Dáil debates

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Social and Affordable Housing Provision

4:10 pm

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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1. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government his plans to reintroduce affordable housing schemes of the type suspended in 2012 for owner-occupiers and or renters rather than providing public land subsidies to developers to provide cheaper housing to home buyers, as proposed in the landbank initiative. [25112/17]

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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4. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government if he will introduce an affordable housing scheme to ensure the large tracts of publicly owned land that are currently under consideration for mostly private development will be used to build housing that is affordable to persons on average incomes; the control mechanisms in place to ensure public lands are not used to generate excessive private profit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25051/17]

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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5. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government the way in which his new landbank plan will ensure there will be a significant dividend for social housing and affordable housing; and his plans to address concerns that there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that, following the disposal of public sites for private developments, funds will be reinvested in social housing elsewhere. [25113/17]

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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A reply from the Minister to my recent parliamentary question seemed to indicate that there were no specific plans by his Department to ensure he would play his part in providing affordable homes, notwithstanding the fact the Government of which he was a member, on assuming office, reduced the Part V provision from 20 to 10%, retained the social housing aspect but dropped the affordable homes provision. It has become a very real issue again with the rise in prices. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure it plays its part in providing such affordable units.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I do not ever remember this grouping of questions happening with priority questions.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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They are virtually identical questions.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will give equal time to Deputies.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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Will the Minister introduce an affordable housing scheme now that very large tracts of publicly owned land are being given to private developers? While there will be a 10% element of social housing, we all want to ensure there will also be affordable housing, be it affordable for rent or for purchase. There are many people on low or middle incomes who simply cannot afford to buy a house in the current context, especially in our capital city.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1, 4 and 5 together.

Of course we need to provide affordable homes for people. The approach we are taking is different from the way it was done previously. What ended in 2011 was an affordable housing scheme. We are now trying to put together affordable housing projects as part of schemes on a case-by-case basis. We have asked local authorities to publish, in a very transparent way and for everybody to see, the 700 sites throughout the State where local authorities own public land that is suitable for housing. We have asked local authorities to produce a development plan for each of those sites. We want the local authorities to design an affordable element within those plans. Sometimes it will be a certain percentage of social housing, a certain percentage of affordable housing and a certain parentage of private housing. Depending on where the site is in the country and the demand in that area, the construct of that affordable housing plan will be different.

Last week, after quite a lot of negotiation and discussion with Dublin City Council and even though Sinn Féin voted against it in the end, there was agreement among a majority of councillors on Dublin City Council on how, through a massive planning process, we would develop on the Poolbeg Irish Glass Bottle site, which is a privately owned piece of land. This will involve some affordable and social housing. It will also include some specialist social housing for older people and so on. We are trying to ensure we have mixed tenure, diverse, healthy communities as part of many projects around the country.

Sometimes projects may be all affordable housing and sometimes they may be 10%, 15% or 20% affordable housing. The prudent thing to do here is to demand of local authorities to come back to us with proposals that suit the area and the site. We will then sign off on the affordable housing projects. We need to give guidance to some local authorities around the thresholds under which and over which people will qualify for those affordable housing schemes. Let us consider the docklands in Dublin as an example. Affordable housing was provided through many of the apartment developments in the docklands and the affordable housing was allocated through the drawing of lots. That is the kind of template we want to see as part of mixed tenure communities.

With regard to Deputy O'Sullivan's comment, we are not giving away sites to private developers; it is not happening. We will ensure we will get a full State public interest dividend from every one of those sites. The dividend may be in the form of affordable housing, it may be social housing or it could be something else. If appropriate, it could be cash but in most cases I do not think it will be. We are trying to do social housing differently from the ways in which it was done in the past. We are trying to build stronger and more progressive communities than has been the case previously in how the State approached social housing. It is in this context I encourage local authorities to be ambitious in their proposals around affordable housing schemes as part of how they use and develop landbanks we have throughout the country and which have the capacity to deliver 50,000 houses. I believe it is about 5,000 acres over 700 sites. It is a significant opportunity. We are doing it differently from the way it was done in the past. It will result in much healthier communities and a lot more affordable housing.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Government has no plans at this stage to introduce a new affordable housing purchase scheme of the kind that existed up to 2011. However, the Government recognises the housing affordability pressures in certain areas and is determined to see increases in the supply of high-quality social and affordable homes, to buy or rent, as quickly as possible, particularly in the major urban areas where demand is greatest.

At a strategic level, under the new 20-year national planning framework, there will be an emphasis on managing and utilising State lands to deliver housing and to ensure an active and healthy market for development land. The opening up of State-owned lands for the development of mixed tenure housing is also a key objective under Rebuilding Ireland. Rebuilding Ireland also commits to the introduction of an affordable rental scheme to enhance the provision of affordable accommodation for households currently paying a disproportionate amount of disposable income on rent. As set out in the strategy for the rental sector, this commitment is being progressed through kick-starting supply in rent pressure zones and leveraging the value of State-owned sites to deliver units for rental, targeting middle income households.

On 27 April 2017, I published the Rebuilding Ireland housing land map, a vital initial step in the new strategic approach to State land management. The datasets published on the map include details of more than 700 local authority and housing agency owned sites, totalling some 1,700 ha, as well 30 sites covering about 200 ha owned by State or semi-State bodies. The map is available to view on the Rebuilding Ireland website.

It is crucial that much-needed housing for families and individuals on the social housing waiting list, and for those on low to middle incomes, is delivered from local authority and State-owned sites as soon as possible. In the first instance, the specific approach to housing delivery on each site, including the optimum tenure mix, is a matter for the local authority concerned, the elected council members included, who best understand the housing needs in their area. In this regard, I welcome the fact that two of the Dublin local authorities have brought forward four key large-scale sites capable of delivering 3,000 of these new homes, and I expect other local authorities to follow suit.

Mixed tenure development on publicly owned land provides the best way forward to deliver social and affordable housing quickly in a fully integrated and sustainable community. Importantly, it allows for risk-sharing and far quicker delivery of social housing and badly needed housing more generally as part of the full development of individual sites. Opening up the supply of State land in this way, for mixed tenure housing, is a critically important intervention in addressing a situation where the pace of recovery in the house development sector is slower than we would like it to be. In practical terms, the development of these sites will mean accelerating social housing delivery and securing more homes for sale and rent at lower and more affordable price points.

I am committed to ensuring the State secures the most beneficial use of its currently under-utilised assets for much-needed housing in the shortest possible timeframe and maximises the public good dividend through increased and speedier delivery of high-quality social and affordable homes. My Department is working closely with local authorities and other State agencies to ensure that the optimum mix of social and affordable housing is delivered from public landbanks in the shortest possible timeframe and in a manner which achieves value for money and the best possible housing outcomes. The approach to be adopted to individual sites will be decided case by case, taking account of the specific aspects of each site and the particular local housing considerations arising.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his response. I accept and acknowledge that there is potential in the future development of the sites the Minister spoke of. I would have hoped for them to come on stream much earlier than this, but I accept the mechanism under which the Minister believes the development can take place and the benefit that can accrue to the State, as the Minister has said. I would hazard a small warning on the Minister describing the projects as being assessed individually and case by case.

It may be that we can derive benefit from the dividend in the provision of social and affordable housing, but I would advise against the provision of cash. To be honest, the Part V scheme had that option and it did not prove fruitful for the local authorities. More importantly, it did not prove fruitful for those who were hoping to acquire or receive the benefit of a home from the scheme. I ask the Minister not to consider cash as a dividend in this respect.

While I do see the merit, as private developments take place there are concerns. This week Cairn Homes, for example, announced quite substantial profits. It was public knowledge. This says that the methodology of the Government, where it sets the bar in order to encourage builders into the market, is a dangerous one. In the absence of a specific obligation on such private sector developers, a select few of whom have funds available again, it should be incumbent on them from a legislative perspective in the House to ensure there is a benefit to the State through Part V. It was a mistake to decrease it to 10%. I ask the Minister to increase it and to have 10% affordable and 10% social housing.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I have some real concerns about this. I do not understand how local authorities can control affordability when there is not a national scheme. Perhaps the Minister could clarify how the local authorities will deal with this aspect. I have spoken to councillors who are struggling with what they are being asked to do.

If each local authority must agree each scheme individually with the Department, will this not entail all the difficulties we currently have with the amount of time it takes between funding being given for public housing and when the homes are delivered. Is this approach not just setting up this process to have the same issues as before? There is no national scheme, and if there is to be individual agreement between the Department and the local authorities on each scheme, I would have a concern that it is going to be very slow process.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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It does not have to be a slow process at all. It requires some urgency and initiative from local authorities. They have landbanks that have sat there doing nothing, in some cases for decades.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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That is because the Minister's Government gave them no money to spend on doing anything with the land.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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There is no shortage of money now. None. We have more than 10,000 social housing units in the pipeline today. That figure was 8,400 back in January.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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The figures are not true.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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It is true. The Deputy will have his opportunity in a minute, but he did not even table a question on this area. That shows his interest in it.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I get five questions, Minister.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The issue is that we are asking the local authorities to do things a little differently.

It will not necessarily be the same as it was previously, whereby the Department has to do everything in terms of designing an affordable housing scheme and then the local authorities implement it. We are asking people to take a much more innovative approach towards building more diverse and healthier communities on publicly owned land which, in some cases, is not being used for any purpose. In some cases, the development will be 100% social housing and we will fully fund it. If that is what local authorities want to bring forward, that is fine. I am not aware that I have refused any local authority council housing projects since I became Minister. Funding is not the barrier. We are asking local authorities to look at the new housing policy that encourages mixed tenure, a mix of social, affordable, private and other specialist housing units, for elderly people in particular, such as the 81 social housing units development currently under way in Limerick city centre. It is the largest social housing site in the country.

4:20 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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It commenced during my time as Minister with responsibility for housing.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Yes. Some 57 of those houses are specifically being designed for elderly people. That is the type of mix we are looking for now. If local authorities need guidance, they can get it from the Department's housing delivery unit. There are teams of staff in the Department who are willing to meet local authorities to work out what is appropriate on a site-by-site basis in order that we can get a lot of development of sites at the same time. We can get private sector innovation and finance as part of the development of these sites, which means we can do a lot more a lot quicker.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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As two of the questions in this grouping are in my name, I hope that will be reflected in my time allocation. As I said earlier, I understand the mentality behind the proposal but it was late coming to the pitch. What mechanisms and processes have been put in place to adjudicate the performance and reaction to the publication of the lists in regard to each local authority? I accept each local authority's needs are different and that how sites will be developed will vary from authority to authority, place to place and so forth. Aside from publication of the list, what processes and mechanisms have been put in place to ascertain what progress is being made? In the event of proposals coming forward from the private sector, how quickly will these be responded to by the Department and local authorities? As I have previously said on several occasions, those conventional methods have failed a previous plan sanctioned by the then Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. His plan was very ambitious and bold and money was not a problem either but yet the results expected were not achieved. We all want to see this issue dealt with.

I will reiterate one of the questions I asked earlier because the Minister did not answer it. I accept he had a lot of questions to answer but in regard to the private developers whom, as I said, are posting large profits on foot of the Government policy which I believe increases house prices rather broadens the spectrum for which construction can take place and more houses can be provided - they are supply initiatives that we can discuss again - will the Minister give serious consideration to the re-introduction of the Part V affordable element that existed previously and ensured that where private development took place, it adhered to Part V social and affordable housing? The issue of affordable housing must be addressed with as much gusto, effort and determination as the provision of social housing.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I agree with the Minister that funding is not a barrier and that there is need for more urgency and initiative on the part of local authorities. The Minister will be aware that when a local authority is asked why a particular initiative is not being implemented, the response is usually that the Department has not approved a particular part of it and that the Department when asked the same question will respond to the effect that the local authority has not moved on it. Is the timescale for these projects five years? Perhaps the Minister will clarify when he expects these projects to be completed. Leaving aside that we need initiative on the part of the local authorities, we need to ensure that this type of passing the buck between the Department and the local authorities stops. A site in my constituency, which I drive pass almost every day, which was supposed to be developed and inhabited in the middle of last year, is still full of weeds. When one asks the council why that project has not commenced, the response is that the Department is holding it up.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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It is wrong.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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This is the reality. We need these developments completed as quickly as possible.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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There are 607 projects, which will comprise 10,074 housing units, at various stages in the pipeline. Some of them are in the assessment process, some are in the Part VIII process and others are on-site. I agree there is a need for urgency. When I became Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government I asked the same question that Deputy O'Sullivan just asked. When I, or the Minister of State, Deputy English, visited local authorities, we were told that they could not get decisions from the Department. I probed that issue in the Department. It was not as straightforward as many people like to think. It is a convenient excuse to blame the Department for everything. There is a system in the Department that is about driving projects as quickly as is reasonable, while still carrying out a very robust assessment to ensure we get value for money. Staff visit local authorities where they meet engineers, quantity surveyors and architects to get projects approved quickly. That is happening. If there are cases where it is not happening I would like to know about them and I will ensure they are addressed.

In regard to the sites, two of the Dublin local authorities have already brought forward four key large-scale sites that are capable of delivering 3,000 new homes. I expect other local authorities will follow suit fairly quickly. The Dublin local authorities have already advertised with regard to those four sites. In the coming months, I will be asking each local authority to produce plans for all the sites that are ready to go now. It will not be possible to have movement on the 700 sites within the same year. The target is to have delivery across all of these sites over a five-year timeframe. There will be a significant ramping up of the volume of units that is being delivered. As I said, on many of these sites the housing will be either all social housing or a significant portion of social housing. Some of them are small infill sites and others are large sites which need proper tenure mix such that essentially what would be created is a new town centre and community of the type that exists in Poolbeg, Cherrywood or Adamstown.

On Part V, I do not propose to repeat the mistake made in the past whereby a developer could buy out an obligation under Part V. If I understood Deputy Cowen correctly, he agrees with me in this regard. That was a big mistake at the time. Although money was handed over it often was not spent on social housing. Let us not forget that we are not building enough houses in Ireland. Many developers are not making enough money to be able to justify building a lot more houses. If I were to ask them to contribute more than 10% that would, in my view, slow down the momentum that is already starting to take hold in some parts of the country. What is encouraging is that many developers are asking to provide more than 10% because based on the plans, they can get paid upfront by the local authorities, which can help them to finance the remainder of a project. The level of social housing being provided by projects such as Poolbeg and O'Devaney Gardens, which is on State-owned land, is way beyond 10%. Some projects are providing up to 25% social housing. In the case of O'Devaney Gardens, 50% of the units are non-private housing. Different sites require different solutions and local authorities should be able to deal with them on a case-by-case basis.