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Private developers 'can't be relied upon to provide objective public health advice' on Covid-19, warns senator

The Housing Minister is being called upon to carry out an independent assessment of the risk of Covid in co-living.

Planned co-living development in Dun Laoghaire, South Co Dublin.
Planned co-living development in Dun Laoghaire, South Co Dublin.
Image: DCC/Bartra

PRIVATE DEVELOPERS CAN’T be trusted to assess the risk of Covid-19 transmission in co-living buildings, according to a Labour senator who has called on Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien to have an independent health risk assessment carried out at Government level. 

It follows details of a report commissioned by developers Bartra Capital which was reported on by TheJournal.ie earlier this week.

That assessment claims the “risks of transmission would be less than for people living in a normal house or shared apartment” in co-living buildings despite shared communal kitchens, tv rooms, and an onsite gym. 

Co-living developments are designed to accommodate larger numbers of residents than ordinary apartment blocks, with residents living in self-contained units with a bed, a bathroom and limited cooking facilities.

Those units sit alongside shared facilities including kitchens, communal meeting areas, gyms and TV rooms where residents can meet and interact. 

Labour senator and party spokesperson on housing Rebecca Moynihan said private developers “cannot be relied upon to provide objective public health advice” and added that the Minister for Housing should step in and carry out an assessment of this type of accommodation in the context of the pandemic. 

“In the Minister’s view, first of all he says this is not a solution in a housing crisis and should be banned, he now says he is reviewing it but he has to assess the proper health implications… and not just rely on the spin from developers that has changed substantially in the last year,” Moynihan told TheJournal.ie.

“The fact this [assessment] is paid for by the developer to say a certain thing is quite striking and this is all coming from the developer… When you’re sharing facilities there is always a risk.

“So it doesn’t lessen the impact or risk of transmission than somebody who is living in a one-bed apartment in a development such as this. And then there is this line that has been thought up in the last two weeks that it’s going to replace social isolation.”

Bartra this week told TheJournal.ie that the report was commissioned to support an application for a 105-unit co-living development on Merrion Road in Ballsbridge, Co Dublin. 

It will be submitted to Dublin City Council with a decision expected to be made as to whether the development can go ahead in the coming weeks. 

“The local authority do not have healthcare expertise, they have planning expertise and if that’s the case they need to disregard that report because it is very much spin,” Moynihan said. 

“I have called previously for the minister to suspend or rescind the guidelines because he can do that under the Planning and Development Act, the powers are there for the minister to do that.”

In response, a spokesperson for the Housing Minister said it would be “inappropriate for the minister, or any member of his department to offer comment in relation to any individual planning case or cases”.

Last year, as a Fianna Fáil housing spokesperson O’Brien suggested co-living developments should be banned.

Since being appointed as Housing Minister, however, he has stopped short of saying the developments should be banned but said he will have a review carried out to examine a number of housing solutions including co-living. 

“Minister O’Brien has asked for a review of co-living/shared living to be carried out. His views on co-living/shared living are well publicised and have not changed. He is committed to examining the best way forward in terms of housing and accommodation solutions,” the spokesperson said. 

“The shared living format is a niche market segment aimed at young professionals for whom a temporary or short-term, shared living arrangement may be suitable.”

He added: “The limited scale of this type of accommodation is such that by the end of Q2 2020, a total of 410 co-living bedspaces had been approved by An Bord Pleanála under the Strategic Housing Development application process since 2018. 

“In comparison, there were almost 50,000 homes permitted, comprising more than 100,000 bedspaces, in the single year to March 2020 alone.”

The Covid-19 risk assessment was carried out by Dr Martin Hogan of occupational health specialists Corporate Health Ireland. 

“The risk of transmission to anyone else is really low and you can’t say that of a normal apartment block where you have to come out [of your room] to go to the toilet. In terms of urban living where you have people sharing accommodations, this is at the very lower end of the risk in my viewpoint,” he said.  

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Bartra’s CEO Mike Flannery has insisted that building managers will have the right measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus in co-living buildings, including in the event that a resident might become a confirmed case. 

“Bartra’s shared accommodation public health provisions will be industry leading for the sector. Our buildings have been designed to reflect public health policy in the current Covid-19 pandemic scenario,” he said.

“Bartra’s measures have been reviewed and validated by Dr. Martin Hogan and the CHI team, and we are more than happy to engage with The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, NPHET, or any equivalent Government body.”

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