Wednesday, 16 November 2005
Housing Policy: Statements (Resumed).
The Government appears to claim that things have never been better. The word on the streets is that it would be hard for things to get worse. While the output of private housing has increased dramatically in recent years, the proportion of that housing that is either social or affordable has never been lower. Deputy Dempsey had an honourable tenure, in many respects, as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. He introduced the Part V provisions, but his successor, Deputy Cullen, filleted those provisions. In essence, he let developers off the hook and this Minister has upheld Deputy Cullen's decision. It is not good enough to let the private sector off the hook. It is not good enough to limit the good proposals that were in Part V in 2000.
Let us look at the facts. In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, the housing list is treble what it was ten years ago. That is a fact.
The cards are in the Minister's hands. It is a fact that there are more holiday homes being built than social and affordable homes. It is a fact that in times of poverty, the State, through its local authorities, built thousands of homes for people on lower incomes. It is a fact that there is no control on rental levels in the private sector. It is a fact that half the landlords in this State are not registered, despite the trumpeting that the recent legislation would tidy up that sector and get rid of the cowboys. It is a fact that a report the size of a telephone directory was delivered by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution which dealt with property rights. The Minister has failed to implement any aspects of that report in a meaningful way. It is gathering dust. It is a fact that tens of millions of euro are being spent on rent supplement that would be much better spent on providing homes. It is a fact that the shared ownership scheme is not working in urban areas such as Dún Laoghaire. It is also a fact that the quality of new homes is lagging behind the rest of Europe at this stage. We are not meeting the thermal performance standards. We are failing to update our building regulations to meet the kind of standards that have been in place since last year in the UK, where condensing boilers are mandatory. One would be hard pushed to find such a boiler in Ireland.
In essence, the Minister is not addressing the fundamental problems of housing, other than welcoming the developers into the tent. There are gated communities for the rich, while there are unscrupulous landlords for the poor. It adds up to a waiting time of decades for people on the housing list. We can go in a clear direction on housing and the NESC report indicated many aspects of that. If the Green Party was in Government, we would recoup a fair share that is added to urban and rural land which is zoned for development. We would ensure that this value is returned to the community. We would ring-fence this revenue for the development of sustainable settlements. We would begin to shift the tax burden from labour to smart taxes on the site value of land, including residential investment property and second homes. We would commit to ensuring that the State provided tens of thousands of social housing units per year. We would meet the targets in the national development plan.
There is a great amount to be done in the area of housing. In the richest of times, we are failing to honour our obligations to the poorest in society.
I am absolutely flabbergasted. Not in my three and a half years in this House have I heard the level of bland bluster that I have heard from the Minister this afternoon. It is nothing short of a scandal. The Government has done nothing in nine years to tackle the housing crisis and it is in denial about that crisis. Waiting lists have continued to increase, house prices have gone through the roof, local authorities are trying to get out of their responsibility in social housing provision, while landlords continue to flout registration requirements. That is just a small number of issues in the sector.
I thought this might be a case of incompetence on the part of a Minister of State who was either unwilling or disinterested in the whole area. Unfortunately, I see that is not the case; it is total Government denial. The Minister of State refused to accept that there is a crisis in housing. He has shown no sign of being on top of his brief or of trying to deal with this crisis. That was bad enough, but today we have a hapless Minister who comes in and smiles at us. His best offer is his statement that he will roll out a strong programme of investment in social housing. When? How? Where? That is the most bland nonsense I have heard in a long time. The Minister should treat the House with more courtesy and lay out some kind of policy and not waffle his way through his portfolio. The Government has continually tried to downplay the level of difficulty faced by people trying to secure both social and private housing.
The Government also showed contempt by shelving, or binning, three significant recently published reports. The previous speakers have already alluded to the NESC report, which sets out the target of at least 73,000 units of social housing between now and 2012. Where is the commitment to that in the Minister's speech? The ninth progress report from the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution dealt with the issue of land. NESC is a Government established body, but the all-party committee is a body of this House with a majority of Government Deputies. It recommended in April 2004 that the Government deal with the affordability of land. What has the Minister done with that report? It is sitting somewhere in his office, with no movement whatsoever. We also had a report from Goodbody economic consultants. It is no wonder the Minister's head is in the clouds when he is sitting on all of those reports. It is a scandal that he has not given any commitment on any of those issues in this House today. Where does he stand on those issues? When will we hear from him on those reports? What is his position on them?
I want to examine some of the issues surrounding the housing crisis that the Minister refuses to accept. A total of 48,413 households are on the social housing waiting lists, many of whom are living in squalor. They live in damp, draughty accommodation, their children suffer and often lack food, adequate clothing and, certainly, heat. In such an environment, what chances do they have in terms of education? Many of these people are also being ripped off by unscrupulous landlords. What is the Minister's response today? He does not mention them and completely ignores them.
The other scandal associated with this housing crisis concerns the 40% of people in the private rented sector who are in receipt of rent supplement, which costs a total of €400 million per annum. This is a bigger scandal than either the electronic voting issue or the PPARS computer system joke which the Government played on the people. It is unacceptable for the Minister to come into the House, smile at Members and give no commitments except for some bland nonsense. The Government has set no targets for the abolition of housing lists. Without targets or some kind of timeframe, how will the Minister deal with the problem? We have received no indication from him, which is an absolute scandal.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on an extremely important subject. Recently, I met one of my constituents who has been in receipt of rent assistance for nine years. As she has one child and little familial support, she has no choice but to live in private rented accommodation. A house could have been built for her with the rent support which has been paid over those nine years. This is both financially wasteful and a waste of her potential. She wishes to return to work to improve her chances and those of her daughter. However, the system has caught her in a poverty trap that is expensive to maintain. I personally know many people who have been on the waiting list for five or six years who have been in receipt of rent assistance throughout. They live in rented accommodation costing €900 or €1,000 per month. They cannot earn enough to pay this rent and would lose their rent assistance if they go to work. Hence, it is impossible to do so and they have no choice.
Much of the emphasis for delivering houses has been placed on Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. The signs are that in recent weeks, there has been a shift in policy by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. On 15 November 2005 I received a reply to Question No. 555 from the Minister for Education and Science on the issue raised by Deputy Gilmore in respect of school accommodation. Part of the reply states:
[T]he provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000 do not place any onus on developers to provide school sites, other than at market rates. I am keeping an open mind on whether legislative change might be of assistance or prove the best way forward here.
It was followed by a comment in the most recent edition of The Sunday Times on the part of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which reinforced the impression that there has been a change in policy. We must know whether a change with such a dramatic potential effect has been made.
In practice, there has been a poor return on social and affordable housing. For example, if planning permission is granted to a developer with a Part V obligation, typically what happens is that the developer proceeds to build the estate. When it is nearly complete, the developer begins protracted negotiations with the local authority, thereby causing a logjam in which the houses become too expensive so that they either are not approved by the Department or people are unable to secure a mortgage on them. The local authority then settles for a site or for the money instead and must go through the process of zoning, designing, getting planning permission, going to tender and building the houses. Hence, several more years elapse before such houses are delivered. That is the reality.
Any change in policy that reduces the delivery of the 20% target must be compensated for by direct provision on the part of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The programme for Government promised a review of the operation of Part V in respect of delivery. Has that happened and, if so, what were the findings? If such a review has not taken place, why not? Sufficient information is now available.
Moreover, the rental assistance scheme must not become a substitute for the provision of a home. While it has both merits and shortcomings, it could end up becoming an expensive substitute in which private landlords are guaranteed a rental market. I would not consider a situation in which I was unable to replace wallpaper, own my own furniture or did not have security of tenure of a permanent home. We must know exactly the long-term philosophy behind the rental assistance scheme.
As far as affordable housing is concerned, much is determined by the availability of loans. Either the existing limit of €165,000 for an annuity loan should be increased or the reality that the scheme is not available to most people should be faced given that houses cost more than that sum. The shared ownership loan scheme also has limits. As for the clawback clause on affordable housing, we have been informed that Bank of Ireland and EBS offer loans. I am unable to find a single person who has been successful in getting a loan because of the clawback clause. In reality, affordable housing is not on offer to people. While they are put through hoops, it is not working for them.
I believe that something can be done in respect of housing. The cost of building land has a dramatic impact on the cost of houses. In practical terms, the Government can intervene in that regard.
Like other Members, I take this opportunity to make some remarks on the issue of housing. In this respect, any remarks made by any Member probably have a degree of accuracy. A massive amount has been done, a record investment in housing has been made and the amount of construction under way is unparalleled. By any measure, we are doing far better than our counterparts anywhere else in Europe.
I wish to examine a number of areas, namely, social and affordable housing and, if I have time, housing for the elderly and Traveller housing. The commitment of the Minister, on which I compliment him, to make multi-annual budgets available to local authorities has been a significant development. In some cases, the measure has been used quite innovatively. While I do not wish to crow about what has been achieved by Dublin City Council or in my constituency where there is local political leadership, it is possible to advance schemes that are highly imaginative and innovative. As I explained to the Minister, some smaller infill schemes have been built in my constituency at the instigation of the city council's local area committee. They fulfil a number of functions such as promoting social cohesion, as one has people who are able to afford a house where they were raised, providing community stability and bringing a measure of confidence to the community. I have seen such schemes work extremely well in Finglas and Santry.
I wish to concentrate on what I believe is the model of best practice in this country, namely, the Ballymun regeneration project. Most Members will have seen it at some stage. Those who represent Dublin North-West have seen it at first hand and remember the appalling conditions that people living in flats were obliged to endure. We saw how a decision taken by a previous Government, of which Fianna Fáil was a part, to attempt a rejuvenation of the existing flats did not work. However, through community action in co-operation with the Government and Dublin City Council, a radical programme of regeneration has been developed and is now being delivered. Anyone who takes the trouble to go to Ballymun will see the range of high quality housing available there as well as the diverse nature of delivery.
For example, one can examine Tigh Meitheal, which is a co-operative housing development, the best of its type, which was delivered by a group called Tógáil Developments Limited. One can see the transformation. For example, before Ballymun Regeneration Limited came on the scene, there were four privately owned houses in Ballymun, namely, the four presbyteries. At this stage, we have a mix of houses with apartments, standard housing and a range of community facilities which have been included to enable social cohesion to bed down, take root and develop.
There are dangers in this development and I will bring one to the Minister's attention, namely, the danger that investor-led developments will take hold and make it extremely difficult for an area like Ballymun to settle down. As a template for what can be done by a local authority working with a local community, there is probably no better model available. Sometimes we are inclined to reinvent the wheel on housing issues but we have now seen what is possible.
I referred to multi-annual budgets which have enabled affordable housing to flourish. The involvement of voluntary housing organisations in the housing programme, while an interesting development, has delivered only patchy success. I caution against an over-reliance on the capacity of housing organisations to deliver significant elements of the programme. I may be old fashioned but I have a degree of confidence in the ability of local authorities to deliver housing programmes.
Local politicians must show courage by taking decisions to ensure they are delivered. I derive no pleasure from reading that certain local authorities in the Dublin area, of which Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is one, only manage to meet between 50% and 60% of the targets set for them. While it is fine to preach about what should be done, we all have a backyard and if we are not prepared to take a stand and provide political leadership, we cannot blame everyone else for what is or is not happening.
Housing for the elderly must be a priority. Dublin City Council has led the way in making schemes available for people who wish to move from standard three-bedroom family homes into sheltered housing, which is an unfortunate term, but I cannot think of a better one. Good quality accommodation is provided under these programmes, including, for example, at Albert College Court beside Dublin City University, Kildonan Court which recently came on stream and Griffith Heights, another scheme comprising a mix of 66 affordable homes and developments for senior citizens. Twenty-two or 23 of the housing units in the Griffith Heights scheme will be released for letting to people on the housing list.
It is vital that careful consideration is given to the needs of the elderly. It is estimated that the number of elderly households will increase from 440,000 in 2002 to almost 800,000 in 2025. Improvements in health and lifestyle will result in an increase in life expectancy, with the proportion of elderly people aged over 75 years also estimated to increase significantly. Government policy has traditionally been to help elderly people to live in their own homes for as long as possible, often with assistance from friends and families. For these reasons, it will be important to knit together the areas of health and housing. In this respect, I commend the Acting Chairman, Deputy Cowley, on the initiatives in which he has been involved in the west. They have made an impact on provision of housing for the elderly and many more are needed.
In 2004, in reference to the needs of the elderly, the Irish Council for Social Housing noted its finding that sheltered housing had been successfully developed by non-profit housing associations since the 1980s, with more than 7,000 homes constructed, many of which were provided with on-site support. In my constituency, the area I know best, Respond Housing Association, a highly respected organisation, has built senior citizen accommodation and apartments which allow people who are not capable of independent living to reside in a secure setting, which families can visit from time to time, while benefiting from nursing supervision, supplied meals and so forth.
Traveller accommodation is another area which is dear to my heart. Although Traveller accommodation plans have been exciting, delivery has been patchy to say the least. The sooner we grasp the nettle that good quality accommodation must be provided in all local authority areas, the better. The latest figures I have been able to access from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government indicate that 788 Traveller families are still living on the side of the road. While this is an improvement on the figure of 1,200 in 1999, we still have a long way to go. Crowding large numbers of families on to housing or halting sites is not the correct approach. I understand 323 families share basic facilities with other families, while 352 families are in emergency and temporary facilities. Radical approaches to Traveller housing are needed.
One area of Traveller housing need is just beginning to emerge. Built in the mid to late 1960s, Avila Park in my constituency is one of the oldest Traveller sites in the country. Thankfully, a number of residents in the development, mainly women, have survived into their 70s and now need housing tailored to this late stage in their lives. I am not sure much consideration has been given to this requirement as the number of people involved is not significant. While the option taken in Avila Park might not work elsewhere, building a traditional granny flat beside an existing Traveller family house is a possibility. It is clear, however, that older Travellers do not necessarily want to move into sheltered housing accommodation built for members of the settled community. This objective may become possible but remains some way off.
I compliment the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, on the work he has done and pay special tribute to my constituency colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, who has been extremely proactive in the area of housing development.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. No one is as proud of his or her right to own a home as the Irish, and long may that right last. People tend to rent accommodation or avail of alternatives in many other countries but Irish people, because of our history and the difficulties experienced by previous generations, regard home ownership as important. We have a proud record in that respect.
The issue of disabilities is dear to my heart. We need to re-examine our approach to housing for people with disabilities. The most common difficulty raised in my constituency office is the need of desperate people to have alterations made to their houses to cope with a disability. They include people who have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or have developed cancer, bone problems and so forth. The current structure for dealing with such people leaves much to be desired.
Although provision in some counties is better than in others, it is still not sufficient in this era of the Celtic tiger when there has never been more money in the kitty. We have made a commitment to have a national policy towards disabled people but when we get down to the nitty-gritty of using council and Health Service Executive structures it can often take months to secure approval for a grant to allow a person to proceed with home alterations. In some cases, applicants are placed on a waiting list for a housing grant which is, in any case, only partial. While I accept people should not be allocated disabled person's grants on grounds such as age, those who qualify on the basis of medical opinion, preferably one provided by their general practitioner who will know them best, should quickly be given grant aid of 90% or 100%.