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‘Over €100,000 per home’ estimate tries to put a figure on the cost of Ireland’s urban sprawl

“If the government is spending an additional €100k+ per dwelling on supporting urban sprawl then the issue is deserving of much more consideration.”

URBAN SPRAWL IS bad – it makes delivering infrastructure harder, it creates long commute times, is land-intensive, it’s bad for the environment, it’s…

And so on and so on. Most people in Ireland know all of this already. And yet sprawl keeps happening.

While apartments accounted for almost three-quarters of new home completions in Dublin last year, outside of the capital, housing estates are still king.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that just under 33,000 homes were delivered last year.

Of that amount, 11,600 were apartments. Almost all of these – 9,000 – were in Dublin. 

However, still the most popular were ‘scheme’ dwellings. Just over 15,500 of these units, which refers to new housing estates, were built in 2023.  One-off housing and self-builds accounted for the rest.

So new housing estates are still the most popular form of development across Ireland, especially outside of Dublin, with people increasingly being pushed out of the capital in the hunt for more affordable accommodation.

But why is this, given all we know about the long-term negative impacts of urban sprawl?

It’s likely due, at least in part, to the old adage: ‘What gets measured gets done.’

While most people know in theory that urban sprawl is bad, in practise, very few people have ever attempted to put firm numbers on its real-world financial impact. 

This has a knock-on effect – while central government favours denser housing, local councils, who are the ones calling the shots on the ground, prefer housing estates, which leads to more sprawl.

Actually being able to see the financial cost of their decisions might make councils think twice about approving endless seas of housing estates on the outskirts of urban centres.

With all that said, the bombshell Housing Commission report published during the week made a stab at putting some numbers on the problem.

To get right to it – the organisation estimated that suburban sprawl adds up to as much as €137,000 to the cost of a new home.

There are some problems with that number, but the Commission emphasised in its report that it is meant to be used for illustrative purposes – in the absence of better data, it’s a rough guess.

Let’s get into how this figure of €137,000 was arrived at. The Commission first looked at a hypothetical scenario of where a town of 50,000 people is aiming to grow its population to 65,000.

In Scenario A, accommodation for the additional 15,000 people is built on a greenfield site 5km away from the town.

In Scenario B, the new homes are built within the existing boundary of the 50,000-strong town.

The Commission then drew up a list of the additional infrastructure it estimated would be needed to cater to the population in A, getting a final cost of €510 million to €684 million. 

Assuming an average household size of three people, it then spread this associated cost over the estimated 5,000 households required for the 15,000 population.

This works out as between €102,000 and €137,000 per home – costs which the Commission pointed out would likely be borne by the state – ie, taxpayers.

Here are the assumed costs the Commission included:

Screenshot 2024-05-25 at 00.12.33

Now, there are of course plenty of issues with this. 

Straight away, the most obvious factor jumping out is the rail link. At an estimated cost of €373 million to €523 million, this accounted for the vast majority of the additional cost identified by the Commission.

Many people would likely correctly point out that a population of 15,000 does not necessarily guarantee a rail link - the residents of Navan are painfully aware of that.

Upgrading a road link to motorway, the second largest cost cited, would also be far from a guarantee.

Further, the Commission appears to assume there would be negligible infrastructure costs with adding 15,000 people to a town with an existing population of 50,000. This seems… optimistic.

But even leaving say rail costs to one side, the additional expenditure would still be an extra €32,000 per home – a large part of which may not have to be spent if the 15,000 people were housed somewhere with better infrastructure.

And a lack of a rail link of course creates separate costs – the time lost commuting, the environmental damage of heavier traffic, and so on. It’s just these tend to be harder to put numbers on.

The Commission also pointed out that it did not even factor in many of these associated costs in its analysis, specifically highlighting the likes of “resident travel costs” and “inefficiencies in delivering important social infrastructure” – the expenses in providing parks, waste management facilities, gardaí, libraries and so on in poorly-connected areas.

“[Sprawl] results in higher costs due to the need to extend infrastructure to reach more dispersed, lower-density, suburban housing,” the Commission argued. 

“The additional costs associated with the extension of key infrastructure in this fashion are generally borne by society.

“If the government is spending an additional €100k+ per dwelling on supporting urban sprawl then the issue is deserving of much more consideration.”

The Commission finished its analysis with a plea for more information. While the problem of sprawl has been acknowledged in various government plans, the Commission said there is a need for a “fully detailed study on the cost of urban sprawl in Ireland to inform policy decision-making”. 

Again, to stress – there are plenty of issues with the Housing Commission’s analysis and it can definitely have holes poked in it.

But the key takeaway is – urban sprawl costs money, even if we aren’t sure exactly how much.

The issue of urban sprawl has been flagged for decades in an Irish context, with Dublin repeatedly cited in international studies as one of the worst examples of urban planning and development.

While plenty of governments have paid lip service to the issue, the Commission is on the right track – a detailed study to put some numbers on the costs of sprawl is needed.

Or we could just keep building endlessly out into suburbs and counties bordering Dublin. 

But with Ireland facing an estimated deficit of over a quarter of a million homes - and tens of thousands more on the way every year – it seems a decent idea to make sure we are building all these properties in the right places.

If we don’t – we could very well end up alleviating one problem, only to aggravate another.

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