Michael Clifford: A referendum to cap land prices - you're having a laugh

Have the civil war parties gone though a sea change in one of the most contentious political issues, the price of building land? Or is it a question of spin de jour? wonders Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: A referendum to cap land prices - you're having a laugh
In 1973, the Kenny Report into the price of building land recommended that lands designated for housing should be acquired at the agricultural price plus 25%. File image.Picture: Larry Cummins

Have the civil war parties gone though a sea change in one of the most contentious political issues, the price of building land? Or is it a question of spin de jour? wonders Michael Clifford

Last weekend, it emerged that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agreed to hold a referendum to cap lands prices.

The Business Post quoted Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen as saying a referendum would be held “as soon as possible” given the electorate’s clear desire for action.

“So at least we can go back to them and say ‘here is a way we can honour your wishes’ and give them ownership of the solution,” he told the newspaper.

On one hand, the pledge is an acknowledgement by both parties that it is no longer sustainable for them to prioritise vested interests above the public interest.

As against that, it could equally be viewed as a delaying tactic or political fudge.

For 47 years, both parties have insisted on placing the interests of landowners above any obligation to ensure that all citizens have a roof over their heads. Now, they claim to be set on reversing their priorities.

Except the pledge for a referendum makes little sense as it has long been the case that a referendum is not required to do the right thing in this respect. So what are they at? Spinning? Delaying? Kicking the can so far down the road it might arrive beyond the next election?

In 1973, the Kenny Report into the price of building land recommended that lands designated for housing should be acquired at the agricultural price plus 25%.

By then, land that was rezoned for housing was increasing exponentially in value, turning muck into gold on the back of the public interest.

The report, authored by high court judge John Kenny, said that its proposal represented “a reasonable compromise between the rights of the community and those of the landowners”.

The Fine Gael–Labour government accepted the report but ran away from the main recommendation.

There were murmurs that it would be unconstitutional to interfere with private property. This was pure hokum, the standard, “don’t hit me with the Constitution in my arms" routine defence by the Civil War parties down the years to refrain from doing stuff they didn’t want to do.

As reported on these pages in 2019 by former journalist Tim Ryan, the archive shows that the government was advised in 1974 that the recommendation would not infringe the Constitution.

It would, however, infringe the interests of landowners who naturally were willing to fund the political system in a lucrative manner in order to maintain the status quo.

Roll on 30 years and an Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution examined the price of building land. It came to the conclusion that there was no problem with the Constitution in balancing the public good with property rights by introducing a Kenny-style measure.

The report was published on April 7, 2004. On the same day, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern gave evidence to the planning tribunal about his knowledge of meetings between cabinet members and builder Tom Gilmartin back in 1989 when Gilmartin wanted to develop a shopping centre in west Dublin.

The Sligo builder had come home from London and had been shaken down by TD Liam Lawlor and then minister Pádraig Flynn to facilitate the rezoning of land.

This, the soaring cost of homes in Dublin and the proliferation of planning corruption were all the direct consequences of a failure to control the price of building land.

As with Kenny, the Oireachtas committee recommended capping the price of land. As with the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, the Fianna Fáil PD administration ignored the entreaties.

Five years later, the Green Party was in government with Fianna Fáil and insisted on a windfall tax of 80% on rezoned land.

This was, in some ways, a poor man’s Kenny, but it was as much as the Greens were going to get.

Fianna Fáil was under severe pressure at the time and in hock to the junior coalition partner so the measure was enacted. Then, following the election in 2011, Fine Gael quickly repealed the windfall tax law in order to revert to the status quo.

Now this.

Who’re they kiddin’? A referendum could take years. If the civil war parties were serious, they could legislate and refer the bill to the Supreme Court to constitutionally proof it.

That was the course recommended all those years ago by Kenny.

Instead, we are to be treated to the big gesture, a song and dance about holding a referendum to mark an alleged sea change in response to an angry electorate.

Mr Cowen’s comments in relation to the referendum betray the real problem. There is no requirement to give the electorate “ownership of the solution”.

What is required is an acceptance that the time is long past to act in the public interest on this issue.

Since the 1960s, the civil war parties have facilitated landowners in a get-rich-overnight system of rezoning at a huge cost to society at large.

If they have belatedly acknowledged the long standing error of their ways, they should just get on with it.

Otherwise, save us the spin.

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