Trades Union desk

It may come as a surprise to learn that for more than a century social housing in Ireland was successfully constructed, provided and maintained by local authorities. ICTU’s Macdara Doyle writes.

It may also come as a surprise to discover that over the course of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s spending on social housing in this country was amongst the highest in Europe.

Those were turbulent decades for the newly-emerged state, as it struggled to cope with successive and deep crises: the destructive legacy of the Civil War, the impact of the Wall Street Crash and subsequent global depression, Economic War with Britain in the 1930s, followed by the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and then the near economic collapse in the 1950s.

Yet, by the early 1960s, almost one in five people lived in publicly-provided and maintained housing.

Despite the acute scarcity of those years, the state took responsibility for the provision of social housing and the necessary resources were allocated across successive governments. But that positive and proactive role in the housing market – via the local authorities – was to come to an abrupt end in the 1980s.

While a lack of funding arising from the abolition of rates played some part in this gradual withdrawal, ultimately it was not financial considerations but ideology that was to be the determining factor.

The 1980s were the high-water mark of neoliberalism, the belief system based on Margaret Thatcher’s infamous dictum: ‘There is no such thing as society.’ Across the developed world governments began to retreat from whole swathes of public life as it became conventional wisdom that the ‘market’ could provide key services more efficiently and at less cost.

Equally, if there was ‘no such thing as society’ then there was no real requirement for services such as social housing. As the Irish State withdrew from direct social housing provision, the entire housing market was ceded to the developers and private profit replaced social need as the driving factor in housing construction.

Fast forward to 2017 and we are mired in the biggest housing crisis in our history with homeless agencies predicting we could have 10,000 people without a home within the next 12 months, on current trends.

While policies pursued since the 2008 crash have exacerbated the problem, you can trace today’s broken and dysfunctional housing market to the 1980s triumph of ideology over common sense.

Clearly, we need a fundamental change in official policy and the starting point of that change should be the declaration of a Housing Emergency that, left untreated, will have major social and economic consequences for wider Irish society.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has embarked on a major campaign to bring about the policy shift required, on foot of a unanimously agreed motion at our recent Biennial Delegate Conference, which stated: “The scale of emergency and the extent of human suffering caused by this major policy failure, based on a surrender to the market and property developers needs to be recognised.”

Over the coming weeks and months, we aim to meet with government, all political parties and groupings, local authorities in key areas and civil society housing groups, in order to press the case for change.

The campaign will seek to ensure that there is a local-authority led response to the crisis, with the state once again taking on overall responsibility for the provision of social housing and also playing a key role in the housing market.

In short, a local-authority led and government supported initiative would see the authorities effectively coordinate their skills, expertise and knowledge to address the issue of housing voids and the refurbishment of existing units in their localities.

In addition, public policy would commit to an increase of social housing output to 10,000 units per annum, with 75 per cent of that number provided by local authorities. Such a publicly-led programme would also set standards for decent work in the construction sector and across the wider economy. If necessary, the government should seek a relaxation of the fiscal rules at EU level to ensure there is no official impediment to the investment required.

In addition, public policy must address the current chaos in the rental sector through support for a new ‘cost rental model’ – as recently proposed by the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI). Similar rental models already exist and operate successfully across continental Europe, which would simplify the development of an Irish variation. At current levels, it will be 2020 before housing output even catches sight of housing need.

Can we afford another quarter century of crisis?

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