Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 25 January 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Update on Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness: Discussion
No. 7 is an update on Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and Department officials to today's meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. There will be no opening statements. We will go straight into questions starting with Deputy Casey.
I will start with Pillar 5, and the issue relating to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures versus the other statistics coming into us. Will the Minister update us on how that is progressing and what the likely difference is between the CSO statistics and the information coming back from the local authorities and other mechanisms?
In respect of the turnaround of vacant properties or local authority voids, we need to have the debate the Minister missed last week in the Department about the definition of a void. Many members were disappointed because it was not quite what we believed a void was when we discussed the start of Rebuilding Ireland. Most of us have been in local authorities and have seen voids, sitting there for a long time, boarded up and unused, and that was what we considered to be a void. The figures, however, include the turnover of people who vacate houses because of a debt or for any other reason. Many of these properties were built in the 1960s and 1970s and would automatically need doors, windows and electricity replaced. They are now included in a void return. That is not very transparent or fair. It is definitely not my understanding of how we defined a void. We need a debate on that issue.
I believe choice-based allocation and data is available in every county. Do we have any data to show how that is working out compared with the previous scheme. The repair and lease scheme is disappointing from everybody's point of view, including the Minister's, given that there are only eight or nine successful starts on it. What tweaks is he proposing in respect of the scheme? Can he update us on that?
Can the Minister give me more detail on urban renewal and the €50 million he is making available? The town and village scheme exists. Where is this aimed at? Is it aimed at different populations? The Minister is also asking the local authorities to match that €50 million with another €50 million. I have been discussing local authority finance here for a long time. There has been a lot of debate at previous meetings about the base lines of local authorities. Where will they get the €50 million to match the Minister's €50 million? I do not believe it is there. It is unfair to ask local authorities for that sum. If the Minister is using the excess over and above the baseline figure to extract that €50 million, it will apply only to the local authorities that have a surplus available. Could the Minister clarify that further? We equally have some concern about the change of use of commercial properties. Deputy Cowen emailed the Minister about that last night.
I know the housing delivery cost unit has been completed, according to the report here. When will this committee get a copy of that report?
I have raised the housing inspections and the targeted 25% by 2021 before now. Given the way society is going, we need to try to achieve 100% inspection before any tenant moves in. We need to revisit this to see how we can achieve that. Before we put a tenant into a house, it needs that inspection and a target of 25% is not good enough.
At the end of June or July last year, there was to be a review of rental pressure zones but we have not received any information back on those, how they are working out or what changes the Minister is making to them. Constituents have told me that areas outside rent pressure zones are coming under enormous pressure and experiencing severe rental increases.
I do not have an opening statement as I was informed it would be of no value. It is good to get straight into questions and Deputy Casey asked a number. I am glad he raised the CSO figures because work has been ongoing in the Department for the past six or seven months on these. This is not to say the CSO vacancy figures of between 178,000 and 180,000 are wrong, rather that its definition of vacancy is not how we would define what is a liveable property in a high-demand area that would be worth bringing back into use. We have now set up vacancy teams in each local authority and that number has come down quite dramatically. Even if we got 10% back into use, it would amount to 17,000 or 18,000 homes, an enormous number, but the information we are getting from local authorities is that the number of vacant homes is nowhere near the CSO's figure. Our desktop exercise brought it down to some 90,000 homes in high-demand areas but we started to drill down and we brought it down to below 20,000. At the housing summit, Galway City started off with a CSO figure of 3,500 but the geodata figure took it down by over 1,000 and after taking out homes that were for sale, between lettings, not in high-demand areas or not desirable for social housing, the figure was less than 100. Fingal had a CSO figure of 4,944 but the geodirectory made it 3,000 while a desktop exercise, to look at the figures and establish the real level of liveable vacant homes, brought it down to 361 potentially vacant units. Of these, 74 were inspected and only 13 were identified as vacant, which would give a total of 60 out of an initial figure of almost 5,000. According to the CSO, Fingal had one of the lowest vacancy rates.
Fixing supply is the primary aim in solving our housing crisis, although we also need to manage existing stock. However, the existing stock may not be there in the levels we thought and we have to think about what that means for resources. Is it more efficient for a local authority to have three people on the ground trying to find out who owns a home, why it is vacant, whether they should CPO it or if they should go for a scheme? That takes time and perhaps these people should be involved in trying to get sites built on. South Dublin County Council's CSO figures showed 3,500 while the geodirectory took it down to 600 and the local authority estimated the vacancy rate at 250. After its own research, the council believes it is only 56. Vacancy is not the low-hanging fruit we thought it was. We should try to get these 56 vacant units back into use, of course, and we will do so, but it will be up to each local authority to balance its resources prudently in this regard.
One of the Deputy's questions was on the definition of a void. A lot of time was spent on this. Local authority vacancy was the low-hanging fruit but when we came out of the bailout in 2014 the Government began an ambitious programme to get local authority stock that had been vacant for a long time back into use. In that period, at least 8,000 homes were brought back into use. These vacant voids included some that were derelict and some in need of significant repair but they did not include homes where the entire estate was in need of regeneration, as that comes under our builds figure. We are not talking about simple turnover or homes where there are casual vacancies. They are homes that require a substantial amount of work and investment to get them back into use as social housing stock. If that money was not spent and the work not done, they would be lying empty now but that is what we count when we count voids. If we were to stipulate that a unit had to be vacant for a certain period of time, we would put a perverse incentive into the system and a local authority might be enticed to keep a property vacant for a period of time in order to avail of additional funding.
I do not deny that the Minister is spending the capital funding on getting these homes back into use. My original understanding of Rebuilding Ireland was that we were looking at derelict buildings that had been boarded up for a long period, such as 18 months or two years, but now we are looking at houses that have been vacated by a long-standing tenant, who may have passed away, and that house needs replacement doors or windows, etc., to bring it up to modern standards. These houses are now included in the void figures but my understanding is that it is not a void. It is just a turnaround in tenants, and although I agree that it needs capital investment, it is misleading to consider it as a void.
In our voids programme we began with homes that had been empty for a number of years and were boarded up or semi-derelict. Once we had brought those all back into use, the next group required significant capital investment as otherwise, they would be vacant for six, 12 or 18 months. If we are to tell a local authority it cannot have the funding unless a house has been vacant for more than 12 months, the authority might not be as efficient in getting the property back into use so as to avail of the capital funding.
We will not be talking about them at all very soon, because that is where the numbers are going. A lot of progress has been made and we exceeded our targets for last year as well. I wanted to separate voids from our builds target, which I did though there was some confusion on the part of Deputy Barry Cowen as to what had happened there. It was a move for increased transparency and clarity and not a moving or lowering of our targets. If we recalibrate our figures in Rebuilding Ireland following the progress that was made in 2017, voids will disappear and we will then be talking about casual vacancies and turnaround times.
This focused approach to reporting is a good one and is the way forward. We have exchanged views very often and now it is about accountability and delivery of housing solutions. This point has been echoed by members on other occasions and it has to be the focus of Rebuilding Ireland.
Pillar 5 deals with utilising existing housing stock and there were 22 action items but I will deal with just four specific issues. The first was touched on by Deputy Casey and the Minister and it relates to compiling the register of vacant units across the country. The issue here is the integrity of data. In the past 12 months, we have received different data and different figures from different people, which is something we need to address. It is changing and we are getting more and more data so we need it to be authoritative.
The report states that we are to review the system of differential rents for social housing. I will strike a note of caution here. There were some very imaginative local authorities who, when doing boiler maintenance or another improvement scheme, entered into an agreement to add €1 to the rent per week for a contribution to maintenance. I know of one such practice in Dún Laoghaire and it leads to responsible tenancy, which I like. There must be flexibility within local authorities as we are not homogenous and we do not want everything to be centralised. We want accountability, centrally, but we must leave a certain amount of flexibility for local authorities. If they come up with imaginative schemes such as the one to which I referred, and there is an agreement with tenants, we should allow them.
The previous Administration suggested a national rent scheme, as Deputy Alan Kelly mentioned. There were objections to that from a range of sectors. Public engagement with local authorities is very important. A certain amount of flexibility is needed though at the same time one wants some sort of standardisation or margins, which I want to talk about. On exploring ways of promoting available step-down facilities, we know where we have pressures on social housing, particularly in Dublin but also Galway, Limerick and Cork. We have older people in communities who wish to remain in their communities. Forget about their status or income. They might have a large property and want to step down. We do not have those facilities. We need a range of options, whether co-operative housing, social housing - since we see it in social housing stock too - or in the private sector where people want to realise their capital and step-down. The key issue is that it has to be within their communities. People want to remain in their communities. That needs to be enabled so we need to look at some of the big new housing schemes which are coming on. That may need one or two bedroom units, smaller units, or new types of arrangements. That is worth emphasising.
On choice-based letting, I hear reports from a number of local authorities which have run pilot schemes that there is huge resistance in some local authorities to choice-based letting. I will single out the local authority in Wicklow specifically. I met people in the area recently who do not know where they are on the housing list. They are told that is confidential. They have no way to know whether they are number 10, 40 or 80 on a list. We have to have a transparent housing list, particularly for social housing. We need to look at and standardise that. We need to ensure the right of any person who is homeless or waiting to have a home to be able to contact the housing authority and ask for his or her position and be assured that nobody else is jumping ahead and getting a place due to knowing somebody. I am not suggesting that is happening but I want a transparent system where people have an individual ID number they can access on the system to see where they are and where the movement is on the list. I do not believe in giving that discretion to local authorities. That should be a central direction. There has to be a proper open and transparent social housing list. It would be helpful for this committee for, within perhaps a month, us to have a report on all the choice-based lettings and the situation in each of the 31 local authorities. I am not interested in pilot schemes if they are not going to be assessed. A number of these pilot schemes have gone on for a year. We want to know the outcome of these pilot schemes and the standard. There was great talk here about people having rights. There were many refusals for social housing and many suggestions about why people were refusing it. Some suggested that people did not like the location and others said it was a flat above something else, while others thought the accommodation was not appropriate for their needs. Let us have the choice. We thought choice-based letting would allow other people who wanted to take the property, which might have had eight, nine or ten refusals, to take it. We need greater clarity. I think it would be helpful for this committee and would like to request that we have some sort of spreadsheet report on all 31 local authorities and where we are with choice-based letting.
I thank the Senator for his comments on the work of the Department on focusing the reporting to drive greater accountability and delivery. That is the intention of what we have been trying to do over the past six months as we reviewed Rebuilding Ireland and went to refine and introduce new things, to ensure Oireachtas Members were aware of exactly what was happening. In giving that accountability and reporting, we were not taking up unnecessary resources, so this is what we have tried to do in this engagement, in the tabular review of actions in 2017 and in additional reports that have been provided, for example, on the housing assistance payment or the 2017 summary of social housing indicators. The housing summit is also about transparency and accountability and the targets and figures that will be published off the back of that but I might come to that later so that I can answer the rest of the Senator's questions first.
The Senator is absolutely right about the integrity of data. It has been to the forefront of my mind and my actions since I took office. The Senator will be aware that since I came into office, we stopped calling ESB connections "completions". We still publish the figure because I think it is still important because of what it includes, including house builds and homes that are vacant for two years. Work on that data is happening and it will conclude in the next quarter, covering completions in a year and other things. It is also important, if there is a difficulty with a figure like that, that we do not give the public the impression that all of the figures are wrong. We can count our own social housing homes or commencement notices when they are logged on the building control management system, BCMS. This data on vacancy has been very difficult to handle because there is a perception in the public that there are tens of thousands of vacant homes in high demand areas that could quickly and easily be brought into use. The data to date is showing that that is not the case, from the work that each individual local authority is doing. With this group, working with the CSO, we want to come to a figure that people can have greater faith in. That work is happening at the moment and will begin with getting a proper definition of vacancy. The definition the CSO is using is perhaps not the definition of vacancy that most people on the street would use. We are then going to do a field-based survey of a subset of data as a project. It would not be too different from what local authorities have done themselves but it would take a wider focus across different local authority areas. It would involve the CSO. We might then get a better understanding of what true vacancy rates are when we talk about liveable properties. That work is happening because I think it is important that we use the right, agreed numbers when making comparisons.
Discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the differential rents review are continuing. I have had a number of conversations with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform on this issue. Our officials have had a number of discussions on the review and changes that will come. This is a key challenge that we face in every aspect of our dealings with local authorities, with a need for flexibility and authority at the local level, since we believe in local government and the devolution of power to local authority areas. We also need to give them a national standard or framework to which they can work and have flexibility within. I take the Senator's point about certain local authorities - he cited Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council as one - doing things that make sense from the point of view of the tenant and which encourage responsible tenancies. We want to ensure such local authorities can continue to pursue those.
Step-down is a key part of our management of stock, as well as building new stock. If one can build new stock to one and two-bedroom unit specifications, then one can have a more ambitious step-down approach and therefore bring family homes or larger homes back into use. This has been done very effectively with some housing bodies. The Iveagh Trust did it with a local authority in Annamore, where 70 to 74 new apartments were built in a new scheme. It also released between 18 and 20 homes in the area because the local authority issued a circular informing people that if they wanted to downsize into a modern building and let their house for social housing, they could, while they made different arrangements for existing social housing tenants. Consequently, there were between 90 and 100 new homes even though only 70-something had to be built. We are looking to improve this. It is part of the national planning framework. As we look at future population needs, over a quarter of the population will be above the age of 65 by 2040. This absolutely has to be part of our forward planning. I like the way the Senator puts community in the centre of that, because as we fix the crisis today, community has to be at the centre of all we do or else we will just build fragmented communities for the future if we do not do this in the right way. We continue to engage with different housing bodies. I recently had a meeting with a housing body which is an NGO about how we can use the new apartment guidelines on co-living to develop new properties that do not yet exist which would enable things like peer supervision for the elderly, which will be important because there will be more community space in the development. It is to the forefront of our thinking as we approach new builds and work with the approved housing body sector.
There will be a report on choice-based letting because I have similar interests in how it is working. We are having a discussion in the Department about what data we will gather from that and how useful it might be. I have heard very positive things about choice-based letting from people who are using it. I have not heard some of the concerns that the Senator has mentioned today. When I operated as a councillor and as I operate now as a Deputy, there is complete transparency on where people are on a list. They can contact local authorities directly and will be told, or their local Deputy or councillor can find that out for them. The impression is often given by some, unfortunately, that they will help people to jump the list or get a place and one will hear that a certain councillor or Deputy got a person a house or apartment. It is almost impossible to do that when one engages with the officials involved, from what I have been told.
I believe there needs to be some flexibility at local authority level because they know better themselves, when it comes to people who are at the top of the list, what might work for one person and what might work for others. They need to be able to manage that themselves. I would not think of taking that from them.
I apologise for cutting across, but the words accountability and transparency are key words the Deputy is using all the time. I like the fact that he is using them, but I am going to keep coming back to him about it. It is about accountability and transparency, and if the Deputy is saying that people are on statutory housing lists they need to be able to validate that. They need that assurance, and I believe it is something we need to look at again.
Pillar 5.02 states, "To ensure that housing supports, including [the housing assistance payment] HAP, are fair and sustainable". I have had some incidents recently in my area. If a person gets on the local authority housing list and qualifies for HAP, he or she is entitled to a first-time deposit as a one-off. We have now returned to what we would have known as the social welfare offices, or Intreo as it is known now. It has come to my attention several times that if a house comes up and a person qualifies to go on the housing list and is on the HAP, he or she has to give a deposit. One is lucky not to be asked for two deposits, but in fairness many places only look for one. The person then has to go to his or her family, who have to lend them the deposit because, naturally enough, these people cannot come up with the deposits. When they go back to get their first-time deposit, they are being told that because their family have loaned it to them, it cannot be paid back. They might have borrowed from three or four family members, but they are being told they cannot get their first-time deposit. Someone should step in here. We are bringing out many schemes, but there is no communication on the exact policies. People are told that they can have a first-time deposit, but they cannot if they borrow the deposit. I can name five different cases where people have had to borrow money from family and friends, only to be told that they cannot get the money back. That definitely needs to be addressed.
Returning to HAP, there is a clause within it that I was not aware of. I know of a case where a man had to leave a HAP premises because it was damp and the landlord would not do work on it. He had to sign a form with the local authority to say that he would not go on the HAP for a year. He cannot get any rent allowance. Is there any way that a system can be put in place so that people can find out what they are entitled to?
On 5.03, which promises that "We will work with the local authorities to speed up the refurbishment", it has to be said that staffing is the biggest issue. Delays with funding is also a massive issue. The maintenance of local authority housing by local authorities is the biggest issue we face, and the Minister is going to have to step in. My own local authority in Carlow will only carry out leak repairs and roof repairs. Other local authorities will fix gas boilers, doors, kitchens and bathrooms. Every local authority seems to be able to decide what it will repair. That needs to stop. Everyone is paying their rent. It does not matter what local authority a person lives in - everyone is entitled to the same treatment, whether they are in Kilkenny, Waterford, Laois or anywhere else. That is not happening. It is a massive issue. There have been so many cutbacks in this area. I had an incident recently where an old lady, who was a local authority tenant for 20 years, could not get her gas boiler fixed by the local authority. I tried on four occasions to get it done for her. In the end, she had to borrow the money to get a new gas boiler. That is not acceptable.
Another part of Pillar 5 states that, "We will review the tenant purchase scheme following the first year of operation". I firmly believe that scheme has been an absolute disaster from the beginning. If a person was in a local authority house and had worked for years, but had to retire or stopped working due to ill health, he or she does not qualify to buy out the house because there has to be earnings of 50% in place. The scheme is a disaster. A person came to me who had come into a bit of money. She had enough to buy the house but she did not qualify. She was a good local authority tenant, a mature woman, but she could not buy out her house. That needs to be looked at.
Regarding the €70 million capital in Exchequer funding that will be working through the different Departments, who will be accountable for all this money and what projects will receive funding? Is it to be run on a first come, first served basis? Perhaps the Minister could explain that. I want to make sure that there is accountability for all local authorities when capital funding is in place through the Exchequer.
A trial of the lease and repair scheme was carried out in Carlow. I have major concerns about that. Some of the conditions have been changed, and that is welcome because the €40,000 required was causing much of the concern. It was originally to have been over ten years but I believe it has gone back to a five year basis. That is welcome, but there are concerns about the conditions. It is helpful to try to work on the repair and lease scheme, but there is a reason there has not been a good uptake on it. I believe it is to be rolled out to every local authority, but I want to know what feedback the Minister is getting. I can only give my own feedback from Carlow where people felt there were too many conditions and that it could not be justified in the long term. I know local authorities were willing to take on the repair and lease scheme and put tenants into those properties, but I have concerns about that.
I have no doubt about that. A detailed report is available on HAP and how it has been operating in different local authorities. I hope it is helpful in terms of understanding its uptake, the different discretions that are given, the percentage of discretions above the existing rents, and how that is being implemented.
The issue of two months deposit came up over the summer, and at the time I said that we would bring in legislation to prevent that from happening if it was seen to be the case. I consulted with the Residential Tenancies Board at the time, which said that it was not aware that this was happening and that it had received no complaints about it. I am not aware that it is an actual issue in the market at the moment. One month is absolutely sufficient. It is the practice, and if we have to establish that in law as the practice, we will do so.
The deposit under the homeless HAP is there to assist families. If an individual applies, the deposit will be sourced using Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection officers. I understand the point the Senator made about people being confused as to where they are supposed to go or how they are supposed to get the supports because there is no single point of contact. The place finder person is supposed to work in that area to help those people, and it is their responsibility to get them to the right person. We are rolling out the place finder programme nationally, and local authorities are taking that on board because they believe it is a resource they need.
If there are problems around individual cases, we can talk about them offline. It helps in getting them resolved, but it also helps us to get a better understanding nationally of how housing measures are being interpreted at a local level.
On the staffing of local authorities, it is picking up, but it needs to increase more quickly. Over the past two years, local authorities have been increasing their staff numbers. At the housing summit on Monday, we made a commitment to local authorities on the build side that more staff required on that side could be hired and that those costs could be recouped in the budget line through the Department to make sure they had enough people on the ground, whether in design, driving projects or otherwise. They will work with the increased number of staff that we have in the Department.
What will be repaired by the local authorities is not consistent from area to area, and we heard from the Senator's colleague on the committee about one of the approaches that Dún Laoghaire takes.
It is important when we talk about what a tenant is paying in rent that we discuss what that rent gets them in so far as the landlord's responsibilities are concerned. Again, this comes under the review of differential rents. Everybody should be clear what their rights and responsibilities are. I have seen some cases in the newspapers recently, one of which was mentioned by the Senator as an example. We are doing a piece of work in the Department currently which will provide greater clarity to local authorities as to what exactly is to be included and what is not. However, I do not want to remove flexibility where a local authority wants to go a bit further and then create an additional charge for tenants.
On the review of the tenant purchase scheme, I understand how people are getting caught. Some people are also taking advantage of it, however.
As part of the review, we are trying to find the balance and determine the best approach. The review is almost complete. It involves discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with which I had a number of engagements on the matter prior to the end of last year. We are close to finalising what the new scheme will look like. Some people will be happy with the new scheme and some will not. That is the nature of things when they are reviewed. I want to be careful about how we manage this. At its centre, obviously, will be the aspiration for home ownership. That must be in the scheme. At the same time, we must be mindful of managing local authority stock at a time when it is low and we are trying to increase it. We must be cognisant of the costs foregone by the State also and of the fact that, unfortunately, there are some people who might take advantage of the scheme. We are trying to square those pieces while at the same time not having people in unfair situations who are good tenants who have lived in a home which they are now in a position to buy. I would like to get that published as soon as possible. We have been finalising and publishing a lot of material over recent weeks, but this is one of the next things we want to move to.
The Housing Agency and the accountability for the €70 million in capital were raised. The Housing Agency is accountable to me and I am accountable to the committee. We have published numbers on what they have been doing on securing some of these homes and selling them on to approved housing bodies. There are a number of potential portfolios becoming available and I have told the Housing Agency to go for them and not to wait to secure them; to get them assessed and to take what is suitable. We are doing that piece of work at the moment. The repair and lease scheme was raised by Deputy Casey, but I did not get a chance to answer him on some of the reforms we have brought in. There are still concerns about some of the conditions. In fact, one of Senator Murnane O'Connor’s colleagues, Senator Coffey, visited one of what are unfortunately very few repair and lease schemes. This was in Waterford city. He saw how it had worked and how the individual had been able to get involved. Only seven or eight were completed last year, which is very disappointing when one looks at the target we had. However, there were hundreds of applications of interest and more than 200 have been assessed. As we move through, it begins to come down to potential agreements. However, the Senator is right about difficulties in the scheme and the length of time it is taking. I am running out of time but when I come back to Deputy Casey, I might go through some of the changes we announced at the summit on Monday and which we will announce more publicly today.
I refer to pillar 4, which is the rental sector. Paragraph 4.1 says the Government will develop a rental strategy. With the homeless figures showing no sign of abating and the private rented sector being the place where people generally become homeless, the Minister will agree that this is urgent. Rebuilding Ireland says the Minister will deal with the issue of tenants in situwhere there is the sale of a property. We all know this has been happening for years. It is not new that landlords are using this as a way to evict people. In some cases, some people may be selling homes because of the banks, but there are also people who use it as a way to get rid of tenants. There has been very little strengthening of the protections for tenants. Is the Government going to bite the bullet and bring in legislation to amend the Residential Tenancies Act to prevent people being evicted for that reason? If a landlord wishes to sell a property, the law should be amended to ensure that it must be done with the tenant in situ. Does the Minister agree that it has come to the point that, notwithstanding the over-representation of landlords' rights in the Dáil, barriers must be erected to prevent landlords doing that? Another issue I have is refurbishment. It probably only applies where there is large-scale ownership of properties rather than in respect of individual landlords. When is this going to be brought out?
The third issue I want to raise with the Minister is one we raised when rent pressure zones were being introduced by the Minister's predecessor. We proposed an amendment to the legislation involved to provide that landlords would have to get a certificate from the RTB stating the rent for a property so that a new tenant would know what the rent was and would not have to negotiate over that rent from a position of having less power than a landlord looking at 30 others in a queue. If the Minister wanted to prevent the breaching of the rent pressure zone legislation, that is something he could implement. Clearly, breaches are happening when rents in Dublin have gone up 23% despite the legislation. I know the Minister will say that is because new tenancies are exempt from the legislation, but it is not just new tenancies. It is also because when someone moves out or is forced out, landlords bump up the rent. Nobody has any way to check it. A Bill is being proposed this week and we proposed an amendment over a year ago. It is a tiny demand on landlords to produce the certificate rather than to have tenants try to get the information out of them.
Is the committee taking HAP separately or is it part of rental?
A briefing on HAP was sent to us in advance. Given that this is such a significant part of the Government's social housing strategy, how concerned is the Minister about the rate of rent being paid in local authority areas? When I was reading through the briefing, I noticed that the top rents under HAP are paid in Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown where the average monthly payment by local authorities under the scheme is €1,292. Obviously, the other Dublin authorities are not far behind. The State is paying €1,292 to private landlords to house social housing tenants. That does not surprise me given how acute the housing crisis is, in particular in those locations. Has the Minister looked at the figures from housing academics showing that if the State built houses, it would save billions over the course of 30 years? If one built a home rather than to continue with HAP, the figures speak for themselves. The taxpayer is paying €1,292 into the pockets of private landlords when people could be in public housing and paying a differential rent, as I know they still are under HAP, but the taxpayer would not be subsidising the profits of a private landlord.
The Government's data says that in the third quarter of 2017, 20% of the total households supported by HAP were benefiting from the additional flexibility provided to local authorities to exceed the maximum rent limits. Can the Minister see how unsustainable this strategy is in a context where no housing is available?
This is just going to continue to escalate. I also want to point out that while 31,700 households are being supported by the scheme, including an additional almost 18,000 last year, 9,300 are transfers from rent supplement. They are not actually additional new homes being provided for people.
I thank the Chair and Deputy Coppinger. We are talking about the private rental sector. We cannot force people to be landlords. We have to ensure that, as we bring in greater protections for tenants, we are not doing anything that might make existing landlords leave the market. If they do leave, the problem is only going to become worse.
A house could be kept in the family or it could be sold but it would not be available to the rental sector. The latter is a big part of the market. We need to ensure that there are enough homes to rent. I do not dispute the need to make sure that we have proper protections for tenants. I do not think that we have a mature rental market in this country. We need to try to develop one because renting is becoming more of a lifestyle choice for a lot of people. However, there are many who are forced to rent who would rather be able to buy. That is why we have been focusing more on affordability for buyers under the affordable purchase scheme and the Rebuilding Ireland home loan.
A rental strategy was developed under Rebuilding Ireland and is being implemented. However, one of the first conversations I had when I took over and met representatives from the RTB related to the need to give the board greater powers under legislation and a more sustainable financial base and to move it into a position of being a proper independent regulator for the sector. Last September I announced a two-year change management programme for the RTB to facilitate this in order that it can be in a position to balance those rights between tenants and landlords effectively.
I disagree that there is very little protection for tenants. I think there are strong protections. However, I recognise that we need to make certain protections stronger. We have two items of legislation coming, as part of that change management programme for the RTB, that are going to look at those aspects. For example, people caught up in rent evictions and issues of that nature. There is a case before the courts at the moment to see those how robust the existing legislation is. We need to do more in that area and I am committed to doing more to ensure that individuals are not interpreting existing laws in their favour to the detriment of people and their security in their homes as renters.
Prevention is absolutely key for 2018. In 2017, we brought in more emergency beds. We have accelerated the hub programme. On Monday, at the housing summit, I spoke about accelerating it even further by using rapid technologies. This year, prevention is key. Tenants in situ are going to be part of that. I will come back to the point the Deputy made HAP and the numbers separately. If a landlord is selling a property and we make it an absolute condition that property can only be sold with tenants in situ, then that means the landlord can only sell to another landlord. That is going to potentially breach that person's rights. If we can do it by way of an incentive through the tax code whereby, if a person is selling a property, he or she is actually going to make a lot more money from it if he or she spends a bit of extra time working to sell it to another landlord, then that is something worth exploring.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, brought this matter to my attention. We are working together to see if there is something we can do with the Minister of Finance, Deputy Donohoe, officials and the Cabinet to see how we can incentivise the selling of homes with tenants in situ. It is a key aspect of the prevention measures on which we need to work in terms of prevention and keeping people in their homes as we build new houses. If we cannot work harder at prevention, then it going to be very difficult through 2018 with families and individuals becoming homeless.
We had a definition of substantial refurbishment produced last year. As part of our change management programme, we will move to put that into legislation over the course of this year. In respect of rent transparency, that information should be provided today to someone who is moving in as to what was the previous rent. However, I recognise that we can actually be more effective on this ourselves. We can actually only do it from a public transparency point of view once we have annual registrations of tenancies. That is part of the change management programme for the RTB. It needs to be able to build a system that can handle that. It is doing that at the moment. Funding is being provided. That will take six to 12 months. We are putting in place the legislation to allow the board to carry out annual registrations of tenancies.
We talk about the rent increases in Dublin that we are experiencing. If we look at the quarterly reports from say quarter two yo quarter three last year, we do not have the fourth quarter report yet, we are still trying to understand the data. However, because we do not have annual registrations of tenancies, it is difficult sometimes to understand the data. If we look at quarter two to quarter three, there is an increase of at least 6,000 new registrations of rental properties. Are they brand new properties onto the market? If they are, that is very welcome. That obviously will affect the rental rate of inflation because they are not captured by the rent pressure zones. However, they may not be new properties. They may be properties that may have been registered previously under a different owner or maybe a different partner who owns the property. Work is needed to drill into that data so we can get a proper understanding of how the rent pressure zones are working.
If we look at HAP, the recommendation from the joint committee was for 50,000 new homes in social housing stock. That is something we can now do because of the additional €500 million that was secured in budget 2018 under the capital plan. Obviously, however, 50,000 is the number of new homes going into the social housing stock. This implies that another mechanism will be needed to look after people on the housing list to get them into secure tenancies. That is the purpose of HAP. If we look at the top rents - Fingal and Dún Laoghaire were mentioned in this regard - and how high they are, this is why we introduced the homeless HAP. This is why they are so high there.
If the choice is for someone to fall into emergency accommodation or for us to pay more to keep that person in said accommodation, then we will pay more. It is a bit of a Hobson's choice in one way. It is not a choice that we would not necessarily like to have to make. While we do not have the stock - we do not have it because Rebuilding Ireland is a five-year plan - we are reliant on the private rental sector. Rather than having the disruption, the distress and the crisis that would pose for the person or the family falling into homelessness and emergency accommodation, we use the homeless HAP as a preventative measure and as an exit measure to keep people in their homes. This means we have to pay more. That is where we are at the moment because of legacy issues around the outsourcing of responsibility for social issues made by previous Governments. We are now taking those responsibilities back.
According to the report that was provided, 20% are benefiting from the flexibility that is in HAP to extend the payments. That is actually quite low given what is actually happening in the private rental sector and inflation of rents in part of the country. It is being presumed that will escalate and HAP is doomed because it will eventually reach a point where every payment is at 100% in terms of the flexibility. However, that is not the case as we increase our social housing stock. If we look at the figures for 2017, an additional 2,000 more homes were brought into the stock of social housing than we had planned for in the year. I think it is a 40% over what was planned, 7,000 homes in social housing stock.
As we exceed those types of numbers and targets, it means that more people will be benefitting from social housing stock than from HAP placements. As we get to 2020 and 2021, on the existing timeline, which might be brought forward if we work as well in 2018 as we did in 2017, we will be placing more people into the social housing stock than will be relying on HAP for their tenancies. It does not necessarily imply then that 20% differential is only going in the one direction.
In regard to the question on-----
I will be brief. I welcome the Minister and his officials. It is important that we review progress regarding Rebuilding Ireland. I want to note for the record the solid progress being made in terms of the delivery of housing. Initially, as we all know, it was about putting budgets and investment in place. Now, however, it is all about delivery. The Minister's announcement of the Rebuilding Ireland home load scheme is very welcome because, as we know, in constituencies throughout the country there are many thousands of people who fall between stools and who do not qualify for social housing or for private mortgages from commercial banks.
This is indeed identifying a tranche of people who get assistance to access the housing market. It is a very welcome initiative. In addition to the other initiatives, and this is something I have been working towards-----
I have a few questions on Pillars 4 and 5. On Pillar 5, I am disappointed that there has not been a publication of a vacant homes strategy. The Minister has decided to do rolling announcements of policy changes but a considerable amount of work was done by both us and external bodies in order to make submissions. A considerable body of work was also done by Minister's officials and his predecessor. Having a vacant homes strategy would facilitate us in tracking progress, or otherwise, by the Department. While the information we have on this sheet is welcome, it is not the same. Would he reconsider the publication of a strategy, in some shape or form, in order that we would be able to track progress?
The one point on which I would disagree with the Minister is that thousands of properties are available. There may not be ten of thousands of them, but there are thousands. It is important we have a clear and coherent strategy to tackle those. Has the idea of introducing a vacant property tax or a vacant unit tax been dropped completely or is that still being considered? I might have missed this at the start of the meeting but can the Minister confirm on the record the total number of repair and lease and buy and renew properties that have been bought into stock in order that we have those numbers?
In terms of the planning exemptions, while I acknowledge that we will debate them briefly later today, some of us have a particular concern about them. We all want to see a quicker turn around of above-the-shop commercial units into residential units and, therefore, there is no objection to that in principle. However, some of us have deep concerns about how a statutory instrument will ensure compliance and would not facilitate some unscrupulous property owners from converting units into very small and unacceptable units of accommodation that might have fire safety risks in particular. We are looking for some assurance on that issue.
On the private rented sector, a two to three month deposit is becoming the norm in parts of this city. People are not complaining to the Residential Tenancies Board.
-----or a mixture of two to three months deposits and rent in advance are becoming the norm in many parts of this city. It is being used by some landlords to circumvent the good regulations that were introduced to make it illegal to refuse to accept housing assistance payment, HAP, and rent supplement tenants. I am not surprised people are not complaining to the Residential Tenancies Board because it is happening at that end of the market where people are quite desperate. Rather than wait until there is a large body of evidence, if it is something we consider is wrong, is there some way something can be done about this now because it is a problem?
With respect to HAP tenants, the one recommendation I would urge the Minister to make, and I have asked him to do this before, is to allow HAP tenants access to choice based letting. It is happening in South Dublin County Council and it would ensure long-term housing list applicants will not have to make the very different choice between going into the HAP scheme and losing their place on the primary housing list. I know they go onto a transfer list but it is not the same. It is a very small but a very profound change.
Can the Minister tell us what actions he has taken since the RTÉ "Prime Time Investigates" documentary on the private rental sector? There are three particular areas I am concerned about, including the need to update the overcrowding legislation because managers in local authorities are telling us that the existing legislation is outdated. Is there some way online advertising of substandard properties can be outlawed or action can be taken against platforms that promote it, such as Facebook or Daft.ie? Is there some way of bringing forward the increased targets for inspections? Four local authorities have inspection rates of over 20% to 25%. If they can do it, others can do it too. I am concerned that the 2021 deadline is too long.
What is the delay is with further regulation or legislation on the short-term letting sector?
I thank the Deputy for his questions. Regarding the vacant homes strategy, the fact that the document has not been published does not mean that there is not a strategy. It is one of the first things that landed on my desk when I was appointed as Minister. This is no reflection on the people who put it together but I was not happy with the document. I wanted to get the teams up and running and rather than taking that piece of work and putting it out for public consumption, my direction to the officials was to get people into the unit in the Department, get them into the local authorities and for us to get a proper appreciation of what is this number actually. The desktop exercise that had been run at the time told us that the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figure was nowhere near what we thought we were talking about. I am not sure if the Deputy was here for the earlier engagement I had with Deputy Casey on this issue, but I will give some of the numbers again as they might be useful.
The strategy is in place. We have the unit in my Department and the local authorities are doing their work to identify the actual level of vacancy that might be there. I will give a few brief examples. If we consider South Dublin County Council, the CSO said there were just under 3,500 properties vacant and the geodirectory brought that down to 609. The local authority estimated a vacancy rate of 250. It went for a targeted pilot inspection and it found the real level of vacancy to be about 56. That is a huge drop. We are talking about a demand area, a property that is vacant and one that the council considers might actually be liveable. Each of the local authorities is experiencing that problem, namely, that the number we have is way off what we think it should be. One item of work we are doing involves the data analyst group working with the CSO to see if we can come to an agreed definition of what vacant actually means for the purposes of trying to get vacant homes back into use and then to see if we can do an analysis looking at a couple of areas to see what the true level might be.
People say that even if it is 10% of the CSO number, which would be 17,000 or 18,000 homes, it is worth pursuing, but it is nowhere near 10%. Is it thousands of homes? I am not so sure of that when we look at high demand areas. Obviously some local authorities in places like Donegal have identified vacant homes and they have gone to the banks and bought the homes or have pursued certain strategies because it has been useful for them to do so. However, in the high demand areas where we thought there was going to be this low-hanging fruit, I am not sure it is there. That said, the teams continue to do their work and to drill down. It will be a question for some local authorities as to how much time they spend trying to pursue a vacant home that could be brought back into use as against trying to get new homes built, but the work is being done. When we have a better idea of what the actual number is and what could be achievable from it, we will look to see how we will publish that and what work we would do off the back of that.
With respect to the introduction of a vacant property tax, that idea has not been dropped. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, has set up a group to examine that issue to ascertain exactly how it might work. The difficulty is to know what we might be taxing. What the local authorities said to me in relation to this at a summit on Monday was that vacancy could be quite a fluid thing. Obviously we are not talking about properties between lettings or properties for sale, but a vacant property might be vacant only for a short period and by the time we get it on to the register, it might then back off the register. There are difficulties around this, and there is also a difficulty about taxing something when we do not know what it is and what is the amount. Both the work that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is doing and the work we are doing separately will go towards informing the potential for a vacant property tax, but it comes back to the point I made to Deputy Casey at the beginning of the meeting that vacant homes are not the low-hanging fruit that we thought they were. We have to build new homes and supply is key, but we also have to manage our existing stock efficiently. A huge amount has been done by local authorities regarding their own vacant stock but vacancy in the private sector is not what we thought it was even six or seven months ago.
In regard to the repair and leasing scheme and buy and renew properties, at the end of 2017, some 347 properties had been deemed suitable by local authorities under the repair and lease scheme, 226 properties were being inspected for suitability, 31 agreements to lease had been signed and only nine dwellings were operational. Obviously that is far below the targets that we set for ourselves. We are publishing today the changes that we have made to the repair and lease scheme, which were outlined at the housing summit to local authority chief executives under the buy and renew scheme, and I will get the Deputy that number in a moment.
In regard to exempted developments and how we will ensure compliance, there will always be unscrupulous people and we have seen that with landlords - we should not call them landlords, rather we should call them criminals. What we are trying to achieve with exempted developments is to bring back into use above shops units and we all know them in our towns villages and city centres. Exempted development is one aspect of this and we need to be clear on what is exempted and allow an efficiency in terms of timelines for the above shop units to be converted into a residential property.
Regrading all the different certifications they will need, work is currently being done by a group that is due to conclude very shortly as to what certifications will be needed and how they will be complied with. Obviously, traditionally, we are taking about buildings that are not new builds, so there will be different standards for different types of buildings, but we have to make sure that it is safe for them to be inhabited.
This is a genuine question but would it not have been better to include those certification requirements in the statutory instrument because a concern we have is that the statutory instrument is silent on the issue of compliance.
That would not be included in the exempted development statutory instrument. This is a separate piece that follows on from that and the work is coming to a conclusion to make sure the proper standards are in place.
All of the building control mechanisms that are there apply to these exempted developments as well. They are not exempt from any of the standards in terms of regulations, design or certification. They are not exempt from any of that.
This is for a conversion. It will not be available. They will not be able to take advantage of it. We are talking about upwards of nine units and no more than nine units. They will have to go through the same processes. We are only exempting the need to get planning permission to make the conversion; we are not exempting them from any other requirements. In order for this to be useful, we need to make sure there is a degree of streamlining between the different types of certifications they need for fire safety and other things. We do not want people being able to avoid the need for planning permission and to be able to do something quite quickly and we then find 12 months later they have not been able to get the right certification. That is the work that group is doing. They will not be exempted from any of the standards that exist. It is very important that we are clear on that.
I will follow through on the Minister's response on the question about the statutory instrument. It is something we had hoped to see progress on. The Bill I put before the committee sought to address it. As a previous speaker has said, and as I said in a communication to the Minister when I became aware of it yesterday, the statutory instrument does not go as far as I had hoped. The Minister is saying it cannot; he is saying he is merely exempting conversion developments of up to nine units from planning permission and he is saying it is subject to existing building control measures. Is there a streamlining of the various certification authorities within the local authorities to provide the exemption in a manner that meets the demand in the marketplace and will allow these properties to come into use more quickly than is the case? In the absence of clear certification models or improvements, I do not know if that is possible. If it is the case, I do not see the need for that statutory instrument to be brought forward at this stage when we do not have clarification on the other matter.
I apologise again to the Minister for not being here on Tuesday when the Minister of State, Deputy English, brought this before the committee. I had to attend a conference as others had and when I became aware of the content of the statutory instrument I made the Minister aware of my concerns in writing. I hope we can come to a conclusion that would allow the instrument to pass today but if not it is not the end of the world and we can work together to ensure the certification process accompanies a statutory instrument as soon as possible.
To be fair to the Minister of State, Deputy English, he made himself available to the committee on Tuesday to go through this. If members decided to attend a conference rather than being in committee to go through the exempted development regulations with the Minister of State, that is a choice for them to make. This information was laid before the House in December. I received a communication from Deputy Cowen late yesterday evening outlining some of the concerns he has. It would have been helpful if they had been raised earlier in this process because-----
For the past hour and a half we have conducted the meeting very respectfully. Speakers have asked questions and the Minister has been allowed to answer without interruption and vice versa. That is the practice I want to continue with. We should allow the Minister to finish and if the Deputy requires clarification I have no problem with him coming back in.
This is about where there is a conversion above a shop or previously vacant empty commercial space to bring it into use for people to live in. What we are exempting is the need to seek permission to change planning from commercial to residential. That is the essence of the exempted regulations. There is work being done that will come to a conclusion very shortly which will streamline the process for certification for those buildings that avail of the exempted regulations. There will be no diminution in standards as they currently apply. I would like to see this progress as quickly as possible. I appreciate the detail in which the Deputy laid out his concerns in a letter to me yesterday evening. I have a written response for the Deputy, which I can give to him and all members of the committee after the meeting ahead of the debate later on in the Dáil. That work is coming to conclusion quite quickly. This is something that people have been looking for for quite a while. The Deputy has brought forward his own legislation on this. We believe we do not actually need the legislation for parts of it; we can do it through this SI and I would like to get that done today, if possible. I will give that letter to all members of the committee after the meeting and they can go through it in detail because Deputy Cowen raised some detailed questions which no doubt the Minister of State, Deputy English, could have answered on Tuesday. That is the situation.
No, I am fine. The Minister has given a good response and I look forward to seeing the information laid out in his written response. I merely wanted to clarify the matter. The impression was given that I, for some reason, by virtue of my absence on Tuesday had not given this the sort of indepth analysis and thought that is necessary to improve the present circumstances. I put a Bill before the House, received the approval and support of the Dáil and of the committee in the scrutiny that followed. My best will, intentions and bona fides are above reproach and should not be summed up by saying I attended a housing conference organised by ICTU rather than face up to my responsibilities on the issue.
As long as those bona fides extend both ways, they will extend from my office to the Deputy. Claims were made about the credibility of some of the things I was doing with regard to the 2017 report, that I was reducing the targets in order to say I had almost hit them. It was an unfair assertion to make because it was not true in the context of the data that was published. If we are going to extend courtesies to each other-----
It should have been clear to the Deputy. It is not in the cut and thrust to put out a press statement saying the Minister should correct the Dáil record because he has misled the public on his targets by reducing them. That is not the cut and thrust.
I thank the Department for getting on to me because I raised questions about the planning changes and the statutory instrument. I appreciate the call I got from the Department to go through it with me but I still requested that the Business Committee schedule a debate because the issues are important. I appreciate it agreed to that debate which will take place today. I will leave that aside. The key thing is it is a good idea but we need to ensure enforcement. If we do not have enforcement of standards we could have a problem and it could be abused. That is the key area. I will move on from that.
The Minister produced the numbers who had their housing needs met in 2017. He includes in those figures 17,916 HAP tenancies and 910 RAS tenancies.
The vast bulk of the people which the Minister, Deputy Murphy, claims to have met the housing needs of are in RAS and HAP. Does the Minister think he should acknowledge that is misleading? They have not had their housing needs met. An example I used in the Dáil, just one but I have loads, referred to Gemma, a mother of two, in college, working, and who got a HAP tenancy last February. In April the landlord pulled out of the agreement. Gemma found herself living in a hotel with a four year old and two year old. She stayed there until September when she could not bear it and her kids needed to go back to school. She is now living with her grandmother, her three uncles and her aunt. Eight people and four generations are living in a two bedroom house in Glasthule.
She is down in the Minister's figures as having her housing need met. It is nonsense. Stop doing that. It is misleading people. Is the Minister going to do that with HAPs? Stop describing HAPs as a solution which has met anybody's housing needs. It clearly has not. Supplementary to that, I refer to the housing list. People who get HAPs tenancies, which are precarious in the extreme, are taken off the housing list. That means that we are manipulating the housing list figures because the housing list will look as if it has gone down. However, it has not gone down because these people are in precarious HAP tenancies. I want the Minister to acknowledge that point. I believe that people who are in HAPs tenancies should stay on the list. I ask for that change.
Anything else is misleading as to what is going on. I am not saying some people. I heard the Taoiseach come back in response to me and say HAPs suits some people and some people would prefer to stay in HAPs. Fine, if people are happy in HAPs, happy days. However, for huge numbers of people it is precarious and it is not a permanent housing solution. What we need are permanent housing solutions, particularly for families with kids who have been in and out of rent allowance, RAS, and HAPs. This is happening to so many of these families. They just cannot take it anymore. I am dealing with families who have just gone into a hub in the last two days in Dún Laoghaire. They have been through several of these kind of tenancies and now they are being pushed to go and find HAPS again. They cannot take it anymore, their kids cannot take it anymore. They are going back into another form of precarious housing rather than a permanent housing solution which means a council house. I would like the Minister to comment on that.
Also, will the Minister clarify what exactly people are entitled to in terms of HAPs in areas where the average rents, as is the case in Dún Laoghaire and South Dublin, exceed the current HAP limits? People feel like banging their head against the wall when they go into the council and they are faced with an eviction. I have three new evictions in my office this week coming into force at the end of the month. They are faced with homelessness, all of them families and they are told to go find HAPs. What are people supposed to do? There is nothing. Then they have to fight with the council to see if the HAPS limit can be extended up, and be told that it cannot be extended because that is too far. People have to be offered a solution when they go into the council as to what they are supposed to do in these situations or we need to do something to stop the flow into homelessness, that is their eviction.
It has to be one or the other. If people come into my office, or the Minister's office or whatever, and say they are going to be evicted on 31 January, they need to be offered something. What is the Minister proposing to offer, given that rents in many areas, and certainly in mine, exceed the HAP limits?
I thank the Chair and Deputy Boyd Barrett for his questions. On the first point he made around the exempt regulations, enforcement of standards is key. The Department has been doing work since before I came in to improve standards around the rental sector. I refer to improving standards generally around what is being built and everything else. I do not want to do anything that is going to undermine that progression towards better standards. It is important that does not happen as we move to something that has not been addressed for far too long, and that is the management of the existing stock of buildings. I refer to getting people back living in our urban centres, in our village centres above the shops and having the benefits of doing that, not just for themselves but for the community as well. We are going to do that piece of work on enforcement.
Regarding the HAP payment, and the Deputy cited the numbers from 2017, it is not misleading to say that their housing needs have been met because that is how the HAP system was set up. If we look at the more than 32,000 people on HAP, the vast majority are in stable tenancies and are happy to be in those tenancies. We know that from the numbers. There will always be individuals who are having difficulties with HAP as they will with anything, whether it is an individual who is not using HAP in the private rental sector and the different problems that will arise. Not every tenancy will be successful. I have given the numbers for the exits from HAP and the different reasons that people have come out of HAP. It is there in the document provided as a pie chart.
There is a huge amount of detail on the HAPs. It also gives a detail by local authority area. When we look at Dún Laoghaire, and usage figures around local authorities, it is 47%, 37% and 80%. Obviously, it is pointing to a particular problem in Dún Laoghaire that other local authorities are not experiencing. Dún Laoghaire's numbers seem to be higher than other areas. We will have to look at what is happening there. There are particular pressure points because of lack of supply in the market because it is a very desirable area to live. The point of publishing this document was to give greater transparency over how exactly HAP is being used. I am sorry if the Deputy has not had a chance to see it yet. There is a lot of detail in it. If the Deputy wants, we can go through it again.
I know as well that we cannot rely on HAP to meet our social housing needs for our citizens. The joint committee recommended 50,000 homes go into the social housing stock. We secured additional funding of €500 million into the capital budget out to 2021 so we can achieve that goal from the committee. Given the number of people on the housing list, we need another solution as well and that solution is the private rental sector and it is the HAP. It is not misleading in terms of numbers because if a person uses the HAP payment that is meeting his or her housing need.
People who are getting the HAP are able to use the transfer list. We have numbers around the people who are availing of the transfer list as well. It is important to note we have a commitment of €6 billion to increase the stock of social housing. Last year we came in 2,000 units above the target we anticipated bringing in, which I think is somewhere in the region of 40% above target. That is very welcome. As we get to 2020 and 2021, we will be placing more people into social housing stock than we will be relying on the HAP. That is where this is going. We cannot get there overnight though. We do have a chronic undersupply of housing. While we are making progress in the first 18 months, we do have to rely on the private rental sector. That is why we brought in the homeless HAP as a preventative measure.
I want to ask one question. I accept some of what the Minister is saying, although the very precarious situation in Dún Laoghaire, because of the rents, is going to be true as well on a whole range of other fronts because everything is just so much higher. Is it not misleading to take people off the list when they are in HAP? I accept some HAP tenancies work. The Minister might argue many do but we can debate that. However, it is still misleading to say that they should be off the list because whatever-----
I do not think it is misleading because some people will have their housing need met by moving into the private rental sector. That is where they want to be. That is the choice that they make for themselves.
They are getting support from the State pay their rent. They are able to work and earn money and it will not impact their ability to get that support from the State through the HAP. Their housing need is met as far as they are concerned.
Actually, it is. The Deputy can have an individual case where it is not meeting needs and I can have an individual case where it is meeting needs. We deal with thousands of them through the local authorities.
The whole purpose is not to massage the figures. The HAP, as designed, meets the housing need of the person. That is how it has been established and that is how we define it. Could we have longer-term leases for people in HAP? I think we could. Again, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, and I have been discussing the protections that could be brought into the private rental sector and some targeted interventions that may be able to be made. We are beginning those discussions at the moment to see what we can do.
Please reference the pillar or section relating to the question. If we can keep to questions as much as possible, we will probably get through it much quicker than anticipated. It is five minutes for each side, without interruption. I call Senator Boyhan.
I will try to maintain the focus. As the Minister said, the Joint Committee on Housing and Homelessness recommended 10,000 units per annum. That was a very large target and is clearly not going to be met. There are a few key issues. One is the housing summit. The Minister spoke to us last week about the importance of the housing summit. He has set targets for the chief executives but we are not yet privy to them. We should see them quickly. I read in a number of local and national newspapers yesterday that some chief executives said they will not be able to deliver. The committee does not know the targets but the chief executives are talking to the press, in two or three cases, suggesting there may be difficulties. It is very loose language but it is nearly setting up the scene that it is not going to happen. That is where we come in. We must turn the screw. I wish to hear about the targets. When can the Minister release them to the committee? We should have them. More importantly, as I said the other day, there must be sanction. I have heard the talk about the carrot-and-stick approach, the reluctance to do that and I accept what the Minister said. However, this is about sanctions and the accountability gap. The key word here is "accountability". The Minister, the committee and the people who deliver the services locally have a role to play. Everyone has a role. How will we address accountability in the context of a failure to deliver? What sanctions will be imposed?
The second issue is the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA. The Sunday newspapers reported that NAMA said it is on course to clear its original €32 billion debt this year and that the remaining surplus will be returned to the State. There is a possible role for NAMA. Nobody should rule it out. NAMA is a focused organisation. Yes, it has had difficulties and we have had problems with it in the past. However, the possibility to which I refer should be considered. Can NAMA deliver? Can it use the capital it says it has, its expertise and, more importantly, the knowledge it has about real estate and the lie of the land, for want of a better phrase, in this country? I wish to hear a response on that at some point. It need not necessarily be today but I wish to flag it as a possibility.
Another issue is the local authority land that is lying idle, to use that horrible expression. We hear there are land banks all over Dublin that belong to the local authorities, which have primary responsibility for the delivery of houses, and the authorities are doing nothing about it. We must review the inventory. I have been told there is an inventory and this committee needs a detailed inventory of all State lands, be they in health authorities, harbour port authorities or local authorities. We must have a tracking system and accountability in the short, medium and long term for how these lands will be put into use. In addition, as part of the lands inventory we must see what the zoning is on each site and whether the sites are serviced. Let us get realistic and not be dreaming about pie in the sky. With the land aggregation scheme, the local authorities are up to their oxters in debt and in servicing that debt. They will never deliver houses in the short to medium term. These are issues I am flagging for the Minister. I am not expecting a response today.
The other issue is the Part 8 housing scheme. I have asked about this previously, and I am asking again today, because it will assist our work. We want to see an inventory or list setting out each of the Part 8 planning applications that exist. Part 8 has a life. It does not end but continues on and on. We must see where the applications are across the 31 local authorities, why they are not delivering, if they are stuck in the pipeline somewhere and what they plan to deliver. We should examine that and if there are difficulties, setbacks and blockages we want to know that. It is all about integrity in data, streamlining and putting systems in place. That is important.
The Minister said in press commentary recently that the Government must take a direct role and must ensure it does not outsource all of the solutions to the private sector. We want housing solutions and, personally, I do not have a hang up about who provides the houses or where they come from once we provide people with housing solutions.
The next issue is local government. Each chief executive prepares a monthly report. These reports exist and I have taken the time to look at them. I am not sure if there is collaboration but each local authority presents a report to its elected members and I understand the reports are also sent to the Department. I am not sure what the Department is doing but all the statistics and the key objectives are in the reports. We need to find out about them. There might be a case for extending the remit of the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC, in terms of the delivery of key objectives.
Finally, the Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance affordable housing model in Poppintree in north County Dublin and the Ballymun project are good news. This is a very good story. I hear that housing associations are finding it very difficult to negotiate with housing and planning authorities to get sites and land, yet I referred earlier to all the idle land that is available. The associations are delivering units, which is important.
I do not expect the Minister to deal with all of that today but I wish to share my concerns. It goes back to the multifaceted approach to addressing the housing problem and finding solutions. It has to be about increasing the social housing stock. Direct provision of social housing must be a key element of it, although it is not the only one. There is also the construction of private affordable housing, private affordable rental, social rental, homes for the elderly and the downsizing the Minister has discussed. Rent to own is a viable option. People want that option if it is good accommodation in the right locations. Housing options for people downsizing, and the community around that, as well as student accommodation are required.
I acknowledge that it requires a multifaceted approach, as does the Minister and Rebuilding Ireland, but it is about delivery and accountability. It is possibly about considering the idea of project managers to deliver targets and specific big projects that the Government and the relevant authorities put in place. Then there is the issue of sanctions. The accountability gap must be closed because it is all over the place, with sanctions if people do not deliver. Finally, the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, is exceptionally good at his job. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, announced that he would lead the housing delivery unit. That is a good idea. It is the type of focus we need. Perhaps the Minister will share with the committee in the coming weeks how that will be rolled out and what will the priorities in the context of the roll-out.
I do not expect the Minister to respond on those issues now but he might engage with the committee and provide it with feedback on them at an appropriate time.
Regarding the housing summit, we will publish the targets quite quickly. I wrote to local authorities at the beginning of the year to ask them to provide information regarding projects under way, what is in the pipeline and the various things they were thinking of doing. We discussed that information as it was fed back in advance of the summit and at the summit to drill down into the numbers. Over the next two or three weeks we will meet with the housing teams of each local authority to agree their targets for 2018, how they are going to meet them and to look beyond 2018. However, the detail for 2018 is crucial to ensure, as the Senator mentioned, we drive that delivery. I hope to publish that at the beginning of March and then we will probably move to quarterly publishing of the figures, so everybody can see what is happening, or is meant to happen, in each local authority area. Through transparency, we will get the accountability on where we are falling down and what is not happening and, through that, we will get delivery.
I have set up a new project team, essentially for project management and under the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy English, in the Department. The team has visited eight local authorities in the past two weeks. We have hired new staff to work with that group. I also told local authorities at the housing summit that if they wish to hire new staff on the build side to help manage individual projects, they can charge that staff to the capital side of their budgets as well. More resources are being provided because much of what is needed now is that key project management. We will do it from the Department's side by working with the people in the local authorities to ensure we get delivery of sites. In the fourth quarter of 2017, when we really put people under pressure and got into the weeds with the local authorities, we were able to deliver a significant increase in the number of units, getting them in place before the end of the year and getting families into them before Christmas. That was welcome.
Regarding a potential role for NAMA, the heads of the legislation for Home Building Finance Ireland are due to be published shortly. Home Building Finance Ireland will sit alongside NAMA because it is using some of its expertise to get competitive finance to non-NAMA debtors around the country. Are there other potential roles for NAMA and some of the staff and their expertise? I believe that there are, particularly as we look ahead to the national planning framework and some of the things we wish to do. However, I made it very clear to local authorities last Monday that it is their responsibility to build new houses, get new schemes open and to work with housing bodies to bring about the delivery of social housing, which is ramping up quickly. We are not taking that responsibility away from them.
The Senator asked about sanctions.
I understand the motivation behind that. One could tell a local authority that if it does not meet its target, that it would be sanctioned by withholding money or whatever. The difficulty is that if the local authority misses its target and one imposes a financial sanction, there is a question as to whether it will further undermine its ability to meet its targets. On Monday, I told the local authority managers that if they had a target for their areas for 2018, they will have to plan for in excess of that target. If they are to be sure of meeting their targets, they must build in risk or a buffer, so that rather than falling 8% below their target, they could ensure the targets are met or exceeded. Rather than falling 8% below last year's target, they could ensure that this year, the target is met or exceeded on the build side. It is important that we do that.
Land is an incredibly important resource and potentially the most important we have. Members may not have had the opportunity to look at the land map on the Rebuilding Ireland website. One can click onto individual sites marked with a red house icon, and learn the site is serviced and its status with regard to readiness to build. We will bring other State land into that plan, rather than just local authority land which is owned and zoned for housing, because a key component of the national planning framework is to become involved in these strategic pieces of land, whether in Dublin or the north quays in Waterford, for instance, to ensure we can deliver it according to the existing needs and future populations. That is not only for housing needs but also commercial needs, including job creation, leisure amenities and so on.
Land debt continues to be an issue in certain areas. I have spoken to some of the housing bodies about what they might achieve on certain pieces of land if local authorities made them available to them. With debt over-hang on some pieces of land, that will not be possible and we are working on the matter.
I have met the housing bodies in advance of the housing summit, as I did with the previous summit. I regularly meet individual housing bodies about specific sites, but when I met them as a group, we discussed the issue of how, when we identify land for local authorities to build on - which we are doing and is one of the outcomes of this summit - that we also identify land that can be made available to housing bodies in order that they can have certainty about what they can do. At the housing summit, we renewed that commitment that local authorities and housing bodies are partners in how we get homes built and meet the needs of people through social housing.
The Ó Cualann model has driven much of my thinking about the affordable purchase scheme. I have met representatives from Ó Cualann several times and met them very recently to go through some issues in either the last week or December or the first week of January. We have published the income limits in the affordable purchase scheme that we are currently designing, which I want to bring to the committee to flesh out. They are €50,000 for an individual and €75,000 for a couple. We must now decide what other eligibility criteria might apply for applicants. I want to do this soon. The first schemes under the affordable purchase scheme will commence towards the end of the year so we have some time to do this but I want to ensure there are no delays on the local authority side. The sooner we can give them clarity the better.
The Senator also asked -----
It is also about having that as something that is ongoing. It all feeds into our work. We all have responsibilities here. We need to see how everything is progressing. It is a question of having a system in place for monitoring. It would be very helpful. It is another layer of transparency which allows us to see what is happening. The more we can put the information into some type of broad database system we can monitor, the better. It will be helpful and deliver results.
Open government is good government. I have always believed that and is something that I have tried to ensure, such as in my previous role in the Department of Finance, where the whereyourmoneygoes.gov.iewebsite was set up to give people clarity about where their taxes go. Any transparency about what we are doing in housing is welcome because it is such a major concern for people. We are improving things at every step. For instance, in the case of the Residential Tenancies Board, annual registration of tenancies will give us much better data than we have now and make it more readily available.
I want to record that I was at the meeting on Tuesday and raised concerns about what has been put before us today. I raised the concerns about the subdivision of buildings into nine potential units. These are old buildings. The new building regulations do not comply with older buildings and it is premature for the Minister to put this statutory instrument before us today without those guidance documents being in place. I have serious reservations on this.
The fast-track planning process was rushed through the Dáil before Christmas last year and then it took another six months before the Minister took office and signed it into law. Many applications have successfully come through that process.
Action number 3.12 in the plan relates to skills. We have identified another 3,840 skills up to 2021. The industry is stating clearly that there is a skills shortage of 30,000 to 40,000 and an overall shortage of 50,000 to 60,000.
Will the Minister update me on the action relating to finance for developers?
On social housing delivery, I continue to have major reservations, and most people here do, regarding the length of time it is taking to get through the four-stage process. We only have access to the figures for the third quarter, not for the fourth quarter. We still have 76 schemes comprising 1,400 houses waiting for more than a year to get through the capital appraisal process. Of that figure, a total of 33 schemes or 685 units have been waiting for more than two years. The average scheme size is only 15.9 units. The bureaucracy of going through the four-stage process is almost the same for one house as it is for 50 or 100 houses. I do not think that we are getting value here and something must be done to address this and speed up the process. According to the figures for the third quarter, we have only delivered 809 homes between local authorities and approved housing bodies.
On exempted development regulations, nine is the maximum that we think is prudent or possible but it would not necessarily proceed at that level. I would caution against delaying what we are trying to do on this. These exempted development regulations were laid before the House in December. I understand the concerns which have been raised and think they can be satisfied in the letter that has been written in response to Deputy Cowen's letter to me yesterday evening. Work is almost complete on this.
But there is no change in the building regulations and what applies. What we are doing is seeing how the processes can be streamlined to ensure that people do not have to wait 12 months once they have -----
One cannot apply the same building regulations for new buildings to retrofit buildings. We have had this discussion here already. Thirty-one local authorities are interpreting fire safety regulations when it comes to retrofitting of new buildings. We need technical guidance documents relating to fire safety, ventilation and disability access. To pass this today is premature without those technical documents before us.
Those technical documents will be with members shortly. If we can get the exempted development part of it passed today, it will allow people to begin to prepare to make those types of conversions and prepare that work so that by the time they get into this, the technical guidance will be published and the local authorities will have it.
I do not see the need for delay because we are about to get there with the completion of this new streamlined process. We want to ensure that we do not delay. This is about getting potential, vacant -----
We have been working diligently on them to get agreement on the standards and the new streamlined process. We laid the statutory instrument before the House in December, we had the engagement on Tuesday and will have a debate in the Dáil this afternoon. I hope we can proceed on it because we know we have the chance to unlock huge potential in vacant commercial stock into homes in places where that is needed.
We can continue this discussion when the letter being prepared for Deputy Cowen is circulated to the rest of the committee.
On fast-track numbers, to date we have had one decision to grant which was for University College Dublin for over 2,000 bed spaces and one refusal for the Clay Farm development, comprising 927 residential units. As we come through this fast-track planning process, we need to understand why applications are successful and why they are not. Approximately 14 strategic housing development applications are on hand which cover 1,977 houses, over 1,300 apartments and 1,400 student bed spaces, which is just under 5,000 in total. In the consultation pre-application phase, there were 37 requests, totalling 8,700 homes and just under 5,000 student bed spaces. Not all of those consultation pre-applications have gone to application stage. At the last meeting on this, I was told there are about 4,000 to be submitted and the turnaround time for them is three months.
I have been discussing the skills issue with several people in the industry because there is a potential for a skills shortage, not just in housing building but infrastructure development across the country. We have ambitious plans to invest tens of billions of euro in all sorts of infrastructure projects over the next ten years. The Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, met with the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, last week to discuss this area. I have met with several groups which do skills training through different local authorities and schemes. Although it would not normally come through my Department, I am looking at several proposals for additional funding to see how we can fund some of the schemes. Those conversations are ongoing at the moment.
We are not talking necessarily about all of the skills and all the people we used to have in construction because of the amount done through prefabrication along with new innovations in construction methods and technology. For example, rapid build, which has become the industry norm, one is able to build houses with far fewer people. That does not mean that we are not going to always need people to finish these units on site with certain skills. I visited one centre which had taken ten long-term unemployed people, and one person who was homeless, into a construction skills course, got them the skills and certified them. Each person got a job within a week which shows the demand for these skills. This work is happening but there are several more matters to be addressed. We are engaging with the CIF to see what more can be done. Again, it is not just relevant to my Department but to several.
I discussed Home Building Finance Ireland, HBFI, with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, during our last engagement. The heads of the Bill are being drafted and the timeline is to have the legislation introduced and passed later this year. It will ensure we can begin funding later this year for non-NAMA debtors under the terms of the legislation. This will be brought before the Dáil by the Minister for Finance. My Department obviously has a role in developing that legislation as it comes before the House.
I have a growing concern about the delivery of affordable housing units. I get information on LIHAF, local infrastructure housing activation fund, the €25 million fund and the new proposal around an equity share from the Minister through parliamentary questions. How many units will be delivered and at what price for both this and next year? I am looking for an answer to those two simple questions every time I frame a parliamentary question on this issue. I am sure the departmental staff pull their hair out when they see my questions because it is a lot of work. However, I am not getting the answer to those two simple questions. Will the Minister either answer these questions or admit he cannot answer them at this point and indicate when he can? When I say prices, I do not mean an answer such as less than €320,000. I have given bands and I am going to keep on coming back. I prefer not to waste the Department's time with freedom of information requests. However, this reluctance to give us this information makes me all the more nervous about the delivery of affordable housing.
On the land initiative, the Minister knows the Sinn Féin Party does not like this model of delivery. In good faith, however, we have engaged constructively with the two local authorities involved, in the absence of direct state funding for large-scale public housing developments. Our councillors in the two local authorities in question are increasingly concerned that there will be no genuinely affordable units in these schemes. Our difficulty is that it is going to be a red line for us come the final approval of which lands have to be disposed. We are not looking to play politics with it but, again, we cannot get answers from managers on the number of units and the actual cost of units which could be affordable even at a general level. I hope the Minister will shed some light on this.
I would more than welcome the opportunity to outline some suggestions for the affordable loan scheme criteria. If that was possible to do before the scheme was finalised, we would make ourselves available. Notwithstanding the criticisms I have made, if one has affordable supply, the affordable loan scheme could be valuable. In the absence of affordable supply, my criticisms still stand.
The same point applies. We have suggestions in terms of the criteria and we are more than welcome to engage in that.
I am disappointed only the executive summary of one of the cost of building studies was published last night. It does not give us data or the basis upon which some of the conclusions and recommendations have been made. That is materially relevant to the deadline we all had to meet at 11 o'clock today for submissions on apartment standards. When will the Minister publish those two studies in full? We are hearing rumours of significant disagreement between the Department, the Housing Agency, and the construction industry professionals over the content of those? Is there any truth to that? Will the Minister explain the reason for the delay in the publication of these reports?
I do not want to get into a big row about social housing figures. I am choosing my words carefully. I do not accept the 7,000 figure, partly because it comprises 800 units which are leased and are not real social housing units as the majority of them are owned by private operators. I have a concern about the build in terms of the speed and the increase in the final quarter. We cannot judge that until we see the Q4 reports. However, I am now convinced the void figure is not what we were led to believe or what we understood it to be. There is a significant number of properties in that 1,700 figure which at the start of 2017 had a tenant. They are not voids in the sense of how the scheme was originally designed. Instead, they are expensive standard re-lets and above the cap. We have to get some clarity on which are long-term voids, which we can genuinely say are additions to the stock, and which are expensive re-lets.
I welcomed the Minister's assurance at the last meeting and in parliamentary questions about approved housing body re-designation. What does the Minister expect the impact on the fiscal space for 2018 will be and how will he manage it? I welcome the reduction in all three categories of homelessness in the December figures. I am vocal in my criticism when the figures go up. I would like the Minister to know, however, that I am equally vocal in welcoming their reduction. I also welcome the fact the Minister has changed his media strategy in how he releases those figures. I hope he continues to do that, irrespective what the figures are over the next several months. Will he consider adding a new metric on the length of time individuals and families are spending in emergency accommodation? It would be useful.
I strongly suggest we stop using the term "rapid builds". It is 12 months planning and approval and nine months construction which is marginally quicker on both ends than the standard build. However, it is not rapid. We are doing ourselves a disservice by calling them rapid builds. I have no objection to this building technology but we are codding ourselves if we believe it is rapid.
It is important to note that, while any reduction in homeless figures is welcome, we are not yet seeing a trend. When we put out the figures for December, I made the point that I do not want to give people false hope.
A huge amount of work is going on between ourselves and our partners in the NGO sector to help people in this difficult crisis situation.
I noticed on Twitter, now that I am back on it, that the Deputy was talking about my media strategy in regard to the figures. How many times now have we published the homeless figures? We were at a meeting in the Department that day and I told the Deputy I was going back to my office to try to get the homeless figures out as quickly as possible. That was genuine. I got them out that evening for the newspapers the next day because the Deputy has a problem with them coming out on a Friday.
I do not have a problem with them coming out on a Friday. I have a problem in that I perceived they were being buried at times when there was less media scrutiny. That is my perception of what the Minister has been doing.
I went into the studio and the presenters specifically said to me, "Thank you for giving us the figures", and they reported them in the programme. We wanted to make sure I could not be accused of trying to hide the figures or publishing them the next day, so we made a specific effort to get them out in time. It is very unfair of the Deputy to make claims about a media strategy that is trying to hide these figures when we are trying to do the opposite.
There is no change in strategy. We have to make sure we get these numbers out, that they are published and that they are accurate numbers which people can stand over. In regard to future reporting of numbers, work is going on in the Department to see how we can improve the numbers behind the numbers. As they are published at the moment, these numbers are not really telling people anything - it is just a number one month and a number the next month, with no trends or background data. Therefore, we are doing work around how we can improve the numbers. I would have hoped it would be ready so we could begin our reporting for this year with that new framework, but it may not be. It is never easy to try to come up with data sets and to be able to get into the numbers as quickly as we would like.
With regard to the 7,000 figure for stock, if we are entering into a long-term lease arrangement and we are the landlord, then we can say that is the stock of social housing because it is a secure tenancy for that person and is a very different situation from being in the private rented sector. I believe we can count that in the stock of social housing. We were very clear in the report, and when I published the figures for 2017, that this is what we were counting. For the tenant who is living in that house, there is no difference as to whether the local authority built it or someone else did. The landlord is the local authority or the AHB and the tenant has a secure tenancy for the lifetime of that lease arrangement. It is important to point that out.
We had a lengthy discussion in regard to voids earlier in the committee session. When we started the voids and vacancies programme, we were talking about homes that were boarded up and derelict. Huge progress was made and thousands were brought back into use, although there are still some derelicts which are counted in our void numbers. Eventually, there will not be a voids figure and we will just be talking about casual vacancies, where a property is empty for two or three weeks and is quickly turned around. We do not have casual vacancies in our voids figures as matters stand. We are talking about homes where, if a significant amount of money had not been put into them, they would be vacant today. If I were to say to local authorities that properties have to be vacant for more than 12 months, we would be putting the wrong incentive into the system and there is a risk a local authority would keep a void vacant so it could then avail of that capital money after a 12-month period. The figures for 2017 show our target was 766 whereas the output was 1,757, so it was 229% of our target, although this was actually down 551 units, or 24%, on 2016. We are making huge progress on voids.
I am not disputing that. All I am asking the Minister to do is to separate the long-term voids from the expensive re-lets because they are two different categories, and I believe it is an important distinction. It is very simple request.
The funding line is the same for 2018. If we were to make that distinction, there might be an incentive for local authorities to delay bringing stock back into use in order to avail of this funding line.
I am suggesting the Minister would fund them exactly the same as is done now but that he would record them differently so we know what they are. I do not want to call it deception but I think this gives the wrong impression of what these units are. I accept there are standard turnarounds that are more expensive than the norm but that is a completely different category from a long-term vacant property. All I asking is that the Minister would record the figures accurately so we can judge them on that basis. He has that information.
I do not accept that. There are two different categories. One is long-term voids that were out of stock for a long period and, because the Department was bringing them back in, it can legitimately count them as an addition to stock. There is another category where, for example, at the start of 2017 a property had a lifetime tenant and that tenant then moved out. The Minister is correct that the level of refurbishment that is required is significantly in excess of a standard re-let but the work could be done in three or four months and it is then re-let. If the property had a tenant at the start of 2017, if it was twice the cost to do the refurb and if the property is re-let in three months, that cannot be counted as a new unit of stock. There is a fundamental difference.
It was always intended to. I separated voids from builds intentionally so the Deputies could see where the voids are located. The previous allegation was that we were counting voids as new builds when they were not; now, we are being accused of counting voids as new stock when they are not.
The definition of a void, when we sat here with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, was not a turnover of a property that was only vacated this year. We are not arguing about the capital spend. We are arguing about the definition of a void.
We are not talking about casual vacancies when we talk about voids. If the Deputy looks at our targets for 2018 he will see we are talking about 560. This number of voids, as we understand them, will no longer exist in about two years. There will not be a line in this regard because we will then be talking about the type of casual vacancies the Deputy is talking about.
Many of the questions I was going to ask have been asked. The uptake of rapid-build housing is disappointing. I always felt this was very much targeted at cities like Dublin, Cork and Limerick and that we needed more in rural Ireland.
On the issues of homelessness and emergency homelessness, it is very disappointing that the rent pressure zones were not rolled out further as we are currently in an emergency housing crisis. Carlow County Council has an average payment of €537 every month whereas average rent for a house in Carlow is €900 to €1,000 a month. This means that anybody on HAP or rent allowance has to come up with nearly €500, which is not doable. I know there is a hardship clause that might go up to €700 but, even still, it is unacceptable.
On an issue I have raised with the Minister before, I am glad he has announced the mortgage programme. I am a firm believer that mortgages should be given to people who do not qualify. I have a massive issue with the thresholds, in particular in my area, which has one of the lowest thresholds in the country at €27,500. I had three couples come in to me last week. One couple works part-time and a person in another of the situations works full-time and would be taking in €350 to €400, which is an average income in rural areas. These people were put on family income supplement, FIS, but they did not qualify to go on the housing list. I have families coming in to me where one partner is working and the other stays at home to mind the child or is looking for work. They are getting FIS but they do not qualify to go on Carlow County Council's housing list. Do they give up work, go on the local authority housing list and get HAP and the €600 a month? This is where people are falling through the brackets and we are not seeing improvements. The issue of rent pressure zones needs to be urgently addressed.
The Minister wants to improve policy in regard to victims of domestic violence. There is no policy. I can tell the Minister of cases where people have been victims of domestic violence. They are homeless so they just fill out a normal homeless form but they are not put in any special category. The policy is not working and it needs to be looked at.
Mental health is another problem. I have had several cases of constituents who have mental health issues recently. There is no special funding to help them, and I was told there would be.
The biggest area that needs to be worked on is the national awareness campaign that was rolled out for families and individuals worried about the risk of losing their homes. I acknowledge the Minister is working with the campaign through the Citizens Information Board, but it is a massive issue. A huge number of people do not know about this and are worried. There is supposed to be a freefone number for tenants but people are unaware of it. I ask the Minister to provide more help in this regard this year. A woman contacted me recently who was crying and upset because she did not know where to go to get help. She did not know what lines to use. I tried to get her as much information as I could. The Minister is trying to help but there is a lack of awareness and more information must be given in this regard.
The Minister has been working with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, on the crucial issue of notices. People on rental schemes who get notice from their landlord deserve three or six months' notice at least, depending on how long the tenant has been in place. We often speak about landlords in this committee. There are good landlords but there are also landlords who do not do enough. Rental accommodation must be inspected as people are living in places that definitely do not conform to health and safety standards and nobody is helping them. I do not suggest that all landlords are like that as there are very good landlords but perhaps some are not in a position to fix their properties. I have visited people in cases where I believe the local authority needs to step in. There must be more accountability in that sector.
I welcome the establishment of a €200 million local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF. Every local authority needs to be accountable in this regard. We need to build houses regardless of whether they are Part V homes or are privately built. That is what is missing and every local authority needs to step up to the mark and be accountable for this because the €200 million is a nice bit of money and the Minister can work through the local authorities and his Department to deliver houses.
On the facility to purchase newly-built houses through the local authorities for the approved housing bodies, AHBs, can the Minister give the local authorities more information on that scheme? There are some good initiatives for the future but I believe the information is not going out correctly. The Minister was talking about figures and giving out to the newspapers. He should make sure everything goes out to the newspapers. He has to create awareness, because people do not know what is going on. They hear that there is no money for something but then hear the opposite from the local authorities. I am asking that the Minister make an awareness campaign his priority going forward.
Rapid-build housing was initially brought in as a policy response in the context of homelessness but things have changed very quickly since then. Rapid build has almost become the industry standard. One of the things we discussed at the housing summit on Monday was the need to stop separating rapid and non-rapid builds in terms of local authority housing in our minds. The local authority chief executives said to me that as rapid build will become the default, we should stop reporting it as something separate. All developments should be proceeding as rapid builds and if they are not, we need to know why not and what reason a body would have for not using that type of construction. We know it works and provides incredibly good quality and standard buildings. It is a quicker way of ramping up delivery.
The legislation on rent pressure zones, RPZs, which effectively introduced rent caps in certain areas, is new. We have reviewed its impact and how it is working, and that work is almost completed. There are two qualifying criteria under which an area comes under the designation of an RPZ. In the last quarterly report, no new area came under that designation. I understand the point that some people make, that while rent inflation in four of the six previous quarters was above 7% in some places, it still does not get above the average rent of the country because certain parts of the country, such as Dublin, increase the average. I hear those points. We are looking at these issues at the moment.
On the mortgage threshold and the individual couple mentioned who were having difficulties, we are reviewing income limits. That work is being conducted by the Housing Agency, and I believe we will have a report in first or second quarter of this year on that issue. Some people will have difficulties in this regard. I am not sure if that couple will be eligible for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan.
We will see what happens with the income limits and see what might be available. We talk about perverse incentives in the system all the time. We try to develop and design systems that will work to help those who need help. We do not want people to feel that they are worse off because they are working. These are the kinds of traps we try and avoid in designing policies. We are looking at the income limits issue.
As for victims of domestic violence, I had a meeting with the Homeless Network, the alliance of NGOs, last week. It was the first time a Minister has attended that meeting. It was a very constructive meeting because of all the different bodies and NGOs that were there, including those which meet the needs people have due to health care issues or domestic violence, among others. They also face the same challenges everyone else faces in terms of rent and housing. We had a very good exchange of views on certain things that need to be done, and we are taking those on board at the minute.
Prevention is key for 2018. We have brought in additional emergency beds and supports. We have the homeless housing assistance payment, HAP, and we exceeded our targets in that area last year. These things are working but we must now make a concerted effort to keep people in their homes until such time that the stock of social housing and housing generally is much greater. We will need 2018 to do that. There is a big piece of work to be done this year under Rebuilding Ireland to build on the good work that was done in 2017. Prevention is a focus of mine.
The RTB has carried out a number of focused outreach programmes using social media channels and other methods to make people aware of their rights regarding rental increases and so on and it has given us good feedback on the engagement it has had on that. There is a new provision for when a notice of termination is served by a landlord to his or her tenants. The landlord now must also notify the RTB when that happens. We are progressing that provision, in that the legislation is on the priority list for publication in the first half of this year. The change management programme we spoke about earlier is coming online as well.
By 2021 a quarter of all properties will be inspected. That means that if one has a property, it will be inspected every four years. If the property is leased out or comes under the HAP, it is inspected more quickly than that. In general, however, local authorities take a risk-based approach to this. We have asked them to refine that approach and use things like social media to identify those properties. Printouts from Facebook were brought to my attention during the course of some of the debates last year. As some of the advertisements were presented in a foreign language such as Portuguese, translators are required to try to identify properties. We are also looking at ways in which technology can help us carry out a first pass on a property voluntarily. These are some of the conversations that are happening in the background at the moment. We want to make better use of existing technology to help us expedite the number of inspections that happen. Under the forthcoming legislation, we are looking at the area of rogue landlords who really are criminals and the type of sanctions that will fall upon them where they are putting the lives of people living in their properties at risk, that is, where they are basically abusing people's human rights. That work is progressing in the Department at present.
On the LIHAF funding, the initial investment fund was €200 million. In budget 2018, I secured agreement for an additional €50 million. We have signed agreements under LIHAF 1 worth almost €200 million. There is an agreement which is about to be struck which will bring us to just below the €200 million. As we actually allocated €226 million, we over-allocated to make sure we hit the €200 million target and we are almost about to hit that target. A couple of schemes have fallen out.
I will very soon issue a call for submissions to LIHAF 2. I informed local authorities of that fact at the housing summit and told them to get projects ready. Some projects that were unsuccessful in the context of LIHAF 1 might have been close to acceptance and should be resubmitted to the Department. A few projects that for various reasons were not completed under LIHAF 1 might come under LIHAF 2 as well.
We are very tight for time and this is a huge topic, so I will stick with one issue, that of affordable housing, which comes under pillar 3 and points 13 and 14 in particular. It is somewhat incredible that an affordable mortgage scheme operating in tandem with local authorities is not currently in existence. Earlier in the week, the Minister announced a scheme that local authorities will have to administer through their staff but which relates to private rather than public or publicly built housing. I wish to ask him about the latter because this is the first opportunity for members to so do.
People around the country were somewhat gobsmacked at the suggestion by the Taoiseach relating to how people might raise deposits to be able to participate in the scheme. I refer, for example, to someone putting together a deposit of €30,000 for a property in Dublin. He outlined four ways for people to do so: leave the country to work; ask the bank of mammy and daddy for a bailout; borrow the money, which I thought was illegal because one is not meant to borrow for a deposit but, rather, raise the deposit and then have a 90% loan; or stay at home for a few years and live with their parents. What is the Minister's view on those comments? All members know that the most recent census showed that up to half a million people under 30 were stuck at home with their parents because of the housing crisis. Parents are faced with the choice of packing off a child to Australia or keeping one in Ireland. It is incredible that the Government has prioritised a scheme for private housing, which is currently unaffordable. The Minister announced a scheme that forces people to participate in unaffordable private housing rather than an affordable mortgage scheme utilising public lands, for which many people have been waiting for a long time and which councils used to offer. What is the Minister's next plan?
I met the management of Fingal County Council to discuss the landbank north of Wellview in Damastown. I hope those officials have raised that matter with the Minister. For that scheme to work, a portion of it would be social housing but if the Minister wants the famous mix of tenure that is so often talked about, an affordable mortgage scheme must be introduced that would allow the council to get those houses built and let people buy them through an affordable mortgage. If that was done, rather than young or older people being forced to spend €320,000 on houses in Blanchardstown or elsewhere, they could buy them for €165,000 or €170,000, certainly less than €200,000, and make mortgage repayments of €600 to €700 per month. That is possible and a reality.
People have mentioned the Ó Cualann scheme, which is very welcome because it shows that if it can be done there, it can be done elsewhere. However, councils have landbanks. The Ó Cualann scheme is illustrative of what is possible but I would not choose that model because I think the council should hire a contractor. It is obvious that direct build is not currently an option because of understaffing but councils should hire a contractor and pay a set price to build houses rather than giving away land to a private developer. In the case of Ó Cualann, there is no particular profiteering by the developers but there are issues with provision and the scale thereof. When is the Government going to bring in such a scheme with local authorities or what is its plan in that regard? We need real affordable housing rather than subsidising people to go in search of unaffordable housing on the private market.
I thank Deputy Coppinger. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify some points on the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme, which it is not solely for private houses. Local authorities have previously given out mortgages but this scheme is different because it offers a very low fixed rate over the lifetime of the loan, which is quite exciting. It is linked to net disposable income and the ability of a borrower to afford the repayments. One of the examples we gave of how the scheme would operate concerned a couple earning €75,000 who have a 10% deposit. Their repayments over a 25-year mortgage for a house with a purchase price of €320,000 would never be more than 24% of their income, which is incredible. To have that kind of certainty around that product and to know that it was only taking up-----
In that example, repayments would be less than 24% of their net disposable income. To have the certainty that repayments would be less than a quarter of the couple's net disposable income after things such as taxation and other outstanding loans are taken into account is incredible. It is a very good product in that way and will help people buy houses on the private market and as part of our new affordable purchase scheme. As regards the Deputy's point that the scheme will be used to purchase unaffordable houses, between January and the end of October 2017 more than two thirds of houses purchased by first-time buyers in the Cork, Galway and greater Dublin areas cost less than €320,000, which is the relevant cap on the scheme. There are thousands of houses for sale-----
The Deputy is misinterpreting my response to her question and I hope she is not doing so intentionally. She stated that houses will be unaffordable for such people under this scheme. I am saying that under the scheme such people will be able to afford these houses, as evidenced in the example I gave, whereby the repayments of that couple would be less than one quarter of their income. That is affordable in that context. Some 91% of homes outside the Cork, Galway and greater Dublin areas purchased by first-time buyers in 2017 up to the end of October cost less than the relevant €250,000 cap for the mortgage scheme. That is why this product will be beneficial.
As regards what the Taoiseach said, he was simply stating a matter of fact. People get help from a number of different sources to put together deposits. He did not get such assistance when purchasing his house and was making the point in the context of the Government not wanting a return to 100% mortgages because of how dangerous they are and how they helped to destroy our economy. Under the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme, one can use the help-to-buy measure that was previously introduced or prove savings of 3% and verify a gift of 7%. There is flexibility in the scheme to ensure that people are able to avail of it, which is what we want.
The first tranche of available funding is €200 million, which will allow approximately 1,000 people to avail of the scheme. As that draws down to approximately €50 million, the Housing Finance Agency will go back to the market to secure an additional fund which will probably be administered on a slightly higher interest rate likely to be at 2.25% for the 25-year rather than 30-year product. That will be kept under review to monitor its success. The current mortgage market in Ireland is worth approximately €99 billion, while the local authority mortgage market is in the region of €1 billion. The €200 million available under this scheme is only a fraction of the overall market but it will grow if successful and as it grows we will make changes to its administration, depending on feedback. People will be able to apply for loans under the scheme from 1 February. One day after the call centre opening we had to double the number of staff because of the level of interest that was shown. The number of website hits was told to me last night and although I cannot remember it off the top of my head I think one quarter of hits were return visitors. There is much interest in the scheme.
That is why I announced the affordable purchase scheme on the same day. Every measure we have taken to date regarding affordability have been direct supply-side measures such as LIHAF infrastructure funding, the fast-track process of An Bord Pleanála, the new finance body, Home Building Finance Ireland, which will come on line this year or changes in apartment standards and they all aim to reduce costs to increase supply.
The Rebuilding Ireland home loan is not a direct supply-side measure nor is it a direct demand-side measure. Might it have some impact on both sides of the ledger? Perhaps but again, because it is one fifth of 1% of the mortgage market in Ireland, that is probably unlikely. At the moment the house prices are capped. Also, for every one person who potentially will avail of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan we intend, at a minimum, to bring on three new affordable build houses using land and money from the State. That is the affordable purchase scheme that I announced on the same day as well. We are increasing supply under our other schemes. It is important that we do not look at any one measure under Rebuilding Ireland or under the affordable purchase scheme in isolation.
I would like to hear more about the second scheme because we did not get a lot of detail except what we saw in the newspapers. How much does the Minister anticipate the houses will cost? Is there a programme for local authorities to ramp up the provision of affordable housing in order that people can apply for the scheme?
In response to the Deputy's second question, I have published a statement on this matter that is available on the website. My statement goes into some of the details for the affordable purchase scheme that might not have been covered in the newspapers because, naturally enough, they fixated on this new product of a lifetime - a fixed rate mortgage - which does not exist in today's market. In budget 2018, I confirmed funding for 2018 and 2019 of €25 million for a serviced site programme. I also secured an additional €15 million for the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF 2, which will build on the €200 million from LIHAF 2.
With those two measures together, as well as some of the existing large sites we have, particularly in Dublin like the O'Devaney and Poolbeg sites, we will have this affordable purchase scheme that will be the qualifying criteria to enter into homes under those three different pieces at present. We also have the affordable-to-rent scheme, which is cost rental but there are a couple of innovative things happening in other parts of the country. For example, I refer to the build-to-rent stuff into which Cork is getting involved and which also was mentioned in my press release that is available on the website.
The affordable purchase scheme will have the same income qualifying criteria as the Rebuilding Ireland home loan. They do not have to work together but they can work together if people want them to. Annual gross income cannot exceed €50,000 for a single applicant and €75,000 for a couple. We need to now decide what other qualifying criteria should apply. We can look at the Ó Cualann model. I have met officials from the organisation on at least two occasions and we have considered its qualifying criteria. People might think the criteria are too restrictive but that is a piece of work we need to do. Earlier, Deputy Ó Broin talked about feeding some ideas into that and I believe that would be more than welcome. My Department does not have a monopoly on wisdom in terms of what the best scheme might be. Everyone has different experiences from their own local authorities as to what qualifying criteria might or should apply. The scheme will use land that is owned by the State. It will also use finance as well, potentially, to buy new land if we need to do so. My Department and local authorities attended the housing summit. On that occasion we asked them to begin to identify sites that have not already been identified for affordability in order that we can start to plan. We expect the first houses to be built under this scheme to commence construction towards the end of the year.
As for the potential cost of a house, I gave an example that is included in my statement on the website. A house that cost €250,000 might actually be sold for €200,000 and then the equity stake will be taken by the local authority. If one looks at the Ó Cualann model, some of its houses were for sale for a price as low as €170,000. We can achieve the same with the affordable purchase scheme but that will depend on what cost factors went into the site in question. Not all of the Ó Cualann houses were sold for such a low price. Of course, the price will also depend on the size of the house, the number of bedrooms and everything else. It will depend on each scheme. We are talking about an affordable purchase scheme as most of us would understand it.
I thank the Minister and his officials for their attendance. I do not wish to go over old ground considering the questions that have been asked and the answers that have been forthcoming. I simply seek information from the Minister and his officials to measure the success of the future but to measure any success or failure that we have seen in recent years. To that end, I welcome the efforts to ensure there is transparency regarding the targets that will be set and the ability of the Department and local authorities to deliver.
I seek a spreadsheet, if possible, that outlines how many people were on the housing waiting list for each local authority on 1 January 2016 and, during the course of the year, how many houses were constructed by the local authority, how many houses were constructed for the local authority in co-operation with approved housing bodies, how many properties were purchased by the authority, how much land the local authority had in stock at the beginning and the end of the year and what was the waiting list at the end of 2016. I would like the same data for 2017. When we see the targets for 2018, we will be able to put a bit of shape and background on those targets, thus allowing us a better opportunity to measure performance and whether it has been enhanced and improved. Perhaps such data would help us to identify the failures of the conventional system as we know it over the past number of years.
I am sure the frustration that is evident among my constituents and throughout my constituency is replicated throughout the country. Irrespective of the arguments we might have about figures, data and statistics, no community in my constituency has seen the Government or local authority construct homes for those who cannot provide or afford them in their own communities. When I consult my constituents, that is their response, that is the reality and that is what is reflected in their views to me. I need a simple concise mechanism that will allow me to report back to them, as is my duty and privilege, as to how taxpayers' money, the Government and the parties in government are working with the Department and with those who are charged with the responsibility to deliver within local authorities to deliver to those poor unfortunates. I do not use that term lightly. I share, as do we all, the terrible frustration of meeting the same people for the past number of years in our constituency offices and not being in a position to help despite the record achievements in recent years with regard to having got our finances back in shape and despite having record levels of income and revenue coming into the State. The Government now has an opportunity to prioritise how that money is spent and that is the greatest issue that faces society, the economy and the country. We can all agree on how the Government is handling Brexit. We can all, to some extent, agree on taxation measures, the universal social charge and so forth. However, we have not reached agreement on how to tackle housing. We have been told that money is no obstacle when it comes to resolving this issue but it is not. I need to simplify for myself and my constituents what happened in recent years and how the situation will be improved immediately.
I welcome Deputy Cowen's commitment to transparency, which I am trying to bring about in my own work. It is good that we are able to publish indicative targets for 2017, and publish them so quickly, that we can confirm with our quarterly construction report that includes all of the figures we have published for 2017. We need to be able to measure what we are doing and what local authorities are doing. That is why I want to publish the targets for 2018 quite clearly for every local authority in order that everyone - both the public and the public representatives - can see exactly what is expected of them so we can achieve those targets. Recently, the Minister of State, Deputy English, published the social housing needs assessment for 2017. The report showed a small decrease, which is welcome. Off the top of my head, I think the decrease was between 6% and 7%. There was a decrease in almost every local authority area. Of course we need to do more.
My focus for 2016 is to get an accurate understanding of what was completed in the private and local sector in that year but also what was completed in 2017 because it is one figure that we not have. It is very important in terms of judging progress over the lifetime of the Rebuilding Ireland programme, which extends to 2021. My data analyst group is focusing on that aspect at present.
The Deputy talked about identifying the failures of the conventional system. Many of them have been identified. The conventional system is not the same system that existed pre-crash. Many changes have happened in terms of the new one-stage process. We introduced a new four-stage process that has been sweated down to 59 weeks. We have a new procurement framework for rapid build and rapid build has become our default in terms of what we do. We are using a shared services model when it comes to planning for public private partnerships, planning and design and procurement from the rapid framework, which is very important.
The shared services model is working very well and is progressing in other areas.
Deputy Ó Broin spoke about the need for a national turnkey campaign. Turnkeys have been very successful for local authorities and we will progress a national turnkey campaign during 2018. I have spoken about this with local authorities, the County and City Management Association and other groups, as an effective means of delivery for our local authorities.
We have a new land management unit that will drive delivery. The money is there in the form of the €6 billion. Even when we were racing ahead of our targets in 2017, I was able to secure additional funding that went to delivery in 2017 for house completions and regeneration projects, along with some of the family hub accommodation we delivered for those people who were in emergency accommodation in hotels. The money is being spent and it is delivering houses. This is seen in the numbers we have for 2017.
When we talk about economic recovery and how we achieve it, as each of us meet with our constituents it is important that we talk about the changes and the changed approach we took to the taxation system and the tax base, the moving of some of the credits and some of the discounts, so the tax base was not too narrow. We also focused on increasing the number of people in employment with the Action Plan for Jobs. This five-year plan was aimed at increasing the numbers of jobs - I cannot remember by how many but it may have been 100,000 - and in the first two years, people wondered if it would actually work. In the third, fourth and fifth years they saw the benefit of the action plan and what it actually meant in the context of overachieving on our targets. We had the same approach in the context of Rebuilding Ireland, which is also a five-year programme. We are 18 months in to that plan and we are already exceeding almost all of our targets, which is very welcome.
As we build new homes, we have to do so in a sustainable way that does not erode the tax base for the future. This means that we cannot just build thousands of homes all over the place. It also means that we cannot just say "If it is a supply-side measure, then we must pursue it." In pursuing that, we may be building in serious crises for the future. We must maintain this balance. All of the data on what has been achieved for 2016 have been published. We will now publish the figures for 2017. My focus is on the future and on getting things built. If the Deputy believes there is a particular problem with his local authority in its delivery, then we can meet the manager there to see what has and has not been achieved.
I know that. I do not want to get into a confrontation here, but I am aware of instances throughout the State that have been relayed to me whereby land was identified and permission was granted some years ago but where development has not ensued. This is even with the improvements in the stages of the planning process going from eight to four. I need to see, and it is right and appropriate that the public can see, the land at hand in each local authority in recent years. Was this land put to use and if not then why not? I respect and acknowledge that a high percentage of the Minister's focus should be on the future. That is his duty and responsibility and I do not doubt this. Somebody, however, has to account for the past number of years. I simply want to ascertain the level of expectation that is on the Minister's shoulders. I am not trying to hang the Minister, I am trying to help him. The public needs to be aware of where we are coming from, where we need to go and how things can be improved. If the Minister tells me, with the best will in the world, that there have been improvements and this is the information he is receiving, then I am afraid that I do not see it. I wish that I did. I acknowledge that there have been some improvements. In the wider scheme of things, however, Deputies are speaking with people throughout the State who do not see development by local authorities in their communities. That is what I would measure success by. I hope this changes.
I thank Deputy Cowen. I know he is trying to help tie the knot. There are improvements. I have just visited schemes in Waterford; regeneration schemes and new builds and one site where new homes will be completed - Off the top of my head, I cannot remember the total number or the number that were occupied through the year. As they move into different phases on site, they proceed very quickly. In certain local authority areas, there have been improvements, some quite dramatic.
Regarding land, the information is all published on the website and one can click on each parcel of land to see exactly what is the situation. One of the aspects of the land management group's work is to liaise with local authorities to identify land, what the authority plans to do with it and what other land can be used for approved housing bodies. Then we can see if the initial land availability meets their ability to provide more houses with more land. This work is happening. If Deputy Cowen is aware of specific instances of land, then he must let me know. I can say to a local authority that he has told us that nothing has been developed on a particular parcel of land for three years and I can ask why that is the case. It is very difficult to deal with generalities. This is why we also have the land map.
-----and we have improved the figures. I am focused on delivery. Delivery is happening according to the numbers as I publish them. I know that the Deputy is trying to undermine those numbers by claiming that I have reduced the targets to try to meet them. That was not the case but the Deputy did say it in the Dáil.
Deputy Cowen I wish to ask some questions. I have the floor.
I thank the Department and the Minister for facilitating a meeting with the committee last Thursday when a huge amount of data, information and clarification was given to the committee. I thought that we had teased all of them out last week. Since Rebuilding Ireland was introduced, this committee has been afforded an unbelievable amount of data and construction statistics. That information is always available to the committee. I want it recognised that everything has been put on the table and has been made very clear to the committee. Some members may pick it up differently to others, but people are always available to clarify matters for us.
I have some questions about performance indicators within local authorities. Will we gauge certain local authorities against each other? If one authority is not providing the same level as a similar local authority, are there sanctions that can be imposed? The Minister said that under capital funding in local authority budgets they can take on staff for project managers. Are local county managers aware of this and if so why are they not doing it in areas where we are aware of massive landbanks and where we know we can deliver vast amount of lands.
I hugely welcome the affordable mortgage scheme. It is another piece of the jigsaw of Rebuilding Ireland. We have all been waiting for such a measure and I do not know why we had to wait for it. Can local authorities come forward with affordable schemes of their own under that banner, such as the rent-to-buy model that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown councillors have pushed for. Councillors John Bailey, Shane O'Brien and Michael Merrigan brought a cross-party proposal to their local authority with a rent-to-buy model that is very suitable for a local authority such as Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and for south County Dublin, where there is huge demand. Will these proposals be looked at in totality? Where local authorities have ownership of extremely valuable properties, the purchase prices of those properties and the costs associated with turning them into social housing is not good value. Eight properties could be purchased elsewhere for same the cost as turning these protected structures into four units, for example. I can provide the details of such a case after the meeting.
Can local authorities sell properties like that and ring-fence that money and use it then to purchase properties under Part 5? I think there is a misconception around that and I would like clarification on that. Can I also ask about the delivery office? How often does it meet? I am glad to see that pressure is now going to be put on particular local authorities where there are vast amounts of lands. It might be the runner in me but I do not accept excuses. We are hearing excuses that it is water or it is road infrastructure but local authorities have the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, and they have not drawn it down. Why have they not come in with a solution regarding those sites? If they have not drawn it down, why have we not taken this funding from them and given it to a local authority that will use it? It is about building the houses where people need them, and we need to put serious pressure on local authorities to deliver. We know that some local authorities are delivering, but there are some that are not delivering to the same level.
Can I finish up by saying thank you again for the amount of information that has been given to us? Department officials have made themselves available to a number of committee members at all times when they have asked for clarification of data or statistics, and the information has always been transparent and on the table for us to digest at this committee. There has never been any attempt to hide any data from this committee and I want to put that on the record.
I thank the Chair for her compliments in regard to the Department and the staff who do a huge amount of work. I think they have been engaging very positively with members of the committee even when I cannot do so. Sometimes we will have testy exchanges, which I understand, but, by and large, the committee and the Department work very well together. We are all trying to work to the same objectives. In regard to the performance indicators for local authorities, local authorities will have different needs, and different things they will need to do. Obviously, some are working much better than others, and that is very clear. It comes back to the exchange Deputy Cowen and I just had. Obviously, local authorities are coming from a very low base because of what happened previously in the economy and obviously many of them are not yet hitting the kind of targets that we want them to hit. I am not trying to give the impression that all is good with the local authorities in terms of this form of delivery. The purpose of the housing summit is how we actually implement Rebuilding Ireland and how we make sure that we can hit our targets and get this work done and publishing the targets for 2018 could be very useful in that context. The local authorities will have different requirements, depending on the demands they have. As we publish the targets, some will be using other streams more than others. Some will still use the acquisitions stream because they will not necessarily be competing with young couples and families as they will not be high demand areas. However, they will believe there are properties on their books that can achieve value for money and can be delivered as social housing. Some will do more through acquisitions, for example, than through build, but we want to make sure that what they are getting is new houses into the social housing stock that are secure tenancies for the tenants in them.
In regard to staff under the capital budget, I informed local authority managers of this on Monday, that they can book staff to that budget. The examples always given to me are that if they had just one more person to drive a particular project, which is a large scheme, they could get it done within the 59 weeks. We want to make sure that they can do that, and that will allow them to do so.
Under the affordable purchase scheme and the cost-rental model, we want local authorities to be more pro-active with their land, and tell us where they think that they can help us get above the ambitious targets we have set for ourselves and above the land we have already identified and the money that has already been put aside. This is a co-operative partnership. The Department works with the local authorities to get these things done. There was a wide-spread welcome for these new schemes. For example, a local authority might be engaging in a contract with a developer on a turnkey site and the developer has the capacity to build 50 but the local authority may only want 30. The affordable side now opens it up the idea of going for the whole site. That means it can sign the contract and the builder can start works, knowing what is going to happen.
The delivery office is a new unit, so it is not a question of when it meets. It is constantly working. The delivery unit is working with the local authorities and with the new staff. We also have the new land management group which the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, is leading. I believe I said earlier that it has facilitated each local authority in the first two weeks of this year. That is about them identifying the kinds of snags referenced in regard to Irish Water and other problems, such as a site not progressing to the timelines. What are the issues? Is there an issue around the bond, the developer or around some enabling infrastructure? How do we untangle that quickly? Delivery is all about having people allocated to particular projects and sitting on them, and driving them home. That is a piece of work we know we need to do now.
In regard to the LIHAV contracts, almost all of those have been agreed but a few fell out. We had over-allowed in terms of the financial resources of €226 million, in the hope that we would get to €200 million. We are not too far off €200 million in terms of contracts-agreed. The first drawdowns began towards the end of last year. It was a very small amount but we only finalised some of the contracts into the fourth quarter of last year. Many of these are complex arrangements and involve a number of developers and a number of different pieces of land, so one cannot view them as readily as if one was working with one developer or one landowner. However, what we will see in the course of 2018 is a much larger drawdown now that 28 of the 34 contracts have been signed. That will happen. Any of the money that was not drawn down in the course of last year was put to better purposes in terms of reaching the targets we had for 2017.
The Chair asked a question on local authorities. Was she talking about Part 5? I was not quite sure.
Where a local authority owns a building, which happens to be protected structure, and on which it is going to carry out works to convert it into four homes for four people, the cost of purchasing that property and turning it into four homes far outweighs what one can buy on the open market, and to me this is not value for money. Is it possible for a local authority to sell that property and ring fence that money to buy Part 5's or property on the open market?
It is possible but I do not want to interfere too much in what local authorities are doing. What I do not want to do is have a local authority in a high demand area all of a sudden making acquisitions where either it fails in the acquisition, which then drives the price up for the private buyer who actually buys it, or where it takes away much-needed stock from young families and couples. We also need to be sure that local authorities are doing some regeneration, even if they were not previously residential homes, to make sure we can keep a vibrancy in communities. I am not speaking of the particular case the Chairman is talking about, because I am not familiar with it, but I am speaking about one in Tramore in Waterford where an old cinema was brought back into use as apartments and homes. There is a mixed community there in that some of the apartments there are for people with certain disabilities. What we have now in the centre of Tramore is an iconic building that was restored and that has a number of new people living in it and who are very happy their homes. That has been very good for the community and for regenerating the town. While it cost a bit more money and took a bit more time, in the longer term, it is a much more positive development. When I talk about Rebuilding Ireland and fixing our housing problem and doing it in a sustainable way, it sometimes means taking a little more time, and spending a little more money, but the long-term gain for the community and for the people is greater. There has to be flexibility on a site-by-site basis. If the Chairman is particularly concerned about a particular site, in terms of a massive cost differential, then maybe we could talk about it offline.
Can I ask for two clarifications? When it comes to capital funding, where there is an infrastructure deficit, for example, with water, can a local authority finance that with its capital budget until the development is finished at the rent-to-buy?
No. That would be a matter for Irish Water but what we would want to do with the new delivery unit, the land management office, is to make sure that those problems would not arise and that there would be consistency between a local authority's priorities for large-scale housing development and the priorities of Irish Water for its infrastructural development.
In regard to rent-to-buy, under the affordable rental scheme, we are trying to pursue a cost-rental model, not rent-to-buy model. Cost-rental is a huge percentage of some of the markets in European countries. When I think about cost-rental in some of the places in which I have lived, one of the ideas around it and where it would be of benefit is where someone did not own or buy a house over the course of his or her working life and he or she will be retiring and will be on a pension and is worried about being opened up to the vagaries of the rental market and how it might undermine his or her pension and even his or her security of tenure over the next 20 or 25 years. If the person was able to get a cost-rental rent, the rent would be fixed, based, more than likely, over the lifetime of the rent, because it would be linked to the cost of construction plus management fees and some upgrade fees. The person would not be exposed to the vagaries of the rental market.
There is huge potential here for those who do not and will not own homes and those are the types of ways that I want to bring in cost-rental. However, it will take time to bring in cost-rental and to have it as a percentage of our rental market, as we see in other cities. The pilot project that is currently being progressed with Dún Laoghaire, with the housing body there and with our Department is going to pave the way. I will be visiting the European Investment Bank shortly to talk about how we can expand the ambition we have for that at the moment.
Just for the record, I will be pushing the rent-to-buy model. It is a no-brainer. Deputy Ó Broin wanted some clarification?
Just a very quick question. I am listening very carefully to the Minister's explanation of the affordable housing streams and how they interact. My question is a straightforward one. Given what the Minister has said, can he confirm that not a single affordable housing unit will be delivered this year through any of those schemes?
Not necessarily. We are looking at a couple of mechanisms whereby we might be able to fast-track some of the affordable purchase schemes, depending on some of the sites that are currently being identified for local authorities. It might be the case that in a month's time I will not be able to confirm, but right now we have only just landed this with the local authorities. There may be potential to do this more quickly than anticipated. However, I need to clarify that first. All I can confirm today is that we anticipate that affordable purchase scheme homes will commence construction this year.
No, not at the type of scale that we are talking about in terms of our ambition. I talk about identifying, through land and finance, the potential for over 3,000 affordable purchase scheme homes. However, we are not talking about a large percentage of that being delivered and tenanted this year.
All I can say is that it is too soon for me to be able to say if any will actually be completed this year. However, I know what the Deputy's line of sight and thinking is. That might be the case. Let me confirm it first before I can know for certain. More than likely, because of the speed at which the land is being identified, the best expectation is for commencing construction.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and his officials, for allowing the extra time. I also thank the members for their patience and for staying back as well. I am also grateful for the amount of information that was afforded to us prior to this meeting.
Our next session on Wednesday, 31 January at 1.30 p.m. will be detailed scrutiny of the Vacant Housing (Refurbishment) Bill 2017 and engagement with Dr. Conor Skehan in the second half. I thank the members.