Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 31 May 2016
Committee on Housing and Homelessness
Association of Irish Local Government
Before we commence and go through the formalities, the first item concerns mobile telephones, which must be put in flight mode or switched off completely because, apart from interfering with the meeting, they affect the broadcasts and recordings. I again ask those with mobile telephones to please turn them off. I draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement the witnesses have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I welcome the Association of Irish Local Government, represented today by Councillors John Crowe, Pat Daly, Padraig McNally, Michael Hourigan, Pat Fitzpatrick and Dermot Lacey. The witnesses are all very welcome. At the outset, I indicated their submission has been received and has been circulated among members. I propose the association makes an opening statement based on that submission, after which there will be questions from the members of the committee.
Mr. John Crowe:
I thank the Chairman. Before I begin, we thank Deputy Brendan Ryan for arranging this appearance before the committee.
The Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, is the statutory representative body representing the democratically elected members of Irish local government and the members' authority. The association supports the elected members in their role as board members of the local government units in the State. The AILG supports the establishment of the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness, as its members believe the country is facing one of the biggest housing and homelessness crisis in its history. The work of this committee is an important step in resolving the challenges facing those affected by this crisis. We note the Minister has consulted the chief executives of local authorities and not the elected members on this issue. In some ways, that sums up the cause of the problem to date.
The Department officials are not dealing with the people, namely, the elected members, who are dealing on a daily basis with those in housing distress.
The association thanks the Chairman and other members for inviting us to make our presentation and to brief the committee on the views of our local public representatives. Today, we will set out what local representatives believe must be done in order to provide access to appropriate social and affordable housing. We bring to the table the experience of elected members for whom housing related issues are a central concern in their work as public representatives. We can safely state that, currently, no other local government issue generates as much of a councillor’s workload as housing.
While this submission does not represent the full extent of our association’s housing policy, it does outline the key priorities which we believe should be included in the report of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness that will be presented to the Dáil over the coming weeks. Our submission contains recommendations that we believe need to be implemented in both the immediate and longer term in order to address the housing and homelessness crisis currently facing our country. Our key point, which we will be making throughout our submission, is that the role of local authorities, as the housing authority in each city and county and as lead providers of social housing throughout Ireland, needs to be reinforced in order to fully address the current crisis.
We do not disregard the role and contribution of other social and affordable housing providers. For more than a century, local authorities have successfully been providers of social housing for the population. Our local authorities have a strong record of achievement in the housing area. Many independent commentators, including many contributors to this committee over the past number of weeks, have reiterated that local authorities should be the primary provider of social housing in the country. In the context of any housing policy, the experience and capacity of a local authority as the housing authority needs to be underpinned and emphasised.
We note that some commentators are calling for the right to a home to be enshrined in our Constitution by way of a referendum. We would like to point out that local authority housing is the only current form of social housing that offers tenants the opportunity to buy out their houses and become home owners. Home ownership is, we believe, an aspiration that should be afforded to all social housing tenants. To this end, we welcome the new tenant purchase scheme introduced earlier this year, which will provide opportunities for tenants to become home owners.
We would like to make some specific points regarding individual measures and recommendations that we would like the committee to consider and include in its final report to the Minister and the Oireachtas. I will call on Councillor Padraig McNally to comment on the commencement of a national local authority house-building programme.
Mr. Padraig McNally:
I thank the Chairman and other committee members for inviting us here today.
The AILG, believes the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness should propose that local authorities embark on a more ambitious, nationwide local authority house-building programme to include acquisitions and a new-build element. With approximately 139,359 people on local authority waiting lists as of February last, there must be a significant increase in capital funding for local authorities to deliver an acquisition and new-build programme in the next five years to meet this ever-increasing demand as our population grows. We are already a year into the social housing strategy announced in 2015 but little has been achieved. In some ways, this is due to the fact not enough projects have been shovel ready to commence.
During the course of the past decade and under various Governments, national policy has been over-reliant on the private housing market to deliver social housing units. We believe now is the time for this trend to be reversed. The number of local authority social housing units either newly built or acquired fell from 31,527 units delivered in the six-year period from 2004 to 2009 to 5,702 units delivered in the following six-year period from 2010 to 2015. This significant drop in local authority new build and acquisition units was partially compensated through the delivery of 32,011 privately provided housing units during the same six-year period to 2015. These units were delivered through several other social housing supports in the private housing sector including the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, the housing assistance payment, HAP, and the social housing current expenditure programme, SHCEP, previously known as long-term leasing.
Such figures demonstrate considerable over-reliance on the private housing market to deliver social housing units. However, with population growth figures set to continue to rise and a high demand for housing, this will inevitably lead to both social housing and private housing clients competing for the same limited supply of units in the absence of a significant increase in the building of social housing units. While we believe local authorities, in their role as housing authorities, have an important function in facilitating housing provision and development in conjunction with the private sector and the approved housing bodies, it is imperative that local government be allowed the freedom to substantially enhance its own capacity to directly deliver housing units.
Under the current Social Housing Strategy 2020, it is proposed 110,000 social housing units will be delivered between 2015 and 2020. Of these, however, only 35,000 are to be delivered through new builds and acquisitions, with the remaining 75,000 to be delivered through the existing RAS and HAP schemes via the private housing market. We feel the HAP scheme has reached saturation point because the housing units are simply not there. The association sees this as a continuation of the existing over-reliance on the private housing market. Accordingly, in the absence of a significant investment in new unit development by the local authorities, we envisage continued inability to meet housing demand throughout the State. We, therefore, call for the figures, as set out in the social housing strategy, to be revised to a more even 50-50 split for the delivery of these units between new builds, acquisitions and units delivered under the RAS and HAP schemes.
Local authorities have a strong record of achievement in the area of housing and are always conscious of the need to create sustainable, integrated communities with access to schools, community facilities, shopping centres and employment. A national local authority house-building programme will ensure that these sustainable communities will continue into the future. In that regard, we caution against following simplistic calls for NAMA housing to be handed over in bulk to local authorities. We have a responsibility towards sustaining communities. Simply accepting units offered through NAMA, without due regard for the need for community sustainability, could conceivably end up creating even more legacy challenges for the relevant housing authorities.
In conclusion, given that our research is in some ways limited, we believe there is a very small number of NAMA units available in many parts of rural Ireland, many of which, thankfully, from an Exchequer perspective, have already been sold off. I will ask Mr. Dermot Lacey to continue.
Mr. Dermot Lacey:
My name is Dermot Lacey and I am from Dublin City Council. In deference to the Chairman's statement that the report is being circulated, I will not go through the entire submission but comment briefly. The bottom line is that we need to build houses. One can have all the policies and strategies but there is simply a lack of homes and they need to be provided. In order to deliver on some of the ambitious targets, a huge amount of funding is required. It is estimated that this is in the region of €5.5 billion. We recognise that this will be a challenge for whoever is in Government but it is a challenge that must be met. We welcome the recent comments by the Housing Finance Agency that it can lend at a fixed rate of 1.75% to local authorities for social housing projects. The agency has stated that it has the capacity to deliver up to €10 billion and we believe this offer should be accepted. We recognise that there are EU issues but there is an emergency and Government has the freedom and flexibility to declare an emergency in respect of this issue.
We also support the proposals from the Irish League of Credit Unions, which has said that it will work with approved housing bodies to deliver additional housing units. There is no conflict between the provision of local authority housing and housing by approved housing bodies provided that the allocation system is administered fairly and in an above-board fashion.
The main point I wish to make is that we would like to see procurement, tendering and what I can only describe as departmental interference addressed because they are key blockages in tackling the housing crisis. The length of time it takes to deliver social housing and procurement process delays are unacceptable. I can provide the committee with examples. I have followed one particular housing scheme involving the provision of 19 housing units in the middle of Donnybrook not just because I live there, but because it is a high-demand social housing area. Full financial approval was given for that scheme in June 2015. It should have reached planning application stage last January but because of the tendering process, it has not even reached that stage. A project to deliver 19 housing units in a high-demand area that will take ten months to build will take at least 36 months from the allocation of funding to people moving in. This is clearly unacceptable and is due entirely to the requirement that every time the local authority makes a change, the Department must approve it and every time the Department makes a change, the council must approve it. We either employ professionals or we do not. The need to reduce bureaucracy to allow a swifter tendering system is key to delivering social housing. As one of my colleagues pointed out earlier, it also would have a profound impact on employment. If we can get housing built more quickly, we will not alone solve the housing issue, but provide quality employment to people who need it. I will comment later on so I will be brief on this occasion.
Mr. Michael Hourigan:
In respect of the review of the planning process, we recognise that delays can arise, particularly within a planning process for social housing projects. While acknowledging that all citizens have a right to get involved in the planning process, a balance must be struck with the needs of those who require housing weighted most strongly in arriving at the planning decision. However, as an association, we have reservations about the recent reports on proposed changes the Minister is considering to the Part VIII planning process. Such reports suggest that the Minister is planning to introduce emergency legislation to enable city or county chief executives to fast track the planning process for social housing projects. It is understood that this will be through new rules reducing the consultation period from eight to four weeks.
While we broadly welcome this reform, we as an association would strongly object to any change to the reserved functions of the elected members in relation to the Part VIII process. Social housing projects need to be sustainable, integrated communities with accessibility to vital services for the benefit of the people who will live there. The elected members, by retaining their reserved function in the Part VIII process, can ensure all social housing projects are designed to ensure this objective is achieved.
While the association endorses movement to streamline the planning system and the regulatory requirements relating to the provision of housing, we are not saying housing provision should be so rushed as to compromise on build and design standards. People who live in local authority housing are entitled to the same standards of utility and design in their houses as would be the case for a private house of a similar size. We have seen too many examples in this country of where rushed building programmes have left lasting social problems. The proper planning of housing provision begins with consideration of location and ensuring, depending on the scale and nature of the development, that there is proper provision of facilities such as schools and public transport. Furthermore, the question of concentration needs to be considered. While it is tempting to react to the housing crisis by embarking on the urgent building of large schemes, the mistakes of previous mass provision of houses need not be repeated. Plenty of expertise is available in the planning and architectural professions to ensure housing can be built in a short timeframe while, at the same time, observing acceptable standards of location, design and build. The local knowledge of county and city councils is an invaluable asset in ensuring co-ordinated provision of housing and the necessary support services.
Mr. Pat Fitzpatrick:
I thank the Chairman and committee for the privilege of contributing today. I would like to deal with the need for recruitment of appropriate technical staff to ensure delivery of social housing projects.
Due to the previous moratorium on recruitment in the public sector, local authorities have lost invaluable technical staff over recent years and the loss of such experience is also leading to delays in progressing some social housing projects. While acknowledging the moratorium was lifted in 2015, local authorities are still experiencing difficulty in recruiting the appropriate technical staff needed to progress some social housing projects because of the lack of the necessary funding. We propose that funding for appropriate technical staff would be included in the capital costs of housing projects to ensure no housing projects are delayed due to a lack of technical expertise. Short-term contracts to recruit appropriate technical staff should be afforded on specific social housing projects, if necessary, to ensure these projects are commenced and delivered without delays. We also propose that the shared services model currently operating successfully in the local government environment should be employed to scale up rapidly the input of specialist housing personnel. Design and planning teams could be assembled in a number of core local authorities with their services available across county boundaries to other local authorities. This approach was used to good effect in the early years of the national motorway programme where a design team was assembled in a given county and its expertise deployed to other counties to create a flexible and rapid response to the need for expertise in accelerating the building programme.
I would also like to deal with urban renewal and housing. There is a strong correlation between the provision of housing and the addressing of another major contemporary issue, that is, bringing life back into the centres of our towns and cities. Many towns have been hollowed out with only small numbers of people living in town centres. At the same time, derelict and vacant sites are often located in or close to the town centres. While freeing up land in private ownership is a challenging issue, nonetheless there would seem to be great potential for innovative infill provision of accommodation in locations which, by definition, are well served by public utilities.
Schemes embracing various kinds of accommodation from one-bedroom apartments to three-storey houses would help to make maximum use of inner urban land while at the same bringing a sustainable population back into town centre locations.
I will now hand over to my colleague, Councillor Pat Daly.
Mr. Pat Daly:
I thank the committee for meeting us. I will discuss the need for more student accommodation to relieve pressure on the rental market. In towns and city areas close to third-level colleges, student demand can add greatly to the pressure on the availability of properties to rent. The association would make the case for third-level institutions to provide a much greater level of on-campus or near-campus accommodation. This recommendation is grounded on the following factors: it would help to relieve pressure on the rented market in towns where there is a third-level accommodation; it would help to relieve the costs of accommodation for students and their parents; it would ensure greater value for the higher education grants paid out by the State where currently the maintenance element of the grant is in many cases effectively a transfer of State funds to a private landlord; and a number of third-level colleges have considerable land within their campus perimeters. This land is well serviced by public utilities and public transport making it eminently suitable for the provision of student accommodation on site. There is a case that planning applications from third-level colleges for expanding their academic infrastructure should be accompanied by a statement showing how it proposes to address the accommodation needs of any increase in the student body. We note that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has already mentioned he will give consideration to promoting an accelerated provision of student accommodation and the association welcomes this as a way of freeing up property for wider tenant requirements as well as the other advantages outlined. The National Treasury Management Agency has proposed to make money available which would relieve pressure if the colleges took it up.
I will address the immediate need to deal with vacant local authority units or voids. One thing that will help the immediate housing need is tackling the issue of vacant local authority housing units or voids and addressing the unacceptable reletting times of up to 30 weeks in some instances. In its recent report, the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC, concludes that average reletting times and costs vary considerably from six to 25 weeks where major works are not required, with costs ranging from €9,000 to €23,000 per unit. The NOAC report also indicates that a higher level of vacancies may be due in some cases to a local authority policy of holding vacancies in certain estates pending planned refurbishment work and in other instances to certain housing stock not being popular with waiting list applicants. The NOAC report, which was based on 2014 data, concluded that the reletting times from the date the previous tenant vacated the dwelling to the date of the new tenant’s first rent debit was a median of 24 weeks. The AILG feels it would be beneficial for individual local authorities to review their performance in this area to ensure a timely turnaround of vacant units to meet the significant demand that exists for social housing. Having discussed this issue with our members and after having consultations with a number of local authority housing officers we call on the committee to propose in its final report that local authorities have a dedicated ring-fenced rolling budget on an annual basis for pre-letting repairs costs. This rolling budget from central funds could be dependent on matching funding from the local authority’s own resources which would help with the timely reletting of vacant housing units. This would also give greater autonomy to each local authority to prioritise the level of repairs required to bring their vacant units to reletting standards, taking their immediate housing needs into account. It is a slow process and 30 weeks is not good enough. There is a house available in a local authority and the new tenant has to wait 30 weeks to get that house. It is not good enough.
I ask Councillor Lacey to address No. 9.
Mr. Dermot Lacey:
We are approaching the end. The association recognises and supports various Government measures to address a number of issues. In particular, we acknowledge the additional money for housing adaptations and extensions. However, I take the opportunity to point out a particular adaptation problem that primarily affects former local authority houses and the former Dublin City Council or Dublin Corporation houses in particular. Tenants who wish to expand into their attics in order to provide additional bedroom space for their families have a major difficulty because the heights of the attics and their standard development do not fall under the building regulations requirement. They are perfectly suitable for bedroom conversions but because of the Department's regulations, they do not comply. A very simple change could be made to allow for decent quality bedrooms if the Department were to reduce the required height for attic conversions. I believe the level is around a foot and a half. I do not have the exact figures here. We welcome the additional funding for housing adaptations for older people.
We would like to see the fairly immediate application of the changes to Part V of the Planning and Development Act to at least make a start on the 10% of social housing provision. We believe there is a case for an affordable housing provision similar to the last scheme. While affordability became less of a factor for some during the crash, it is becoming more of a factor for the future.
We welcome the introduction of a vacant site levy, although perhaps its introduction could be brought forward. We believe there is a major case for a levy on vacant houses. The figure of 230,000 empty housing units, which I believe we heard from this committee, is a scandal. Even if it is only half that figure, it is a scandal. We believe a vacant house levy might tackle that issue.
Households in mortgage arrears and facing repossession should be able to transfer their homes to a Government agency or a local authority where they can continue to pay rent and live in the family home. Clearly, there is a need for greater provision of appropriate emergency accommodation and the provision of greater services for people in need of addiction and mental health supports in all parts of the country - it is not just an urban issue.
There is another issue that affects Oireachtas Members as much as it affects local authority members. Until recently, local authority chief executives issued the councillors with the housing allocation and transfer list. In many local authorities that has ceased, apparently on the direction of the Data Protection Commissioner. Some councillors and Deputies abused that in the past by sending out letters informing people they were getting houses before they had even got them. My understanding is that in recent years those lists were only issued after the allocation was done. However, it meant that councillors and Oireachtas Members could stand over the integrity of the allocation and transfer list. As now issued to councillors, one cannot stand over the integrity of the allocation list. It also has the side effect of councillors very often continuing to work to get a house for somebody who has already got the house with the downside impact that has on the local authority staff. In addition to the big picture issues the committee is considering, it might also make recommendations that councillors and Oireachtas Members could continue to get those lists.
Mr. John Crowe:
I thank my five colleagues on the executive. I also wish to introduce to the committee Councillor Luie McEntire who is also here along with our two directors, Tommy Moylan and Liam Kenny.
The Association of Irish Local Government endeavours to bring to the fore the voices of elected members who are rooted in their own communities and see at first hand the toll that this housing crisis is having on the people we represent. We acknowledge the work of this important committee and pledge that we will play our part on behalf of the elected members to address the housing and homelessness crisis facing our people. In doing so, we will work alongside the committee and we look forward to continuing to contribute to its work.
We thank the Chairman and committee members for listening to our submission and we would be glad to take questions. Mr. McNally, Mr. Lacey and Mr. Hourigan and I will answer any questions we can.
I thank the witness for the comprehensive statement. I will put the witnesses in the picture. The committee has met many witnesses over the past number of weeks and many of the issues raised by the delegation have been raised in other meetings. Members are quite familiar with them. The delegation's attendance today is quite important in terms of the schedule of our meetings as many of the matters are very directly related to the local authorities, the Minister or the Department. We are having today's meeting in the context of having the Minister, officials of the new Department and representatives of sitting county managers before us soon. Councillor Lacy spoke about the obvious delays in the process and that has been well flagged. He is correct in that we see it as a block. The attendance of the delegation is in the context of that programme so we thank the witnesses for their contributions.
A number of people have signalled that they wish to ask questions. I will be slightly biased and allow one of the former members of the association, Deputy Brophy, in first.
It is a privilege to welcome the witnesses as I was president of the association before Mr. Crowe until my election to the Dáil. It is great to see the association here and making the case strongly. As the witnesses have outlined, local councillors are really at the coalface with this issue and they probably constitute one of the most informed groups. Some of the questions I wish to follow up on deal with that aspect. In that key position held by councillors as elected local representatives, knowledge in certain areas is critical and should not be overlooked.
The witness alluded to one area in which I am particularly interested so I would like him to elucidate on it. The Minister has made proposals for rebalancing Part VIII and the input from the chief executive of the local authority versus the elected members. A valid point was made in the submission that it is critical that elected members continue to be in control of a Part VIII process. They must continue to maintain a level of control over it that enables them to reflect the people who live in the community and elect local representatives. Their views should remain held, as distinct from, if we are honest, an unelected official in a local authority. I am interested in hearing some more about that area.
I was horrified to hear about the void turnaround levels of more than 30 weeks alluded to as there was much feed into this committee earlier with lower figures. To my mind, there is absolutely no point now in anybody being willing to accept 30 weeks or more to turn around a void. It is beyond comprehension how, in the midst of a crisis, we can have a position where local authorities sit on a void for more than 30 weeks without turning it around. The witness spoke about incentives to do this but should there be a penalty if people fail to deliver a turnaround in line with what is becoming a much lower national average figure?
The point about a design team is quite interesting, particularly that such a team could move on a cross-county level. Certainly within the context of the greater Dublin authorities, there is little or no logical obstacle in having a design team working for the authorities in south Dublin, Dún Laoghaire and Fingal, etc. It is a very well made and positive point in the submission. How do the witnesses envisage technical staff being incorporated into the capital cost of the project?
How would that work?
I echo the point about third-level accommodation, and I would go even further. We are now reaching a point where third-level colleges should not be able to expand their student capacity without providing an increase in accommodation to meet the increase. Every time there is such an increase, it puts an extra strain on the existing supply of housing. I thank the witnesses for a very interesting submission.
I welcome the members of the AILG. I found their work very worthwhile when I was elected a new councillor two years ago and I enjoyed attending the AILG training conferences.
I agree with most of the comments from the witnesses. When I was a councillor, and even since I became a Deputy, 80% of all my representations are based on housing and homelessness. It is a nationwide problem. I have a few questions, although I believe I know the answer to one of them already because the witnesses spoke about converting attics. Does the AILG see merit in extending the current stock of local authority houses to facilitate tenants with overcrowding issues? Applying for a transfer is not feasible any more because one must wait too long. It could be a short-term solution to add a bedroom and bathroom, perhaps, for 30,000 to 40,000 of such tenants. It would certainly make a difference.
Second, does the AILG agree that the HAP scheme is not working to its full capacity and must be amended in order to encourage landlords to take on HAP tenants?
Third, representatives from the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, appeared before the committee recently. NAMA offered 6,500 units to local authorities throughout the country, but the take-up was only 2,500 units. That meant 4,000 units were not accepted. I believe Galway was the only local authority to take its full allocation. Perhaps the witnesses would offer their thoughts on that.
With regard to Traveller accommodation, do the witnesses accept that some councils are very slow or reluctant to draw down the finances available to them? There is a perception among the public that there is no political will in the local authorities to deal with these issues.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. Many of us who are former councillors share the frustration outlined in the presentation, as well as the councillors' belief that local authorities are best placed to deliver the increase in social housing that is required.
I have a number of questions. Some of them do not necessarily reflect my view but the views of other people with whom I disagree, and I am anxious to have the witnesses' response to them put on the record for the work of the committee. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, is talking about reducing the Part 8 period from eight to four weeks; it is one of the ideas he is actively considering. Some local authorities get through their Part 8 processes within about eight weeks, some take 17 weeks and in one local authority it takes nine months. What are the witnesses' views on the Minister's proposal? Where local authorities are taking excessively long periods to get through Part 8 processes, do the witnesses have counter proposals to that of the Minister in order to ensure that the Part 8 process does not become part of the additional delay? If there is more money for social housing, how do we ensure that councils will get through their part of the procedure as well?
On voids, like Deputy Brophy I live in the South Dublin County Council area. The choice-based letting system has helped that county council to reduce the number of voids, just in terms of the turn around. Has the association considered advocating that it be rolled out across all local authorities? Our experience is that it helps enormously.
The Minister is talking about doubling the number of rapid builds and using the same emergency powers. Does the association have a view on that and, if so, could it share it with the committee?
If there is a significant increase in the capital available to local authorities to provide units - many members of the committee strongly believe that should be the case - we will encounter a problem with Government policy on sustainable communities, which a number of the witnesses mentioned. It will require us to start building on a scale beyond the small infill schemes that many local authorities have been carrying out up to now. I have my own ideas about how to deal with that, which I will discuss with the committee when we deal with this at a later stage, but I am interested in the association's view. When the local authorities get substantially more money, how will they deliver those units beyond the 10% under Part V or small infill schemes of ten, 15 or 20 units?
How do the witnesses think we can meet the requirement for sustainable communities in the context of large-scale local authority build-and-buy, which has not happened since those sustainable community policies were introduced?
Mr. Michael Hourigan:
I will take the question on Part VIII units. It is always good to review and reform things and we need to look at things from time to time. Coming from a local authority in Limerick, planning has been a major issue through the years, with 40% of our residents in social housing under the old city council. Planning was a huge issue for us. I totally agree with the Minister that is a time of crisis and we must fast-forward our planning process as much as possible. However, Part VIII as it stands today is a fast-track system if it is used well.
By taking the councillor out of it, the community is being taken out of the planning issue, because the councillor represents the community at the local authority. If the councillor's influence were diluted in any shape or form, it would be a very serious matter, because we must make sure that any development that goes forward is appropriate to the area it is going into.
We had a very good report in Limerick from John Fitzgerald, the former Dublin city manager. He wrote a wonderful report. I will not say people made mistakes because at the time people made their judgment in the best interest of the city, but in hindsight we made huge mistakes. We put all the social housing in together but without any of the necessary infrastructure. None of the educational facilities, health systems, transport systems or child care systems that were needed were put in. There were so many things we did not do at the time and we suffered severely for it.
I welcome the Minister's intention in a time of crisis to fast-forward as far as possible, but the role of the councillor is very important in doing that. We are the people who meet those at the coalface who have elected us. We go to the residents' associations and the community centres. We are in touch with them daily, so we do know what concerns them. There are major concerns regarding putting large amounts of housing into an existing social housing area or into private estates. While I welcome the Minister's intention to fast-forward in a time of crisis, he should look very carefully at the role of the councillor in any new set-up and measure it.
Mr. Dermot Lacey:
In response to Deputy Butler, of course housing adaptations have a role to play and there should be more flexibility on that.
On NAMA, let us be clear that no councillor across the country, as far as I understand, rejected any housing allocation or offering by NAMA, because councillors do not have a role in that under our dysfunctional local government system. The decisions were made by the unelected chief executives talking to the unelected NAMA people and the unelected officials in the Customs House. If Deputy Butler wants to change that, she will have my full support.
On Deputy Ó Broin's comments regarding Part VIII, it is a question of wanting a swift decision but also an accountable decision. They are not incompatible.
On the last point, I support rapid build as it is necessary, but I will not take any lectures from either the Minister or the Department about our tardiness in respect of Part VIII. The Department has some cheek in accusing local councillors of delaying any process, given its own very shameful record over the past 20 years.
Mr. Padraig McNally:
I have some brief comments on some of the subjects that have already been raised. In the overall scheme of things regarding Part VIII, it is relatively immaterial whether it is eight or four weeks. The one thing we have to be careful of is that genuine concerns raised by existing tenants or others are not in any way overlooked just for the sake of getting things speeded up, because there are genuine concerns in some cases.
There is a bit of an urban-rural divide regarding the rapid builds. I would be guided by our city colleagues and our big town colleagues. I am not a fan. There is nothing to stop a proper house being built inside of six months if everything were ready on the ground. I think five years down the road we will be wondering what we will do with them and we will have spent a lot of money on them given that they are only a short-term solution.
Deputy Butler spoke about 80% of representations being about housing and homelessness. I know she is probably largely urban-based in terms of her clinics, but I do not believe we will ever find a way that can all be solved in such an area.
As Mr. Dermot McNally mentioned earlier, the whole idea of relocation should be reintroduced because there are people who would look to the possibility of moving out of cities. It is an issue that has moved slightly off the agenda. Given the crisis in areas such as Dublin, it is not feasible to expect the problem to be solved in the short term. Sadly, many of 4,000 NAMA units that have not been taken up were built in the wrong places in terms of daily requirements. Many of them are the mistakes of bad and rushed planned during the ten years of madness that we all witnessed.
Deputy Ó Broin made good points on voids. I understand there is variation from one county to another, in some cases it is as low as 2% while in others it is as high as 18%. At any given time, the amount of empty housing stock ranges from 2% to 18%. All one need do is check what the councils with a 2% level of empty houses are doing and tell those who have a disgraceful level of 18%. We must use best practice and share best practice. In relation to putting design teams in place and moving them around, we did that very successfully in the area of roads. Indeed, the question was asked as to who pays the technical staff. When the national roads were being built, the engineers for the county which the road went through oversaw the project on the ground. They were paid directly or indirectly by the NRA, now Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. There is no reason that model cannot be transferred to housing. Housing is a much easier science in that they do not need to move around as much. Building a housing scheme when the site is ready, whether in Dublin or Cork, does not matter, rather it is the design of the houses and how they are constructed. Building a road is slightly more complex and I can see a need where they have to move. Much of the design work is desktop and can be accessed. The level of voids is unacceptably high in some counties while there are other counties that deserve to be congratulated. I suggest they share best practice.
Mr. John Crowe:
Before Mr. Daly responds, there are counties which do not have NAMA houses and that is a major problem. If land banks were available, they could be taken up. Mr. Daly wishes to comment.
Mr. Pat Daly:
I wish to respond to Deputy Butler who raised the issue of the HAP scheme. The average rent in County Clare is about €650 per month and, possibly, €1,200 in Dublin. The average payment is about €400 which is not enough because these people are on social welfare. They get about €400 but their shortfall is €70 per week. The Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy Coveney, should get a bigger budget which would allow him to increase the HAP assistance because it is not enough. Councillors meet people every day who are on HAP schemes but they just cannot pay.
I thank the representatives from the AILG for appearing before the committee and helping it with its work. This committee would not exist were it not for the fact that there is a housing supply issue. As a committee, we are trying to address, as quickly as possible, the issue of how to deliver housing in a year to 18 months while people are waiting for the existing strategy to come into play. We are in that time-lag phase.
On the measures required to deliver quickly in those areas, obviously rapid build comes into play. Local opposition can arise in the case of social housing. Has the association discussed that issue and the part councillors might play in trying to hold off that opposition? I recognise that there is a role to be played by them and by the community in general in terms of delivering in respect of this problem.
One element of the void issue which has occurred to me over the years is why local authorities allow voids to build up over time and why it is necessary for the authorities to wait for special funding to deal with voids. I would have thought that, as part of the budgetary process of the local authorities, one of the annual measures would be to repair the housing stock. This appears to have been left behind over time and has become such a critical issue that central funding is needed. These are my two queries, the other questions have already been asked.
I thank the delegates from the Association of Irish Local Government for their presentations and for bringing forward their suggestions for solutions. I have two questions regarding funding. Do the councillors agree that the cap on discretion by local authorities in capital expenditure should be raised with greater discretion for local authorities rather than seeking approval at all times from the Department, which is one of the great delays that exist? In regard to voids and the cap of €30,000 for repair and reinstatement of void units, do the councillors believe that local authorities should have greater discretion on a higher amount for those repairs in order to address those voids much quicker than is currently the case, considering the timescale the witnesses spoke of and which is not a surprise to the committee at all despite what Deputy Brophy has said. It is something which has been quite obvious. I know there have been some inroads recently but it has been very obvious for the last two years.
I will be very brief, as always Chairman. The delegation is welcome because they speak the language that we know they have gleaned from their own direct dealings with people who are in need of housing within the local authority areas. That is very refreshing and important. Many of the other delegates spoke in a similar fashion.
What do the witnesses think might be done to speed up the planning process regarding Part V and to contribute to the preparation for and immediate supply of local authority housing? To what extent have the witnesses considered the reintroduction of local authority loans - previously known as the county council loan - which was a primary part of the system for first time house buyers, and which is unfortunately no longer available or considered worthwhile? Can the witnesses explain what is the problem with voids? It used to happen that in the event of a house becoming vacant any improvements to the house that had been carried out by the previous tenant, some of which were extensive, were immediately thrashed and thrown in the bin and the house reconstructed afterwards. The theory was that if an oak kitchen and oak tables, etc., were in situ the new tenant might expect to have them replaced if they needed to be replaced at a later stage. The idea was to replace them beforehand, at considerable cost needless to say. People were put in the position of fishing out of the waste bins some of the old materials that were being discarded. To what extent has that practice been discontinued?
How do councillors view modular homes and houses as a means to address the urgency of the situation we are faced with now? What proposals do they believe could be helpful to local authorities in meeting the urgent homelessness issues and the ever increasing threat of homelessness? These arise from a whole series of issues that I do not want to particularly want to go into now.
Mr. Dermot Lacey:
I fully agree with Deputy Ryan on the issue of leadership. However, that is a question that is often thrown at councillors by Oireachtas Members. It must be borne in mind that Oireachtas Members have shorn local councillors of powers over the last 15 years. Whenever powers are transferred to local councillors on difficult issues I will take a stand on tough issues. However, I would like councillors to be given back some of the nicer powers that have been taken from us during the last 15 years. The same point applies to Deputy Cowen's comment.
It is all very well saying that local authorities should do all these things. I am not trying to make a third-party point but local government funding has been decimated in the past 20 years. We do not have the funds to do the things we used to do. I did a calculation recently. If domestic rates still applied in Dublin, the city would be getting €220 million, while we get €63 million under the local property tax. That is the figure for one year alone and the gap is €160 million. It is all very well for people to call on us to do these things but they should give us the power and the resources to do so.
Financing comes in to the question of voids. Deputy Durkan sort of answered this question. One of the problems is that we do not have direct labour any more. If a council wants a job done, it has to go out to tender. We used to have painters, plumbers and electricians who could do these jobs. We do not have them anymore because of cutbacks.
The second issue was raised by Deputy Durkan as well. We have to apply departmental standards. Let us suppose a flat was absolutely perfect and the people who wanted to move in were perfectly happy with the way the previous tenant had it and would move in tomorrow morning if they could. Given our centralised system of government, the Department stipulates that a given apartment has to have a grey door or a kitchen in a certain corner and another door has to be a certain way. If we had the flexibility to allow people to live the lives they want to live, we could do turnarounds in days rather than months.
Mr. Padraig McNally:
The issue of Travellers is an age old problem. I was taken aback to read the number of local authorities that did not take up any allocation. My local authority is probably one of those. We do not have a particular problem. Actually, we have a number of halting sites. The new trend is that these Travellers do not want to go into halting sites. Equally, we have a small number of Travellers housed in permanent housing. I have to say, the quality of the housing after a few years leaves a lot to be desired, both inside and out. Committee members can understand why there is concern.
I have people happily living alongside them, but they are constantly reminding the council to educate them with regard to what is expected of them as to how to keep their house if they are going to be in the middle of everyone else. I have to say that other than the appearance of the accommodation in some cases, I do not have very many complaints about them in general in the way they live. They have traditions that we do not necessarily understand fully, but I believe every local authority could do more in respect of Travellers. As an organisation, we would promote a greater uptake in that whole funding area.
Deputy Ryan asked how we would speed up houses with 12 or 18 months delays. I have one solution. I am tirelessly listening to people saying that developers cannot make money, even as of now, by building houses. We should negotiate with them and agree a set fee for them to provide houses to our standards on their land. Many projects are more or less shovel-ready. No matter what we say, and I am speaking against my own to some extent, the private sector can deliver more quickly than the public sector. That is the reality. While councillors want to hold the function of where and when they provide houses if money is given - they are the buffer between the public and the schemes in many cases - private developers can move faster both physically and theoretically.
Mr. Padraig McNally:
I have no doubt that it should be. Perhaps there is a need for legislative changes but I believe that is an obvious point. I would guarantee a big uptake because there are private developers seeing no great light at the end of the tunnel. They may have paid over the odds for land. In many cases it would provide them with employment and give them a need for the land they have been sitting on for ten or 12 years. That area could be looked at.
Everyone mentions voids. There is one reason for the number of voids. I come from a county which is among those with a level of 2%, and therefore it is not a major issue for us. However, there are many for whom it is an issue and they blame the lack of finance. Roads and voids were the two areas hit. Everything else had to be paid for. It was decided that those were the two things to be put on the back burner. That is what happened to a disgraceful extent.
My last comment relates to speeding up the process. Certain schemes need to go to An Bord Pleanála. Something has to be done with An Bord Pleanála. An Bord Pleanála was quicker in turning around decisions during the boom than it is today, and that is unacceptable.
It can take 12 to 18 months to get a date for a decision but inevitably another letter will arrive to say it has been delayed for two months. Something has to be done about this. I mentioned it in person to the Minister last week when we met with him. An Bord Pleanála has to be examined, not with a view to changing how it does its work but the speed with which it does it.
Mr. Michael Hourigan:
In response to the Deputy’s question about speeding up Part VIII, in all local authorities because of the embargo on recruitment there is a serious lack of technical people, architects, engineers and administrative staff. Where I come from availability not money is the problem in the acquisition of houses. People are very slow. Landlords are over regulated and are getting out of it. If we want to get the construction industry back into the game we must give them tax breaks. There has to be an incentive. These people are in business to make a profit. Unless they are given a tax break or some real incentive to do the work I do not think they are going to come back. The same is true for the landlord unless he has an incentive to let out his house. There are so many regulations around a tenancy now that people are pulling out of the business.
Mr. Pat Fitzpatrick:
On the point raised by Deputy Durkan about the turnaround on houses and throwing out good valuable materials, where people want to move into a house they should be allowed to move in and turn it around very quickly. Houses should not be left vacant for 30 weeks, with lovely doors and windows that have to be changed because they are not the right colour. That should be stopped. That is waste. Wilful waste makes woeful want and we have a woeful want of housing in this country.
The Housing Finance Agency is sitting on a load of money, in excess of €10 billion. It should make money available to build some of the social housing that is needed. It is very important that we see reaction and action, reaction to the crisis and action by the developers and everyone because we all have skin in this game.
Mr. Pat Daly:
On the issue of homelessness, finance should be made available to purchase small units and probably for hostels. It is a serious situation in every county, particularly in Dublin. We should be considering it. Deputy Cowen made the point about budgets. We get on to the chief executive officer, CEO, at every monthly meeting and all we hear is “I have no money”. In respect of the abolition of town councils, there were 30,000 people living in Ennis and the town council had huge budgets. That is all gone and our budgets are way down.
Mr. John Crowe:
On the question of voids I have seen some beautiful houses that were handed back in immaculate condition and they were torn asunder because they had to be brought up to the standard. That is one of the first things that will have to be sorted out because it is costing the Exchequer thousands of euro and we would not then have to be waiting for the turn out. In the 1980s there were reconstruction grants and people got their houses back. They should be brought in as well.
Before we conclude this session I thank the councillors for their attendance here today.
Apart from the submissions and questions here this leads into the questions we will ask the Minister and the Department. We will pursue the issue of voids and the duration of the process from start to finish for a housing development and the number of visits between the local authority and the Department. It has been raised with us time and again that they are delaying the delivery more than any other single item.