Thursday, 19 January 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Rural Resettlement Scheme
4. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government his proposals regarding a new rural resettlement scheme to promote the advantages of rural living and ease the housing pressure in high demand urban areas, as indicated as a one year action in A Programme for a Partnership Government. [2287/17]
I wish to ask the Minister what proposals he intends to make in terms of a new rural resettlement scheme to promote the advantages of rural living. It was outlined as a one-year strategy in the programme for Government. Rather than being merely a rural resettlement scheme I wish to introduce a new concept of a rural revitalisation scheme which would help to reinvigorate rural communities and to bring people back into rural areas.
I thank Deputy Harty for raising this issue. We agree that it is not just a rural resettlement programme that we need but that the focus should be on the revitalisation and rebuilding of rural areas. That is what we are trying to achieve. The aim is set out both in the programme for Government and in Rebuilding Ireland. We want to facilitate people who want to live in a rural area, especially if they are on the social housing list, but it will be a choice for people. We will facilitate people’s choice through a range of schemes. We will endeavour to make that happen if we can at all.
As the Deputy is aware, my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, has overall responsibility for regional and rural matters and will shortly be publishing a broadly-based rural development strategy, in the context of A Programme for a Partnership Government, which I hope will be launched next week. For our part, the Government's housing strategy, Rebuilding Ireland: An Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, includes a range of measures supportive of the regeneration and renewal of towns and villages across rural Ireland, which is exactly what Deputy Harty said needs to happen and, consequently, ensuring a vibrant population in those places.
It is our aim that all steps are taken to secure the re-use of vacant and under-utilised properties for residential purposes, particularly in the many towns and villages in rural Ireland that contain a significant number of empty houses. That also involves having a purpose to those towns and villages and to make them attractive for people to come back to live in them and to utilise existing buildings.
Action 5.1 of the action plan commits to the development of a national vacant housing re-use strategy and we intend to examine the potential to widen the geographical range of social housing location options available to persons seeking such accommodation. The strategy will examine the potential for bringing existing but vacant housing back into beneficial use and we intend to examine mechanisms to match such accommodation potential to prospective applicants for social housing, including through choice-based letting approaches and the HAP scheme, which now operates nationally. Other important initiatives include the repair and leasing and the buy and renew schemes, which will see upfront financial assistance being made available to upgrade empty but substandard accommodation, after which the property will be used for social housing purposes. Acquisition and leasing options are also available to local authorities. We will have examiners on local authorities to encourage the take-up of such options. The Department, in conjunction with the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys and the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring in the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, are working to make the plans attractive and to ensure they work. The first instalment will be announced by the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, next week.
I fully agree with Deputy Harty about the benefits of such a scheme and the necessity of it but it must be done in a co-ordinated way and in accordance with people's choice, which is what we are trying to facilitate.
One of the greatest assets rural Ireland has is vacant property and, unfortunately, one of the assets it lacks is people. There are great disparities around the country in terms of the availability of housing. I envisage that such a scheme will only solve a small percentage of the housing shortage in greater urban areas but it will have a beneficial effect on the situation and it will also address depopulation in rural areas.
There are many vacant properties in our county towns, villages and town lands so it is very important to factor this into the housing strategy. A rural resettlement programme was part of the programme for Government housing sector. As I said, "resettlement" is not a word we like to use. It is rural revitalisation, coming from the bottom up where communities proactively come together and identify housing, housing is made available to county councils and the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and supports are put around those houses that would attract people to come to a community and revitalise it. It is very important that the Government give serious consideration to this.
That is exactly what we are doing. We want to give this very serious consideration. The Department has an urban renewal and regeneration working group that has been working with local authority chief executives over the past couple of months to devise new schemes and ideas. In addition, the Department works alongside the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. We will have a list of actions and a toolkit that will make living in these areas an option for people and make it attractive. Finance will be provided to restore some of these vacant buildings privately and for social housing but it is not just about that. Ireland in 2040: A National Planning Framework set out the economic reasons to live in these rural areas and regenerate them and that is what we must do. Housing and its benefits is one aspect of it. Using vacant stock is pillar five of Rebuilding Ireland which will be relaunched shortly with a major focus on tackling vacant buildings. It is also involves long-term planning. People need to know that there is a future in these areas and the economic purpose of each of those towns and villages we spoke about. That is what we are trying to do. We need to make that happen. We think local authorities are central to making this happen but they must have the toolkit at their disposal to be able to do that and that is what we will implement.
When I speak about rural revitalisation, what I mean is that communities would come together and identify the needs of that community and property within it. Obviously, it is a voluntary process. We are not talking about resettlement. We are talking about revitalisation where people would voluntarily come to live in rural Ireland and be received into a community with a huge amount of volunteerism. They are people who could rejuvenate Ireland. We want a bottom-up approach meeting a top-down approach where the Government, either through the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government or the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, would form an organisation or structure where people in urban areas could find out where they could relocate to if they so wished and create a new life for themselves with access to smaller schools, open spaces and outdoor living - a different concept - because people become very claustrophobic and introverted in urban areas where they are homeless. It is a conceptual thing where people would move in their mind as well as physically from an urban environment to a rural environment and see the positive aspects of it.
The action plan for rural development that will be launched next week will facilitate that. Our Department is feeding into that and has already fed into that. We have had numerous meetings at official and ministerial level. The Minister and I, along with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the Minister of State for regional economic development, Deputy Ring, have had numerous discussions around this to make it happen. It is about breathing life back into these areas but also guaranteeing a life into the future because the problems in many of these towns and villages in rural areas did not just happen as a result of the recession or the downturn in construction over the past seven, eight or ten years. This has been going back 20 or 30 years so we need a co-ordinated way to make this happen and local authorities engaging with local bodies and agencies to make it happen is central. We also need long-term thinking of the kind found in Ireland in 2040: A National Planning Framework to make sure it is sustainable into the future and that it is not just a temporary solution to a housing difficulty we have because that is the wrong way to approach it. Yes, there are loads of vacant buildings and if people want to live there, that is a major part of what we can do. We have a budget allocated to make that happen but it is far more than that. The plan launched next week will be interesting and will be the basis upon which we will work. Our Departments are working very closely on this because it is the right thing to do and is in the programme for Government. We can achieve what Deputy Harty has set out. That is our aim so we are at one on that.