We are in the midst of a national housing crisis, and a part of this crisis is the provision of social housing. It is a divisive issue, but a vital one. Limerick city, perhaps moreso than any city in Ireland, understands the cost of getting social housing wrong. Limerick city has spent several decades paying the cost of failed policies. There is no doubt that Limerick city needs more social housing. There in no doubt that the local authorities are best placed to provide much needed social housing. That is precisely why we need to get the next phase of social housing right. Every proposed social housing development in Limerick needs to demonstrate that the city has learned from past mistakes.
The most significant of the current social housing developments proposed by the Council is the provision of new social housing at Clonmacken. The Council has opened the tender process for the housing development in Clonmacken. The initial tender is for 43 housing units at a cost of €7,000,000. As such, the council wants each housing unit to be built for, on average, €162,791. While this is a considerable sum of money, it is considerably less than the average cost of providing a housing unit elsewhere in the country. In Dublin it costs on average €330,000 to build a social housing unit. In both cities, the cost of land is not included as it is on council owned property. The reasons for this wide discrepancy is not clear. While it is possible that construction costs could be lower in Limerick, it is extremely unlikely that they are half that of the cost of building in Dublin. Is it realistic to provide high quality housing at a low price, and not fall into the traps that previous estates have fallen into?
The €7,000,000 earmarked for this development could be better spent, and have a greater immediate impact, if it was spent refurbishing existing housing stock. It is considerably more cost efficient to refurbish existing housing stock. From the link we can see figures for Cork in 2016 “show the average cost of refurbishing a vacant house was €13,453. In the same year, the average turnaround time was 16.78 weeks”. Financially it is clear that the refurbishment of existing non-utilised stock is a better return for the city. Any tender process should seek the best price, but the best price should be the best realistic price, and the council should be asked to provide the calculations behind the figures. It is difficult to see why the Council is engaging in large scale building when there is greater value in refurbishing properties it has already built.
Additionally, as Nigel Dugdale’s work in respect of Johnsgate shows, the city has a problem maintaining smaller developments, in addition to the larger estates such as St. Mary’s Park. The city council should demonstrate it can handle these issues prior to engaging in further large scale building. We run a very real risk that we are repeating the same series and sequence of mistakes in Clonmacken.
It is easy to present these arguments on a purely financial basis, but behind every figure we need to consider the human cost of getting this project wrong. There are currently at least 207 council houses lying empty and in need of refurbishment, and 2,725 people waiting on the list of housing. Every empty house is a missed chance to change someone’s life by providing them with secure, high quality housing.
We need to examine if Clonmacken is an appropriate location for large scale social housing. The difficulties presented by other council estates in Limerick city are well known. In a recent article, the Irish Times highlighted how St. Mary’s Park continues to be amongst the most deprived areas in Ireland. This article identified the following issues as part of the causes for the problems in the St. Mary’s Park council housing amongst others, a lack of amenities in a peripheral location with only one access road. The same factors are present in the Clonmacken development. The council need to elaborate on the amenities they intend to provide in Clonmacken and provide for these in advance of any building completion. We are running a very real risk of building the exact same problems into this new estate as we built into the previous estates. The council also need explain why an isolated area with no facilities has been chosen for such a development, ahead of areas closer to existing facilities.
The Council isn’t just providing housing, it is building homes. It is building places where people will live their lives and raise their families. The local authorities are best placed to provide high quality, secure housing for people in need of it but with this comes the responsibility for getting it right, every time. At its best, these houses are the building blocks of communities. It is absolutely vital we get these decisions right before the homes are built, rather than reliving the failures of past developments, where the human cost, the ultimate cost of this project, was shockingly high in terms of damaged lives, high unemployment, high suicide rates, high crime rates. Every person in Limerick deserves to know if the Council has learned from past mistakes.