Doing the right thing

Sundar Pichai, Google
Sundar Pichai, Google

Google wants to do its bit to address Dublin's housing problem

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Billy

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20 September 2019 | 0

It’s hard to believe now but Ireland was once a land without chocolate. In fact, the first solid chocolate bar in Europe was produced in 1847 by Fry’s of Bristol. Before then, people usually just drank it.

One of the earliest chocolate companies was Cadbury, established in 1824 by John Cadbury. In 1878, his sons Richard and George, who were Quakers like their father, built new premises and a factory for the company in the Bournbrook estate, four miles from Birmingham and renamed it Bournville.

In 1893, in line with his Quaker beliefs, George bought 120 acres of land close to the estate at his own expense and set about building a model village for employees that would “alleviate the evils of modern more cramped living conditions”. Seven years later, when the Bournville Trust was formed to administer the village and its surroundings, the estate included over 300 cottages and houses set on 330 acres. Today, the estate covers 1,000 acres and is home to more than 20,000 people, with a wide range of housing provision.

This very brief history of chocolate (apologies to any of you busy fighting off chocolate pangs as a result) was sparked by an exclusive story in The Independent reporting that Google was “willing to subsidise general housing in Dublin to ease the accommodation crisis”.

The paper quoted Google CEO Sundar Pichai (pictured) stating “it’s something we would think about doing over time. It makes sense for us as a company to do it and it’s also the right thing to do.”

As a company that employs 8,000 people in Dublin (or which around 3,400 were direct employees), you can appreciate Google’s concern about housing, especially the distortionary effect that high salaries, such as those enjoyed by many of its employees, can have on rental costs.

“Things like housing are issues we care about,” Pichai told The Independent. “I think we are in the early stages here. I think being part of Dublin, for us, means it’s important that we get our development right in a way that works for the community.”

Which is great because it’s always good to hear the boss of a large multinational acknowledging that housing is an important issue. We all care about housing – or rather the lack of it – and the high cost of rents in the capital.

But Pichai was also keen to stress it wasn’t something Google could do on its own. “There’s got to be support from the Government too, in terms of development and planning matters,” he said. “I think it will be a process of engagement rather than us just deciding what to do.”

Permission v forgiveness

That seems fair enough although, it is probably worth noting, George Cadbury didn’t have any qualms about undertaking his own project without waiting for government approval. Obviously, those were different times.

However, if housing is a government priority, one means of enabling the building of more houses for rent or ownership is probably to increase the revenues available. It is axiomatic that the majority of those revenues come from taxation.

Last year, Google Ireland contributed a not unimpressive €171 million in taxes on profits of €1.16 billion. It should be noted, however, those profits were on sales of €32.2 billion, so the level of profitability was a pretty meagre 3.6%.

As Adrian Weckler explained in The Independent last November : “The slim profit is a result of Google ascribing €21.9 billion to ‘administrative expenses’, including ordinary business costs and money paid to related companies offshore”. Those administrative expenses represent 68% of turnover.

Anyway, whatever the arguments about Google’s (and Ireland’s) tax affairs, it’s definitely a positive thing that companies like Google are acknowledging they have a social responsibility to their workers and the wider community. Let’s hope they – and the government – can ‘do the right thing’.

To return to the subject of chocolate, it’s not all sweetness and light. For all his good intentions and focus on the outdoor life, well-being and fitness of his workers, George Cadbury was still manufacturing and selling a product that has turned out to be a significant contributor to obesity in the Western world and Ireland. Maybe, we just have to accept that heroes are in short supply. Except at Christmas.

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