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The numbers game

Harnessing the power of data can help solve our housing needs

Dublin, 8 December 2015 | Social, Economy

Lorcan Sirr, Lecturer in Housing at the Dublin Institute of Technology &Visiting Professor of Housing, URV, Tarragona (2015) makes the case for the importance of housing data in his latest column "On the home front" on the Sunday Times of Ireland, quoting "the State of Housing in the EU 2015" report by Housing Europe.


Ireland has traditionally been very poor at collecting data, collating statistics and disseminating information. It’s not really that we’re an innumerate country; I think it’s more that facts often inconveniently jar with opinion on a range of topics from rural Ireland to road safety to housing.

There are several cultural reasons for data poverty.

Firstly, people and organisations are often afraid of what statistics might reveal (for example, contrary to popular belief the level of court-ordered repossessions in Ireland is miniscule), and data can indicate how well or not a job is being done, especially if targets have been set and measured, as they should be. This is called accountability.

Secondly, there is little institutional respect for statistics among politicians or many agencies – the ponderings of the Taoiseach’s ‘man with two pints’ are easier to accept than any potentially uncomfortable data. Finally, there is a fundamental lack of appreciation of the long-term benefits that having data can bring.

It’s hardly reassuring therefore, to think that the last time the Road Safety Authority (RSA) published its ‘annual factbook’ was in 2012.

Indeed, the old Garda form for collecting information at the scene of a vehicle collision was four pages long whereas the PSNI (Police Network) equivalent, the Collision Report Form, is twelve pages. There is no form-filling at the scene, data collection instead relying on a Garda notebook and memory. (A basic clipboard with a form or an in-car tablet with an up-loadable form would improve this.)

Data from collision reporting are used by the RSA, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, the Health Service Executive and local authorities to help inform budgets, policies and strategies: the more detailed the data, the more effective the measures aimed at reducing road deaths and injuries. Poor data collection is a lost opportunity.

Housing too has suffered from a lack a data over the decades. What information was available was often ignored in favour of politically convenient actions such as rezoning unsuitable land for housing.

There is now have a better understanding of what housing we have, its value, and more importantly what we need and where. We know, for example, that about 10,000 houses fall into obsolescence each year.

The Housing Agency’s Future Housing Needs report from 2014 is a good example of using informed data to plan for the effective provision of appropriate housing where it is needed, not where developers just happen to own land. For the first time in housing we have a chance to have evidence-led policies, and not policy-led evidence.

Across Europe too, various bodies are collecting information that will allow individual countries and the EU as a whole to plan for housing its population. Housing Europe is one such body that earlier this year published its The State of Housing in the EU report looking at broad trends and country specific statistics.

Throughout Europe home-ownership levels have been falling and the proportion of those renting has been rising – in Ireland, home-ownership is now below 70 percent – except in new member states where the converse is the case.

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The production of social housing too has decreased in the EU (with the notable exception of France). Finance for social housing is typically one of the first funding measures to get the chop in times of crisis, just when it’s needed most.

In Ireland in 2015 we can hold our heads up with having produced in the first half of the year a sum total of 20 social housing units.I kid you not. The second half of the year will apparently see an improvement.

Mainland Europe sees issues that are thankfully not as prevalent here.

Countries like Hungary, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy and Lithuania all have a percentage of the population living in overcrowded dwellings higher than the EU average. Likewise for the lack of a household flushing toilet in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States. Just two-thirds of Romanian homes have running water, and 74 percent of Slovaks aged 18-34 live with their parents.

Fuel poverty affects up to 125 million people in the EU, and is most significant in Central, Eastern and Mediterranean Europe, and has serious potential health effects. The most effective way of tackling fuel poverty is not by increasing allowances but by reducing the energy demand of the building.

The Danes are therefore busy with energy renovation, planning on reducing household energy needs by 35% by 2050 (whereas 70 percent of Estonians live in energy inefficient apartments). In Croatia, they are still dealing with the aftermath of conflict and have a housing programme especially for ‘Homeland War Victims’.

There is no social housing in Greece, but homelessness is increasing, whilst in the UK, there are over 1.3 million households on local authority housing waiting lists.

The point of this is to illustrate that without such data the EU couldn’t and wouldn’t be able to allocate an extra €315 billion in its Investment Plan: it wouldn’t know where to spend it, on what types of housing and issues, and how to measure success, or failure. We shouldn’t be afraid of data.

* The article was originally published on the Sunday Times of Ireland on Sunday, December 6th 2015. 

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