Derek Mooney: Happy The Opposition When The Government Cannot Get Its Own Achievements Right

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From top: We have a dysfunctional rental property market and a barely functioning home one, writers Derek Mooney

Just over a week ago Iarnród Éireann announced that it was no longer able to provide catering services on its Intercity network. With the exception of some Dublin/Belfast Enterprise trains, passengers will not be able to buy a cup of tea/coffee accompanied by a stale Kit-Kat or a half-filled sandwich.

Yes, we will miss the fun of seeing what items the catering service had managed not to pack on to those wobbly aluminium trolleys which dispensed hot water with all the force of a 56-year-old man with a swollen prostate… but as problems facing this country go, this isn’t a big one.

The problem has nothing to do with the complexities of providing a cup of tea on a train and – according to the catering contractor, Rail Gourmet – has all to do with the real difficulties it is having in finding staff to push the trolleys up and down the train.

Rail Gourmet says the problem is so acute that it cannot resolve it, and so Irish Rail must now organise a tender competition so it can hopefully restore this fairly basic service sometime in 2023.

To go off-track, so to speak… it does occur to me that it might be more efficient to franchise the catering service route by route, rather than across the whole network (though network does seem a glorified term to describe our national rail system!) with local caterers tendering individually for their nearest route and either buying or renting those trollies, which I assume either Iarnród Éireann or Rail Gourmet own and would be happy to sell or lease.

To return to my original direction of travel: while not being able to buy a coffee while sitting on the Rosslare train is a nuisance, the bigger problem is the shortage of labour to fill reasonably well-paying, low skilled jobs because people cannot afford to live in Dublin… or almost anywhere in Ireland.

It’s a problem that is not unique to Rail gourmet, or even the hospitality sector. It’s a problem I’ve discussed here before in talking about the soaring costs of living in the capital, particularly the outrageous cost of accommodation… but I know from feedback that this is no longer a Dublin-only problem.

You do not need a degree in economics to realise that a housing model where it costs almost €2000 per month to rent an apartment, but just €1200 per month to buy that same apartment, is a broken one.

For most of my early life it was much cheaper to rent than to buy. I was happy to rent and live in areas where I could not possibly afford to buy. I lived in the heart of Donnybrook for almost two decades in a small but comfortable, modern one-bedroom apartment where the rent rarely increased. I took responsibility for the upkeep and repairs. I saw the owner face-to-face maybe once every three or four years and only heard from them by phone or letter twice a year. I was a good tenant. They were a good landlord. When I departed they sent me a gift!

I accept that my situation was fairly unique. I moved into the apartment just before the property boom. The initial rent was a little high at the time (it was just a few quid below what I had been paying for a two-bed duplex in Ringsend,  but it very quickly started to look reasonable, and eventually feel quite low as the property market started to lift off. So, while rents all around me were starting to soar, mine stayed relatively fixed to the owner’s monthly mortgage repayments.

Given that we have such a dysfunctional rental property market and a barely functioning home purchase one you would imagine that government policy would be focussed on fixing these problems as speedily as possible – especially as we have come though nearly eight years of squandered opportunities.

You’d think so, but I do not see much sign of the speed or scale. Without a doubt there is increasing evidence of new sites and activity with more cranes on the skyline… the problem is that it is still not on the scale necessary. This is not some random analysis that popped into my prejudiced little head, it is the view of the IMF, who in their May 5th ArtIV mission statement on Ireland, stated:

‘Housing supply policies should be further strengthened, with a focus on boosting productivity in the construction sector and improving zoning and the permits processes.’

Adding:

‘While the “First Home” affordable purchase shared-equity scheme (part of Housing for All) aims to support first-time home buyers, it does not address the key issue, which is the supply bottlenecks.’

(My emphasis in bold)

We need a major ramping up now, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s the right thing to do politically. If housing is still the number one issue at the time of the next general election, then this government and many of the TDs backing it – particularly the Fianna Fáil and Green ones are toast (more on this point later).

Last September I wrote a piece about the government’s “Housing For All” where I welcomed the plan but said that:

….my big fear is that the target of addressing the crisis over 9-10 years, combined with a housing output delivery timeline that backloads the delivery does not convey a sense of Fianna Fáil fully grasping the scale.

Almost every day on social media and occasionally on the traditional media we hear Micheál Martin’s favoured Fianna Fáil representatives telling us about the latest increase in the number of housing starts and applications. All of this is real and welcome, but their optimism does not seem to allow for chronic shortage of bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters, and electricians.

I recently bumped into a colleague who had attended a Council briefing on housing. He said that it all sounded quite optimistic until you grasped the fact that the bulk of the units would not come available until after 2025 or 2026.

I’m hearing this from other people in the business. They lament the house building time lost to lockdowns and the flight of skilled building labour. The shortage of skilled building labour is now more acute than it was even just two years ago.

But coming from a political background I tend to look at these things from a  political perspective and wonder will seeing more sites opening up be enough to convince the public that the crisis has truly passed.

I don’t think it will. As a savvy back bench Fianna Fáil-er said to me pre 2020 general election, the only answer to the housing crisis is a set of keys. A site map or a fancy PowerPoint, is no replacement for the exquisite click of a key in your own front door.

Sadly, An Taoiseach and his supporters seem not to realise that there will be no electoral gratitude at the next general election for TDs or ministers who tell voters… look we solved the problem, you’ll only have to wait a couple more years to feel it.

That’s not the way politics works.

If housing he is one of the top issues at the time of the next general election, then this government will not be returned for a second term. I am not saying Sinn Féin will coast in… but that’s a more likely scenario than seeing this political combination back in office.

This prospect is not helped when the government seems unable to champion those things they are doing right. Some weeks ago Sinn Féin produced press releases around several provincial newspapers asserting that the government’s affordable housing targets for that county were “pathetic.” See this example from Limerick.

The example cited above makes it seem that the underwhelming targets had only been revealed to Sinn Féin after a Herculean effort that forced a reluctant Minister to reveal numbers he was desperately trying to hide. The reality is a lot less dramatic.

The figures came from a turgid reply to a one-line parliamentary question from Eoin Ó Broin, T.D., which asked for a  “…breakdown, by local authority, of the affordable housing targets funded by the affordable housing fund from 2022 to 2026.”

In the reply, the minister said, “from 2022 to 2026, over 28,000 affordable homes are targeted for delivery” but then proceeded to include a county-by-count table that lists “Delivery Targets from LA Lands or Advance Purchase 2022 – 2026”.

The total number of units in that table is 7550. That’s only 27% of the overall target, which is 28,000. So… which number does Sinn Féin use to denounce the government’s targets? It uses the ones in the table, which it knows account for only 27% of the actual target.

It is fair to call this Sinn Féin exercise mendacious but spare some opprobrium too for a government that is so politically inept as to hand its opponents a table of figures that is bereft of any political explanation or context.

If you do not have a table of the county-by-county affordable housing targets… then say so. Don’t offer your opponents the nearest thing, especially when it represents a quarter of the answer and not expect them not to beat you with it.

I didn’t support the formation of this government. I still don’t. I am not opposed to Fianna Fáil’s participation in government, but I think ignoring the verdict the people passed on the last Fine Gael government and then prolonging the government life of a Fine Gael party which squandered the recovery, is bad politics.

Whatever hopes there are of persuading people that this is a Fianna Fáil led government with Micheál Martin at the helm (and there are no signs that his appointment as Taoiseach has done anything to reverse his party’s declining support levels) there are no chances of that happening after December 16 when either Leo Varadkar, or his successor, takes over.

After that, this will become a Fine Gael led government that talks big and acts small. A government where spin trumps reality and where the second biggest party in government daily eats the middle-of-the-day lunch of the biggest party, as it competes with them for the support of farmers and homeowners who no longer have mortgages.

Grim, isn’t it.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Sam Boal/RollingNews

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11 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: Happy The Opposition When The Government Cannot Get Its Own Achievements Right

  1. jonjoker

    “well-paying, low skilled jobs”
    Somebody is living in la-la land.

    There is no such thing as a “well-paying, low skilled job” in Ireland (unless – maybe – you are the offspring of a wealthy boss. And even then …)

    1. SOQ

      I know someone who is an office manager and she went into full battle mode with her company owner recently in order to get a rise for her staff. Her view was that if the (very profitable) business did not raise wages in line with the cost of living, they would soon be haemorrhaging staff.

      Unless there is a manager who is willing to argue such a proactive stance, most will do nothing about it and then scratch their heads once employees start to leave. There is something seriously wrong when people cannot afford to stay in a job, and mass emigration is likely to be a thing again soon.

    2. Kin

      I remember the days they could have a trolly dolly pushing said trolly of sodium enriched sambos and Michelin priced gouging for muck
      The tea was stale as for the coffee
      By the time the trolly was a quarter way down the train they were sold out

  2. Diddy

    Trying to run an economy based on the importation of cheap labour, while trying to solve a festering housing crisis is like trying to empty a leaky boat.

    Demand side pressure is not being addressed here. Why are we inviting thousands of people to come to work in a country with nowhere to live?

    1. Gringo

      Why? Because it keeps pressure on Paddy wage wise and rent wise, and that’s a win win for the landlord classes and the business classes.

      1. jonjoker

        “landlord classes and the business classes”
        They are pretty much one and the same – the first thing a moderately successful Irish businessman does is put his profits into property. Cos “property only goes up” (usually true, crashes excepted) and they can also make money by screwing the renter at the same time.

        There’s a reason why these people are called the “rentier class” and our system is known as “rentier capitalism”.

    2. Kin

      Get ready for the eight euro latte
      And you ain’t going to be happy paying so staff can get a decent wage

        1. Kin

          God love you mad you will be standing there like an eager fan of New Years sale at pennies
          Until the week end as we close midweek until the season starts
          Mind you I might pop out and give you a blanket

  3. Horsethieving Dopesniffer

    You don’t need to ramp up the production at this point any more. People are already leaving.
    ECB will raise interested rates soon. For some reason media here is quiet about that, while on the continent they are already preparing them for the inital 0.5 increase, and then some afterwards.

    Many small and crappy companies will be killed within next 7-8 months.
    Expect Mr. Martin putting on his serious face and talking about big economy, big numbers and big taxes coming in after that.
    Those in mid/low paying jobs will not be able to afford a morgage anyway until the realestate price bubble deflates for at least 30%.
    After the last crash ECB has imposed rules where one can get a mortage of 3.5 times their gross income.
    If we look at a salary of about 38k (median, number pulled from my posterior, same source as for most of Irish media), this means that one person can get a loan of 133k. This will not get you a decent home even outside of Dublin.
    Two people earning that same salary amount a mortgage would get you a 2-3 bed house well outside of reasonable commuting zone. And then, what about childcare?
    Not everyone here is an IT oligarch working for multinational companies and able to afford a 500k redbrick shoebox with artisanally plastered-over structural issues.

  4. Kin

    God love the public sector workers who are about the only ones that can get a mortgage with that noose round their necks
    Only today I heard adverts for 16 years interest only mortgages followed by 10 years paying back the capital on top of the interest
    Imagine that now if and when the property crash happens after fifteen years another €30 grand a year on top of the interest and for decades the property in negative equity
    It’s win win for the banks

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