Simon Coveney says a lot but will he be there to see policy through?

It was a big deal, we were told in advance, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Simon Coveney says a lot but will he be there to see policy through?

Simon Coveney was launching his latest plan to try and address the housing crisis and to show the world how important it was. Drinks and sandwiches were on offer.

The plan involves unlocking more than 800 sites across the country owned by local authorities and public bodies to the private market to help boost housing supply.

The plan is to provide at least 50,000 new homes by 2021.

In total, more than 2,000 hectares of land controlled by city and county councils and other bodies including CIÉ, the IDA and HSE, will be offered to private developers and housing associations. Coveney, earnest as always, spoke at length and then some more about the ins and outs of how it will all work.

Derelict or disused lands in the ownership of State companies are to be given over for development and builders will be invited to build on lands in the hands of the State for the purposes of building new homes.

Some sites will be exclusively social housing, others will be mixed he said.

He then took questions from the floor, most pretty predictable.

But then came a curve ball from the back of the room.

A booming Scottish accent began to stick it to Coveney.

Scott Millar, a former newspaper journalist turned member of the so-called National Homeless and Housing Coalition, had infiltrated the gathering and went on to accuse the minister of engaging in a mass sale of the family silver to private builders.

Millar, you might recall was the journalist who famously drew those six seconds of silence from then taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the 2007 general election campaign when he asked about his friends who gave him a dig out.

Millar informed the room that a protest was taking place outside at the same time and called on Coveney to defend himself.

Before he got the chance to, his no-nonsense press adviser Catriona Fitzpatrick countered that there were just five people outside.

“Just to dispel any impression that may be given of a mass demonstration,” she said, before allowing her minister to speak.

For his part, Coveney denied any such privatisation agenda but insisted he was in favour of “pragmatic” solutions to fix the crisis.

He acknowledged the homelessness numbers are going in the wrong direction and this is why a state-only solution won’t work.

“I make no apologies for pursuing a mixed approach, but to suggest this is a privatisation process is wrong,” he retorted forcibly.

When we need at least 25,000 homes built a year, Coveney’s plan doesn’t claim to achieve to deliver all of those homes this year or next and we are still a long way short of that target.

And while he has set himself ambitious targets, the big weakness of Coveney’s plan is that he most likely won’t be in the department the far side of a leadership race, win or lose.

But it would appear that this plan is the first genuine attempt by the State to find out exactly what land it has to make available to help ease the housing crisis.

However, many pitfalls still exist. What is the attitude of local authorities? Are they likely to buy-in to this? Will the deals be commercially transparent?

Key to the deal’s success is the nature of the deals with developers. If they think it is not workable, then the whole thing could fall asunder.

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