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Opinion: 'The consequences of turning a deaf ear to voters on housing are political dynamite'

Dr Lorcan Sirr and Orla Hegarty say that to understand the current housing crisis, you must first learn of the history of housing provision in Ireland.

Orla Hegarty & Dr Lorcan Sirr

Updated May 14th 2021, 11:19 AM

WHEN THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION recently looked at Ireland’s affordability crisis, it warned that ‘the surge in house prices in recent years seems to have been mainly driven by increases in land prices and construction margin’. As ever, land and money. And as in the past, it is not only the physical environment that is changed by housing, the economic and electoral landscapes are affected too.

Of course, all housing is politics, because all politics is competition for resources. Land and money have always been fought over, and never more so than public money and private property.

Historically, housing and politics have always been happy bedfellows. In the 1930s, the Land Commission had a reputation for allocating land on the basis of party affiliation and not the recipients’ capacity to work it.

At the time Fianna Fáil were the party of the ‘landless men’ (think today’s first-time buyer) wanting to settle many homesteaders on small farms, whereas the opposition (nowadays Fine Gael) wanted to create large single-owned ‘ranches’ (think today’s large investment funds).

More recently, the close links between politics and housing brought us first planning corruption and windfall profits for landowners and developers (see: Tribunals), followed by a speculative property bubble and banking crash (see: national debt). These gaps were closed off – the days of councillors and brown envelopes are gone, as is irresponsible lending by the banks.

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However, positive outcomes for developers and landowners are now achieved by lobbying to influence national policy, which has the added benefit of being legal. Research into this political lobbying has proven how easy it is for large players to get things changed, to the cost of everyone else.

Power imbalances

The Strategic Housing Development (SHD) process sends planning applications for more than 100 residential units straight to An Bord Pleanála on a so-called ‘fast track’.

Interviews with the key players behind this policy by academics Mick Lennon and Richard Waldron show how it came about because Department of Housing civil servants had become ‘very close bed fellows’ with the lobbyists, and that ‘in a lot of ways the development (sector), the CIF [Construction Industry Federation] and people like that, Property Industry Ireland, have captured the State in terms of policy’.

Lobbyists confirmed giving then Minister for Housing Simon Coveney and his officials their SHD recommendations who ‘took it lock, stock and barrel and stuck it into the new housing bill.’ At that time, then opposition spokesman Darragh O’Brien said: ‘It is evident that a lot of power is concentrated among a select group of developers.’

There are many aspects to this SHD process, but one of them is that we now have democratically-elected political representatives (councillors) spending two years in research and consultation, only to have their Development Plans over-turned by an administrative body (An Bord Pleanála), and it all ending up in the High Court, as the only appeal mechanism to a SHD decision by An Bord Pleanála is to take a judicial review.

It should be no surprise that courts are finding in favour of those taking the judicial reviews in about 80 per cent of all cases. The implementation of this poorly thought-out legislation has meant that communities, politicians and developers have ended up frustrated.

Prior to Covid, it should be noted that despite removing opportunities for meaningful public participation – a way of balancing power and influence between different parties – less than two per cent of all housing with planning permission under the SHD process had been built. This does not add weight to central premise of the SHD lobbyists that public objections were holding up development.

In parallel, other political lobbying is happening on space and building standards, including for fire safety. New apartments sizes have shrunk, most are sold to funds for rental, buildings are more tightly packed, with less daylight, fewer balconies, lifts, stairs, parking spaces, outdoor amenity, playgrounds and creches.

So again, families are pushed out to the commuter belt. There were more new homes completed in Naas (176) and Drogheda (197) in the first three months of this year than there were in Dublin postcodes 1 to 8 (137). Neither is this exodus to commuter land consistent with national planning policy, also written by the Department of Housing.

The deregulation of apartment standards for build-to-rent and co-living has enhanced profits, inflated land values and raised prices for potential purchasers and renters. It has also made Ireland a very attractive place for institutional investment.

As a result, decent housing in urban areas is increasingly out of financial reach; the cost of housing is damaging Ireland’s competitiveness and putting serious pressure on government finances. According to Gillen Markets, an experienced advisor to large funds, the greatest risk to investors now is that the government might do something to make housing more affordable.

Where we live and how we vote

The problems of housing are mainly urban ones, and Ireland has been urbanising fairly rapidly since the mid-1960s when it was 50 per cent urban and 50 per cent rural. This is significant for political parties because where we live affects how we vote and right now about two-thirds of the population now live in an urban area.

When first preference votes are tracked, the declining share of the rural population and the declining share of general election votes of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael mirror each other on a six-decade downward trend.

In the 1965 election, Fianna Fáil got 47.7 per cent of first preference votes, and Fine Gael 34.1 per cent. In the 2020 election, these numbers had fallen to 22.2 per cent for Fianna Fáil and 20.9 per cent for Fine Gael. Sinn Féin got 24.5 per cent of first preference votes nationally in 2020.

As Ireland urbanises, the main parties’ rural voting base declines, and they begin to lose their security of tenure in power. Smaller parties and independents have seen their combined share of the vote increase significantly in parallel to this urbanisation. In the last 30 years, Sinn Féin has gone from zero to nine Dublin TDs.

Over the same period, the Green Party has increased its Dublin representation of TDs by 600 per cent, although from a low base. In contrast, Fine Gael had 15 Dublin seats in 1989 and now has eight, and Fianna Fáil has gone from 21 to seven seats. There are now eight new parties that didn’t even exist in 1989.

Housing – and mostly housing affordability – is increasingly at the heart of these trends.

A blind man gets dressed

The current approach to housing policy could be likened to a blind man getting dressed in a charity shop, in the dark. Without a coordinated approach to housing, planning, energy and fiscal policies the chances of a matching strategy are slim.

The current non-strategic, reactive and inflationary approach to policy merely increases risks for everybody: landlord, developer, first-time buyer, taxpayer, mover, and even the retired person sitting on housing equity. We have been here before.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the recent housing discussion is a resistance to discuss this in economic terms (even by economists). Subsidies of up to €100,000 per home, which always end up in the developers’ pockets, are not sustainable and cannot be scaled up to meet the need.

It has been well-proven on these pages and elsewhere, that the government has access to the land and money to fix this problem, using the tools of design, procurement, and tenure (how homes are paid back). It is mostly a matter of the will to use them.

Since the foundation of the State, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have built about the same number of social houses for each year they have been in power, but Fianna Fáil has overseen about 20 per cent more private housing.

To get there, over the decades, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have instigated successful housing programmes. Between 1948 and 1962 the government supported the construction of 60,000 local authority homes and 58,000 in the private sector. Half a million people were housed, and it was a source of pride and votes for the government.

The middle ground

Unfortunately, this ‘housing as public investment’ approach is no longer mainstream political thinking, despite its numerous vote-winning advantages including that of reducing future expenditure on welfare.

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As governments have moved ever further to the right on the political spectrum, evidenced by the favouring of a deregulatory, corporate, investment-friendly housing policy, it drags the left-wing parties into the centre.

The housing policies of the parties of the left are actually quite conservative in the context of Ireland’s century-long history. Indeed, their centrist policies are the very ones the larger parties were proud of not that long ago. Building housing that is affordable, rather than helping people buy housing that is unaffordable, is neither radical nor reactionary.

Class has yet to raise its head in these debates – those smaller, darker, expensive rented units are alright for other peoples’ children, but mine will never have to live there (really?) – but it will.

Rather than listen to those in low rise developments cheerlead expensive high-rise, those who own their own homes advocate long-term renting, those in large houses lobby for smaller housing, and those with no mortgages (half of all homeowners) encourage loading first-time buyers with more debt through shared equity schemes, governments might be better off listening carefully to the electorate.

The echo chamber of the comfortable won’t tell you much about the bedsit of the discomforted. The consequences of turning a deaf ear to voters here, and fudging a solution there, are economic, social, fiscal and especially political, dynamite.

Dr Lorcan Sirr is Senior Lecturer in Planning and Development at the Technological University Dublin and not a member of any political party. Orla Hegarty is an architect and Assistant Professor of Architecture in UCD and not a member of any political party.

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Orla Hegarty & Dr Lorcan Sirr

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