Thursday, 29 November 2018
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Local Authority Housing Funding
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for attending. Louth County Council currently has 91 vacant council houses that cannot be brought back into use due to the lack of maintenance funding. I call on the Minister to provide additional funding to ensure that existing houses in need of refurbishment can be brought back on stream as this can happen in a much faster time than providing new builds.
Under measures announced in budget 2019, the Government is allocating Exchequer funding of almost €2.3 billion to housing programmes. In addition, local authorities will fund a range of housing services to the value of almost €93 million from surplus local property tax receipts, bringing the total housing budget in 2019 to €2.4 billion. None of this matters if the hands of the local authorities, such as Louth County Council, are tied in regard to refurbishing existing stock to bring it back into use. I ask that a portion of the funding announced in the budget be ring-fenced by the Department for local authorities for refurbishment works.
My local authority, Louth County Council, has been lauded in this House in many debates for its achievements in acquiring vacant houses under compulsory purchase orders, having purchased approximately 180 houses. It has been very successful in the use of those powers under the Housing Act to acquire non-derelict homes that are vacant as part of the local authorities' obligation to provide housing. However, it is regrettable that this success cannot follow through to refurbishment of council-owned voids and result in the provision of extra housing to service the ever-growing housing list due to lack of funding.
The housing department of Louth County Council has assured me it has a great working relationship with the Minister of State and his Department and it is working to the best of its ability to find solutions to the housing problem. Louth County Council, like every local authority, is grappling with significant outgoings from the housing department in terms of housing maintenance costs, which are not covered by grants, and the servicing of land loans, which in Louth total €65.3 million, with a cost of over €1 million annually to service the interest.
In regard to the scheme for refurbishment of voids that have been vacant for a longer period and need significant works, the amount of funding grant-aided runs to just €30,000, which is not enough. In Louth, additional works have been carried out on 15 properties this year, with an average cost of €15,000 per unit. This additional funding comes out of the housing maintenance budget. When we talk of casual vacancies, there can be a cost of between €5,000 and €10,000 to bring these houses back to a standard as they often have not been maintained for a number of decades, other than reactive maintenance. These costs are also incurred to facilitate transfers and may not even result in additional families being housed from the waiting list. Other costs that are eating into the budget for refurbishment of newly acquired vacant units relate to funding the use of direct labour on properties that the council has purchased to bring the home up to an appropriate standard. This includes upgrading electrical and plumbing systems, installing smoke alarms and so on, which is different to works on a casual basis.
I ask the Minister to make additional funds available to the local authorities from the budget measures announced to speed up the refurbishment of these vacant units. It is a disgrace 91 houses are sitting empty when people could be occupying them.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I agree with him that there is no excuse for 90 houses to be lying idle. If that is the case, I urge Louth County Council to discuss funding options with us.
To be clear, we have a voids programme which provides funding to refurbish housing. I understand that, this year, Louth County Council applied for 16 and was granted 15, and a claim was recently put in to draw down €166,000, which was paid out. We wrote to every local authority in October this year to ask them again if they had any vacant properties or voids, to bring them forward, and we told them that if these could be completed and tenanted before 14 December, we would be in a position to fund them. I am not aware of any additional application by Louth County Council for 90 units or anything close to that.
If 90 units are lying vacant that the council believes it cannot fund, we have a voids programme that has funded nearly 10,000 voids in recent years. Like many other councils, Louth County Council has brought forward many voids and I congratulate it on that. There is a great pipeline of projects and great work is being done in that regard. If Louth County Council has 90 properties, as the Deputy said, the voids programme is there to be used. We wrote to all the councils in October to tell them to use it and to draw down funding. Other counties have come forward with an additional 30, 40 or 50 units and we have provided the funding for that. There might be some confusion in this regard but there are funding options.
We do not have a timeframe for voids. There is some confusion. I have followed some of the debate about long-term and short-term in Louth. We do not specify a term because, if we did, people might be encouraged to leave houses vacant for a long time. We provide the funding to fix them. We are open to discussing that. We have a very good relationship with the Louth County Council. I have met representatives of it on numerous occasions. In this case some clarity may be required but the funding is there. I am not aware that there are 92 vacant council properties. I reckon from our research that maybe there are 40 and, if that is the case, we certainly would like to bring them back into use and fund them.
We are aware that there are other vacant properties that Louth County Council has purchased and we have used them as best example because it has done great work under the purchase and renew scheme, which is fully funded by our Department. There will be no issue of costs left if a council has purchased vacant properties, Louth being one of the leaders in this, and we cover the costs to purchase and repair them and bring them back into use. Louth has looked for 32 which were approved successfully and work is being carried out. It applied this week or last week for a further 36 under that scheme. I have no doubt that we will process them very quickly because it has done great work.
It is not the case that the council is left carrying the bill. The Department funds that scheme under purchase and renew and I am very clear about that because it is a scheme we want to encourage more local authorities to do. Louth has been the leading one in this and has done great work. We certainly would not leave it hanging for money, as it were, because we want vacancy tackled and the Deputy's local authority has been one of the best at doing that. It has been used at many of our housing summits as the best example of the purchase and renew scheme. We would encourage more of that. If there are several voids lying idle, we would ask it to bring them forward.
In general, maintenance historically has been carried out by Louth County Council, as by every other local authority. We fund the voids programme of houses that are left empty and need work done on them. We encourage local authorities to do their own maintenance. I understand the council is in the middle of budget discussions. I believe councillors should vote to have some money set aside for general routine maintenance but we do fund putting vacant properties back into use. The taxpayer, through our Department, has funded more than 10,000 this year. We had money and we wrote to everybody to do that this year. There is still time if they have vacant properties that they want to bring back into use. We have not started the month of December. They can give us a shout and we will see if we can sort this out.
I thank the Minister of State for his comments because I am delighted to hear him reiterate what I heard him say on local radio recently, that because of the success of the compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, and bringing other properties back into use, he would be amenable to additional funding. I welcome that. I tabled this Topical Issue matter early last week. There may have been an application that the Minister of State referred to and I take his word that it has come in, but that still leaves approximately half the number I referred to. I think the Minister of State indicated 46 houses, which subtracted from 91 leaves approximately 45 more houses, if my maths are correct. I stand over that.
I will be speaking to the department of housing in Louth County Council on Monday morning to make sure a further application is submitted to the Department on which I hope the Minister of State will look favourably. Louth County Council has also been advocating for the design of social housing schemes to be in line with a universal design for the past year and I have been told that the Minister of State has committed to changing the policy to do this, but the Department is indicating that it is unlikely to fund that element of works, for example, on a new housing scheme in Mount Avenue where special moneys were allocated. It is a no-brainer that standards should improve in new builds. Can this be considered again in view of the funding announced in the budget?
Louth County Council is also seeking the introduction of an asset management strategy for the local authority housing sections that we have funded centrally. I may be stretching this a bit but, as a result of Garda activity and the bulldozing of some of the sites that were causing problems in Drogheda, Cement Road had considerable works. Will the Department provide funding in the order of €50,000 to sort out that problem, which I am sure the Minister of State is aware of, arising from anti-social behaviour?
I will work backwards. I am not in a position to write cheques for €50,000 off the cuff but I will get that checked out. If funding is required for something, it helps when the local authority makes an application for it. Then we can process the application.
In general we encourage a top-class quality and high design in all our local authority housing and there is a massive spend on retrofitting, but any new housing is high specification and most of the houses that I have seen being opened are at A2+, which is a high specification and certainly above what most people are providing. We are clear on this. While there is an urgency in respect of social housing, we are not reneging on quality or design. If there is some issue there, I would be happy to have that examined too.
I am not sure what Louth's proposal is for asset management. I have sat with the council but have not heard that mentioned. I am happy to consider it. We want to encourage the management of our assets, which is our housing stock, to a high order and for rents to be used to refurbish them in general in short-term re-lets. They would not need to enter the voids programme. That is something we would do well to encourage. The Deputy mentioned Louth having a landbank on which it is paying interest. I am aware of this. We have said in this House and in the council's office that the best way to reduce the cost of that land is to use it and to put forward a pipeline of projects. If it owns quite a lot of land, it could build more than a few thousand houses which would not all be needed for social housing. The landbank should be used for affordable and social housing and for some private element. That is the best way to return the money. We are very happy to work with it on proposals to use that land, bring down its debt, and provide much-needed social, affordable and private housing for Louth. I have mentioned that to the council in our meetings and will do so again.
In the voids programme and the money we provide for vacant properties, Louth applied for 16, we granted 15, and it has drawn down money for 13, of 166,000. It has also looked for 36 properties under purchase and renew, which were approved and dealt with, and this week it came back for 32 more. There are no outstanding applications for voids of which I am aware. The Deputy mentioned 92 and 40 but they are not on our desk.