Preliminary results from the 2016 Census show that the population has increased by 169,724 to 4,757,976 over the past five years, an increase of 3.7%.
That means that by the time the next census comes around in 2021, we will have a population approaching, or even exceeding, 5m people.
A growing population offers us huge opportunities, but only if we put in place now social and economic strategies for the future.
It also has enormous implications for the delivery of new public infrastructure, for transport, education, health, and social services but most especially for housing.
In particular, it puts into perspective plans by Housing Minister Simon Coveney to address the crisis. According to leaked documents from his Action on Housing plan to be unveiled in the Dáil next week, he is promising the construction of 45,000 new homes over the next five years. That is a tall order by any measure but, even if comes to pass, it may not be enough to cater for an increase in population of around 300,000 over the same period.
The census figures show some disturbing disparities in population trends. While the population overall has increased, the growth has not been uniform and, in fact, some areas of the country are experiencing declines.
This shift represents a worsening of the social and economic imbalance that currently exists. Dublin is already too dominant in population terms and the census figures show that it has grown by 6% since 2011, while the populations of Donegal, Mayo, and Sligo on the other side of the country have fallen.
Specific measures are now needed to reinvigorate the economy along the Atlantic seaboard. It is neither healthy nor desirable to have so much economic activity concentrated on the east.
The new figures also reveal that growth in housing has not kept pace with population growth. It is an absolute scandal that there is in the region of 200,000 vacant homes around the country at a time when we are experiencing one of the worst homelessness crises in the history of the State.
While those homes lie vacant, there are still more than 6,000 men, women, and children who are forced to live on the streets or in emergency accommodation. No civilised country should tolerate that. No civilised people should allow it.
Mr Coveney’s plans to address this crisis includes a proposal to buy distressed properties from banks. That is not before time and should help to alleviate some of the crisis in the short-term.
However, there does not appear to be an mechanism for local authorities to get involved except by way of paying local developers to supply social housing.
That means that we will continue to rely heavily on private construction businesses to supply Ireland’s housing needs into the future. Considering what happened to that industry during the recession, that could turn out to be a risky strategy indeed.
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