“Waterford has immense potential”, according to Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien TD, as he addressed Waterford Chamber members during a live Zoom meeting.

He went on to say, “There are a lot of people in Waterford with serious drive and there is a definite vision for the city and the region.”

The Minister was invited by Waterford Chamber to listen to the challenges and opportunities in terms of housing, planning and development in the city and county and during the hour-long meeting, Niall Harrington, Fewer Harrington & Partners; Regina Mangan, Liberty Blue Estate Agents and William Bolster of the Bolster Group, offered tangible solutions to ongoing problems in the sector.

Opening the meeting, Chamber President John McSweeney said: “Business development and housing provision are intrinsically linked. We must be able to provide housing solutions that will work both now and in the coming years and are flexible and deliverable in a realistic timeframe.”

He added, “The Government Housing Legacy must not be one which our children will have to carry for years to come. We look forward to helping to shape the thought process of those who are challenged to deliver housing models that are sustainable, innovative and environmentally friendly in the long run.”

Offering an overview of the current situation in Waterford, Niall Harrington said: “Waterford by its size and targeted growth under the NDP is a unique scale to target delivery or piloting of housing solutions. Waterford is also unique, as the housing solutions required to be addressed include social, affordable, private, rental, independent elderly, student and tourism, so we cover all housing sectors.”

While ongoing challenges include Waterford not being seen in a similar light as the other four regional cities by national or foreign investors and with market values still a minimum of 15% below our nearest regional city, among others, Niall said there are also opportunities, including strong employment growth, attractiveness for relocators and quality of life factors.

Niall went on to outline three solutions that would have a hugely positive impact – building renovations in terms of vacant property in the city centre which are ideal for the student, rental and tourism markets; extending the planning exempt rule for house extensions to include modular detached independent living structures suitable for elderly parents, adult children or students; and expedite the route through to HFA funding approval for developers, ensuring decisions are made faster and developments start quicker.
Speaking about the rental market, Regina Mangan of Liberty Blue Estate Agents said: “The rental market is in crisis. I’ve never seen things so bad in all my years.  In fact, Liberty Blue Estate Agents closed our doors at the start of Covid almost two years ago and haven’t opened them since. It's appointment only because my team can’t handle the enormous amount of people coming to our doors looking for rental properties. People are crying on our doorsteps and on the phone - they are desperate. It’s very upsetting for them and us.”

She went on to call on the government to take action on three crucial elements to help solve it as a matter of urgency: review of the tax treatment of private landlords; introduction of a tax break for student accommodation to free up housing stock and reconfiguration of the €30,000 grant scheme for derelict properties to first time buyers and extending it to other market participants.

Concluding the presentations, William Bolster offered his ideas from a developer perspective, beginning by saying the “general consensus in industry is that delays with Irish Water is single handedly slowing down construction.”

Moving to solutions on delivery of houses, William suggested a “PPP type approach with the Land Agency whereby the state and private sector will deliver a supply of affordable housing units on state lands using volumetric construction.” This would reduce the cost of developing the units, but also “significantly help in solving the skills shortage with moving people to working in a factory environment where 80% of the house is built initially.”

Having listened to the presentations, the Minister said he welcomed the suggestions and would certainly take them into consideration.

The Minister began by outlining a number of new measures he had implemented, including enhancing the repair and lease scheme from €40k to €60k per unit and making changes to the onerous planning requirements for public houses and other commercial properties to convert to residential units.

He assured the audience that indications are good for 2022 and beyond in terms of housing delivery. “There is a substantial increase in housing commencements up to 42% on 2020, 39,000 planning permissions on new homes and over 44,000 mortgages of which first time buyers are the largest cohort.”

According to Minister O’Brien, Housing for All is the single biggest financial intervention any Government has made and his department is working on a grant for owner/occupiers for vacant and derelict properties. In terms of ‘above shop’ accommodation, the Minister acknowledged how difficult and costly conversion is, but he said he is reviewing the planning and has some tough decisions to make around unlocking vacancy.

In terms of the rental market, he agreed the Government needs to look at fair tax treatment of landlords and it is happening. He will also be bringing forward legislation in regulating the short term letting platforms as the idea of having tourists in houses and families in hotels isn’t right, even though there is a 75% reduction in terms of families accessing emergency accommodation in hotels.

Minister O’Brien also said he is working with Minister Harris on measures to bring forward new ways to create affordable student accommodation, which has huge potential for Waterford.

The Minister said he is aware of the issues with Irish Water and that the self-connection initiative is expanding and that Government have assured Irish Water of a capital investment to 2026. They have also appointed a senior executive tasked with delivery and they recognise changes need to be changed.

“The challenges we face are quite extreme in some areas but not insurmountable. We have the determination to drive on with delivery and we need to be open to change which I am. I’m not afraid of making the right decisions and implementing them where I see they will work. 2022 has to be a year of delivery and I am insisting on that.”

To view the meeting in full please see: https://youtu.be/bTRp-OJbCFM