Fergus Finlay: The biggest housing scandal? The government knows how to fix it

There were times — when Ireland was a lot poorer — when house building was really a major priority for government.
Fergus Finlay: The biggest housing scandal? The government knows how to fix it

When the IMF call on Ireland to start building affordable homes, as they have, surely it’s time for the government to examine its conscience? Picture: Larry Cummins

I’m finding it harder and harder to understand the Government’s reluctance to build houses. Everyone knows that the problem is a simple one. There simply aren’t enough houses. 

Most people, I believe, know in their hearts that decent affordable shelter ought to be a civil and economic right. The failure to even begin to try to provide them is a dereliction of public duty.

I’ve written before about how our constitution not only doesn’t support the right to decent and affordable housing, but actually militates against it. The private property rights we adopted in 1937 — not all that far short of a century ago — were designed at the time to protect home ownership. 

But they have now become a vehicle for protecting wealth against the needs of the common good. The balance is fundamentally wrong, and it has taken the political system far too long to recognise that.

But the net issue, it seems too me, is that we simply haven’t had a government for a long time that has any interest in building houses. It makes no sense.

It wasn’t always that way. There were times — when Ireland was a lot poorer — when house building was really a major priority for government. From the 1930s to the 1950s Dublin Corporation was more or less given its head to clear the inner-city slums of old. 

As a result, places that didn’t exist at all — like Crumlin and Kimmage — became well-populated suburbs, and the houses built then still stand. The middle classes followed, and tiny villages like Rathfarnham and Terenure blossomed.

In those days, the development of public housing by public authorities — to a decent standard and for social reasons — sparked off private development. There was a balance — by no means perfect — but it led to a housing boom that was sustained for 30 years or more, and to the development of communities that work.

In the 1970s, there was a now almost forgotten Minister for Local Government called Jimmy Tully. He succeeded several Ministers who had little interest in planning or quality and had been responsible for a spate of jerrybuilt estates. 

On his first day in office Tully declared that his primary ambition was to build good houses that poorer people could afford. In four years he was responsible for building 100,000 houses of decent quality, and the virtual elimination of the housing waiting lists of the time.

But somewhere along the line Ireland became wealthy, and housing policy stopped being about homes for everyone, and became instead a licence to print money. 

This was the time of the Celtic tiger and the Galway tent, when builders and developers came to own the policy. Tax incentive after tax incentive was developed to enable them to maximise their profits. You weren’t a developer worthy of the name in those days unless you had a helicopter or a corporate jet.

This was a time of cheap money that was shamefully abused on making the rich richer. At the same time, and precisely because of the policies of the time, Ireland became more and more dependent on the revenue from house and property sales. 

We ended up building soulless suburbs that were almost entirely populated by the families of the foreign workers we were importing to build the never ending spiral of more and more expensive homes. But, of course, the spiral ended, and we paid a bitter price for half a generation. 

Now, we found ourselves in a position where even if we wanted to, we couldn’t build houses for poorer people. Even more financially secure families couldn’t afford houses in those days, and indeed many lost the homes they had.

It was because the State was financially insolvent that new incentives were developed to encourage foreign private investors into the market. That was an understandable decision in the context of the time, but it was also deeply flawed. 

I believe the motivation was to encourage foreign money to build houses — not to buy existing houses. So now we’ve ended up having to unravel the phenomenon of cuckoo funds.

In the process, we’re wasting time on a side issue. If the government was really engaged in the kind of building programme the country needs, the involvement of these foreign funds would be seen as perhaps a useful addition to the housing stock, instead of the scandal it has become.

The International Monetary Fund, of all people, has called for major changes in housing policy here to make more social and affordable homes available. Specifically they have called on our government to release more land for development and to overhaul planning laws.

When the IMF call on Ireland to start building affordable homes, as they have, surely it’s time for the government to examine its conscience?

Instead the Government recently held what was described by the Irish Examiner’s Daniel McConnell as a “bizarrely underwhelming” meeting about housing, at which the Taoiseach apparently said he wanted a “whole of government” approach to what he described as “the number one priority”. Good Lord.

If they were serious, they’d be giving major local authorities a mandate to get on with it. I know from direct experience that Dublin City Council, as one example, has to have every step of every decision scrutinised and second-guessed by the Department. 

Even in places where they own the land, they can’t move from a to b without a civil servant giving them permission. They don’t have enough architects, planners, designers or administrators to turn projects around in reasonable time.

And local authorities no longer seem to have the powers they had. If the housing crisis was really the priority government claims it is, empty houses and abandoned land would be compulsorily purchased. 

When was the last time you heard about a CPO being used for housing purposes? Road-widening CPOs seem to be two a penny, but housing? Not fashionable any more, it seems.

If they were truly serious, there’d be schemes in place now to enable — enforce even — the development of apartments in the estimated 40,000 empty spaces over shops in our towns and cities.

But above all if this was truly the number one priority, they’d be building. Not talking about it, but building.

Three years ago the architect Mel Reynolds worked out that between them, local authorities and NAMA (itself owned by the people, of course) had enough zoned land to accommodate 114,000 homes — with room in the greater Dublin area for about 70,000 of them. His figures were never challenged or denied by anyone in government.

And still the government talks gobbledegook. Still they talk about their huge investment plans. Still it’s their top priority. 

And yet still, at their underwhelming meetings, no-one has put forward a plan to start building on all that land, and to start supporting new communities. Still families wait, in ever-increasing despair of ever having a place to raise their children.

Against that background, despite all the media coverage, cuckoo funds are a small and fixable scandal. We’ve had successive governments that know exactly what the problem is, and what the solution is, and still refuse to build the houses our people need. 

There’s the real scandal.

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