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Originally published on July 28 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A housebuilding slump? Rising homelessness? Unaffordable house prices and rents? The housing crisis faced by the new government in Ireland is every bit as serious as the one confronting the new administration on this side of the Irish Sea – but then the similarities start to break down.

Just 75 days after coming to power, the coalition government in Dublin has published a comprehensive plan and a Cabinet-level housing minister is in charge of delivery. If that’s some indication of the priority it gives to housing, then the housing, planning and local government minister Simon Coveney compares the task of proving affordable and accessible homes for all to the introduction of free education 50 years ago.

Allowances have to be made for political hype and the plan has also been criticised for its failure to be more radical, but the contrast with England is still glaring even though the government is led by the closest equivalent Ireland has to the Conservatives. One reason could be that it took two months after a stalemate election In Ireland to form a government: the plan has been developed with the help of an all-party parliamentary committee; and Fine Gael depends not just on independents for support but also the rival Fianna Fail not to vote against its plans.

Rebuilding Ireland is subtitled ‘an action plan for housing and homelessness’ and is a call for action across the whole of government and beyond. As Simon Coveney sums it up in his foreword:

‘I have described the problems faced by our people, particularly in our urban centres, as an emergency situation. None of us can fail to be moved by the plight of people who are homeless, especially families and children living in hotels, and people who are sleeping on our streets.

‘These are particularly visible examples of our broken housing sector, but no less urgent are the challenges faced by households who face the loss of the home they currently live in, or the lives kept on hold as people struggle to access the housing and rental market.’

Where England went through a housing market downturn and austerity after the financial crisis, Ireland experienced a collapse in house prices and housebuilding and far deeper cuts in public spending. But with prices rising again and the pressure almost as great in Dublin as it is in London, the need for new homes is seen as just as urgent.

In contrast to England’s obsession with home ownership, Rebuilding Irelandis a comprehensive call for action on the housing crisis across all tenures that is about people as well as bricks and mortar. Key objectives are to end the use of emergency accommodation for homeless families, moderate house price and rental inflation, address the growing affordability gap for people who want to buy, mature the rental sector to give tenants more security and choice and ensure that housing makes a steady contribution to the national economy.

But the two most eye catching proposals in the plan are to:

  • Double housebuilding to 25,000 new homes a year by 2021
  • Deliver a social housing programme of 47,000 units with funding of €5.35 bn (£4.5 bn) between 2017 and 2021.

Scaled up for England’s larger population, that’s the equivalent of Sajid Javid and Gavin Barwell promising 290,000 new homes a year rather than the 200,000 implied by the million homes target. That would put us on a par with the 300,000 a year called for by the House of Lords economic affairs committee earlier this month.

And an equivalent Affordable Homes Programme would be worth £52 billion and deliver 540,000 homes over the next five years. With an average government contribution of around £100,000, they might even be affordable too.

The contrast on social housing is probably not as great as it seems since the Irish programme appears to include acquisitions, private sector leasing and homes funded by a form of housing benefit as well as new build. It also replaces an existing strategy to deliver 36,000 homes.

However, there is a clear ambition to boost new-build social housing and the plan contains a basic rationale that’s not been heard in England for years:

‘Housing is basic human requirement, but left to its own devices the market would not ensure all households are housed appropriately or at all, which is the principal reason for the existence of a social housing programme.’

The plan has received a general welcome in Ireland though critics have attacked its failure to do more for private tenants (a separate white paper is due in the Autumn) and to protect home owners facing repossession. In the short term at least it seems to offer little to Generation Rent: after a long internal battle the last coalition did give tenants more security last year but central bank lending rules have made it harder to get a mortgage.

You wonder too whether a minority government facing continuing austerity will really come up with the money for social housing and whether various off-balance sheet wheezes in the plan will really come to fruition.

For a more comprehensive analysis than I can manage from this side of the Irish Sea, see this piece by Michelle Norris. She highlights, for example, the dangers of an English-style Help to Buy scheme if the housebuilding plans are not delivered.

Whatever the flaws and the holes in the plan, though, there is no getting away from the contrast with what’s happening in England. To take one more example, the plan proposes an ‘affordable rental scheme’ but this means private tenancies with lower rents rather than social housing with higher rents. A government that believes in the market has also recognised its limits.

And Ireland is not the only nearby country taking a different approach to housing. Where England stopped funding social rented housing in 2010 and is switching most funding for affordable housing to home ownership, the governments of Scotland and Wales are both committed to bigger affordable housing programmes and to social rent. The Local Government Association also makes its case on housing today.

If Theresa May’s ‘One Nation’ approach is to mean anything for housing in England, she could do worse than to look at what other nations are doing.


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