Housing crisis is set to define the next general election

Analysis: FF is beginning to roll out its policies as confidence-and-supply deal nears its end

‘Voters must be given clear proposals on how the current housing crisis can be solved.’ File photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

‘Voters must be given clear proposals on how the current housing crisis can be solved.’ File photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

 

If housing is to be the defining issue of the next election, as all parties expect it will, then voters must be given clear proposals on how the current crisis can be solved.

The strictures of the confidence-and-supply agreement have so far meant Fianna Fáil’s space for formulating and promoting distinctive policy offerings has been limited.

Were the party to propose major new ideas over the past two years, the obvious question of why it couldn’t force the Government to adopt its plans would follow.

Now, with the confidence-and-supply agreement entering its final months – and with ongoing differences between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail over whether it should be extended – Micheál Martin’s party will begin to roll out policies for the next election.

Prospects

It is not an exaggeration to say Fianna Fáil’s fortunes, and Martin’s prospects of becoming Taoiseach, will ride on its housing policies.

Recent polling has shown the party is behind Fine Gael and Sinn Féin in Dublin, and is also behind both among those aged between 18 and 24 years old. Among the 25-34 age cohort, the last Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll put Fianna Fáil on 18 per cent, compared to Fine Gael on 24 per cent.

While the figures for such small data sets should be treated with caution, they speak to the task facing Fianna Fáil as it seeks to make housing the major element of the next election.

It must win over younger voters in the greater Dublin area if it is to re-enter government.

The main element of its housing plan is shaping up to be a new State agency, along the lines of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority or the National Roads Authority.

Party sources expect the policy to be finalised in the spring, and referenced repeatedly thereafter. “We don’t want to drop this on top of people in the middle of a three-week campaign,” said one party source of the policy.

The Government had considered a similar State agency approach over the summer but opted in the October budget for the slimmer Home Building Finance Ireland, which will provide finance to non-Nama developers.

Government sources, however, have indicated that Nama could yet take on a far more substantial role in facilitating the construction of homes.

The Fianna Fáil attack is likely to be that the Government has missed its own housing targets, but Government sources believe they will begin to meet their own goals. Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy is due to give an update next week on how the State tackled social housing in 2017, which should offer some guidance on whether this confidence is well founded.

The Government’s Rebuilding Ireland plan, launched in 2016, said 25,000 housing units would be built a year between 2017 and 2021.

The same plan noted statistics from PJ Drudy, the co-director of the Trinity Centre for Urban and Regional Studies in Trinity College, Dublin, which illustrated the fluctuating methods by which houses were built over the past 40 years.

In 1975, 67 per cent of homes - 18,098 - were provided by the private market, with the remaining one-third – 8,794 – coming mainly from large scale local authority house building.

Rental schemes

By 2005, the supply of private houses totalled 75,398 or 93 per cent of homes build that year, with only 5,559 directly provided through public organisations. Social housing provision at the time was provided through rental schemes.

The same figures for 2014 showed that only 10,051 homes were privately built, some 95 per cent of that year’s total. Just 515, or 5 per cent of homes, were constructed by public organisations.

Fianna Fáil’s aim is that its new State agency would drive the construction of about 30,000 homes a year over the next three years, just above the mid 1970s level, although housing spokesman Barry Cowen has said councils no longer have the capability to build on the large scale they once did.

The responsibility will be carried by the private sector, which would then lease properties back to local authorities for social housing provision.

The Fianna Fáil plan will also contain a range of measures to incentivise private developers to build more and the party is sticking to its proposals to temporarily reduce VAT in the construction sector from 13.5 per cent to 9 per cent.

Against charges that Fianna Fáil is only interested in helping developers, Cowen says he won’t be dissuaded the builders must be encourage to actually build.

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