Saturday 21 September 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Fine Gael needs to ditch its 'ideology' to help resolve the housing crisis'

Leo Varadkar is driven by naked electoral politics in a bid to stem the loss of party support in rural Ireland

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA Wire
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

'We take a rational, rather than an ideological view on this," Leo Varadkar told the Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, in the Dail last week while discussing the merits or otherwise of his Government's rural broadband plan.

That plan essentially involves handing over €3bn to a private entity, which may 'flip' the deal in short order, making a vast profit, and leaving another private entity to lay down fibre-optic cable up and down every boreen around the country, at a still considerable profit.

For what it is worth, I do not believe the broadband plan as outlined will ever come to pass, or certainly not within seven years.

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It took 40 years to electrify the country after all, and only then when its extended reach could be afforded. A version of this broadband plan may eventually come into being - to each capital and secondary town nationwide - but not as currently envisaged in its entirety.

That is not necessarily the point, however. The point is Varadkar's obvious need to deny the increasing criticism of Fine Gael's "ideology" in this regard. It has echoes of another denial, by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy in the Dail last October, when he insisted the Government had no ideological position on housing.

What then do we make of information gleaned by Fianna Fail housing spokesman Darragh O'Brien in a series of Freedom of Information requests to local authorities around the country?

In a nutshell, O'Brien has discovered Fine Gael-led governments have spent almost €1.2bn on buying homes from the private sector since 2011.

To be precise, the data shows that 7,169 homes were purchased at a total cost of €1.187bn. The average cost of a purchased unit - apartments and houses - was €158,200, rising to €223,951 in Dublin city.

According to O'Brien, citing Department of Housing figures, building a new unit in Dublin during the same period would have cost €199,000. His information further reveals local authorities only directly built 838 homes in 2018 but purchased 1,702 from the private sector that year.

What harm, you may think? And indeed, as Eoghan Murphy also said last October: "I want to see houses being built in the right locations all over for our people and I want to see that happening quickly. And I will use any method at my disposal to do that."

In other words, his "ideological" position is to see much-needed housing built, quickly. All very laudable.

But there are repercussions to the current strategy. As O'Brien points out, the money the State spends is directly competing with first-time buyers, does not add to the total housing stock and, in many cases, is not the cheapest option.

In Dublin, he says, 1,100 homes could have been built for the amount it cost to buy 974, boosting the housing supply in the city. That would have seen another 126 people taken off the housing list and, to boot, by not competing in the property market in this way, property prices may not have been driven up to the extent they have.

In other words, who wins under the Fine Gael housing plan? Well, first and foremost, property developers and the property industry; and who wins under the Fine Gael broadband plan? Again, shall we say, first and foremost the spirit of free enterprise.

Now, as Leo Varadkar maintains, this may be the "rational" approach but, well, there is another rationale to it as well and that is political, or electoral.

At least in part, and some would argue a significant part, the timing of the announcement of the broadband plan has to do with the European and local elections, the campaigns for which are well under way.

There is nothing like an election campaign to lead a political party, detached from the realities of people's lives, to a rash of announcements and promises.

Just ask Phil Hogan, the svengali of Fine Gael, who last week helped to magic up €50m for farmers, to be matched by another €50m from Government, to meet the demands of the beef farming community, which opinion polls show has been rapidly deserting Fine Gael to the point that they angrily confronted the Taoiseach on the streets in Cork a fortnight ago.

These announcements may work, to an extent, in that they may staunch the flow of blood from Fine Gael in rural Ireland, but it is a double-edged sword, because in participating in such naked electoral politics, which would have put to shame Fianna Fail in its heyday, Fine Gael is giving away something potentially more precious, and that is its credibility as an assured party sound on the central issue of economic management.

This raises several issues, just one of which is the "ideological" bent of Fine Gael, which I have somewhat addressed above, and another on which I would like to elaborate now. And this is, really, the problem for Fine Gael under this and many previous leaders.

Fine Gael has always allowed itself to become detached from the realities of people's lives, be that rural people deprived of a pint or urban dwellers forced to live at home with their parents or pay exorbitant rents.

Fine Gael may claim otherwise, as it has many decent members, but the facts are evident for people to see.

And this raises the question: to what extent, if any, did Fine Gael ever understand the realities of people's lives? It is not for nothing that voters have never voted Fine Gael into government for successive terms, the current arrangement notwithstanding.

I am reminded again of my favourite Liam Cosgrave story, which relates to the collapse of the second inter-party government in 1957, when he told then Fine Gael finance minister Gerard Sweetman that the party "was no longer led by people living in big houses at the end of long avenues".

The point being, no amount of throwing billions of euros at people during an election campaign can show or fake an empathy - even an understanding would do - of those realities. To do that, Fine Gael has to come up from the end of the long avenue, as Cosgrave implied.

So, this is what Leo Varadkar must now do: come up from the end of the long avenue. But does he know how?

To do that, Fine Gael must get down with ordinary people, not just their comfortable middle-class supporters; and not just dip in and out of the masses now and then, metaphorically holding its nose. Is it capable of that? I'm not sure.

But I will say this, as noted in early April when I predicted that Labour had turned the corner: Fine Gael in government alone will always fail the empathy and even understanding test. So, bring back Labour (and the Greens). All is forgiven.

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