Coalition draws the curtains on Overton Window once again

The Overton Window is a widely held political theory described by Joseph P. Overton, former Vice President of the Mackinac Centre for Public Policy which holds that in any given time and for any given topic there exists a narrow window of politically acceptable policies.

It is worth noting that such policies do not become acceptable because of deeply held beliefs by the politicians themselves. Instead, those policies deemed to be acceptable are those which a politician can safely discuss in public without damaging his/her prospects of re-election. Shifting the window then to include policies outside of the window is reliant on public engagement with ideas that lie on the periphery.

After Alan Kelly’s unveiling of the government Housing Strategy, it would appear that the campaign for the next general election is in full swing and re-invigorating Labour’s fortunes is foremost in his thoughts.

While the increase in funding was largely welcomed – and rightly so – by support groups throughout Ireland, it will provide scant solace to the 50 new families presenting homeless every month or the 800 or so children currently experiencing life without that most basic of fundamentals, a home in which to grow up in.

The plan also does little to resolve the demand side of the equation. The supply side issues are well documented and the announcement made today will go some way to alleviating that end of the equation – putting aside doubts about the timescale which seems to have been penned by a political Pollyanna – and the renewed impetus on local authorities to provide social housing is long overdue.

But neglecting to deal with the spiralling private rental sector beyond acknowledging that it was an issue and determining to look at fixed term tenancies can only be viewed as a dereliction of duty. It is again, optimistic bordering on delusional to think that the 90,000 currently on the housing list will not swell proportionately with the continued increase in rental.

The refusal to countenance any talk of rental controls or the curtailing of company landlords was disappointing.

Ireland is witnessing a shift toward the rental sector but it is a necessitated shift in attitudes rather than an ideological one. To this end, the most pressing matter for the government is to ensure security of tenure and yet, the medium-term plan announced today singularly failed to deal with this issue.

We have to challenge the idea that home ownership is the de facto state of aspiration. This is an idea pushed by a government who remain wedded to the market and it’s aims above all else.

The more cynically minded reader will acknowledge that owner occupancy is also politically advantageous from a strategic point of view in that it increases compliancy by tying owners to their mortgages while gaining public support for wider property interests.

What is needed is firstly, public discussion on the merits of this position as it is only through the voicing publicly of ideas that exist outside of the Overton window that we can begin to consider policies currently lying beyond that narrow framework and secondly, the political will to shift housing provision away from the market. We must move to minimise speculation, regulating the use of all land that is not publicly owned and drastically increase public land ownership.

Unfortunately, the government appears content to watch house prices rising again to provide hope for those who voted them into office last time round and find themselves still trapped in negative equity while in the meantime, doing no harm to improve the balance sheets of our basket case banks.

The latest figures revealing prices in Dublin have risen 24% in the last year would bear this out and will do little to persuade private landlords to ease the burden on those renting either.

As a society then, we must now begin the discussion of those policies which at the moment are on the extreme. It is time to explore again the worth of a Land Value Tax (LVT). Land owners would then be incentivised the use of their land rather than simply sitting on it speculatively.

As Nelson Mandela said, ‘It always seems impossible until it is done’. The extreme positions of yesterday are the mainstream ideologies of today. Following the ‘war years’ the idea of laissez-faire economics was anathema to many in Europe until Hayek, Friedman et al formed the Mont Pélerin Society, and ensured the Libertarian outliers of the day became the normative thought leaders of tomorrow.

Yesterday’s announcement was a bold start but sadly, a missed opportunity. The measures announced will only go half way to addressing the problem. Unfortunately the government continues to look through the narrow prism of free market economics, not so much unwilling to nudge the Overton window in a direction that is more socially just, as it is rolling down the blind and shutting the curtains.

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