Major shift in Irish housing construction needed to safeguard future sustainability of the sector

It’s no secret that significant investment is urgently needed in Irish housing, with demand continuing to drastically outpace supply. That said, while there’s a clear requirement to increase housing construction in the short-term, any and all responses to the housing crisis must maintain a strong focus on sustainability in order to safeguard the future development of high-quality housing units, build thriving communities and protect Irish jobs in the construction industry. Small-to-medium-sized construction firms and building suppliers will also play a crucial role in leading on these initiatives, identifying and setting in motion the solutions required.

As the not-for-profit business membership organisation championing over 500 homegrown and international business in Ireland, Guaranteed Irish recently brought together a number of our members in the construction, manufacturing, hardware and DIY sectors, as well as other key stakeholders, for a roundtable discussion aimed at setting out innovative, sustainable solutions to the urgent demand for housing in Ireland.

Damien English TD, Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, and Local Government was in attendance, with panellists including Jim Gannon, CEO of Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, Conal Mac Coille, Chief Economist at Davy, Aoife Brennan, Director of Research at Lisney and Tom Parlon, Director General of the Construction Industry Federation. In particular, our members focused on ways of stimulating construction of additional integrated social and affordable housing, and the best way to promote skills, apprenticeships and careers within Irish construction.

For instance, when it comes to social and affordable housing, construction firms suffer from the lack of local authority land available for construction – and the time taken to free up more. There is a clear need to reduce the amount of red tape that leads to these delays, with greater emphasis on meeting dedicated timeframes and targets for delivery. Participants at the discussion made a number of specific recommendations, setting out our vision for a more sustainable future for the Irish construction industry.

These included calling for an immediate and comprehensive audit of old housing stock and the vacant derelict buildings that dot our cities and towns and often sit above active business premises. A renewed focus on how these buildings can be reoccupied would breathe fresh life into our communities.

However, reoccupying existing structures alone will not be sufficient, and greater funding for local authorities will be required to increase the pace of house-building. Rapid house building must become a priority, but it will need to be supported by the introduction of staff with the necessary expertise in this area to local authorities, and additional training for existing staff in this area.

One significant area of concern when it comes to bringing greater numbers of social housing onstream is the prohibitive costs for small builders, which often lead them to concentrate their efforts on other, more financially attractive corporate ventures. Attendees at our roundtable discussion urged the government to encourage banks to recommence the financing of small solvent building businesses throughout the country. Equally, consideration in loan security must be given to the use of more sustainable building solutions – such as premanufactured parts and rapid build engineering – that would allow businesses to innovate across the supply chain.

A second area of concern discussed at our roundtable event was how best to promote skills, apprenticeships and careers within the Irish construction industry. Doing so is all the more important in light of figures released earlier this year, which revealed that 2017 employment numbers within the sector were down 46% when compared with 2007. This drop has been fueled by the costs associated with employing apprentices for businesses, the duration of apprenticeships, and the low pay and lack of responsibility afforded to those in their first year or two of employment. However, this skills shortage will need to be addressed if construction firms and building suppliers are to increase the rate of house-building and make up for the current shortfall.

A key recommendation in this regard was to reduce the timeframe of apprenticeships by one year – from three or four years to two or three, depending on the trade. This could be done without any impact on the quality of graduating apprentices. Equally, a shared apprenticeship scheme facilitated by small builders and engineering companies would reduce the cost burden for new trainees.

Currently, there is a perception of the trades as an unattractive career choice, and this needs to be tackled head on. In many ways the sector has failed to recover its confidence following the economic crash, and this has resulted in a poor pipeline of talent. More must be done to highlight initiatives already in place – such as the Construction Workers Pension Scheme – that could help attract those interested in skilled trades, and demonstrate the role the construction industry will play in building a country fit for purpose for the future.

With significant carbon taxes looming for Ireland and its construction industry in the coming years, our members also discussed how businesses could be incentivised and rewarded for reducing Ireland’s carbon footprint. Businesses that demonstrate a commitment to doing so could, for instance, be awarded a 10% weighting in any public procurement process. And with roughly two million homes set to require retrofitting by 2050, a governmental loan package, introduced via the banks, could prompt more small construction firms to upskill and incorporate retrofitting into their service offerings. But this is another area where training will be key – and greater skills in the area of retrofitting for construction workers will need to be brought online via apprentice training modules.

Lastly, a 1996 government programme set tree-planting targets of 20,000 hectares per annum from 2001 to 2030, before this was subsequently reduced to 10,000 acres. However even this lower target is not being met, with just over 5,500 hectares planted in 2017 – a 15% reduction on 2016 figures. Going forwards, additional planting to make up this shortfall and meet these annual targets will be an effective means of offsetting carbon emissions.

We’re proud that some of Ireland’s leading businesses in the construction, manufacturing, hardware and DIY sectors are members of Guaranteed Irish, including Irish Cement, Tegral Building Products, Wavin, Kingspan Insulation, Saint-Gobain, Combilift, Celuplast, Dulux, Kilsaran, Roadstone, Irish Fencing Services, Clogrennane Lime, Fleetwood Paints, and Camfil. They and their colleagues within the construction and manufacturing industries have had to contend with considerable change over the past few decades. And while the housing market currently faces significant and immediate challenges, it cannot afford to lose sight of the need to incorporate a greater emphasis on sustainability if it is to prosper in the years to come. The recommendations that arose from our members’ discussion will be essential to ensuring Ireland develops good-quality housing stock that benefits local communities and facilitates industry jobs well into the future.

 

Brid O’Connell, CEO of Guaranteed Irish

www.guaranteedirish.ie

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