With ineffective Government action on housing, there are desperate people who might welcome the help of a multinational corporation. But Elaine Burke asks what that will mean for Ireland’s relationship with Big Tech.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai was in Dublin last week. His primary media announcement from the visit was a €1m grant from Google to Barnardos for a kids’ online safety initiative. But it was an exclusive interview with the Irish Independent’s Adrian Weckler that prompted the headlines.
In it, Pichai expressed Google’s interest in ensuring its development in Dublin is done “right in a way that works for the community”. Aware of the housing crisis and the unaffordability of housing in the city that’s home to its EU headquarters, Pichai said that subsidising general housing is something the company would consider. “It makes sense for us as a company to do it and it’s also the right thing to do.”
Google is neither a virtuous philanthropic organisation nor a Government body – it’s a business. Therefore, its decisions are driven by business strategy. Just as it’s good marketing for a brand under fire for protecting children’s privacy to donate a small sum (in terms of its revenues) to an online safety initiative, it’s good for it to reposition itself away from the targeted ire of citizens as a cause of housing problems to, instead, a willing solution provider.
In the end, housing is still the Government’s problem and it’s an issue affecting the entire country, not just Dublin. As far as solutions go, Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, TD, struggles to think in terms of the people he is providing for. His idea of ‘affordable’ housing is so out of touch it requires quotation marks. His preoccupation with high-priced student accommodation and co-living spaces that are impractical for many seeking a place to live have invited much criticism. And now the beleaguered minister is being offered a bail-out from a tech giant. It looks good for Google, and mortifying for Murphy and this Government.
‘These are certainly desperate times that may well prompt some desperate measures, such as taking handouts instead of taxes from tech multinationals’
That’s not to say Google’s proposal is novel or unprecedented. It has already made a $1bn commitment to San Francisco, the city that borders its HQ hometown of Mountain View, to ease its own housing woes. Again, this looks great in a headline for Google doing good, but three-quarters of that investment is represented by land already owned by Google, which it’s willing to open up for housing development in a commitment spread over the course of a decade. This is a drop in the ocean for Google, whose parent company Alphabet started 2019 with revenues up 22pc to $39.2bn.
Whatever Google’s investment in Dublin housing, should it ever come to bear, it would certainly be cheaper than a tax bill at the rate some citizens would like to see from these multinational tech corporations. If Google gets to be seen a housing hero with a philanthropic gesture such as this, maybe others such as Apple would follow suit. It sure would be cheaper than €14.3bn.
And what would be the result? A community more gracious to the tech development in its area, perhaps, and a Government beholden to the behemoths that bailed them out. What impact would that have on the already contentious politics of tech development in Ireland?
In his follow-up to the Pichai interview, Weckler recalled how Guinness, through the Iveagh Trust, provided housing and other developments for workers in Dublin when the Government could not. More than 100 years later, this city, while economically prosperous, has still not solved its housing problems. (And if you want a brief history of those failures, I highly recommend a visit to 14 Henrietta Street.)
There are no rapid remedies. Even if an investment from Google was to transpire, the Department of Housing rightly pointed out that without land and planning permission it would be another two years before any new developments would be liveable. It’s also worth mentioning that this same department is about miss its targets for building new houses for the third year running.
In its response to Pichai’s proposal, the Department of Housing said that it would be “willing to work with any third party to provide homes”, which has a certain air of desperation about it. But these are certainly desperate times that may well prompt some desperate measures, such as taking handouts instead of taxes from tech multinationals.
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