Tuesday 18 June 2019

Playing fantasy cabinet is just another insult to voters as time ticks away

Fr Peter McVerry’s prediction of a ‘tsunami of homelessness’ has long since come to pass. Photo: Frank McGrath
Fr Peter McVerry’s prediction of a ‘tsunami of homelessness’ has long since come to pass. Photo: Frank McGrath
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Faced with an unprecedented homeless crisis, our TDs have vowed to take decisive action to alleviate the problem - by making statements in the Dáil today, before they all adjourn for another couple of weeks.

Nearly a month after the country went to the polls, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have yet to pick up the phone to each other as both parties persist in the delusion that either one could lead the next government without the support of the other.

Now, everyone likes to daydream on occasion. Who among us hasn't spend five minutes after we play the Lotto fantasising about how we'd spend all that loot? However, most of us then snap out of it and get back to work.

Apparently, the same rules don't apply to politicians, who have yet to come to terms with the fact that their numbers didn't come up in the election. Four weeks later, they're still playing fantasy cabinet - divvying up notional cabinet seats among their party colleagues.

People were prepared to indulge this nonsense for a few weeks after the election but patience is rapidly wearing thin as crises in housing and health continue to escalate.

Instead of pontificating in the Dáil about homelessness today, politicians should instead leave the chamber and speak with residents of Tyrrelstown, who will be protesting outside.

Maybe then they'd be jolted back to reality and moved to do more than utter empty words and meaningless slogans in response to people losing their homes.

It's now nearly two years since Fr Peter McVerry warned that a "tsunami of homelessness" would engulf the country if nothing was done about rising rents, housing shortages and home repossessions.

With more than 5,000 people now in emergency accommodation, that tsunami has long since overwhelmed the country, but the best our political class can offer is a succession of speeches delivered in an impotent Dáil that is nowhere near electing a government.

All of the measures announced thus far to tackle the housing crisis have betrayed a lack of imagination and a lack of ambition, with the State relying on the private sector to bail it out.

In November 2014, Environment Minister Alan Kelly announced Social Housing Strategy 2020 that, he said, would accommodate the 90,000 households on the social housing waiting list by 2020.

How is that plan going? In 2014, the number of social housing completions was 515 units - comprised of 158 units completed by local authorities and 357 from the voluntary sector.

Last year, by the end of the third quarter, just 246 social housing units had been delivered - a pathetic 28 provided by local authorities and 218 from the voluntary sector.

So despite the Government finally acknowledging the problem and vowing to do something about it in late 2014, the number of social housing units actually built across the country fell in 2015.

During the election, ministers referred to the fact that 13,000 social units were delivered last year.

But the majority of these - 7,500 - comprise rent supplement tenants being accommodated in the RAS and HAP schemes. These tenants are still reliant on the private sector for housing and remain vulnerable to private landlords deciding either to increase their rent to an unsustainable level or sell their properties.

While Mr Kelly claimed that his social housing strategy would eradicate waiting lists, in reality it does nothing of the sort.

Of the 90,000 households currently languishing on the waiting list, the plan envisions 75,000 being supported "through an enhanced private rental sector".

In other words, the supposed silver bullet announced by the minister means that things stay exactly the same - people on social housing waiting lists reliant on the private sector for housing.

In addition to this, the plan also estimates that 35,000 social housing units, an average of 5,800 per year, will be built, purchased or leased by 2020.

But again, the Government is dependent on the private sector to achieve this figure and, given the current rate of progress, it looks highly unlikely that this modest target will be attained.

The plan looks even less impressive when one considers that between 2007 and 2010, in the midst of a financial crisis, the then Fianna Fáil-led government managed to deliver an average of 5,100 social housing units per year. Between 1970 and 1985, when GDP per capita was just one-third of today's rate, an average of 6,200 social housing units were completed.

Even as local authorities struggle to provide new social housing units, Mr Kelly authorised a tenant-purchase scheme that came into effect in January - further depleting the State's social housing stock.

As part of the scheme, local authority tenants can purchase their homes at up to a 60pc discount, with loans for the scheme being provided by local authorities - despite the fact that, at the end of last year, nearly 30pc of local authority mortgages were in arrears for more than 90 days, with 12pc in arrears for more than 720 days.

Welcome to the blue-sky thinking of government, where local authorities no longer have the capacity to build social housing, yet a decision is made to sell off the meagre stock that does exist at a huge discount. Instead of engaging in a fire-sale of the family silver, the department needs to come up with a radical plan to massively increase the construction of social housing units, so that families consigned to poky hotel rooms around the country have somewhere to live.

In tandem with this, something urgently needs to be done to tackle the cost of building, so that developers return to the market.

Last week, this newspaper reported that planning permission is in place for nearly 23,000 homes in Dublin, but less than 3,000 were actually built last year because costs are prohibitive.

If politicians in previous years, with fewer resources, were able to surmount these problems, then it shouldn't be beyond the wit of the members of the 32nd Dáil to do something.

Of course, they'd have to start talking to each other first.

Irish Independent

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