Thursday, 3 June 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Leo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
As is often the case, the best way to respond to the Deputy's rhetoric and ideology is with some facts. These are the facts. We have increased Government investment in social housing tenfold. In 2016, when my party got the brief and Deputy Coveney became the Minister with responsibility for housing, only 600 social homes were built in this county. By 2020, it was more than 6,000. These were homes built by local authorities and approved housing bodies with public money. That is a tenfold increase since 2016. The budget for housing this year is the biggest ever and more than a third of homes built in the State this year will be built by the State. One would probably have to go back to the 1980s, 1950s or 1960s to see that level of State involvement in the housing market.
On a per capitabasis, our investment in social housing is much greater than is the case in Northern Ireland, where Deputy Ó Broin's party has been in government for 20 years and has a very poor record indeed. It is probably the worst record on this island when it comes to housing policy. Our current target is that we should build and provide approximately 12,000 new social homes this year and every year into the future and several thousand more in terms of affordable for purchase and cost rental as well.
On the ESRI report, I have not had a chance to read it, though I have seen the headlines. As I understand it, the ESRI proposes a big increase in capital spending on social and public housing and that we would set a target of approximately 18,000 houses per year. It would not be easy to get to that overnight but it might well be a good target to aim for over the course of this Government. However, I have not seen what breakdown the ESRI proposes. Deputy Ó Broin used the term "public housing" but, as he knows, public housing is much broader than social housing. If that includes public housing, cost rental and affordable for purchase housing, that may well be doable. A target of 18,000 may well be the right figure and may well be where we get to. If it is 18,000 social houses alone, that is a different question. That would be all on-balance sheet borrowing, which is not recoverable and much harder to do. We will take a look at the report; we will give it full consideration. I want to see the breakdown between social and other forms of public housing being recommended by the ESRI.
I note the institute proposes we do this by running a bigger budget deficit of maybe 1.5% of GDP a year to invest in our society, in housing and healthcare. I agree with that approach, by the way. I would like to go back to the old orthodoxy whereby borrowing for capital expenditure is more acceptable than borrowing for current expenditure. I am not sure we can do that but I would like to. However, we must bear in mind that at the moment we have a deficit of 5%, so we are already borrowing more than the ESRI and the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, think appropriate. As such, it would have to be explained, or we would have to talk together about how we would manage to get from 5% down to 1.5% and still spend more on housing and other things. As I said, the Government will reflect on the report and read it. I notice that most of the recommendations being made by the ESRI are potentially contrary to other recommendations made by the institute and by the IFAC. It is good to have so many advisory bodies but with so much advice, it is often contradictory. We will take all that into account as we develop the revised national development plan, NDP, which we hope to have ready for July and the housing for all document which will be the Government's new housing policy to replace and build on the Rebuilding Ireland plan.