Thursday 21 September 2017

Minister has all the responsibility - but without the authority

Housing Minister Simon Coveney Photo: Tom Burke
Housing Minister Simon Coveney Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

'Yes. This is my responsibility," the Housing Minister said with a certain air of resignation. The man who might eventually be Taoiseach - once there is a vacancy of course - is now under a glaring spotlight. He is the person who will take most flak if this brave new 'Rebuilding Ireland' plan does not deliver.

But he is also the man with minimal control. One of the things to emerge from the gala launch in Government Buildings yesterday was just how many state agencies are tied up in this.

In fact, when you hear some of the lamentable statistics, or more correctly non-statistics, which characterised housing in Ireland for the past seven years, it would be fair to ask why so many of these state agencies managed to hold on to their jobs.

Eight houses were built in Co Offaly in one year. In Ireland's second biggest county, Galway, there was just one planning application for an estate of houses in the past seven years.

The minister himself admitted last year 12,500 houses were built. Half of these were one-off rural homes and the others were really estates which were being finished out.

For Coveney the only way surely is up. The plan is to produce 25,000 homes per year until 2021 and a total of 47,000 social houses in the same period.

In fact, he insisted the figures are not that huge and unrealistic. Back at the height of the madness, he recalled, Ireland once produced almost 90,000 houses in one year.

Read More: Social housing estates are a thing of the past, our future is mixed communities

We wondered if this housing crisis cycle - which recurs in Ireland every 20 years - was remedied could we ever get to a normal point where we build near enough what we need in places where they are needed. But that is for another happier day. First, resolve the crisis.

Coveney had a good day out yesterday. His launch went well and he was clearly fully briefed on every detail. No question was too technical and he knew his stuff backwards.

The problem for him is the cast of characters is worthy of a Cecil B DeMille epic movie. One wonders how much control Coveney can have in his newly framed Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, a title into which the word 'Community' is soon to be also shoe-horned in.

On the rostrum yesterday for a time, the Taoiseach sat, signifying this was a full-on Government plan. Beside him was Public Spending Minister Paschal Donohoe and also Junior Urban Regeneration Minister Damien English. In the audience were two other ministers, Children's Minister Katherine Zappone and Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar. They each stayed for a time as a sign of solidarity before being carried by more pressing calls of duty.

Varadkar, Coveney's would-be leadership rival, stayed longest, sitting quietly at the edge of the rostrum.

Coveney was a success in the Agriculture Department. Now the stakes are very different. His progress, punctuated by a clear timeline, will be closely watched.

Irish Independent

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