Regulation Changes Needed to Ensure Safe Housing

Slökkvilið höfuðborgarsvæðisins bs / Facebook. Fire in Hafnarfjörður, August 20, 2023

Iceland’s housing problem gets worse with each passing year, President of The Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ) Finnbjörn A. Hermannsson stated in a radio interview yesterday morning. One died and two others were hospitalised in a fire earlier this week that broke out in an industrial building that was being used for housing. Thousands are likely living in buildings that are not classified as residential in Iceland and Finnbjörn says such residences should be legalised to ease safety monitoring.

Housing a key issue in upcoming wage negotiations

Finnbjörn says there simply isn’t enough housing to meet demand in Iceland. “We can’t even keep up with normal [population] growth, let alone when we get such a huge wave of working people that the society needs,” he stated. “Everyone needs somewhere to live and so they go to these industrial buildings that are not intended for residence.”

Following a fatal house fire in June 2020, Icelandic authorities launched an investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that between 5,000 and 7,000 people were living in properties classified as commercial or industrial buildings in Iceland in 2021. Finnbjörn says that housing will be at the forefront in the coming collective agreement negotiations. He expressed his faith that the situation would improve.

New legislation on the way

Living in buildings that are not classified as residential buildings is currently illegal in Iceland. It has proven difficult for fire departments to monitor such buildings due to privacy laws. However, the Minister of Infrastructure plans to introduce a bill next month that would allow for temporary residence permits in buildings that are not classified as residential, provided they fulfil safety requirements. The legislation would also authorise fire departments to monitor such buildings more closely.

Transport Plan: Single-Lane Bridges to Be Eliminated

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson

At a press conference yesterday, the Minister of Infrastructure unveiled his new transport plan. The plan aims to eliminate single-lane bridges on the Ring Road within 15 years and includes plans to build a new Hvalfjörður tunnel, alongside nine other tunnels. More than ISK 900 billion ($6.5 billion / €6.1 billion) will be invested over the next fifteen years, RÚV reports.

New tunnels and the elimination of single-lane bridges

At a press conference held yesterday at the Nordica Hotel in Reykjavík, Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson unveiled the ministry’s transport plan for the years 2024 to 2038.

The plan includes a budget of over ISK 900 billion ($6.5 billion / €6.1 billion) for transport projects in the next fifteen years, with approximately ISK 260 billion ($1.9 billion / €1.7 billion) allocated for the next five years. Notable projects include the construction of a second Hvalfjörður tunnel (a road tunnel under the Hvalfjörður fjord in Iceland and a part of the Ring Road) and a tunnel under the Öxnadalsheiði mountain pass. Additionally, the plan aims to eliminate single-lane bridges on the Ring Road within fifteen years.

The transport plan also includes significant road projects such as doubling the Reykjanesbraut road – connecting Reykjavík to Keflavík International Airport – and widening the Suðurlandsvegur and Kjalarnesvegur roads with separated driving lanes. Around 80 kilometres of main roads will also be widened.

There are ten tunnels in the plan:

Fjarðarheiðar tunnel
Siglufjörður tunnel
A second Hvalfjörður tunnel
Tunnel between Ólafsfjörður and Dalvík
Tunnel between Ísafjörður and Súðavík
Broadening of the Breiðdals segment of the Vestfjords tunnel
Seyðisfjörður and Mjóifjörður tunnel
Miklidalur and Hálfdán
Klettháls
Öxnadalsheiði
(Four other tunnels are also under consideration: Reynisfjall, Lónsheiði, Hellisheiði eystri, Berufjarðar and Breiðdalsheiði tunnels.)

An alternate airport fee will also be introduced and a new terminal will be built at Reykjavík Airport. The transport agreement in the capital area will also be updated with funding for the preparation of Sundabraut continuing to be guaranteed.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2026 and be completed in 2031.

Increasing road safety

Sigurður Ingi was quoted in a press release on the government’s website stating that, above all, the focus of the transport plan was increased road safety:

“When I took over as Minister of Transport almost six years ago, the development of transport infrastructure was launched with subsidies towards roads, ports, and airports throughout the country. For the next several years, we were able to invest more in transport infrastructure annually than had previously been done.

Above all, our guiding light, and biggest project, is increasing safety on the roads. As in previous transport plans, the emphasis is on reducing the number of single-lane bridges and crossroads, shortening distances between places and, most importantly, separating opposing lanes on the busiest roads to and from the capital area. We have worked according to a clear safety plan for traffic, shipping, and aviation in cooperation with regulatory bodies and the business world.

Transport is the lifeblood of society and supports a strong economy throughout the country and provides a lot of strength to the settlements. The projects are diverse and range from protective pavement (i.e. bundið slitlag) on connecting roads to ambitious collaborative projects such as Ölfusárbrú and Sundabraut.”

ISK 130 Million in Grants to Strengthen Rural Settlements

Útivera Ganga Náttúra Gengið frá Aðalvík að Hesteyri og til baka

The Minister of Infrastructure has allocated a total of ISK 130 million ($910,000 / €848,000) in grants to twelve projects in rural Iceland in accordance with the regional development plan. Emphasis is placed on strengthening areas suffering from chronic population decline, unemployment, and a lack of economic diversity.

12 projects organised by seven regional associations

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Minister of Infrastructure, has allocated grants in the amount of ISK 130 million ($910,000 / €848,000) to 12 projects organised by seven regional associations. The grants are intended to strengthen the country’s rural settlements and are allocated to specific projects in key areas in accordance with the regional development plan for the years 2022-2036. A total of 32 applications for grants, totalling over ISK 857 million ($6 million / €5.6 million), were received for the year 2023.

The aim of the grants is to connect individual plans within different regions of Iceland with the government’s regional development plan while also affording locals greater responsibility in the allocation of funds. Emphasis is placed on strengthening areas with chronic population decline, unemployment, and a lack of economic diversity.

Projects that receive funding must benefit individual regions, localities within the region, or the region as a whole. Population development, the composition of the economy, the level of employment, and average income were among the factors that were used as a basis for evaluating applications. A three-member selection committee reviewed the applications and made recommendations to the minister.

Value creation in sheep farming, Straumhvörf

The projects that received the highest funding are “value creation in sheep breeding areas,” which received the highest single grant from the Ministry of Infrastructure’s fund. The project incentivises innovation and value creation in sparsely populated areas that are heavily reliant on sheep farming. The funding – ISK 21.6 million ($151,000 / €141,000) – will go to the Federation of Municipalities in West Iceland, the Association of Local Authorities in the Westfjords (i.e. Fjórðungssamband Vestfirðinga), and the Federation of Municipalities in Northwest Iceland.

The second highest grant went to the Straumhvörf project, which is a collaboration between the Federation of Municipalities in East, Northwest, and West Iceland; Visit North and East Iceland (i.e. áfangastofa norður- og austurlands); Austurbrú; and the Marketing Office of North Iceland (i.e. Markaðsstofu Norðurlands). Straumhvörf is a project seeking to implement a design and product workshop for a new tourist circuit around East and North Iceland in connection with direct international flights to Egilsstaðir and Akureyri. The Federation of Municipalities in East Iceland will receive a grant of ISK 15.6 million ($110,000 / €102,000).

Taxi Drivers Demand Hearing with the Government

Taxi protest

Dozens of taxi drivers stopped work yesterday in protest of the newly approved taxi bill submitted by the Minister of Infrastructure. The drivers have serious concerns about the changes included in the bill and are demanding a hearing with the government, Vísir reports.

Protests stopped by the police

As reported last Friday, taxi drivers staged a protest outside the Minister’s Residence in Reykjavík; expressing their strong objecting to a new bill on taxi services, drivers drove down the street and honked their horns in front of the residence. The bill, which was approved by Parliament later in the day, loosens requirements for operating a taxi and removes of restrictions on the number of work permits, among other things.

Taxi drivers’ interest groups strongly opposed the bill, citing concerns that the changes may incite violence against drivers and result in a decline in service quality for the public, and dozens of drivers went on strike yesterday, Vísir reports.

In the capital area, there have been unusually long wait times for taxis in recent days. Approximately 150 cars from the company Hreyfill were on the streets of the city at 3 PM yesterday, while there are typically around 200. However, the company claimed that the reduced number of available vehicles was due to weather conditions, rather than the strike by drivers, the article by Vísir explained.

Greatly upset with the bill

“A hundred of our members went on strike today in protest of the recently approved bill,” Daníel Einarsson, Chairperson of the Federation of Icelandic Taxi Drivers, told Vísir yesterday. The association counts approximately 400 members.

When asked what they were trying to achieve with these protests, given that the bill had been approved on Friday, Daníel responded thusly:

“We tried to get the government to speak with us and consider our concerns, but the bill was rushed through parliament without giving us a chance to voice our opposition,” Daníel stated. He was speaking from inside Hreyfill’s offices, where several taxi drivers had gathered to show their solidarity and express their frustration with how they have been treated by the government.

While the protest took place, coffee and donuts were offered to those in attendance.

Gunnlaugur Ingvarsson, a taxi driver, added, “it’s not every day that taxi drivers take action like this, but we feel overwhelmed by how we have been treated and how the government has ignored our concerns. We are here to make our voices heard.”

Funding for Municipal Services for People with Disabilities to Increase by ISK 5 Billion

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

Local municipalities will now receive a permanent increase in funding for legally required services for people with disabilities. RÚV reports that this increase will amount to ISK 5 billion [$35.028 million; €33.043 million] a year.

Per an announcement on the government’s website, the agreement was c0signed by the chair and executive director of the Association of Local Authorities and the Ministers of Finance and Economic Affairs, Infrastructure, and Social Affairs and the Labour Market on Saturday. It is aimed at helping local municipalities “achieve established performance and debt targets according to the current financial plan for the years 2023 – 2027.”

Under the terms of the agreement, local taxes will increase by .22% against a corresponding reduction of state income tax. The tax burden on individuals will not change, however. Rather, the agreement deals with the specific transfer of funds from the state to local municipalities.

Local municipalities have long called for increased funds to provide services for people with disabilities and are still calling for higher contributions. Per Saturday’s agreement, both local authorities and the three undersigning ministries agree to conduct expense analyses for services provided with the aim of renegotiating the agreement next year.

Municipal Authorities Suggest Egilsstaðir for Development as Alternate Airport

Municipal authorities in the eastern district of Fljótsdalshérað want to strengthen the infrastructure of the Egilsstaðir airport due to the ongoing seismic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula, RÚV reports.

It’s possible that the current eruption in Meradalir and last year’s eruption in Geldingadalur herald the arrival of a long period of volcanic unrest on the Reykjanes peninsula, something that would put the Keflavík airport—and the single roadway leading to it—at significant risk. As such, many political leaders, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, agree about the importance of establishing an alternate airport somewhere else in the country.

Egilsstaðir is not the only town angling for airport development, however. Just last week, Halla Signý Kristjánsdóttir, an MP for the Progressive Party and a member of the transportation committee, suggested that an airport could be built in Mýrar in Borgarfjörður, West Iceland. Akureyri in North Iceland has also been put forth as an option.

Vilhjálmur Jónsson, one of the local government chairmen in Fljótsdalshérað, says Egillstaðir is well-suited for the project. “The conditions at Egilsstaðir are in some ways more suitable and I also think that if there are going to be these weekly disruptions that [it would be good to be able to] spread flights to other airports if there was a major incident.”

“The situation is not a new one,” Vilhjálmur concluded, “but these earthquakes on Reykjanes now will maybe finally push it.”

Minister to Meet with CEO Vigdís Häsler in Wake of Racist Remark

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson

Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson will meet with CEO of the Icelandic Farmers’ Association Vigdís Häsler today to discuss a racist remark made by the Minister at the association’s annual conference last week. Vigdís hopes the meeting will allow her to “set the matter aside,” RÚV reports.

Words spoken in a “fit of frustration”

As reported by Iceland Review earlier this week, Minister of Infrastructure and Chairman of the Progressive Party Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson attended the annual conference of the Icelandic Farmers’ Association last week. 

After a night of “much singing, joy, and entertainment,” a few employees of the Farmers’ Association approached the Minister, asking him to partake in a photo-op. The photo-op involved lifting CEO Vigdís Häsler onto a makeshift plank. Finding the act inappropriate, the Minister refused to participate and uttered a racist remark about the CEO. (Vigdís is Icelandic but was originally adopted from Indonesia.)

Vigdís published a Facebook post on the incident on Monday, saying that she had “never imagined she would have to write such a statement: I’ve never let the colour of my skin, my race, sex, or anything else define me.” Vigdís wrote that the Minister had uttered an “extremely hurtful remark,” without getting into the details.

Shortly after Vigdís’ post, Sigurður Ingi published a written apology on Facebook. In an interview with RÚV on Tuesday, the Minister again apologised for his remark, adding that it had been spoken in a “fit of frustration.” According to Sigurður, he had tried to reach out to Vigdís on the morning after the annual conference and through the Association’s Chair on the following weekend. While pressed several times to clarify what exactly he had said, the Minister refused to repeat his remark.

Hopes to “set the matter aside”

As reported by RÚV last night, Sigurður Ingi will meet with Vigdís Häsler today. Vigdís hopes that she will be able to “set the matter aside” after the meeting, although closure will depend entirely on Sigurður Ingi. 

In a brief interview, Vigdís stated that she had received “numerous messages over the past few days,” from the parents of adopted children, among others, in which it became clear to her that “all types of racism are widely tolerated.” She did not comment further on the meeting. 

Harsh criticism from the opposition, the public

The Minister has received harsh criticism from the public, many of whom have called on him to resign. Opposition MPs have also criticised Sigurður Ingi. In a session in Parliament, Pirate Party MP Halldóra Mogensen stated that the Minister’s remark could be considered “a breach of law.”

In response to the opposition, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that Sigurður Ingi’s apology indicated that the remark had been unacceptable and should not have been uttered. “I don’t dispute the words of the CEO of the Icelandic Farmers’ Association in this matter, but we must also be able to accept it when people apologise,” Katrín stated.

Minister Harshly Criticised for Racist Remark

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson

Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson is facing harsh criticism for a racist remark he made at the Icelandic Farmers’ Association annual conference last week. Opposition MPs and the public have criticised the remark, some suggesting that the minister should resign. Sigurður Ingi, who is also chairman of the Progressive Party, has published a written apology on his Facebook page and has declined making further comment on the incident.

DV reported that during a photo-op at the conference last week, Sigurður Ingi referred to Vigdís Häsler, CEO of the Icelandic Farmers’ Association, as “the black one.” Vigdís is Icelandic but was originally adopted from Indonesia. Sigurður Ingi’s assistant originally denied the minister had made the comment, calling it “utter nonsense.” After Vigdís published a Facebook post on the incident, however, Sigurður Ingi also published a written apology for making the remark.

Criticism from opposition and public

The minister has received harsh criticism from the public, many of whom have called on him to resign, stating that such remarks are unacceptable from a minister. Opposition MPs have also criticised Sigurður Ingi. Pirate Party MP Halldóra Mogensen stated in Parliament that his remark could be considered a breach of law. Reform Party MP addressed the Prime Minister, asking if she did not consider it obvious that Sigurður Ingi’s remark was a breach of MPs and Ministers’ codes of conduct.

Government ministers respond

In her response to the opposition, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that Sigurður Ingi’s apology indicated that the remark had been unacceptable and should not have been said. “I don’t dispute the words of the CEO of the Icelandic Farmers’ Association in this matter but we must also be able to accept it when people apologise,” Katrín stated.

When asked about Sigurður Ingi’s remark following a cabinet meeting today, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson referred to it as “just a very unfortunate incident.” Neither he nor Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir would comment on whether they felt Sigurður Ingi should resign due to the comment. Sigurður Ingi declined to answer any questions about the incident, pointing instead to his Facebook post.

Vigdís has stated that she will make no further comment on the incident.