Fine print reveals the flaws in Government messages

Environment Minister Alan Kelly and Labour councillor Niall McNelis outside City Hall recently. Can Cllr McNelis do anything to persuade Minister Kelly to tackle galway's accommodation crisis? Photo:- Andrew Downes

Environment Minister Alan Kelly and Labour councillor Niall McNelis outside City Hall recently. Can Cllr McNelis do anything to persuade Minister Kelly to tackle galway's accommodation crisis? Photo:- Andrew Downes

Before the 'Send' icon was clicked, someone should have asked Labour Galway West TD Derek Nolan if he wanted one final look over his press release welcoming Budget 2016, because concluding this happy statement, entitled Family-Friendly Budget Ensures Right People Benefit From Recovery, is one hell of a howler.

"These measures, both individually and as a whole, will have a really good impact on families around the country," Dep Nolan says. "The increases in incomes due to USC changes and the savings that will be made as a result of things like free GP care and a second free pre-school year will more than cover the extra costs incurred by water charges and the property tax.”

Read that last line again - "The increases in incomes...will more than cover the extra costs incurred by water charges and the property tax.” In other words, this Budget will leave you in almost the same position as you already are, because the increases will largely be cancelled out by the water charges and the property tax. One hand giveth, the other taketh away.

It certainly takes the shine off the increase in the Minimum Wage by 50c to €9.15 per hour; the cut to the Universal Social Charge rates; the increase to the child benefit payment by €5 to €140 per child; and the extension of free GP care to all children up to 12 years of age. Anything you save from this will go towards the property tax, and even more galling, into propping up the disaster that is Irish Water.

Unintentionally, Dep Nolan contradicted the Government line, made by him earlier in the press release, and echoed by his Government colleague, Fine Gael TD Seán Kyne, that "this Budget announcement has a number of very welcome and positive initiatives in it which will make life that bit easier for families across the country" - on well, on the surface at least. Perhaps though we should be grateful to Dep Nolan - it is the closest any Government TD will come to admitting that, while things are certainly better than they were, it is only by small fractions and not by wide strides.

Anything is better than Fianna Fáil

The incident has got Insider thinking about what kind of message the Government can sell to the public come the General Election. Hard as it is to believe, this Fine Gael-Labour coalition have actually done some things right. Unemployment has fallen by 15 per cent in 2011 to nine per cent today (nine per cent is still too high, but at least the trend is in the right direction ) and the economy has certainly stabilised with things getting slightly better. The future at least is not as bleak as it was in 2010/2011.

The problem is, this is not really due to any innovative thinking or creativity from Fine Gael-Labour. It is because they have followed, to the letter, the programme laid down by Fianna Fáil and the Troika (the ECB, the IMF, and the EU Commission, or rather, Angela Merkel's CDU party - which holds a vice-like grip on the ideology, and a neo-liberal one at that, and direction of the EU, away from a community and towards an economy ). The advantage for the Government is that it can say it had the ability to deliver on the agreement, and all it has to do is ask the electorate, with the economy now stable and modest levels of growth being experienced, does it want to risk it all again by allowing Fianna Fáil anywhere near the reins of power?

Raising the spectre of the toxic bogey-man that is FF is enough to put the frighteners on anyone - especially when the party is led by a man who was in cabinet for the 14 years FF was in power up to the collapse of the economy in 2008 and the fall of the hated Brian Cowen led administration in 2011. As long as Micheál Martin, and others from that time, remain in the Dáil, people will remember just how FF recklessly drove the economy into the abyss. It is why FF continues to stagnate at c20 per cent in the polls.

FF is basically FG-Labour's trump card - and it certainly needs one, because on much else, the Government has little to cheer about. Insider needs only mention the fiasco that is Irish Water - a mess bequeathed by former Minister of the Environment Phill Hogan to the current Minister Alan Kelly, who has hardly improved things with various wheezes and quick fix type solutions. On this argument, the Government has lost - around half the population are not paying the bills and the other half do so with no enthusiasm, and very begrudgingly.

Housing crisis? What housing crisis?

The other great issue - perhaps the real scandal of this administration - is the accommodation crisis. Under this Budget, NAMA is to build 80 new homes per week to 2020 and €70 million has been set aside to tackle homelessness in 2016. It sounds good, but is it?

Consider the reaction of the Construction Industry Federation director general Tom Parlon: "While we welcome the provisions that NAMA can provide 20,000 houses between now and 2020, this will only deliver to 4,000 units per annum, which equates to only 25 per cent of broadly acknowledged annual national demand. There are no proposals to address the issue of costs of providing new homes, the availability of affordable development finance, or the availability of mortgages."

Also, 4,000 units per annum means across the State. According to Independent Galway city councillor Catherine Connolly, and based on the Galway City Council's own quarterly housing reports, some 4,474 households - c15,000 individuals - are on the housing waiting list in Galway city alone, never mind the county, or anywhere else. Not only that, but the numbers are continually increasing. Yet, the rate which the Government is proposing will not come close to dealing with the issue anytime soon.

A further problem is that since 2009, no social housing units have been built in Galway city, while the output for the end of 2015 into 2016 is for 14 housing units in Knocknacarra. According to the 23 quarterly housing reports issued by City Hall, since December 2009 to those from this year, 83 houses were built in 2009, but in the five and half years since, not one single social house has been constructed in the city. This is all the more galling when it is considered that City Hall owns land and is willing to develop it for housing, but no permission to do so has been granted by Minister Kelly.

So does the Government have any solution to the accommodation crisis? Yes. It is called the Housing Assistance Payment Scheme, which local authorities are expected to have to roll out. However, look closely and you can see that HAP involves the new payment being paid directly to landlords, with the housing applicant coming off the housing waiting list. This means social housing applicants currently living in private rented accommodation will be deemed to have their housing needs met and will be removed from the list.

This is not a solution, it is a method of massaging the figures to make the accommodation crisis appear to be decreasing. It is not a solution. It is not even a sticking plaster - it does nothing but keep people where they are, with the hope of having more 'presentable' statistics to tell the public about. Furthermore, as Sinn Féin city councillor, Anna Marley, pointed out this week, City Hall is "under resourced and unable to effectively deliver this programme for the 2,000 individuals expected to fall within its remit". As such, it is understood to have requested a deferral of the proposed November start date.

A bit like Dep Nolan's unfortunate statement, HAP looks good on the surface, but probe deeper, and it reveals something else, something that says little in favour of the current administration.

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