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New Housing Minister: Darragh O’Brien TD

Credit: Fianna Fáil

Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien TD entered The Custom House as the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on 27 June 2020. The new Minister is faced with the challenge of delivering upon the myriad Programme for Government commitments aimed at resolving the housing and homelessness crises, a task which evaded the previous government.

Darragh O’Brien TD was first elected to the Dáil in 2007 but was a victim of Fianna Fáil’s electoral collapse in 2011, when he, along with 56 party colleagues lost their seats. However, he retained his Oireachtas presence when he secured a place on the Seanad Labour panel.

As Fianna Fáil’s leader in the Seanad, O’Brien worked to enhance his local and national visibility, building a strong base in his constituency. Later, he topped the poll in Dublin Fingal with 10,826 votes in the 2016 general election and was re-elected with 10,111 first preference votes in 2020.

Prior to his entry into parliamentary politics, O’Brien worked in various roles with financial service provider Friends First. The Malahide native’s initial foray as an elected representative came in 2004 when he secured a seat on Fingal County Council to represent Portmarnock, Malahide and Kinsealy Ward.

Minister O’Brien was the main Opposition Spokesperson on Housing, Planning and Local Government in the 32nd Dáil and, following the 2020 General Election, was a member of the Fianna Fáil negotiation team in government formation talks.

‘Housing for all’

Within the ‘housing for all’ mission outlined in the Programme for Government, the new Government asserts its belief that “everybody should have access to good quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard and located close to essential services offering a high quality of life”.

A core commitment of this mission is increasing social housing stock “by more than 50,000, with an emphasis on new builds”. Speaking on Newstalk, the new Housing Minister emphasised: “It’s a minimum of 50,000 units, we are ambitious for this.”

Discussing his ambition to “ramp up the delivery at local authority level… on public land”, he added: “What I need to make sure is that the delivery of social housing isn’t impacted as badly as private housing is this year. The lockdown has affected the construction chain. There’s no question about that. It’s not only the shutdown itself but the change in work practices.

“From talking to the sector, it looks like our housing completion this year, where we were on track for 25,000 or more public and private [homes] will be less than 14,000.”

‘Affordability at the heart of housing’

On the delivery of an affordable purchase scheme, Minister O’Brien indicated that access to affordable housing and cost rentals would be priorities for this Government. Indeed, the PfG makes an explicit commitment to “put affordability at the heart of the housing system”.

Highlighting the difficult scenario facing many people “stuck in a rip-off rental trap or living with their folks into their late 20s and 30s”, O’Brien explains that the Government’s affordable housing scheme will be “on a shared equity basis where the State will take an equity in the house as well”.

“There will be a major focus on building affordable homes, firstly on state-owned land where the State will subsume the cost of that land so you would be looking at house prices in the region of €160,000, €180,000 to €230,000, €250,000 on a shared equity basis. It’s been done before, very successfully, in Ireland,” the Minister said.

“There will be a major focus on building affordable homes, firstly on state-owned land where the State will subsume the cost of that land so you would be looking at house prices in the region of €160,000, €180,000 to €230,000, €250,000 on a shared equity basis.”

When asked who would be eligible for the proposed scheme, Minister O’Brien specified: “It’s to give hope to that generation [which] feels like, ‘when am I ever going to be able to get a home?’ [They] may be above the social housing limits but not earning enough to actually get a mortgage. Coupled with that is the cost rental or affordable rental model which we need to bring in as a national scheme. There isn’t one at the moment.”

Challenge

However, the major challenge for the incumbent Minister for Housing will be tangible delivery. At the same time, the Programme for Government has attracted significant criticism for its perceived continuity with Rebuilding Ireland.

Among others, O’Brien faces the challenge of being man marked by Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin TD, his successor as chief Opposition housing spokesperson. Talking with the Housing Magazine, Ó Broin vowed that his party would be “the most effective and the most challenging opposition that any government has ever had in the history of this State”.

“We will hold [the Government] to account on every single one of the promises that [it has] put in this very verbose Programme for Government and exposing them every time they break their word or don’t deliver,” he added.