Home Truths: Ogling the only solution: state as the developer
IT came from trade union firebrand Brendan Ogle - he who has variously threatened to cut off our electricity, derail our train services, drain our water board and eat our children (well, maybe not the latter). Much as many mightn't like it, Mr Ogle's suggestion for solving the housing emergency, as tabled on TV last week from the state-built Corpo housing estate in which he was born and still lives; is the most practical yet heard on the issue.
Speaking to Sarah McInerney on TV3's robust True Lives programme, Ogle argued, along with developers and others, that solving the emergency requires not only an intelligent plan (we do seem to have the basis of one already) but one that must also be (a) of a duration of at least 10 years to be truly effective and (b) must carry the backing and committal of all political parties - the latter in order that it can hope to survive, endure and be successful.
The union man, who recently helped organise the occupation of Apollo House to protest homelessness, asserted that the problems we are facing today cannot be blamed on any one party or Government, but rather on a political system of Governmental cycles which prevents anything getting done. He identified that constant changings of the guard at Government, ministerial and civil service level as the big undoing of "big" housing plans. We need to cycle-proof housing plans.
Endless cycles of promises, more promises and ultimately stasis on the ground, have also characterised the longer running national health system emergency and to a lesser extent, have hamstrung progress in school building and education.
True Lives was a breath of fresh air because, aside from minor slips (saccharine tear-tinkling piano scores running through the segments dealing with those now homeless), this production hit pretty much every nail on the head.
Unlike the sort of pop economics regularly produced for TV on big issues, Ms McInerney's efforts reached back into old-fashioned campaigning journalism for method and right into the lives of those affected. You couldn't have watched it and not felt the claustrophobic cabin fever of living with young children in one room in a hotel for more than a year. Or not sensed the creeping hopelessness of sofa surfing adult couples who have fruitlessly joined endless lines of fellow rental home hunters again and again only to come away with nothing. We met a bright young lady with a sick child about to be made homeless. She will also shelve a teaching career because of it. Marriages, family plans, careers and babies all shelved or thrown out the door.
Mr Ogle also hit on the next vital step required - the state as developer.
This Government truly needs to get its head right out of its neoliberal rearguard and realise that state as developer is the only way to get this job done. No one else can do it in current conditions - to which the construction sector itself has attested. Firebrand Brendan also picked his spot to emphasise the quality and effectiveness of the sort of housing provided en masse by the state from the 1930s up until the 1970s - before the state switched emphasis to the private sector. The Irish Government, under functioning local authorities, built tens of thousands at pace. The state as developer can work even better today by charging near market rents rather than nominal versions (or at the very least half market rents) for these homes. In this way the State/taxpayer can make a profit. And why shouldn't it? Does a right of centre ethos in power prevent the state from ever becoming involved in profitable enterprise? Can the state not also step in to capitalise on the failings of the private sector - or is it only there to mop up its outsized messes? State as developer is a win/win for all concerned. An open goal.
Other issues highlighted in the True Lives programme included the need to work through all state agencies and other bodies to get construction costs down. We need measures to make land cheaper and the building process itself cheaper, by cutting VAT and levies. We have to look at the standard of building and size of home required to temporarily facilitate the construction of large numbers which can be built fast. We need to address the vulture funds which have bought disused land for a snip from Nama and are now sitting on it watching its value ratchet up. We need every party on board to implement this drive. Even Mr Ogle. Bugger the free market, it's an emergency isn't it?