Thursday, 6 April 2017
10. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government the progress being made on the Government's vacant housing strategy; the reasons for the delays in forming this strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17121/17]
Pillar 5 of the Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness is specifically focused on ensuring that the existing vacant housing stock throughout the country and across all forms of tenure in both the public and private sectors is used to the optimum degree possible. I know the Deputy agrees with this. In this regard, action 5.1 commits to the development of a national vacant housing reuse strategy that will be informed by census 2016 data to inform the compilation of a register of vacant units across the country; identify the number, location and reasons for longer-term vacancies which are more than six months in high demand areas; and set out a range of actions to bring vacant units back into use. As I referenced at a meeting in Wicklow last week, we have had vacant properties for 15 or 20 years in the country as recorded in the past three or four censuses. There is a long-term reason behind some of them. We are trying to get an understanding of that as well.
The Housing Agency, which has lead responsibility for co-ordinating the development of the strategy, established a working group in September 2016 comprising senior representatives from my Department, local authorities and the Housing Agency itself to inform the strategy. The working group has met more than six times to date and is at present concluding its deliberations on recommendations to be incorporated in the strategy, with a view to facilitating and incentivising the greater reutilisation of vacant properties.
To assist in the finalisation of the strategy broad consultations were undertaken with a range of key stakeholders involved in the housing and homelessness areas as well as local authorities. This scale of engagement and the level of detail involved, including through several bilateral meetings with stakeholder groups, took time to organise but was considered crucial to informing the strategy. This is one of the reasons for the delay. It is also considered prudent to await the final census 2016 report on housing, which is due to be published on 20 April, to ensure the most up-to-date data on housing is incorporated in the strategy. Against that background, it is intended that the strategy will be finalised and published next month.
More than 7,000 public housing voids have been returned to use in recent years at considerable cost. It is important to note that voids have almost become a thing of the past. Every local authority has stepped up to the plate to bring voids back into use. Deputy Casey will be aware that the Department announced two schemes ahead of the announcement of the full strategy. These are the repair and leasing initiative and the buy and renew scheme. The Deputy attended a meeting last week in Wicklow at which I stressed that these schemes provide local authorities an immense opportunity to step up and get vacant properties back into use. Further schemes will be announced but the two to which I have referred are ideal for addressing the issue the Deputy raises.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He referred to an "immense opportunity" and I agree, although I also believe a great opportunity has been lost. The latest census figures indicate there are 260,000 vacant properties in the State. This figure does not include properties above commercial properties which are not already residential. The overall figure, therefore, is substantially higher than 260,000. Even if 2% of these vacant properties were returned to use, we would have 7,500 more homes available. The Department has provided €32 million to deliver 800 homes. We would need a fund of only €300 million to deliver 7,500 homes. We should revisit this issue because vacant properties provide a much quicker solution to the housing and homelessness crisis than new builds. They also offer an easy win for all concerned.
I fully agree with the Deputy. Preliminary data from the census indicate there are approximately 200,000 vacant properties when holiday homes are excluded. The figure may be slightly lower but, either way, this area presents an immense opportunity. For this reason, the Minister announced a couple of initiatives to fast-track our approach. We are putting processes in place. We held two workshops, engaged with all the local authorities and met their chief executives and asked them to pursue vacant properties. The funding and schemes to do so are in place and an additional €32 million has been allocated to the repair and lease-back initiative this year. This could bring more than 1,000 properties into use because the figures the Deputy cited assume full cost.
The Government will make it as easy as possible to bring vacant properties into use. For example, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, recently announced another scheme to tackle vacant properties. The Housing Agency is trying to purchase more than 400 vacant properties and has been provided with a budget of €70 million, of which €60 million could be spent on the properties it has viewed thus far. Much is being done in this area and the Department is open to doing more but we need local authorities to engage. I cannot stress enough that local authority members have an opportunity to find vacant properties, bring them into the system and make them available. That is what we want to happen.
The Minister of State is correct but more support is required. The greatest opportunity available to us is in the area of vacant properties because they offer a win on all accounts, especially in respect of village and town renewal. Bringing vacant properties back into use brings life back into towns. We are failing to deliver the critical infrastructure needed to build new houses. Vacant properties have water and sewerage services and access to the road network. I ask the Minister to revisit this issue and find more money to address vacant properties. To use the Department's figures, the €300 million sum provided to deliver 7,500 vacant properties into use is less than what is being spent on rapid build housing, which will deliver only 350 units. When we compare like with like, it is clear that vacant properties present a golden opportunity. Perhaps we can revisit the issue as a possible solution in the near future.
The three schemes to which the Minister of State referred are good. While he often complains that I give him a hard time, I have publicly stated these schemes are worth supporting. The problem is that over the six years of the schemes, the Department's target is to deliver 6,600 houses, which amounts to 3% of the vacant housing stock to which Deputy Casey referred. I urge the Minister to ensure the strategy he is finalising is much more ambitious in terms of the number of units being targeted. Additional resources, particularly staffing, must be provided to local authorities to enable them to go after these units and return them to use. This approach would secure many more units at a far better price.
If one contrasts the 6,600 units the Minister plans to return to use over five or six years with the 40,000 units targeted under the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, it shows the Department's priorities are wrong. A unit returned to use through the repair and lease or purchase and renovate scheme provides much better value for money than having someone in the HAP scheme for five or ten years. The Minister could be much more ambitious in this area. I look forward to the publication of the strategy.
The Peter McVerry Trust has suggested that local authorities have empty homes officers, as is the case in the United Kingdom, who would actively seek to find out why houses are empty. This is a good proposal, although I am not necessarily suggesting additional staff be appointed. Each local authority could designate an existing member of staff and instruct this person to proactively find out why houses are empty and whether they can used. I share the Minister's frustration in this regard, having called in local authorities in my time as a Minister to get them to do things. The proposal from the Peter McVerry Trust is a very good one.
We are all in complete agreement on this matter, which is nice for a change. The opportunities in this area are endless. We have asked local authorities and approved housing bodies to send someone out to every vacant property and tell us who owns it, why it is empty, what is wrong with it and what must be done to bring it into use. The Department will then chase up on every individual property. We have asked approved housing bodies and local authorities to work on this issue together in all relevant areas. We also asked them to be ambitious and go after these properties. Three schemes have been announced and money has been allocated to them. More will follow when the strategy is published. We have made clear to local authority members and management that they must show ambition and spend the money we have allocated. We will then find more money but we must first see ambition. We have stated in face to face meetings with local authority managers that the best way for local authorities to prove to observers that they are up to the job is to find vacant properties and bring them back into use. The challenge lies with them. Resources are available and we will find more demand-led schemes. The Minister has made clear that if the allocation is spent, we will find more money. Everyone has a role to play in this matter. Members and councillors know people who own vacant properties and should ask them to make these properties available. Everyone gains from these worthwhile schemes.