BEFORE THE END of this year, the government is due to publish a new Climate Action Plan that will set out our climate targets for 2030 and how we intend to reach them.
The most pressing aim will be to halve our carbon emissions by the end of the decade, which will demand significant changes across society – including how the government deals with housing.
On Thursday, the government launched its major “Housing For All” plan which aims to create 300,000 new homes by 2030.
The housing plan has the same lifetime as the main target in the upcoming climate plan, setting out a path for the next ten years.
Housing For All’s priorities are mostly concerned with increasing supply and making it easier for people to buy a home, but it also points to some measures that could help make the housing sector more environmentally sustainable.
Speaking at a press conference to launch the plan, Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan said that the policy “has sustainability written right the way through it”.
He pointed to measures like “better BER ratings, reduced waste in construction, [and] transport-led development so we build new housing around public transport so that it’s truly sustainable”.
Planning “compact” housing growth in towns and cities is one of the plan’s key measures to address the climate in housing.
In practice, for new builds, that would mean creating high-density homes that are close to each other and local services, especially through apartments.
It also means repurposing vacant or derelict properties and putting them into use as homes.
The plan says that providing housing for families and individuals that is “close to services, that maintain vibrancy in town centres, that reduce car dependency, that do not use up edge-of-town greenfield sites and address isolation through integrated communities” will be “core” to the government’s approach.
“Concentrating efforts in our urban centres is in keeping with a compact growth agenda, where housing is located close to public transport routes and where walking and cycling will become the dominant form of mobility within our town centres,” it outlines.
A newly-established fund – the Croí Cónaithe fund for cities – will be used to try to increase dense housing supply in cities.
Developments that reach a certain threshold for height and density and receive support from the fund should be able to be built at a lower cost to the developer, with apartments then sold to owner-occupiers.
In a statement, Eamon Ryan said the plan “emphasises compact growth, with future housing to be primary based in settlements”.
“Higher population densities will have upshots such as minimal transport demand and shorter travel distances,” Ryan said.
“Initiatives such as Urban Development Zones will result in plan-led delivery of residential and urban development. These will also support compact growth.”
Speaking to The Journal, Brendan O’Sullivan of UCC’s Centre For Planning Education and Research explained that growth in urban centres is a positive idea, but that the government needs to get developers on board to make it work.
“Trying to get people to not be depending on their car for every journey, that there’s a range of options for transportation, that jobs and homes are close to each other and that you’ve a well-connected compact city, that idea is very strong and important for sustainability,” O’Sullivan said.
“But we’re finding that property developers are saying ‘that’s all very nice, but the real world says we can’t make any money from this kind of development and we’re in it for profit’.”
Where developers see it as too expensive or challenging to build housing in urban centres, they prefer instead to build offices or student accommodation that are profitable but don’t cut to the heart of addressing the housing crisis, O’Sullivan said.
“So you get this funny dance going on between property ownership, property developers, and the need for new housing.”
“The other problem is that with this argument that we can’t build apartments profitably in the city centre, the unsustainable implication is that if we can’t deliver housing in the city centre because the developers can’t do it, where are we going to get the housing that we’ll need? Because we definitely need housing.
“They’ll say, ‘we can put it on the edges of towns or cities because there’s plenty of fields which we can rezone, the developers can buy it and build housing estates’,” O’Sullivan said.
That’s what we’ve always done over decades and decades, estate after estate – all car-dependent, all at the edge of town, all eating up the countryside.”
“The Housing for All plan is going to put in place funding to help developers build on these tricky sites, the difficult ones in the town centres. It might be hard for the developer or the builder to raise finance from the banks or wherever they get their finance from, so the government is going to help unlock access to finance they need,” he said.
“In a way, they’re calling their bluff, saying that if there are obstacles to developing on these sites, we’ll do everything we can do to help you develop them.”
The government is promising that all of the 300,000 new homes under the plan will be built to Nearly Zero Energy Building (nZEB) standards in line with a European policy.
That means a building with very low energy requirements which is mostly powered from renewable sources.
It equates to around a 25% improvement in energy performance compared to what was required by 2011 building regulations.
Under a 2010 European directive, all buildings finished after December 2020 (or as far back as December 2018 for buildings acquired by public bodies) need to be nZEBs.
Additionally, the government is considering a minimum Building Energy Rating (BER) for private rentals.
BERs give homes a ranking based on how energy efficient they are.
“In support of the Government’s Climate Action Plan objectives and targets, energy efficiency in private rental housing needs to increase,” the plan says.
“This will increase energy efficiency, help to alleviate fuel poverty, help to protect tenant’s health and improve comfort levels in rental homes.”
However, the minimum standard would only begin to come into effect in early 2025, with the caveat of being introduced “where feasible”.
Questioned at the press conference on whether a minimum rating runs the risk of reducing rental supply, Minister Ryan said the government would try to avoid that by giving advance notice.
Ryan said it “might not apply to every single property. If you’re in a Georgian building, a listed building, and so on, it would be very hard.”
“It’ll have to be specific on properties which can be done in that way,” he said.
“But the way we overcome that concern [about supply] is to give advance notice, to give time and allow it to roll out over a period,” the minister said.
No one should be in a home that’s cold, no one should be in a home that’s expensive to run. When you get good building standards, it’s better for your health, it’s better for your pocket, and it’s better for the environment.”
Overall, the government intends to retrofit insulation into half a million homes over the next decade.
The housing plan details that local authorities will retrofit 36,500 social homes by 2030 to a B2 – one of the highest – or “cost optimal” energy rating.
2,400 of those are set to be retrofitted this year.
Meanwhile, the Department of the Environment is to introduce a scheme by the end of this year that should enable local authorities to give low-cost retrofit loans to individual homeowners.
Minister Ryan said that “the retrofitting of 36,500 local authority-owned properties and the introduction of minimum BERs for rental properties will help move our existing housing stock to a low-carbon future”.
“This will assist with delivering on our national retrofit targets,” he said.
“Moreover, the focus on the circular economy, waste reduction and keeping materials in use throughout the construction process will reduce resource consumption, while also delivering cost reductions.”
In an interview with The Journal last month, junior minister Ossian Smyth said that retrofitting insulation into houses should help to reduce electricity bills and use.
“One of the main things is insulating people’s homes and making them warm in their house so they have lower electricity bills,” he said.
Under an amended Climate Act passed earlier this year, Ireland must cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in half by 2030 compared to 2018 and reach net zero emissions by 2050.
A landmark report from the United Nations has confirmed that a dramatic reduction in GHGs is crucial to combatting the worst effects of climate change – and that humans are the primary driver of the globe’s emissions.
In November, world leaders will meet in Glasgow for COP26 to set new targets in an bid to mitigate the climate crisis.