Over the course of the coming weeks, we will be delving deeper into the Housing for All plan, exploring how this well intended strategy to solve a nationwide housing crisis will be delivered – or if it will be deliverable at all.
Fundamentally, we admire the plan’s ambition. We believe the timing is right and are keen to see how it will evolve to overcome the many challenges it faces. We also believe that patience will be required as progress will be slow – so much so that it may fall, at best, up to 5,000 houses short of the average annual target for the first few years, as the legislation and incentives are put in place and the industry mobilises.
Given the impacts of Covid-19, the skills shortages and materials sourcing challenges alone, it is a remarkable achievement that the industry is on target to deliver c. 22,000 completions in 2021 (according to the BPFI), noting this is 10% higher than the previous year. Based on this evidence, it’s not hard to see that ground will be made-up over successive years of the plan, especially if it is managed correctly, with period reviews to evaluate progress and address any issues that are hindering progress.
The retrofitting programme, which is an important link in the chain, is a perfect example of the challenges that lie between the strategy and its execution. It’s a fine statement of intent: 300,000 houses by 2030, but as a means to providing residential homes, quickly, retrofitting appears to provide the quickest win, as these properties are in towns and villages across the country, where services and infrastructure (i.e. utilities, amenities and transport) are already in place.
It is also a very sustainable way to provide housing – as we are repurposing rather than building from scratch, so significantly less whole life embodied carbon is emitted. What’s more, retrofitting supports the objectives of the 15 Minute City and the Government’s Town’s First initiative, where places of work, education and social needs are all local to place of residence. An aspiration that has recently become even easier to achieve with the post-Covid hybrid working model, seeing more people working from home.
Based on the figures committed to in the plan and support from the EU recovery fund, the financial resources may, for once, not be the biggest issue in executing the retrofitting plan but, instead, putting in place the administrative systems and incentives required to deliver what tend to be more complex projects.
The reality is that many of these buildings are old and quite often protected structures, which were never designed with modern Building Regulations, fire and disability access requirements in mind, so need to be brought into the 21st century. However, due to their nature, the actual scope of the project will only be fully known when the opening up works begin.
Health and safety issues arise, as most properties are adjacent to occupied properties and although services may be running to these properties, those services will need to be inspected and in some instances replaced to comply with current regulations. Not to mention the potential planning issues that may arise. The government has suggested that change of use retrofit projects may be exempt from planning, but we can’t foresee this being extended to protected structures.
For the retrofitting plan to work, what we really need is easy access to guidance, resources and the funding.
Significant incentives will be required to encourage individuals to view retrofitting as an attractive and viable proposition and the 35% grants that SEAI are offering are not incentive enough to renovate properties, requiring significant levels of upgrading. It may be time to consider a whole different approach that sees the prospective owner as the solution to bringing our dilapidated, vacant properties back to modern, energy efficient housing stock, much like Italy’s incentive scheme.
Begun in Sicily in May 2020, as part of Italy’s economic recovery programme, Italy’s ‘One Euro House’ scheme saw derelict houses offered for €1. With reasonable conditions such as a nominal deposit and a requirement to commence work quickly once the building permit has been issued, it would appear that this scheme has proved to be very popular.
Similarly, the Italian ‘Super Ecobonus’ scheme effectively pays homeowners to make their home more energy efficient by funding 110% of the renovation costs through fiscal credits. By the end of March 2021, over 10,000 constructions worth €1 billion were in progress or successfully completed thanks to the new schemes. Residential building renovations are now up by over 500% since the Super Ecobonus was introduced, with the scheme hailed as a welcome boost to economic activity by the Italian building sector.
On the face of it, 110% may appear overly generous, but if a similar plan was coupled with the reintroduction of local authority commercial charges for vacant properties and the introduction of the Vacant Property Tax, it may be enough to unlock those vacant town centre properties, that would be more cost effective than building from scratch.
The fact is that upgrading the country’s housing stock is an extremely efficient and sustainable way of helping to meet our housing targets, but the bottom line is, the success of it is down to incentivising people to do it.