Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 21 September 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness: Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Coveney and his Department officials. This is a continuation of our action plan for housing discussion from last week. We have agreed that all questions are to be put through the Chair. We have an hour to go through pillars 2 and 3 together and pillars 4 and 5 together. We are not going back over pillar 1 again and therefore do not expect the Minister to answer questions on pillar 1. Any supplementary questions will be taken at the end. I invite the Minister to address pillars 2 and 3.
If the committee is interested, we did not get a chance to talk about the legislation last week and I would like to read out a short briefing on the legislation to give the committee an idea of what I am likely to bring to Cabinet next week. I said I would do that and I wish to follow through on it.
Members might find it more helpful if we went straight to questions. I can talk the committee through how we are going to deliver 47,000 social housing units and what we are doing around planning reform but I suspect the committee has probably heard all of that. I am in the hands of the committee.
On reference page 51 of the action plan for housing, action item No. 2.7 covers the land aggregation scheme in some detail. There is enormous potential for that. The Minister will know that his predecessors rejected a number of applications for the land aggregation scheme from local authorities. They were considered huge investments for local authorities and not sustainable in many cases, certainly with regard to debt. I know of some local authorities that are only paying the interest on these vast amounts of money that were used to incur these expenses. To return to the plan, I want to say that I believe it is a very brave and courageous plan. Dare I say it, the Minister's reputation and that of the Government hinges on all of this. It is about the delivery of it and I am really only interested in that. What I like about the 84 key action points is that they keep the Minister, the committee and the Oireachtas focused.
To return to the land aggregation scheme, some of the applications were rejected by the Department. However, there are many that were accepted into the scheme. There is potential for that in the roll-out of social housing and how it is going to be progressed. Clearly, it has to be a priority. It is an acquisition that is available to local authorities. The Minister might talk about that and about how he is interacting with the local authorities. Has the Minister, at this stage, completed a schedule of the local authority lands in regard to the scheme? The Minister's Department should have a comprehensive map and schedule of each of the 31 local authorities. We need to feed that into the process at some level within the Minister's Department. I would like to hear about that at some point and see constant monitoring of it because there is a huge potential investment there.
The next item is on page 51. The Minister mentions in the document that he envisages a partnership with religious congregations. Can the Minister please set out what he has in mind? I understand that he has had some contact and I am led to believe that he has had a meeting. The Minister might confirm whether he has met with a number of representatives of religious organisations personally. I understand that he has set out his concerns and they have set out some possibilities and ideas. The Minister might be in a position to share that if that is the case.
Has the Minister looked at the schedule of lands that were entered into as part of the institutional redress scheme in which the Conference of Religious of Ireland, CORI, represented a bloc of religious superiors who signed a very substantial indemnity scheme with the State during the term of the Government before last? It was questionable in the view of some parties but we have to deal with it. There was a major indemnity scheme which indemnified a substantial amount of religious orders from the competition claims as a result of the national redress scheme. That is a horrific story and this is only a contribution. I believe there is a moral obligation on these religious orders and I call on them to deliver. I also believe there is a moral obligation on the State to deliver the lands that it promised and the possibility of two aspects, namely, the delivery of social housing and, more importantly, the delivery of accommodation through buildings that they are not using. The humanitarian response that the Irish Government has made by committing to 4,000 refugees coming into this country will add another dynamic. The Minister might touch upon his contacts with the religious orders and how he is going to pursue their assets to alleviate this national housing crisis.
My next point is about action 2.12 on page 52, which is the legislation to streamline the Part 8 process. Clearly, there is another day's work for this committee to look at the Part 8 process. There is a democratic deficit in the process and it needs to be reviewed anyway outside of this context. Within this context, there is no appeal process for Part 8. This part of the process - I am sure it could be called a planning process - is a consultation process with the local authority and the county manager. I wish to ask the Minister two questions.
Will the Minister consider reviewing the Part VIII process?
I had an opportunity to engage with the Minister about a particular local authority. His officials came back to me and said he had no power and function in the matter. I accept that, but the letter caused me to revisit a number of pieces of legislation related to the Planning and Development Act. The Act states that under section 179 the Minister cannot interfere with the Part VIII process. However, if we are to give real effect to this policy document, we have to have local authorities on message to deliver on key Government policy. We cannot have local government and councillors continuously opposing the message. They are entitled to their views, but at the end of the day the process is meaningless if the Minister has no function.
Would the Minister consider being a statutory consultee? He is not currently a statutory consultee for the Part VIII process; this fact has been confirmed by his Department. Any Part VIII process should be referred to him because it has to be consistent and in line with policy. This is the rebuilding Ireland policy and I would like to think the Minister's officials would consider that option.
I refer to page 55, action 2.24 - refugee protection programme. It states the objective of the plan is to provide a range of supports at local level, including housing assistance payments, a scheme with which the Minister is familiar, to ensure the integration of individuals into their new communities. The timeline is the fourth quarter of 2016. This matter is covered in The Irish Timestoday, as it was yesterday, and two of the Minister's ministerial colleagues talked about their disappointment, the lack of progress and their frustration, which I accept and respect.
I welcome Ireland's humanitarian response, which is good. However, there are sensitivities. There are communication issues, as well as the priming of local authorities in terms of the provision of resources to deal with the issue. I am opposed to the system of direct provision. What co-ordination plans has the Minister put in place to provide homes for those who are due to travel to the country in the next number of weeks and months? If I understood him correctly at our last meeting, he was referring to the first tranche of 2,000 people who were due to come to Ireland, which is great. Has an operational subgroup, under the auspices of the Irish refugee protection programme task force, been established? I know that the Minister is committed to doing this, but what is the timeframe for its establishment?
On modular pillar 2, what role will local authorities play in housing refugees and the associated integration policies? Where is the relevant funding? We need to hear about it because, after all, it is a clear objective for the Minister in the last quarter of 2016. It must be one of the most challenging policies.
I know that things have slowed down a little but not intentionally. Many objectives were to be delivered on in the third quarter. I will not read them to the committee, but I marked every objective to be met in the third quarter. There are genuine reasons things have slipped, but that is the tightness of the ambitions of the Minister's plan.
Pillar 3 involves building more homes. Action 33.4 in the Minister's plan is that they will identify and prioritise key pathfinder sites, with the capability to deliver new homes, for which the timeframe is the third quarter. Will the Minister, please, report on progress in meeting that objective, which is important? Does he have specific sites in mind? Is he referring to strategic development zone sites? It is interesting that the document refers to a proven record, but there is no such record in this matter. What sites does the Minister envisaged being included?
An Bord Pleanála is mentioned on page 62. The Minister has wide-ranging powers which, believe it or not, are perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plan. I have spoken to councillors from all parties and none and this is a challenging issue. The document states that, under action 3.6, the Minister proposes to legislate to enable planning applications for 100 units or more to be referred directly to An Bord Pleanála. It is failing in meeting the statutory 18-week rule in the case of a number of what are called strategic critical infrastructure projects. They are projects the previous Government set out as meeting key strategic objectives, but An Bord Pleanála is continuing to fail. How will the Minister put in resources and money in place and provide for reform of An Bord Pleanála to deliver on that key objective? He hopes to minimise the delays in the case of large-scale housing developments, but as I said, the 18-week rule is not being adhered to and in some cases the process is not completed within 32 weeks.
Action 3.9 refers to online planning and the accelerated roll-out of e-planning systems. That is excellent. The use of technology is positive and exciting and it is the direction in which we should be moving, but it will require money and, more importantly, training at local level. Local councils are in great difficulty; they cannot even provide coloured photocopies of plans because they do not know how to use some of the technology available. Councils in Dublin are not even scanning planning applications in colour because they state they do not have the resources to do so. They are minimising the size of copies of plans, which means that they cannot be read. It is ridiculous. I do not want people from the Minister's constituency to have to take a train or a bus at a cost of €50 to come to Marlborough Street in Dublin to look at planning applications. Before An Bord Pleanála can do anything, councils and the public library service must have the technology they need to deliver on that commitment.
I refer to construction capacity skills. To his credit, the Minister has identified this as an issue in terms of how we can develop SOLAS. If it is successful, there will be major growth in the construction industry, which is all very positive as it feeds into the economy and is marvellous. However, there is a need for resources to build capacity to provide training in the ETBs. We do not necessarily need everyone to have a university degree in engineering. Rather, we need practical people to come through apprenticeship programmes. Many people who left school at the age of 15 or 16 years and are signing on to social welfare payments would love to enter into apprenticeships and receive training or attend night classes to improve their literacy and numeracy skills. I want to hear about the provision of resources that it will be necessary to provide in that regard.
Again, I have concerns about the Minister's Part VIII proposals to provide student accommodation. Will he clarify what he means about joint ventures? Under no circumstances should a private joint venture be allowed to avail of what is a planning consultation process. If a local authority is fully managing a development on its land and property, that is somewhat acceptable. However, in section 4.13 of the Minister's document there is a suggestion there be synergy in the development of student accommodation and that private developers could come in under the wire as part of a very loose Part VIII process. That is questionable and I would like to see the matter revisited.
I am sorry to hit the Minister with many questions, but I have made reference to the points listed in the document which I hope has been helpful.
It is great that Senator Victor Boyhan has read the plan. From my perspective, that is very good. I will go through some of the schemes mentioned.
On student accommodation, it is my understanding anything happening on public land which is controlled and managed by a local council is subject to a Part VIII process. It is up to the council to make sure it does this in a way that is responsible and maximises the opportunity to engage in the sustainable development of a parcel of publicly owned land. If the best use of that land involves a mix of student accommodation, affordable rental accommodation and private development, as well as social housing, to achieve a mixed tenure, the Part VIII process has to be used to deal with that complexity and ambition. That is what we mean when we refer to student accommodation being part of a mixed development on publicly owned land.
On construction capacity skills, a major feature of the education policy launched last week by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, and the Taoiseach was the need to increase the number of traineeships and apprenticeships, particularly in construction. The way in which we construct buildings and housing estates will change. We may not see the same numbers of bricklayers and so on being used.
In future, we may have many more pre-cast or ready-for-assembly properties being craned into building sites and assembled in a much different way than is currently the case. Some conventional building will undoubtedly continue. If we are to return to building between 25,000 and 30,000 housing units per annum through a combination of social and private housing, we will need more skilled construction workers.
One of the more controversial and ambitious elements of the plan is the proposal to change the decision making process for planning in respect of larger developments. This is one of the reasons we will introduce legislation. I hope to secure Government approval for the heads of a Bill next week. Under the proposed legislation, developers who wish to build more than 100 housing units will be required to engage in an intensive pre-planning consultation process with local government and, for the first time, this must be completed within a prescribed period. Rather than having a developer submit a poor planning application which needs to be reshaped and redesigned through an ongoing pre-planning consultation process, some of which last for 18 months or longer, the onus will be on private developers to ensure their planning applications are in order from the outset. This will result in much higher quality submissions being made for pre-planning consultation with local authorities.
An Bord Pleanála will also be involved at this stage to ensure applications in respect of zoned land are consistent with the relevant local area, county or city development plan. Where there is a piece of land that is zoned for housing, a developer will be required to submit a quality application that takes account of all the policy considerations in the locality. A statutory pre-planning consultation period of between eight to ten weeks will ensue, after which the developer will make a formal submission to An Bord Pleanála. The legislation will impose a statutory requirement on An Bord Pleanála to issue a decision on all such applications within approximately 16 weeks. The Department will gear up and support An Bord Pleanála from a human resources perspective and in respect of other resources to ensure it has the capacity to meet these requirements. Timelines and so forth can be discussed when the Bill is introduced in the Dáil, Seanad and select committee.
Comparisons will be made with the strategic infrastructure Act and people will point out that it sometimes takes nine, ten or 12 months for decisions to be made under that legislation. This is because the legislation permits requests for further information to be made and public hearings to be held, as a result of which the timeframe will be extended. Many examples of such cases come to mind. The legislation I will introduce will be different, however, and will not be type of a strategic infrastructure Bill for housing. For example, it does not provide for a timeline for further information and if applications are not spot on from the outset, they will be thrown out. This will probably result in an increase in the number of refusals until such time as developers get the message that the purpose of the legislation is not only to have quicker decisions, but also to impose on them an obligation to get the application right from the outset. We want developers to produce highly professional planning applications that are consistent with what councillors have determined in local area plans, development plans and so forth. This consistency will then be confirmed in the pre-planning consultation, after which An Bord Pleanála will go through a rigorous process of ensuring everything is as it should be before making a decision.
The most important issue is protecting the integrity of the planning system, while the second priority is to ensure the right decisions are made in a timely manner. What we are trying to do is ensure the process moves forward and people who are willing to provide quality housing developments in the right places at the right density, taking account of all the other issues surrounding public amenity and so forth, have decisions made on their planning applications quickly to allow construction to proceed. I hope that gives members a sense of what we are trying to achieve.
By the end of this month, we should be in a position to name key sites which we want to become pathfinder projects. I have referred to one or two such sites in commentary and speeches. I believe we will be on schedule in this regard. We want to create projects that deliberately draw the spotlight as this will show others what can be achieved on publicly owned land in terms of integrating communities and demonstrating new thinking in the area of design, ambition and so forth. People in other areas who follow developments on pathfinder sites in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and elsewhere may then decide to replicate the model on the basis that it clearly works. I want O'Devaney Gardens to be a pathfinder site because it has been a highly controversial project on which there has been considerable disagreement. I am not certain it will come through the system but we would like to turn all the negatives associated with the site on their head and create a positive project for Dublin.
Pathfinder projects will also be developed on large private strategic sites that can deliver scale quickly, for example, strategic development zones. This will allow people to see the pace of delivery. We hope to deliberately attract attention to these sites with a view to having projects that work replicated in other areas.
Deputy Boyhan spoke about quarter three implementation in a way that almost made excuses for not delivering. We intend to deliver quarter three objectives on schedule. We will have a full report on mid-October providing an update on what is being delivered, what is ahead of schedule and what plans are in place to get projects that are behind schedule back on track. I expect the joint committee will be interested in receiving progress reports that are factual and numbers based rather than slick public relations management jobs, which we are sometimes accused of providing.
Like many other members of the Government, I want to make progress on the issue of refugees. Ireland has made a commitment to welcome 2,000 refugees in the next 12 months. This will mean accommodating approximately 40 refugees per week and my Department's responsibility is to ensure accommodation is available when required. Refugees arriving here will first go to an orientation centre for a period to learn about and understand the kind of communities they will live in and with in future. We will then have to put in place sustainable housing solutions which I expect will be predominately done through the housing assistance payment. Let us be honest rather than politically correct about this issue. We must approach it in a way that, where possible, does not cause friction between people who are on housing waiting lists and those who are arriving here, many of home will have had horrific experiences and will need wraparound help and support, not only in the area of housing. The last thing we want is competitive friction for local authority or social housing to develop between the new Irish and people with legitimate needs who are waiting for housing supports. We are very conscious of this issue. For this reason, the housing assistance payment is probably a good vehicle for addressing the issue. Many of the homes available under the HAP scheme are spread around and not located in large numbers in specific areas. The way people approach a council house that becomes available for reallocation is very public and there is competition for such houses. While we are open to suggestions, we believe the HAP scheme is probably the best solution, at least initially.
The Department is represented on the task force for refugee protection, which is chaired by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. The Department is working closely with the County and City Management Association, CCMA, the Department of Justice and Equality and other key stakeholders on the housing of refugees when they come here. As I stated, they will be housed primarily through the use of the housing assistance payment, HAP. In vulnerable cases in which there is a specialist need such as disability, mental health concerns, addiction or whatever, local authorities obviously will be asked to and will seek solutions for them. This hopefully was a comprehensive answer on the refugee side.
As for streamlining the Part VIII process, my Department is trying to put in place a structure for this process from a timeline perspective to force a decision as opposed to something that gets put off repeatedly. Some councils are really good at Part VIII proposals and no issues arise. When speaking to a council, I sometimes am asked why I focus on Part VII because the council in question has no problem with it. While this is true in some parts of the country, it is not true elsewhere and we intend to consider planning reform more broadly through a root-and-branch review of the broader planning system. Consequently, the Department intends to consider the efficiency of the existing process, including Part VIII and associated regulations, which will be a separate process. However, the provisions proposed in the legislation regarding Part VIII include a six-week public consultation instead of the current eight-week period. In addition, as there is no prescribed timeline at present, the chief executive will have eight weeks in which to prepare a report for councillors. The intention is that elected members will have six weeks to reform, modify or reject and otherwise, the chief executive officer's proposals will be adopted. Essentially, there will be a timeline and in the absence of decisions by councillors on that timeline, the chief executive's report will take effect by default. In other words, this will force people to make a decision on Part VIII proposals and this is the right thing to do. It keeps the power in the hands of councillors, which is where it should be, but also places an onus on a chief executive to put together proposals that have a good chance of gaining acceptance. It also forces a discussion and possibly amendments and changes between councillors and management to try to get it right. However, the most important point is this will force decisions and this is what I am trying to do in the planning system, regardless of whether it is a Part VIII proposal or is with An Bord Pleanála.
As for the religious congregations, I invited them to meet me in Galway. I have been in Galway a number of times since then but essentially, the idea was to appeal to religious congregations to work with the Department and to consider properties they may have for which they no longer have use. The idea was rather than essentially trying to force the case, we would work in partnership with religious congregations and from my experience of being in this job thus far, it is a much more progressive way to get things done. After that meeting, I was approached by a number of religious congregations, which have made offers. I already have received an offer from my native city of a modern and suitably located house in County Kerry, which now has been linked up with an approved housing body. The transition is simply taking place and there is no charge for it. Some of the nuns living there are moving out, Clúid is taking over and that is a great outcome. There is another case of a former convent - also in Cork as it happens - and I hope its facilities will be used by an approved housing body linked with homeless provision for women for that purpose. I hope to be able to replicate this kind of partnership elsewhere as well. Last week in Waterford, what I can only describe as a phenomenal social housing project was opened. Senator Coffey will be highly familiar with the project, which involves a former home for priests. While I cannot remember its name, it was really impressive.
Yes, and what a project that is. I encourage anyone seeking an exemplar for a social housing project to view that really impressive project. We want to have a lot more of that type of stuff and have the budgets to be able to do it. If there are any religious congregations listening that have properties which no longer are in use or which they seek to vacate in the coming months or years, my Department is interested in talking to them and I ask them to make contact with us directly.
On the land aggregation scheme, the Housing Agency will have a report and recommendations ready for my Department on how best to use the land and sites that have been part of this scheme by the first quarter of next year. While I acknowledge this has caused issues in the past for many councils with regard to debt management and so on, our job now is to try to make best use of the lands subject to those purchases and to try to squeeze the best value possible out of them in terms of new housing developments, be they social housing or mixed tenure developments or whatever, and we will proceed with that.
I apologise for the lengthy answer but they were all pretty good questions.
If it is all right with the Minister, we will take the next round together because half an hour remains in which to get through four pillars. Consequently, I will be running the clock. If members do not get to ask all their questions, it will be all right as we can go around again. However, we are trying to get through this as efficiently as possible.
I will try to keep to the second and third pillars as much as I can. However, I wish to come back to the delivery of Part V provisions. I believe that when the Minister reintroduced the 10% requirement, it has been a big mistake. I do not believe it will deliver enough and I again ask the Minister to review that decision on Part V provision. No affordable scheme is in place although there is a requirement under Part V for 10% to be social or leasing or whatever it is. However, we need more ambitious targets under Part V and it is bad. I also refer to compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, which do not get much mention. There are many locations all around Dublin city that are boarded up and that have been with banks for a long time. Many of them must be deemed to be derelict sites by Dublin City Council before a compulsory purchase order can be made on them and this process is not working in any way. I believe this area must be examined as no compulsory purchase orders have been made in the Dublin City Council area. While it is starting elsewhere, there has been none there and I wished to raise that issue with the Minister.
On the issue of land supply, which is part of the third pillar, an audit has been carried out with Dublin City Council and other local authorities in many areas. The Minister also mentioned the churches and lands and I note the churches have vast amounts of lands. In Finglas I could cite the example of the Church of the Annunciation. There is land there - we call them the Fergal's lands - with the Church of the Annunciation. I believe we must up our game in inducing religious authorities to deliver more and perhaps there should be greater engagement with them. There is major scope in this regard.
On examining the figures in the mid-year review, I am deeply disappointed by some of the targets set and what has been achieved. Thus far, according to the figures from 2016, we appear to be failing badly in respect of many of the targets. For example, a target was set in respect of Traveller accommodation to deliver 66 units but only 16 have been delivered to date. This simply shows the priority that has been given to this issue. Greater consideration must be given to older people and the issue of financial contributions and to building more for senior citizens. There is huge demand in this regard and it must be examined. While the financial contribution is in place, it is not being used much and must be increased.
I wish to raise three brief matters. I have no doubt that the Minister personally wishes to resolve the housing crisis. He has moved by bringing forward the action plan. My constant theme has been that its focus is wrong. The focus is on kickstarting the construction industry, but most of those houses will be private houses. The planning permissions the Minister is talking about accelerating will generally be for private houses which will be unaffordable, certainly in Dublin. I do not know about the rest of the country but prices are shooting up in Dublin. They will not be attainable for anybody on the social housing lists and even for people who are struggling with rents. That is my key problem.
Focusing on this pillar of public housing, last week I said that I do not understand why the plan, the Government and the Civil Service are not focusing on the areas where homelessness and the housing crisis are highest. That appears to be the obvious thing to do. A report was published on 17 February, "A Preliminary Analysis of Children and Families in Emergency Homeless Accommodation", which I am sure the Minister has read. It found that 70% of the homeless families in Dublin were from two areas of Dublin - 118 families or 38% were from Blanchardstown-Mulhuddart in my constituency and the constituency of the Minister's colleague, Deputy Varadkar, and the former Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, and 89 families or 29% were from the Ballymun-Finglas area, while 13% were from Lucan-Clondalkin, followed by Drumcondra, Donnycarney, Crumlin and Drimnagh. The bulk of the people were from two areas in Dublin. My issue, and I am not Dublin focused as I have sympathy with the homeless everywhere, is that we know where the problems are, yet most of the local authority building is not being concentrated and directed to those locations. The then Minister published a document, "Laying the Foundations", last year in which the targets for Dublin were embarrassingly low, given that it is where most of the problem is. They would only deal with approximately 10% of those who are waiting for accommodation. Representatives of local authorities who appeared before the housing committee told us they are meeting their targets, but homelessness is increasing because their targets are ridiculous.
Why has the Minister not met representatives of Fingal County Council, in particular, which covers Blanchardstown and Mulhuddart? It is my constituency, but I am not being parochial. We are snowed under with homelessness and there is no plan. The council has not built or developed anything for years. There is only one site of council owned land in Blanchardstown that is ready for development, but no plan has been brought forward to the council.
It relates to the figures. I tabled a parliamentary question and, of the 47,000 social houses referred to in the reply, 18,718 will be local authority new builds. That is only a little over 3,000 a year. I am rounding up the figures for the sake of speed. That is lower than the figure for 2008, before the crash. The impression is being given that there will be lots of social housing, but the figure is much lower. In addition, the figures include the 1,500 modular units. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that. Leasing is also included for the first time in local authority figures. What element will be leased?
Last week I asked the Minister about addressing the cap, particularly in local authorities. I checked this further during the week. Part of the reason people are becoming homeless is that the cap has not been changed in each local authority for so long. Five years ago local authorities did not have homeless clinics.
Okay, but that must be seriously examined. With regard to land aggregation, the Minister is concentrating too much on rented accommodation. Long-term rental will not solve the problem in this country. Renting over the long term will only cost the State money. Consider all of the land the local authorities have. In each budget they are paying pay back a certain amount to the banks because they bought the lands in the boom, as I said last week. It was addressed then but it is part of this week's discussion. Now, in fact, many local authorities are paying double the amount to the banks. It is costing the country a fortune. The Minister spoke again about the HAP scheme. It was also mentioned last week, Chairman, so there is a little confusion on your part. The HAP scheme is fine but, as the Minister will have heard on the radio during the week, rents are increasing all over the country. We have the new HAP scheme, which I believe will work if it is done right, but there is no cap on rents. As a result, the local authorities are putting people in the HAP scheme but the rents are increasing. That means people are caught again because they must pay extra money on the rent, so they are not gaining. That is why they are finding it hard to find a place to live. Unless the Minister considers putting a cap on rents, the HAP scheme will be defeated.
I have a question about the elderly. Part 2 refers to initiatives for the elderly. We have really failed in this regard. Each local authority provides housing aid for the elderly. Originally, one had to be 62 years of age to get it and then that increased to 63 years. Now, one must be aged 66. One must be 66 years of age if one is applying for any type of grant from local authorities. That is not good enough. People are living longer, which is fair enough, but they do not qualify for the grants. Like many local authorities, I am dealing with people aged 62 and 63 who require grants for their windows and doors, but they cannot get them because they are not the right age.
With regard to local authorities, the Minister gave a commitment to the committee that he would work with them on housing repairs. What repairs do local authorities carry out for local authority tenants? There is no longer such a local authority scheme. The authority will fix a roof if it is leaking, but it must be an emergency, and it will carry out electrical work, because it is afraid the house will go on fire.
Elderly people will not get any work done on their homes. A lady called to me last week. She is a local authority tenant and she cannot afford to fix her gas boiler. We tell those tenants that we do not fix gas boilers, doors or windows. We do not do any repairs anymore to local authority houses. The Minister must address this because people are living in fear.
I will respond to Deputy Coppinger's questions first because she might need to leave. She said the focus on private houses is not a solution. This is a housing strategy as well as a homelessness strategy. We are trying to deal with multiple pressures and challenges across the housing sector, whether it involves a first-time buyer trying to buy a house, a chief executive from a multinational who is trying to buy or rent at high rates, dealing with a fundamental deficit in supply versus demand or trying to ensure that vulnerable people get the supports they need from the State. Many of them are under huge pressure and are very exposed in a way they should not be in a normal, functioning property market in which there are sufficient numbers of social housing and so forth. We are trying to do everything here. To look at this plan through the lens of homelessness alone would not be fair. Of course, that is the priority for me. That is why it is the first chapter and why we spent a long time discussing it when we met last week.
This is about trying to ensure those who can afford to buy or rent their own homes have properties in the right places at an affordable price, where possible. The more people who can access their own homes with their own resources, the less pressure there will be on the State and the more resources we can allocate to people who need our help. There are many people on the margins who may be just above the threshold and, therefore, do not qualify to be on a social housing list. We need to respond to their needs to try to keep them off the list. Many of them do not want to be on the list. They want to access properties to rent or purchase. That is why are introducing a new so-called cost rental category, for example.
I acknowledge there is a big emphasis on the construction industry and building private houses on private land as well as a big emphasis on dramatically increasing the social housing stock, but both are important. There is a significant imbalance in this sector and I do not want to add to that. We need to develop a progressive, balanced sector along multiple strands, all at the same time, and that is what makes this so difficult. If this were simply a social housing strategy, we would focus on building as many social houses as we could in the right places as quickly as we could. While we are focused on that, we have to focus on many other issues as well. Otherwise more families will be pushed into this category. If families are given some assistance by the State or if supply increases, they will be able to access their own sustainable housing solution.
However, I recognise we face huge pressures in respect of social housing. We do not have a high enough percentage of our overall stock in social housing. My understanding is approximately 8% of the national housing stock is social housing or local authority housing through an approved housing body, AHB, or whatever whereas the average in Europe is approximately 17%. We have a great deal of catching up to do and that is why this plan is about increasing the overall social housing stock by between 30% and 40% over five or six years. That is a significant ambition which we will deliver. We propose to deliver an additional 47,000 social housing units over that period, with 26,000 to be built exclusively for social housing, 11,000 to be acquired from the market, a portion of which will be new builds, while the remaining 10,000 will be leased by local authorities and AHBs. These leases will be long term, for 25 or 30 years in most cases, with an option to review at the end of them. These are long-term, sustainable housing solutions. Sometimes leasing allows one to do something off-balance sheet that one might be unable to do on-balance sheet.
We have discussed the asset residential property service, NARPS, model used by NAMA. I opened a good social housing scheme linked to that model in recent weeks. We need to consider the reality of what we are facing and then implement practical solutions to build, acquire housing and put long-term leasing arrangements in place using funding vehicles to allow us to generate the maximum return within the spending rules by which we have to abide. That is what this plan is all about.
I take the point that Deputy Coppinger's constituency needs to be a focal point in the context of families and individuals becoming homeless and I am happy to meet officials from Fingal County Council. My officials at the most senior level met them only last week to discuss this issue and, therefore, this conversation is happening. I am happy have a political conversation with the councillors from the area and I am committed to meeting representatives of all four Dublin local authorities. We have only had an opportunity to have a proper political conversation with two of them so far but I will engage with both Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Fingal County Council.
I will come back to the Deputy on the individual site she mentioned but I would like to have an informed answer on that site, which is ready to go and should be progressing. I would need to check before I give her an answer.
It is a little surprising that as the Minister is travelling around the country, including a visit to Waterford last week, he has not met representatives of the key councils which are experiencing this problem. I ask him to meet the management of these councils. The councillors are powerless in the sense of bringing forward proposals. There is not a problem with CEOs acquiring houses. There is no end of houses for them and it is a little disingenuous to equate the two.
However, I pointed out that the price of private housing is being jacked up by developers, some of whom have been through NAMA and have had the largesse of the taxpayer put in front of their feet. They are also getting money from the NTMA through Activate Capital, for example, and they are shooting up the price of houses. The Minister is either powerless to do anything about it or he does nothing about it.
It is important that I nail this issue down because we have proposed to spend €5.35 billion of taxpayer's money on dramatically increasing the social housing stock by between 30% and 40% in five years. I am not sure if such an increase was achieved in the past.
I am talking about adding to the social housing stock. Unfortunately, the State sold much of its stock, which, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably a mistake in certain instances. We are committing a huge sum. Of the available additional capital that can be allocated in the upcoming budget, 60% will go on social housing. We will allocate more to social housing than to education, health, transport and everything else combined. Anybody who thinks we do not have a commitment across government to social housing needs to examine what we are doing in terms of prioritising funding allocations given the competing demands that are there. This is a big strategy for social housing. The most significant pressure is how quickly this housing can be built and how the systems and decision-making around the building of those projects can be driven to get them under way faster through Part VIII, other planning processes, using public land, streamlining decision-making processes and so on.
I accept the criticism regarding the over-reliance in the past on the private sector in respect of providing social housing solutions for many people. That was exposed by the property crash when people stopped building. However, we are planning for the future now and we are committing huge sums of available capital. The social housing build programme is dominant in the context of our capital commitments over the next five or six years but I also have to make sure the private housing sector begins functioning again. Last year, 12,500 houses were built. Half of them were one-off houses in the countryside. A significant portion of the other half was generated by finishing off unfinished housing estates and apartment blocks. The number of new starts last year, therefore, was between 3,000 and 4,000. That level of supply needs to be dramatically corrected. It is encouraging that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of new starts, planning applications and completions for the seven months of this year in comparison with the same period last year.
While the level of increase is not as great as is needed, it is nonetheless a significant increase. I reassure members that things are starting to work. The number of completions throughout the country in the first eight months of 2016 was 9,167 houses, which is a 19% increase on the first eight months of last year. The number of house completions in Dublin in the same period was 2,620, which is an increase of 46% on the number of completions in the first eight months of last year.
The reason we are putting in place initiatives, incentives and legal changes is to change that. I accept that the vast majority of houses currently being built and sold in Dublin, where there is a margin for developers, are high-value properties. We need to change that. That is the reason we are driving strategic development zones, SDZs, and the reason we need pathfinder projects. We need projects like O'Devaney Gardens to deliver affordable housing units at affordable rental prices and so on. In the greater Dublin area, 3,823 units were completed in the first eight months of this year. That is a 35% increase on last year. There is movement in the right direction. The work is not yet complete, not by a long shot. We need to see up to 300% increases in terms of starts and completions and we need to see a broad spectrum being delivered in terms of different cost levels and different sizes. We also need specialist units for our elderly population and so on. The trend, although far from perfect, is moving in the right direction and we need to build on it. We need to address issues such as first-time buyers not being able to access houses at a price they can afford in the areas where they want to live. For this reason, consideration is being given to providing an initiative in the budget around first-time buyers in particular. It is important to recognise that things are starting to move. We need to accelerate that and we need to manage it to ensure it is a sustainable growth story.
On repairs to local authority housing, local authorities have different approaches to repairs. There is a budget for maintenance and repair of existing social housing stock. Some local authorities are under more financial pressure than others. I accept that and agree that it results in inconsistency within different local authority areas.
On the housing assistance payment, HAP, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, and I made the decision to increase HAP payments and rent supplement payments. We did not make that decision on the basis of a calculation done on the back of a cigarette box. This was done on the basis of the figures provided by the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, in regard to the bottom third of the rental market in terms of cost, with a readjustment of HAP and rent supplement payments to meet the increases in that percentile.
We are responding to the increases in rent with an increase in HAP and rent supplement payments. The increase varies throughout the country depending on the extent of the rent increase. Obviously, it was much higher in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway than it would have been in other rural areas.
Deputy Ellis asked about accommodation for older people. At the ploughing championships yesterday we launched a new competitive process in respect of which there is a prize fund of €100,000 available. We are inviting designers, architects, developers and so on to come up with an exemplar design solution for housing for older people, including people who want to trade down but live in a safe community setting. We are seeking house designs that specifically meet the needs of elderly people. We should be smart and sophisticated enough to do that. The purpose of the €100,000 prize fund is to get people competing on an ideas basis to provide solutions that we can factor into our pathfinder projects and social housing schemes. It is important that an element of our social housing schemes specifically target and cater for elderly people. This can also be done in private sector schemes because I believe there is a strong private sector demand for this type of housing. That is a priority for us.
A consistent thread throughout the plan is the competitive process to ensure we get the best ideas. We have a very sophisticated and streetwise house building and development sector in Ireland. There are many very good architects in this country. There are also many people who went abroad to survive commercially, who have learned an awful lot in the places they have been, such as London, Boston and the Middle East, and are now coming back and we want them to be competing for design solutions to some of the problems we are trying to address.
We are reviewing our approach to Traveller accommodation as a whole. I know this is an issue close to Deputy Ellis's heart because he has raised it with me on a number of occasions. I am seeking approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for a significant increase in funding next year for Traveller accommodation. In the next day or so we will be publishing the response to what happened almost a year ago, which resulted in the unbelievably tragic deaths of ten people. We have assessed fire safety at all the halting sites and specific Traveller accommodation throughout the country, and that assessment will be published. I assure the Deputy that Traveller accommodation is a strong focus of this report.
In terms of spend, I would not judge output by spend at this time of year because often local authorities spend money during the year, be that on upgrade of a halting site or the provision of additional accommodation, which they do not claim until towards the end of the year. Members will be aware that the vast majority of capital expenditure, the programmes for which we will probably discuss later, gets drawn down in the last three months of a year even though much of the work takes place earlier in the year. In 2016, the target was to have an additional 66 units at the end of June but only 16 were provided. This is typical of the annual cycle in that the majority of delivery happens in the last quarter of the year. I will come back to the Deputy on the detail in that regard if he wishes.
On State-owned lands, compulsory purchase orders and church-owned lands, we are casting the net pretty wide in this regard. State-owned land is not solely land owned by local authorities. For example, we sought and have received from CIE a report on what land it could make available at commercial value to local authorities or the Government for housing projects. CIE has some very strategic sites available. It is likewise in the case of port companies and so on. The spectrum of State-owned lands is much broader than one might think.
I encourage local authorities to use compulsory purchase orders in a targeted and progressive way but there are impediments in this regard. There are pretty strong property rights enshrined in the Constitution such that a property with nobody in it cannot be acquired if it is privately owned. There needs to be pretty strong criteria around dereliction and so on before that can happen.
The issue of vacant properties was mentioned in previous discussions and again today. We have given the Housing Agency €70 million to acquire up to 1,600 vacant properties, in respect of which it is making great progress. The agency has been offered more than 700 properties. It has already secured 22 and a series of acquisitions in the pipeline are being worked through.
The €70 million is essentially a start fund for that. Once they begin acquiring, they get rent from the properties involved and the fund starts to generate moneys that can be used to buy further properties and that is how the figure of 1,600 will be reached. Local authorities are also acquiring a considerable number of vacant properties. There is a great deal happening on vacant properties, through the Housing Agency, through local authorities and through new schemes that we are looking at, such as the repair and lease scheme. I say this in the event that members might think the sector is not being dealt with.
My final point relates to Part V. I am aware that some would like me to demand 20% rather than 10%. In truth, the 10% under Part V is a minimum requirement. I am of the view that there will be many private housing estates that will contain more than 10% social housing in the future. Developers will be doing deals with approved housing bodies and local authorities but we must have a red line that reflects the bare minimum in every housing estate. Commentators are making crude calculations that one would need to build X number of private houses to get Y number of social housing units at 10%. That misses the point. Let us consider one of the projects, namely, that at O'Devaney Gardens, where the proposal is for 50% private units, 30% social housing units and 20% affordable rental units. There will be lots of examples where we go away beyond the 10%. However, there is a basic requirement that the minimum required in respect of all private developments is 10%.