Thursday 29 September 2016

Gene Kerrigan: 'See, it's all yer man McVerry's fault'

Why the sheer fetish for private building when the State could do a much better job?

Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30

‘Housing is an integral part of the gambling industry'
‘Housing is an integral part of the gambling industry'

So, now we know. It's Fr Peter McVerry's fault. And the fault of another homeless charity, Focus Ireland. And other, unnamed, homeless charities - all of them, they've failed to "step up to the plate" and tackle homelessness.

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Those of us who accused the Government of incompetence at best, and indifference at worst - we ought to hang our heads in shame.

Or so we're told.

Sometimes we have to gasp at the sheer hard neck of these people.

You or I might just shuffle our feet, apologise for our failings and hope to do better in future. But when our leaders make a balls of things, they look you in the eye and tell you it's all your fault.

Alan Kelly, Minister for Privatising Water and Making Noises about Housing, has for some time been barking at the likes of McVerry. Too negative, these charity people. Alan wants to hear more positive stuff from them.

Labour TD Joanna Tuffy found a new angle. The charities should be "drawing down" the millions available from the Housing Finance Agency, and using the money to build houses.

Tuffy made it sound like there are these hundreds of millions of euros, just lying there, unused, going to waste - because the charity folk haven't the get-up-and-go to become housing developers.

The charities pointed out that they use money from the HFA when they think it appropriate - but the HFA doesn't give away money. It provides loans. Which have to be repaid. And the charities are careful about what they borrow and when and why. Sometimes the charities can get loans at lower interest rates than the HFA offers.

As this argument went on last week, I found myself wondering if someone had maybe slipped some hallucinogens into my Complan.

What kind of peculiar world have we found ourselves in?

There's a housing emergency. There are a number of reasons for this, but right at the top of the list is the fact that housing isn't just about putting a roof over our heads. Housing is an integral part of the gambling industry.

Houses and apartments are built not primarily to put that roof over anyone's head. Houses and apartments are built primarily according to how bankers and builders feel about where and when they should speculate.

That's one part of the free market. In another part of the market, bankers turn the screw, evicting those who have perhaps lost their job and can't pay their mortgage. Landlords who were doing fine on rents of a thousand a month realise they can get away with jacking up rates to €1,200, €1,500, whatever the market will bear.

If tenants can't pay, too bad, the landlords can turn them out. There's a queue of renters waiting.

Those evicted from mortgaged houses they can no longer afford, or from apartments or houses for which the rent has been jacked up again and again, join the already over-burdened waiting lists for public housing.

All over the country, people live in over-crowded homes, with parents, relatives, friends; in dilapidated buildings; some sleeping in their cars, some living on the streets.

What does a government do when it really wants something done? I mean, when it really, really wants something done.

Not when it's just throwing shapes. Not when it's doing something because it knows it will be criticised if it does nothing. What does it do when it doesn't want to take a chance on failure?

It just goes ahead and does it.

When the first government in the new State decided to build a power station at Ardnacrusha - which had a major role in modernising this country - what did it do? Did it ask private companies to enter competitive bids for the project?

Back in the Forties, when the State - under media pressure - finally got around to dealing with the Dublin slums, did it depend on the free market?

Last December, Alan Kelly needed emergency accommodation to get homeless people off the streets in a hurry. One man had died - if a second died in the run-up to Christmas, the Government would have been in big trouble. Kelly needed something done quickly, properly, so he could say that if anyone died on the streets it wasn't the fault of the Government.

Did he ask private firms to compete for the project?

The answer to such questions is no, no and no.

When a rescue boat was needed in the Mediterranean, did the Government ask the private sector to lease boats and hire crews and send in sealed bids to compete for the job? No, it wanted to save desperate people from drowning, so it sent the navy.

Do we have several fire brigades, competing for our custom? No, when our property goes on fire we want the job of saving our lives done properly.

For some, the State is big, blundering, costly and inefficient - and sometimes it is. Mostly, it just gets on with doing the job.

The free market is terrific at creating new products. The public sector would never have the need to come up with something such as the iPod. Well done.

If you want a choice of cars, all just slightly different, the free market's there. If you want to wear a ritzy outfit because some creepy designer with fascist tendencies has declared it fashionable - the free market will fulfil your needs.

Our recent history shows what happens when the freedom of the market is unleashed on the necessities of life - including shelter. A few made huge profits, very many got screwed.

There could hardly be a more wasteful, inefficient and destructive system for putting roofs over heads.

Yet, politicians make a fetish of the sacred workings of the blessed free market. The great majority of the dwellings to be built under the Government's plans for social housing will be left to the gambling instincts of the bankers and builders.

In short, the project will not be about putting roofs over heads - except as a by-product. The primary aim of the builders will be to do whatever is necessary to squeeze as much profit out of the thing as possible.

That's their function in life. Most of them don't pretend otherwise.

The State could hire building workers and put up the houses and apartments it needs, it's what it did in the old days. In dealing with the private sector, it could freeze rents and hugely tax exorbitant profits made from desperate need. Impose strict regulations on the workings of the renting sector. The notion that landlords can decree that tenants receiving rent supplement won't be allowed rent a dwelling is medieval.

Yes, there are decent landlords, and there are hellish tenants. But the balance of power is hugely with the landlord.

The State makes demands on our loyalty - and that in turn imposes on the State a duty to ensure that our shelter receives a higher priority than the right of anyone to make a profit.

Fine Gael would stand that on its head - the State will ensure your right to shelter by protecting the right of builders to make the biggest possible profit.

We used to expect better from the Labour Party. The party of Connolly, of Larkin. The party of - for what it's worth - Frank Cluskey.

It became the party of Gilmore and Rabbitte, it's now the party of Burton and Kelly. It's now the party that looks at the problem of homelessness and immediately spots the real villains - the McVerry Trust and Focus Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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