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Taoiseach hits back at housing criticism, citing progress - but will voters agree?

Coalition will argue it has acted on many recommendations of the Housing Commission report but it needs to show results

For more than a year now, the Government has been insisting that Ireland has “turned a corner” on housing and in the Dáil on Tuesday, it was no different.

In the face of sustained attack from the Opposition, who characterised leaked extracts from a report by the Government-appointed Housing Commission as an indictment of the Coalition’s housing policy, Taoiseach Simon Harris shot back that the progress being made was undeniable and the report was about what comes next “now that we have a functioning housing market”.

The report certainly doesn’t sketch out a functioning housing market. It opens with lines that excoriate accumulated failures to address this policy sore — and the system that allowed it to emerge in the first place. Interventions have “not resolved failures that are fundamentally systemic”, with “ineffective decision making and reactive policy making where risk aversion dominates”; this causes volatile supply, undermines affordability and arises from “the failure to successfully treat housing as a critical social and economic priority”. It calls for a “radical strategic reset of housing policy”, giving a soundbite to the Opposition that sustained them throughout the day. In a line reminiscent of countless verdicts on our healthcare system, its dour verdict is that as a consequence of multiple failures, the State has one of the highest levels of public expenditure on housing in Europe, “yet one of the worst outcomes”.

In truth, the extracts from the report are not simply a scorecard for this Government’s housing policy; the scope is broader than that, with the assessment reaching further back in time to the roots of the crisis and throwing solutions forward well beyond the scope of the Coalition’s term.


It lays out a daunting vision of the future. It paints a picture where household sizes are shrinking, the population is ageing, and household formation (people setting out by themselves and starting a family) is being suppressed significantly. In short, Irish people are trapped in larger households where ambitions are stunted. The true nature of household demand has been misstated due to the clogged-up market, with an underlying deficit of 256,000 homes, and many people are ageing with an uncertain future in front of them. Dublin, as the engine of economic growth, is under-resourced in infrastructure, pressed by the foreign direct investment-led model to grow and simultaneously constrained by national policy that seeks to spread growth to the regions, resulting in sprawl and suffocating the city with quality-of-life shortcomings. Ireland, bearing the scars of the Celtic Tiger era, has become obsessed with avoiding oversupply, it says, and failed to properly account for the costs of undersupply. It calls for higher targets for housing delivery overall, the creation of a new State agency, the housing delivery oversight executive, and for 20 per cent of the housing stock to be social and affordable.

The commission argues that there are “clear solutions” if there is a commitment to address the issues, saying that specific details can be complex but the overall strategy need not be. Easier said than done, no doubt.

The Government will doubtlessly argue that it is already acting on many of the recommendations in the report. Indeed, some of its recommendations seem to suggest policies some versions of which it has already advanced. While this offers a handy line of defence for the Coalition, it will also increase pressure on them to show that their measures are working. The challenge for the Coalition is not to list schemes and interventions but to convince people these myriad plans are making a difference in access and affordability. That is a trickier process, and for months now, Ministers have privately acknowledged that the Coalition only stands a chance of success on housing when people begin to feel a change. Right now, for every green shoot it points to, there are still multiple examples of real-life expectations being constrained by a thicket of overlapping crises.

For the Opposition — on a day when almost the entire Dáil agenda was being given over to housing issues — the leak was a golden chance to focus voters’ minds. In its way, this is no less pressing for Sinn Féin in particular. The party built its polling success on a laser-guided critique of Government housing policy, but while housing remains top of voters’ concerns, for some reason the party has plateaued and begun to decline. The key part of this entire strategy is to link housing dysfunction not just with the shortcomings of one minister or government, but with an entire style and culture of politics it says it will change — on Tuesday, the party said umpteen times that Fine Gael has been in power for 13 years. If voters cannot be swayed by this argument, the polls suggest that Sinn Féin does not have another angle of attack that will attract voters to its banner in the same way.

As Ireland gears up to vote, the Opposition and Government are betting on housing in different ways.