Fionnan Sheahan

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Reshuffle is a chance to focus on areas that matter most – so a Housing Minister is key

Fionnan Sheahan

Published 09/07/2014|02:30

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Almost one in three of the 39 schools dropping a teacher are on Mr Kenny’s doorstep in Mayo

Every night, people across the country aren't exactly kept awake by the thought of what Ireland will enter in the next Venice Architecture Biennial or the lack of performances of Brecht plays round these parts.

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Not wishing to be dismissive of the important role of the arts in reflecting the nature of a society and providing cultural stimulation, but does it need an entire cabinet portfolio attached to it?

But it's not exactly up there with people being genuinely kept awake at night, worried about the roof over their head.

Tanaiste Joan Burton has identified social recovery as a theme to be focused upon by the Government as it reboots for the remaining 21 months of its term of office.

Near the top of this agenda is the issue of housing.

The shortage of housing stock in parts of the country, particularly Dublin, is causing a property price bubble for those who want to enter the market or move home.

On the rental side, the same shortage is causing rents to rocket.

Simple demand-and-supply economics are at play in the market.

The same housing shortage is also causing lengthening waiting lists for social housing, with activists warning of a growing homelessness crisis.

Yet the arts have the dedicated voice of a senior minister at the cabinet table, while Housing only has a Super Junior Minister, whose precise responsibilities remain vague.

The family home, such an intrinsic part of the national psyche, isn't afforded the requisite priority.

The government response to the housing problems has been disjointed.

The Department of the Taoiseach has been engaged in efforts to identify sites in the Greater Dublin Area where land is zoned and building project could and should be getting off the ground.

The argument for creating a Housing Minister is indisputable when you broaden out the topic and potential remit of the portfolio.

The mortgage arrears crisis remains one of the greatest challenges facing the Government.

Nobody is questioning the bona fides of the Department of Finance in engaging with the banking sector and the Central Bank regarding conduct in this area.

Yet it is just one aspect of the department's functions.

Only yesterday, the Oireachtas finance committee called for greater levels of protection for mortgage holders who are in arrears.

The committee said banks should not be allowed to send legal letters to people who are behind on their payments and claim this action is a "sustainable solution" under Central Bank rules.

A report from the committee recommended that banks should also be forced to set out in writing what alternative they are offering to repossession.

Ironically, the rising property prices could put more homes at risk of repossession than before. The committee says that around 50pc of properties in mortgage arrears of at least 90 days are now in positive equity, meaning the home is worth more than the remaining debt.

The recent recovery in the housing market could now put these homes at greater threat of repossession.

So if ever there was a need for an advocate for the homeowner and the tenant alike, it's now.

The Coalition intends to draw up a plan of action in the area of housing with actions to be implemented and delivered upon over the next 21 months.

The creation of a distinct Housing Minister as a senior cabinet minister with their own Department of Housing would send a message the Government is taking the issue seriously.

However, the word from Government Buildings is the Taoiseach is wont to do too much tinkering with the make-up of departments.

Only assigning a junior minister doesn't cut it in drawing the various strands together.

This week's cabinet reshuffle provides an opportunity for the Coalition to put forward its agenda of the areas of policy that matter most and also its vision for the future.

Later this week, a report is due back on the review of the Department of Justice in the wake of the various garda scandals, which culminated in the departures of the Garda Commissioner and Justice Minister.

The feeling in Government circles is the size of the department contributed to the problem and it needs to be pared back.

The prospect of breaking up the department into the component parts of Justice and a separate section dedicated to Equality and Law Reform presents itself and is surely too good to pass up.

What's the point in promising change down the line?

Instead the jockeying for position centres around the Jobs Ministry, a portfolio that appears to be working fine. The template is already in place there though the Action Plan for Jobs, a government-wide programme, which has been crafted by Richard Bruton and marshalled by the Taoiseach himself.

The original line-up of cabinet positions was structured around economic survival. The phase of economic and social recovery requires the configuration to be altered.

Irish Independent

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