2022, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien launched the working group’sreport, following its review of the four-stage approvals process.

Streamlining approvals is essential to make sure homes are delivered speedily, but that needs to be done alongside checks on how money is being spent, says the review.

The review recommends several changes to the process: paying for early site assessments, encouraging councils to use a single-stage approval process for small projects, fast-tracking some projects – if they meet certain criteria – through one of the approval stages.

It also includes measures to make some of the form-filling smoother, a “clearing house” to keep an eye on stalled projects and push them along and the introduction of “standard layouts” to give councils and AHBs guidance on architectural design.

There will be an implementation group established to check whether these and other changes are making any difference, it says.

Murphy, of the Irish Council of Social Housing, says that the review should help to speed things up for AHBs if all the recommendations are implemented, and so the implementation group is very important.

She welcomed the move to fast-track “stage three” of the process for some projects. “Anything that speeds up the process or reduces the layers would help,” says Murphy.

Ó Broin says the two major changes recommended are the plan to create a single point of clearance for projects that include both social housing and affordable homes (instead of each type of housing needing a separate approvals process), and the commitment to waive stage three of the process for some projects.

But those changes won’t solve the whole problem, he says. The government should abolish the four-stage approval process, he says.

“You have to do tendering and procurement under EU law and no one is saying that you shouldn’t go out to tender,” he says. “But the EU doesn’t say you have to individually tender for every project.”

The architectural design could be done at the same time as tendering, he says, and there is no need for architects in the Department of Housing to double-check the work of fully qualified architects in Dublin City Council.

Large local authorities should be allowed to just go ahead and build unless a problem arises, he says.

“The crazy thing is that this isn’t about cost control,” he says. There are already cost ceilings – caps on how much can be spent – in place, so councils should just stay within those, he says.

The Department of Housing spokesperson didn’t directly answer a question about whether it would be possible to scrap the four-stage approvals process altogether.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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