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Why on earth would we need a constitutional referendum on the right to housing?

There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that prevents Government from doing its job and providing housing

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is now seeking to co-operate with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). He had previously entered into a political and economic co-operation agreement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Russia has reverted to its traditional status of an imperial autocracy, with Putin exercising absolute personal power in succession to the tsars, Lenin and Stalin. Francis Fukuyama’s optimistic thesis concerning history’s ending in tandem with the Cold War is, alas, utterly confounded.

We are increasingly living in a time foreseen in Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. While wanting to remain optimistic, it is hard to see how current events are not as replete with danger for freedom and democracy as those of the 1930s.

One new phenomenon, we are told, is the rise of populism. I have a difficulty with that term; it seems to me that it is bandied about by political elites who are nervous about the sustainability of their failing political orthodoxies. Was Franklin Delano Roosevelt a populist in 1930s America? Or was the 32nd president of the United States a radical politician who understood that orthodox US politics was failing the American people?

It seems to me that use of the term “populist” to castigate one’s political opponents can be lazy shorthand for your own inability to change. To take the domestic example of the housing shortage, one need only look at the floundering attempts of our Government to square up to the consequences of a great increase in our population and undersupply of dwellings.


What are these Ministers offering us? A referendum to acknowledge a “soft” constitutional right to housing. Exactly what will that achieve? Nobody knows because we haven’t seen the wording of such a constitutional amendment.

But perhaps the only change that might take place would be to dilute constitutionally protected property rights in the hope that more houses would be built at affordable prices.

The gross untruth implicit in such a referendum is that there is something in the Constitution that is holding back the Government’s capacity to provide housing in greater quantity and at affordable prices. Anyone who looks at the private property provisions of the 1937 Constitution will find nothing there that suggests that the present Government is inhibited by the terms of our basic law from doing things that it actually wants to do in tackling the undersupply of housing.

Bunreacht na hÉireann, on the contrary, almost invites the Government to mobilise land and resources to serve the common good in relation to housing. Every local authority in Ireland has huge powers of compulsory acquisition, zoning and planning controls with which to perform its very clear statutory obligation to ensure that there is an adequate supply of housing in its functional area. The Constitution and the laws are already there to deal with the problem.

We have a crazy situation that a State agency, the Office of the Planning Regulator, is actually prohibiting local authorities from making more zoned development land available

There is absolutely nothing stopping local authorities from compulsorily acquiring sufficient development land in their areas to meet housing needs. It does not mean that all houses built on such lands must be social housing. Local authorities could mix developments between social housing, subsidised ownership housing (“affordable housing”) and private housing developments on lands acquired compulsorily by them. Compulsory purchase order (CPO) procedures could be streamlined, but the Constitution is in no way a drag factor, let alone an obstacle, to doing what we have done in the past.

Likewise, local authorities have ample legal powers to acquire and redevelop existing underused lands and buildings to increase the supply of affordable housing. Owners of land and property acquired will be liable to capital gains tax at a rate of 33 per cent on the price of the land. The cost to the exchequer of intervention is greatly reduced in consequence. All perfectly constitutional, if done; none of it is done.

What is wrong is at the political level. We have a crazy situation that a State agency, the Office of the Planning Regulator, is actually prohibiting local authorities from making more zoned development land available. Worse still, the planning regulator is actually requiring local authority members to de-zone what it considers is excessive zoning of land for housing. This is happening across Ireland right now. That drives up the price of development land. Just daft.

I wrote here last week about the Government’s recent legislative changes to drive single and small private landlords from the market. Since then, the disastrous amendments they made last year to landlord and tenant law are coming under the microscope. Government policies are killing the private rented sector, except for absentee Reits, which are being given large tax subsidies to turn us into tenants.

Can we have policies that work? Can housing authorities exercise their powers and fulfil their duties?

Can hapless Ministers put away their constitutional drafting pens and do their day job properly? Or do they want to be swept aside by populists who might?