Stephen Collins: SF hypocrisy on housing a challenge to Government

Two-faced Sinn Féin calls for construction while blocking building projects

Economists and housing policy experts may differ on the best solutions to the current problem but all are agreed on one thing: an increase in supply is critical. Photograph: Paulo Nunes dos Santos

Economists and housing policy experts may differ on the best solutions to the current problem but all are agreed on one thing: an increase in supply is critical. Photograph: Paulo Nunes dos Santos

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The relentless Sinn Féin campaign against the Government for its failures on housing while it simultaneously opposes so many new housing projects across the Dublin region represents a breathtaking level of hypocrisy at the very least.

A more malign, and probably more accurate, explanation of its strategy is a hard-headed degree of cynicism that sees the political advantage of ensuring that the housing problem gets worse rather than better before the next general election.

Sinn Féin’s efforts to block housing initiatives, accounting for about 6,000 homes in three Dublin council areas, have been documented by Fine Gael in support of its candidate James Geoghegan’s campaign in the Dublin Bay South byelection.

This has elicited squeals of protest from Sinn Féin at the political motivation behind the attack but there is no arguing with the accuracy of the figures. The party’s only excuse is that it has tried to block the plans because they involve the provision of private as well as social housing.

This has seen Sinn Féin councillors linking up with almost every residents’ group protesting at plans to build new houses in their area. The party’s spokesman for housing, Eoin Ó Broin, has managed to get a media reputation as an expert on problems but actions speak louder than words and the stance adopted by Sinn Féin councillors in vote after vote says it all.

For instance, Sinn Féin councillors, who at the time led Dublin City Council, initially supported the building of more than 1,600 homes in O’Devaney Gardens and Oscar Traynor Road, only to vote against those very homes after millions had already been spent. The party also took the lead in preventing the construction of 1,000 new homes in Santry which would have been built in three years and are now at least eight years away.

Supply strangled

Winning a reputation for having solutions to the housing problem, while simultaneously siding with residents’ groups committed to the not-in-my-back-yard approach to development, is a neat trick and Sinn Féin has pulled it off without the least hint of embarrassment.

While Sinn Féin argues that its opposition to a variety of housing developments stems from its support for social housing and its opposition to the use of State land for private development, the net result of the policy is that the supply of both social and private housing has been strangled.

Economists and housing policy experts may differ on the best solutions to the current problem but all are agreed on one thing: an increase in supply is critical to dealing with the multifaceted problem which ranges from rising house prices to the need for more social housing and from the provision of more affordable homes to escalating rents.

Sinn Féin’s two-faced approach is a challenge to the Government to get its act together and take far bolder initiatives on housing than it has done to date. While there are no simple solutions, it has become increasingly clear that the allocation of extra resources for social housing is urgently required.

The massive expansion of State spending to deal with the pandemic has demonstrated that money can be found in an emergency. The Coalition must realise that if it is not seen to tackle the housing issue in a serious way it will lose power to Sinn Féin who will have no compunction about whatever level of borrowing is required to deal with the mess it has helped to perpetuate.

Mixed backgrounds 

It is also vital the Government sticks to the current policy of mixing private and social housing rather than allowing Sinn Féin to bully local authorities into creating large, isolated social housing developments.

Mixed housing helps to create a more cohesive society and gives people from different social and economic backgrounds access to the same level of State services, particularly schools.

Finding ways to deal with the acceleration of house prices to make them in any way affordable for younger, middle-class couples is a real challenge. However, the State could play an important role in reducing the cost of private housing even though it would mean a loss of revenue to the exchequer.

It is estimated that about 30 per cent of the cost of a new home is down to State charges of one kind or another. For a start there is VAT of 13.5 per cent on top of local authority levies and exorbitant charges from Irish Water for connection to the system. There is no VAT on domestic housing in the UK and that is something that needs to be copied here.

Ireland is by no means unique in having a serious housing problem. Last weekend, the Financial Times documented a worrying acceleration in housing prices right across the developed world. It is also worth noting that Sweden is now struggling to find a new government as the Social Democrat prime minister, Stefan Löfven, lost power when his plans to ease rent control to encourage new development were defeated in parliament.

That said, Irish voters will make their decision at the next election based on what has happened here. The performance of both Government and Opposition will deserve serious scrutiny when that day arrives.

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