Una Mullally: Housing crisis will collapse in on top of Fine Gael

Eoghan Murphy is an ineffectual Minister playing with fantasy house figures

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy: his  actions do not indicate  he gets the gravity of the crisis, despite the fact it disproportionately impacts people of his generation. Photograph: Tom Honan

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy: his actions do not indicate he gets the gravity of the crisis, despite the fact it disproportionately impacts people of his generation. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

In January, Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy issued a statement: “We are determined as a government to increase the stock of social housing by 50,000 by 2021 under Rebuilding Ireland, with money securely ring-fenced to do this. After our first 18 months of work, we are ahead of target.”

The government is not even close to reaching this target on social housing.

In October I wrote about how the basic data the Government is basing its housing policy on is completely flawed. Juking the stats might work for optimistic statements, but what’s the point when these figures don’t correlate with the real world?

Rebuilding Ireland, Simon Coveney’s hospital pass to Eoghan Murphy, has failed. At this stage, there is little point in pursuing its fantasy figures. We need a massive reset. But we also need a minister who takes charge. Murphy’s actions do not indicate that he actually gets the gravity of this crisis, despite the fact that it disproportionately impacts people of his generation, and his city.

In 2016, the Central Statistics Office identified 189,000 vacant homes in the State. Some 79 of these homes have come on stream as housing stock under the Government’s vacant home schemes. Rebuilding Ireland declared it would “build at least 1,500 rapid-delivery homes by 2018”. By 2018, 208 were delivered, although that’s Rebuilding Ireland’s own figure, so proceed with caution.

Private developers, many now international ones looking to Ireland for profit, are not going to build the social housing we need

In another head-in-your-hands moment, some of Dublin City Council’s “rapid-build” modular housing projects have been delayed for two years, including 70 “units” in Coolock and five “units” on Fashionable Street, a site I’ve been reading about for years and a site that Dublin City Council owns and presented a plan for its development as Dublin House in August 2012, then again in July 2014. Yet in July 2018 the council was still looking for expressions of interest from contractors.

Grandstanding vs urgency

This kind of behaviour would make anyone nervous about returning the mass-building of social housing to local authorities. But someone has to build them. And maybe if there was a proper plan in place that meant councils weren’t paralysed by bureaucracy and riddled with delays and were properly resourced – that money securely ring-fenced the Minister talks about – that could happen. But even though we are in the midst of a massive crisis, an emergency, there doesn’t seem to be the political will to get to work on social housing in a big way.

Why? Where is Eoghan Murphy’s big idea? Where is the urgency? Not grandstanding, but actual urgency in facing a crisis that has photographs of children sleeping on chairs in Garda stations on the front pages of newspapers.

Fine Gael has been content to allow private developers to handle the housing crisis. The result: a broken rental market and bonkers house prices. It doesn’t cost anything to give tenants more rights and allow for long-term leases.

Private developers, many now international ones looking to Ireland for profit, are not going to build the social housing that we need. It is not going to work. It is going to get worse. In the docklands, Dublin City Council can’t even afford to buy the potential 10 per cent social housing (known as a Part V agreement) meant to be built by developers, so they’re looking at the social housing being built elsewhere. Where? Who knows, but the high-end apartments are being built in the docklands, that’s for sure.

There is little urgency too in tackling the dereliction and vacancy problem that also plagues Dublin. On its website, Nama has over 40 sites in Dublin listed as “development” but that are not for sale. Planning permission has expired on at least some, including planning for 358 apartments on a site on the Swords Road in Drumcondra, and planning for Players Square, the large former Player Wills cigarette factory site on the South Circular Road, which had planning for 754. Why are sites such as Player Wills just sitting there?

Social housing

Government and local authorities also talk a lot about mixed housing, instead of going back to the old days of building social housing flat complexes. Fair enough, although such developments instantly reduce the number of social housing being built. But in developments that are about to get under way, even this aspiration doesn’t ring true.

At the O’Devaney Gardens site in Stoneybatter, the council said that social and affordable units will be “peppered” throughout the development and not “confined to single blocks”, which is interesting because the first block of housing Paschal Donohue turned the sod on is 56 social housing units. How are they going to “pepper” those throughout the development? Build apartments in mid-air?

Unusually for a Fine Gael politician, Murphy isn’t helped by his image. His ineffectual persona has the air of a sort of Craig Doyle of Cabinet, an image coloured by The Thick of It-like script outtake details of his mini-basketball hoop in his office, and the apparent penchant for buying shirts with the sleeves already rolled up. There is a sense that looking like one is doing something holds as much importance as actually doing something. Add to that, the anodyne school-debate-team-level statements and defences, a rhetoric honed like water erosion on limestone, years of meaning scrubbed from words, until they are smooth, polished PR pebbles, each as innocuous and indiscernible as the last.

He had better get to it, because he and the rest of Fine Gael are going to shoulder a housing crisis that could very well crush them.

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