Dáil debates

Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Adjournment Debate.

Local Authority Housing.

9:00 pm

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
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I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me to speak on this important issue which has been raised continually by my constituents. I thank also the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, for being present to take this matter.

The Minister of State will agree that our constituents have heard much about the tenant purchase scheme and have also been promised by the local authority and the Government that this issue would be dealt with quickly. They have had promises also in regard to the continuing problem of anti-social behaviour. My constituents would like answers to the many questions they have raised. They would like clarity on these issues and, above all else, they would like some degree of certainty about their future.

The original tenant purchase scheme for flats was introduced in 1988 but was withdrawn in 1992 by the then Department of the Environment. This move, which was supported by Dublin City Council, led to a great deal of dissatisfaction among local authority tenants. Many who planned to buy their dwelling found they could not do so.

When I was Lord Mayor, some of my constituents contacted me and asked if it was possible to mount a court challenge. Subsequently, they contacted a Cork solicitor, David Guilfoyle, and legal action was threatened. This may have led to the change in attitude of the Government and the local authorities. What we know is that the housing position has changed considerably since 1992. According to Mr. Brendan Kenny of Dublin City Council, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has recently indicated that a national scheme for the sale of flats would be introduced from January 2007. While addressing Dublin City Council, Mr. Kenny urged councillors to support the proposal and called on them to lobby in the coming months to influence the make-up of the scheme. He emphasised, however, that ultimately this was a matter for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

I wish to alert the Minister of State to a number of concerns which have been raised by my constituents. If these flats are sold at market prices, many living in Dublin City Council flat complexes will not be able to afford them. It should be clear to most at this stage that the housing market has spiralled out of control. A small cottage in Ringsend can be sold for €450,000, an outlandish price, and way beyond the means of many local people. A three-bedroom flat will soon cost in the region of €500,000. How can my constituents afford that amount of money?

It has been suggested that the price of the properties should be based on the value set in 1988. The Minister of State met the residents' committee of O'Rahilly House on 22 February 2006. When they put forward the proposal that they should purchase at the 1988 prices, the Minister of State dismissed that idea. I ask him to reconsider the issue because, clearly, my constituents cannot afford those prices.

A good suggestion has been made — though I do not know if it would be possible — that some assistance has to be given to tenants if they are to afford these flats. The funds raised from the sale of the scheme should be ring-fenced for local housing and amenities. Before any such scheme is initiated, a detailed audit of all the necessary remedial works should be carried out. We need to look at the financial implications. What happens if certain tenant purchasers cannot keep up with payments or pay the new service charges? These and other concerns have been raised by tenants and local councillors who are aware of the problems on the ground.

There are other concerns surrounding flat complexes. Many of them were built in an era when they did not have the value they have nowadays. The scarcity of space in the city has resulted in inflated prices being paid for properties not far from flat complexes. One can instance, for example, the incredible price paid recently for the Berkeley Court Hotel site. Only high-rise, high-density dwellings will be sufficient to recoup that investment. Similarly, many private investors could buy the local authority complexes thinking that a killing can be made on the available space. One builds between the blocks and one builds up. This could result in some fine developments with good facilities for our tenants. It could very well be a win-win situation, but naturally local authority tenants want to know what is involved. That is why I am calling on the Minister for State to consult first the local authorities and in this instance Dublin City Council. It is essential that the council fully consults its tenants to establish what is in their best interests.

The entire focus must be on the best interests of our tenants and not on what is in the best interests of the speculators. For example, consultation on design could help deal with some of the anti-social problems now evident in our flat complexes. The promised legislation in the programme for Government states it will deal with this problem. To find a solution to the problems of anti-social behaviour, one needs to talk to the tenants and the councillors who deal with it first hand.

Many of our tenants have been model tenants, paying for years, and I ask the Minister of State to treat them with dignity and fairness.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I will outline to the House the plans we have to amend and update existing housing legislation as part of a programme to reform the social housing sector.

My Department is drafting the heads of a housing miscellaneous provisions Bill to give effect to the policy initiatives set out in Housing Policy Framework — Building Sustainable Communities, which was published before Christmas. This policy document builds on recent progress in providing social and affordable housing by setting out the fundamentals of the Government's vision for housing policy over the coming years. The document will be followed up by a policy statement that will provide more detail on the principles of policy and set out an agenda for implementation. The Bill is being prepared in tandem with this policy statement.

The Bill seeks to support the creation of a flexible and graduated system of housing supports for those in need of housing, to improve customer choice to meet changing requirements over a person's lifetime, to streamline, and in key areas strengthen, the powers of housing authorities while at the same time making clearer their responsibilities as social landlords and regulators of social housing generally. To these ends, the Bill will provide the legislative basis for the new rental accommodation scheme, a revised tenant purchase scheme, including the sale of local authority flats to their tenants, and strengthen the powers for local authorities to combat anti-social behaviour.

Referring specifically to the provisions relating to tenant purchase, the Bill will allow local authority flats to be sold to their tenants under certain conditions. Previous efforts to sell local authority flats were thwarted by the difficulties associated with the management of flat complexes, insurance, the cost of maintenance and the transfer of legal title. Taking full account of proposals put forward by local authorities, we are devising arrangements that will address these issues and for which new legislation is needed.

The Bill will also strengthen the powers of housing authorities relating to anti-social behaviour. There will be an improved process for dealing with individual cases. There will be an improved process for dealing with individual cases of anti-social behaviour, stronger powers to exclude and evict persons engaged in it and a wider definition of what constitutes such behaviour. The responsibilities of housing authorities will dovetail with the new powers relating to anti-social behaviour being conferred on the Garda and the courts by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Deputies will agree that this will be major legislation, and it is essential that we get it right. This means going through a necessary preparatory process, including consultation with housing authorities and other key stakeholders, detailed drafting and discussions with Government colleagues. The work in preparing the Bill is well advanced but any attempt to rush it could result in corners being cut, with consequent problems arising down the line. We are avoiding this by taking the time to formulate workable legislation that will make a major contribution to meeting the Government's plans for reforming the social housing sector.

I heard what Deputy Gormley said. It is the intention to bring in some of the amendments by next January. We hope to have the heads of the Bill through Cabinet possibly by the summer. Drafting them and introducing them to the House could take six or nine months but presumably that would not stop us announcing the scheme, though it might stop us finalising a sale. We hope later in the year to announce the broad details of what we are talking about.

I met the people of whom Deputy Gormley spoke and I hope I did not dismiss them, though I might have dismissed their idea.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
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Yes, the idea.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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It would be wrong to give encouragement that the flat prices involved will be at 1988 or 1998 prices. We have a tenant purchase scheme which is under consideration in the wider manner, but we are talking of taxpayer money and though we would like to give things away, we cannot do so. The fundamentals of the scheme would involve prices very near open market value. It is a case of how one handles this and what schemes one starts with. A lot of money has been spent by the city council and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in recent years in refurbishing many of these flats so questions would arise. Should one sell the refurbished flats first or the ones which have not been refurbished? There are many issues to be worked out. We hope to have the heads of the Bill to the Cabinet by the summer and then to work on the legislation, which might take six or eight months. We expect to announce the broad framework during the year.