by Alexander Kearney

Picture of IGB Housing Action Group photo courtesy of IGB Housing Action Group.

What is the deal with the Poolbeg social housing agreement? Questions over social and affordable housing in the Poolbeg West SDZ remain unanswered and unclear.
On the morning of the 17th April, members of the Irish Glass Bottle Housing Action Group stood outside the offices of An Bord Pleanála on Marlborough street with familiar banners unfurled. Inside, the three-day oral hearing for the Poolbeg West Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) was about to begin. The vital question hanging over proceedings: just what had happened to last summer’s agreement over social and affordable housing – and can the deal now be saved?

In May 2017, it had all looked settled. After persistent calls from local communities and city councillors, an agreement was finally reached between the then Housing Minister Simon Coveney, councillors, Dublin City Council officials and the NAMA-appointed receiver: 900 future homes out of a possible 3,500 (all apartments) would be set aside for social and affordable housing. This represented a little over 25% of the new stock, as opposed to the minimum 10% for social units that the amended 2000 Planning Act requires.
Some representatives and councillors had called for at least 50%. They were warned by the City Council Chief Executive, Owen Keegan, that if they insisted on a higher quota, then the receiver would likely appeal to An Bord Pleanála, and they could be left with just the 10%. The councillors passed the motion, it would be 25%, social and affordable.

In the circumstances, it was generally agreed that this was the best that could be achieved. A pragmatic result in the midst of Dublin’s spiralling housing crisis. After the Poolbeg SDZ plan cleared its final hurdle at An Bord Pleanála, no further appeals could be made – all future applications would be fast-tracked through the planning department. Development and housing would speedily follow.

That mood changed sharply in early April. Word had spread that the receiver, David Carson of Deloitte, had allegedly lodged an appeal with An Bord Pleanála against the 25% social-affordable deal. It would insist on the strict 10% statutory minimum. City councillors were notably caught off guard. They were indignant.
Fine Gael councillor, Paddy McCartan was unequivocal, “We only signed up to this SDZ based on the fact that we would get the 900.” And if the receiver persuaded the board, “then the SDZ is off the table and we have to go back to the drawing board,” said Sinn Féin councillor, Daithí Doolan, Chair of the Council’s Housing Committee. Even the Chief Executive remarked that he was “surprised and shocked” at the news, and said that the receiver had acted in a way, “inconsistent with the terms of the agreement.”

And what of that agreement? In a press release, Labour Senator for Dublin Bay South, Kevin Humphries issued the following call, “This is all happening in the Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy’s constituency. He needs to publish the deal his Department made with the City Council and Deloitte last May and provide clarity not just to councillors but to his constituents…”

However, his party colleague, councillor Dermot Lacey, recently told NewsFour that a written or signed deal may never have existed, and certainly none has been released to date. Rather, Lacey argued, it was the clear assurance that an agreement had been reached on the 900 homes that gave councillors the confidence to vote through the SDZ plan.

A contract or piece of paper was not required when the Minister and the Chief Executive were both adamant that a deal was in place. And none of the parties had broken with that understanding until the receiver’s appeal – nearly a year later.

The stated basis for the receiver’s action is that it cannot be legally required to provide more than 10% social housing in its plan. Although appointed by NAMA and therefore effectively acting on behalf of the state, a receiver still has a “statutory duty to attain the best price possible in disposing of any asset and having the ability to apply to court for directions as to how to dispose of an asset,”as Deloitte helpfully notes on its website.

Councillors have argued that it is precisely because they voted through the SDZ plan that the receiver can realise an increased value for the site but the votes were only available on the basis of the agreement.
At the oral hearing, matters were little clearer. Declan Brassil, planning consultant for the receiver, stated that his client was in negotiations with the Council to reach a “commercial agreement” for additional affordable homes. However, they would still pursue their appeal, on legal advice.

In a letter that same morning to councillors, Richard Shakespeare, the Council’s Head of Planning said the receiver had agreed on an “intense period of discussions with the objective of entering into a binding commercial agreement, with confirmed funding, between the parties prior to a decision by An Bord Pleanála on the scheme.”
Those negotiations would now proceed on parallel tracks with the oral hearing itself. The distinct impression in the packed room was that we would be hearing nothing further on any deal before the hearing’s end. As of writing, we still haven’t.

The stakes are high. Without further agreement between the parties, An Bord Pleanála may be obliged to accept the legal argument of the receiver that it cannot be made to build more than its 10% quota. If the Board finds for the receiver, councillors have threatened to pull their support from the Poolbeg SDZ and frustrate its implementation at council level.
This could spell the end of this particular SDZ, since, under the relevant section of the Planning Act, a new draft planning scheme can only be introduced within two years of the original ministerial order. The whole process would have to start over again, with fierce recriminations all round. However, any compromise that falls short of the agreed 900 figure, or exacts a notably higher price for it, will be viewed with grave misgivings.
The state-backed receiver will have got a ‘better deal’ only at the expense of local residents and the Council. And the Council is not just the appointed development agency, it owns roughly one quarter of the housing site. There will be talk of both the State and City Council taking greater control of NAMA lands to build public housing.
To date, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has kept his head down regarding Poolbeg. If the deal falls through and the SDZ is shot, that will prove untenable.

Outside the hearing, members of the IGBH Action Group stressed their resolve. Several had taken time off work to attend, and were determined to hold government and city representatives to account. Their message hasn’t changed: they demand housing that local families can afford.

Before an upcoming public meeting on May 16th, they still hadn’t heard from the minister, receiver, or Council Chief Executive on whether the ‘agreement’ would, again, be a ‘done deal’.