Lack of controls over land agency 'threatens return to days of brown envelope'

Lack of controls over the new Land Development Agency (LDA) creates a risk of land deals returning to the days of brown envelopes, a housing expert has warned.

Prof Rob Kitchin also said “agency” was a misnomer for a body that will act as a company and potentially be privatised.

His comments were among fresh criticisms from academics and experts about the way the LDA is set up – as a State-owned company, exempt from Freedom of Information legislation, required to make a profit but with no specific legal requirement to provide social and affordable homes.

The LDA was established under preliminary legislation a year ago to identify, source and prepare public and other lands to build 150,000 homes over the next 20 years.

It has a budget of €1.25bn and has started work but is waiting for the LDA Bill to give it full statutory powers.

Prof Kitchin, from Maynooth University, told the Oireachtas Housing Committee: “It would be more appropriate to call it the Land Development Company as opposed to Land Development Agency. It’s very much set up on a commercial basis. The word ‘agency’ seems a bit of a misnomer to me.”

He added there were no benchmarks for reviewing its performance, it could be partly or wholly sold off by the Government, there would be an anti-competitive advantage to any private element having access to public information, it was driven by a need for profit and there was no transparency because of the Freedom of Information exemption.

“To be outside the transparency mechanism will potentially create accountability issues downstream,” he said, citing the need for safeguards around lobbying, insider deals and financial irregularities. He added there was risk of the “brown envelope” reappearing.

Prof Orla Hegarty, of University College Dublin, said she was concerned only 10pc of homes built were to be social housing. A further 30pc are meant to be affordable but affordability would still be dictated by the market.

“An approach that outsources control of price, delivery speed, housing mix, quality and profit margin is very high risk,” she said.

The Housing Agency and Irish Council for Social Housing also expressed concerns about the limited social housing element. The committee will hear from the construction sector this morning.

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