Focus Ireland Director of Advocacy Mike Allen writes that the mistakes made in the 70’s and 80’s when it came to the provision of social housing estates was not the concept, but rather the lack of employment, poor facilities and poor estate management. It is a reality that is as relevant today.
Just before the launch of Rebuilding Ireland, then Minister for Housing Simon Coveney told Pat Kenny that “Building new social housing estates is not the answer to solving the current homeless crisis”. This was because concentrated areas of social housing “create areas of deprivation and disadvantage”. Coveney committed not to make “the same mistake” but instead to create “integrated communities” to encourage social mobility.
Under its revised targets Rebuilding Ireland commits to deliver 50,000 social housing units but only around 26,000 of these will be ‘exclusively built as social housing’. The rest will be acquired through purchase of private housing, leasing and Part V, and so will already be distributed in communities with a range of housing tenures.
The problem arises in trying to build 26,000 social housing units without putting ‘too many’ in one place. The challenge is even greater when you consider that most of the dispersed acquired homes were front-loaded into the Rebuilding Ireland plan, and most of the 26,000 ‘exclusively built as social housing’ are to be constructed in the next few years.
Building small groups of houses is time consuming and expensive – each batch of 20 units takes almost as long to get through the planning and procurement process as 200 units, and it is cheaper to build to scale. The alternative approach of building social housing units as part of a larger ‘mixed tenure’ development is a complex planning process taking many years. It also requires active engagement of private developers, who remain unwilling to commit reliably to many such developments for a variety of reasons. So local authorities are hampered in progressing alone, but can’t get find private partners to progress together.
As a result the decision not to build new social homes in large scale social housing developments is one of the most significant factors holding back new social housing delivery. Despite this it is rarely discussed or the ideas behind it questioned.
Minister Coveney was articulating a broad consensus about the ‘mistakes’ of earlier social housing programmes: namely that the problems of Ballymun or Jobstown arose because they were too large, and all the people there were from the same background. This consensus is very broad – this is one of the few areas where you will find Minister Coveney and Fr Peter McVerry on the same page: “Housing policy in Ireland has contributed, I believe, to one of the most fundamental injustices in our society – segregated housing. The segregation of housing into poorer local authority estates and wealthier private estates, often far removed from each another, affects many of the other fundamental structures that determine the quality of life of our citizens.”
There were certainly mistakes made in the large social housing estates of the 1970s and 80s, but is the consensus correct? Are we learning the right lessons? There is a growing body of evidence that the mistakes that matter were lack of employment, poor facilities and poor estate management.
Reduced External Stigma
A NESC review by Dr. Philip Lawton, which includes Grand Canal Dock and Fatima Mansions, highlights the need for active estate management to support social mix. He also finds that “urban development will not be sustainable without supporting economic and social policy”. New light is also thrown on the reality of ‘social mix’ in an important paper by Anna Carnegie et al. This shows that “tenure mixing often produces contradictory results in terms of reduced external stigma but heightened internal or within neighbourhood stigmatisation.” There is much to be learned from the sometimes negative reaction to ‘tenure mix’ arising from the policy of purchasing homes in private housing estates for social housing. Whatever the low-income households feel about this policy, they have certainly not received a universally positive welcome from owner-occupiers.
Somewhere along the line we moved from a concern about ‘social mix’ to a Rebuilding Ireland objective of ‘tenure mix’. Are they really the same thing, and what does that mean about the relative value of different housing tenures? Are the increasing number of localities which are predominantly tenanted by people on HAP, with no estate management or social services, really going to be an improvement on the social housing estates? Is it not possible to build social housing and get it right?
These are all important questions, not just because they should help us create more vibrant and sustainable communities, but also because a particular interpretation of the ‘mistakes of the past’ may be standing between us and building any communities at all.
These issues will be one of the key themes of Focus Ireland’s 12th Annual Policy Conference, Ending Homelessness: Overcoming the Barriers which will be held in Cork on the 14th of September. Speakers will include John Boughton, the author of ‘Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing’ which the Guardian described as “an important and timely book, in the wake of Grenfell Tower, which emphasises how public investment enriches lives”. Professor Michelle Norris, who has written informed and challenging research on this issue for many years, will also address the issue. Other themes will include the question of land planning (announced speaker Dr Rory O’Donnell of NESC) and the wider macroeconomic challenges (announced speaker Dr Seamus Coffey, Chair of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council). Bookings for the conference are now open, for more details and to book click here.
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