MINISTER for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney maintains it is the job he wanted, although some pundits have speculated that giving him this busy and difficult brief was a canny political move by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to curb the Corkman’s Fine Gael party leadership ambitions by making him even busier.
Mr Coveney did reasonably well in the last government as Minister for Agriculture, Food, the Marine and Defence, putting in place ambitious plans for the expansion of food production over the next ten years, even if they displeased climate change campaigners, but he leaves at the height of an income crisis in the farming sector which his successor, Macroom’s Michael Creed, will have to deal with.
The newly-created ministry, which takes on much of what the Department of the Environment was responsible for in recent decades, has housing as its centrepiece, being an issue that needs urgent attention given the rise in homelessness and the huge shortage of social housing due to the lack of any significant investment in it during the economic downturn that caused this crisis to creep up on us.
The planning element of Mr Coveney’s new brief is another strategic area that needs a lot of attention and investment, particularly in infrastructure. The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) is already on his case, maintaining that the housing crisis cannot be solved without addressing Ireland’s infrastructure gap.
House building, large estates in particular, require huge investment in roads, rail, broadband, water and the other vital infrastructure to transform them into sustainable, vibrant communities, according to the CIF, who also warned that, without balanced regional development, the Irish economy will continue to become unsustainably dependent on Dublin as our sole engine for growth.
A European Commission report this year was also critical of Ireland, stating that: ‘Seven years of sharply-reduced government investment have taken a toll on the quality and adequacy of infrastructure.’ A lot of what is being spent currently is on projects in the bigger urban centres – Dublin, mainly, followed by Cork and Galway – and this has put huge pressure on the capital in particular as people migrate to where the jobs are.
At the moment, the level of capital expenditure is about 4.8% of GDP, but the CIF believes that this needs to be doubled over the next few years in order to make up the infrastructural deficit, which is felt more acutely in the regions. It is estimated that we need to be providing 25,000 new housing units a year – in the right places – and this cannot be done if the infrastructure is not where it should be.
Last year, only 8,000 new housing units were built and, so far in 2016, there have only been 2,000 house starts. Necessary infrastructure has to be put in place in areas first so that housing can be provided and sustainable communities then maintained.
Water is a vital component and much of the country’s infrastructure in this regard is antiquated and deficient and needs huge investment to meet current requirements and future demands. This comes under Minister Coveney’s remit and how to finance it will become a major headache with the proposed suspension of water charges for nine months.
The commission that is being put in place in the interim to look into Irish Water and the issue of water charges will have a big bearing on what is decided. However, the supply of safe drinking water and disposal of waste water will need to be financed one way or another and prevaricating too much on this is going to hinder the upgrading and future provision of this vital infrastructural component, possibly having a knock-on effect on house building in some areas also.
Politically, the heated debate that is likely to ensue from the commission’s findings is going to put Mr Coveney firmly in the firing line of the vocal anti-water charges lobby which is hell-bent on getting rid of Irish Water. So, while there is an element of him being handed a poisoned chalice by the Taoiseach, it also gives him an opportunity to show his mettle as a contender for party leadership in the future.
Under Mr Coveney’s brief also comes local government and the question of whether Cork City and County Councils should be amalgamated in the wake of a divisive report on the subject last September will need to be addressed and will also prove a contentious issue for him in his own political back yard. He certainly will be a busy man for whatever length of time this government lasts.