Tuesday, 14 May 2019
An Bille um an gCúigiú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (An Ceart chun Teaghaise) 2016: An Dara Céim [Comhaltaí Príobháideacha] - Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to a Home) Bill 2016: Second Stage [Private Members]
I thank the Sinn Féin Deputies for introducing this Bill which seeks to incorporate a right to a home in the Constitution. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is very sorry he cannot be here. If Members look at the monitors, they will see that he is on his feet in the Seanad to take the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill. He cannot bilocate but he would have liked to have been here. I am sure Deputies will acknowledge that he cannot be in two places at once. The Minister of State in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, will attend to respond to the debate shortly.
As the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Taoiseach have stated before in this House, they are open-minded about whether to include a right to a home in the Constitution. While the Government is not set in a direction on this, it is opposing the Bill as brought forward as it has not undergone the level of careful scrutiny required before making what has the potential to be a very significant change to the Constitution. Whether or not the right is enshrined in the Constitution or in law, it does not prevent or impede us from approaching this as a de factoright and responsibility of the Government which we meet through our policies but also through the unprecedented level of investment in housing and homelessness. That is said notwithstanding the many legal rights that already exist in this area and which I will explain further. The House will be aware that the eighth report of the Constitutional Convention of March 2014 recommended that the State should progressively realise economic, social and cultural rights, subject to maximum available resources, that this duty should be cognisable by the courts and that specific additional rights should be inserted into the Constitution, including housing rights, social security rights, essential healthcare, rights for people with disabilities and linguistic and cultural rights. The Government's response pointed out that the Constitutional Convention's recommendations raised substantial questions. These include the suitability or otherwise of the Constitution as a vehicle for providing for detailed rights in this area and the fact that there is already power to confer rights and determine expenditure via primary and secondary legislation. There are, of course, already many substantive rights regarding housing arising from legislation, including the right to be assessed for social housing assistance and, if qualified, placed on a waiting list for a social house or to avail of housing assistance payment and be placed on a transfer list.
The absence of a right to housing in the Constitution has never prevented the Government from actively seeking to provide housing for those most in need and the provision of social housing has been taking place since the foundation of the State. However, this has always been done with appropriate consideration for the other needs of citizens which must be factored into any allocation of scarce resources. The ultimate responsibility for making that decision lies currently with the Government and the Dáil. In seeking to make any change to the Constitution, complex issues arise including the question of the necessary revenue to provide for any ensuing expenditure, and concerns about potentially transferring to the Judiciary, which is unelected, the power to make decisions affecting the allocation of resources which are more appropriate for an elected Oireachtas and Government. There is also the matter that placing additional rights into the Constitution creates the potential for significant diversion of resources into the handling of court cases and the creation of uncertainty about the state of the law while cases are processed, judgments are given and appeals are pursued in higher courts. It may be noted also that this Bill seeks to put only the right to a home into the Constitution and not any of the other economic, social and cultural rights referred to by the Constitutional Convention. This would place the right to a home ahead of rights to social security or essential healthcare and it needs to be considered whether this is appropriate. For these reasons, the Government prefers that the right to a home be considered with the other economic, cultural and social rights, and that the process already agreed is followed. That process is the referral of the eighth report of the Constitutional Convention to the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach for a comprehensive examination of the issues raised.
Not putting a right to housing into the Constitution will not get in the way of the Government building houses. It will not hinder us from implementing Rebuilding Ireland. It will not stop us from moving forward with the national development plan and Project Ireland 2040. It will not stop us fulfilling the commitment that one in five homes built will go to the social housing stock or all the many important things we need to do around affordability that can be delivered now because we have specific funding lines. We all agree that the core of the solution is an increased supply of housing of all forms. We need many more houses and apartments. Last year, 21,000 new homes were made available for use, more than at any other time in this decade. One quarter was social housing built by local authorities or affordable housing bodies and we need to increase this. We have set the target of building this year approximately 25,000 new places in which to live, of which approximately one quarter will be social housing. That is because we need market and non-market solutions to the housing crisis and recognise that while the majority of people will want to buy and own their own home, there will always be people who cannot do so.
I turn to some of the measures taken by the Government as part of Rebuilding Ireland. These include the comprehensive framework for tackling the range of complex issues needing to be addressed across the housing sector, a framework which is underpinned by over €6 billion in funding to support the delivery of 50,000 new social housing homes and 87,000 other housing supports over the six years from 2016 to 2021. Very significant progress has been made on delivery through local authorities, approved housing bodies and a range of other delivery partners, with over 72,000 households having their housing needs met during the first three years of Rebuilding Ireland and a further 27,300 households supported by a record investment of €2.4 billion in housing to be supported this year. That brings to almost 100,000 the total number of households who will have been assisted under Rebuilding Ireland by the end of 2019. Notwithstanding the continued increases in homelessness, record exits from homelessness into sustainable tenancies have been achieved in recent years. Rebuilding Ireland is further supported by Project Ireland 2040, the Government's overarching policy initiative to align in a strategic manner our spatial planning and investment programmes to underpin a sustainable approach to planning for a growing population and the associated need for housing. The new €2 billion urban regeneration and development fund aims to support sustainable growth In Ireland's five cities and other large urban centres with the aim of delivering at least 40% of our future housing needs within our existing built-up areas.
The Land Development Agency, LDA, has been established to ensure more effective co-ordination and management of the development of State-owned lands, in particular publicly-owned lands in our urban centres, supporting the ambition to achieve more compact and sustainable growth. To enable greater delivery of social and affordable homes on public lands, the Government has, in parallel with the establishment of the Land Development Agency, approved a new public land affordability requirement whereby a minimum of 30% of any housing developed on public land must be reserved for affordable purposes, whether affordable purchase or cost rental, in addition to the 10% statutory social housing requirement under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, whether such development is being progressed by the LDA or any other market operator. In order to support local authorities to get their sites ready for affordable housing, funding of €310 million over 2019 to 2021 has been allocated for enabling infrastructure via the serviced sites fund, or SSF, in budget 2019. Cost rental housing is being brought forward in conjunction with the Housing Agency, the Land Development Agency, local authorities and other stakeholders, with two pilot projects already being progressed. As to housing generally, overall supply continues to show significant increases, as I said earlier, with over 18,000 new homes built In 2018, which is a 25% increase on the previous year and the highest number of newly built homes any year this decade. In addition, more than 2,500 homes were brought out of long-term vacancy and almost 800 dwellings in unfinished housing developments were completed.
That means the number of new homes available for use increased by almost 21,500 in 2018, together with more than 3,700 student bed spaces. There is clear evidence of moderation in the annual rate of growth of house prices, due primarily to increasing supply and the Central Bank macro-prudential rules. Residential property prices increased by 5.6% nationally in the year to January 2019 compared with 6.4% in the year to December and 11.8% in the year to January 2018.
While there may not be a right to housing in the Constitution, the State, through its current laws and through the actions in Rebuilding Ireland, is doing everything it can to address our housing issues. We are opposed to amending the Constitution as proposed, but we are not opposed to considering the issue further in an appropriate manner. In referring the right to housing, as well as other social and economic rights, to an Oireachtas committee, following on from the recommendations of the Convention on the Constitution, we are following the process that has served the public well in terms of marriage equality and repealing the eighth amendment. We will continue with that process of Oireachtas committee engagement and coming to a determination regarding possible next steps in this public debate we are having. In the meantime, the immediate best way to ensure that the State fully meets its obligations to those who need assistance to provide a home for themselves and their families is through continued delivery through Rebuilding Ireland and the development and implementation of further policies and measures as required in the future.