The report highlights how ludicrous fiscal policy and reckless planning decisions resulted in thousands of uninhabited and unwanted, exorbitantly priced, houses being built in hundreds of estates at undesired, remote and poorly serviced locations across the country. It is a pity that the report did not also shine a tangential bright light on the toxic and corrosive impact of building societies, driven by the legislation governing them.
When environment minister, Pádraig Flynn, was steering the Building Societies Bill 1989 through the Oireachtas in February of that year he said that it would “set very few boundaries to the future and scope of societies”. This included the empowering of building societies to acquire, hold, dispose of and develop land where the land is used for commercial purposes — other than residential.
Building societies were granted virtually unlimited freedom to act like banks and their attempts to do so subsequently imploded in abject failure. There were 23 building societies in existence when the State was founded. There were 10 in existence when this legislation was passed.
The savings of their 1.25 million members’ at that time was equivalent to 20% of all savings in the country. More than six of every 10 persons who financed the purchase of their own home in the late 1980s did so by means of a loan from a building society. Two failed building societies remain in existence, courtesy of NAMA and the taxpayer.
The scale and success of the credit union movement in Ireland reflects a strong appetite for community-focused savings and loan institutions with mutual status.
Should the inquest into the demise of our housing sector not also include a recommendation for revised legislation that ensures building societies stick to their fundamental mission of making loans that are secured on residential property funded substantially by their own members? How else can the young families of the future avoid being trapped in unfinished estates bearing burdensome loan liabilities on terms that are utterly unsustainable, even in a recovered economy?