The housing crisis was a driver in last month’s game-changing election. Routine cruelties around even finding a home, costs that look like orchestrated exploitation rather than an acceptance that a home is a right and not a crumb from an increasingly over-laden table, energised demand for change. So too did the consequences of poor, last-minute planning caused by an avoidable crisis.
Mind-numbing commutes, overcrowded hospitals and schools, new residential areas without public transport or shops, all fueled a new kind of anger. Despite that, demand for change would have spoken even more loudly had Sinn Féin’s admiration for terrorists not made it impossible for a majority to support them.
There is too a growing recognition that the housing crisis is just a symptom of an accelerating gap between the services we enjoy and what our changing demographics and growing population require to function.
Coronavirus may underline how our health service struggles at the best of times. That the HSE conceded today that it cannot dispute projections that 1.9m Irish people may fall ill with coronavirus is hardly calming. Neither is the news that millions of Italians are in forced quarantine, a move echoed by our Department of Foreign Affairs when it advised against travelling to the Italian regions in lockdown.
That is just one example of a vulnerability created because the public sector has not been allowed to grow in parallel to private sector growth. Today, there are 2.3m people at work which is more than at peak Celtic Tiger. Nevertheless, only 335,000 work in the public sector. This is, more or less, the same number employed when there were 1.5m people in private sector jobs. We have 800,000 extra private workers but no extra public workers or services. This situation, actually and metaphorically, is not fit for purpose.
One of the areas this off-the-pace planning fails is the provision of school places in areas of population growth. Today we detail the situation in East Cork where more than 100 children who will need a secondary place in September have yet to secure one. None of five public schools around Midleton or Carrigtwohill can offer a place. One parent was told their child would get home tuition as she could not find a school place. It is very difficult to see how this unsatisfactory situation has been allowed develop, especially as population growth has been anticipated for decades. This and huge infrastructure shortcomings bedeviling that area make it very hard to completely accept politicians’ assurances that “everyone is working very hard” to resolve the issues.
It is though possible to have some sympathy for those trying to resolve these issues. Public services are to one degree or another an expression of tax policies. Lots of taxes should mean lots of services. Recent Eurostat reports show that those who earn most in Ireland pay taxes comparable to their EU peers. It also found that those Irish workers on low wages are among those who pay least in the EU. How this disparity might be, or if it is, resolved is anyone’s guess but in the meantime we struggle to offer our children school places. Politics is, once again, about making the least bad choices