Newly appointed Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney has revealed he was offered a choice of ministries by Taoiseach Enda Kenny but opted for housing as he sees it as one of the most important challenges facing the new Government.
Mr Coveney said health and housing were the two most important issues for the Government. While he wouldn’t confirm what portfolios were available to him, he said he had opted for housing as he believed he could make a difference in addressing homelessness.
"There seems to be this impression in some of the papers today which is totally inaccurate that Leo [Varadkar] and myself have somehow been shafted to bring us down to size to keep us busy in the context of future leadership and all that," Mr Coveney told The Irish Times.
“The truth is and I was very privileged to be given a choice – the Taoiseach asked me what I wanted to do – he gave me a choice of a number of portfolios, which I really appreciated, and I actually asked him for the housing brief – it’s one that I effectively chose.”
Mr Coveney said friends had contacted him assuming he would have been frustrated at being “handed a poison chalice” but while he recognised how politically fraught his new portfolio was, given it also included Irish Water, he believed he could make progress on the housing issue.
He said his priority was tackling the homelessness situation, including rough sleeping and the housing of families in hostel and hotel accommodation unsuited to their needs, and he planned to meet charities, voluntary agencies and local authorities this week to hear their views.
"Although Alan Kelly came in for some criticism at times, I think he did quite a good job in terms of some of his new thinking about housing in the last two years and I want to build on that now and, more importantly, try and approach it from a non-party political way," he said.
“And what I would say to any voluntary organisations or charities or local authorities or political parties is if you are serious about trying to solve this problem then come and help me do that – I have no interest in people who are only interested in protest for protest’s sake.
“But I am absolutely interested in talking to people who maybe have been frustrated in the past that the government wasn’t doing what they thought was right. I will be a Minister that listens and takes on board peoples’ views but the solutions have to be outcome focused and have to make sense.”
Mr Coveney said the housing shortage needed to be addressed by increasing housing supply and Ireland needed to increase its current building rate of 12,000 housing units a year to over 30,000 a year to make up for almost a decade when few houses were built.
He believed it would be possible to achieve this in a relatively short time period of two to three years but it would need to be sustained for five to 10 years to make up for the deficit.
During the recession, instead of building 25,000 houses a year, virtually no houses were built.
However, he stressed he would not compromise on good planning and believed there was sufficient land around the main cities to allow housing expansion in a sustainable way, while avoiding building on flood plains, which had happened too often in the past.
Mr Coveney said he planned to meet all local authority chiefs in the next fortnight to map out solutions in their areas and he would be seeking to empower them both legislatively and financially to deliver on plans on the ground.