By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he has not “thrown in the towel” on the housing crisis or home ownership.
The Fine Gael leader was responding to Holly Cairns, who became leader of the Social Democrats on Wednesday and raised housing during her first round of Leaders’ Questions.
She said young people were under stress due to the uncertainty caused by a lack of housing options available to them, which was impacting on how they planned their lives.
“I’m a member of the first ever generation who will be worse off than our parents,” Ms Cairns told the Taoiseach.
“This didn’t happen by accident. Political choices made by successive governments have resulted in the aspirations and dreams of an entire generation being either diminished or destroyed.
“Nowhere is the political betrayal of young people more evident than in the housing disaster.
“Skyrocketing rents and exorbitant house prices have resulted in the collapse of home ownership rates. We are now at the bottom third of EU countries when it comes to home ownership,” she said, saying this had happened while Fine Gael were in government.
“Your party first promised to address what was a housing crisis in 2014. Nine years later, it’s an unprecedented housing disaster.”
Mr Varadkar responded to say that his government continued to tackle the housing crisis.
“I heard you say that you believe that you will be the first generation of young people in a long time that are worse off than their parents. But I haven’t thrown in the towel on that,” he said.
“That will only be the case if we don’t turn the tide on the housing crisis and on home ownership and I believe we will,” he added.
He said that Ireland was “doing much better” in relation to employment, pay and educational opportunities for young people.
“But the area where we are letting young people down is on housing. And I do acknowledge that and that’s why we’re doing so much work to turn it around.”
Ms Cairns responded to say that the benefits of education and employment were hampered without somewhere to live.
“The most important statistics to people out there are that rents have never been higher, house prices have never been higher, and homelessness has never been higher,” she said.
Ms Cairns added that the Social Democrats had called for a punitive 10% tax on vacant and derelict homes.
“Inexplicably, the Government has waited until this year to introduce a tax on vacant homes and then it set it at a derisory 0.3% of the value of a home,” she said.
Mr Varadkar said there was a levy on derelict sites, imposed through local authorities, but admitted that “councils are a bit slow at putting properties on it”.
“We are bringing in a vacant property tax as well, initially at that rate, but I have an open mind on whether we increase that rate into the future as well,” he said.
At the beginning of the debate, Mr Varadkar congratulated Ms Cairns on becoming leader of the Social Democrats and wished her “fair winds” in the time ahead.
🚨 NEW LEADER ALERT 🚨@HollyCairnsTD is officially the Leader of the Social Democrats as nominations come to a close
Huge congratulations to Holly who will set out her vision for the Party in her first speech as Leader at 3pm
You can watch it LIVE over on our Instagram 📺 pic.twitter.com/qlJ5zIcU9g
— Social Democrats (@SocDems) March 1, 2023
“As one leader to another, it is an enormous honour to be chosen by your party to lead them,” he said.
“It is a tough job and much of the work goes unrecognised, whether it’s fundraising, dealing with party accounts, disputes between public reps, internal rows, staff matters. It is all before you.
“It is a very tough job and a very big job and I honestly, honestly do wish you fair winds in that regard.
“I also want to take the opportunity to recognise the former leaders, Deputy Shortall and Deputy Murphy. We haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I have seen many attempts to establish new parties in my time in politics and very few survive eight years, and very few have six TDs after eight years.
“It is a success that you’ve brought the party to this point.”
He added: “I don’t think any party since the (Progressive Democrats) PDs has managed to reach that level of success. Of course most new parties don’t survive their second leader, but hopefully that won’t be the case in the case of the Social Democrats.”