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EDITORIAL: A welcome action plan for housing

July 23rd, 2016 10:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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ALTHOUGH some protest that it is not ambitious enough because it does not include all of the recommendations of the final report of the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness, the Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan for Housing & Homelessness, launched this week by Minister Simon Coveney, is a welcome start at least, as it aims to kick-start activity in the construction sector so that houses can be provided more quickly, both private ones and social housing.

It pledges to have 47,000 social housing units built in the five years to 2021 through local authorities and various incentive schemes with the private sector, speeding up the planning process and also making money available for infrastructural developments to facilitate construction. The government is to provide a State fund to buy distressed properties from banks and also plans to develop ‘mixed tenure’ housing on public land, while backdated financial incentives for first-time buyers are promised in Budget 2017, to be announced in October.

The last government was completely rudderless when it came to dealing with the need for social housing and the problem just continued to fester while they were pre-occupied with balancing the books. The housing plan – like its successful Action Plan for Jobs equivalent which worked so well for the last government by creating the conditions that allowed jobs to be provided – aims to put in place the conditions necessary for accelerating housing provision with its 84 time-bound actions.

Left-wing critics of the Rebuilding Ireland plan are concerned that it panders too much to private interests, but there has to be some involvement and this also helps funding to be provided off-balance sheet with developers, financial institutions such as credit unions, the Pension Reserve Fund (now known as Ireland Strategic Investment Fund) and approved housing bodies, including charities, all doing their bit in a co-ordinated manner under the watchful eye of the new Housing Delivery Office being set up under the plan.

The AAA-PBP TD Ruth Coppinger maintains that there needs to be a relaxation of the EU fiscal rules to allow access to even more off-balance sheet funding to expedite the provision of social housing units. However, the EU has a lot bigger things on its mind at the moment than what it would regard as Ireland’s self-inflicted housing crisis, given the recent Brexit decision and the ongoing security and immigration crises.

The Housing Action Plan is slightly vague on how it will address the ongoing increase in homelessness in various parts of the country. A concerted push needs to be made to reach the social housing provision target as early as possible because there will still be a lot more units required even after that has been achieved.

It was alleged in a letter sent on behalf of the chief executives of Dublin’s four local authorities that some families in need may have purposefully made themselves homeless in order to access social housing more quickly after a Department of the Environment directive that 50 per cent of all available social housing units should be allocated to the homeless. This resulted in the homelessness problem being added to, but the people who chose this course could hardly be blamed for doing so in their desperation to be housed, because the ill-advised directive – since withdrawn – effectively encouraged people to try to skip the housing queue in this manner with many of them leaving accommodation that was superior to the emergency accommodation that was made available to them. 

Recent figures for May showed that 622 families were living in emergency hotel room accommodation in the Dublin area – double the figure for the same time last summer. The recent increase in rent subsidy by the Department of Social Protection is merely another stopgap measure to try to halt things getting any worse as rents in the private sector continue to climb due to the severe housing shortage in the areas where it is needed most. A white paper on the private rented sector in the autumn.

Progress on the implementation of Minister Coveney’s Rebuilding Ireland plan will need to be closely monitored to ensure all the stakeholders are pulling their weight, as the government belatedly tries to get to grips with our housing and homelessness crises.

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