Class and ideology have always dominated Irish housing policy
Governments have the desire to solve housing issues, but refuse to face down vested interests
‘Class and ideology have clearly always been central to Irish housing policy.’ Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
On April 29th, 1949, Timothy Murphy, the Labour Party minister for local government, died suddenly while he was addressing an interparty meeting in Fermoy at which the taoiseach, John A Costello, was also a speaker.
Murphy had been speaking about housing when he collapsed; his dying words were: “I believe that the first step is to remove a considerable section of the public from hovels and slums in order to give them an opportunity of bringing up their children…” At that point, he fell down.
Murphy had been heavily involved in the Labour and trade union movements and a Labour TD for West Cork since 1923, as well as a Cork county councillor; he had only been a minister for 14 months in the first coalition cabinet.
Adamant that democratic powers needed to be restored to local authorities by modifying the managerial system, he had also advocated direct labour in housing and established the housing council for Dublin.
Adequate public housing was always his greatest priority; as historian Mary Daly saw it, he “transformed local government into a virtual department of housing” and he faced down the Department of Finance that was opposed to the huge increase in spending on housing.
The blueprint for Murphy’s housing scheme, Ireland is Building (1949), set a target of 100,000 new houses in 10 years. It was left to his successor, Limerick man Michael Keyes, another Labour politician, to keep the building going.
This building expansion was regarded as one of the success stories of the coalition, though it must be acknowledged that low spending on other public services was also a part of the equation.
In 1951, Keyes claimed the Labour party was implementing the ideals of James Connolly. Éamon de Valera had made the same claim in the 1930s about Fianna Fáil; during that decade, it too was committed to a serious housing drive.
An average of 12,000 houses a year were built with State aid between 1932 and 1942, compared with fewer than 2,000 a year when Cumann na nGaedheal was in power between 1923 and 1931.
The priority has been to avoid what Enda Kenny described in 2015 as 'interference in the market'
And yet, CnG had introduced the housing Act of 1931 to give the State more power in this area, including compulsory purchase orders, which made the housing challenges for local authorities easier to overcome.
During the coalition government he presided over, there were rows over housing budgets and the balance between public and private expenditure, but it is estimated that 100,000 local authority houses were built between 1973 and 1977.
Long-term loans and rates were important factors in relation to the affordability of all this.
Class and ideology have clearly always been central to housing policy, as has the need to resist Department of Finance entrenchment; a State file in the National Archives, for example, reveals that in 1937 a memorandum from finance complained “there is no parallel in any country to the assistance afforded by the government … in the matter of housing. The department strongly maintains that the time has arrived when the burden on the exchequer should be eased.”
Other factors relevant to housing policy have included corruption, greed and land speculation and no political party has had a monopoly of virtue in relation to housing. But there have also, from all parties, been approaches born of pragmatism and genuine social concern.
The Labour Party in 1948-49, for example, was not just trumpeting its own agenda; Costello was on that platform with Murphy when he died and the previous year the interparty’s plan for government was hardly a hymn to wealthy Fine Gaelers: its second priority, after increased agricultural and industrial production, was “immediate all-out drive to provide houses for the working and middle-classes at reasonable rates. Luxury building to be rigidly controlled.”
All governments, however, refused to implement the 1974 report by Judge John Kenny recommending that local authorities compulsorily acquire development land at 25 per cent above its existing use value.
To implement this would have been to face down powerful vested interests, but there was no appetite to intervene, the priority being to avoid what Enda Kenny described in 2015 as “interference in the market”, about as ideological an assertion as you will get.
Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has insisted that “it will not be a question of money, resources or ideology” standing in the way of local authorities building more social houses. It would be nice to think that was the case.
If it is, there should be no insurmountable impediment to an “immediate all-out drive” to solve a national housing crisis.
But how can we be confident, given that it was clear this week a “major political priority” is to send cheques, funded by “unspent” public money, to those who paid water bills, amid the continued insistence there can be both tax reductions and increased public spending?