Housing for All: Financial bazooka has high stakes especially for Fianna Fáil

Multiple evolving challenges in mass building plan a test for party’s core identity

 Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien: boasts of “a massive expansion in the role of the State in providing affordable homes for purchase and rent, while building historic levels of new social housing”. Photograph: Maxwells/PA

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien: boasts of “a massive expansion in the role of the State in providing affordable homes for purchase and rent, while building historic levels of new social housing”. Photograph: Maxwells/PA

 

The long-awaited announcement of the Government’s Housing for All strategy on Thursday marks a massive investment of public money to address a major social need – and to solve a pressing political problem. But will it achieve either goal?

“Housing for All is the most ambitious housing plan in the history of our State,” said Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien at the Government Buildings launch. “It’s the most significant intervention by the State in housing ever.”

“No sense of purpose,” said Mary Lou McDonald. “No sense of purpose and no vision for solving a crisis that has defined life in Ireland for an entire generation . . . What a lack of ambition. What a wasted opportunity.”

So which is it? The truth usually lies between the two.

First, there is no doubt the Government has taken out a big financial bazooka to shoot at the housing problem. It promises to spend €20 billion – €4 billion a year for the next five years, although its term of office ends in four – to deliver more than 33,000 new homes a year on average. By 2030, if the policy remains in place and does what it promises, it will have seen some 300,000 new homes built.

It is, as O’Brien boasts in his foreword to the document, “a massive expansion in the role of the State in providing affordable homes for purchase and rent, while building historic levels of new social housing”. It’s double the commitment in Rebuilding Ireland, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar observed.

Success or failure

And that massive increase in the State’s involvement in the housing market is the most significant element of the package. But effective policy requires more than just money; it requires implementation. It requires changes in the way things are done. And it is by no means clear that the changes announced on Thursday will achieve the acceleration of the delivery of public housing that is so desperately needed on the ground. Will the time taken for local authorities, housing bodies and private developers to move from conception to completion be shortened? And if so, will it be shortened enough? The answers to these questions will decide a large part of the success or failure of the strategy.

Taoiseach MicheálMartin and O’Brien promised quarterly reviews, published targets, delivery units and a committee of secretaries-general of government departments to oversee progress. “We will not be tolerating excuses,” the Taoiseach warned. We’ll see about that.

Of course, the housing problems are not just solved by simply deciding to build more houses: if it was that simple, it would have been done by now. Build what sort of houses? And where? Costing how much? For what sort of people?

Local objections

Let us remember that building new houses and apartments is often pretty unpopular among nearby residents. The objections – many of them signed by politicians, up to the highest level in their parties – that rain down on every proposed new development are testament to that. That is only one of the things that the Government doesn’t control. The document promises to streamline planning processes and judicial review; that will be legally and politically fraught.

The truth is that the housing problem looks different to different people. If you are a young person or couple trying to get on the housing ladder, falling housing prices are welcome. If you are a homeowner, then you may have a different view. This is one of the things that makes the politics complicated: voters are divided.

And the nature of the problem will continue to evolve. In the first iteration of the housing crisis, before the pandemic, the focus was on homelessness. Now it’s on affordability. Who knows what it will be on in three years?

Politics is impatient, and the stakes are probably highest for Fianna Fáil. Part of its conception of itself is tied up in its historic role in the provision of public housing. Its self-described reason for being in government is to fix health and housing. Succeed and it has something to present to the voters. Fail, and it will be hard to explain to voters what exactly the party is for.

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