Tuesday, 19 November 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Social and Affordable Housing
I seek an update from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government on the status of the O'Devaney Gardens redevelopment project. I do so in a constructive way in an effort to move this forward. The key issue is ensuring that the O'Devaney Gardens site is restored so that people can move back into and live in the area. It is a prime site of 14 acres, adjacent to the Phoenix Park and less than four kilometres from O'Connell Street.
The Minister and I have both visited the site. There is growing frustration with the lack of progress. While I do not want to go back over old ground, some valid criticisms were made of the original deal struck between Dublin City Council and Bartra Capital, which the Minister advocated. They included the rate at which affordable purchase was set, which was approximately €400,000 in some instances. Criticism of the 50:50 split between private and public was particularly valid. Many people, including my party colleagues on the city council, Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick and Lord Mayor Paul McAuliffe, and councillors from the Minister's party raised some serious concerns in that regard.
As the Minister will know, a new arrangement has been made. This revised deal is better than the original agreement that Sinn Féin, Fine Gael and others advocated. It will provide 30% public social housing, 20% affordable purchase housing, 30% affordable rented housing and 20% private housing. The deal the council has struck for the State-owned land on this site, which was approved by the law agents, is effectively an 80% public and 20% private split. That is a vast improvement on the 2017 deal that the Minister and Sinn Féin councillors on the city council advocated.
That aside, my concern is with some of the comments made by the Minister on this matter. The reason I tabled this Topical Issue matter is to obtain clarity on the matter. I do not want a protracted stand-off between the Department and Dublin City Council. I am sure the Minister does not want that either. I note his comments questioning the legality of the new arrangement. I am here to put on record that the law agent in Dublin City Council was consulted on the matter, as was the assistant chief executive, and it passed the law agents.
I will happily come back to the Minister after he responds. I saw him laughing a moment ago. It is not a laughing matter that 14 acres of prime land that could house 800 families are not being utilised. The last thing I want is to see the Minister engaged in a row or an argument that will slow the delivery of public housing on this site. The revised arrangement is a better one. The deal brokered by Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick and supported by the Social Democrats, the Labour Party and Fine Gael and Green Party councillors is a better one. The issue raised by the Minister, the one on which I am seeking clarity, relates to the funding of the affordable rental housing. Only today, in response to my party leader the Taoiseach referred to rolling out cost rental schemes throughout the country. I know we have a pilot scheme on Enniskerry Road but the serviced sites fund will finance these rental projects. Is it not the case that the affordable rental housing on the O'Devaney Gardens site would be eligible for funding under the serviced sites fund? I ask the Minister for clarity on that. Furthermore, the city council has requested publication of the guidelines for affordable rental housing. It may not even be the case that a Government subvention would be needed. The council has an agreement with an approved housing body. What are the Minister's concerns about the revised deal, which is a better deal for the people of Dublin and prospective residents of O'Devaney Gardens?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I welcomed the decision by the elected members of Dublin City Council on 4 November to support the resolution for the redevelopment of the O'Devaney Gardens site in Dublin 7. The council voted by a margin of 39 to 18 for a development agreement which will deliver 768 much needed new homes in this city centre location. This includes a tenure mix which is structured to ensure community sustainability and comprises 50% private housing, 30% social housing and 20% affordable housing. This agreement followed on a previous council decision in 2017, which saw Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Fine Gael and the Green Party all support the tenure mix proposed.
My Department has worked consistently with the council in support of its efforts to advance its proposals for this site. This includes making over €10 million in serviced sites funding available, which will help to provide 165 more affordable homes for purchase at an average cost of 38% below open market rates. My Department will also fully fund 247 social homes on the site, including 56 units that are under construction. I am aware that a group of councillors, representing Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the Social Democrats and the Green Party, publicly stated on 4 November that agreement had been secured to purchase 30% of the total units at O'Devaney Gardens from the developer. It was disappointing that these councillors decided to make such an announcement without any prior engagement with me, particularly since an offer I had made to meet a delegation of councillors was not taken up prior to their announcement. As I understand it - this is an important matter so the Deputy should listen to the reply-----
-----this proposed side agreement has no legal standing. There is no legal or financial documentation. The details remain obscure, including on the potential role of an unspecified approved housing body. Crucially, these councillors have not identified the significant capital funding required to purchase these homes, which I believe would be acquired at full market price. No request has been made to the Department for any funding. The councillors declare the homes would be for affordable rental housing but the repayment requirements on any capital loan would likely mean rents at, or very close to, market rates.
Overall, I am pleased this important project has received formal approval by councillors that will allow it to proceed to the next phase. However, given the level of support for this project and the number of false starts, it is regrettable that some councillors have introduced distractions which have the potential to delay or even compromise this critical stage in the development process.
We are providing almost €100 million for O'Devaney Gardens between social housing and affordable housing. We had an agreement with councillors, including Fianna Fáil councillors, in 2017 as to how the mix for this site should proceed. Two years later, regrettably, we have seen a delay in the decision on the disposal of land because again, Fianna Fáil councillors leading the Dublin agreement group almost collapsed this deal because of a change of heart at the last minute. A month later, without any engagement with the Department, we secured the disposal of land, which is welcome. I am worried, however, about the manner in which that disposal took place insofar as what was said by the lord mayor and supporting councillors on a new agreement. There is no new deal here, no funding for a deal, no approved housing body involved and no legal documentation securing any new agreement for the site. We have the original proposal, which is a good proposal that Fianna Fáil originally supported. Almost €100 million will go into O'Devaney Gardens and I do not want to see the project delayed. I want it to progress and it will progress, provided the councillors act responsibly and do not allow any further delays in the progression of this important site, which will provide so many much needed homes. People have been waiting a long time for this site to be developed. It had difficulties for a host of reasons. We found a pathway forward in 2017 and my Department committed to that, as did I. We have committed the funding to that as well and it must now proceed without any further delays from the city councillors.
He has been at photo calls left, right and centre at O'Devaney Gardens. His predecessor, the Tánaiste, did likewise. We genuinely want to see this project move forward. I am asking the Minister to look at the affordable element of the original deal from 2017, for which he advocated. While he may question whether the new deal is an agreement or a revision, the amended agreement was presented to the local authority and the law agent in the city council approved and oversaw it. When I see a cap of €310,000 for affordable purchase and affordable units priced at €240,000, it is a damn sight better than the original proposal. The Minister and I can argue the toss on that all night about whether it is better to have 80% public housing - a mix of public, affordable purchase and affordable rental housing - and only 20% private housing or a 50:50 split between public and private, as provided for in the original deal from 2017. The Minister has raised some concerns about the deal. Is he open to meeting the elected members of the city council on the issue? He should not forget that his Fine Gael Party colleagues on Dublin City Council supported the affordable rental aspect of the revised deal. They want to see affordable rental. Is the Minister willing to help to move this forward? I genuinely do not want another false dawn or delay and I am certain the Minister does not either. The problem is we have a 2017 arrangement that has been revised, irrespective of whether the Minister likes it, and it seems from his response that he does not want to hear about a revision and is putting his head in the sand. Will he meet the city council to try to move this forward?
I thank the Deputy for his reply. We need to move forward but let us do so honestly without misleading the public about agreements that have not been reached.
The Deputy mentioned an amended agreement but there is no new agreement or documentation. Rather, there is an offer from the developer to sell houses to the local authority at market prices. What a brilliant offer for the developer, for whom we will completely de-risk 80% of the site. The houses are at very near the market price. Unless the local authority councillors have the figures, given that I have not yet seen them, affordable rents cannot be made to work if the houses are bought at those prices. That cannot be the basis for cost rental or affordable rental. That is why the other schemes are in train.
The Deputy commented on the price of the houses. The majority of the houses will be sold for approximately €300,000. A couple starting their careers as a teacher and a nurse, earning €55,000 together, could afford to buy a house at that price. That is what we mean when we talk about affordability. It will happen on the site. The O'Devaney Gardens project will proceed and the land disposal has been agreed on the basis of the 2017 tenure mix. That is what people voted for on the night and it was made clear to them on the night by the housing officer of the local authority. They did not vote for the new agreement. The land disposal was agreed on the basis of the original agreement in place since 2017 and it is now in the hands of the executive, with which I will work to progress the site and to ensure that the funding will be provided. We as a Department have committed to almost €100 million for the site alone to provide social and affordable housing.
As for meeting the councillors, I have no problem meeting a delegation, but first I want to see all the documentation that the new agreement is purported to include, because I do not believe that it exists. I do not believe that a financial document, a legal document, financial backing or an approved housing body is in place, and even if all those aspects were in place, I do not believe that affordable rents could be delivered if the homes were to be bought at those market prices. The councillors need to open their eyes. They believe they have got a better deal but they have not got a deal. They have agreed to the 2017 agreement but, unfortunately, to be able to do that, they had to pretend something new was happening. We are fully committed to O'Devaney Gardens but we are committed to completing the project honestly, without misleading the public as to what is happening.