Politicians and policy: lessons from Dublin

13 Sep 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 13 Sep 2019

Pic: Wikimedia commons

There is little or no serious discussion about public policy in Northern Ireland, with or without a functioning government. This needs to change.

It is perhaps inevitable that politicians in post conflict societies tend to be consumed with legacy issues and matters concerning identity and sovereignty. This is certainly the case in Northern Ireland and there’s nothing wrong with that. They are important and need to be resolved.

Yet meanwhile other serious problems start to mount, we neglect future opportunities and challenges, we fall behind other states as they adapt and reform to prepare themselves for a rapidly changing world.

Let’s just take one really important issue, housing and one party, Sinn Fein, to bring this matter to life. With Sinn Fein we are able to compare policy development in different jurisdictions.

The party’s 2017 Assembly Election Manifesto carried forward commitments previously made for the 2016 Election which is available on the party’s website.

There are two pledges that are relevant to housing policy: “Introduce a tax on derelict land to discourage harmful speculation” and “Build a minimum of 10,000 new social and affordable homes over the next five years.”

Whilst these are laudable, there was no context, no analysis, no rationale around the need for either of these pledges.

In contrast the party’s 2016 Manifesto for the Irish General Election contains no less than 22 pledges around the housing crisis in the state and a few clearly articulated sentences explaining the party’s approach.

This is backed by the party’s Better for Housing document which outlines in much more detail how the party would go about tackling the housing and homeless crisis in the state. There is also a section on developing an all-Ireland approach to housing which would include harmonisation of stamp duty rules for example and enabling social housing lists to move from one jurisdiction to the other, especially in border areas.

To cap all this Merrion Press has just published Home: why public housing is the answer whose author is Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Fein’s housing spokesman.

It is an articulate, insightful  and accessible analysis of public housing policy in Ireland from the aftermath of the Famine and the formation of the Land League in 1879 all the way through to the present.

It is organised into three sections: the first is the period which culminated in the 1970s when the state intervened to help people buy their homes or rent public housing; the second looks at the impact of the neo-liberalism pioneered by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on Irish housing provision. The 1980s saw a massive drop in the building of social housing, reductions in state support for private purchase and the liberalisation of mortgages.  Ó Broin argues that this period ultimately led to the commodification of the housing market – meaning that decisions as to whether to build or buy a house are led as much by financial speculation as providing a home.

After the recession regulation may have been introduced to prevent individuals from being exposed to too much risk in the housing market. But this did not stop investors ploughing their funds into what is seen as a safe, high yield investment: land.

Ireland, and Dublin in particular have proved attractive or these purposes – an unfortunate consequence has been to make living in many areas unaffordable for most people, hence the crisis.

In the third section Ó Broin proposes solutions. He seems to have been particularly inspired by the British Labour politician Aneurin Bevan. Bevan is best known for the creation of the National Health Service but his portfolio also included housing. The task fell to him to oversee repairs and re-building after the Second World War, together with a massive programme of slum clearances.

And it is the vision behind this that appeals to Ó Broin. He quotes Bevan: “I believe that one of the reasons why modern nations have not been able to solve their housing problems is that they have looked upon houses as commodities to be bought and sold and not as a social service to be provided.”

There is more: “ if we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should be all drawn from the different sections of the community and we should try to introduce in our modern villages what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and farm labourer all lived on the same street.”

This is critical to Ó Broin. He argues that one of the more ugly trends of  recent decades has been to see social housing as the preserve of the unemployed and a demonisation of public housing estates whose residents are blamed for the failings of the authorities ( for example poor quality build and repairs, inadequate health and mental health provision, inadequate education and poor justice systems.

Central to his vision is the creation of communities where there will be some tenants who are unemployed or have temporary or unstable work, some who are in work but choose to rent and others still who have decided to buy with the caveat that if it is to be subsequently sold it is sold back to the housing scheme at the same price, adjusted for inflation.

Home, is a thoughtful and very well constructed work which serves as a very good example of a politician making an important contribution to serious policy debate. It has been  very well received by critics and establishes Ó Broin as a credible and important voice in his field.  

Readers in this part of the island, however,  will be very disappointed with one aspect of the book. Under the heading: “Deficiencies and Terminology” he writes: “The original intention of this book was to address the Irish housing system in its entirety … Unfortunately, due to limitations in my own knowledge, time and space I have had to reduce the focus to just the housing system in Southern Ireland.”

This is a pity. However it would be nice to think that Sinn Fein will start to raise the bar in its policy development in Belfast to at least its level in Dublin. After all if it comes up with ideas as strong as Ó Broin articulates in this book and the Executive is restored, it may actually be able to implement them, given its likely seat at the heart of government.





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