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Irish Politics

Our housing and home-ownership problems require more than government talking and hand-wringing

Irish society is sleep-walking towards another tipping point. That point is when the younger cohort of our state’s population begin to strongly believe that things are not going to be better for them than they were for their parents’ generation.

It is, of course, good news 10 years after the financial crash that economic growth is good and that employment is growing.

But there is growing evidence that we are on a trajectory that is not politically sustainable. The under-35s are experiencing a new economic order in which they see themselves as confronted by economic forces which are set upon denying them a secure role and place in society from which to plan families and careers.

The Government must wake up to the real problems that threaten to rob an entire generation of optimism and confidence.

Leo Varadkar is cooler than Enda. But that won’t count for much if the generation that sees him as cool goes cold on him. Phony posturing in the FG leadership contest found Leo engaging in very dated political dog-whistling – talking about being on the side of those “who get up early” and signalling crack-downs on welfare cheats. Facile posturing or core belief?

In truth, everyone assumes that Fine Gael are on the side of the working, coping classes. So is Fianna Fáil. But being on their side is one thing; delivering what they want and need is another.

The issue of housing is now a point of central political importance. It goes well beyond the crisis of homelessness, hostels, evictions and emergency modular housing solutions. It extends to organising our economy and society to provide sufficient, affordable homes for the coming generation. It encompasses issues of rent levels, and also the capacity to buy and own your own home.

Tinkering at the edges of the “housing and homes” issue is not politically sustainable. Eoghan Murphy inherited the poison chalice of political accountability on housing from Simon Coveney. Cynics point to an apparent sense of relief on Simon’s political visage when freed from that responsibility and when placed instead on the international stage.

Coveney’s measures were sticking-plaster solutions. Attempts at rent control in a period of sustained market shortages in the rental market can only have a temporary palliative effect. The real issue, Coveney himself conceded, is the issue of supply.

How do you tackle the issue of supply in the housing market? The erroneous assumption made by the Government is that you speed up the planning process for large scale, outer city green field developments (done), provide first time buyers with a grant (done and now to be un-done), and threaten to tax or appropriate hoarded land banks (threatened but not done). Then you just pray that market forces will do the rest (they won’t).

Planning laws are really there to prevent certain things from happening. Whether at local authority level or that of An Bord Pleanála, you can zone, control and authorise all you want, but the planning process doesn’t lay a single brick upon another. Irelands needs many, many more urban homes and suburban homes. There are plenty of unoccupied housing developments lingering still in rural places where there is no sufficient economic base to have those homes occupied by families with the job opportunities that might let them live in or purchase those homes in a sustainable way.

Location matters hugely. If you want sustained home-building in our cities and, particularly, our inner cities, you have got to get it into your head that the market alone simply doesn’t work.

What is needed is an agency or agencies that will assemble sites by CPO in urban areas that are run down and obsolete,  plan the streetscapes, decide on the mix of users (homes, apartments, shops, offices, etc), and grant building leases on strict terms to builders on terms that effectively constitute planning permissions. Hausmann did it for Paris and the Wide Street Commissioners once did it for Dublin.

In theory, local authorities could do this right now. But in practice, local authorities have lost the capacity, the motivation, the sense of urgency, and the backing of central government to do this. Dublin, for instance is littered with derelict sites, run-down obsolete areas and under-used land that is dead-locked by disputes and commercial stand-offs between free-holders, landlords and tenants.

Private enterprise cannot resolve “area dereliction” or obsolescence in urban areas. Local authorities seem to believe that they have no role in site assembly for private development. So the housing developers naturally go to greenfield sites on the distant edges of cities and satellite towns rather than participating in urban regeneration and renewal.

The proactive regeneration agency route is the way that urban renewal and urban housing and home-ownership can be tackled in combination. It needs a sense of urgency and radicalism to kick-start the process, to prime the resource pumps, and to harness market forces to implementing clear social policy.

We hear facile talk about the fact that local authorities were major providers of social housing in the past. They were indeed. But their hey-day gave us vast schemes of social ghetto-isation, social dysfunction and marginalisation as well. Dublin, Cork and Limerick all bear the scars of social housing programmes based on mass economic segregation of the least well off.

We need instead mixed developments of social, affordable and private homes – along the lines of the ill-fated Part V of the Planning Act. We must learn from these lessons and build social sustainability into our housing policies.

Unless we want to become a nation of tenants of Reits and vulture-fund rentiers (with all that implies in terms of swinging the pendulum of power from ordinary citizens to the State and Big Capital), we need to mark out a clear path towards reinstating home-ownership as a real prospect and objective for our younger generation. That can only be done by ensuring (not merely permitting) supply to keep prices within a feasible ratio to household earnings. That is the huge challenge for Eoghan Murphy and a challenge most definitely for all his colleagues in government as well.

Sky-high home prices and rents are hurting our economy. Post Brexit relocation to Ireland already faces huge problems in terms of housing prices and high marginal tax rates for employees. The economic depression is over in many sectors. But, for the home-building industry, it isn’t over yet. Offices and hotels are flying up; hospitals and transport infrastructure projects are arriving; but homebuilding is comparatively stagnating. We don’t need a boom and bust building cycle. But we do need action now on a broad variety of measures that will deliver.

The housing and home-ownership problems require new solutions and new thinking. It should high among the priorities of every member of government and every government back-bencher.

If it is not addressed, urgently and convincingly, public opinion will go cold on cool Leo faster than he might hope for. The Government has to show us its plan for how it will address the issue; talking and hand-wringing won’t do.

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