Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 28 September 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness: Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government (Resumed)
In today's meeting we are engaging with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on the outcome of the housing summit and the review of Rebuilding Ireland currently being undertaken. I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, and his officials to the meeting. Today's meeting format will see each member given six minutes each to engage with the Minister and after the six minutes, we will move to the next member. That will be three minutes to ask questions and three minutes for the Minister to reply. I ask members to respect these time limits so each member has the opportunity to speak. I will call members again if there is time at the end. We are hoping to finish by 11.30 a.m. so we should get a couple of rounds in if members adhere to the limits.
Before beginning I draw the attention of witnesses 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 their evidence to the 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 a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. 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 call on the Minister to make his opening statement.
I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to appear again before the committee, this time to give you an update on the review of Rebuilding Ireland under way and on the outcomes from the housing summit held earlier this month at the Custom House. Ms Mary Hurley from my Department, who is sitting to my right, met members last week and I asked her to brief the committee on a range of housing matters but I am keen to engage directly with the committee myself as early as possible into this Dáil term to discuss the many housing challenges we face and to personally update it on matters. We have already had a number of opportunities in the Dáil since we returned and I will be in the Seanad again this afternoon. I thank the committee for the support it has given to me and my officials since I was appointed Minister and for working so well with the Department in putting forward innovative solutions and ideas designed to alleviate the current housing crisis and to drive delivery and supply measures. I also extend thanks to local authority members and personnel for the work they are doing, as well as the voluntary sector for the work it is doing day in and day out. I am joined today by the following colleagues. They are Mr. John McCarthy, Secretary General, whom members know; Ms Mary Hurley; and Mr. David Walsh, assistant secretary with responsibility for planning, land management and the housing market policy division.
I will first take the opportunity to update the committee on the review of Rebuilding Ireland, including some of the progress made recently in tackling homelessness and on the homelessness measures that are being advanced on foot of the housing summit with local authority chief executives. Notwithstanding this wide-ranging platform of action, we all know significant challenges remain. One year on from Rebuilding Ireland’s publication, a focused review has been carried out to assess the impact of the new investments, policies and initiatives being advanced under the action plan and consider where to focus and redouble efforts to address the supply and affordability issues that persist. The aim of the review is to identify additional measures, particularly new or additional supply side measures for social, private and rented accommodation, with an emphasis on affordability and those key workers who are currently under pressure in finding homes to buy or rent. The review will also identify further measures to tackle homelessness and to help individuals and families to remain living in their own homes; a range of ambitious and realistic measures to address vacant housing and provide a disincentive to vacancy in future; ways of reducing construction costs and improving the efficiency and viability of apartment and house building; new measures to support and encourage the rental sector; and ways of delivering sustainable mixed tenure solutions on sites of scale, especially in our cities where the demand-supply imbalance and price inflation is greatest.
Already, a number of initiatives have been announced as part of the review. With regard to social housing and homelessness, these include a change in social house building policy, which will see the housing budget being re-orientated more towards direct build programmes for local authorities and housing bodies. As a result, the current target for 2018 of circa 3,000 newly built homes will increase by almost 30% to circa 3,800.
There will also be additional emergency accommodation and family hubs to meet the short-term needs of homeless households; the establishment of a new homeless inter-agency group chaired by Mr. John Murphy, former Secretary General, to facilitate the delivery of homeless services in a coherent and joined-up way between the relevant Departments and agencies; the development of a homeless prevention strategy for non-nationals without entitlements, i.e. habitual residence conditions, by the Departments of Housing, Justice, and Social Protection; facilitation of homeless families in Dublin wishing to move to locations outside the capital, where possible; and an urgent examination of the issue of refusals of reasonable offers of accommodation by those in emergency accommodation with a view to a consistent approach to such refusals being implemented nationally.
Further measures have been signalled in relation to the rental sector. These include a further extension of rent pressure zones to Drogheda and Greystones; an enhanced regulatory role for the Residential Tenancies Board to more directly drive compliance and best practice, which will be implemented over a two-year change management programme; a reinforced awareness campaign to ensure wider awareness by tenants of their rights, an important measure in terms of homelessness prevention; and additional legislative and other measures to strengthen the protections available to tenants and to address issues in relation to short-term lettings.
Additional measures flowing from the Rebuilding Ireland review will be announced in the coming weeks, including in the context of budget 2018.
I have been asked to keep this statement short and that is what I intend to do. I have outlined just a number of measures that are under way. I know only too well that more is needed and more will be done. I again thank the committee. My officials and I are happy to respond to any questions that members may have.
I thank the Minister. We are going to try to keep to topic as much as possible. We will have three minutes of questioning and three minutes of response from the Minister before moving to the next member.
I have four straightforward questions. The last time we met I raised the need for independent inspections of emergency accommodation. Since then the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, DRHE, has completed its work on the national quality standard framework and have presented that work to the Department along with a proposal for the establishment of a national equality standards office which would have an inspectorate related to it. Can the Minister give us an update on that? Can he tell us when that office is going to be established and what its staff and budget are going to be? Can he also tell us if it will be independent of the Department, the local authorities and the regional homeless executive, and if it will cover all emergency accommodation, including private emergency accommodation?
On the land initiatives I have a very straightforward question. There are four land initiative projects currently in negotiations with the local authorities, with three in Dublin city and one in south Dublin. I understand that there is going to be a call from councillors in Dublin city for the Department to directly fund the land initiative regeneration project in St. Michael's estate rather than have it as a private sector-led development. I have raised this issue with the Minister before and I would ask that he consider such a proposition, particularly in the light of the budget announcements in a couple of weeks.
Can the Minister update us on the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF? Can he tell us when the Department will be making decisions on whether to afford funding to the preferred list of projects? Can he give us any update on the concerns many of us have around affordability?
Can the Minister tell us when the building reports from both the housing agency and the Department will be published, and can he give us a guarantee that there will be no watering down of those reports and that the Oireachtas members will be given those reports in full, as they are presented to him?
I am talking about the two reports on the cost of construction; one which was done in-house by the Department, and the other which is looking at international comparisons, as I understand it, by the housing agency.
On the cost of construction report which is being drafted by my Department, part of that report managed to make its way out, incorrectly, into the public domain. I do not know whether that is one of the leaks that the Deputy referred to in his contribution yesterday evening. Work on that report is continuing. I had the chance to preview an early draft to see how it is progressing, but there is still a bit of work to be done, if I am being honest. It is not an easy thing to do, and obviously the Department has a number of pressures across a number of fronts.
I am not exactly sure when the other report will be available. I did discuss it very recently in my most recent meeting with the housing agency. We want to publish both reports together, and I do not want there to be delay on our side from having them both published. I would hope to have them in the course of October.
On the independent inspections, I am currently in a position where I am finalising budgets. We want to see more inspectors, and we need to have a budget to provide for those inspections. I am working on that. It will include more inspections in the private sector, which is important as well. We will have a protocol in place. There should be a reporting mechanism which reports to me, but there should also be a separate reporting mechanism which reports to the committee so that it can understand exactly what is coming from those inspections and what is showing. That is something that we are also progressing with the water services legislation, which is currently on Second Stage. We are working on that protocol at the moment with the DRHE, and we will have something on that shortly. The key thing is to get the money in place so that we can have the inspectors and the inspections.
On the land initiatives, I am meeting with Dublin City Council on Monday evening and it will no doubt raise this with me then. I look forward to seeing more details on this. If we can help in a meaningful way I would like us to help, but I will wait and see what the city council has to say to me directly.
On LIHAF, the local authorities met the 15 September deadline. The different contracts are at various stages and I have a number of them on my desk at the moment. I wanted to stress to the local authorities that they should not wait for me to sign off before proceeding to design stage. In 80% of cases that has happened. They are already at design stage, pending approval from me. To give a brief update, one of the 34 projects listed has fallen out. It was a smaller project and we were not able to proceed with that. I will give more details on that when I can. We are about to sign off on 20 of the contracts. I will be able to sign them quite quickly because I am happy with them all. In a few other cases we are having a second look to see if we are getting what we think we should be getting. It is at the sensitive stage of signing contracts so there is not too much I can say, but what I can say for certain is that about 70% of the housing that will be delivered by LIHAF will be two or three bedroom units costing €320,000 or less. At the moment we are trying to ensure that we can secure an affordable provision on site.
I thank the Minister for coming in this morning. I appreciate all of the work that has been done and the progress that has been made on the issue of homelessness but it is an escalating crisis month on month. Do we have data on or do we hold interviews with the people who are becoming homeless to identify the reasons behind homelessness? If we have that data can it be shared with the committee?
I have heard more and more evidence that many homeless families from Dublin have been shoved out into neighbouring counties and are being accommodated there. Do we have any statistics on that?
One of the more worrying statistics is that while the crisis is mainly in Dublin we are seeing a greater percentage increase in homelessness outside of Dublin. Since March last year we have seen an 81% increase in families and a 55% increase in children becoming homeless, which is an escalation.
On the social housing programme, I believe we are not really at the game when 75% of the projects are for 20 units or fewer. We are not really tackling the problem. We use sustainable development as the excuse for not being able to build larger estates, but if we were to use public housing and mixed tenure, such as social housing, affordable housing and affordable rent, we could provide that and build larger housing developments. I understand that procurement and planning are the two aspects of the four stage process that are killing the process, or greatly slowing it down.
The Minister has said that finance is not the problem. If finance is not the problem surely it is fiscal space? We do not have a bottomless pit of money when it comes to finance.
I would appreciate a quick update on An Bord Pleanála. The Minister mentioned that some 5,000 homes are currently going through An Bord Pleanála's process. There is no way of tracking the applications at the moment. Is there any way that this committee can be given data on how that is progressing, specifically concerning the two pre-consultation processes, with the council and An Bord Pleanála's pre-planning process?
We are beginning to have a debate about vacant properties, local authorities and the accuracy of the CSO information on this area. We need to get to the bottom of the issue of vacant properties. The census will say the numbers do not include over-shop premises, and we all know that in every rural town and even in the cities there are a huge number of them.
Regarding approved housing bodies, what is the percentage of the market rent being paid? Is it different or is it the same for everyone? When will we have the review of the rental pressure zones which, I think, was promised in early summer? Where are we regarding the skills shortage? The construction industry has identified a major shortfall in construction skills.
I thank the Deputy. Later this afternoon I hope to publish the latest homelessness numbers. I have not had a chance to look properly at them and I want to do that before I publish them so I can have confidence in them, but what they will show is an increase in homeless families nationally but a decrease in homeless families in Dublin. I was in Limerick yesterday and met with the chief executive of the council there and they have a problem with homeless families in Limerick. They have a large number of homeless families there but, because of the new money I announced at the housing summit for hubs, they will be able to draw that down and they have given me an assurance that almost all of those families will be in either hubs or social housing homes before Christmas. One of the outcomes of the housing summit, apart from the list of outcomes that was published, was the renewed focus from the local authorities and the money that I was making available to tackle this. Much work will have to be done, including more work outside of Dublin than has been happening to date, but in one respect, because Dublin has had this problem for longer, there are many supports now in place that we can roll out more easily outside of Dublin that will help. Regarding when a person presents as homeless, we have people and teams in place that are there to try to understand exactly what the situation is and a huge amount of effort goes into prevention. Since Rebuilding Ireland came into effect, 1,000 families have been moved out of emergency accommodation but 500 have been prevented from entering it, so a huge amount does go into prevention work. That can only happen when one does a proper interview and understands exactly why the person has presented, then sees how one can best keep them from falling into emergency accommodation.
There are a couple of points to make about the social housing programme. One of the focuses we have under the national development plan that I published earlier in the week is our intention that 40% of growth in building and development over the next 20 years will be in already built-up areas, which would take advantage of infill sites. I had the opportunity over the summer to visit these types of sites in counties such as Carlow and Kildare where infill development is taking place, and some of the sites are quite impressive. I had to try to break ground on one of them and could not get the shovel into the ground. It was a bit embarrassing and Deputy Casey's colleague beside him had a good laugh at me at the time. Building would not be my forte. The other point is that we do not want to build massive social housing developments. We want a good mix. We have seen in Dún Laoghaire a very important project come forward through the councillors for a mix of social and affordable housing, which I think is the model that can be replicated elsewhere. I will announce more affordability measures next week on the builds side that will help. After the budget we will have another round of affordability for buyers, which I think will be helpful as well. When we have those, it means we can have more ambition around certain sites that are in public ownership and what can be delivered. Regarding the build programme, we are pushing more and more towards rapid. Dublin City Council has come with its first volumetric rapid build of about 600 units, which is important.
We have been doing work over the past number of months as to how we can shorten the four-stage process and lock in a guarantee of a certain number of months - and no longer than that - and we are very close to being able to finalise that process with officials. We have never refused a project on money grounds that has been requested of us by a local authority, and that is an important point to note.
I was with An Bord Pleanála a number of weeks ago. It has its own internal change management programme under way regarding how it uses technology and how it might better use it. I will ask An Bord Pleanála for any data it can give me and I can give those data to the committee to help it to understand exactly how the fast-track process is going. The figure I think I heard at the time was that it had 5,000 homes or units on its books going through that process. I will get more up-to-date information on that for the committee. I want to give the committee more data sets rather than publishing quarterly reports and the amount of time that goes into that, so we will definitely follow through on that.
I welcome the Minister and commend him on all his efforts in resolving homelessness and the housing challenge in general. I welcome the fact the Minister is establishing an inter-agency group to look at homelessness, because we need more coherence in the sector. Does he have detailed levels of funding that are being provided to local authorities, approved housing bodies and the various agencies and NGOs? I am conscious that a lot of resources and funding are being put into the sector, and it would be helpful if we had a breakdown of that as well as guidance as to how we can improve on the delivery of the service to maximise the impact of that funding. That would be critical.
The second point I wish to make concerns housing in general. I am concerned about a cohort of our citizens who are essentially falling between two stools. First, they do not qualify for mortgages because their wages are not up to it and, second, they do not qualify for social housing. They are struggling to meet the rent due to rent pressures, especially in the rental pressure zones, RPZs. Are new initiatives being brought in to address and assist these people? The Minister mentioned affordability. I am hopeful that these affordability mechanisms, whether through purchase or rent, will be introduced to help this cohort of people. The number of them out there, and we all know them, is bringing pressure in the rental pressure zones and having a knock-on impact right throughout the housing system. If we could do something to address that cohort, it may reduce or relieve some of the pressure on rent in the RPZs.
I wish the Minister well and offer my support in anything he does.
Regarding the inter-agency group, and not to personalise it, but the chair, John Murphy, is the former Secretary General of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and led the Action Plan for Jobs. He also has previous experience in the housing side of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government so he is more than qualified to help get a better co-ordination of the various services. Many supports are spent on trying to help people in homelessness, and rightly so. This year, my Department will provide - I will give the committee a proper detail of this, but this is off the top of my head - around €100 million in homelessness services. Between local authorities separately and the HSE there will be about another €50 million to perhaps €65 million. A little less than half of that, maybe 40%, goes through the voluntary sector in terms of service delivery. One of the things I have heard back from the voluntary sector is that they will hear of a commitment for funding from somewhere else regarding a facility or services that will be run in a homelessness facility, the money does not materialise and then they find themselves chasing it down. This is to make sure that the money that is committed is being spent appropriately in the right place. That is a piece of work that Mr. Murphy will do. He has already commenced that work. We have met and a series of meetings is coming up very shortly. I will get an accurate breakdown to the committee following today's meeting.
As for people falling between two stools and not being able to qualify for a mortgage or for social housing, we have affordable buy schemes on the way in certain sites such as O'Devaney Gardens. It was intended that there would be a mix of affordable buy and affordable rent there but more than likely, in terms of the numbers adding up, it is probably going to be more affordable buy. I am conscious that people are locked out of the mortgage market. I am conscious that these people would be able to finance or repay a mortgage if they could get better financing terms and, again, without wanting to fly any kites or be accused of doing so, we will have measures to announce later on in a couple of weeks.
Senator Coffey mentioned the rent pressure zones. They are working, and the data for Dublin show us that if the trend for this year continues, rent inflation will be about 3% in Dublin. Last year it was 8.5%. When one is paying a high rent of €1,500, as most people in Dublin are, that kind of change does make a difference. It is good that we saw two new areas, Drogheda and Greystones, qualify. Given that we have that criterion in law now, we will more than likely see over each of the coming quarters more areas fall into those zones, although ideally we would not because the rents would not be increasing.
I thank the Minister and his officials for coming before the committee and acknowledge the very constructive engagement we have had with them in the committee and outside it. That is worth saying. I want to stay focused on the questions because our time is limited. The Minister might give us some detail on the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF. There is much controversy surrounding the affordability aspect of LIHAF. I appreciate there are sensitivities around this, but I want the Minister to comment particularly on the following if he can.
Regarding Cherrywood, we see that an application came in yesterday. There is some suggestion that all of that housing will be built to rent so one could say we might have an affordable rent scheme in Cherrywood. There is affordability. Huge amounts of public funds are being committed under the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF. We have got to get commitments, and we have got to deliver in that regard. The Minister says that 80% of them are fine tuned and ready to go, but there has to be transparency. That is the key word. People want to know if taxpayers' money is assisting the private sector - and I have no problem with the private sector - which will capitalise and make a lot of money on it. I accept it may provide some housing but people need to know what is happening. I have referenced Cherrywood in particular so I ask the Minister to respond to that.
The Minister issued a call to local authorities in August in terms of the capital assistance scheme, CAS. That is not that long ago but I would be interested to know if he has had feedback on that.
The Minister mentioned data sets. The big problem with Rebuilding Ireland and monitoring the policy here and generally around the country is a uniform data set. Every agency and every person speaking in the media has different sets. We need to tidy up that. That is an important focus so that in terms of data we know what we are dealing with in real terms. The Minister might also comment on that.
Regarding use of the social housing construction projects status report, we need one. I am not suggesting we could have it today, but we need to be updated on that.
Regarding a complete inventory of all council lands, it has been brought to my attention on numerous occasions, and I have direct experience of it in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, that the local government audit service, which operates within the Minister's Department, has identified local authorities failing to comply fully with the requirements to log, register and carry out a detailed inventory. Some of this is about literally transferring data from paper to some sort of system but this has gone on for four, five and six years, which raises an issue. It is not happening and local chief executives are saying they have no funds to do it. That is not a good enough reason. The auditors are on record. It is on the Department's website, which I looked at again this morning to see that they have identified failure to comply cases in 2014, 2015 to 2016. No action has been happening on this. How can the Minister complete his detailed information if he cannot find that out?
On the indemnity scheme in respect of the agreement on residential institutions, it was identified that substantial lands would be made available. Has the Minister done anything on that?
I refer to the targets set by the Minister's Department regarding local authorities. If they fail to reach those targets, what sanctions will he take against them?
I thank the Senator. On the data sets, this drives me bananas as well, because I hear people quoting different numbers and I wonder where they are getting them from because they do not seem to add up in terms of the information available to me. A team is doing a piece of work on that and its main objective is to establish how we count completions because we are no longer counting connections to the ESB grid as completions. It is about how we get at that accurate figure. A small group in the communications office in my Department is trying to come up with a clearer table of information that anyone can access through the website with information.
On the construction status report, I am about to publish that. It may not be this week because of timelines and trying to get a lot done but to give the Senator a couple of numbers, as of end of the second quarter, 92 schemes are at stage 4 and that covers 2,267 homes. A further 161 schemes are on site and that is for 2,701 homes. A further 111 schemes have reached practical completion and that is for 1,116 homes. Good progress is being made in those numbers but the report will go into that in more detail when I publish it.
The Senator asked about the inventory of lands. Local authorities are required by their auditors to make sure they have an inventory of all lands in their ownership. What we are interested in is the land that can be used for housing and as part of the work we are doing, they must hand back to us the strategic plans for their lands by the end of September because we have housing targets for them that we are co-ordinating with them at present as a result of the housing summit.
The strategic management plan. What is published on the website is 1,700 ha that will provide for potentially 42,500 homes but if we are to drive delivery and be confident in our numbers, we need to know what each local authority is doing with its land and how it will meet its targets and numbers. That is the piece of work we have been developing since the housing summit in order that the Department and I can have confidence in the numbers.
On the redress scheme, that is being led by the Department of Education and Skills. What we are interested in primarily is the lands we have now and how we can use them. I will have a separate conversation on that with the Minister for Education and Skills to see where that is coming from but it is being led by him.
The Senator asked about the CAS. We put out that call in August. I do not have additional numbers.
I thank the Minister for attending this morning. It was great to see him in Carlow. It is welcome to see houses being built but my biggest issue is that we do not get a timescale in that regard. The two housing estates the Minister was launching were brought to the local authorities two years ago. We are now two years on and a brick has not been laid on those two sites, although I understand the Minister is probably not aware of that. When a housing estate is being launched, a timescale for its completion should be given because people see the pictures in the newspapers and think the houses are coming on stream but one cannot state they will be available next year, for example. While I understand we must be careful on giving timescales, issues like that need to be addressed.
The issue of affordable housing is not being addressed. As previous speakers said, too many people are falling between the cracks in the system and are not qualifying to go on the local authority housing list. That is a problem. I could give the Minister ten examples of applications for mortgages that went from Carlow County Council to Dublin. One was passed and nine were refused. These are the people who are not going on the housing list but they do not seem to be getting any help. Will the Minister look at the issue of local authority mortgages because it is one option that needs to be addressed?
We still have not addressed the question of people left in their family home when they have a mortgage. I know that is a separate issue but each member present could speak about the number of people who come into their clinics in dire straits and who have nowhere to go for help. We are not addressing any of those issues. That is why we are seeing a new homelessness. I appreciate that we have to have the hubs in Dublin, but the new assessment of rent pressure zones the Minister has brought in, and they are working, should have been national. When in a housing crisis such a measure should be rolled out across the board. Areas such as Carlow, Kilkenny and others are not included in that assessment. That is a disaster for us because I know of people who cannot afford to pay €1,000 a month rent. They are not going on the housing list and they cannot qualify for the housing assistance payment, HAP. That is where I believe the Minister is creating a new homelessness and it is not being addressed.
I believe the Department is looking at more private housing, as in co-operative organisations such as Clúid and Respond!. That seems to be the way it is moving forward, which is not good. I believe the Department is pushing that approach.
In regard to NAMA, there has been funding available for seven years for purchasing houses but I still believe the Department is pushing the lease-to-rent idea. NAMA needs to be examined and we need to get figures from NAMA. I have many issues to raise and I will do that later because the Minister is due to address the Seanad-----
The fact that we seem to be promoting Clúid and Respond! housing. Even in my local area, it is all Clúid and Respond! co-operative housing. That seems to be the way forward. We are not building enough social houses and that is an issue. I believe the Department is pushing those bodies. The credit unions with their loans are working more through those agencies than they are through the Department.
In regard to timescales, when people come with a tender or a tender is awarded there is a timeline in the contract as to when they must be completed and be handed over to the local authority or whoever is taking the homes. I heard Deputy Jan O'Sullivan state that I was on a couple of sites recently which she had announced three or four years ago. I cannot speak to any problems that might be encountered in the course of any development but we need to make sure, and we can do that now with the new procurement tender framework for rapid housing, that we can be confident about these timelines.
I recently visited a site where a commitment had been given to have the houses built within 12 months and I was talked through exactly how the commitment would be met. It is important that we have such commitments and every contract will have one. Through the different processes we have coming into place, we can get many sites built more quickly than in the past because we have been coming from a low base. While it takes time to get the wheels turning, the wheels are now turning very quickly and I am certain we will see considerable progress in the next 12 months.
On affordability and the issue of people not qualifying for social housing, the figures of one application being approved and nine refused go against the overall data trend. Obviously, the approval rate will not be as high as it would be in a bank because some of those applying for mortgages may not have a good credit history or may have outstanding debts on credit cards and so forth. The local authority approval rate is not as low as one in ten, however. We are examining this issue with a view to doing something on this issue in the coming weeks.
The purpose of the mortgage-to-rent scheme is to keep people in their homes and avoid them losing their homes. Yesterday, we announced a new programme involving a new housing body that is working with Allied Irish Banks. Applicants who qualify under the new scheme will have debt written off. This will be a game changer and I do not see how other institutions will avoid following suit. I am hoping other housing bodies will become involved in this area. The scheme only applies to people who qualify for social housing. However, at least they will be able to stay in their homes and have protection and security of tenure for the next 25 or 30 years. They will also have an option to buy back the property at some point if they are able to do so. While it is difficult for them in the sense that they will lose their homes and will no longer own them, it is important that this voluntary and demand-led programme has been introduced. It is also good that a housing body has taken advantage of the existing scheme. I will soon invite expressions of interest for a new scheme that will leverage a different type of finance, which I hope will also deliver more in this area.
I am still not sure what point the Senator was making about housing bodies. These bodies are very much part of our delivery of social housing.
It is disappointing that the Government has not yet produced a vacant house strategy. Yesterday, I published the Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill, which I hope to have discussed in Private Members' time next week. The legislation is an effort to cut costs and time, streamline certification without compromising quality and bring older buildings and housing units above shops into use as quickly as possible. I hope the Minister will support and, if necessary, amend it.
The Taoiseach spoke of re-purposing the National Asset Management Agency and I have publicly stated that NAMA has a role to play in this area. The Minister indicated that funding for projects was not a problem. Expenditure on capital projects is only 50% of what it was in 2008. NAMA has an opportunity to use its expertise and an off-balance sheet model to provide funding at or higher than the 2008 level to address this issue.
On affordability, I am pleased to hear the commitment given by the Minister regarding announcements he will make in the coming weeks, especially as the Fine Gael Party scrapped the only State-sponsored scheme in 2012. I welcome the progress that will be made in this regard, even if it is five years late.
I listened to Senator Murnane O'Connor's point on the assistance local authorities could provide to the new cohort of people who find themselves in the predicament of being unable to fund a mortgage or rent. Credit unions also have a role to play in this area.
On the costs of construction, I note that Laois County Council reduced the development charge in the county. This is a commendable move which sets an example for other local authorities. The Department should follow its lead by addressing the costs of construction. I make no apology for advocating targeted reductions in VAT. The Minister should also consider a new model for certification and the role local authorities can play. This could generate revenue. He should also address the costs of construction. I am disappointed he will engage in another consultation process on how to address these costs. We have had enough discussion and debate. The Minister should take a coherent approach under which the cost of finance would be led by a State development bank or State revenue would be provided for this purpose.
When the rent pressure zones were introduced the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, gave a commitment to put in place a commission on taxation to make recommendations for this year's budget aimed at helping and assisting those who are providing housing units in the private sector and preventing them from leaving the market. Initiatives were to be taken and incentives provided but the commission's deliberations or recommendations have not been published. With the budget imminent, time is running out.
The Deputy indicated I had proposed to engage in further consultation. I am not sure what he is referring to but perhaps we will discuss that later.
On the taxation of landlords, as we put in greater protections for tenants, we must also ensure we provide protections for landlords, as well as incentives. While we cannot force people to be landlords, we need people to let out property for others to live in. In the context of the budget and the report on the taxation elements that were examined, any changes in the budget will be for the budget. The Government supports a lowering of development charges through the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF. This scheme is fast-tracking and paying for the development of certain lands to get them open, which takes the burden off the developer.
We are negotiating these contracts with each local authority to bring online approximately 23,000 new homes through the €200 million provided in LIHAF funding. I must ensure I am satisfied with the contracts before I sign them. We are already at design stage with a number of those projects which will come on site very quickly.
On the vacant house strategy, during the summer I said that people should not wait for me to publish a report for work to commence. The Deputy should not wait for me to hold a press conference and publish a report as work is under way.
The work on vacancy is well under way. We have an empty homes unit in the Department and vacancy teams in local authorities. More than 1,000 vacant homes in the various local authorities have been reported through vacanthomes.ie. We have to identify the vacant homes and the reason for vacancy to ensure our incentives package can tackle the vacancy issue. It must be targeted, rather than in broad brush strokes.
One of the greatest threats to land supply is the widespread practice of land banking or hoarding. The head of the National Asset Management Agency, Mr. Brendan McDonagh, stated there is enough land available to solve the housing crisis because NAMA has sold land that would support 50,000 houses. Only 3,000 houses or 6% of the potential number have been built. Mr. McDonagh blamed land hoarding for this. Land hoarding and leaving land unused is not penalised and these practices have been shown to result in land speculation and higher house prices. ESRI economist, Dr. Kieran McQuinn, stated land owners can hoard undeveloped land at little cost other than keeping planning permits up to date and are rewarded as prices rise. He recommended the introduction of an aggressive use it or lose it tax to force land hoarders to release sites needed for housing. Does the Minister have plans to introduce such a tax?
NAMA has a mandate to provide 20,000 homes. As it reaches the conclusion of its work, there has been some discussion about its role, which brings me to Deputy Cowen's question on what was happening in this regard.
The Minister for Finance, the Taoiseach and I have done work in recent months to examine whether there may be a new focus for NAMA when it completes its primary mandate, which is to repay the €32 billion in debt that it took on on behalf of the taxpayer after the banking collapse in 2008. We set up NAMA as the bad bank to warehouse and manage those debts. We are now able to have a better-functioning banking system. That was the initial primary mandate of NAMA.
We have a problem with land-hoarding and that is why we have the site levy. It is going to come into effect from 1 January next because that is when the register will be running. In 2019, people will be levied retrospectively from the beginning of 2018. There has been consideration and discussion about the vacant site levy and whether or not it can be enhanced. That will be announced at another time.
I thank the Minister and his officials for attending. Everyone here, including the Minister, accepts that we need more social housing. It is important that we and the local authorities build more social housing in bigger quantities. We have seen applications for ten or 20 units. That is not going to solve the problem. There is almost the same amount of work involved in dealing with those applications as in dealing with the larger ones. We need to move on with big schemes, such as the Oscar Traynor development in Coolock, and to push them along.
Deputy Barry Cowen mentioned a Bill. The downstairs empty shops - not the upstairs - are probably a bigger concern to me. The country is littered with them. Many are in Ballymun. I have seen them in Sallins and right across the country. They were built in the Celtic tiger era when it was said that there were going to be certain shops for certain apartment blocks. They have just been left there. Some have been vacant for ten or 20 years at this stage. I do not know what the local authorities are saying but we need to deal with that. I have tortured Dublin City Council over compulsory purchase orders, CPOs. There are only 20 in train at the moment with the council, the largest local authority in the country. Nearly half of those relate to Finglas because I have tortured the council that much to put down CPOs on houses that have been left idle and are being vandalised for various different reasons. We need to up our game. The council needs to be told that it has to up its game. I have spoken to Brendan Kenny about this on numerous occasions and we are still in the same boat. We have not got to the point of issuing CPOs. Louth has issued CPOs for a large number of units, though I do not know how many. There are many units in Louth and in other local authority areas. What the hell is going on that prevents Dublin City Council from doing that? I do not understand it.
We have to look at affordable housing. Did the Minister have any discussions on the Ó Cualann model in Ballymun? What discussions have taken place to encourage a number of builders that would be prepared to buy into this process and use local authority lands? Have we set up a list of builders that would deliver this? One could then bypass procurement and pick from a list as one does with adaptions when doing adaptions. That way, we can overcome many problems in procurement and other issues and speed up the process. I would love to know how much discussion has taken place in the context of delivering more affordable housing.
I will start with the Deputy's final point. After I met the Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance at site on the day on which the keys were handed over, its representatives came back to the Department and we went through the mechanics of how it had been able to develop that site and the different things that it had done. As I said in Limerick at a two-day conference on social housing with the housing bodies, one thing we want to do is scale these models. Hence, we are looking at the affordability criteria that they put in place to see if we could adopt the model and make it a general scheme for all local authorities and not just that particular housing body. We are trying to work with Ó Cualann - it is up for that as well - but we are trying to ensure that we are engaging in best practice now and to extend that throughout the country.
On the matter of empty shops, both downstairs and upstairs, I have not had an opportunity to look at the detail of Deputy Cowen's Bill. We want to make it easy for people to redevelop above the shop and the shop as well. If a commercial premises is vacant and can serve a housing function, we should do that quickly and easily with a minimum of hassle.
Yes. We are looking at it. I was going to bring something shortly but if Deputy Cowen's Bill has something that we can work with, then we will get it in even more quickly. On CPOs, Louth has done a great job. Dublin City Council gave me numbers about a recent CPO-----
-----project that it did. This was a separate matter. There might have been 25 or 26 CPOs that it pursued. As a result of it issuing the letters regarding CPOs, two thirds of those properties were put back into the private rental market and one third were leased through the local authority for housing in a much quicker timeframe. It did not have to go through the lengthy process of seizing the property. We do not want this property, we just want it to be in use. I understand from my engagements that Dublin City Council has been doing a good job with CPOs but the number the Deputy is giving me suggests otherwise.
I will have to go back to Dublin City Council and ask it again. When I first came took up my position, I met the Attorney General and wrote to him formally to say that we needed to see if we could enhance our use of CPOs because it might be the quickest way to get vacant sites back into use rather than putting in place a levy, as we did on property and on land, that would have a certain timeline to come into effect. The reply from the Attorney General was that we could use CPOs and that local authorities have flexibility on how to use them. We should try to develop that as best practice. We discussed it and the potential for a lead authority to take it on and to help other local authorities at the housing summit.
On the Deputy's point about building social housing and larger quantities, we have a couple of bigger schemes coming.
I do not know how the Minister can give us accurate figures when, in Cherrywood, we do not know how much we are going to get for LIHAF funding. The council tells us that. Alarmingly, it could be as low as 75 units or, if it is spread across, it could be a €75,000 discount on average prices which are about €450,000. That is not affordable and it is no use. It is not a serious return. As Senator Boyhan said, Cherrywood will be one of the biggest developments in the State. It could solve Dún Laoghaire's housing problem but it is not going to do so as matters stand because we will get 800 social units of 8,000 altogether and there may be as little as 1% in affordable housing. The other big development is in Shanganagh. The council is currently only talking about 200 units on a site that could potentially have 536 units. Over a three or four-year period, we will get 1,000 social units against a housing list of 5,700. By the time those are delivered, the list will be longer. That is no good. What is the Minister going to do to increase the percentages of LIHAF and of social housing in Cherrywood? If he does not do those things, we will not solve the problem. There is currently no plan to do anything about that. What will happen to the NAMA land in Cherrywood? I presume it is part of the 20,000 planned units of which we will only get 2,000 for social housing. That is no good; it is not enough. Unless we ramp that up, we will not solve the crisis in our area. I suspect that Dún Laoghaire reflects what is happening in the rest of the country.
Will the Minister tell me how he is going to increase the percentage and proportion of social and affordable housing? To nail a myth and get the Minister to confirm it, there is a notion that it is too costly for local authorities to maintain council houses. I looked at Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's budget for this year. It gets €15 million in rent from all its social housing stock. The maintenance is €10 million, which means that it makes a 50% profit on its annual output.
The councils should be doing it.
Will the Minister do anything about the thresholds for eligibility for social housing? They must be increased. The current situation is not fair because people who are marginally over the eligibility criteria are being thrown off the list.
On the rental situation and the loopholes that are being exploited for the purpose of evictions, how soon will we get change or instructions to the RTB? I have told the Minister on a number of occasions-----
There are two instances at present whereby vulture funds are trying to evict people using these loopholes. Will the Minister issue instructions to the RTB not to allow those evictions to go ahead?
Every site is different in its mix. There might be houses in public and private ownership, NAMA or an international investor might be involved, and the relevant infrastructure connections to the road, whether water or electricity must also be taken into account. The Deputy referred to a site that NAMA might have in his constituency and said that of 2,000 units that might be delivered, only 10% will be social housing. I can point to a site in my constituency where the delivery between social and affordable will be 30% when one looks at the mix between affordable buy, affordable rent and social housing. Every site is different and we must approach this matter in that way. I cannot speak to-----
I know that has happened on certain sites but I do not know the position regarding the NAMA site to which the Deputy refers because I do not have the details in front of me. The Deputy claims that it is only 10% but it not certain what affordability might also be delivered on the site in question. I cannot speak to the individual circumstances of Cherrywood because we are at a sensitive stage in the contract negotiations. The Deputy knows that when I had funding, there were two criteria to which the council could apply that funding - one was the cost of production for every unit on a site and the other was an affordability dividend for a smaller number of units. Different local authorities have done different things depending on the how much money they are getting. What we can be certain of, and what I will be certain of when we have signed these contracts, is that the public return will be commensurate with the public investment made into that site. That is the responsibility that I have as Minister.
On Shanganagh in the Deputy's local authority area, Councillor Brady has come forward with an innovative proposal for social and affordable housing across the entire site. It is very welcome. We looked at it in the Department, the chief executives in Dún Laoghaire looked at it and we hope it can proceed and that other councils can also take it on board.
On the maintenance of local authority housing, there is a myth, and people have told it to me, that certain local authorities are unwilling to invest in new homes because they do not want to take on the ongoing recurrent maintenance charges which would fall on them each year. I do not see that being the case and certainly local authorities have not raised anything like this with me. It is just a myth.
The eligibility criteria for social housing are being reviewed but I do not expect that there will be a significant increase, if there is an increase at all. When the position was reviewed previously, an additional buffer of €5,000 was inserted in respect of the anticipated increases - these did occur - in that period. That review is ongoing.
We are coming to an agreement on a definition of what constitutes substantial refurbishment. I gave a broad outline of what that might look like when I mentioned the change we are putting in place for the RTB. A number of housing bodies have come to me and to the different agencies with definitions or wordings that might work. That will be communicated to landlords and owners by the RTB in coming weeks. If I have to put it on legislative footing, I will do so. However, the only legislation in respect of which it might be possible to do that would be the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill which has reached Report Stage and which will be coming back to the House in October. I do not particularly want to do that because it would not be the right place to put it but if it is necessary and Deputies are willing to support me in allowing a late amendment we might be able to do it then. If not, we will have to do it next year.
I apologise if, following on some of the points arising from the housing summit, I repeat a questiont hat was asked earlier. Inviting the local authority managers in for a summit seems to be a reactive thing which is done when the housing and homelessness figures are released and show a large increase. People view it quite cynically. If the Minister wanted a real summit, one would imagine that members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government would be invited, as well as other interest groups. I understand that the Minister cannot host a massive event.
Some of the things that came out of the summit were cherry-picked by the media. One of them was moving families out of Dublin and the refusal of offers; these things are merely tinkering around the edges. They do not deal with the key issue, which is the lack of social house building. The Minister announced an increase in the target of 30%, I think, which is 800 new social houses. That would bring the target up to 5,000 social houses in 2018. That is still far below what would have been natural in previous decades and is even below what was done by the Government before last in the early 2000s. It does not reflect a housing emergency. These points are being made again and again.
I would have thought that if one were commandeering land to deal with an emergency, one would look at where there are landbanks in key areas in which there is a problem with homelessness. The Department's website is excellent in some ways. There is a very good graphic over four pages which shows, very clearly, exactly how many people are homeless in each city. I looked at the website recently. Almost 70% of those who are homeless are in to Dublin, then there is spillover into adjacent counties such as Kildare and Meath. I was surprised to see that the figure for Limerick is higher than that for Cork. I would have expected Cork to be higher. Then there is Galway. We have said repeatedly, if one were to zone in on the problem, there are three or four areas that are really problematic. Every area has a problem, but the midlands does not have an issue in comparison with other places. This is not a difficult issue. Will the Minister look at the landbanks in the areas to which I refer that are owned by local authorities or that are under NAMA's control and focus on those? One interesting development-----
I will conclude on this point. An interesting development has emerged whereby councillors are getting together to propose projects to local authorities. This happened in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. Will those proposals be acted on? The idea of 50-50 social and affordable mortgages is preferable because affordable rental is not really affordable. That is the point. We should not be looking at it. We should not aim to keep fleecing people with €1,200 or €1,000-----
To quickly return to the numbers again, there is €5.3 billion for Rebuilding Ireland in the capital plan to deliver what is needed. I have a commitment from the Minister for Finance that there will be an increase in this from 2019. That will be announced in the budget. We should not rely on the numbers from 2008 because that was before a massive recession, caused because we had unsustainable public finances that were not being managed appropriately and we had a property bubble.
There are a number of reports that say what I am saying here, namely, that an over-investment in property led to a collapse in the banking sector, which, in parallel with an over-reliance on cyclical taxation, meant that at a particular time both led to a cliff edge for the economy. If we go back to 2008 and say that those were sound numbers to have, either from an investment and construction point of view or from the perspective of the management of public finances-----
What I said quite clearly was that we have not refused one project on the basis of finance. Please do not go back to 2008. Do not go back to VAT reductions either. Is 3.5% really going to make that much difference to a builder? I do not believe it will.
The summit was not a reactive move. I had been meeting with the chief executives of the local authorities during the summer and I realised in July that I needed to bring everyone together.
This was to get everyone onto the same page and see what new measures we needed to take. That summit was arranged then. It was not a housing summit for everyone, it was for the chief executives of the local authorities who are responsible to me. In the course of that week, and indeed every week since I have been in this job, I met representatives of the housing bodies and organisations as well as of the voluntary groups. This was so that I could have information from them to hand as I then put questions to the local authority chief executives. The Chair of the Oireachtas committee attended as a witness rather than as a participant because I thought it important that she be there.
In response to the question on social housing targets, the figure is a 30% increase for what we will directly build for local authorities and housing bodies. That amounts to 3,800 units. I am focusing on that figure because I do not want to rely on the private sector for the delivery of social housing. We will get units through Part V which will increase that number. We will get units through void reconversions which will increase that number again and bring it up to 5,000. It is important, however, that we focus on what we are building ourselves and that is why I refer to that number. When one includes acquisitions as well as leasing, which does come into the stock, the number then goes up to almost 8,000, which is not far off that 10,000 that many feel should be delivered every year. We are ramping up here and ramping up quickly. The numbers for social housing are good.
I now come to the issue of homelessness. As I mentioned earlier - perhaps the member was not here - I was in Limerick yesterday. There is a particular problem there with homeless families, as the member will know from the website. I met the CEO who assured me that almost all families will be accommodated in either hubs or permanent accommodation before Christmas, which is important. The homelessness problem is concentrated in certain areas, and that is why we have things like the housing assistance payment, HAP, place finder in those areas, something we are also rolling out nationally. We have also decided to appoint a Housing First national director and there will be Housing First places outside of Dublin for the first time as well. We will now have exit co-ordinators coming in as a preventative measure to keep people from falling back into homelessness.
With regard to what Dún Laoghaire is and has been doing, we supported Councillor John Bailey's mix of social and affordable housing. I met Councillor Bailey early on in this proposal and I had my officials look at it several times. The CEO was also aware of it, which helped.
The numbers. It will wash its own face over the long term, as the Minister well knows, just as all council housing does. This is just playing politics while we have a disastrous situation in Dún Laoghaire.
Yes. We have identified all of the land. We have identified the thousands of hectares and the 42,000 homes that we think that land can deliver. What each local authority is doing is coming up with a strategic plan for each of its landbanks. Separate to that, we also have a piece of work on the targets that we want each local authority to deliver in order that I can have confidence that as we look at the figures, not just for 2018 but into 2019, 2020, 2021 and beyond, we can actually get this done. It is important that people can have confidence in delivery. Where there have been difficulties with rapid build and with other areas in the past year, we have learned from the experience of fixing these difficulties and from the changes that have been made as a result. We can have greater confidence in our numbers.
There were some additional questions, although I may have addressed them already. Let me be clear about the vacancy numbers. The Central Statistics Office came out with the figure of 198,000 homes. Included in that were vacant homes in areas where there was no demand for housing. The figure also includes homes between lettings, homes that were being sold, and a number of homes caught up in probate. We did a desktop exercise in the Department at the time which showed that there might potentially be 90,000 homes in high-demand areas that needed to be looked at. The geodata numbers came out at around that time and they indicated something similar. We started to drill down into this and thought that we might perhaps be dealing with 25,000 vacant units in high-demand areas throughout the country that could be brought back into use quickly. There is no point in targeting a vacant home that cannot be brought into use quickly because the probate issue is so complicated, for example, or because of a matter that is making its way through the courts. We did further work with the local authority chief executives over the summer and I met the Dublin chief executives individually in their offices to examine this and to examine the numbers in question. Having done this, it looks like the number will be lower than 25,000. In fact, I think it will be lower than 20,000. It is still something to pursue and it is absolutely still a stream of housing that we can bring online. We need a proper understanding, however, of where these vacant homes are and how we can release them. That work is ongoing and is nearing completion. Dublin City Council has the end of October as a deadline for getting solid figures on vacancies back to us, while the deadline for the rest of the country is December. We will have those numbers.
We also need to make sure we can take advantage of over-the-shop living. Dublin City Council estimates that approximately 4,000 homes could be delivered in this way. The committee members will know that from walking around the city themselves. It is also true of towns and villages. Over recent months I have been at a number of different locations where one could see vacant shops on the village street. There is no reason they could not become homes. Again, our long-term objective in the national development plan is to revitalise and regenerate town and village centres. This means building and living in these centres. Taken out onto a wider scale in the cities, one can look at examples like the Charlemont Court development that we opened earlier this week in my own constituency. This is a city centre project making use of infill sites as well as redeveloping an old social housing scheme into a new social and affordable scheme. It is mixed use with private and commercial space as well as leisure facilities and everything else. That is where we want to concentrate our development as a principle. That is very important.
Both Senator Murnane O'Connor and I asked questions about a scheme for competitive construction finance. In response to the Senator's question the Minister may have mentioned a consultation process. Will he elaborate on that? I am disappointed to hear that there might be such a process given that this very issue has been part of the problem around construction costs.
Has the Government any plans to address the arbitrary rates in the cost of finance for builders and developers? This is part of the whole problem of construction costs. Is the Government doing anything other than the scheme it brought in a few years ago, whereby mezzanine funding was costing 14% and 15%?
I understand that there is a difficulty in securing affordable finance for developers in many parts of the country. The Government is looking at measures it can take in this regard but I cannot announce them today.
I want to go back to a few matters. We need to see the local authority targets for social housing delivery, so perhaps the Minister might get those to us. I would like to put on the record that the Shanganagh project is more than just a Fine Gael proposal. It is a joint effort by all on the council and it is very important to say that. I tuned into the council meeting myself and all of the groups were involved. I find it a bit disingenuous of the Minister to state otherwise. The project had the support of all parties and none, which is important if it is to work.
I would like the Minister to look again at higher density possibilities in that proposal. I think there is even talk of rolling out a new DART service out there. We have to maximise the potential of that site and I am not too sure if the maximum potential is already there.
I appreciate that the Minister cannot talk about the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, but I just want to emphasise the importance of transparency here. There will be freedom of information, FOI, requests, there will be county managers saying one thing, there will be different councils saying that it is for the Minister to make the decision while the Department says it is a matter for the local authorities, so there are a lot of gaps here. Who is actually making the pitch when it comes to LIHAF? There will certainly be transparency issues, FOI requests will be made and parliamentary questions will be answered. The Minister is aware of that but he just needs to be conscious that there is a need for transparency in anything he does.
Would the Minister consider raising the proposed vacant site levy above the 3% level? This has been recommended by both the ESRI and NAMA and should be considered in the context of bringing the tax forward for 2018. He should at least consider it because it is important. Will he also engage with the Minister for Finance with a view to ending the capital gains tax holiday given in 2012? This measure resulted in the rewarding of land hoarding.
These are facts highlighted by the Union of Students of Ireland, USI, and others. I am not some genius who has identified these facts but, rather, I am communicating what others are seeking to point out. The Minister should engage with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, to end the capital gains tax holiday given in 2012 that rewarded land hoarding. That is a simple measure the Minister could undertake.
One often hears about An Bord Pleanála in the context of Rebuilding Ireland. Its chair attended this committee and there was discussion of resources and the fast-tracking of planning applications. There are big problems in An Bord Pleanála. Members predicted those problems and highlighted them to the previous Minister, Deputy Coveney, who assured them that it would be resourced and that online applications would be available. People still cannot go online to see some fast-tracking applications, and that is a shortcoming the Minister needs to consider.
The Flemish decree was discussed on the "Morning Ireland" radio programme today. I have a letter dated 9 May 2017 and signed by the former Minister, Deputy Coveney, who undertook to establish a review group in regard to the Flemish decree. This morning's radio discussion related to the locals-only rule in rural communities. That is a pressing issue and the Minister should update members in the coming weeks on the Government's intentions in this regard.
I apologise to the Senator for my comments in relation to the Shanganagh site. I was being needled by one of his colleagues and I pulled on my Fine Gael jersey. The issue was first brought to my attention by Councillor Maria Bailey but I acknowledge it had support from all on the council, that they had been working on a solution for the site, and it was not just a Fine Gael proposal.
Each LIHAF contract is negotiated between the local authority and the relevant developer or owner. It then comes to me for approval and sign-off. The Department robustly checks it to ensure it meets the separate criteria, but it is for the local authority and developer or owner to negotiate on its terms. They have been given direction on how and what can be negotiated. It does come back for me to sign and I am aware of my responsibilities in this regard. When the various contracts are signed, there will be a chance to talk more publicly about some of them.
The Senator mentioned a couple of issues that are being considered in the context of the budget and, therefore, I cannot go into them further. However, the Minster for Finance and I are in weekly and sometimes daily contact on various issues that need to be resolved in so far as tackling the housing problem and shortage is concerned.
A few appointments have been made recently to the board of An Bord Pleanála, which is welcome. It went through an organisational review, as a result of which new IT systems and so on are being brought in. I am in negotiations with the Minister for Finance for new funding to ensure it can do the things it wants to do.
I want what a local authority is responsible for achieving in terms of social housing targets to be as public as possible. I have told councillors that they will help me drive these targets and will know them in order that we all know exactly what is happening and move away from the idea of a local authority saying one thing to a councillor who then hears something different from the Department. Rather, councillors will know the targets and how and when they are to be delivered and so on. That will be in place after the budget.
I will ask that a note be prepared for the Senator on the Flemish decree and what is to be done in this regard.
I thank the Minister. The issues that have been raised are very serious and members have been raising them for more than a year. The Minister held a housing summit with the chief executives of 31 local authorities. However, the issues raised by members are concerns that are not being addressed in local authority areas, such as the income thresholds for people trying to get on a housing list, the HAP, rent allowance and that people who do not qualify for the housing list cannot get rent allowance. They are not massive issues but they are being raised every month by members. The Minister is doing his best and everybody is trying to get funding. We are told there is a lot of funding but the homeless crisis is getting worse. People are dying. It is a crisis. Regulation for a few years to resolve the crisis is needed.
The Minister mentioned homeless families in Dublin who wish to locate outside the capital and that a place finder service will be set up in local authorities, and that is to be welcomed. However, there are local authorities such as my own where people are trying to get on the housing list in Laois or Kilkenny or both and cannot do so because the local authority housing income threshold is higher in some local authorities than in others. The Minister needs to broaden his horizons and consider rural towns that are not being addressed.
Another issue dealt with at the housing summit was the establishment of a new interagency group to carry out an awareness campaign to promote services to prevent homelessness. That is also to be welcomed but there is no timescale involved. There are different agencies involved but this issue requires everybody to work together. It involves Senators and Deputies promoting this in their own areas because local authorities are key. Only the 31 local authorities working with the Minister and the Department will be able to solve the housing crisis. If every local authority is not included, that will defeat the purpose because there is homelessness outside Dublin. I acknowledge it is a problem in Dublin but it also exists in rural Ireland and is not being addressed there. Members have been bringing these issues to the attention of the Department for more than a year and I have not received any answer that means I could tell my constituents a problem has been solved. That is unacceptable.
I thank the Senator. I am a little uncertain why she feels she is not getting answers because there has been much consistent engagement between the Department and the committee and the two have worked together constructively.
There is still a lot to do, but we should not dismiss the improvements that have been made nor the things that are happening. We should not dismiss the fact there has been a 40% increase in planning permissions since this time last year and a similar increase in construction commencement notices. As I said last night, there has been a 33% increase in connections to the ESB grid in Dublin. Things are happening but more needs to happen, and that is why we have the rolling analysis of Rebuilding Ireland to see where we can tweak and improve things as needed.
HAP is working, in spite of some people's criticisms of it. It has supported 17,000 or 18,000 people this year. Approximately 411 people have moved out of Dublin under HAP, but the purpose is not to move people from high-demand areas to other high-demand areas. In the programme for Government negotiations, Deputy Harty added a section on a rural regeneration programme, and HAP will play a part in that. At the housing summit it was agreed to pursue that. I have spoken to the Deputy about him being involved in that and how it can be done.
Homelessness is not a funding issue. There are homeless people with very complex needs and we try to put in place every support we can. Sometimes it is not enough but we have to keep trying. The purpose of the new interagency group is to try to co-ordinate our services better to ensure we are spending money in the best way and that the voluntary groups working on the front line with local authorities have sufficient funding. An additional 200 beds will be provided at the end of the year-----
I did not say there are no funding problems. I will not have a Senator misquote me for her own reasons. I said that homelessness is not a funding problem. That people are homeless is not because there is a lack of funding by the Government. There are complex needs that need to be addressed and we must be sensitive to them. We are putting in place every support we can and we will continue to do more. The homelessness budget has more than doubled since 2014. It will increase again next year. There will be 200 new emergency beds in place by the end of the year, and €45 million is being spent on homes for homeless families.
The Government is putting protections in place. I ask the committee to recognise that while work is being done in this area, we recognise that more has to be done and we are doing more. I recently met the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to discuss a change management programme to make it a stronger regulator in the sector such that it could put greater protections in place for tenants and that tenants would not have to take their own cases because they can be in vulnerable positions and not always able to do so. That will be done over the coming two years. Another issue dealt with is the definition of substantial refurbishment, and that will be communicated very quickly to landlords in order that people are not taking advantage of perceived loopholes in rent pressure zones. If that has to be put on a legislative footing, that will be done and that is not a problem.
Prevention is very important. Arising from the housing summit, we announced exit co-ordinators to prevent people falling back into homelessness. We also announced a change in policy whereby a landlord will have to communicate with the RTB when he or she is serving a notice to quit. The RTB can then get the different available services to engage early and prevent people from having to access emergency accommodation.
We know that early intervention works. It needs to happen more. If it only becomes known that people must vacate their property in one week's time, they will almost certainly fall into emergency accommodation. It then becomes even more difficult for them to get back into a better form of accommodation. Early intervention is a key measure and I think it will help the preventive measures to be put in place.
I have three brief questions. Deputy Ellis raised the powers of the local authorities to serve compulsory purchase orders under the compulsory purchase orders and the derelict sites Acts. The Minister has stated that funding is not an issue in addressing these problems. It most certainly is in the case of CPOs and the derelict sites legislation because the local authorities have to fund that process from their own resources. They do not have the resources because they are not adequately resourced to deal with derelict sites let alone to have the personnel or the finance for inspections of properties or HAP properties that the Minister states are working well. That is the problem.
In regard to the repair and lease scheme, how many successful applications have been approved? If the figure is as low as has been quoted recently - that is eight such application were successful nationally - surely the Minister now knows why the scheme has failed? It has failed because of the cumbersome planning certification and regulations associated with the reinstatement or refurbishment of older buildings. Hence the reason I would expect, as the Minister intimated, that he might support the Fianna Fáil Party Bill next week, which would seek to address that issue.
Senator Boyhan raised an issue on the legislation to fast track large developments through An Bord Pleanála. The legislation was enacted by the Dáil in November 2016 but was not signed into law until May or June 2017, a seven month delay on the part of the Government that wanted to ensure the planning procedure would be carried out expeditiously. Second, it is without doubt a problem that An Bord Pleanála also is neither adequately financed nor resourced to deal with those applications as evidenced from UCD's application for 500 apartments in July which was not responded to for seven or eight weeks at which time UCD was told its application was invalid. That is a sham. That cannot continue. We have been told the problem is sorted but it is far from sorted. It is far from resourced. The Minister should not try to tell me again that money is not an issue in resolving this issue. It clearly is when neither An Bord Pleanála nor the local authorities are adequately resourced or funded to deal with the damning problems that exist.
We have not rejected one proposal from a local authority based on funding. In relation to the powers of local authorities to serve compulsory purchase orders, the case history shows us that in the CPO process the majority of CPOs are resolved without ever having to go to court or having to acquire the property. It does not come down to a funding issue in that case. We want to get the local authorities to issue the letters and get the process rolling, to get the people engaged with them and get the units back into use.
We looked at the CPOs at the housing summit and we talked about a better use of them by local authorities and that was one of the things we talked about in the course of that meeting. In relation to the repair and lease scheme, we know it has not worked and we know why it has not worked. I will announce changes to it shortly.
In regard to the fast track process in An Bord Pleanála-----
We know that the ten year timeline is too long for people to engage in a lease agreement. The do not want to do that. We know it has been a significant impediment to people taking up that scheme. We know there are other problems around it in respect of engaging with local authorities and what the Deputy referred to as a cumbersome process. We are aware of these issues and will be making changes which I will announce shortly.
In respect of An Bord Pleanála and the fast track process, the guidelines on this are quite clear. The UCD application failed. If it failed because UCD did not follow the guidelines, it is for An Bord Pleanála to take up that with UCD.
It did. Why does it take seven weeks for UCD to be told that the application failed, when this was a process that was supposed to bypass an eight week process, that would happen if the application had been made to the local authority?
Supply is the main problem, but two weeks ago, Dr. Mary Murphy and Dr. Rory Hearne presented their report on investing in the right to a home, housing, the HAP scheme and hubs. I wish to discuss hubs with the Minister. My view is that hubs are not homes, they are an interim solution, but the point that Dr. Murphy made that is that we should not see hubs becoming a long-term solution because of the lack of housing. What is the timeframe for the families who are in hubs in terms of exiting the hubs? My real concern is that we will have people stuck in hubs. Even hubs are being spoken about in terms of the five star, the four star or the three star hub as if hubs were the solution. They are not. In my view they are an interim solution. I would like to know the timeframe for the exit point. If a family goes into a hub, can we say that a family will stay a maximum term of three months and then they are moved out into some kind of social housing, that people do not get stuck in hubs and hubs become a solution as opposed to an interim fix?
I do not disagree with any of the Senator's remarks. Hubs are not an interim solution, they are the first response. They are meant to replace hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. We do not see them as the second stage. We want people to go directly into hubs and that is why we currently have nine. We will have 15 hubs when the funding for the current programme is completed. It is a first response. It is a very good response. I know some people who may not be as familiar with what is happening in the hubs and how they work have been too quick to criticise them. That has undermined them unfortunately. Great care and support is given to the families that go into the hubs. We want them to be there for as short a time as possible but we must recognise that different families hove different needs and we must have tailored solutions for each family and to be sensitive to that. It is not like moving stock, we cannot say that boxes come in and we will move them in three weeks time to the next location. We have to work with these families and be sensitive to their needs. If we look at a facility like Mater Dei, and I spoke about this yesterday evening or last week in the Dáil, which can accommodate 27 families at present and which will be able to accommodate 50 families when all the work is completed. Since that was opened in June 2017, half of the families have moved on into social housing or into HAP supported homes. They have moved on very successfully, which is great. For those who have not moved on yet, more solutions will come and they will tell me. There are a few families who will be there for longer than we would like them to be there because they will find it difficult to move on to a facility or a private home where they do not have the support which they have now, but which they had not had before and which are helpful to them. I think that is something which we have to be conscious of. We will do everything that we can to make sure that families in hubs are getting every care while they are there and we will do everything we can to try to move them into sustainable permanent secure accommodating as quickly as possible. In a number of cases, however, those families unfortunately will be there for a very long time. Thankfully they will be in hubs rather than hotels. Some families have been in hotels for far too long and the damage that has inflected on them is really unacceptable. If we can make sure that those families get out of the hotel rooms, that is very important. For families, who have to say in hubs longer than we would like, they will continue to get every support possible.
I thank the Chair. The Minister might think the meeting is getting a bit tetchy. This is the most significant crisis in the country. One would expect a full Press Gallery to be present when the Minister is present to answer to the housing committee. Unfortunately the issue blows hot and cold in the media. It is sexy for one or two weeks then it goes off the boil again.
Some people here sat on a special housing and homeless committee which met when the Members of the Dáil were all on their holidays last summer because the Government had not been formed. It brought out a raft of proposals. I cannot think of one proposal that has actually been implemented. I would be happy to be corrected on that, but even things like transport for homeless families from hotels have not been addressed. While we were doing that, the Government was working on its own Rebuilding Ireland, which was a parallel process.
There is a mantra that HAP is working, but people cannot find HAP houses. That is the problem. Nobody can find them. There is no point in citing a certain number of families because the point is that landlords are not willing to avail of it. Why would they when they get more money elsewhere. The failure to stop homelessness is down to the failure to stop evictions. If no Government is willing to introduce measures to stop evictions, the problem will get worse. It will reach 10,000 very soon. It is obvious that we need a movement for housing in this country like we had with the water charges, where massive pressure is put on the establishment to build on the massive scale that is needed.
On the local authority proposals, I do not want to be parochial but I have said before that the area I am in, which is also the Taoiseach's constituency, is a massive homeless blackspot. The figures speak for themselves. There is only one piece of council-owned land left in Blanchardstown that is zoned for housing, which is incredible, but we will be bringing a proposal, as the Solidarity councillors did, on how that can be developed. The local authority managers have been taking too long to do it. I live in that area and I know it well. There are 30 hectares there. Up to 1,200 housing units could be built there, with a park and other facilities. It could be done with a mixture of social and affordable houses, be it 60-40 or 50-50, with the mortgage income accruing back to the local authority. It will all be costed. The Minister says that homelessness is not a funding issue or that money is not a problem. He has just said that no local authority has ever been turned down for a project on the basis of funding. There would be a requirement for funding here, but the Minister would resolve much of the homeless problem in Dublin if he did that.
Nobody doubts the importance of this issue. The Dáil has been back for two weeks and this is the third engagement I will have had on the issue. I will have my fourth later today in the Seanad. The Government was discussing this issue until the end of July while the Cabinet was still meeting. The Cabinet met again at the beginning of September. The Deputy knows that Deputies are not on holidays in August. Those remarks only undermine politicians in general.
If I had time for mindfulness, I would definitely take it. I have to be careful that people do not misrepresent me. I did not mean to get tetchy with the Senator, and perhaps there was some confusion over the language. The Deputy knows how people can jump on something and blow it up into something that is not correct. I have a duty of care here for the work that is being done in this area, and I have to be careful of that.
We have put many of the recommendations that came from that committee into the work that was put into Rebuilding Ireland. That work continues, and we continue to analyse it. The Deputy mentioned things like transport for people who are in emergency accommodation. We provide that through Leap cards, among other things, and I made sure that was going to be in place for the beginning of the school term this year.
HAP is working. Some 350 HAP tenancies are secured every week, which adds up to 17,00 this year. It does work, but we know that we need to roll out and have more place finders because we know that they are a good resource to help HAP work even better. We will do that.
I look forward to seeing the proposal about the site in Blanchardstown but I have not seen anything yet.
We spoke about land banks. There is a huge amount of land at Dunsink Lane in Castleknock. Much of it was compulsorily purchased over the last while by Fingal County Council but there are no plans in place for building on that site. Recently I was at a meeting with the managers of Fingal County Council which was attended by some Deputies, and it was made clear that it has not been looked at. We are in a crisis and there is a massive amount of council-owned land there. I do not understand why it has not even got onto the table. I feel somewhat tetchy about it.
Dublin City County used to make contributions to senior citizens complexes. It stopped those contributions and has not been making them for a long time. We have a large number of bedsits in different areas, such as Finglas, Ballymun and Whitehall which are empty and we were supposed to convert two into one. Now we are returning to the old idea of bedsits. These are small things that can contribute to helping solve the housing crisis. We need to ask why those bedsits have been left there. There are many idle units, not just a couple.
We also need to look at adaptions for overcrowding. While we stopped these years ago and never went back, families were huge. That could take a number of people off the housing list. It would also stop many people from becoming homeless. It is a small thing. The local authorities tell us that it is down to funding. If it is down to funding, surely we should be able to find more money. We are finding money for dealing with extensions or otherwise, but the overcrowding issue is not being looked at and I believe that it is worth considering.
The embargo on recruitment in the local authorities has led to a build up of voids across the city. It has recently been lifted, but not in the maintenance section. Most of the people in the maintenance section of Dublin City Council are now aged over 50. There are no apprenticeships, which is absolutely mad. Dublin City Council uses private contractors. In the past we were able to turn over the voids very quickly. There is a loss of staff there, whether carpenters, metalworkers or electricians, and there is scarcely a person under 50. I would love it if the Minister would raise that issue, because having more apprenticeships could improve the situation.
We have a public private partnership, PPP, supposedly, in Scribblestown, but we seem to be struggling to get it going for some reason in terms of tying up the finance. Can the Minister explain why we are struggling to get these PPPs?
I thank the Deputy. I speak to the chief executive of Fingal County Council very frequently, so I will speak to him about it the next time we have an engagement, which will be shortly.
I have not made a decision yet as to whether bedsits are coming back.
On the issue of senior citizens complexes and conversions for disabilities and extensions for overcrowding, I have just announced an additional €12 million for that for local authorities. I am meeting with the Simon Community shortly to look at a couple of units that it has that might prove to be a very good model to roll out elsewhere.
The funding is for both.
On the issue of the recruitment embargo for local authorities, that has been lifted. Local authorities have to manage their own resources. I do not want to interfere in what they do. However, a large amount of work has been done on void conversions over the past number of years. That must have been done with the trained staff that they have.
One of the reason we ended up with so many voids was that the local authority staff was run down. There is no recruitment in the maintenance section of Dublin City Council. There are no apprenticeships, which we did have in the past. We are all talking about apprenticeships and getting people back into the workforce and producing the workforce. That was a big source of employment in the past. Dublin City Council need to be tackled on this.
The PPPs are to deliver 1,500 units in three phases. The first phase of 500 units is at procurement at the moment. The first units are scheduled for delivery in late 2018. The second phase will move to procurement shortly. The site for the third phase will be identified by the end of the year. We have to be very careful with how we proceed with PPPs because we do not want to be exposed as we were in the past. That is why things might be taking a little longer.
We should abandon PPPs on public property. It is obvious that this approach takes longer because, rather than a council doing it itself or getting a contractor in to do it, public private partnership involves having to go through a tendering process, etc. That is why we are getting delays. We should stop. Another reason we get messes is because developers want to make money from PPPs. They do not enter into PPPs unless they are going to make money. That slows things down. I am tetchy and I do not appreciate the politicking.
I will explain the record of the Shanganagh site since 2002, when it was given to the local authority. Along with my People before Profit colleagues, I have been agitating since that time for the development of the site, on which 530 council houses could be built. In July of this year, for the umpteenth time we proposed a motion calling for the entire site to be developed for public and affordable housing. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and, tragically, Sinn Féin, voted against that motion. They were very embarrassed about that decision over the summer. Lo and behold, all of them, without engaging in any discussion with us, popped up with a plan in September to have 40% of the site developed for social housing, with the other 60% of it being developed for forms of affordable housing which will end up back in the private market. I do not accept that 60% of a public site should end up back on the private market in five or ten years. I will explain why.
I am not just talking about people I know through politics. I am personally acquainted with a woman who is living with her eight children in an hotel. This week, the family is being pushed into its third HAP tenancy. I could tell similar stories about any week. I ask the Minister to imagine what it is like to be moved in and out from an hotel to a hostel with eight kids. This woman, who is crying every day, is being told to go and find a HAP tenancy that does not exist because she will not get a council house for many years. Another friend of mine, who has been in a car for eight weeks, is trying to prove to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection that he is living in the car. This is what is going on. If I am tetchy about this issue, and if I resent politics being played with it, it is for the reasons I have given.
It is not good enough that we are getting just 40% of a public site. It is not good enough that we are getting just 10% in Cherrywood, or just 1% in the case of the local infrastructure housing activation funding. When homeless people who are now joining the housing list ask me when I think they will get a council house, I have to tell them they are looking at ten or 15 years on the current figures. At the current rate of delivery, that is what we are looking at, even with the ramped-up plans. The construction of 1,000 houses on these sites over the next three or four years will not even keep pace with the current list, which is at 5,700. The person at the end of that list will be waiting 18 years. I am not exaggerating when I say there are people who have been on the list for 18 years. What solution is the Minister proposing? I suggest that there should be more public housing on public land. The Minister needs to get more off the private developers in sites like Cherrywood than the miserable 10%, or 1% in the case of the local infrastructure housing activation fund.
I do not mean to play politics at all. I do not think I have ever done so in this brief. If I did so with regard to the site mentioned by the Deputy, I apologise. Deputy Cowen is right when he says this is not a space for politics. This is the biggest challenge the Government is currently facing, notwithstanding the challenge of Brexit and other difficulties we have in our society. We all have to work together to try to solve it. That is why these engagements are essential. We should have them as often as we can and we do. I cannot speak about the individual cases that have been encountered by the Deputy. If Deputies have individual cases with which they are particularly concerned, they can highlight them with me privately. When they have done so in the past, I have tried to help in any way I can.
I will explain my approach. We are talking about 2021 because we tend to deal in five-year time horizons. It is meant to be the parliamentary cycle. It is probably part of the human condition. We can understand five-year periods. Of course we have ring-fenced the capital funding until 2021. We have to look beyond 2021. That is what we are doing at the moment. We have to approach this from basic principles. I spoke about this recently. We must always be confident that each year, a certain percentage of the total housing stock is being built by and will be owned by local authorities and housing bodies and the people in those homes will be protected as a result. That is something I want to achieve beyond 2021 so that it does not matter who is sitting in this seat. It could be Deputy Cowen or Deputy Ó Broin, depending on what happens in the future. This is an important thing to do.
We know we need to build more. That is why I announced a 30% increase in direct builds recently. That will come from existing funding. We know we need more money. That is why I am in negotiations with the Minister about securing more money. We are hoping for a positive outcome from that. We know that HAP, in a steady state, is good for some people because it suits their point in life or their choices of what they want to do. In the current circumstances where supply is so low, HAP is not working for some people. It is having a potentially detrimental effect on the market in other areas because it is making things more difficult. We know these things. That is how we know we have to build more, which is what we are doing.
We are ramping up from a very low base. Before we had our economic crisis, approximately 90,000 homes were being built each year. I do not think we needed 90,000 homes a year. What has happened since then probably speaks to that. At the same time, we did not have a proper social housing construction programme from the Government. The private and public sectors have had to ramp up from a position of almost nil. We are ramping up quickly. We are learning every week and every month. In every engagement I have, I hear new things that might help what we are trying to do. That is why we have moved away from some sort of Rebuilding Ireland redux 2.0 to a constant rolling analysis of what we can do to improve this. That is what we are doing. Rebuilding Ireland is the plan. It has made great progress in the past year. I believe we can do more. That is what we are trying to do.
The Minister is fine. I just wanted to apologise for not being here earlier. I did not have an opportunity to do so before now. I will ask my questions the next time the Minister or the officials from the Department are before the committee.
I appreciate that. I thank the members, the Minister and his officials for attending today's meeting and engaging with the committee. We look forward to the next time we meet. Our next meeting will involve pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposed building control (construction industry register Ireland) Bill 2017.