Politicians need to start talking about the national interest, and sell it to the public

Changes to the built environment are viewed as an assault by the State

Politicians from all parties object to new housing and other developments. And the reason why they do it is because their voters – or at least a vocal sub-section of them – insist they do it.  Photograph: Getty Images

Politicians from all parties object to new housing and other developments. And the reason why they do it is because their voters – or at least a vocal sub-section of them – insist they do it. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Big decisions on Covid hover menacingly, but overall the focus of politics continues to edge away from the pandemic and towards the quotidian issues on which all governments are judged. In the Ireland of 2021 this means housing especially.

This week the coalition signalled a move to accelerate the planning process in order to make it possible to build houses more quickly. But there are deeper, more long-term, factors at play here – including the relationship we have with the State, and the reluctance of politicians to articulate a worked-out idea of where the public interest lies – which will confront us all sooner rather than later.

The Government’s move this week – likely to be brought to Cabinet for approval next Tuesday – was a response to the failure of the strategic housing development (SHD) process, introduced in 2017 and intended to fast-track developments of over 1,000 houses.

Planning delays due to endless objections and legal challenges demonstrate a deeper problem in our way of doing things

The SHD bypassed local authorities and went straight to An Bord Pleanála. But legal challenges have gummed up the process, and now the system is to be scrapped and replaced with a return to the two-stage procedure, starting in the local authority and going on to An Bord Pleanála if they are appealed (as they all are). The process will be time-bound at 32 weeks, start to finish, I’m told. We’ll see how that gets on.

Developers say that lengthy planning delays increase costs and uncertainty, and contribute mightily to the slow and expensive supply of housing. And of course there are the objections, often from politicians.

Political opponents have sought to use the Dublin Bay South byelection to highlight Sinn Féin’s record of seeking to block big housing developments while simultaneously demanding more houses are built. The party takes exception to the charge, but the fact remains it has been active in blocking developments of which it disapproves, usually due to the high level of private housing and its cost.

But that’s a row for another day. And the fact is Sinn Féin is far from alone; politicians from all parties object to new housing and other developments. And the reason why they do it is because their voters – or at least a vocal sub-section of them – insist they do it.

Objections

But planning delays due to endless objections and legal challenges demonstrate a deeper problem in our way of doing things that is primarily neither administrative nor political – it is deeply entrenched in our public culture. It’s this: we have a difficulty in accepting individual or local disruption for the common good.

Changes to the built environment – new housing developments, new roads, cycle lanes, bus lanes, whatever – are viewed not as the price of living in a community and society, but as an unwarranted assault by the State.

This is often for understandable reasons – new housing developments will make traffic worse. They will put pressure on local schools. They will clog your road with dust, white vans and men eating breakfast rolls for two years.

The shift to electric cars won’t happen without (considerably) higher taxes on petrol or diesel and on the cars that burn them

But nobody ever seems to make the argument: yes, this is a nuisance for us, but we should still go ahead because it serves the greater good. The bottom line, to put it bluntly, is that some people are going to have to be inconvenienced if the housing crisis is going to be solved.

But governments have usually been hopeless at articulating a common good or a national interest.

The weighing of interests and outcomes is the business of politics. Or at least it should be. Politics is not supposed to be about pushing private agendas, but rather identifying and pursuing a common good. It is an imperfect process to be sure, but wouldn’t you like to see politicians even try to articulate the idea of a national interest a bit more?

They might find more of an audience for it than they think. The pandemic has displayed a high level of social solidarity. A recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll found majorities happy to see housing (including social housing) in their own areas, and wanted it made harder for objectors to block new developments.

Intellectuals

Politicians need to figure out a way of articulating the idea of a national interest, and selling it as a message to the public. This is not just an esoteric concern for pointy-headed intellectuals. They need to do this because the next decade is going to see huge capital investment projects under the National Development Plan, and also a profound shift in our use of carbon fuels that cannot but cause significant inconvenience and costs for most people.

For example, the shift to electric cars won’t happen without (considerably) higher taxes on petrol or diesel and on the cars that burn them. A shift to public transport will require changes for thousands of commuters who will no longer be able to drive their cars into the city.

The reduction in carbon emissions from the way we heat our homes won’t come without significant domestic upheaval (anyone who has ever had the builders in will know what I mean) as hundreds of thousands of homes are retrofitted.

Many farmers will be asked to change the way they farm, and it will become too expensive for them not to change.

All these things are in the near future. All will be, to a greater or lesser degree, a pain in the backside for very many people and a political time-bomb for this Government. That time-bomb will only be defused if the changes are accompanied by an acceptance that they are necessary for the greater good.

*My assessment of the Dublin Bay South byelection results, and what they mean, is elsewhere on irishtimes.com. While writing it at the count centre on Friday, a thought struck me: can you imagine how excited Noel Whelan would have been with a byelection in his backyard? Would he even have contemplated running, I wonder? He died, much too soon, two years ago today. Requiescat in pace.

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