Why Ireland’s new housing minister must focus on quality as well as quantity

Darragh O’Brien TD, Ireland’s new Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, will be faced with the same problems as his predecessor: housing affordability, homelessness, and an overheating rental sector. He will also likely be presented with the same solution: increase the supply of housing.

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) has already written to the new Minister expressing concern that the housing policy conversation in Ireland has descended into a numbers game at the cost of a sensible national debate about the quality of the housing being delivered.

The CIOB position is clear on the need for quality homes, as opposed to only focussing on quantity.

Simply put, high-quality housing in the right locations has positive health, wellbeing, and socio-economic outcomes for occupants, communities, and society at large, whereas poor quality housing in the wrong locations has correspondingly negative outcomes.

The emphasis on numbers in the housing policy debate masks this simple truth and the election of a new Minister offers an opportunity to bring it to the fore.

This is not to say that delivering high quantities of housing is not important, it is.

However, when we measure success or failure based on the numbers of houses being delivered without concurrently assessing the quality of what is being built, we run the risk of creating societal burdens through housing policy.

This was a lesson learned the hard way during the 2000s when Ireland built record numbers of new homes, many of which were of poor quality and in the wrong locations.

Lives lost

This led to a raft of adverse outcomes including uninhabitable homes, the hollowing out of town centres, lengthy commutes, continued urban sprawl and its associated environmental and health impacts.

Poor housing incurs significant health-related costs. UK based research from the Building Research Establishment estimates that investment in improving some of the worst quality homes would save the NHS £1.4bn in first year treatment costs alone.

The economic cost is only half the story and the true price lies in human misery and lives lost.

Ireland’s surplus winter deaths are among the highest in Europe, despite its relatively mild winter, and the impact of poorly insulated housing specifically is estimated to cause a large proportion of these deaths. 

Contrast this with the award-winning Tooting Meadow development in Drogheda which is seen as the "perfect example" of high-quality housing that addresses the country’s changing demographics while also creating sustainable, connected neighbourhoods in our towns and village. 

It is not only the positive outcomes associated with good quality housing that is important here. It is an uncomfortable truth of policymaking in general that frequently programmes are implemented with little or no evaluation of whether they are achieving their stated aims.

This is particularly true of housing: we know how many houses are being delivered, but to what end? We are not clear as to their quality and therefore do not have a reliable assessment of whether policy is delivering the positive societal outcomes that we seek to achieve by providing housing in the first place.

The solution

The national debate around the construction sector and housing tends to focus on three criteria: the number of houses granted planning permission, the speed at which they are built, and the affordability of the finished product. There is a wealth of data on each of these metrics, which are increasingly used to measure the effectiveness of housing policy.

While these are important criteria, they form just part of the picture.

Construction is about delivering sustainable development, not just housing numbers.

The National Climate Action Plan includes a wide range of economic, social, and environmental objectives which include boosting economic growth, promoting sustainable transport, tackling climate change, and improving public health. It is time for housing policy to be similarly broad in its ambition and measuring the quality of new housing is a sensible place to start.

Construction can help to deliver these wider societal objectives by looking at the big picture and ensuring that new development supports high quality, sustainably delivered housing. But when it comes to measuring progress, there is little public data and spatial analysis to assess the quality behind the housing numbers. Without this data, it is difficult to understand whether housing policy is delivering sustainable development – an increasingly urgent national policy priority.

As part of our ongoing campaign to improve quality in the built environment, the CIOB has been heavily involved in ensuring a coordinated industry response to failings in the construction sector, including the Grenfell tower tragedy. Our Construction Quality Commission has published a Code of Quality Management for the Construction Sector, which is now recognised across the industry and is being used to guide a quality construction process with a view to producing a reliable final product.

With people spending more time at home and lockdown measures changing modern working practices, the quality of homes will come into focus.

There is an increasing body of evidence demonstrating the correlation between investment in better buildings and positive economic and health outcomes.

The construction industry is now ready to work with the new Minister to create metrics whereby the quality of new housing – specifically build quality and access to amenities – is measured and used to complement the existing Departmental statistical releases on housing numbers.

Then we can give a proper assessment of whether housing policy is successful.

  • Joseph Kilroy is Policy & Public Affairs Manager for the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) in Ireland

Image: The Tooting Meadow social housing development in Drogheda, designed by McKevitt King Architects, won the Public Choice Award in the 2020 Irish Architecture Awards, organised by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI)

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