Sunday 19 November 2017

Home truths: Rebuilding sans Simon Coveney

Housing Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Housing Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Rebuilding Ireland, the grande plan launched last summer by Housing Minister Simon Coveney to tackle the housing crisis, is not prescribed bedtime reading. Its 114 pages are not pepped, pinged up and sound bitten to embrace the gnat-like attention span of the modern age. The document is a lumbering juggernaut.

But Coveney's colossus is the most comprehensive, intelligent and practical (mostly) plan unveiled by any Irish housing/environment minister through the last quarter century. The sometimes earnest and irate minister also deserves credit for political bravery - requesting this problem portfolio and vowing to stake his reputation on solving the crisis. He put his own bonce on the block. Honour perhaps.

Hitherto successive Governments and, latterly, Fine Gael-led regimes have consistently failed to understand the myriad components that go into the housing and property market equation and how they all fit together - from the problems of builders (and the problem builders), the red tape jungle of local authorities, planners, architects, renters, landlords, infrastructure, lenders, utilities and so on. But Coveney's gameplan ticks every single box and more. At its core, it demonstrates a wholly complete understanding of what needs to be done - in every relevant segment.

Party insiders say housing is the perfect fit for the politician with a love for wider policy and statistics, an ability to grasp the big picture and a demonic work ethic to bring to bear. He has assembled a crack squad of advisers and inspirational civil servants to roll it through. Appointments were made on merit and none of his housing crew are 'yes' men or women who shy from proffering their true opinions.

So that's the planning and structure - what about the doing?

We have witnessed what the minister likes to call the "foundation" phase of its implementation. One of the first tasks the Coveney team got stuck into was rebuilding the broken bridges between local authorities - vital for implementing a housing plan and dangerous to its prospects if they are hostile. Today, officials from every local authority come into Central Government for progress meetings on a regular basis. These are sent away again with targets and tasks pertaining to housing in their area and they are back again six to eight weeks later on progress.

He has been busy making legislative changes in the rental sector and engaging with the construction sector with regard to its capacity. His fast-track legislation for schemes over 100 units is proving absolutely vital for getting developments up fast. We see the results already with the likes of the new south Dublin town of Cherrywood kicking off again recently after years of planning related stagnation kept the builders away. And Coveney has given us progress reports - one after another, after another.

So far, so good. Except what happens if the juggernaut's driver becomes Taoiseach and tootles right off the pitch? Where is Rebuilding Ireland left without its Napoleon - currently rallying his troops to do battle?

In the past, housing-related and other policy strategies have been left high and dry when the relevant minister resigned, was reshuffled or bolstered up the greasy ladder. New incumbents tend not to be too partial to the grand plans of their predecessors and most eager to stamp their own personality on a portfolio.

In the event of a Coveney win in the contest, most believe the Meath West TD Damien English would be Coveney's successor. He's already Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal since May 2016, is an ally of Coveney's and has worked well with him since the latter took on the housing portfolio. In 2002, at 24, he was elected the youngest TD in the 29th Dáil.

The former spokesman on Arts, Sports and Tourism and later for Justice and Community Affairs has also served as an Irish representative to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

English is considered a bright young spark with enough experience to be entrusted with housing. And coming from the Coveney camp, he is also the one most likely to take over the helm at an already moving vessel rather than scupper it and build himself a new one.

Vitally, it is also likely that the core of the hand-picked crack squad of experts chosen by Coveney to drive Rebuilding Ireland will remain in place, as will the structures set up through which they have been engaging the myriad vested sectors. Many believe that, as Taoiseach, Mr Coveney would also continue to input heavily into the housing portfolio given his well-known reluctance to leave a job unfinished. So far, so good for the grande plan.

However, if the incumbent Housing Minister happens to meet his Waterloo in the coming leadership battle, it will be the victor's perogative to move him on.

Standard procedure within Fine Gael (as practised so often over the years by the current Taoiseach) is to offer your most formidable rival the best job, which is finance.

Thrust into this predicament, Mr Coveney's real dedication and resolve on the housing crisis will then truly be tested. Because the only exception to the above rule is when a newly-vanquished worst foe with a portfolio himself requests to stay put - to finish a job at hand. Interesting times ahead for certain... and honour perhaps.

Indo Property

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