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Eye-watering rents extracted from younger generation in city centres are not sustainable

Michael McDowell: Concentration of property wealth in hands of a few will bring political change

Most people do not bother with the directive principles of social policy set out in article 45 of the Constitution. They are stated to be for the general guidance of the Oireachtas and their application is “the care of the Oireachtas exclusively” and not to be cognisable by the courts.

Among those principles is the following: “That there may be established on the land in economic security as many families as in the circumstances shall be practicable”. This aim was also to be found in the stated aims of the Fianna Fáil party.

The Irish Free State had inherited and developed the Land Acts passed to confer on tenant farmers the freehold of their holdings by expropriating absentee landlords or the owners of unproductive land. Right up to the 1970s, the Irish Land Commission distributed agricultural land in fee simple to small holders in exchange for land bonds compensation to the lands' owners.

The gradual rise of property-less citizens and families seems unstoppable

Of course, a fundamental issue was the size of viable farms and with the passage of time it became clearer that many small farms could not lift the usually large families from poverty. Eventually, the Land Commission was abolished and agricultural land became freely transferable.

It now appears that buying agricultural land has become a favoured form of capital investment. “They’re not making any more of it” as the saying goes. Some believe that a few wealthy investors are amassing large holdings of 15,000-30,000 acres in areas of prime agricultural productivity.

These holdings are then made available for rent. In short, the process of tenant enfranchisement which characterised the background to the campaign for Irish independence has not merely halted, it is going into reverse. Land is now regarded as capital in the hands of non-farmers.

It is trite to state that the younger generation has been largely priced out of the prospect of home ownership by much stronger market forces

This process is happening in tandem with development land acquisition by investors hoping for capital gains consequent on rezoning. The last decade has also witnessed the entry into the Irish housing market of property funds intent on large-scale investment in residential property development. “Build to rent” has replaced “buy to rent” as a policy to tackle housing shortages.

The previously established policy bias in favour of occupier-proprietorship for homes and farms is being abandoned quietly.

It is trite to state that the younger generation has been largely priced out of the prospect of home ownership by much stronger market forces.

Darragh O’Brien, the Minister for Housing, is battling to combat housing shortages on the boggy political battleground, previously occupied by Eoghan Murphy and Simon Coveney. The Custom House has failed to deliver affordable home ownership. Murphy, on radio yesterday, was upbeat about present policies on the basis that the housing market is now “planner-led” rather than “developer-led”. That is a dubious proposition. “Investment fund-led” seems a more apt description.

With local authorities farming out their social and affordable housing provision functions to foreign “build-to-let” investor funds (and paying through the nose to do so), the gradual rise of property-less citizens and families seems unstoppable. Even individual buy-to-let landlords are deserting the market.

We would be very naive to believe that a major transformation is not occurring in Ireland's social make-up

Now we have the spectacle of the planning regulator seeking to impose uniform planning criteria across the country. Planning standards for towns of 10,000 just don’t apply evenly to towns in the heart of rural Ireland and towns in the periphery of cities. The markets are very different.

Demand for different housing types and densities cannot be dictated or determined from a desk in the Custom House. O’Brien seems to understand this. His department has just issued a letter stressing the need for flexibility in applying national guidelines across the country.

We would be very naive to believe that a major transformation is not occurring in Ireland’s social make-up. The political outlook of a generation deprived of any realistic prospect of home ownership will differ radically from that of previous generations. Nobody should underestimate the value of widespread ownership in any society. It may well be that in our large cities, a more continental system of apartment dwelling will assert itself. But rights of tenure available on the continent exist in a different legal and political culture.

Eye-watering rents extracted from the younger generation seeking to live in city centres are not sustainable. International investor funds buying two-bedroom apartments at between €500,000 and €600,000, and leasing them to local authorities at guaranteed rates of return of between 3 per cent and 4 per cent, makes no economic sense.

Going back to article 45, the Oireachtas is also mandated to ensure that the material resources of the community are distributed among individuals and classes to subserve the common good and that their ownership and control is not allowed to be concentrated in a few individuals to the common detriment.

Our Constitution is not the problem here; political willpower is.

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