Deepening housing shortage shows the crisis has been wasted

Opinion: Unemployment and the lack of affordable accommodation are fuelling political instability

Labour leader Joan Burton, with her deputy, the new Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly: tackling the housing issue is a pressing political imperative. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Labour leader Joan Burton, with her deputy, the new Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly: tackling the housing issue is a pressing political imperative. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

In the final minutes of her extended interview with Áine Lawlor last weekend on RTÉ radio, Joan Burton discussed what she reads on those rare occasions when she gets some down time.

It was interesting to hear the new Tánaiste mention how last summer she read Donal Ryan’s novel The Spinning Heart. Ryan’s first published novel captures in a compelling, occasionally entertaining but ultimately moving way the personal and social trauma that the impact of the collapse of the Republic’s construction industry had on so many.

Burton described it well as capturing “an amazing set of voices from Ireland during the crisis”. She has previously spoken of how she recommended the book to all her officials in the Department of Social Protection.

She should now recommend it to all across Government.

The fact that more than 70,000 former construction workers have been left on the unemployment shelf while we are simultaneously experiencing a social housing crisis and an acute shortage of general housing supply in Dublin is a damning indictment of our political and policymaking system.

It is just crazy that those who need to rent subsidised accommodation, and others setting out to purchase their first family property, cannot get homes of their own, while those who could have been usefully employed building those homes continue to languish in long-term unemployment.

In addition to a crisis in the supply of domestic dwellings, Dublin is also experiencing a severe shortage of large-scale office accommodation. The IDA and others see this scarcity as a potential risk to future foreign direct investment. It’s depressing to think how many thousands of those currently unemployed could have been living more productively over the last few years building this type of office accommodation if only policymakers had foreseen and acted on the need to build it.

Earlier in the interview, Burton spoke passionately about how addressing the housing crisis would be a priority for her and how it could also alleviate unemployment. Few would doubt her sincerity on the point or her capacity as Tánaiste to add new impetus to tackling the problem. Many will ask, however, why it is only now that this issue is being addressed at a senior political level, when the housing crisis is already upon us and when it will take about two years to turn around the projects necessary to alleviate the crisis.

Fiscal collapse

Burton and her colleagues would argue that the scale of the fiscal and banking collapse they inherited was such that the Government couldn’t afford adequate spending on social housing and that private investment, badly burned when the previous bubble burst, was construction-shy.

They may also suggest, as this Government often implies, that they were so busy waging war on the economic crisis they could not be expected at the same time to have the energy, insight and innovation to plan for the “postwar” era.

That attitude is why this crisis is being wasted.

It should surely have been possible over the last three or four years not only to foresee this housing need but to design solutions to address it. It should also have been possible, if necessary, to negotiate the international borrowing or flexibility in troika and European Union budgetary constraints to allow for strategic public spending for social housing and to encourage private investment in housing generally.

The reality may be that few in politics, the media and mainstream economic commentary appreciated the scale of the social, economic and political consequences of abandoning so many construction workers for so long to their unemployed fate. At times ridiculed during the boom as “breakfast roll” men, these workers found themselves largely abandoned when construction collapsed.

Most of those who shape, decide or comment on public policy in this country have limited understanding of the lives of construction workers and have limited empathy for their current plight. It was at times as if the workers were themselves contaminated by what in the minds of many had become a destructive and greedy industry. The sins of developers, bankers and planners were visited on those who merely worked in the industry and who lost most, pro rata, when the collapse came.

When the bubble burst almost all housing construction stopped. However, housing demand, while contained during the recession, was always going to explode once we turned towards recovery. How come addressing it wasn’t planned and prepared for? Why wasn’t the house- building necessary to supply this demand commissioned or incentivised by government two or three years ago? Why isn’t this new housing coming on stream now where and when it is needed? What is it about policy-making and implementation in this country that still finds us trying to clean up messes rather than strategically avoiding them?

The inter-related problems of long-term unemployment among construction workers and the shortage of affordable housing and appropriate office space are a large hole in our recovery. They are also among the factors which shape the enduring volatility in our political system.

Tackling the housing issue is now both an urgent economic necessity and a pressing political imperative for the Government. That’s why these issues are front and centre in the relaunch upon which the Coalition has embarked this weekend. Better late than never.

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