Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 29th August 2016.
You would have to travel far to find a people with the capacity to comfortably hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time as much as we as a people have.
All this week, in the professional media, on social media, one would easily come away with the impression that the Irish people are absolutely committed to the idea that building more housing is a vital let-nothing-stop-us national priority. Stories of students struggling to find housing, and then being clobbered with high rents, or of homeless people in hotels, it’s all there. The Irish people want more housing built. Fact.
Yet there are more votes mobilised by stopping specific housing proposals than by supporting them. Just look at the leaflets one gets from county councillors, where more often than not, they are bragging about how they got an “inappropriate” development stopped. There’s always a reason, and it’s always worded the same way: “Of course we all support more housing, but the traffic/parking/heritage of this particular part of my ward means that this proposal is not right for the area.”
Invariably, there are hundreds of locals who will have lobbied the councillor. How many people without homes will have lobbied him in support of the development? Aside from the developer, who gets the mark of Cain upon him for being, you know, a developer, almost nobody.
A Fianna Fail candidate told me once of being savaged at the door by a woman in a very posh part of Dun Laoghaire because her daughter couldn’t get a house “in the area”. When he pointed out that he was in favour of a proposed local development, she savaged him for that too. What did she want? Short of putting someone else out of their house and giving it to her daughter, there was no way to please her.
Housing, like Accident & Emergency, is one of those issues that we all support change in theory but would oppose the actual measures needed to deliver it. Not even for nefarious reasons, by the way. Many of the people who oppose local developments do genuinely worry about the affect it’ll have on local traffic or schools or parking or the price of the single most important asset their family owns, their home. It’s very understandable. But at its heart it calls the bluff on the idea that providing housing is an absolute priority of us as a society. It isn’t. It’s actually a “Yeah, let’s have more housing as long as it doesn’t upset other things we value more” priority.
As long as we allow planning decisions to be decided effectively by councillors elected in geographically-based wards, we will struggle to make the planning decisions we need, because there is a fundamental flaw at the heart of the system. The councillors are elected by people who live in the ward, have homes, and so don’t see the need for radical change. The people who don’t have homes, who might vote for pro-building candidates, don’t live for the most part in the area where the planning is proposed and so have no votes.
That’s assuming, by the way, that there is even a pro-building candidate on the ballot paper. Given the local government scandals of the old days, of brown envelopes and section four motions, almost any councillor who supports development is immediately accused by someone of being on the take. You end in a surreal position where conservative “pull the ladder up behind you” and so-called left wing pro-housing councillors terrified of anything with “developer” on it campaign against the same developments. If you want votes, it’s the safest thing to do.
It’s yet another reason why directly-elected mayors would be such a good idea. The mayor would be elected by the county-at-large, and so those who regard housing as an absolute priority would be an important body of voters whose votes would at least matter county-wide. A mayor coming to an end of their term, seeking re-election, would know that the number of homes they built would be a key issue for which they would be held accountable, especially in debates with other mayoral candidates. Finally, there would be a person on a ballot paper every five years whom you could say “See him? He’s the guy who is supposed to deliver on this. Let’s fire him.”
Not someone elected by the people of Some-Other-Parish South Central, and appointed housing minister by his crony the Taoiseach, but instead hired and fired by the people most affected by his housing decisions.
Of course, that all sounds a bit too much like taking responsibility. We could always just stick an actionable right to housing into the constitution and let the Supreme Court decide national planning and housing budgets, leaning over maps in their wigs dropping high-rise blocks of flats into areas like a giant game of judicial Monopoly. Curiously enough, I could see that working, as it would sit very comfortable with the national sport of blaming those terrible people up in “the castle in Dublin”.
I could see a whole generation of professional fist-shaking Irish politicians breathing a sigh of relief at having yet another responsibility taken off them, and replaced with decades of manufactured indignation about how undemocratic it all is and how vital political reform is. Nice work if you can get it.