Why does it take so long to build social housing?


Plenty of expensive and cumbersome obstacles stand in the way of getting homes built, writes Fiona Cormican of Clúid Housing

This article was first published in the Sunday Business Post on Oct 21st 2018 

Budget 2019 allocates approximately €1.4 billion for social housing, which will be used to deliver some 7,900 new social homes through a range of build and acquisition programmes. This is welcome, but the new-build homes won’t be delivered until 2021 at the earliest.

The question, I imagine, on most of the public’s lips is this: why does it take so long? How much time does it actually take to build a home?

At Clúid Housing, which is the largest Approved Housing Body in Ireland with 6,500 high-quality affordable homes across the country, we have considerable experience of providing social housing, developed over more than two decades.

From the very first conversation about building a property or a scheme of properties, to the actual handing over of keys to a tenant, it takes an average of three years.

This time frame includes initial conversations about the feasibility of the project, the assessment of the site which includes site investigations to see if it is suitable to build on, or if there are problems with the site that would make the building more costly.

Then there is the financing of the project, getting someone to fund it and agreeing the terms and conditions of that funding.

The project then moves into the initial design and planning permission stage, and if the housing is being built under Part V of the Planning and Development Act (which requires that 10 per cent of a housing scheme is reserved for social housing), this arrangement will need to be negotiated.

Possible objections, from any person or organisation who may not be happy about houses being built on this site, can also delay a project extensively.

After the planning process has been completed, the next stage is detailed design. Then the project has to be costed and material, labour and trades sourced and prices agreed. If it’s a public project, it is then subject to Public Procurement rules and guidelines.

But even if it is a private project, the developer has to have a detailed enough project to put to tender to sub-contractors and material suppliers for an accurate quote.

Alongside this, all the utility providers such as electricity, gas and water have to approve the plans and agree a cost to bring their services to site. Once all costs are agreed, final funding can be approved and planning to go on-site can begin.

Once on-site, a building programme will provide a schedule detailing when the homes will be completed but even then, there is a risk of delays, weather, labour issues or maybe finding something under the ground that your original site investigations missed.

Could this be a speedier process? Well, yes.

It requires a coordinated project-led approach to each housing development. All stakeholders, including the developers, financiers, planners and utility providers, need to communicate on each project and each project needs leadership to bring it through the processes and people that make up the system.

It would require a cultural change in the way we approach building houses. It would require cooperation and trust from all stakeholders and a belief that we are all aiming for the same goal; the delivery of homes.

It would require a much less adversarial approach between stakeholders and a willingness to let go of embedded cultures and attitudes.

If we are all aiming for the same goal – getting new homes built – then that shouldn’t be a problem, should it?

If it takes three years to produce a new home, then houses being built now were first talked about in 2015, and houses we want to produce in 2021 need to be talked about now.

In 2015, we were in a very different place. Rebuilding Ireland didn’t exist. Funding for building projects was still difficult. The construction industry was on its knees and the improvements in the planning system were still to come. So really, it is not surprising that supply in 2017 and 2018 has been slow.

On a more positive note, a lot of conversations about producing homes have happened since 2015, and there are a lot of homes in the pipeline to be delivered between 2019 and 2022.

Will there be enough to solve the current lack of supply? It remains to be seen, but while it is small comfort to the unfortunate people in B&Bs and even on the streets this winter, it is at least some positive news for the future.

Fiona Cormican is director of new business at Clúid Housing