Finding a timely solution to the lack of housing supply is the defining political challenge of this generation. Voters’ perceptions of which party has the most credible remedies will decide the make-up of the next Government.
But let us always and everywhere beware of over-ambitious promises from the political groups currently in power, posturing as though they have just landed in Government. And let us also please look beyond the Opposition’s skilful positioning as being the ones “right about everything that is wrong” rather than being the purveyors of feasible and prompt remedies.
At first glance, the solutions appear simple – if not downright obvious: build more houses at an accessible price using State lands. We certainly did that in times when the country was poor – why can we not do that in a period of considerable prosperity? It is the only way in which we will really help a new generation locked out of the property market.
The issue is most critical in the greater Dublin area where rents are the highest among any capital city in the European Union and the cost of a starter home is twice the price in Belfast. But comparable problems also exist in the other urban centres.
Clearly, our planning system is too lumbering and slow, and it allows objectors an undue say about much-needed developments. Nobody is advocating the removal of required procedures, or a citizen’s right to object, but there are limits to everything in this crisis of housing supply.
There is, ironically, a growing problem about vacant properties which must be tackled soon. Some kind of levy with real teeth is inevitable and it should be done sooner rather than later.
We are told a good rule of thumb is that the site accounts for roughly one third of the house price. So for both owner-occupier, and cost-rental schemes, the provision of houses on State lands must be urgently accelerated. Ways must be found of favouring the smaller builders engaging here to offer speed, good prices and local jobs.
Critics of the Government’s housing performance have long pointed to a fear of too much State engagement. But Sinn Féin and the parties of the left are also guilty of too much ideology when addressing the housing crisis.
In the recent past, Sinn Féin and others have been obstacles to housing developments on grounds that there was too much involvement by free market entrepreneurs. But the reality now is that the State is already a huge player in the housing market and we will continue to need a healthy mix of public and private.
We must all recognise that stable communities are more usually created by people who have a long-term interest in where they live. That in part is why, in a country which had traditionally up to 70pc owner occupancy, Ireland has remained relatively harmonious socially.
While a certain public defeatism surrounds Ireland’s health service problems, this is not true of housing issues. People are rightly angry about the current housing malaise – but anger cannot blind us to realism.