Thursday, 30 April 2009
Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
Michael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I would like to thank the many Deputies who made contributions to the debate on Second Stage, and Members generally for attending and for their broad welcome for the Bill.
The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 contains a number of important milestones in the development of housing policy. For the first time in legislation, the Bill defines what we mean by housing services. It provides a more strategic approach to delivery and management of those services through service plans and action programmes, whatever the prevailing economic conditions. It presents a more objective and comprehensive basis for assessing need and allocating housing. It provides a more effective management and control regime covering rents and tenancy arrangements, and a more developed statutory basis for the rental accommodation scheme. It is innovative with the introduction of the incremental purchase scheme aimed at helping those seeking social housing support to become homeowners.
Overall, the Bill supports the creation of a flexible and graduated system of housing supports for those in need of housing. It sets out a framework to allow for the delivery of these services in a way that meets individual needs, but respects the concept of developing sustainable communities. In addition, it provides for a system where individuals and households are dealt with fairly and consistently across the country.
The contributions by Deputies dealt with a wide range of issues reflecting, in many ways, the complex character of housing. I will endeavour to deal with as many of these matters as time permits.
It is clear that Deputies from all sides of the House are concerned with the issue of homelessness. As the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, it is also a key concern of mine. That is why I launched the strategy The Way Home in August 2008 and more recently the national implementation plan for the strategy. The Way Home sets out a clear vision of a future where the occurrence of homelessness is minimised. Where homelessness does arise, our aim is that nobody will sleep rough or remain in emergency accommodation for more than six months. These are important and challenging objectives but substantial legislative change is not required to implement this vision.
Housing authorities already have the power to provide emergency services for homeless people by virtue of the Housing Act 1988 and this is one of a range of housing supports listed in section 10. More permanent solutions to the accommodation needs of homeless people are encompassed in the various forms of social housing support described in section 19. It is, therefore, simply untrue to suggest, as some Deputies have done, that the issue of homelessness is not dealt with in the Bill.
The issue of a new definition of homelessness was also raised. The Government has decided in the context of its strategy, The Way Home, that the statutory definition will not be changed. We will, however, review how the definition is applied operationally to ensure, for example, consistency in its application across local authorities. This has been made clear in the homeless strategy and implementation plan and also in the course of engagement with representatives of service providers in the MakeRoom alliance.
A number of Deputies raised the issue of the provision of a statutory basis for homeless action plans. This is an important matter which was also discussed in some detail during the Bill's passage through the Seanad. As I have indicated previously, The Way Home document was launched after the publication of the Bill and certain aspects, including those with statutory implications, were not sufficiently advanced to be comprehended by this Bill. My Department, in conjunction with Parliamentary Counsel, is working on bringing forward the necessary legislative provisions and I hope to bring these provisions before the House on Committee Stage.
A number of Deputies raised the issue of the tenant purchase of apartments. As the House is aware - Deputies made this point in their contributions - the drafting of workable proposals for the sale of local authority apartments is difficult. Our focus has been on establishing a sufficiently robust framework to allow sales to proceed, given that past endeavours had to be abandoned. While I am determined to make progress on this issue as quickly as possible, we must get it right. Our aim is to establish a robust legislative framework that will stand the test of time for all stakeholders, namely, apartment buyers, apartment tenants who choose not to buy and local authorities.
Deputies Bannon and Durkan referred to the issue of the sale of voluntary and co-operative houses under a tenant purchase scheme. As the Deputies are aware, there is no provision at present for the purchase of individual houses by tenants of approved housing bodies. The housing policy statement, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, indicated that consideration would be given, in consultation with the voluntary and co-operative sector, to piloting a tenant purchase scheme for some new voluntary homes based on the incremental purchase model. The issues arising therefrom are being considered in consultation with the Irish Council for Social Housing. Part 3 provides for the sale by an approved body of a proportion of newly constructed dwellings under incremental purchase.
I share the concerns expressed by all Deputies that local authorities should have mechanisms available to them to deal with anti-social behaviour in their estates. Such behaviour can threaten the sustainability of communities and further disadvantage vulnerable households. The provisions of the Bill go some way towards improving the existing regime by updating the definition of anti-social behaviour and introducing anti-social behaviour strategies in section 35. In conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General, I am examining the scope for further changes to existing legislation that will enhance the role of housing authorities in addressing anti-social behaviour. I will incorporate any further measures in this area during the Bill's passage through the Oireachtas.
Deputy Flanagan raised issues concerning the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and the leasing options from the perspective of both value for money and meeting social housing needs. The policy which underpins this Bill is clearly aimed at providing a framework to achieve best value for money and best outcome for those in need of housing. This takes account of a central tenet of the NESC report that we should have a flexible and graduated response to need. The rental accommodation scheme forms part of this flexible response, providing choice to those seeking housing and allowing housing authorities to utilise a range of options to meet need.
An additional option is also available to local authorities following my decision to divert some resources that would otherwise have been used to build and buy new social housing units to support a programme of acquiring dwellings for social housing purposes on long-term leases. An initial €20 million for this purpose has been earmarked in 2009, allowing local authorities an opportunity to take some 2,000 properties on long-term leases. This initiative will allow for a significantly greater level of need to be met in the short term. In addition, while not a basis for the proposal, its implementation will generate a degree of momentum in terms of bringing vacant properties into use and may have some positive influence on sentiment in the housing market.
Deputies Terence Flanagan, Ciarán Lynch and Catherine Byrne referred to the inspection regime in the private rented sector. Minimum standards for rental accommodation are prescribed by way of regulations made under section 18 of the Housing Act 1992. I signed new regulations on 10 December 2008 which came into effect on 1 February last, with certain elements coming into effect for existing rental properties four years hence. All landlords have a legal obligation to ensure that their rented properties comply with these regulations and responsibility for enforcement rests with the relevant local authority supported by a dedicated stream of funding provided from part of the proceeds of tenancy registration fees collected by the Private Residential Tenancies Board.
Further improvements to the regime are being addressed in the context of the Bill. An important amendment was made on Committee Stage in the Seanad to include measures to make available to local authorities a new, comprehensive sanctions regime. It will involve the issuing of improvement notices to landlords where rental properties are found to be in breach of the regulations and, where a landlord does not comply with an improvement notice, local authorities may issue prohibition notices which will prevent the further renting of a property until it complies with the standards. Fines for offences related to the standards regulations will also be increased.
In general, local authorities have significantly expanded their inspection activity in recent years. Inspection numbers have more than doubled from 6,815 to 17,138 in the period from 2005 to 2008. I am committed to building on the significant progress made in recent years with regard to inspection of private rented accommodation.
A number of Deputies raised the issue of property management companies. As Deputies are aware, apartment complexes are a relatively recent development in the Irish market and the policy and practice of managing such developments has had to play catch up to a certain extent. Since the publication of the Law Reform Commission's report on multi-unit developments in June 2008, work on the preparation of legislative and administrative proposals to respond to its recommendations has continued across relevant Departments. The Government recently approved the drafting of the general scheme of a multi-unit developments Bill and decided that, apart from a number of discrete provisions relating to regulatory and planning issues, matters relating to multi-unit developments would be dealt with in a single Bill. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has the lead role in progressing this Bill, with input from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and my Department, as required.
A number of Deputies opposite referred to what they termed a lack of progress on housing during the boom years. This is simply not true. Investment over the past ten years in social and affordable housing has been significant and considerable progress has been made. Some €17 billion has been spent across all social and affordable housing programmes, meeting the needs of almost 142,000 households. Of the €17 billion figure, almost €9 billion has been spent on the main housing construction programme, which met the needs of almost 53,000 household over the past decade. Total expenditure last year on social and affordable housing programmes came to some €2.4 billion compared to €500 million in 1998.
Notwithstanding this progress, the 2008 housing needs assessment showed an increase of some 30% in net housing need since 2005. In deploying the available resources for housing in 2009, priority will attach to meeting the needs of these and other vulnerable groups. In that regard, the Exchequer provision for 2009 of more than €1.4 billion demonstrates a significant level of investment to support activity under the range of housing programmes this year, albeit within a severely constrained financial environment.
Given the difficult fiscal and economic climate in which we find ourselves and the significant transition that the housing sector is going through, we must also ensure that we invest the housing provision for 2009 with flexibility and creativity in order that we can continue to respond effectively to the diverse housing needs that exist.
This Bill provides additional legislative support to the efforts being made by the Government, local authorities, the voluntary and co-operative housing sector and other actors in the housing area. I am confident it will radically improve the capacity of housing authorities to plan and deliver their services in a coherent, flexible and responsive manner. I am greatly encouraged by the supportive and constructive contributions of Members during Second Stage and look forward to dealing with the detail of the Bill in committee.