Sunday 16 June 2019

Colette Browne: 'It's hard to be optimistic for the new year with the same old problems and same old incompetent Government'

'If the British decide to self-immolate and crash out of the EU with no deal ... we are in danger of being engulfed in the inferno that will ensue.' Photo: Steve Parsons/PA
'If the British decide to self-immolate and crash out of the EU with no deal ... we are in danger of being engulfed in the inferno that will ensue.' Photo: Steve Parsons/PA
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

For individuals, the new year is an opportunity to usher in a 'new you'; but it's a case of 'same old' for the Government which will spend 2019 grappling with endemic problems which have bedevilled it for years.

Housing will again be to the fore. "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better" - the famous Samuel Beckett quotation could well serve as a mantra for Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy's tenure in office. With one important amendment - the ending changed to: "Fail again. Fail worse."

Since this Fine Gael-led Government came to power in 2016, it has yet to meet a single target it has set in relation to the provision of new social houses. Even by its own metrics, the Government's record is one of abject failure.

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Last year was no exception in this long litany of disappointment. In total, a modest 3,800 new social homes were supposed to be constructed by local authorities and approved housing bodies in 2018.

By October, the Department of Housing was writing to local authorities in trenchant terms as it was revealed just 28pc of this target - 1,051 homes - had been delivered in the first six months of the year.

Meanwhile, renters around the country continue to be gouged. In Dublin, rents are at an astronomic €500 more every month than the height of the boom - averaging €1,936 per month. Even compared to 2017, renters in Dublin are now spending an additional €150 on rent every month.

Clearly, increases of this level are not sustainable - and make living independently in the capital, never mind saving for a deposit, impossible for many thousands of young people. Nevertheless, worst-case-scenario predictions from Daft.ie, that rents would not begin to stabilise until they reached an average of €2,500 per month in Dublin, appear to be on course to be imminently reached.

No surprise then that up to 70pc of those presenting as homeless have been evicted from homes in the private rental sector. Currently, nearly 10,000 people are homeless and living in emergency accommodation - a figure which would be close to 12,000 if those reclassified by the Department of Housing in 2018 were still included in official statistics.

The State, in its over-reliance on the private sector to solve the social housing and homelessness crisis, with more than 75pc of its social housing 'solutions' coming from the private sector, is primarily responsible for driving up demand and rents to unprecedented levels.

The Fine Gael-led Government, in this iteration and the last, has been pleading for time since 2014 to address the housing and homelessness crisis. In 2019, time and patience will have run out. Results will have to be delivered.

When it comes to Brexit, the biggest mystery is whether it will ultimately be more tragedy or farce.

To date, its harshest effects have been felt by the British, with their glorious independence project costing £500m (€550m) per week in lost economic growth, plus the £4bn that has been latterly assigned to pay for no-deal planning.

The next three months, for the Irish Government, will be a tense time as it waits to see whether Theresa May can snatch defeat from the jaws of catastrophe by convincing parliament to vote for her Brexit plan and organise a relatively managed withdrawal from the EU.

While Mrs May fights, bribes and cajoles her way to attain the least worst of her many bad options, it should be said that Irish priorities are different. The best result for us would be for some antidote to the epidemic of hysteria that has gripped the UK for years to be discovered and the contagion contained before March 29 - with a second referendum cancelling Brexit - before it has a chance to infect us.

Still, there are none so blind as those who cannot see - and Brexiteers would prefer to gouge their own eyes out than recognise the folly of their grand scheme.

If the British decide to self-immolate, and crash out of the EU with no deal, there is nothing the Irish can do to stop them - but we are in danger of being engulfed in the inferno that will ensue.

To date, the Government has managed its Brexit negotiations in the best way possible, but it's now time for 'every man for himself' disaster planning. It has just 12 weeks to ensure that adequate measures are in place to protect Irish businesses and citizens should the British choose the nuclear option - and there is nothing to indicate that timeline is either realistic or achievable.

On capital projects, the Government was caught up in a self-inflicted controversy in February when the questionable marketing of its 'Ireland 2040' capital investment plan came under scrutiny. That fiasco ultimately led to the Taoiseach's spin unit, the Strategic Communications Unit, being disbanded.

Much worse, however, is the revelation that one of the flagship projects from that scheme, the new national children's hospital, is on course to cost between €1.4bn and €1.7bn - up by at least €450m in just a matter of months and twice its original estimate.

While everybody agrees that a new children's hospital is essential, there has to be some explanation for the soaring budget and some curb on costs.

Already, the Government has conceded that cost overruns on the children's hospital will necessitate money being taken from other capital projects scheduled to take place next year.

So, we have a situation where we are likely to have the most expensive children's hospital in the world, but many of our acute hospitals will be unable to tackle waiting lists due to a lack of sufficient equipment, like CT scanners, or an inability to replace obsolete equipment.

The ballooning cost of the national children's hospital also calls into the question the Government's ability to deliver other capital projects that have long been mooted.

If the Government is unable to control costs in a single hospital, then what hope of delivering essential infrastructural projects - like a Metro Link connecting Swords and Dublin Airport; a light rail corridor for Cork; a new Atlantic road corridor connecting Cork, Limerick, Galway and Sligo; an additional 2,600 acute hospital beds and 4,500 new beds in community nursing homes - on budget and on time?

There are also some significant elections on the horizon. The year will see both local and European elections and, if trends from previous years are repeated, the incumbent Government parties will take a drubbing. Unless the Government has achievements to point to in housing, health and Brexit planning by May, its local and European candidates will bear the brunt of public anger.

Irish Independent

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