Friday 22 September 2017

No more ignoring our severe deficits - investment must be priority in Budget to deliver a just society

Dáil Éireann. Stock picture
Dáil Éireann. Stock picture

Fr Sean Healy

While the last decade has been very hard for most Irish people, both economically and socially, things are improving on many fronts.

These improvements are welcome and should be acknowledged. However, this acknowledgement should not be used as an excuse for ignoring Ireland's severe deficits.

In many cases our infrastructure and social services are far below the average level attained by our European neighbours.

The introduction of the Affordable Childcare Scheme in Budget 2017 was a welcome step in the right direction.

This should not mean we ignore the fact there is a long way to go before all those in Ireland's labour force who need it have access to quality and affordable childcare.

The current lack of an appropriate service in this area severely limits many people's access to the labour market.

Likewise, the lack of broadband in rural areas continues to hinder job creation, and the growth of SMEs and micro enterprises and their ability to access export markets. The employment commitments in the Government's Action Plan for Rural Development are heavily reliant on the provision of reliable, quality, high-speed broadband.

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The immediate roll out of the fibre infrastructure for rural broadband should be a priority for the Government in Budget 2018. So, too, should be the provision of affordable childcare across the country. These are the kinds of initiatives that are required if everyone is to benefit from the recovery in the economy.

Ireland's deficits are not confined to the economy. Homelessness is a scandal. Most Irish people are ashamed of the fact that we have allowed this scandal to develop and that we don't seem to be able to address it effectively. The current homelessness crisis has its roots in the lack of social houses available for the 90,000 households on social housing waiting lists.

Government cannot provide the resources required to build this number of houses if it sticks to traditional approaches. A special purpose vehicle (SPV) is required to provide the finance for local authorities and Approved Housing Bodies to dramatically increase the supply of social housing. This in turn would stabilise the rental market and have a positive impact on stopping the rise in house prices generally.

There are various ways of putting such an SPV in place and this should be done immediately by Government.

Roughly one person in every six is living in poverty, while almost one-in-five children lives in households whose income is below the poverty line. These are scandals that must be addressed in Budget 2018.

The number of jobs has grown steadily and unemployment has fallen. These developments are very welcome. Many of the new jobs, however, are low-paid and precarious.

The Government faces major questions as it prepares Budget 2018. Choices have to be made between tax cuts and increased investment. Choices must also be made about the level of public investment. Currently this is low by EU-15 standards. If Ireland is to be in a position to deal effectively with the fallout from Brexit, it is essential our infrastructure and services are brought up to the average level of our west European neighbours.

The choices the Government makes will have a major impact on people across the country in the years ahead. It is crucial it takes a long-term perspective, realising there are serious economic, social and environmental challenges that must be faced but that these will take more than a single term of Government to resolve.

Investment is crucial to addressing Ireland's infrastructure deficits and to delivering a vibrant, productive, competitive and sustainable economy and a just society. Budget 2018 should prioritise this investment.

Irish Independent

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