Housing crisis: Different standard when it’s your backyard

Housing crisis: Different standard when it’s your backyard
Aodhan O’Riordan and Finian McGrath.

Aodhan O’Riordan and Finian McGrath are two politicians who appear eager to tackle the housing crisis but wish to insulate their own back yards from the emergency, writes Michael Clifford

Finian McGrath made no bones about his sworn duty. He will stand shoulder to shoulder with his people, irrespective of the terrible fate that might be visited on him. He will remain steadfast to his principles.

“My job is to represent the people who live in my local area and I will stand by them regardless of the consequences,” he told RTÉ’s Prime Time last Tuesday.

What terrible fate would await him for lashing himself to the standard of his locale? Would he be dragged away to be flogged? Or would he just be exposing himself to the charge of breathtaking hypocrisy which might call into question his fitness to be a member of government?

McGrath was explaining why, at a time of an alleged national emergency in housing, he was objecting to a development in his Dublin Bay North constituency. One of the main objections was that a proposed scheme included eight floors of apartments. Developments of that size are permissible since the government removed height restrictions in response to the emergency.

Yet junior minister McGrath feels that while eight storeys is good enough for the rest of the nation, different standards should apply to his back yard.

“I’m in favour of quality planning and housing in my own constituency, the highest I would say is four blocks (storeys), no higher.”

So much for governing. So much for the emergency.

A constituency rival of McGrath’s, Senator Aodhan Ó Riordáin, is also up to his oxters in another display of righteous principles. He has appointed himself to carry the flag for objections to a proposed development of 164 homes in Howth, Co Dublin.

The developer’s chief executive, Patrick Crean, has asked to meet with the senator to see if anything can be ironed out. According to a report in the Irish Times, Aodhan refuses to meet this man. Is the developer unclean?

“I believe it’s bad practice (to meet a developer) given recent political history,” Ó Riordain told the newspaper. Does he fear the developer might kidnap him? Or maybe this fiendish builder of homes might possess secret powers to bend the senator’s mind?

Or perhaps Ó Riordain’s real fear is that the developer might wield some logic or common sense in response to the objections. The senator, it seems, would prefer to remain in his self-righteous cocoon where he can focus on his principle objective of harvesting votes. So much for the emergency.

In February 2017, the man who would be Taoiseach a few months later objected to a four-storey apartment development in his back yard of Castleknock. The building was too tall.

“Four-storey apartment blocks are a design model which has long fallen into disfavour,” Leo Varadkar wrote in his objection. “It would be grossly insensitive to local feelings to permit such dated architecture to succeed.”

An Bord Pleanála didn’t think so when it gave the go-ahead six months later. The following year Mr Vardkar’s government removed height restrictions on apartment buildings. Four storeys are indeed outdated. The new trend is for taller apartment blocks but don’t tell Leo that. So much for leadership. So much for governing.

In July of last year, junior minister Catherine Byrne criticised a high proportion of cost rental housing units in a project in her backyard of Inchicore. The scheme, designed to make rent affordable, was introduced by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, but Byrne didn’t agree with it.

She complained about the lack of consultation and the high density of the plan. So much for governing. So much for the emergency.

Housing crisis: Different standard when it’s your backyard

The above cases are only a sample of how politicians from all parties appear eager to insulate their own back yards from the housing emergency.

It is inevitable that constituents are going to object to new development. Anything that might present even a remote threat to house prices, or impinge on quality of life in the smallest way, inevitably meets with objection.

Some development proposals do constitute bad planning. Resistance is perfectly warranted in these instances, emergency or no emergency.

But bad planning is not simply that which discommodes some local people, or touches on fears about local house prices. Planning is primarily concerned with the common good. That must take account of all factors, local, national, environmental, present and future.

For many politicians, however the basis for objection is not the quality of planning but the depth of public sentiment, irrespective of on what it might be based.

Either you pander to all needs and wants of your constituents, or your opponent will fill the gap and swipe the vote. Not only that, but the objecting politician may not believe in the premise for objections, or even give a fig one way or the other. The only thing that matters is making enough noise that will be recalled when constituents enter the polling booth.

It has always been thus, but today, in relation to housing, we are told that there exists an emergency, including a humanitarian crisis in which thousands of children are without homes.

The primary solution is to build more homes, ensure that they are affordable, and bring the spiralling rent market back into line.

Is it not reasonable to expect our public representatives to recalibrate how they do business during such an emergency?

On a wider scale there is no getting away from the reality that these politicians are not the only section of society who wantonly ignore the emergency when it suits.

Objections today are as voracious as they ever were.

And, as stated above, there are occasions when genuine bad planning must be resisted. However, for the most part, objections are based entirely on selfish concerns.

Change is instinctively resisted. Perceptions about house prices are paramount. Cries that the “character” of an area will be affected are rampant, despite the fact that the character of the state’s cities must change if a campaign of housing is to succeed.

Reports of the emergency, vignettes about children growing up in hotels, or well paid workers unable to buy a home in the city, touch heart strings. The instinct of many is to offer help or donations in some form. But don’t expect the emergency to impinge on their lifestyles, or perceptions about their area, because that’s asking too much.

For sure, the craven attitudes of politicians around planning objections betray a complete deficit in leadership at a time of emergency.

Following, pandering, playing the game, with one eye on an opponent, has far more traction than any fidelity to the wider interests of society. But they are not the only ones who like to think that the housing emergency is something that happens somewhere else.

Until it’s brought to their own door, everybody believes the housing emergency is a shocking indictment of how things are done. Then when it announces itself in the local area, many re-evaluate their perceptions. Emergency, what emergency?

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