Seanad debates

Friday, 4 June 2021

9:30 am

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I pay tribute to Senator Fitzpatrick for tabling the motion. She has been a tenacious battler in advocating for the right to housing and the importance of sustainable housing. Her contributions on this topic in the year since she came to the House, both in this Chamber and in committee, have been very significant.

Many will ask what it matters whether we have a referendum on housing. They might argue that the many millions of euro that would be saved by not having a referendum could be spent on the provision of a small scheme of homes somewhere. Perhaps they are right. However, the issue at stake is how we view the provision of housing in this State to begin with. There are plenty who come into this Chamber, and even more so in the Dáil, and roar and shout that housing is treated as a commodity. Those who do so have not a bull's notion – or, even worse, they do not care – how finance is raised and capital acquired to start a scheme and pay for the raw materials, wages and subcontractor services needed to build homes. They skip over that bit in the debate and ignore the issues pertaining in the marketplace, such as the rising costs of raw materials as a consequence of the Covid crisis, because, to them, the marketplace is not something of concern. For everyone else in the real world, it is a key concern.

On the question of whether housing is treated as a commodity or a right, there is a core belief among everyone in the Fianna Fáil Party that it is a right. That has been demonstrated over decades of the party being in government. The housing estates that were built across the length and breadth of the country are a testament to that. That housing is a physical edifice that cannot be ignored by those who want to claim otherwise. I can walk onto the driveway of my parents' home in the centre of Navan and see, on every side of me, the estates that were built by Fianna Fáil over the decades. What we have seen in recent decades is a shift away from the construction of large council estates and a move towards mixed-tenure estates. There are good arguments put forward by experts on housing as to why that is the approach but, frankly, I disagree with the logic behind it. Experts will argue that it is not just about building homes but building communities and that previous large-scale projects were associated with massive social deprivation. However, the same problems are now being experienced on large private estates that were built during the boom. That is because the core issue of the provision of community infrastructure was not addressed when those private estates were built. That goes to the core of it.

One of the experts in this field is Mr. John O'Connor. I interviewed him many years ago, as a journalist for the The Public Sector Magazine, and had an opportunity to tease out this issue with him. He is a strong believer in this particular philosophy. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has appointed Mr. O'Connor as chairperson of the new commission on housing. The Minister and the Government believe the commission should consider the question of a referendum on the right to a home. While that issue is being thrashed out, the Custom House might deal with the one major requirement for dealing with this crisis, namely, land. During the previous term, I questioned the then Secretary General of the Department, Mr. John McCarthy, on the delivery of homes by local authorities at a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts at which the Minister of State, who was sitting beside me as a committee member, also posed questions.

One of the points I focused on in that discussion was local authority land banks. I referred specifically to the fact that in many counties where the pressure for homes, both private and social, is at its most pressing, there is a significant shortage of land. This is particularly the case in the commuter counties of Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. Meath County Council, for instance, has no significant land banks worth talking about that could be used to deliver homes, which is the very essence of what is needed. When I raised that point at the committee, the response was that the Department was not in the market for land and was working through the land banks from the land aggregation scheme, which bailed out councils that had done bad deals on land during the boom years. In the case of some of the land they bought, one would not put hens out to lay eggs on it. One wonders what they were at to have acquired those lands in the first place.I return to my original point that the philosophy of people in high places has been one of not building large council-led estates. This being adopted as policy by Departments over recent decades, regardless of the merits of the philosophy, allowed a scenario to develop where there were not enough homes to satisfy those who wanted them. That was a failure. The fact that there are 4,500 people on the housing waiting list in my county of Meath shows it was a failure and cannot be called anything else.

The work that we were completing today on the Affordable Housing Bill in the Seanad before the Minister of State arrived is crucial in rebalancing that philosophy and giving people a chance to own their own home through initiatives such as the shared equity scheme and, crucially, the increase up to 20% of affordable and social homes being made available in developments. The Land Development Agency has a big role in rebalancing the supply and regenerating areas of dereliction. Some of the proposals on the books of the LDA are really imaginative and do more than build homes. They rejuvenate areas, for which I am a huge advocate.

I pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Burke and Noonan, for working hard on the Affordable Housing Bill because there is a change of attitude here.

Senator Fitzpatrick asked in her contribution earlier how we, regardless of who will be in power in these Houses in the coming decades, compel the State to live up to the standards we expect when it comes to delivering sustainable homes for all of our people. She is dead right to have this conversation about the right to a home in tandem with the work that is going on to build the homes we need. That is what we are about here: a change of attitude in the approach to housing. I hope that part of that change of attitude will come when the Government and Mr. O’Connor in his new role as chair of the housing commission look at this issue being proposed today by Fianna Fáil and deal with it positively. If they attempt to fudge it, it will be back on the desk of the Minister of State and the Minister fairly sharpish.

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