Friday 30 September 2016

Population growth points to real challenges for our housing plan

Published 21/07/2016 | 02:30

People queue for the Working Abroad Expo in Dublin's RDS in early 2012. The population grew over the past half a decade despite migration Photo: Gerry Mooney
People queue for the Working Abroad Expo in Dublin's RDS in early 2012. The population grew over the past half a decade despite migration Photo: Gerry Mooney

Despite going through one of the worst recessions in Europe over the past decade, Ireland's population has continued to grow more rapidly than that of most other countries across the continent.

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The implications of packing more people onto this - still very sparsely populated - island are manifold. What the changing population says about rural Ireland and how people are housed are among the most important implications.

But before looking at those issues, consider last Thursday's unveiling of the first details of Census 2016 in the broader context.

Almost everything about Ireland's population - now and for the past two centuries - is unusual by the standards of Europe and, in some cases, the world.

Over 120 years until 1960, the 26 counties making up the Irish State experienced an almost uninterrupted decline in their combined population.

Not only was that unique in the world, it took place at a time when the planet's population was exploding.

Then things changed radically. Since 1960, Ireland's rate of population growth has been the highest among the 28 EU members after Luxembourg.

And that has taken place despite more years of outward migration than inward migration.

The most important reason for that has been Ireland's unusually high birth rate.

Although it has fallen from its peak at the height of the boom, women in Ireland still have more babies than their sisters almost anywhere else in Europe.

So that's the big, long-term context. What of more immediate matters?

The first findings of Census 2016 came as something of a surprise to the experts.

Before this year's census, the statisticians dealing with demography at the CSO had projected a five-year increase in the population of around 100,000, averaged over their six scenarios (the scenarios made different assumptions on births, deaths and migration).

As it turns out, growth in the population over the past half a decade far exceeded even their highest estimate (118,000).

According to April's census, there are 170,000 more people living in the Republic now compared with 2011. That translates into the fifth highest percentage increase among the EU 28 countries over the same period (it is worth noting that almost half of those countries recorded falls in their populations).

The main reason for Ireland's bigger than expected increase was migration.

The statisticians estimate that the drain from the country as a result of emigration exceeding immigration averaged under 6,000 a year over the past five years.

That is surprising, mainly because it is a tiny number compared with past bouts of people-movement within living memory.

At the worst of the slump in the 1980s and early 1990s, the net outward migration rate was more than six times higher than over the past half-decade.

In the exodus years of the late 1950s it was running at well over 10 times the most recent migration rate.

But there are still important aspects to the migration picture that are not clear.

Last week's figures only showed the net figure for migration. They did not give a breakdown of how many people came and how many left.

That leaves two possibilities: either the old habit of emigration in bad economic times has waned; or the newer phenomenon of immigration has waxed (it is probably a bit of both).

While all that will only become clear when more Census 2016 figures are published, what is perfectly clear is that the latest national headcount provides yet more evidence to debunk claims about the death of rural Ireland.

Over the past quarter century, every single county in the State has contributed to national population growth.

And that has included even the most rural counties, something that plenty of regions around Europe cannot claim, as their population growth slows or turns negative.

In the 25 years to last April, the slowest-growing county was Mayo. But even that great county saw its population expand by almost one-fifth since 1991, which, compared with the increase for the State as whole - of one-third - was not hugely different.

Over the past five years, Mayo and its neighbour, Sligo, did, however, experience reversals. But they were minuscule, of 0.2pc and 0.1pc respectively.

Only one county in the State - Donegal - registered a significant fall, and that was of just 1.5pc. Other rural counties - Roscommon, Leitrim and Cavan, for instance - all kept growing their populations.

While the notion that rural Ireland is shrivelling into an atrophied state doesn't stack up, the problems around housing are much more real. Among the stand-out findings from the Census was that the number of households in the State has increased by three times more than the number of homes.

The Government's new housing strategy, unveiled with great fanfare on Tuesday, aims to bring those two vital national statistics more closely into line.

About the most positive things one can say about the strategy at this early juncture is that it is modelled on the Action Plan for Jobs.

The cross-government nature of that plan, the detailed timeline for implementation of each measure and the active involvement of the Taoiseach's office all helped squeeze inertia out of the system and ensure that things got done.

If replicating that augurs well for housing, as do some of the other aspects of the plan, one measure stands out for its idiocy.

The so-called 'Help to buy' scheme for people seeking to get on the housing ladder is not only economically illiterate and populist, it is grossly unfair. In effect, it amounts to people who will never own homes - usually the poorest segment of society - subsidising, via taxation, others who are acquiring a significant asset.

Common sense, it seems, remains in even shorter supply than housing when it comes to property.

Irish Independent

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