Miriam Lord: Feathers fly as Finance Bill allows cuckoo funds escape restraint

Taoiseach ‘incentivising’ funds to buy up houses, Sinn Féin leader alleges

The Government has big plans, said Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The focus will be on building houses. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire

The Government has big plans, said Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The focus will be on building houses. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire

 

Sir, – Despite Tuesday’s inclement conditions I tucked my birding journal into the waistband of my comfortable walking slacks and took an afternoon turn along the north bank of the river Liffey. As I passed the Convention Centre Dublin in my yellow sou’wester and sturdy galoshes I heard a familiar call from within: “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!”

It was July 7th.

Is this a broken record?

– Yours, etc,

Muriel Lard, Tara Street.

Yes. Yes it is, now.

It’s nothing usual to hear the cuckoo cry ringing around the empty spaces of the convention centre these days. It used to be a lesser-spotted bird on the Dáil landscape, occasionally scared up by left-wing deputies and former TD Mick Wallace before he fell like a ton of bricks for the totalitarian charms of the Communist Party of China.

Beware this nattily-attired creature and its shameless exploitation of nest-builders trying to make a forever home, they warned the Government. It may fly on two wings, but both are aggressively right.

The politicians gave concrete examples of the fat cuckoos’ rapacious ways, as disturbing then as they are now. And while the last administration heard the stories with a sympathetic ear, little was done to discourage the widescale nest-occupation antics of the bully birds.

Then there were the vultures, also part of the profit-generating Financial Fund genus. They were regularly mentioned too. However, the Government and the like-minded experts it prefers to hear were disinclined to take action for fear it would upset the delicate ecosystem nurtured over the years by its predecessors and the like-minded experts they preferred to hear.

But the cuckoos and vultures didn’t go way. They just became more of a nuisance and when the scarcity of social and affordable housing became a full-blown crisis their presence could not be overlooked any more.

News a couple of months ago that an investment fund had bought up almost all the houses in a newly-built estate in Co Kildare caused consternation at a time when people looking for a home of their own were being priced out of the market.

Such was the outcry at these funds sucking up swathes of apartments and starter homes and then leasing them back at a premium to thwarted buyers, the Coalition moved quickly to calm the situation.

In the Dáil, the Taoiseach expressed his deep concern at the situation, which he called “unacceptable”. He was going to take prompt action. “In respect of that swoop-in by that investor, we are going to deal with that.”

Furthermore, Micheál Martin said he was going to make it clear to local authorities that he did not want to see them leasing their housing stock from investment funds. The practice was “bad value”.

He was also going to deploy his special (not silent but deadly) weapon: Darragh O’Brien, Minister for Housing, who would go in, studs showing, to soften the cuckoo’s cough.

As the Opposition and the public shouted for action the Coalition signalled its bona fides by promising “a whole-of-government approach”, otherwise known as Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, who agreed to slap a bit of tax on the cuckoos. The upshot was an announcement that individuals or funds buying more than 10 houses in a year would be hit with a surcharge of 10 per cent. But they could still run amok in the apartment business.

“A severe deterrent,” said Paschal, firmly.

“G’way outta that,” snorted the Opposition.

Dispiriting development

It has been all of. . . well, weeks since that decisive action. And there has been a dispiriting development.

Mary Lou McDonald and Róisín Shortall were all over it when the Dáil resumed on Tuesday afternoon. We hadn’t expected to hear the song of the cuckoo ring out in the convention centre so soon after the last hullabaloo.

There is general gobsmackery among politicians – not confined to the Opposition benches, we hear – at the news that cuckoos and vultures scooping up properties and leasing them to local authorities will not now have to pay the piffling 10 per cent. Thanks to a dinky little amendment (more than three pages long) snuck into a Finance Bill primarily to do with Covid-19-related matters, the Dáil will vote the change through on Wednesday night.

Conveniently, the Bill can also butter up wealthy avian investors under the catch-all heading of “miscellaneous provisions”.

So what was Micheál talking about two months ago?

“I’m asking you, Taoiseach, simply to be true to what you said in May,” requested Mary Lou.

“This U-turn can only be described as brazen and downright dishonest,” protested Róisín.

Both party leaders reacquainted him with his words delivered very recently. On the face of it, the tasty new exemption clause – insinuated in glaringly quiet contrast to the introduction of the lightly restraining 10 per cent tax which required a special press conference for Darragh and Paschal in Government Buildings with full flags and fancy lecterns – looks embarrassing for the Government.

Not content with letting these funds snap up nearly all the apartments being built in Dublin, the Taoiseach is now “incentivising” them to buy up houses from under the noses of families and young people, charged the Sinn Féin leader.

“The result of all of this, to be clear, is that aspiring home buyers will continue to be priced out of the market by institutional investors who avail of sweetheart tax breaks gifted to them by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and, lest we forget, by the Labour Party in its time.”

Big shout out there for Labour from Mary Lou because there is never a bad time to get in a dig at a front-running rival in the closing stages of a byelection campaign.

Róisín Shortall was equally scathing of this sudden change to a newly-introduced measure. It’s understandable; government doesn’t usually move so quickly. Clearly when these vultures and cuckoos call, their cries are heard in the very highest places in the fastest of time.

She recalled how he stressed to the Dáil that he would be making it very clear to local authorities that he did not agree with them entering into long leases with investment funds.

“You didn’t do a very good job of making it clear,” she pointed out, given that his Minister for Housing had “quietly submitted” an amendment to encourage cuckoo funds to “swoop in” and elbow out buyers.

In May, the Government did “the bare minimum” required. “You didn’t even bother to include apartments and now we learn that even the bare minimum has been diluted.”

Move defended

The Taoiseach was tetchy in his replies to both women. He defended the move because leasing to local authorities was of “limited use” because it helped provide emergency accommodation for homeless families.

This was not helping first-time buyers, said Shortall.

“First-time buyers? They’re not buying social houses,” shot back Martin.

The Social Democrat co-leader said she is aware of that, but the social houses leased by the powerful cuckoos could have been bought by first-time buyers if they were in a position to compete.

The Government has big plans, said the Taoiseach. The focus will be on building houses. When the Housing for All plan is published it will reflect his and the Government’s core policy platform.

The words “when” and “will” jumped out a lot.

But the cuckoos (and their clarion call) live in the moment.

Like a broken record.

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