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Irish Politics

Culture of learned helplessness has failed us in the housing and homelessness crisis

We have just been told that the requirement for departmental approval for social housing projects with a value of more than 2 million euro is to be eased to 7 million euro to encourage local authorities to start building them.

If the cap fixed by the Department of Housing Planning and Local Government for local authorities requiring ministerial approval for new social housing projects is now accepted as an indefensible and utterly redundant cause of 18 to 24 months delay on every council social housing project, the immediate question that demands an answer is as to why was this not scrapped years ago -  when it became absolutely obvious that we needed more social housing built very quickly.

After all, Eoghan Murphy’s department even had its name changed to emphasise its responsibility for dealing with the housing crisis several years ago. Did it not alert its own minister that it was still insisting on this cap and that the cap was causing any such projects to be delayed for years?

Did it not tell its minister about this departmentally-induced obstacle to any local authority actually building any significant amount of social housing before he and the Taoiseach went public with their rebuke to local authorities and their managers for not building such housing?

Why is it only now that this bureaucratic bar to the urgent provision of social housing is being scrapped?

What did the Department fear? Loss of control? Control of the derisory trickle of social housing projects? Control of nothing?

Did they seriously think that local authority managers would go ‘off the reservation’  and start building masses of unwanted or un-needed social housing?

Or was it a bad case of control-freakery and conservatism that is the hall-mark of the Customs House bureaucracy? And did city and county managers chafe at the bit because of this obstacle? Or was the cap a well-kept secret?

Or, perhaps, was it a very convenient component in the culture of ‘learned helplessness’ which neatly allows both the Customs House and the city and county halls to blame each other for the fact that nothing was being done to provide social housing and that nothing was planned to be done as well?

Leo Varadkar acknowledged that we had a housing emergency last week in the Dail. He said that the very fact that the Government had put emergency measures in place, such as rent caps and expedited planning processes, demonstrated that the Government had acknowledged that a crisis existed.

But expediting the planning process for large-scale commercial housing developments while keeping in place until this week a departmental system that delayed social housing project for years seems contradictory. 

It was  contradictory; it was daft. It demonstrates that the department of state which has been charged with responsibility for dealing with the housing crisis is dysfunctional.

Eoghan Murphy earlier this year described his proposed Land Development Agency as a ‘game-changer’. More recently, he also described the planned scheme for the redevelopment of the St Michael’s estate in Inchicore as a ‘game-changer”. Mmmm.

Taking the Land Development Agency first, I would point out that I have been calling in this column for the establishment of a new statutory urban renewal agency  for years. It will need legislation.

Where is that legislation? If the agency is a “game-changer” as claimed, why is it only now being planned for? This Government is three years into its term. Has it taken three years to realise that such a body is necessary? Will it take another three years to have it up and running?

The Land Development Agency was announced with a financial price tag of 1.2 billion euro. Who dreamed up that eye-catching headline? The agency doesn’t exist. It has not been provided for in legislation. Its mandate, we are told, is to be primarily focused on unused or under-used public land. If that idea really is a “game-changer”, and if we are in the middle of a housing crisis or emergency, why has absolutely nothing been done to advance the project up until now – now when the Fine Gael party is openly contemplating going to the country in the middle of the housing crisis?

What about the other “game-changer” in Inchicore. It entails knocking down an obsolete estate of 1970s social housing and replacing it with – what?

Prior to its announcement, Dublin City Council had previously planned to replace the same estate with a “mixed-tenure” development with 30% social housing, 20% affordable housing, and 50% private housing.

The minister’s “game-changing”plan, over which he publicly clashed with fellow minister Catherine Byrne, is to have 470 homes built on the site, 30% social housing ( 140 homes) and 60% built on a cost rental basis for couples earning up to 75,000 or single people earning up to 50,000. The remaining 10% could be used for either purpose “depending on the market”.

I will leave it to you to judge whether this really is a game-changer. Is reconfiguring one estate really a game-changer?

Is it not strange that in Dublin the emphasis is on knocking down local authority housing to provide sites for developments with a mix of social and  affordable and private housing?

I am totally in favour of mixing social, affordable and private housing. As Attorney General I had the honour of successfully upholding the constitutionality of the planning act which provided for such mixed development as a cornerstone of the State’s housing policy when it was referred to the Supreme Court under Article 26 of the Constitution to test its validity.

I regretted when those provisions were diluted to allow developers to buy their way out with financial contributions which never resulted in the adequate construction of badly needed social and affordable housing.

Ballymun must be the biggest monument to governmental mismanagement of social housing policy. The now demolished tower blocks were well built. But they were unsuitable for social housing where dereliction and anti-social behavior was allowed to render the area unsafe for its inhabitants. They could have been used for student or private accommodation if the rest of the area had been rebuilt for mixed accommodation. But that was not to be.

A new Ballymun was planned –and built. Alas it has been another failure in urban planning. It has repeated many of the planning errors that beset its predecessor. The result is a bleak and un-livable urban environment. Who takes the blame for this?

Dublin City Council has 6000 employees, despite having outsourced a great deal of its traditional functions. It doesn’t collect our bins. It doesn’t plan our transport. It is losing control of our water supply. It outsources road and traffic functions. Are we getting value for money from this behemoth? It now spends close to one billion euro annually on our behalf.

It is supposed to be the planning and housing authority for our capital city

It is in failure as a housing authority. Abject failure. The fault for this lies somewhere between Wood Quay and the Customs House and Government Buildings – a governance equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.

The same applies to its function as planning authority. Huge swathes of Dublin city are blighted by dereliction, obsolescence, under-development, poor development and non-development. We need higher density re-development of the city to bring it up to decent standards of urban development. We need streets to be designed as such.

Private developers and the market system will not give us a city of which we can justly proud. Nor can the task be entrusted to the City Council which has failed twice in Ballymun.

Now we hear government spin about holding a referendum on restructuring its local government and management including an elected mayor.

That is just more of the policy of perpetual postponement and learned helplessness that is characteristic of the Customs House and Wood Quay and Government Buildings triangle.

Spin about referendums and game-changing just won’t cut it any more.

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