It was a busy week for the Government. As the Covid situation rattles forward on the rails laid down earlier in the month it was time to talk about all the other things that are annoying the voters.
Specifically, it was Housing Week!
And, like everything to do with its housing policy, the experience did not leave the public (or Government parties) feeling good.
The week was intended to be built around the (very) long awaited Housing Bill from Fianna Fáil’s Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien. Minister O’Brien is a significant figure in FF, as the party has decided they might need a Dublin leader to rally the mysterious Jackeens to their faded flag.
So it was that he was entrusted with the most critical political project of this Government- fixing the housing crisis. (Covid being less a political project and more a chip pan fire needing dousing)
Like the legendary Roc, the Minister has sat upon his nest, labouring mightily for a year to lay this week’s egg of a housing Bill. But instead of hatching into a plume of praise, the news that an international investment company had bought up a whole estate of homes in Kildare saw the government’s policy immediately tumble from its nest and be dashed on its own TDs terror.
It is Government policy to give tax breaks, ie subsidise with public money, to investment companies to buy up residential units in the state. Michael Noonan set this up, and it has become a major factor in the total market for housing- topping 40% of the total residential spend last year.
But the sweat broke out upon the brows of FF and FG TDs when they were simultaneously presented with the consequences of their own parties’ policies (voters locked out of buying homes by tax-break fuelled institutional investors) and the tepid incrementalism of what their Housing Minister was proposing to do about it.
“Is this the best we’ve got?” The wails went up from parliamentary party meetings.
Ministers, feeling the chill of voters rehearsing a dance upon their political graves, suddenly started announcing incoherent policy positions on the hoof.
Buying up apartments was OK, but not houses. Buying up homes in town centres was OK but not suburbs. Leaving other people’s voters locked out of homeowning was OK, but surely not theirs.
The irony is that the Minister had the social space to produce almost any radical position and would have been lauded for it. Housing is a crisis that is omnipresent for those experiencing it, and the numbers of those experiencing it are only going one way.
TDs of all parties now know the Government has set out its stall with the Housing Bill and can all see it is offering nothing beyond the tattered rags and broken twigs of the current policies with some tinkering around the edges.
Departmental capture is so complete that the Minister faced the humiliation of voting against his own opposition housing amendment bill, reintroduced by Labour without changing a word.
If you’re a government TD, this was the week you realised you weren’t going to be given anything meaningful to say to voters to suggest you were part of the solution to their problems.
And if you were an Opposition TD you realised you could just change your name to “Build Houses”, stick it under your picture on your election posters and top any poll in the country.
The Housing Bill is politically dead on arrival. The Housing Minister may find he has suffered a politically fatal wound.
But from now on, Housing policy is the live wire of Irish politics.