Elaine Loughlin: Housing minister eyes spotlight - but finds himself in firing line

Deputy Political Editor Elaine Loughlin says it's a big week for Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien, the Government's answer to Johnny Bravo
Elaine Loughlin: Housing minister eyes spotlight - but finds himself in firing line

You have to hand it to Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien.

In the midst of a global pandemic, he has managed to eke out a significant amount of Dáil time to push not one but two housing-related bills onto the agenda.

Slotted in between vaccines and the return of children to the classroom, both his shared equity scheme and the Land Development Agency Bill will be debated by politicians this week.

You also have to hand it to Mr O'Brien for having a level of confidence that you couldn't get from reading an entire library-full of life-coach and self-love books.

At this stage, most people's ego would have taken a bit of a battering and they may have started to falter slightly, but the Government's answer to Johnny Bravo remains steadfast in his insistence that his plan to make housing affordable will work, even if no one else thinks so.

Mr O'Brien has predictably faced a barrage of criticism from members of the opposition parties over his shared equity scheme. But in a more unusual move, the ESRI, the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers, and the Central Bank have come out to warn against the plan. Even senior civil servants cautioned that the proposals to deliver affordable homes would only drive up house prices.

And yet, the minister remains more than confident that he will get thousands of first-time buyers onto the property ladder.

The criticism appears to have so far sailed past his head with not a strand of hair blown out of place.

Mr O'Brien instead has claimed the response, particularly from his political opponents on the left, has been "bordering on hysterical".

He must think Sinn Féin, in bringing forward a bill this week to scrap his shared equity scheme, is beyond demented.

Darragh O'Brien: Housing Minister has a level of confidence that you couldn't get from reading an entire library-full of life-coach and self-love books, writes our columnist. Picture: Moya Nolan

Darragh O'Brien: Housing Minister has a level of confidence that you couldn't get from reading an entire library-full of life-coach and self-love books, writes our columnist. Picture: Moya Nolan

It can often take others a bit of time to come around to a novel idea, but sometimes that idea was just never a good one to begin with.

While the Government's shared equity scheme had been a long-anticipated measure, it didn't take long for those in Leinster House and beyond to dismiss it as unworkable.

On taking up office in the Custom House, Mr O'Brien promised to make buying a home a financial possibility for young couples and individuals. He said he would have a plan in place by September; this deadline was extended ahead of the budget but the date again came and went with no announcement.

When the shared equity scheme was finally brought to Cabinet at the end of last year, it was immediately dubbed "an early Christmas gift for developers" by Sinn Féin, which claimed it would simply drive property prices up.

Under the scheme, the Government would offer equity loans of up to 30% on new-build homes under €400,000.

However, different price caps will apply depending on the area in which a home is built.

Ahead of its private member's bill to be brought to the Dáil this week, Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin said the evidence available on the British version of the scheme shows that it pushes up house prices and delivers homes where they are not needed.

A 2019 report by the House of Commons public accounts committee concluded that "three-fifths of buyers who took part in the scheme did not need its support to buy a property".

Last year, a report published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics found that, in London, the shared equity loan scheme led to a 6% increase in house prices.

Mr Ó Broin also stressed the scheme as being a "Fianna Fáil plan". After years of Fine Gael ministers struggling to even understand the housing emergency, it was left to Fianna Fáil to take over when both parties entered Government with the Greens, who didn't seem overly enthusiastic about taking on the challenge.

Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin stressed the scheme as being a 'Fianna Fáil plan'. File picture: Gareth Chaney

Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin stressed the scheme as being a 'Fianna Fáil plan'. File picture: Gareth Chaney

But Mr O'Brien, in his self-assured style, appears determined to plough on.

This simply can't be dismissed as Sinn Féin versus Fianna Fáil. Criticism of the shared equity scheme has come from within Mr O'Brien's own ranks, or at least from his colleagues in Government.

Last month, Dublin City Council's Fine Gael councillors wrote to him, urging him to scrap the proposals.

The letter signed by nine councillors warned of a “return to failed housing policies of the Celtic Tiger era” and said ways to keep construction costs down need to be explored instead.

Even before details of the scheme became public knowledge, senior officials were warning the unhesitating minister that he should maybe reconsider.

Ahead of Budget 2021, Robert Watt, then the most senior official in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, wrote in one email: "In the context of an affordable scheme, there is little evidence to suggest an absence of mortgage finance. If there is a lack of supply it is not because of a lack of 'effective demand'. The property industry wants an equity scheme because it will increase prices."

The debate on Mr O'Brien's scheme tomorrow will be a real test for the minister who always knows best — that's before we even get to Thursday when his Land Development Agency Bill is likely to be torn apart in the Dáil.

Confidence can be a virtue, but blind self-belief is not.

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What to look out for this week

  • Today: There was joy and some tears at schoolgates yesterday as pupils returned to the classroom for the first time this year. However, Education Minister Norma Foley is expected to get a grilling on the timeline for getting all students back to school as well as the contentious issue of the State examinations when she appears before the education committee at 1pm.

  • Tuesday: There has been quite a lot of talk about bogs lately, from the closure of the ESB's peat burning power stations to Eamon Ryan's plans to ban the commercial sale of turf. Bord na Móna is to start work on the rehabilitation of 80,000 acres of bogs that previously supplied peat for domestic use and electricity generation. This is part of a €126m peatland restoration project announced by the Government late last year. Expect a number of viewpoints on the matter when the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) appear before the agriculture committee, along with Earthy Matters Environmental Consultants and representatives from Bord na Móna.
  • Wednesday: It will be a busy week for the housing minister: Sinn Féin is bringing forward a bill to scrap the shared equity scheme. The debate kicks off at 10am.
  • Wednesday: With Leaving Cert students and some primary school children finally back in the classroom, Education Minister Norma Foley will now be under pressure to get all other students back. She is due to take Dáil questions from 3.39pm.
  • Thursday: Housing will be the focus of Dáil debate again on Thursday, this time with the the Land Development Agency Bill due to be discussed. Opposition parties have already hit out at parts of the bill, which they say is "another Nama scandal waiting to happen".
  • Thursday: Healh Minister Stephen Donnelly will come before the Dáil to take questions on the vaccine rollout. He is also due to come before the health committee, which will be discussing Covid today.

This week in years gone by...

March 3, 1921: An old man shot dead; the funerals of Cork soldiers and an ambush near Ballyvourney were among the headlines in the Examiner as the War of Independence took its toll. The main events of the day were recorded on page 5 as the front page was taken up by advertisements, as was common all the way up to the 1960s.

O'Connell St, Dublin, on the morning after the explosion which hit Nelson's Pillar. 

O'Connell St, Dublin, on the morning after the explosion which hit Nelson's Pillar. 

March 8, 1966: "A ragged stump, starkly unfamiliar in its ring of granite debris, was all that remained last night of Dublin's most famous landmark," read the front page of the Examiner the day after Nelson's Pillar on O'Connell St, Dublin, was blown up.

March 9, 1982: Charles Haughey becomes taoiseach for the second time. Under a montage of the new cabinet, the front-page Examiner report stated that "after one of their shortest spells ever in the political wilderness — eight months — Fianna Fáil returned to Government."

March 9, 2005: The front page of the Examiner was taken over by an IRA statement in which the organisation offered to shoot the men in their ranks blamed for the murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney. Justice minister Michael McDowell described it as bizarre, breathtaking, and unacceptable.

March 8, 2018: Ahead of introducing the Eighth Amendment referendum bill, taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the “first piece of the puzzle” on addressing Ireland’s abortion laws was now facing the country. His comments followed a landmark ruling Supreme Court ruling which found the rights enjoyed by children born in Ireland are not shared by the unborn.

Did you know?

In July 1868, the lawns of Leinster House featured horse ‘leaping' demonstrations as it played host to the RDS Horse Show.

The city-centre house and grounds had been sold by the 3rd Duke of Leinster in 1815 to the Royal Dublin Society. The building was bought outright by the State from the RDS in 1924.

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