Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Local Authority Housing Provision
The question concerns the steps the Department's officials are taking to simplify and speed up the process for approval by the Department for local authority housing schemes. I approach this in a constructive way. I know the Department cannot magic up houses with the flick of a switch. I am trying to come at this from the point of view of solutions. I have spoken to both the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy English, about this in the past, both inside and outside the Chamber. There are huge delays of two to three years for approval.
I acknowledge that Deputy Stanley understands we cannot just wave a magic wand and deliver housing. He might inform his party's housing spokesperson of the same logic because he does not seem to understand this. Other members of his party also do not understand it, but I am glad Deputy Stanley does. That is certainly progress.
There are no projects awaiting approval for two or three years. Projects go through many different stages, which I will explain to the Deputy in a moment, and we have made a lot of changes to that process. We have all come across projects in the past that were, for whatever reason, in the system for two, three, four and even five years in some cases, but no one can say to me there is an application sitting in our Department that has been awaiting approval for two or three years. That is certainly not the case. On many occasions colleagues have brought forward examples to the Minister and to me, and when we have checked them out, we have found there are different stories behind them, so I am conscious that very often local information might not match national information. We have brought about a whole new scheme to make this very clear to everyone. We can all track this so we know exactly the progress made on a project.
Social housing projects funded by our Department, like all publicly funded construction projects, must comply with the Government's capital works management framework, the objectives of which are to ensure cost certainty, value for money and financial accountability. There are nine stages in the framework, which our Department has streamlined to just four for social housing construction projects.
Important steps have already been put in place to improve the timelines involved in the advancement of new social housing capital construction projects. A timeline of 59 weeks is now in place from the bringing forward of an initial proposal to the placing of the construction contract and starting on site, encompassing the full design, planning and procurement processes. This compares favourably with private sector construction projects. I am not aware of any project, private or public, that from inception has been on site and under construction in 59 weeks. In some cases we come slightly under the timeline but, on average, in the private sector and the public sector, 59 or 60 weeks is regarded as best practice. Sometimes we get there in 50 weeks, which is worth doing.
The 59-week period includes the time required for our Department to assess and approve projects. However, this is just a small element of the timeline.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He referred to a timeline of 59 weeks, but this is not happening before 59 weeks in many cases. Schemes such as those in Portarlington and Conniberry Way in Portlaoise are all very welcome and all necessary, and I know the Department has taken some steps in this regard, but the process is still very slow and very costly. Since about 2002 or 2003 there has been a requirement, introduced by the Department, that all houses must be architecturally designed. I can tell the Minister of State that the design has not improved. The requirement has led to high maintenance costs because of very bad decisions that look good on paper but are not practical. There are homes that were built in the years following the introduction of this requirement - I can take the Minister of State to them some day he is in County Laois - that finished up being very expensive to heat because of poor decision-making on the part of architects, so there are practical problems there. The four separate stages, as well as the number of steps within each of those four stages, drag out the process. The Part 8 process, whereby planning is passed at local level and the councillors are involved, is not the issue, in my experience. The councillors in general will move quickly with this. I have raised this with the Minister and the Minister of State in the past. What we need is a generic design. There is no reason we cannot have one. We often talk here about the number of houses that were built in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s. I am not arguing with either the Minister or the Minister of State for a return to those designs because, obviously, we want modern designs, but there are good templates there. We should not be starting with a blank canvas with each scheme.
I wish to be very clear that our Department has no interest in unnecessarily prolonging the time involved in these proposals other than to comply with the Government-wide rules for capital project oversight. Deputy Stanley and many other Deputies want us to do this, so we do it. We have put in place a project that streamlines the process. I can confirm to Deputy Stanley that the parts of the process involving approval from our Department represent a very small amount of the time allocated and do not delay projects unnecessarily. I wish to be very clear on that. He mentioned two projects in Laois. They were not referred to in his initial question. If he had mentioned them in the original question, I would have brought the relevant information with me and analysed it. I am happy to look at the two projects with him. As I said, there is generally a story behind a case when we look at it. Looking back over all the projects that are there, we are now able to reach our timelines. There are some historical projects that for various reasons might take a little longer. The Minister and I also have our housing delivery team and office to help drive on these projects and to work with local authorities.
The Deputy is probably wrong on the quality of the houses. Any houses we have been involved in funding and opening in recent years under Rebuilding Ireland are of a high-quality design and build and are very efficient to run. The majority of them have building energy ratings of A3 or higher. It is wrong, therefore, to put on the floor of the House that we are building low-quality houses. We are not, and I would have to argue with the Deputy on that.
No, that is not the point I made. I said we need a generic template. The Conniberry Way units are finished. The Minister sitting beside the Minister of State opened them. They are of a very high quality. The point I am trying to get across to the Minister of State is that the template for those houses could be used in other counties and other locations in County Laois. They could be used in Donegal, Cavan or anywhere else. The houses are being built to a high standard, but I am telling the Minister of State, on behalf of council officials throughout the State to whom I have spoken, that the Department is scrutinising all the minutiae, every little detail, and drawings are being sent back and forward between local authorities and the Department in the Custom House. That is what is slowing up the process. I am appealing for good-quality housing to be built. I recognise the fact that the housing has been better in recent years. I made that point and said I do not want to go back to 1930s or 1970s designs. We have good models. I estimate that we need six or seven different house types, including one, two, three and four-bedroom houses. We need single-storey housing for disabled and elderly people. We need rural and urban housing. We need about half a dozen or eight different designs, but they are there. Why are we starting every new housing scheme with a blank canvas?
Each local authority brings forward a house design that suits its area. I do not think Deputy Stanley's theory that we should have just standard or generic designs is supported by any of the NGOs. No one is demanding we have one standard design. Yes, there are standard specifications we can have for much housing. This is something we in the Department have worked on, and we also work with local authorities to do that. Certain parts of a house can certainly be of a standard template or standard specification, but no one is calling for the same house to be built in every part of the country. I do not think anyone supports that. We want to allow housing to fit into and blend into an area. That is what we try to achieve. However, there are savings to be made, and we have managed them.
Again, I wish to be very clear that there are stages of approval. I am happy to talk through them. We have no time left to do so today, but I will bring the Deputy through the various stages of approval if he so wishes. There is no reason at all the design of a project should delay something unnecessarily. There are quite quick processes out there. Some local authorities have got through the process in 42 weeks, some in 59 weeks, and some take a little longer, but it is possible for a local authority to bring a project through the system in the 40-week bracket if it so wishes and chooses to do so. However, we do not force a design on anyone. That is not what is being asked for.