Thursday, 3 June 2021
Traveller Accommodation: Statements
Éamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
Cuireann sé áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an ábhar seo mar is ábhar thar a bheith tromchúiseach é agus caithfear rud éigin a dhéanamh.
One of the issues that has come up in the Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community, of which I am a member, is that we have all the statistics. We have an idea of the scale of the problem.
However, what we, and, more importantly, the Traveller community, need are solutions to the bottlenecks.
It is fair to say there has been a huge problem in persuading local authorities to spend money and take action in regard to Traveller accommodation. The problem is not confined to local authorities in the area in which I live, although they are not exempt from it either, particularly the city council. We must seriously question community attitudes to Travellers. It was very interesting to read the latest volume of Mícheál MacGréil's work on prejudices and intolerance within this State. It is a massive tome for which I had the great pleasure of writing the foreword. Mr. MacGréil compared many different groups in our society and different nationalities from across the world in terms of whether we accept or do not accept them. It is a study of who we like and do not like. I am sad to say that at the very bottom of the list in terms of our tolerance and Christian attitude towards them were Travellers, our fellow Irish people.
Mr. MacGréil's research is scientific work, involving proper sociological study. Nobody since has been able to disprove what he found. The findings are interesting in respect of South Dublin County Council, where there was an extraordinary manager, now called a CEO, in place for many years. The council tackled its problems in this area and showed an amazing improvement in the relationship between the settled and Traveller communities. Now we have problems feeding on problems. Homelessness and the failure to tackle the housing issue are feeding all of the other problems. The solution must be holistic and it has to include housing.
Deputy Tóibín made reference to a house that was bought for a Traveller family in my constituency. It was burnt down in the middle of the night and, as I understand, the evidence is that it did not happen accidentally. Last summer, people were marching for Black Lives Matter. We were outraged by attitudes in faraway places to people of a different race or colour. Yet, we have serious attitudinal or racial problems within this country. On top of that, I notice recently that the opposition to Traveller housing is feeding into an opposition to social housing in general. Much of this opposition is very clever. The people opposing it would never be so foolish as to say they do not want X or Y for racial or ethnic reasons. Instead, they say a house is too big or too small, a site is too big or too small, or there is a snail or something else on it.
That brings me to one of the major challenges we have. From my dealings with Galway City Council, for example, it is clear that the staff are very sympathetic to the people concerned because they know them. They know they are decent people. They know there is an utterly disproportionate number of decent families in homelessness and on the housing list, the best of people and friends of mine, who happen to belong to the Traveller community. These are people with excellent records of tenancies but who cannot get accommodation under the housing assistance payment,HAP, scheme. Many of them cannot afford that accommodation because the rents are too high, but many landlords will not rent to them under the HAP scheme in any case. Whoever thought that scheme was going to be a permanent solution for housing knows nothing about the aspirations of most people on the social housing list. They want good, old-fashioned local authority housing, even in preference to housing provided by voluntary housing bodies.
It is time to make up our minds on this issue. One of the greatest logjams at the moments relates to applications under Part 8 of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, as amended. When proposals for Traveller-specific housing under that provision come before local authorities, councillors do not pass them. I am a great champion of democracy. Many times in this House, I have opposed the removal of powers from democratically elected Members and their handing over to unelected bodies. I stand by that except in this case, where politicians are not willing to face up to their legal responsibilities and provide what they are legally obliged to provide, namely, housing and other necessary things. I am talking about people not fulfilling their legal obligation. I am disappointed that many local authority CEOs, who have the power in an emergency to make an executive decision, do not make such decisions. As a result, we get the significant underspends that have been reported by a number of colleagues here today.
I believe local authorities should be given six months to start passing Part 8 applications. Thereafter, if local authority members continue to fail to deal with planning issues, the applications should go straight to An Bord Pleanála for decision. I would be the last person in the normal way to recommend that powers be taken away from local authority members and given to An Bord Pleanála but, in this case, it may be necessary to do so. The money for Traveller accommodation was not spent back in the 2000s, it was not spent over the past decade and it looks as if we are heading the same way in this decade. That cannot go on. Unfortunately, if powers in this regard are taken away from local authorities, there is nobody to blame but the people who would not face up to their legal responsibilities to provide housing for those who need it and particularly for those who are most in need of it.
There are many other points I would like to make but my time is up. Please God, I will get an opportunity to make them some other day.