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Newton Emerson: Stormont needs to wake up to the north's looming housing crisis

What party anywhere could stand on a platform of bringing house prices down?

Sinn Fein’s galloping rise in the southern polls is widely understood to be about housing.

Pricing an entire generation out of home ownership lies at the root of all the political and social factors driving the electorate’s desire for change.

Labour’s shock near-success in the 2017 UK general election was likewise all about housing, certainly in the south of England. Leader Jeremy Corbyn had been seen as appealing to a radical youth vote but it was middle-earners aged 25 to 44 who turned out for him at the polls. Far from wanting radicalism, they were frustrated at being denied bourgeois adult lives, by being unable to take the conventional first step of buying a decent home.

Political establishments have no excuse for not anticipating this. In the UK, in recent memory, we have the example of Margaret Thatcher’s genius in selling council houses combined with the idiocy of not building any more. How anyone in Ireland could miss history’s comparable lessons on land ownership is a mystery. However, the initial popularity of property booms and the incredible unpopularity of tackling their negative effects does lead to understandable political denial.

What party anywhere could stand on a platform of bringing house prices down? The most they dare discuss is “affordable housing”, as if that could be delivered on any meaningful scale without slashing market prices - and rents.

We have a special take on housing in this part of the world, of course. At a stretch, you could postulate a whole history of Northern Ireland as requiring a splurge of house-building every 30 years or so to stabilise politics and society. Everyone knows about the creation of the Housing Executive in 1971, founded to address shortages and discrimination. Few are aware it replaced the not dissimilar Northern Ireland Housing Trust, founded in 1945 for identical reasons and for many years considered a similar success. But no amount of public housing ever fully matches demand and in a divided society, any shortage of housing is toxic.

The histories of the Trust and the Executive were about ramping up public investment and reforming allocation systems - the Trust’s system was as good as the Executive’s on paper, but councils learned to stymie it using planning powers. In the end, those powers had to be taken away.

Our last house-building splurge had a completely different character, depending almost entirely on a private sector boom that took off in the late 1990s. Although this is rarely compared to the work of the Trust and the Executive it had important parallels. Until the final two years of the boom, from around 2005, new houses were genuinely affordable on a typical income. New developments promised mixed suburban communities, just like the Executive and Trust estates of 30 and 60 years before. Mixing was informal and often more a perception than a fact but that has seemed to work better than the previous approach. In most of these areas, it would be inconceivable for the minority to be driven out. Instead, we have accepted the young being priced out.

There is no reason to believe Northern Ireland will escape the consequences of a problem radicalising electorates elsewhere. We only appear to have done so because our populist parties are the establishment already.

An intriguing question is whether this is driving the growth of Alliance.

The Alliance surge has been strongly associated with Stormont’s recent hiatus but that is hardly incompatible with a rejection of politics as usual. It is striking that the party’s new voters have shifted its centre of gravity towards the same demographic that backed Corbyn. The archetypal Alliance supporter now looks a lot more like a south Belfast renter than a north Down homeowner.

One thing that can be said for certain is that Northern Ireland is approaching the end of another 30-year cycle. There are 26,000 people in urgent housing stress, up more than a third in a decade. The average house price is nine times the minimum wage. No new housing, public or private, can be built without investing £2.5 billion in the sewage network. The planning system is once again a mess, prone to council meddling. Housing benefit is being patched up at Stormont’s expense - extending bedroom tax mitigation will cost £23 million this year. Buy-to-let landlords and Airbnb rentals have introduced profound new challenges.

If these problems are not addressed, we are courting a political shock of our own.

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