Fintan O’Toole: Opposition to social housing is matter of ideology not economics

Why could State build housing in hungry 1930s and postwar 1940s but not now?

Fellmongery is the preparation of animal skins for tanning. A pollard is an animal that has had its horns removed. In 1949, official statistics still listed Ireland’s “principal products” as including “fellmongery, laces, pigs’ heads, pollard and snuff”.

Yet in that same year, 1949, my mother’s family moved into the Dublin Corporation house where I would later grow up. A poor, primitive, backward economy could build social housing on a large scale for people who lacked decent homes.

And the rich, developed, globalised Irish economy of 2015 can’t.

In the late 1940s, when my family was housed, Ireland was still recovering from the drastic economic effects of the second World War. The average industrial wage was £5.59 a week for men and £2.97 for women.


In real terms, that’s less than a third of average industrial wages in 1998 before the Celtic Tiger bubble. Fewer than a third of households in 1949 had more than four rooms to live in. More than 60 per cent of households had no piped water supply. Nearly half had no sanitary facilities – only 255,000 houses had a flush toilet.

And yet the State could build social housing.

Health and education

Infant mortality was about a hundred times higher than it is now. Kids still died in large numbers from pneumonia, TB, whooping cough and diphtheria. Male life expectancy at birth was less than 65 years.

People were badly educated – in 1950, a grand total of 4,500 students sat the Leaving Certificate exam and the number in all our universities combined was 7,900. The entire output of Irish broadcasting was seven hours of radio a day. There were just 43,000 phone lines in the State, only a third of them domestic.

And yet the State could build social housing.

The Irish economy, dominated by agriculture and food production, was a paltry thing: total exports in 1949 amounted to just £61 million.

Almost all of this went to the UK as raw product – the characteristic Irish export was a live cow in the hold of a cattle boat. In order of scale, the leading Irish exports in 1949 were cattle, horses, fresh hen eggs, ale/beer/porter, chocolate crumb, dead turkeys and tinned beef. This makes tinned beef our leading manufacturing export.

And yet the State could build social housing.

The estate I grew up in, Crumlin in southwest Dublin, was built by the local authority, Dublin Corporation, with funding from the central government. The process actually started in the 1930s, during the Great Depression: 250 acres of south Crumlin were acquired by compulsory purchase in 1934 and the building of over 3,000 houses began more or less straight away.

The project was far from perfect. The houses were too small – most, like the one I grew up in, had just two bedrooms for big (often extended) Irish Catholic families. (Our household, by no means untypical, had three adults and five children.) Services and facilities were slow to follow.

But the rent was affordable and the houses were a hell of a lot better than what most people had before.

My mother had been living (with seven other people) in what was essentially a one-room cottage in the Liberties; my father grew up in a little hovel off the Dublin quays.

The “market” never had and never would give them a decent place to live – the State did so instead. For all the problems, people in Crumlin had a secure roof over their heads and the chance to build a good community. We had homes.

Why could the State do this in the hungry 1930s and the postwar 1940s but not now?

Not because we can’t but because, as Enda Kenny put it last week, “interference in the market” must be avoided. The desperation to avoid the simple conclusion that government should build houses for people who need them is about ideology, not resources. Fine Gael, in particular, seems incapable of understanding housing as anything other than a market.

Free-market ideology

It is striking that the decline in the building of social housing in Ireland follows directly from the rise of so called “free market” ideology in the Thatcher/Reagan era. In the mid-1970s, social housing made up a third of all new houses. The shift in which that proportion dropped to just 5 per cent was as disastrous economically as it was socially – the property bubble could not have inflated without it.

And still, after all we’ve been through, 75 per cent of the Government’s promised “social housing” is to be built (supposedly) by the private sector.

There is an almost obsessive fear of stating the obvious – that a large proportion of people will never be decently housed by “the market”. Those citizens need a State that’s not afraid to clear the ground of narrow ideology and build on the foundations of real human needs. That might involve relearning another forgotten word – republic.