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'It's a dumping ground': Minister set to meet council over future of Oscar Traynor lands

Councillors have accused the Housing Department of stalling tactics over new proposals.

PLANS TO DELIVER homes at a publicly owned site in north Dublin can’t proceed without further cost analysis in what local representatives have described as a “disgraceful” delay by the Department of Housing. 

The latest update on the Oscar Traynor Road site comes as the government prepares to unveil it’s ‘Housing for All’ plan next month and as discussions continue within the Department on how an alternative development at the publicly owned site would be funded. 

The vacant site sits at the junction of the Port Tunnel and Oscar Traynor Road and was bought by then-Dublin Corporation in the 1980s. In 2014, the Council drew up plans to increase housing stock around the city and the Oscar Traynor lands were identified as part of this process. 

The development put before councillors last year was set to deliver 853 new homes but was voted down in November 2020 after councillors refused to back a deal which would have seen the 17-hectare site turned over to private developer Glenveagh. 

Under the scheme, 50% of the homes would have been private, 30% social and 20% affordable-purchase. 

The plans included 428 homes which would be sold privately by Glenveagh. A total of 253 would be bought by Dublin City Council for social housing and 172 homes would be sold to low and middle-income workers who qualify for the Government’s upcoming affordable purchase scheme. 

That plan was rejected in November 2020 by 48 votes to 14. Fine Gael was the only party with all councillors voting in favour of the deal (9 votes). 

In the months that followed, councillors from Sinn Féin and Labour drew up a new proposal for the publicly owned site – which formed part of the Council’s 2015 Housing Land Initiative and which aims to work alongside developers to build a mix of social, affordable and private housing on large council-owned sites. 

Local representatives in March agreed to a new tenure mix of 40% social housing, 40% cost-rental housing and 20% affordable purchase at Oscar Traynor. 

As councillors prepare for a meeting next week with Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien to advance these plans, council officials say it has engaged with the Department to see if key elements of the original plan like affordability could be “enhanced or if a cost-rental scheme could be included in an attempt to keep the project alive”, a Council report issued last week said. 

Officials have indicated that they remain in favour of the original proposal. They believe that if government is willing to increase the services sites fund from €50,000 to €100,000 then the ‘affordable’ units proposed for Oscar Traynor more viable. 

The fund is a state subsidy that supports the construction of affordable purchase and affordable or cost rental homes.

Furthermore, council sources have said that if a cost-rental model is developed by the government some of the proposed private units could be used for this instead.  

The Department in the meantime has indicated that to consider the new plans proposed by councillors a “long list of options” including a business case must be put forward, a move some local representatives have described as a delaying tactic. 

“It’s a disgrace,” says Labour councillor and incoming Lord Mayor of Dublin Alison Gilliland. 

“The Department should have been able to tell us within five minutes of [councillors voting down the original deal] that this was needed,” she said. “I’m more than disgusted.”

download (22) Architect's impression of the Oscar Traynor Road redevelopment. Glenveagh Properties Glenveagh Properties

The ongoing Oscar Traynor debate is not the first time the country’s largest local authority has been at loggerheads with central government over plans for homes on public land. 

In late 2019, councillors voted in favour of the redevelopment of O’Devaney Gardens on Dublin’s northside but only after years of disagreement over the tenure mix at the site. 

Built in 1954, O’Devaney Gardens – once home to 272 social houses – was originally set to be redeveloped in 2008 through a public-private partnership between developer Bernard McNamara and Dublin City Council.

That deal collapsed due to the economic crash and, in 2012, the council said it could no longer afford to redevelop O’Devaney.

In July 2016, councillors approved a motion, put forward by Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan, that the redeveloped site should be 100% public, mixed-income housing.

Ryan’s proposal catered for 50% of homes rented to the council’s housing list applicants and 50% for those with a “demonstrated housing need”. In other words, those who are above the social housing threshold, but struggling in the private-rented sector.

However, councillors decided instead – after negotiating with then-Housing Minister Simon Coveney – that the homes replacing the old units should be 30% social housing, 20% affordable-to-buy and 50% private residential.

At the time, Coveney was originally willing to only earmark 10% of the homes at O’Devaney for social housing. 

Those in favour of a mixed-tenure development at O’Devaney, like Sinn Féin’s Daithí Doolan, argued that having mixed tenure, instead, could lead to a more sustainable community. 

At the time, Doolan said that 30% social housing for the 14-acre site was “a solid outcome” under a Fine Gael minister. 

download (23) Cranes tear down 1950s flats at O'Devaney Gardens in 2016. CónalThomas CónalThomas

Fast-forward to 2019 and developer Bartra has been chosen to redevelop the site with a price-tag for the “affordable” homes ranging between €240,000 and €320,000. 

By the time a new Dublin City Council sat in September 2019 – altering the political make-up of the council and bringing a cast of new councillors who hadn’t voted for the original plan in 2016 – the landscape had shifted and Sinn Féin was no longer the largest party on the Council, Fianna Fáil was. 

A number of councillors said they’d vote against the O’Devaney plan ahead of a meeting on 7 October. Objections were continually raised around the “affordable” price-tags for the homes. Some councillors said any private homes at O’Devaney was a poor use of State land.

In early October – once it had become clear that the deal would be rejected at the meeting – councillors agreed to delay a vote on whether or not to proceed with the DCC/Bartra-led development at O’Devaney Gardens to allow for discussions with Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. 

Writing to councillors, Murphy said funding for the O’Devaney redevelopment could be reconsidered if councillors rejected the plan on the table and that it could delay the entire project by five years. 

“Funding from my department to both reduce the cost of homes and help fund much-needed community facilities will also be lost if elected members decide not to proceed with this important project,” Murphy said, in a letter to councillors.

In the end, after a vote on the Bartra-led plans was deferred, councillors from Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Labour and the Social Democrats said that they had “secured a commitment” from Bartra that 30% of the total units will be purchased from the developer at market price and offered as “affordable-rental” in an attempt to end the deadlock. 

The deal was voted through and last month Bartra lodged a planning application for the site, increasing the number of units at O’Devaney to 1,053. 

The Council, meanwhile, has appointed two approved housing bodies to negotiate with Bartra for cost-rental units at the site though it remains to be seen how achievable this will be. 

If negotiations are not successful Bartra can sell 523 of the units at the site privately and already concerns have been raised that these units will not be protected under recent ministerial guidelines preventing investor funds bulk-buying homes as the rules do not apply to apartments. 

With O’Devaney in the back of their minds, some councillors believe that handing over public land to another developer would be unacceptable, hence the new plan put forward for Oscar Traynor. 

But others, like Fine Gael’s Naosie Ó’Muirí, say that the Department’s most recent correspondence shows there “is little or no movement in reality”.

“Things are snarling up bureaucratically which was always a real risk…we had a proposal that was within our control, within the council’s control to deliver units and we’ve lost control of that,” he said. 

For Morgan Nolan, who lives near the Oscar Traynor site, people in the local area want to see homes built but creating a viable community is also key. 

“It’s been a wasteland for 30, 35 years, it’s dumping ground so a lot of people want to see something done with it, a lot of people have children and would like to see them live in the area.

“But the proposals were going up 10 storeys and a lot of people were not in favour of that… it’s a fairly hemmed-in piece of land, you’ve a motorway on one side and established communities on the other.”

The original Oscar Traynor proposal would have seen two-bedroom affordable purchase units priced between €250,000 to €300,000. 

Under the scheme, developer Glenveagh was due to pay the Council €14 million for the land and redevelop it. The Council would then pay Glenveagh to build the social housing units on the site. 

Councillors however raised concerns that the Council would be tied to the price it would pay for the social housing units until 2024, with no guarantee the scheme wouldn’t be delayed due to Covid-19, and that it would be left up to the developer how they would dispose of the new homes, which some Councillors said could include selling them in bulk to a private investment trust.

Councillors voted overwhelmingly – 48 to 14 – to reject the plan with Glenveagh.

Nolan says he had concerns about the number of apartments proposed for the site and feared it could lead to a transient population if too many rental units were built but says something should be done with the site. 

“Given the housing crisis that we have I’d like to see homes being built on it but homes for families and single people,” he said. 

The most recent correspondence from the Department regarding the proposed new tenure mix of 40% social housing, 40% cost-rental housing and 20% affordable purchase at Oscar Traynor has been described as “unacceptable” by Sinn Féin’s Doolan. 

“I think it’s an attempt to undermine the democratic will of elected representatives but more importantly it’s an attempt to block a type of housing that meets the needs of the community,” he said. 

With councillors set to meet Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien over the new proposal next week, Labour’s Gilliland says she is circumspect the Department will back the new tenure mix. 

“We’ve different philosophies but in the meantime you’ve people screaming that they can’t afford rent,” she said. 

Fine Gael’s Ó’Muirí said: “I would hope that people would see sense and that we’ll get some shape of the proposal that was originally on the table back on the block.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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