Frank McDonald, author, journalist and former Environment Editor of the Irish Times, talks to VIEW editor Brian Pelan about the influence of Margaret Thatcher on Irish social housing policy and how we can learn from other cities in Europe
I met former Irish Times journalist Frank McDonald at his home which is situated in the heart of Dublin’s Temple Bar quarter. The author of several books on Dublin’s built environment was in sparkling form as he outlined his critique of the present Government’s housing policy and how other European cities have been much more imaginative when it came to social housing programmes.
“We were very good at producing social housing in the past,” said Frank. “The State, with almost no money, built huge housing estates such as Crumlin, Cabra and Finglas in Dublin.
“I personally blame former Conservative Party prime minister Margaret Thatcher, more than anyone else, for what happened next. She introduced a programme of basically selling off social housing to the existing tenants at knockdown prices with a view to creating a ‘property-owning democracy’.
“That not only whittled away the social housing stock in British cities and towns, it was also accompanied by a complete failure to build more social housing. Thatcher’s approach to social housing was completely mirrored here in Ireland.
“Padraig Flynn, who was the Minister for the Environment from 1987 to 1991, was totally keen on all this. At one stage in the late 1980s, a press release came in from his department which was headlined ‘the sale of the century’. They were offering thousands of local authority houses for sale at knockdown prices. There was a huge take-up for this offer.
“Long term this policy was disastrous because it reduced the social housing stock which was not replenished in any serious way.
“We lost our way for ideological reasons. Those same ideological reasons are what lies behind the current homelessness and housing crisis.
“The truth is that most housing in Ireland is unaffordable, especially in Dublin, for people on ordinary incomes. Contrast that situation with cities like Vienna in Austria where something like 60 per cent of the population live as tenants in either social or affordable housing schemes which have largely been built with public money.
“I am incensed by the failure of this Government to live up to its responsibilities in providing social housing.
“If you look back at Irish history one of the biggest problems we had was dispossession or the fear of dispossession. That fear has lingered right up to the present day where we now prefer to own our homes instead of renting them.”
“We need to seriously reform landlord and tenant law so that tenants in Ireland have rights which are equivalent to the rights they have throughout the most of Europe, with the exception of Britain.
“We have followed the Anglo-American planning model of ownership. As a result of that more and more people are falling out of the loop. The law as it stands at the moment, despite all sorts of alleged reforms over the years, still puts the landlord in the driving seat.”
Frank then told me of a European architecture competition that he was involved in. He used this an argument to how we could do things differently in relation to social housing policy.
“I had the honour of being a member of the jury of this year’s Mies van der Rohe European Prize for Contemporary Architecture which is the most prestigious competition in Europe. We travelled all around Europe in a week to look at the five finalists we had chosen. The one we gave the prize to was for the renovation of three blocks of social housing in Bordeaux by the architects Lacaton & Vassal, who are known for their imaginative renovation schemes.
“These three slab housing blocks are part of a social housing scheme that was built in the late 1960s called Le Grand Parc. Instead of demolishing these three apartment blocks, they added ‘winter gardens’ to them. Each apartment now has the equivalent of a roof terrace added to the front of their homes – except that they are enclosed by heavy thermal curtains. This was all done at a cost of €62,000 per unit. People living in these apartments there had their lives transformed.
“This shows that there are all sorts of solutions for social housing if the Government here was prepared to open their eyes to it.”