Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 21 September 2023

Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community

Accommodation for Travellers: Discussion

Ms Caroline Timmons:

I thank the committee for the invitation to represent the Department on accommodation issues for Travellers and for providing us with the opportunity to brief members on this important area. I am an assistant secretary in the Department, with responsibility for housing affordability, inclusion and homelessness. Addressing Traveller accommodation issues is a priority for the Minister and the Department and we appreciate the focus of this committee on this important issue.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage’s policy in respect of accommodation for Travellers is underpinned by dedicated legislation. The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 provides that housing authorities have a statutory responsibility for the assessment of the accommodation needs of Travellers and the preparation, adoption and implementation of multi-annual Traveller accommodation programmes in their areas. Accordingly, each local authority sets targets for the provision of Traveller accommodation, which it outlines in its Traveller accommodation programmes. These programmes provide a roadmap for local authority investment priorities over the plan period and form the basis for the allocation of funding from the Department for Traveller accommodation. The statutory framework provides that the Department must ensure there are adequate structures and supports in place to assist local authorities in providing such accommodation, including a national framework of policy, legislation and funding.

The final report of the Joint Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community was very much welcomed. As previously communicated to the committee, the Department reviewed the recommendations, in particular, having regard to the Traveller accommodation expert review report, for which there is already a process under way through the independently chaired programme board established to drive implementation of the recommendations. The Minister established the programme board in 2020 to oversee implementation of recommendations from the report. The programme board includes two Traveller representatives, two CCMA representatives and two representatives from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and is chaired by newly appointed chair of the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC, Mr. Niall Crowley. I acknowledge the Trojan work of the outgoing independent chair, Professor Eoin O’Sullivan of Trinity College Dublin, during his time as chair and commend the very positive working relationships established during that time. I welcome also the recent appointment of Mr. Crowley to the NTACC and very much look forward to the renewed energy he intends to bring to the role.

The most recent progress report of the programme board, from April 2023, has been shared with members of the committee. The programme board has adopted an ongoing work programme to consider and implement the recommendations, a number of which relate to the design, management and maintenance of Traveller-specific accommodation. As part of the work of the programme board, the social housing assessment regulations have been amended and now include a Traveller identifier, effective from March last year. This will allow for a more evidenced-based approach to the provision of Traveller accommodation.

I am pleased to say that capital funding for Traveller-specific accommodation, primarily for the refurbishment and provision of halting sites and group housing schemes, was fully drawn down by local authorities in the past three years. This amounted to €14.5 million in 2020, €15.5 million in 2021 and €21.1 million in 2022. This is significant multi-annual investment of over €50 million, delivering high-quality Traveller-specific accommodation. Increased capital of €20 million, together with current funding of €6.7 million, is being made available to local authorities in 2023. It is important to note also that accommodation for Traveller households is provided across a range of housing options. The majority of Travellers - some 79% - live in standard housing, including local authority and approved housing body, AHB, housing and housing assistance payment, HAP, or rental accommodation scheme, RAS, supported tenancies in the private rented sector. Funding for these housing supports is provided through the respective budget lines. The Traveller accommodation unit’s budget is provided solely for Traveller-specific accommodation, such as halting sites and group housing schemes. Accordingly, funding available for and spent on the provision of accommodation solutions for Travellers is much broader than the often reported spend under the Traveller-specific accommodation budget.

I note also that the preferential caravan loan scheme for Traveller families was rolled out as a nationwide pilot across all local authorities in 2022. This is making an immediate and significant improvement to living conditions for families on sites. A total of 77 loan applications worth €2.66 million were approved in 2022. A review of this pilot has been completed and a further scheme approved for €3.2 million in loans for up to 80 caravans to early 2024. We recognise the importance of this scheme in providing Travellers access to mobiles at a significantly discounted rate.

Next year, local authorities will prepare and adopt new Traveller accommodation programmes. Local authorities manage the allocation of all Traveller accommodation under these very important programmes, which are five-year rolling accommodation programmes to meet the existing and projected accommodation needs of Travellers in their areas. The next programmes will run from 2024 to 2029 and the Department will support them through policy and funding.

Traveller families in emergency accommodation is recognised as a significant challenge. Together with local authorities, which have statutory responsibility for the provision of homeless accommodation and tackling homelessness, the Department continues to work to address this challenge and the broader challenge of homelessness. I note that the Minister recently appointed a representative from the Traveller community to the National Homelessness Accommodation Committee. Homelessness among the Traveller community is being discussed at that forum. We must strive to continue the good progress being made in this area because the provision of Traveller-specific accommodation is central to ensuring that we improve the lives of Travellers, who I recognise face many complex challenges being raised and addressed by this committee. Current progress demonstrates the drive and commitment the Department, in conjunction with local authorities, continues to foster. This work relates to the provision of both social housing and Traveller-specific accommodation.

The Housing for All plan specifically recognises the importance of addressing Traveller accommodation needs as a priority. My Department remains committed to working with local authorities to improve the quantity and quality of Traveller-specific accommodation. We are happy to answer any questions the committee members may have.