There was almost a whiff of “let them eat cake” around the suggestion from Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan that “idle” council land should be sold to private developers to fund “cultural, sport, and recreational projects”.
Mr Keegan had argued that 14 high-value sites and 15 council works depots could, if privatised, realise €90mfor objectives set out under DCC’s capital programme. He argued that these sites were not all suitable for housing and pointed out that DCC has about 80 sites committed to housing projects.
Apart from the troublesome fact that the land is not really DCC’s — it hold it in trust for the people of Dublin — it seems bizarre that a local authority running a city all but defined by a housing crisis did not see an opportunity to use at least some of this land, or even the revenue sales might generate, to build more badly needed and affordable homes.
That needling charge will stand as long as there is an unresolved housing crisis in Dublin and no matter how many homes DCC builds or renovates.
It also points to underwhelming commitment to social need and obligation.
Councillors reflected those concerns on Monday, when they voted to block the sell-off proposals. They correctly argued that privatising public assets is not a sustainable way of raising funds to deliver public projects.
There is of course a backstory and it may not be fair to point the finger exclusively at city officials. DCC and its councillors may have been discouraged by the O’Devaney Gardens saga.
In early November, they approved a plan to build more than 800 homes on the site close to Phoenix Park.
That site has been “idle” for 10 years and had been sold to developer Richard Barrett’s Bartra Capital for €7m. An agreement had been reached between DCC and the developer that would deliver affordable homes to the council.
However, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy intervened, questioning the basis of the deal and where funds to subsidise rents might come from.
As ever, the intersection of pressing social need, public resources, and private enterprise may not be the ideal place to see transparency in action, especially if the waters are clouded by philosophical positions and political ambition. Nevertheless, it is difficult, once again, to dismiss Fr Peter McVerry’s accusation that this Government is ideologically incapable of resolving the housing crisis.
Fianna Fáil Lord Mayor of Dublin Paul McAuliffe hinted at that when he pointed out that “there will be a change in national government in the next four or five months, and I don’t believe we should be engaged in commencing in any sales process until we know where that is... The compromise we made with O’Devaney Gardens was an ugly compromise... The minister’s response to that quickly demonstrated a political unwillingness to believe in what public housing could be.”
This administration has had a decade to show it was committed to matching public housing with housing needs. Ithas not done that and will, as Mr McAuliffe hinted, facejudgment on that inaction soon enough.