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No more broken pencils

Time for Coveney to assert himself with some public-interest policies

Simon Coveney was born in Minane Bridge, Cork in 1972. Scion of a family of Cork’s rarefied merchant bourgeoisie, Simon was one of six children of Pauline and Hugh Coveney. Both his parents were Mayors of Cork and his father, Hugh, Minister for Defence in 1994 before resigning the following year after he leaked details of a Budget to the Evening Herald, a class of sin which over subsequent years has been deemed less and less venal. Hugh was subsequently appointed a junior minister in the Department of Finance with responsibility for public expenditure.

Young Simon was educated locally in Cork before later attending posh fee-paying Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare, an Irish Eton for the agricultural classicist. These formative years were not easy for Coveney as he had a “significant speech impediment” – a princely stutter. In 2010 he told a cloying Miriam O’Callaghan: “Literally until I was 15 or 16 year of age, I could not string two or three sentences together. I remember breaking pencils under the desk in frustration when trying to read as Gaeilge in Irish class”.


He was expelled from the college in Transition Year. He has told how, after already having received a warning for drinking, he and some friends absconded from school to attend a party – it seems to have been the last straw for the killjoy school. He completed his secondary school education in Presentation Brothers College, in Mardyke Cork, purdah for a dauphin. Coveney subsequently studied Economics and History in University College Cork but left after a year for Gurteen Agricultural College, Tipperary, before completing a BSc in Agriculture and Land Management from the Royal Agricultural College, Gloucestershire. “The college does have an upper class image – the Queen is its patron – but I didn’t find it exclusive. Many of the students are from regular farming backgrounds and quite a number of Irish people go there”. For his six months’ work placement he was attached to the Scottish Agricultural College, near Edinburgh, which is the equivalent of Teagasc. He also worked on the family farm in Mallow.

He later told the Irish Times, “My background – going into agriculture from an essentially urban base, a rural-urban mix – is unusual and will be an advantage”.

In 1997/8 he led the “Sail Chernobyl Project” which involved sailing his late father’s boat Golden Apple 30,000 miles around the world and raising €650,000 for charity, without ever getting his feet dirty. Charity was shaping up to be Coveney’s thing, unless the family political calling beckoned.

He married his long-time girlfriend Ruth Furney, an IDA Ireland employee, in July 2008. They have three daughters Jessica (6), Beth (5) and Annalise (3). In 2014 he admitted that politicians’ “obsession with votes” puts them at risk of neglecting their own families.

An urbane and good-looking fellow, particularly before his hair thinned, he is approachable, good-natured and gregarious. A keen fan of all competitive sport, he played rugby for Garryowen, Cork Constitution and Crosshaven Rugby Club. He is a fully-qualified Sailing Instructor and Life Guard. Coveney lives in Carragaline and continues to be involved in the running of the family farm. Simon’s even more orthodox brother Patrick Coveney (45), the chief executive of sandwich firm Greencore since 2008, earned pre-tax income in 2014 of around €6.3m – 40 times more than his brother’s. Another brother, Rory, currently serves as Strategic Advisor to the Director General of RTÉ, Dee Forbes.

Coveney has served as Fine Gael (FG) TD for Cork South-Central since 1998 as one of FG’s youngest TDs when he won a bye-election following the death in unexplained circumstances of his father, an Ansbacher Account holder, who died after plunging from a cliff in Robert’s Cove, Co Cork. In March 1998 it became publicly known that the Moriarty Tribunal had questioned Coveney about whether he had a secret offshore account. Ten days later, on 13 March 1998, Coveney visited his solicitor to change his will. The next day, 14 March 1998, Coveney died in a fall from a seaside cliff while out walking alone. Simon insisted that his father had never held an Ansbacher account. Though this was inaccurate it is only fair to note that no impropriety was ever proved against Hugh Coveney. It later emerged that Hugh Coveney had held $175,000 on deposit in the secret Cayman Island-based bank.

Coveney commented on his election win: “I probably got elected on the back of a sympathy vote if I’m honest”.

Coveney was elected to the European Parliament for the South constituency in the 2004 European Parliament election and held Shadow Ministries in the areas of Drugs and Youth Affairs, Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, and Transport. He chaired the FG Policy Development Committee before the 2011 General Election and is seen to be a policy polyglot, though no innovator.

During his forgettable three years as an MEP, Coveney was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and in June 2005 became the coordinator for Human Rights, for the largest political group in the European Parliament, the EPP-ED. He was also author of the European Parliament’s Annual Report on Human Rights in the World 2004. He returned to national politics in 2007.

In June 2010, Coveney and a number of other front-bench glitterati stated that they had no confidence in their underpowered party leader, Enda Kenny. Fellow Cork TD Jim O’Keeffe suggested Coveney could be a compromise successor. Following a blistering takeout driven by Big Phil Hogan, a confidence motion in the leader was won. Coveney made a confusing call for party unity and was re-appointed to the front bench as spokesperson on Transport.

In March 2011 he became Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in Enda Kenny’s coalition government dealing solidly enough with debacles such as the horse-meat scandal in 2013. Though apparently a passionate believer in the need to address the reality of climate change – the Jesuits don’t do climate deniers, Coveney was a patsy for the IFA’s successful campaign to expand the Irish dairy herd by over 300,000 cows over five years, “while maintaining the existing carbon footprint of the agriculture sector” – a nonsense, he must have well known. To defend the environmental sellout Coveney claimed that higher yields per animal would somehow magically offset the massive increase in our national herd.

This definitively suggests that Coveney will pander to important vested interests despite the ethical pull of noblesse oblige, if it is expedient – and he can get away with it politically: no idealist this suave dynast.

Just as bad, Coveney was accused of supporting big earners under the Single Farm Payment at the expense of smaller farmers with low Single Farm Payments (SFP) farmers with low payments sacrificing themselves to support farmers in the east of the country with big payments. Coveney was also appointed as Minister for Defence as part of a cabinet reshuffle in 2014. He published a bullish White Paper which proposed “developing relationships” with the foreign and security aims of “the EU, OSCE and NATO Partnerships for Peace”.

Coveney attended a meeting of the Bilderberg Group in Copenhagen in 2014. An internet video shows him being shown around by an avuncular if harassed Peter Sutherland to whom he is duly deferential. He was appointed Campaign Director for the referendums on EU Stability and Marraige Equality.

Delegated by Kenny as one of three negotiators with Independents following 2016’s uncertain election result Coveney countered Leo Varadkar’s impolitic denial of the feasibility of a Fianna Fáil minority administration. He became the new Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government in May 2016.

Early in his tenure in the new job he put through legislation to suspend inflammatory water charges for nine months, though his choice of the superannuated if allegedly safe Joe O’Toole to chair a committee looking at alternatives backfired when the former Labour Senator attacked the regressive approach of the left to the charges, and had to be carted off the field. He also had to sort out the mess over changes to domestic waste charges, managing to put it all off for a year, almost as if he didn’t care about the principle here either.

Writing in the Irish Independent he has said his priorities include to:

• Comprehensively address the homelessness issue;

• arrest the growing affordability gap for many households looking for housing;

• drive the rental sector towards providing a range of quality accommodation;

• deliver housing in a way that supports, and does not direct, economic growth; and

• achieve wider objectives, such as the need to support proper planning and the creation of sustainable communities across the entire country that people want to live and work in.

Inheriting the Housing Department from maverick Alan Kelly, Simon Coveney is faced with the biggest challenges facing the government today – of a housing shortage and homelessness. Now the almost biblical 100 days’ set for what everyone in FG said would be publication of the most ambitious action plan for housing in the history of the state has passed and a report that the media deemed exciting – belatedly – published, it’s appropriate to look at what he’s actually planning to do.

Priorities include to comprehensively address the homelessness issue
Priorities include to comprehensively address the homelessness issue

After he pointedly recognised that there was a housing emergency Coveney undertook to produce a housing plan within 100 days of taking office. Though he missed his own deadline, his €5bn Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness was, he claimed, a “really ambitious and far-reaching initiative by Government to provide homes for people” over the next five years or so. The “multi-stranded, action-oriented approach” includes several new initiatives to tackle the twin problems of homelessness and lack of affordability by prioritising social housing, making it more attractive to rent (rather than buy) housing and identifying sites in State ownership where mixed-tenure housing estates could be built in the short to medium term. There is nothing in the plan that seems to reflect any special insight from Coveney himself and he seems to be mouthing the views of his senior civil servants whose imagination for good planning has always been circumscribed by an incapacity to value quality rather than quantity, to favour the public over the vested private interest. There is no sign he intends to reverse Alan Kelly’s plan to reduce the minimum size for apartments, a measure which serves primarily developers and fails to recognise the obvious overhang of apartments of a quality much worse than that in most Western European capitals.

The Departmental plan aims to increase construction to at least 25,000 new homes a year by 2020. In 1997 housing output was 90,000 units so in itself that may not secure Coveney’s legacy. Indeed IBEC which seems superglued to the Departmental ear prognosticates a population explosion – and why wouldn’t it? In its part-Maxol-sponsored report, ‘Connected: A Prosperous Island of 10 million people’ (July 2016) it predicted a 100% increase in the country’s population by 2050.

Gavin Daly, a Luxembourg-based planning researcher, comments: “if the history of strategies in Ireland is any yardstick, we should not get too carried away about Rebuilding Ireland actually ever being implemented and it will most likely remain just a paper strategy. All of the targets in it seem hopelessly optimistic and the funding proposals tenuous. It is interesting, however, that its publication was uncritically welcomed by pretty much everyone from the Construction Industry Federation to the Peter McVerry Trust – for in the teeth of a ‘crisis’ who could be against a housing strategy?”. Daly considers the anti-negativity mantra is to be the trump card of lobby groups such as the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) – “to position their vested interests as an illusory societal interest. The Irish Planning Institute, not an organisation given to mounting robust defences against planning scapegoating, were among the few to release an insipid statement expressing ‘concern’. However, there are very good reasons to be vigilant about the prevailing anti-planning rhetoric and the ‘root and branch’ review of planning proposed by Coveney”.

Reflecting his Cork bias, Coveney has encouragingly volunteered that cities outside Dublin should “double” to counterbalance Dublin though there is no strategy to address this or any indication that the Minister is equipped to outmanoeuvre his Greater Dublin-focussed advisors. Coveney has never offered an opinion on the one-off-housing epidemic.

Cork: no Ministerial growth strategy
Cork: no Ministerial growth strategy

Simon Coveney has said taller apartment blocks need to be built in Dublin city centre to address housing shortages and prevent suburban sprawl. Coveney has told Dublin City Council to revert to Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan’s proposed heights.

Keegan wanted to set 28m as the maximum height for low-rise apartments in the city centre – the same as for office blocks – and 16m for suburban apartments.

Coveney said he and his department were “uncomfortable” with the “restrictions” some councillors were advocating.

IBEC has ventilated about this and its chief executive, who does not labour under the burden of any planning qualifications, asserts: “At a time of acute housing and commercial space shortages, it is crazy that tougher and unreasonable height restrictions are being proposed in the current draft plan”. But the plan is already loosening not toughening standards so the premise which grounds all the noise from IBEC is untruthful.

The problem is that Dublin doesn’t need to sacrifice its unique aesthetic selling point, a marvellous human scale, to pack in more houses, in the interests of good planning.

Coveney's high-rise diktat may encourage developments like this old proposal for Dublin's O'Connell St
Coveney’s high-rise diktat may encourage developments like this old proposal for Dublin’s O’Connell St

An audit carried out by the Department of the Environment 2010 found 3,302 hectares of undeveloped residential zoned land existed within the four Dublin local authorities. Gavin Daly notes that even with conservative residential densities of 35 units per hectare, this was sufficient for at least 115,000 new homes. Within the adjoining Greater Dublin Area (GDA) counties of Kildare, Meath and Wicklow there was a further 4,120 hectares. Most, if not all, of this land was initially zoned in the late 1990s and early 2000s and remained undeveloped throughout the Celtic Tiger period. For example, Daly notes, the 220-hectare Adamstown site in South Dublin was originally zoned in 2001 and was intended to provide 9,950 homes via a ‘fast-track’ planning scheme approved in 2003.

Similarly, large greenfield tracts of land at Carrickmines, Clongriffin, Pelletstown, Phoenix Park Racecourse and Hansfield were all zoned well over a decade ago and remain undeveloped or only partially complete. The figures above are exclusive of the abundant supply of brownfield development land, infill sites and mixed-use zonings readily available throughout Dublin and which could potentially have provided for tens of thousands of additional new homes.They also omit the potential of the extended Dublin Docklands.

Moreover the Minister, who should know better from a cursory glance at the professional comment, carries on as though there were no distinction between high density (usually a planning good – because more easily served by public infrastructure) and high-rise (more controversial in planning terms, at least in a fragile historic city centre).

According to Gavin Daly who writes more incisively about Irish planning than any other commentator: “Rule 1 of the neoliberal playbook – when faced with a construction crisis, is to attack the planning system! It has been ever so since Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s environment secretary in the 1980s, launched his broadside against the “jobs locked up in the dusty filing cabinets of planning departments”. Of course, it matters little whether there is any evidence that the planning system is indeed stifling construction – the ideology demands that planning regulation remains firmly in the crosshairs. As Michael Gunder puts it – planning is “the chief remaining scapegoat of neoliberal governance”, a convenient patsy for contemporary policy failures.

Simon Coveney has bought unquestioningly into the schlock. His policy promises a ‘root and branch’ review of the planning system. A headline element of the strategy is to speed-up the planning process by allowing large housing applications of a hundred units or more to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. This is proposed as a temporary measure for four years since: “with almost all planning approvals of larger housing developments for 100 new homes or more being appealed to An Bord Pleanála, this has meant that there is in effect a two-stage planning application process which can take 18 to 24 months to secure ultimate approval to go on site and start to build”. (p 62).

Daly notes: “Of course, no evidence is presented to support this assertion. Indeed, An Bord Pleanála’s own annual report, published states that: “The number of appeal cases for housing developments received over the past two years has remained low, 35 cases of 30+ units in 2014 versus the peak of 568 in 2007. While the number of 30+ housing appeals received has increased slightly (60 to the end of 2015), the number of such cases remains low.” (p 35). All of these appeals, according to An Bord Pleanála, have been disposed of within the statutory compliance time of eighteen weeks.

Daly goes on: “The reality is that permission is currently in place for 27,000 shovel-ready homes in Dublin alone. According to the strategy, just 4,809 or 18% of these potential units are currently under active construction i.e. 82% of potential homes with planning permission are not commenced at all. The planning system is clearly not the impediment here. The strategy even includes a proposal that the lifetime of these extant planning permissions be extended further. Daly notes that this would mean that often poor quality and poorly located Celtic Tiger era housing could still be constructed up to 2021. Furthermore, according to the Residential Land Availability Survey, there is enough zoned land to provide for 16 years of new housing supply based on an annual projected requirement of 25,000 units”.

In order to maximise the efficiency of the process under the new system, the strategy proposes that An Bord Pleanála will be required to make a decision within eighteen weeks and will only be able to seek requests for further information or to hold oral hearings in “exceptional circumstances”. For local authorities’ own development under Part VIII (social housing, roads, community facilities etc), the whole process is to be streamlined to a maximum of twenty weeks. Daly emphasises that proposals for major housing developments and other infrastructure are complex undertakings which are irreversible and shape places and communities for generations. Daly says that “the idea that adequate consideration could be given to such proposals, while fulfilling all requirements pursuant to EU and national law, within these compressed timeframes and without recourse to seeking further environmental or technical information or giving adequate consideration to local concerns or right of appeal, is a recipe for yet another great planning disaster”. While the need to intensify use of vacant space in town centres is paramount, “the proposal in the strategy to exempt from planning permission residential development over shops and commercial units also seems neither sensible nor workable”.

Over the past five years, the government has shown scant interest in implementing the crucial regulatory reforms recommended by the Mahon Tribunal and has consistently shown de-regulatory tendencies.

Recommendations largely ignored
Recommendations largely ignored

There is no indication that Coveney is considering appointing the independent planning regulator the Tribunal called for. Completely absent from his strategy are any measures to provide a pro-active role for planning in delivering housing and other infrastructure – like ensuring local authorities are staffed with the requisite range of planners and other expertise. It is perhaps the greatest indictment of the impotence of the state that, in a Circular Letter issued by Coveney after publication of the strategy, the so called ‘active land management’ measures involve politely asking developers to sell their lands to housing providers and, if not, local authorities should identify alternative lands elsewhere. Absent, according to Daly, is the one measure, favoured by most commentators that could actually release hoarded zoned and serviced land into productive use, re-invigorate under-utilised town centre properties and simultaneously contribute to the finances of broke local authorities – a site-value tax. Instead, the state has once again capitulated to the development lobby and opted to subsidise developers through a new infrastructure fund, abolition of windfall taxes on sale of zoned lands, reduced development contribution levies, much weakened Part V social housing requirements and lowered apartment standards. Daly might have added that the 1974 Kenny Report’s recommendation that local authorities buy building land at current use values (plus 20%) is nowhere on the agenda for this unradical government.

In 2010 Miriam O’Callaghan asked Simon if he would like to be leader of Fine Gael: “I am very ambitious so the straight answer is yes, someday. But I am personally very loyal to Enda and he knows that. I think he will be the next Taoiseach and I want to try to help him in any way I can to get there”. Two years later he and another Clongowes boy, Richard Bruton, attempted to shaft the leader. It has been a slow journey back but in Fine Gael he is viewed as the safest pair of hands of them all, and – to his advantage – a blue blood. However, like his perceived rival (in fact Frances Fitzgerald is the likely winner of any contest), Leo Varadkar, another good public performer, he has achieved nothing that any non-partisan would remember in his time in politics, so far. Coveney’s contribution to FG is more rural, (even) more royal, and less youthful than that of Varadkar, who is seven years his junior. It is unclear if Coveney has the imagination or the mettle to deliver real change, real quality of life. He has certainly been given a brief that allows it and provides ample opportunity to shine short-term too.

The Irish Times can’t get enough of Coveney for some reason. A 2016 election profile claimed: “Serious, hardworking and ambitious, he is not a populist politician”. In August Harry Magee apparently arbitrarily adjudicated him highest among ministers for their post-election performance. Noting his rivalry with Leo Varadkar for the Fine Gael leadership when Enda Kenny retires, he noted that “Coveney has been by far the busiest Minister since taking on Housing and Local Government”. But being busy won’t be enough.

Coveney has left little legacy and in his heart knows that there is no point in being a Brahmin if you pander to time-serving mediocrities like his civil servants and grubby gombeens like the Irish Farmers Association, the Construction Industry Federation and IBEC. In opposition and as an MEP Coveney made few waves. In Agriculture he will be remembered as the man who exempted Irish Agriculture from international climate standards.

After all this country has been through over the last generation in terms of poor and badlysited construction, will he be remembered as the under-inquisitive Minister who consigned postcollapse Irish planning to the developers?

Gavin Daly’s article ‘Rebuilding Ireland – Implications for planning’ which grounded part of this article appears in

by Michael Smith