Handing over zoned residential land to the Housing Agency has been described as an “absurd idea” when Galway has one of the worst housing crises in the country, that is according to Independent City Councillor Catherine Connolly.
The comments were made at the monthly meeting of Galway City Council this week following a presentation by John O’Connor, chief executive of the Housing Agency. He outlined how three sites in the Knocknacarra, which were bought by the council for residential purposes, will be taken over under the Land Aggregation Scheme free-of-charge in order to ease the financial burden of the local authority in repaying outstanding loans - it is understood that the council had been paying €1 million per year in interest rate payments for the 19 acres of land. The sites to be transfered are at Ballyburke (5.342ha ), at Ballymoneen Road, Keeraun (0.2356ha ), and at Ballymoneen Road (2.284 ha ).
Mr O’Connor explained that the role of the Housing Agency is to support local authorities and that due to the State’s financial situation, and the fact that there is not much social housing being built, a number of lands are being returned so that the department’s funding of the loans are cleared. He added that the lands will become State-owned lands again but that “if the lands are required for housing in future it would be transferred back to the city council”.
“From day one I found this to be a most absurd idea,” said Cllr Catherine Connolly who questioned what the rationale was of sending land to a body in Dublin where the council would have no control over it. “None of it makes any sense to me. It’s completely undermining the power of councillors. We zoned this land after careful consideration. This land is required now. Galway city has one of the worst housing crises in the country,” she said.
Describing the Housing Agency as a “type of NAMA” Cllr Donal Lyons (Ind ) asked: “Should Galway be in a position to go forward in the future with projects, can you guarantee the council would have ownership again? What price would the Land Aggregation Scheme be putting on the lands?”
Also questioning the cost to the council was Cllr Frank Fahy (FG ) who noted that “some of the lands purchased by this council cost between €7 and €8 million, today it’s only worth 10 per cent of what was paid for them”. “Who would take the loss of what was originally paid?” he asked.
In contradiction Cllr Declan McDonnell (Ind ) pointed out that “even if the lands are left in our ownership there is no money coming from Government to build housing”. He added: “It would be a foolish decision not to hand over the land as we would be left with the difficulty of maintaining the loan.” However, Cllr McDonnell also questioned if there would be an any obstacle in regaining control the land in the future.
Director of services for housing, Joe O’Neill, told the chamber that there had been four sites with loans of €30 million attached. He added that one site has already been transferred over to the Housing Agency and that the annual interest bill on the remaining sites comes to around €455,000. “The main motivation for this is to alleviate the financial burden,” said Mr O’Neill.
Seeking to allay councillors’ concerns, Mr O’Connor explained that if land is required for housing purposes then it will be transferred back at zero cost as it will be under the control of the Minister for the Environment. However, if the land is required by the Department of Education it would be made available at a reduction of the current market value.