Despite all the Blarney ...

Joseph Glynn of Earthwatch, Friends of the Earth Ireland, spotlights homelessness and dereliction in Ireland

DESPITE Ireland's extraordinary economic performance in recent years the so-called "Celtic Tiger" economy has yet to overcome some significant problems. These include the poverty and inequalities that affect around 15% of the population, the relatively high dependency on exports, and also on inward investment by multinational firms. The experts insist "the fundamentals are sound", but as job losses in the US mount there is now some acknowledgement that in the event of a global downturn Ireland's economy is more exposed and more vulnerable than most.

Homelessness has increased, and although many previously derelict sites in Dublin have been developed in the past few years the problem of urban dereliction remains quite widespread. The rapid expansion of the economy has exacerbated some inherent problems and served to highlight a longstanding failure to apply land policies and land taxes to ensure economic efficiency, sustainability, and social justice. The clearest evidence of that failure includes the crisis in housing affordability; the recent downturn in construction activity; the regional imbalance of development in recent years; escalating homelessness/housing need problems, and the inordinate profits and capital gains which have accrued to a well-placed minority who shoulder less than their fair share of taxation.

DURING the Irish property boom of the late 1990's house prices doubled and the problem of homelessness worsened considerably. Charities in the front line estimated that at least 5,000 homeless persons and about 7,000 Travellers were in need of accommodation. With more than 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers entering the country each year, and house-builders straining to meet demand many people were poorly housed and some government agencies found it necessary to use holiday camps, for�mer institutional buildings and bed-and-breakfasts to provide additional emergency accommodation. As private rented accommodation costs escalated by as much as 25% per annum in Dublin and other urban centres, local health boards were forced to increase their rent allowance expenditure to around IR�136m in the year 2000.

The number of applicants for local authority housing also increased through the 1990s. In 1998, there were 43,000 families on the waiting list: the equivalent of at least 100,000 persons. Despite this, the local authorities built just 2,800 houses in 1998 and the privatisation of local authority houses continued as tenants bought them, often at less than market prices.

Rich and Poor, by the Combat Poverty Agency (Oak Tree Press), is one of the few published reports to highlight the failure of the government's housing policy. Authors P.J.Drudy and Michael Punch estimate that in 1998 at least 150,000 persons were in serious need of housing. While their estimate includes the above mentioned categories, and people living in unsatisfactory institutional settings, it may not include some of those who live in unsatisfactory domestic settings, such as battered housewives, or of those who live in damp houses which investors can rent with little fear of inspection. But the problem of housing need is even more extensive. Students at Dublin's third level colleges and universities can expect problems in finding affordable accommodation in Dublin this autumn. Last year, Trinity college increased the weekly rent to IR�75 for rooms on the campus "to more closely reflect market rates" despite a protest "sleep-out" on its velvet green lawns. Having risen rapidly over recent years, rents may well continue to rise this autumn. Less well-off students and families may have to make sacrifices as a consequence. Other students may have to share in cramped conditions, or commute long distances, as do some low-paid workers. Some students may join low-paid workers, who, according to a recent news report have begun to seek shelter in the hostels. The reporter also noted that first-time applicant numbers doubled at Dublin homeless shelters in the second quarter of 2001.


THE IRISH construction industry has significantly increased its output since the mid-nineties and turnover for the sector has risen rapidly. Construction is now the largest indigenous industry sector although rampant land price inflation since 1997 would account for much of the growth in turnover. Despite this increase in output, and the strong demand for land there remains in Dublin several areas where derelict buildings and unused sites are common. The failure to tax such land and buildings, and the expectation of future grants and incentives for development, means that the owners can hold such property idle and benefit from doing so.

Outside Dublin it is also quite common to see large derelict commercial properties in towns, and the number of derelict rural cottages and houses in many counties is astonishing. Because planning permission is more readily available on the site of a previous dwelling these windowless and roofless "remains" are a valuable asset. Rural auctioneers will usually have a few such assets on their books, and a heap of stones on an acre with a view might well fetch IR�50,000.

The current Fianna Fail/PD Government has taken steps to address one area of property disuse; that is, the huge volume of idle space on several floors over premium retail space. Insurance and access problems were perhaps a factor, and hopefully the incentives provided, albeit for specific streets only, will prove effective. The Government has also introduced tax reliefs for householders who rent a room, but this "carrot" does not appear as effective as a residential property tax or land tax would be.


IN 1986, Ireland in Crisis: A Study in Capitalist Colonial Undevelopment was published. Its author, Raymond Crotty, an Irish economist of international renown, had grasped the nettle, as it were, and proceeded to show how the slow long term growth of GNP since the State's foundation was largely attributable to the pursuit of the landed interest at the expense of the national. The consequences included the persistence of poverty and emigration and the failure to adequately develop indigenous industry.

C In 1987, The Economist confirmed Ireland was in crisis, the Government having borrowed and spent its way into excessive debt. Crotty had shown how former colonies, inheriting institutions and structures designed to exploit the land and other resources of a nation, frequently sustained the land monopoly and those institutions which effectively blocked national economic development. As an economist with a lifetime of experience in developing countries, and as a Georgist, Crotty prescribed a land value tax remedy which, if applied, might enable Ireland to break the cycle of undevelopment and thus provide a model for some of the other 138 former colonies to do likewise. But his pre�scription was unpalatable to powerful vested interests in Ireland and the EU stepped into the breach with funding which, together with the US inward investment by multinationals, laid the basis for an economic recovery.