FERGUS FINLAY: Government seem powerless to tackle acknowledged housing crisis

TWENTY thousand people marched through Dublin on Saturday. A small number of them were people in crisis housing situations, but the vast majority were people marching in solidarity. That’s six people marching for each homeless child in Ireland, writes Fergus Finlay

As we marched, I’m guessing the thing we were hoping for most was that someone was listening. The Taoiseach, maybe, or his Minister for Housing. They have accepted, again and again, that this is a crisis. But they seem powerless to do anything about it.

There’s a fodder crisis in Ireland at the moment. It’s a serious but probably a short-term thing. That didn’t stop the Minister for Agriculture from appearing on virtually every media outlet possible. It didn’t stop him from introducing new subsidies, updating the existing ones, meeting with every conceivable stakeholder.

So, in a matter of days, there’s a new fodder import subsidy. There’s a new fodder transport subsidy. Money has been allocated for both. The rules and regulations, and the procedures for applying, are there on the department’s website. They’re the shortest set of rules and regulations for a state subsidy I’ve ever seen. There’s even a statement from the Road Safety Authority announcing that a “pragmatic approach” will be taken to any trucker who works longer hours than they should in bring fodder to farmers and animals in distress.

I know the farming organisations have been slagging off the minister for not doing enough. It has even been suggested to him that he should, by some miracle, have seen the fodder crisis coming months ago.

Government seem powerless to tackle acknowledged housing crisis

But to an outsider, this has all the look of a crisis where the machinery of the State has been cranked into operation in double quick time. And the key to the response has been simple. If the rules as they’re written don’t allow us to get help to farmers quickly enough, let’s rewrite the rules. Even road safety rules have been relaxed in this crisis.

So what I’m left wondering is, if hungry animals and angry farmers can force this kind of quickfire action, how come there’s a complete silence from Government in the face of 20,000 people marching on the street? Is it possible that farmers have powerful lobbies and long memories, and homeless people don’t — often can’t — vote?

When I say the Government is silent about homelessness, perhaps that’s a bit of an injustice. Actually, the Government appears to be saying quite often that they’re doing everything they can.

But two recent publications tell a slightly different story. First of all The Department of Housing published the most recent homelessness figures, covering a week in February. They show that 1,739 families are homeless in our rapidly recovering economy, that more than 1,000 of these are single parent families, and that those families have 3,755 dependents, the great majority of whom are children.

Although two-thirds of the people accounted for are in Dublin, there are homeless families in every county in Ireland. These figures are tracked and interpreted every month by Focus Ireland, and the trends they reveal are in some ways even more frightening — and shaming — than the raw numbers. In the last three years, Focus demonstrates, the number of adult males in homelessness has gone up by nearly 80%. The number of women in homelessness has more than doubled.

But the number of children in homelessness has more than quadrupled. If ever there was a case for a constitutional right to decent safe shelter, especially for children, it is to be found in these trends.

The other document published by the Department of Housing in the last few days looks, on the face of it, like a much more hopeful one. It’s an update on something called the Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund.

It was set up to enable state investment to be made in key infrastructural developments to support housing projects. The 30 projects now being supported by the fund are aimed at securing the building of around 20,000 houses by 2021.

But the fund is not aimed at building the houses. Instead, it is designed to ensure that the roads the housing estate needs will all be in place. Not just roads — there’s a couple of bridges, some water infrastructure, the re-routing of power lines in one or two cases.

All well and good. If we could assume that all the projects involved are what they call “shovel-ready” — the planning is done, the contractors have been appointed, the finance is in place — then this final piece of activation would be simply fantastic. There’s a good mix of private, affordable and social housing in all these projects, and they are, in the main, where people want to live. So if we could believe that all that’s standing in the way is a little loop road, or the provision of mains water, you could almost begin to see an end to the housing crisis.

Alas, it’s not nearly as simple as that. Near where I live is Cherrywood. Cherrywood is two massive holes in the ground. The holes are big enough to build a new town on — certainly 2,000 houses if not more — and that new town would be served by the Luas, by a bus
network, and by a major link road to the M50, on which endless work has been done. In other words, the supporting infrastructure, all paid for by the state, is largely in place.

But there is no sign whatever of the holes being replaced by housing. A little further away, there are lands being prepared for housing development on what used to be the old Bray golf club. The land is owned by Nama, and my understanding is that it will take several years to consult and develop frameworks and masterplans before the search for planning can begin.

This all bears out what I was told by a housing developer recently. This man has €50m of housing projects in various stages of preparation, but very little of it actually under way. (€50m sounds like an astronomical sum to me, but it represents the investment in around 200 houses.) Forget the guff you read about financing, he told me. Builders can get money now.

AND they know there’s a buyer for every new house. The big issue is getting a project through the planning stages. He told me that although there are rules and timelines that ought to provide a streamlined approach, most builders operate on the basis of a presumption that planning will be refused rather than granted, and even in cases where the planners and the builders are on the same side, the process takes years rather than months.

So the list we need to see — and the minister needs to see it above all else — is the list of shovel ready projects that are being held up by bureaucracy. If he were to concentrate on, say, the 10 biggest, and made it his business to remove every last obstacle, he would then be able to publish a list of actual, as opposed to potential, houses that are on the way.

Maybe then we wouldn’t have to march in protest.

There’s a complete silence from Government in the face of 20,000 people marching on the street


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