Thursday, 7 May 2020
Covid-19 (Housing, Planning and Local Government): Statements
We are going to have a statement from the Minister followed by statements from parties and groups. The Minister has ten minutes for his opening statement. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have 15 minutes each for their statements and any questions and answers. The other groups have ten minutes for their statements and-or questions and answers. It has been a phenomenon today that some people have taken all the time asking the questions and then are a bit perturbed that they do not get any answers.
I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss with colleagues today the many issues that fall under my Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I recognise that many people might want to focus on the issue of housing in particular because it is so important but I would like to speak, if I have the time, to issues that have happened around the planning area, local government, Irish Water, our fire and emergency services and Met Éireann as well. By way of background in respect of what has been happening in housing and homeless services, I had my first engagement with members of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, DRHE, on 25 February, when they raised the issue of Covid-19 and what was then feared, that a crisis might come to the country, and the work they had been doing in preparation for such a potential crisis. I refer to the work they had been doing themselves with the local authorities but also with the NGOs. I had a further meeting in Grangegorman with the Taoiseach and with staff from the Department of Health, Safetynet and others. We learned that as early as January, people in the health sector were working around what potential challenges we might face, should we experience the kind of crisis we have now experienced. Because of their great efforts and foresight early on, a significant amount of work has been done to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens, those who are homeless, in emergency or sleeping rough, to keep them safe in the crisis we have been experiencing. I really want to thank them for those efforts. On 4 March, the HSE published its guidance on homeless and vulnerable people. We provided that to local authorities and it was updated again on 14 March and on 16 April. On 6 March, we communicated to the local authorities and NGOs the checklist of actions that had been drawn up by the National Public Health Emergency Team, actions that service providers needed to take to keep people safe in this crisis.
Through this work, we have seen some fantastic things being done by people working on the front lines. To reflect on that briefly, I refer to two of the main actions that have been so important. One is the dedicated health response that has been put in place for people who are in emergency accommodation. Not every person who is in emergency accommodation is just having a crisis in terms of a home for themselves, a roof over their heads. Some issues are more complicated but the health supports that have been put in place have been absolutely phenomenal. That is just one action that really stands out and that must continue into the future. The second action was moving very quickly to secure additional accommodation that became available when it did. As a result of that, more than 1,000 new spaces were secured in Dublin, more than 400 outside of Dublin and there is more capacity above and beyond that. For every person who needs to self-isolate on their own, we can provide that through the service providers. We can also allow for social distancing. We were able to decongregate our five largest family hubs because of these new apartments, in many instances, that we were able to secure. We were able to decongregate the five largest adult individual hostels as well because of the additional accommodation that was secured. The NGOs have been working together, as they always do, in a co-operative fashion. One NGO in particular has taken the lead in terms of looking after people who may have the virus or have been confirmed with it. As a result of that pooling together of resources, other community settings have been allowed to remain safe in this crisis. They have even trained up their own health staff to be able to take tests, while there is now a dedicated and targeted programme under way for people in emergency accommodation.
My latest round of engagement with the main NGOs and the DRHE was yesterday, just to get an update on what further actions may be required over the coming weeks. As we move through the phasing plan that we have, in the region of an additional €20 million has been spent in this crisis period for the different supports that have been put in place. On Travellers and members of the Travelling community, the Minister of State, Deputy English, has led in this regard. On 18 March, communication was made with all local authorities detailing actions that had to be taken and the funding that would be available for people who are in the Travelling community. An additional €1.2 million in funding was approved for 16 programmes across 15 local authority areas. This has allowed for an improvement in services, opening up new bays and providing new homes for people to self-isolate or socially distance where that is necessary. The Minister of State, Deputy English, continues to have regular engagement with the local authorities and will engage again with the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, if not later this week, then next week.
Overall, more than 2,700 new homes have been secured through the housing assistance payment since 2 March. More than 400 of those homes went to families who were homeless, which is an incredible amount of work despite the crisis that we have.
The number of people in emergency accommodation is slightly down, which is to be welcomed. Although we did not want it to happen, following health advice construction had to stop and sites closed. However, working with the Housing Agency, we identified 39 sites, on which roughly 1,000 homes for social housing were being built, that were able to reopen because the developments were almost complete. These will be new homes for people who are either in emergency accommodation or coming off the housing list. This very important work is being done and I am glad it has been able to progress, despite most sites having to close.
On housing generally, today's figures from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, are very welcome. Almost 5,000 new homes were built in the first quarter of this year, although that was before we had to close down construction sites. We have been engaging for some time with the Irish Home Builders Association, IHBA. I had a conference call meeting with the IHBA some time ago. It was preparing work on how we could open up housebuilding sites in a responsible way and safely for the people working on them. That became part of a larger piece of work on construction more generally. Using that framework and guidance, we hope that, from 18 May, we will be able to open up construction sites in a safe way because it is crucial that we begin to build new homes.
In the rental sector we had to move quickly to freeze rents for three months and to freeze notices to quit. This decision came in to force on 27 March following legislation we passed in this House. These two freezes expire on 27 June but they can be extended by ministerial order if necessary. Rents, like house prices, were falling before this crisis began. It is not yet clear what will happen when we come out of the emergency period. We will keep a very close eye on that in the coming weeks to make sure the right decision is made ahead of 27 June.
The Residential Tenancies Board continues to handle disputes. It has introduced new ways of doing this and we had very good engagement with the board on how it would do that.
Rent supplement is in place alongside the Covid-19 pandemic payment to help people who face difficulties paying rent. There are huge numbers of people who have difficulties paying rent. I have asked the ESRI to do a report on rent arrears to try to figure out over this period what kind of situation is building up for individuals who might be falling into rent arrears and how it might impact on them and on their landlords. That work by the ESRI will guide further decisions that may need to be made in this area.
We hope that estate agents will be able to open up their operations from 9 June and work is being done on that area.
On mortgages, the banks have made their decisions and the Government made its decision on the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, which I communicated in March. The latter applied for a three-month period which can be extended if necessary. It is important to note that Rebuilding Ireland home loan borrowers are not being charged interest over that period and there is no additional cost to those borrowers. Applications are still being processed for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan and a significant amount of money is still available. I believe more than €500 million is still available for low-cost mortgages for people who need them. We encourage people to continue to apply for those mortgages.
It is essential to keep the planning process open. Having planning applications processed and approved and having people getting on site for building, not just for housing but across the board, will be an integral part of the recovery. To protect the integrity of decision making I had to make a decision to extend by six weeks the public participation process in planning. I will take a third order to the Cabinet tomorrow to extend that process again until 23 May. From that point on, the system will be back to as it was, but with some improvements as we are trying to expedite the roll-out of e-planning to make things much easier for people engaged in the planning process. Building projects with planning permission for 40,000 homes have not yet gone on site. Hopefully they can get on site when the phasing begins on 18 May. The planning authorities received 2,000 planning applications in April. People are, therefore, still active in this area and it is important that activity continues given the role it will play in the recovery.
The local authorities have often been the front line in the community response to crises, especially in the type of crisis we face now. We have seen this in the many severe weather events we had previously and we see it again now in the community call and community fora that have been established. Huge work is being done in this regard. Between 31 March and 4 May, the 31 local authority community fora received more than 29,000 calls. The national helpline set up by ALONE has received more than 17,000 calls since the beginning of March. These community bodies are very important in protecting and looking after people in their communities during this crisis. Their response has been fantastic and I thank them.
I will address funding in the few seconds I have left.
We have parked rates for businesses, a decision we made in March. That is very important because small businesses up and down every road, village and city had to close. We have since made the decision, announced last Saturday, that for a three-month period from 29 March, rates for businesses that had to close will be waived. Some €260 million has been secured for local authorities to fund that gap, so they will not be without that rates money for that period. Pubs, which closed a little earlier, and some childcare facilities will not be pursued for rates, and we now also have the restart fund being led by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, which will act as either a rates waiver or a rates rebate into the future. If, for example, a business decided to go for the waiver option, that is 15 months of no rates bills that it will face. I know that rates for some businesses are only a small part of the costs of doing business but it is an important way we can help them get back on their feet and adapt to the new reality.
Some €500 million in funding has so far been secured for local authorities to help them fill that gap for businesses.
I wish to share time with my colleagues, Deputies James Browne, Niall Collins and Éamon Ó Cuív.
I thank the Minister for his update. I welcome the move with regard to commercial rates. It is crucial, and while we may have to do more in that regard, it gives a degree of certainty. They are not insignificant sums.
On mortgages, the Minister mentioned what the Department has done with regard to the Rebuilding Ireland home loan. It is right and welcome that we are not charging interest for the mortgage holiday period of three months, although it is likely we may have to extend that to six months. I say to the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, particularly the Minister for Finance, that there remain a few large issues with our own banks and the mortgage holiday or mortgage break that already exists. One issue is the charging of interest, which is quite substantial for that period, while the non-bank lenders have not been dealt with as they should. Pepper and others will only give notification of acceptance of a mortgage break over the phone; nothing is given in writing. Some of the lenders, therefore, are not playing ball.
I agree with the Minister in respect of one issue relating to homelessness, that is, some of the interagency work that has been done between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the HSE, as well as section 39 organisations and people who have been reassigned from drugs task forces and other task forces across the country. I know that in Fingal incredible work has been done. When the crisis started, the homeless community was one of the groups of people most at risk from the potential spread of Covid-19. The response has been a success because of the unbelievable work done at some of the cocooning facilities that are now in place. I refer to the work done by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, Dublin City Council and other local authorities.
We should never return to dormitory-style emergency accommodation. The issue was debated in the general election, which was a long time ago now, but the wraparound services that our homeless community is receiving now because the HSE, section 39 organisations and the Department are working together means that the type of recovery, particularly for people with chaotic lifestyles and addiction, has been incredible, despite the country being in one of the worst crises we have ever witnessed. There have, ironically, been some health benefits for many such people because of the way in which they are being looked after, and we need to take that from this crisis. Is there any further planning to bed in these types of arrangements into the future? Obviously, what we want is the 9,700-odd people who are homeless to secure permanent accommodation but in the short term, at least they have emergency accommodation.
The Minister mentioned that 2,700 homes have been secured through HAP. Were many homes purchased for homeless families by local authorities in that period? That is another discussion which we will get to.
On own-room accommodation for the homeless, what additional funding has been given since the start of the crisis towards homelessness services?
On the recovery that will come down the track, the Minister mentioned that 5,000 homes were completed in the first quarter. According to some of the projections I have seen, and as I have heard from talking to stakeholders, we could be looking at as few as 18,000 homes having been built by the end of this year, depending on how the pandemic develops. We will still, therefore, have a major supply issue for both public and private housing. Has there been any contact at EU level to revise and change fiscal rules to ensure that each state will have the capacity to invest directly in housing as part of a stimulus package?
The EU needs to look at this because the State's recovery, particularly in housing, where this sector was already under pressure, is being exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. How we respond to-----
The work of the inter-agency group that I set up in September 2017 was meant to be the vehicle to tie all of the different Departments together, but bureaucratic walls unfortunately maintained regardless of that. They came down very quickly in the crisis and that is why the work has been so successful. It is a model that must continue into the future. I know the Deputy is planning on visiting the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. I welcome that and the Deputy will have a good engagement there. The big message coming back from the NGOs on not returning to dormitory-style accommodation is that the outcomes for people in these new types of accommodation are so much better. It is more stable, people are coming into programmes and they are happier and healthier. It is the way forward so a piece of work is being done around that at the moment and in relation to cost. We still have additional accommodation if we need it in case there is a surge or a second wave in society more generally or in case we find a cluster in one of our areas of accommodation so that we can then reaccommodate people. That will be possible.
On the funding, I am informed that €20 million of additional crisis funding was made available to do all of the things we have had to do.
On money to be borrowed, an agreement was reached between the Housing Finance Agency and the European Investment Bank for an additional €200 million in December. There was meant to be a signing agreement but it clashed with the general election so that did not happen, but that money is secure and in place, so there is plenty of funding available from Europe and from other sources to put into housing. One of the challenges we will face, however, as we open up new sites, is social distancing on sites and how that might affect the capacity that can be delivered in the next six months.
I am glad of this opportunity to speak on the issues of housing and local government and I want to start by commending the staff of Wexford County Council on the phenomenal work they have been doing in the community in recent weeks. I will try to keep my contribution to two questions. We had a housing crisis before Covid-19 came along. That housing crisis is still there and it will be there after the Covid-19 crisis. What steps will the Minister be taking to ensure that housing is prioritised when the lockdown is being wound down and, more importantly, how will social, affordable and private housing be prioritised in the recovery phase?
In any unwinding of the lockdown that involves the housing sector, what steps will be put in place to ensure that as construction workers are going back to work, they are protected and that the proper safety measures will be put in place? Who will be in charge of ensuring those safety measures are put in place? Will it be the Health and Safety Authority? Will it be the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI?
A number of supermarkets and petrol stations are effectively turning themselves into garden centres and hardware stores. I am not knocking their ingenuity in that respect, but it is somewhat galling for some garden centres and hardware stores to understand how it is okay to purchase large amounts of garden centre goods inside of a supermarket but garden centres that are wide open and perhaps safe to go into are not allowed to reopen. Gardening is very good for people's mental health. Any reopening has to be in accordance with health and safety measures, but there is an issue there and I wonder if the Minister could address that point.
I want to pass four remarks to the Minister that he might respond to either now or in time. I echo what previous speakers have said about small builders, contractors and subcontractors in particular throughout the country and the people who require their services. It is imperative that they get back to work. We know they are not working. Some of them are doing essential work with the HSE in the local authorities but many of them in Limerick have been on to me and they are so anxious to get back to work. It is really important that they get back to work as soon as possible or indeed earlier than has been stated on the roadmap.
Has the Minister considered reviewing the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Construction) Regulations 2013? These provide regulations for stairwells, common areas, halls, lift areas and communal rooms in high-density, high-rise buildings.
Given the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the possibility of future pandemics, do we need to consider providing for more of these common areas in the high density residential building standards?
It is a massive challenge for everybody, including the local authorities, to try to build more housing more speedily and to deliver units to the thousands of people on the waiting lists. In that regard, has the Minister seriously considered a standardised design for housing from the Department and across the local authorities, or a suite of standardised designs based on the site size and the potential number of units? Part of the problem, as was pointed out to me and we see it when we are trying to help projects get over the line, is that the architectural work has to be outsourced and there is a tendering requirement. It slows down the process and adds greatly to its cost. When there was huge housing demand in this country previously, when the Lemass and other Governments had to build housing, there was a model of standardised design and it helped deliver housing more quickly. We should consider that.
I wish to make the Minister aware of a new departure or innovation in Limerick City and County Council. Great credit is due to the housing development officer for introducing a new process for streamlining the return of void and vacant properties into use. The key is that she has done so in full compliance with both procurement and standard guidelines and regulations, so much so that in a period of 12 weeks 60 voids have been returned to use and are ready to receive tenants. That is probably a world record in terms of how local authorities have been operating over the years in this country. The poor return of voids and vacant properties is a sad indictment of local authorities. The new model in Limerick should be examined. Great credit is due to the staff for this innovation. It should be considered by the Department and other local authorities in the country for getting the voids back into use.
I might need the time to reply to the questions from the Deputies. As we come out of the lockdown period we can look through the five phases and the important dates where housing is concerned. The first is 18 May when we hope to see the construction sites opening again. The Deputy is correct that it must happen in a safe way. The new standard for the operation of house building sites has been a work in progress for a number of weeks. It is being led from the Department of the Taoiseach since it became part of the larger construction process. Initially it was going to just be house building sites but there is a bigger thing planned. I am sure the Health and Safety Authority has been involved in that, as have others, because it is very important that workers feel safe going back to work to do the type of work we need them to do.
We hope that in the phasing period from 9 June we can look at estate agents and letting agents being back to work more fully. In terms of social housing, we were able to get back on site under the emergency measures. I made the argument that this was emergency work. These are houses that were almost complete. It is approximately 1,000 homes that with a few weeks work would be able to take people out of overcrowded homes, off the housing list and out of emergency accommodation. Those houses are being completed as we speak.
The rent freeze and the notice to quit freeze will end on 27 June. A decision has to be made in advance of that on whether they are to be extended. The Deputy referred to garden centres. We want allotments to be back open as well on 18 May. Important work is happening in that regard so people can go outdoors to look after the vegetable patch and everything else they do in their allotments.
Deputy Niall Collins spoke about local authority building and standard designs. Standard designs, as had occurred in the past, were proposed but I did not want them to be too standard. We must be mindful of the receiving environment where we are building homes-----
Yes. We also do not want any stigmas being associated with certain types of housing. We have standard designs for the internal layout of homes which can be taken off the shelf by local authorities and we have a draft document that was circulated before the end of last year on the external layout, which would be how many sites one might be able to get in a hectare, how much green space would be required and other types of facilities. The idea is to have it off the shelf. A new housing delivery office is being established in the County and City Management Association, CCMA, which will manage that for local authorities. They do not have to reinvent the wheel or engage professional services every time. They can look at a site, speak to the housing delivery office, figure out what would work for them and move matters forward much more quickly as a result.
I believe I know the person the Deputy is talking about in respect of the voids programme. If it is the same person, she made a presentation, at my request, at one of the housing summits to the other local authorities on the steps she took around procurement, in a quite creative way, so she could do things more quickly when it came to housing delivery in the Deputy’s local authority area. That information was shared with other local authorities.
I have three questions. With regard to rural one-off houses, will the Department reverse its view on social housing - local authority houses - on sites that people have available for family members and in respect of which the Department has been disapproving for so long, particularly in view of the fact that it is quite recognisable that people are less vulnerable to disease in more dispersed communities?
Second, how are we going to make up lost time in progressing planning and so on for the rest of the local authority houses that are needed urgently? In other words, what is the Minister’s expectation for the output of promised social housing for 2020 by comparison with his expectation at the beginning of the year?
Third, has the Minister had any discussions with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection on reinstituting the mortgage interest scheme that used to be run by the Department whereby, if a person could not pay mortgage interest because of unemployment, it was paid for him or her for the period of unemployment. To be quite honest, I am fed up with relying on banks' goodwill. I do not believe in it. In 2014, the Government abolished mortgage interest supplement. Bring it back.
I will take five minutes and give the Minister five minutes in which to respond, if that is acceptable. I will then take a further minute, and then my colleague Deputy Guirke will take his four minutes. I will proceed straight to the questions.
Many renters and landlords were hoping the Minister would have announced the extension of the ban on evictions, notices to quit and rent increases. I appreciate these are important decisions, but given the 100-day exit plan the Government has announced and the fact that many affected people in the private rental sector will not be able to return to work until the end of the period, will the Minister at least tell us when he is going to make the decision so people will know when to expect the news?
I welcome the fact that the Minister commissioned ESRI research on the rent arrears debt burden. He should be under no doubt that it is going to be significant. Will he commit to publishing the report and engaging with sectors and Opposition Deputies, if he is still in office, on possible solutions to deal with that? Many of us have constructive suggestions.
With respect to construction, we are all very concerned about the impact on the social housing output targets for 2020 in terms of both the break in construction and the slow rate of construction, obviously because of the important public health and safety measures. Will the Minister tell us whether he is considering ways to try to meet the targets other than through construction? For example, will he reconsider the limitation on the acquisition of new properties by local authorities to try to fill what will inevitably be a gap in the output? Will he also consider whether some private sector sites that may no longer become viable because of the loss of future sales might be acquired as turnkeys at existing use value by the Department and the local authority to meet the shortfall?
On homelessness, I acknowledge the very substantial work of the Minister’s departmental officials, Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, the local authorities and the homelessness services on the ground, but there are people falling between the cracks. There is a particular problem in local authorities where new presentations are either not being taken or are being delayed. Small numbers of people are being forced to sleep rough, in some cases for a week or two. That is a real problem. I have raised it with the DRHE and the Minister's own staff, but it still has not been fully resolved. It needs to be addressed.
I am also concerned about the additional pressure on some of Dublin’s day services that have remained open because of the closure of others. A small amount of additional funding needs to be provided to those day services that are still open to ensure they are meeting the needs of those availing of them. Some of the facilities at some of the new private sector accommodation centres do not meet the standards the Minister outlined today. I would like him to review that.
With respect to local government, I welcome the €260 million. That is very important. Will the Minister commit to providing further funding if needed? Will he speak to the very significant drop in funding from non-rates-related revenue sources, such as car parking rents and other charges, because it represents a very big loss of income to many local authorities and they are already talking to their members about cutting services if that gap is not filled.
I thank the Deputy for those questions. I will work back through them. Regarding rates and the waiver of same, further funding will be required because some businesses will not be able to reopen after the three-month period because of the plans we have put in place, so they will continue to be able to avail of the waiver. In advance of that, an additional amount of money will have to be secured for local authorities.
I accept that revenue streams from other sources are down, but by committing to 100% of their rates payments local authorities are getting more than they would have had they gone to collect the rates themselves, because they never collect 100% of their rates. Some local authorities, unfortunately, are very bad at collecting rates. We are overcompensating them and that should help fill any gap that might arise. If a local authority is telling Members who are in the Chamber that they do not have the funding for a service, could they please let me know directly because I want to know what it is and how much it is because that should not arise? We have done very detailed work in the Department, which has very detailed information as to how much revenue comes in in rates, car parking charges and everything else and how it has been affected in this crisis. I ask Deputies for their assistance in that regard if they encounter that kind of excuse from a local authority.
Regarding the private facilities, if Deputy Ó Broin has the name of those facilities I would like to look into the matter myself. At the moment we are trying to compile proper intelligence on how many units of accommodation we need and how many homes we need for temporary accommodation rather than for permanent homes, in terms of the new standards or the new norm that has been established in the current pandemic crisis.
If money is needed to address day service pressures, that is not an obstacle. I made such a commitment to NGOs when I spoke to them during one of our engagements three or four weeks ago. We talk about the amount of money that is being spent but the outcome we get in terms of keeping people safe and healthy in this crisis is worth the money, which really pales in comparison with some of the bigger ticket items that we have to pay for, and we can make that money available from within my Department.
We are looking at the private sector sites as turnkeys. In one way it is to make sure that we meet our social housing targets if there is going to be a difficulty there, but also in another way it is to help people get back on site and building and to give some sort of security for the builders. That is being looked at.
Regarding acquisitions and doing more, very shortly we will publish the 2019 social housing delivery figures. We will give all of the breakdowns. We have not yet done the targets for 2020. The local authorities know their targets for 2020 and 2021, but because of what has been happening with Covid-19 we have not been able to give a detailed breakdown to each local authority. We will do that, and as we do it we will figure out what we might need in terms of more acquisitions depending on what is happening on social housing sites. I reiterate that almost 1,000 social housing homes are currently being finished across almost 40 sites around the country.
We have published every previous piece of research the Department has carried out with the ESRI, so I do not foresee that we would not publish this one. I think Deputy Ó Broin said I might not be in office, so it may not be my call, but I will try to convince whoever is Minister, if I am not, to publish the report because we have published the previous reports.
On extending the ban beyond 27 June, that is still six or seven weeks away. We want to make sure that we make the right call and we will do it based on what is happening with the emergency and whether we are moving forward through the phases as we hope we will – it is to be hoped there will be no regression -and what else might be happening in the wider sector. We will need some evidence before we make that decision. I did make comments recently to the effect that I foresaw it being extended, but I need to get more information before I can make such a recommendation to the Cabinet.
I thank the Minister for his answers to which I will respond. He missed two questions, one of which is really important. We have a situation in Dublin where single men in particular are seeking to present as homeless. They are not able to access assessments in a timely manner and they are not able to access emergency accommodation and, therefore, they are being forced to sleep rough for periods of time. Some of these people may not have presented to homeless services before. Some of them may have come from other local authorities but the reality is they are now here in Dublin, and therefore sending them back to a local authority would be in breach of the HSE's own public safety advice. I urge the Minister to sit down with his officials and the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to resolve the problem. We are not talking about large numbers but I am concerned at the very fact that people are being denied access to emergency accommodation where there is an extra volume of it. Staff in the Department and in the Dublin Region Homeless Executive have the names and dates of birth of the individuals concerned because I forwarded the information to them.
With respect to the research by the ESRI, the second part of the question was, if the Minister is still in office, and he may well be, whether he will commit to engaging with the sectors and with Opposition politicians on the way to dealing with this issue? I have a real fear that we are going to see a very significant rent arrears debt burden. We can see from the ESRI data already that young people and people in those sectors of the economy that have a tendency to be renters are disproportionately affected by the loss of employment. Rent supplement is available.
However, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection is not doing enough to promote that payment. There have been 3,000 extra claimants in the last four or five weeks. That surprises me as I thought it would have been larger. I suspect we will have a real burden and that is not only bad for the individual renters but also the landlords and the rental sector. We do not want a situation where when the restrictions are lifted on notices to quit and evictions that we have a significant increase in landlords seeking to exit because they have lost money and in tenants being issued with notices to quit. Some rent arrears debt-burden resolution process will need to be put in place. Again, some of us have done some work on this.
The Minister will have about a minute to reply before my colleague comes in for his four minutes. I am really concerned about local authorities. Yesterday, Cork managers told their elected members that they already have a €9 million shortfall from non-commercial rates. I am encouraged by some of what the Minister says but I suspect there will be some difficulties there. Will the Minister commit, in as far as he can make it, that no local authority will be left with less money this year than they would have had otherwise, so there are no losses to staff or vital frontline services?
The Deputy is very kind. There will be a rent arrears problem in the State. It is not yet clear how big it is which is why the ESRI is doing this work. I have had a number of engagements with both the tenant representative organisations and the landlord representative organisations. It is in both sides' interests that we can manage this problem when it arises, we just need to know the scale and see how best it can be done. Some of those who were laid off first in the crisis will not be able to recover any rent arrears that they will have built up over the period and we do not want to push a problem of a notice to quit, or something else, further down the line, as that will not help them get on their feet.
On new people presenting and not being able to access emergency accommodation, there is an issue around some local authorities trying to use the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive as the solution for services which they have the funding and the people to deliver. It is an area I am generally reluctant to step into but if it means that people are not getting into emergency accommodation, and I do not know if that is the case but I accept the Deputy's bona fides, that should not happen and I will address it as soon as I leave the Chamber.
I have four minutes and will try to leave a minute for the Minister to answer two questions. It is my first opportunity to speak in the Dáil and I very much welcome it. I thank all the people in Meath West including in north-west Meath who voted for me. I thank all the staff in the Houses of the Oireachtas who have been so nice and helpful to us since we came in here.
Housing was the biggest issue before and during the general election and it will remain a huge issue after Covid-19. In Meath West we see the full range of issues relating to housing. There are thousands of individuals and families on social housing waiting lists and there has been little or no progress. At the current rate, it would take the council 50 years to clear the list. Waiting lists for one-bedroom properties are well in excess of ten years. There is a huge shortage of houses to rent or to buy. Rental properties are either unavailable or unaffordable. Rents increased by 15% last year in County Meath and by 10% in Westmeath before the Minister agreed to a rent freeze. Meath and Westmeath have been chronically underfunded by the Minister's Department and by central Government generally. Meath is the worst funded county in Ireland by head of population, it is €72 million below the national average annually. Local councils are suffering greatly as a result of Covid-19, with their incomes, rates and grants severely impacted. I would like the Minister and the Government to ensure that vital services provided by the local authorities, including road maintenance and repair, environmental services and house building programmes, do not suffer.
Our major urban centres such as Johnstown, Navan, Enfield and Trim, still suffer as a result of bad Celtic tiger planning. Whole communities, tens of thousands of people, are denied basic facilities, parks, playgrounds and community centres. These communities should not be left at the bottom of the pile. Thousands remain homeless even during the Covid-19 pandemic, with 9,907 people in March. In my first Dáil speech, I send each one of those homeless people my best wishes. I thank the people who volunteer to help them, such as the people in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Athboy People who Share Care Group and other charities.
I want to conclude with two specific questions. Public housing developments are happening across Meath and Westmeath. Will the Minister guarantee they will be completed? There are also Part V properties due from private developments. What is the Minister doing to ensure these will be still delivered? Will the Minister outline what instruction he has given councils on Rebuilding Ireland home loans, especially as regards applicants in receipt of Covid-19 unemployment payments?
I congratulate Deputy Guirke on his maiden speech. Time was when a Deputy might go for a few pints after a maiden speech, but unfortunately it will not happen, not today. Hopefully in the future the Deputy will get that opportunity.
The social housing waiting lists have been falling. They have fallen to below 70,000 from above 90,000 over the course of Rebuilding Ireland. However, we have farther to go. The rental situation will change after we come out of this emergency. This is because of the amount of new accommodation that has come onto the market - that will stay - and because of other things that are happening in the sector.
The Deputy asked about planning. Planning is the reason it is taking a little longer to build houses these days. We cannot afford to build houses without building all the other community facilities that have to be put in place as well. We do not want to strand people in homes without communities. That is why we have to get the planning right. That is why it sometimes takes a little longer. Anyway, my commitment is to social housing. That is why people are on sites today in Meath. The sites in Meath are among almost 40 sites that have been sanctioned through the Housing Agency for workers to get back on site to finish those homes. All our Part V commitments are in place, unless the Deputy has heard otherwise. That is one stream. It is an important part of the social housing delivery stream. It is not everything though. Obviously, there are housing bodies and local authorities as well.
We have put in place a three-month break for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan. No interest is being charged during that period so it will not cost people any more to avail of the break. It is available for people who have had any difficulty since Covid-19 emerged in the public discourse. It is not set back to a particular date. It can be extended again by three months if necessary.
It is good to be a backbencher again in the Dáil, although the Seanad was not such a bad place for asking questions.
I want to ask about local authority housing developments under the Rebuilding Ireland programme. Are they all back up-and-running throughout the country? During the past ten or 15 years the local authorities were buying houses on the open market and getting developers to build houses for them. Is there a change in policy now whereby the local authorities are getting involved in building local authority housing directly?
What are the Minister's views on the Covid-19 crisis? Will it have an effect on house prices throughout the State?
I thank the Deputy for those questions. Deputy Feighan is welcome back to the Dáil Chamber. I am sure he does not miss the Seanad - I will withdraw that remark in case it is misinterpreted.
Deputy Feighan asked about local authority housing. Not all home activity is on site at the moment. At the end of the year some 6,500 houses were active on sites throughout the country. We have approximately 1,000 now under construction. These opened up just a couple of weeks ago and are near completion. That is only a proportion. We opted for those sites that, through a little work, could get completed and those we could get tenanted quickly. We hope from 18 May to be able to get the other sites back up-and-running as long as we can do so in a safe way.
Acquisitions are still proceeding. That is an important part of the programme. In many parts of the country the local authority might be able to buy a house for social housing that might not otherwise have been bought. It might have been derelict or unoccupied. It is one of the ways in which we try to use every stream available to increase the basic stock of social housing in this time of crisis.
The majority of social housing we have comes from new builds. Let us consider the breakdown of who is providing new builds. Local authorities do more than housing bodies, although they do a good deal as well and that is important to note. They do far more than the housing coming in under Part V.
House prices were falling. There was double digit growth when I took over as Minister. Prices were then falling towards the end of last year, dramatically enough in some parts of Dublin where they had been rather high. It is not yet clear what the impact will be on the housing market. We are seeing different things at the moment. One thing that might impact on the market is the extent to which we think we can get sites open. This may enable us to continue on the positive track we are on in terms of the increased delivery we are seeing every quarter of every year. There are big jumps in the number of new homes being built from what was a low base only a short number of years ago. We still need a little more information and data before we can start to make informed guesses about where house prices might go.
The CSO compiles the official figures, and they act as a guide to what might happen in the future.
Will the Minister give the House an update on the Government proposals on any assistance that might be available or is being considered for commercial tenants with their rents? I have noticed that many commercial tenants are very fearful, especially of the international landlords, who do not seem to be as forgiving as the local landlords. They seem to have a bottom line, which does not take into consideration the Covid-19 crisis, and for the commercial tenants I know, that could have a huge impact. We have seen the big story of Bewley's having to close its doors this week for that reason. I am absolutely certain this is happening across the country to smaller businesses. A lot of local chambers of commerce and businesses are coming to me on the issue. I addressed it with the Minister for Finance a few weeks ago and he was hoping to meet some of these international landlords. What exactly can we do? We discuss evictions and we are talking about a lot of businesses trying to get over Covid-19. They are seriously concerned that these international landlords will not listen and will not do anything about their plight.
I agree with the Deputy. I have a real fear as to what might be happening or what will happen in the commercial leasing sector as we continue in this emergency period. Unfortunately, we are not able to go out and live the lives we used to live, and that might have an impact on businesses in their ability to stay afloat during this emergency period or even get back on their feet once the initial emergency period has lifted. Commercial leases, as the Deputy will know, come under the remit of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation. I have discussed this matter with her and I know she is paying close attention to it. We are trying to do everything we can on the Government side to help small businesses on our main streets survive through this emergency period and get back open and back up on their feet. The rates waiver I mentioned and the restart fund, which I know the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will have an opportunity to address next week, are a part of that. Rents, however, are also a big part of it, and it is very disappointing to see some businesses we know very well having to close because they have not been able to come to such agreements with their landlords. This is a time when people are meant to be pulling together. Obviously, a successful landlord needs good tenants. It is the same in the residential sector as it is in the commercial sector. It should be possible to reach agreements. We are doing everything we can with different funding streams for small businesses. The rates part falls under my Department's remit. I think the deferment has been well received but we are keeping an eye on it to make sure it will continue as needed and local authorities will not be short any funding as a result.
I wish to raise one last issue, which has been going on for the past ten or 12 years. When I first got involved in the local authority in Roscommon, permission for one-off housing on the bad land in the area was much easier to obtain. In my constituency, which now includes northern Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo and southern Donegal, there is an issue with one-off housing. We have been to Brussels to try to get it resolved. My colleague on the council, Councillor Seán McDermott in north Leitrim, has been to the fore on this matter. The EPA completed a public consultation and considered submissions. Is there any update on the code of practice on one-off wastewater treatment systems? If we want to stabilise the populations of our rural communities, especially given what is happening with Covid-19 now with many people working from home, and if we really want to help these rural communities, we must come up with some sensible solution. We do not want a solution that undermines the groundwaters, but this has gone on for far too long. I suspect that the Department or others have been dragging their heels by coming out with all these public consultations. Now is the time to make a decision. The solutions are out there. The cost of many of them is exorbitant, however, and may be up to €50,000. For anybody building a house next door to his or her parents' house in a rural area where the ground might not be good, it is cost-effective to get in a reasonable one-off system. What are the Minister's views on that?
I thank the Deputy for those follow-up questions. There are opportunities now to open up parts of the country that we feared might have been closed forever.
Those opportunities are not the result of the emergency alone. The national planning framework that we agreed included that sort of spatial planning and getting people back to parts of the country that we feared were, and indeed were, in decline. The broadband plan that we brought forward was very much a part of that, intending to connect every part of the country so that every child could have the same opportunities regardless of where he or she lived. I think that, during the Covid-19 emergency, people are reflecting on some of the choices that they have made. Before the crisis, during the general election campaign, people were talking about quality of life issues and the time it took to get from where they live to where they work. The new focus on remote working has offered another opportunity to look at those things.
We absolutely want to make sure that things around waste water, clean water or planning guidelines do not get in the way of building houses while, at the same time, ensuring that we develop in a responsible way. I know that the Deputy was not implying that we do it irresponsibly and he is right that the guidelines in place are old and date from 2005. They are in a process of being reviewed and renewed at the moment. We hope that process will come to a conclusion shortly and that involves consultation at the EU level. There is also new thinking under way. Without getting into the politics of the general election, ideas were being proposed at that time which might now have a new urgency because of what has happened in this crisis. I welcome that because it may lend a hand to some of the objectives that the Deputy was setting out.
I am grateful to the Minister for this opportunity to ask questions. We are aware that the people are still experiencing a housing crisis that is only being compounded by Covid-19. Last year, the State invested €700 million into the private market through the housing assistance payment, HAP, fuelling the tenancy market to extraordinary rent levels. Under this Government, 10,000 people are homeless even though we are the fifth wealthiest nation in the world per capita. I truly hope those people are in the Minister's sights in the Covid-19 recovery and that the State ceases to be party to the provision of private developer-led housing on public land, at least until we have secured housing for those who are homeless, those living with their parents, those locked out of the market and others living in cars.
We truly have an opportunity to reboot a broken economic system which is profit-driven to create one which is circular, providing sustainable employment in the construction, energy, agriculture and transport sectors and which is centred on the well-being of people and the environment that sustains them.
I have a series of questions that address student accommodation, rent freezes, evictions and direct provision, among others. What measures is the Minister taking to address the issues of students not receiving pro ratarefunds from privately owned purpose built student accommodation? His Department advised that affected students contact the Residential Tenancies Board, but the only advice given by it is to refer back to the students' fixed-term tenancy agreement. The majority of privately owned, purpose built student accommodations are refusing to offer refunds to students, with many places refusing to offer a refund unless the individual can find somebody to replace them, this in the midst of a global pandemic. As a result, students have been left in precarious circumstances due to losing their part-time work to service their commitments.
Will the Minister tell me what is being done by his Department to support the University of Limerick in issuing refunds for on-campus accommodation to its students? It has been well communicated by the university that it is facing an unsustainable deficit that will prevent it from meeting operating costs and issuing pro ratarefunds.
Will the Minister commit to extending both the ban on evictions and the rent freeze for a minimum of three months to cushion the economic blow and ensure the security and safety of the people as the State recovers from Covid-19? Spain has introduced such measures as well as ordering large landlords to cut rents by as much as 50% and to restructure payments over three years to help those impacted by Covid-19.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the plight of the families living in direct provision housing, if it can be called that. Will the Minister illustrate what is being done to alleviate the suffering of families in direct provision?
What measures are being taken to ensure that people living in direct provision will be able to live in accommodation where social distancing, self-isolation and cocooning is possible?
Thousands of homeowners around the country have been paying huge bills, in some cases for years, because of housing defects, particularly in apartments. There was no relief for them from the monthly levies and service charges in the Government's emergency legislation, which has caused great worry and hardship. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will provide some support for those people such as a 90-day freeze from paying levies that renters have been given?
The 18 May date to open construction sites is important and welcome, considering that a massive building and deep retrofitting programme is required to house and facilitate families. It is essential to provide sustainable employment and reduce our CO2 emissions at an annual 7% reduction to meet the Paris Agreement requirements. In the recovery, this State has a huge opportunity to reboot employment through circular economics.
Post Covid-19, will the Minister commit to ending the housing assistance payment, HAP, system and adopt a State-led solution to the housing crisis that does not compete with the private market? The HAP system saw some €700 million paid out last year to rent subsidy. Profit-driven policies see institutional investors constructing build-to-rent schemes and co-living accommodation. That keeps the current generation out of the housing market and creates a transient workforce. Those policies do not serve the people of the State; they only increase profits of banks and developers.
Finally, post Covid-19, will the Minister commit to public land being used exclusively for cost rental and affordable purchase housing developments and not allow any further private development and exploitation of public land?
I thank the Deputy for his contribution and his questions. We have used every mechanism available to us to try to increase the number of new homes being built. That is the reason we spent more money last year than had been spent as a State in any of the previous years, and that includes the boom years when we were building far too many houses. It shows the scale at which delivery is now happening in terms of public housing and the taxpayers' money that is going towards that.
To answer some of the Deputy's specific questions, in regard to student refunds, very early on I raised that issue with the representative of the university sector. I also raised it with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh. The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, is dealing with student-related issues. I have a figure in front of me that indicates that it has dealt with some 59 cases over the emergency period where students who had an issue were able to go to the RTB and have their cases heard by the RTB. It is important that they can do that. Unfortunately, some student agreements are not like the normal agreement that might come under the Residential Tenancies Act. I refer to the traditional rental agreement one might have over a 12-month period and the different aspects that then come in when one acquires Part 4 rights because of the nature of student accommodation. It is only for eight or nine months in a year, for example, and it is linked to academic terms and issues like that. It absolutely has been more of a difficult experience in that position.
In regard to the University of Limerick, UL, it is not something I have been able to become involved in. I am not responsible for university funding. It does not fall under my Department so I am afraid I cannot speak to that.
As to extending the rent freeze, as I mentioned earlier, it is in place now until essentially the end of June so there is plenty of time between now and then to get our ducks in a row, as necessary, and to make the right decision based on the information available to us. When we put the freeze in place, one of the important things I wanted to do was to make sure it could be extended by ministerial order. We could see the risk that was coming with us not being able to form a Seanad if a new Government was not in place and I did not want anyone to find themselves caught out by that fact, so they will not be. A Minister at the time will be able to extend that order even if a Government has not been formed. That protection is there for them. I mentioned to Deputy Ó Broin how I foresaw that as being likely but I do not want to pre-empt the decision that needs to be taken by Cabinet and when we have the necessary information in front of us to make that decision.
Regarding direct provision, even though we are not responsible for direct provision in the Department we have got expertise in securing accommodation and those types of issues in terms of getting the agreements that are necessary in place. We have worked with the Department of Justice and Equality to help it secure additional accommodation for people in direct provision.
The 18 May date for the return of construction is for retrofitting also. It is for outdoor building work. Retrofitting is a very important part of that. We had very ambitious plans before the crisis for retrofit programmes. We have allocated money to it.
We absolutely want to use that money to get people back into work where we can.
In regard to the housing assistance payment scheme, we have had that debate a number of times in the House. The situation was that not enough homes, or basically no homes, were being built. Just over 600 social housing homes were built in 2016. The HAP scheme had to be introduced or else all of those people would have nowhere to go. Even though we now have the HAP scheme, we still have just under 10,000 people in emergency accommodation. There was no other solution at the time which was going to fill that gap until new homes were built. Since then, we have dramatically increased the number of new homes being built or added to the social housing stock. As a result, from next year on, we will be accommodating more people in the social housing stock than we will accommodate through new HAP agreements. That rebalancing is happening and it is because we are taking a State-led approach. The Deputy and I have a difference of opinion on that but the numbers will speak for themselves when it comes to Rebuilding Ireland.
In regard to the use of public land, it is my view that public land should be used towards the public good. That does not just mean pubic housing but mixed housing developments including cost rental, affordable to buy, social housing and private housing. That makes sense and is good planning for community and everything else. That is why we are taking the approach to public land that it is not exclusively for social, affordable and cost rental housing. We are trying to have a mix of housing. The real debate is over what that mix should be, whether 50:50 public-private or 70:30. The Land Development Agency will have powers to make that determination on a site-by-site basis depending on the wider community. That is good because we do not want politicians interfering as, unfortunately, they sometimes do when they object to a development because it is a particular type or scale of housing. We have to protect the system as we seek to make improvements to it.
I look forward to the Minister's responses to the issues I am going to raise. Nobody needs to be reminded that we are in the middle of a pandemic. It is a national crisis and the health concerns are foremost in our minds. However, the ability of people to respond to the crisis is hugely impacted by how and where they live. One is more likely to survive this crisis if one has a better quality of accommodation. What the crisis has done is rip off the plaster we have over many of our public services and expose the way we live in Ireland. Our response in this period of time has to be far-reaching. It must involve an acceptance of many of the failures of Irish society and a collective pledge that we will not allow these things to re-emerge. We have been talking forever in this House about a State response to childcare provision, ending the two-tier health system and, God forbid, implementing a rent freeze. We were told there are complications around these issues and they cannot happen. Then a crisis comes and we find they can happen.
I remember only too vividly the raised voices in this House the last time we had a major national crisis over the economic collapse. Those raised voices were about the behaviour of the banks and why we had to fund them, invest in them and bankroll them. We could not do anything in this country without them and we had to have lending starting again. They would learn their lesson, they would change and everything would be better. Of course, it only took the next crisis for many financial institutions to see their opportunity and revert to type. It is no surprise to me and many other people that the same banking ethic or lack thereof, the amorality within the system, prevails. These institutions see an opportunity to screw somebody and they are going to screw them. That is happening today.
Given that the Minister's Department has not an absolute knowledge but certainly a huge amount of knowledge of how housing works and the nature and dynamics of the sector in this country, is it working with the Department of Finance on analysing the issues, including the nature of mortgage distress, and working out how the two Departments can work together to address the issues in the coming months and years in order to keep people in their homes? Do we have an answer for the people who have lost their jobs and feel they will not necessarily have an opportunity to return to employment in the short term?
If the banks are sending people letters, telephoning them or increasing interest rates, as they do because that is what they do, do we have a response for that as a people? Do we have a response to that as a Parliament? I know this is a cliché, and it feels almost like a political point-scoring exercise, but when the banks needed us the State stepped in and did not let them fail. Now that the people need us and the banks are not their friends, if the Minister and his Department are not already having conversations with the Department of Finance, will they start having those conversations and not wait for the time when this comes tumbling down the road as a major issue in households across the country?
On homeless services, I understand that the PPE required by those on the front line dealing with very vulnerable people in our homeless services, many of whom are living in conditions that many of us in this House would not live in - the pandemic again exposing the nature of the limitations of their living circumstances - has not been made available to them. Is the Minister having conversations with the HSE and the Department of Health about that?
I am interested in the Minister's comment about council funding. He mentioned that if any of us were being told by our local council that it could not fund a particular project because it did not have the resources, he would like to know. I appreciate those comments. I am sure the Minister will be getting a lot of correspondence in that regard. The Minister also referred to the issue regarding UL, which is fair enough. He also responded to the issue about direct provision. That is fair enough as well.
My final question concerns strategic housing developments and the Minister's view of it. I have noted his comment about objections, etc. One of the issues that people have with the strategic housing development legislation is that it totally overrode the democratically constituted development plan of the local authority voted in by councillors and that it went straight to An Bord Pleanála, which does not have to adhere to that development plan and, therefore, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, through this legislation, has afforded developers the rule book. They own it and they can do what they like with it. In my part of the world I am dealing with a fire service which I am told does not have the capacity to deal with any fire above the sixth floor of an apartment block, yet An Bord Pleanála is handing out planning permissions for major scale developments across the northside of Dublin and the State. What we all want, as I am sure the Minister will agree, are communities. We want housing as a public good that helps communities and people to grow together. Where the show is being run by somebody with a profit motive, it will have a major influence on the direction of policy.
I would appreciate the Minister's comments on those issues.
I thank the Deputy for his questions. On the quality of emergency accommodation, we brought in a new quality standards framework last summer, which was put together with the NGOs and local authorities and rolled out across Dublin. It is now to become the national standard. What we have seen in this crisis, because we have decongregated heavily congregated settings, is outcomes for individuals in those new settings that are far superior to what was there before. The feedback I got yesterday in my latest engagement with the NGOs is that people are more settled and they are healthier and happier. They are engaging with treatment and different resources with better outcomes. We are trying to do a piece of work on what it is going to cost to continue in that vein and from where we source the accommodation because not all of it is from the short-term letting sector; some of it is from hotels as well. Hotels in Dublin will, we hope, come back into use at some point in the future. We need to make sure we have plans in place now to prepare for that.
The Deputy asked about a rent freeze. A rent freeze was possible because of the emergency we are in. There are real constitutional constraints to implementing a rent freeze. There are also policy considerations that are worth taking into account, for which I have made the arguments many times before.
Thankfully, in this emergency, we were able to put in place a rent freeze. As I said, it can be extended by ministerial order, if necessary.
In regard to banking, I spoke with the Minister for Finance about this issue very early on, when it arose, and I also engaged with the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland representative group. I did not engage with the banks individually because the line Minister is Deputy Donohoe, but I did speak with him. I made sure that for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, if we were going to be putting a holiday in place, it would not be at an extra cost to people and that interest would not be charged over that period. Therefore, people can engage with a mortgage holiday through their local authority lender and not be penalised for it, which is very important. I sat on the banking inquiry through 2014 and 2015, when they told us about the changed culture in the banks, but that was at the same time the tracker scandal was happening. I will leave my comments on the banks there.
There is sufficient PPE at the moment for NGOs and homeless services. One thing that has raised its head is that, in the next few days, we are going to get guidance on whether face masks are mandatory or advisable, which could change the quantity of PPE that we will need into the future. I have already asked the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to examine that to see what it will mean, and it is doing so. PPE gets provided through the local health point of contact.
With regard to strategic housing developments, SHDs, the most I will say in this interaction is that we do not start a fight. They have been extended out to the end of 2021 and no further. The next step was to tie "use it or lose it" planning permissions to SHDs and, in fact, I wanted to tie that to all planning permissions. It is something that has to be achieved by the next Government, in my opinion.
In the current circumstances, when we look at all the pressures on housing, including the issue of homeless people being at a higher risk and the problems with mortgage arrears and the private rented sector, I do not think we could have more clarity that we need to develop strongly alternative models to housing provision beyond the private and for-profit sector. That is why it is critical that we use State land and publicly-owned land only for public housing, be it affordable purchase, cost rental or social housing, given the massive deficits we have in housing provision in those areas. I do not think that could be clearer at this current point.
I want to commend everyone working on the front line in homeless organisations, who have been doing fantastic work in the last few months in supporting some of our most vulnerable. There have been some very good results as a consequence of that work.
I want to put five questions and I will first ask two of them, get a response and then ask the remainder. The first concerns people who are homeless. What is the plan of the Government for homeless people in the coming weeks and months? As restrictions are lifted, what approaches will be taken and what measures will be put in place to protect homeless people living on the streets, who will be particularly vulnerable as they will come in contact with more people? Given the large number of people in the private rented sector who have lost their jobs and are at risk of homelessness in the future, what action is the Government taking to address this?
Second, in regard to overcrowding, it is abundantly clear that people living in overcrowded accommodation are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19. Dr. Lucy Michael has reported that nearly 100 people living in one direct provision centre have tested positive for the virus and there is substantial evidence from Dr. Jack Lambert of clusters of infection among people living in overcrowded accommodation, including in Dublin's north inner city. In the private rented sector, where a number of people are living in a house, for example, a healthcare worker could test positive and be taken out of the accommodation and put into quarantine, which is all good. However, the other housemates, who may be working in other sectors, are left there and are not tested because they are not working in the healthcare system, leaving them exposed to risk, along with the people they are coming into contact with. It is clear there needs to be systematic testing for high-risk groups, including people living in overcrowded accommodation. What action has the Minister taken to ensure there will be testing available for people living in overcrowded accommodation?
With regard to public land being only for public housing, some of the sites we have as public land are huge. For example, the Central Mental Hospital site in Dundrum is massive.
I do not think it is fair that the people who would not be able to avail of a particular scheme would not be able to buy a new home that might be built there. As many as 2,500 new homes could be on that great site when it is finally developed and mix is important. These are two reasons I believe the policy we have currently on the approach to public land is important. We can debate the percentage of private versus public. I just think there should be some access to housing in those areas for people who will not be able to avail of the schemes for the different reasons we have set out in the regulations to date.
The important thing that we do as we lift the restrictions on the movement of people and we go through the phases is that we do not give up the additional accommodation that we have to date, so we can continue to have people being able to socially distance and to self-isolate should they be afraid they are sick or should they actually be sick and recovering. The accommodation needs to stay in place for a longer period than the initial emergency period.
The next thing that has to happen is that the health supports must remain in place. This is incredibly important. Yes, we have some NGOs that have trained up their own health staff but we have additional health supports on top of this and they will have to continue beyond the immediate emergency period.
We have continued to put in place Housing First and getting people off the streets and into their homes. At least 25 new such tenancies were created since the beginning of the crisis, with more we can do. Currently, rough sleeping is very low because of the extra work that outreach teams are doing to get people into care and keep them in care and because the experience some people are now having in emergency accommodation is better than what they might have had before the crisis because of the changes that have been made. This is why it is important that we identify these changes that we need to maintain.
With regard to testing people in emergency accommodation, what happened was the NGOs came together and agreed that one NGO would run a facility to take any suspected or confirmed case. It trained up its staff to work and be able to test and do everything necessary. It is running fantastically well. Thankfully, as a result of these efforts, we have not seen a cluster. What we have now moved to is targeted testing of people in emergency accommodation. The Deputy spoke about what happens in a private home that is overcrowded because of the number of people renting it and we have a similar measure. Where a fear might arise because one person is suspected of being sick or actually has the virus, we can do targeted testing of everyone else who might have been in that particular centre. This will be very beneficial. What we think we will find is a number of asymptomatic cases, where people never displayed a symptom of being sick for whatever reason. This is what is happening in testing in emergency accommodation.
With regard to overcrowded accommodation in the private rental sector, it is a particular area that will need more focus. With regard to homeless people, I am not just talking about rough sleepers but also about people who, despite supports and services being put in place currently, are spending a lot of their time, for whatever reason, on the streets and people who are being advised to cocoon but are not always doing so. Currently, they are at less of a risk because there are fewer people to come into contact with but as restrictions are lifted there will be many more people with whom they may come into contact. They will need particular attention.
With regard to public land, I am very familiar with the Central Mental Hospital as I used to live just up from it in Rosemount Estate, a fine example of public housing. What I argue for is not that there should not be an opportunity for people to purchase homes, of course there should be affordable housing, but it should be publicly built housing rather than handing it over to a private developer.
With regard to the housing assistance payment, has a new instruction been issued to local authorities to advise them not to issue arrears in respect of applications? If so, what arrangements have been made to speed up the processing of applications? What arrangements have been made to advise applicants of any change that has been made. It is welcome that the Minister recently noted there needs to be stronger regulation for short-term lets. What measures precisely does he propose? With regard to co-living, it is absolutely clear at this stage that there is no justification on public health grounds for a situation where 40 people could be sharing communal kitchen facilities. Will the Minister revise his position on co-living?
I thank the Deputy for the follow-up questions. On the overcrowding point, I am aware additional accommodation has been secured for those working in the health sector who not only need to self-isolate but need to separate from the people they are living with because of the work they do. If the Deputy is aware of any case of someone who has not been able to secure this type of accommodation please let me know and I will make sure they get to the Minister for Health.
We will have a proper, fuller debate on housing in so many different areas when things get back to normal. Currently, to be able to get through one of the affordable schemes that we have, a couple has to be earning less than €75,000. If they are living in Dublin and are even in starter jobs, they are not going to be able to go through those schemes. That is why there should be an allowance for private housing, for someone to just buy without having to come through a local authority scheme on those big sites because there is room for it. That is the point I was making. On the housing assistance payment, there was a circular to local authorities on HAP and the different measures that had to be introduced in the crisis. I can have that provided to the Deputy after the debate if he has not seen it already. On short-term letting, we need to be very clear. As we had the debates around introducing the planning law changes to short-term letting, it was acknowledged by everyone that we also had to regulate the platforms. I was clear at the time that this was not a responsibility for the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government because these are tourism platforms operating online. We had to change the planning laws first anyway so that we had something to regulate. As I envisage it, one would be able to regulate the platforms in terms of what they are publishing on their sites, because they are responsible for what is being published on their sites if someone was publishing a letting that was in breach of the laws. If we move to that kind of arrangement, we might actually be able to loosen the stricter, broader planning changes that we made, so that we could have a more nuanced approach in situations where we have no short-term lettings, like in our city centres, but in the same local authority area could perhaps allow some short-term letting, if it is a very large local authority area. At the moment, the operation of the new restrictions on short-term letting is tied to rent pressure zones. It is a bit of a blunt instrument, if I am being honest, but it was necessary. If we could somehow improve that and have a more nuanced approach through regulation of the platforms as well, I think we would be able to keep those homes for our citizens who are living and working here but also make sure that some parts of the country that benefit from the tourism that comes from short-term letting will be able to continue to do so.
There have been some positive measures taken in the face of the health emergency, such as freezing rent increases and stopping evictions, something the Minister previously said could not be done, and some decongregation of emergency hubs and allocations. Why could it not have been done before if it can be done now? Is it going to be permanent for those people? Will people who have been given welcome own-door accommodation stay in that once the pandemic is over? I really thought about this today when I saw a really obnoxious video about the tale of two Covids in this country when it comes to housing, a video of Johnny Ronan, a Celtic tiger property developer who got all his NAMA land back from us and whose name is plastered over development sites all over this city who is making an absolute fortune-----
-----while people are suffering from homelessness and mocking people with Covid and making light of the work of our nurses. He is enjoying himself in South Africa while I have to deal with people like Brian who is 70 and is living in a shed. He should be cocooning but the only accommodation he is offered is a hostel in town, when he is living in Dún Laoghaire. There is Anthony, who is living in a tent in Stillorgan because he does not meet the criteria to get his own-door accommodation. I met another woman whose partner did get own-door accommodation in Temple Bar and is delighted with it, but she did not meet the criteria and is in shared accommodation in a hostel with four other people she does not know, which is contrary to the advice of the Chief Medical Officer. That is the contrast for me, a Cheann Comhairle, that is highlighted vividly in this crisis. There are people in South Africa who are making money from the housing crisis and mocking the pandemic, and then there are the people at the sharp end of all of this. I just want to know that the policies are now going to change, that this has changed the Minister's attitude towards housing provision. It should not be about people like these Celtic tiger developers and speculators. There should be permanent measures to eliminate the housing crisis and things like co-living.
Imagine if some of those co-living developments were in place now, built by some of those same Celtic tiger developers. Are they going to stop? Just stop building them because they are unsafe and only built for profit. Are we going to build housing for the people who really need it at affordable prices? That is what I want to know.
I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett for those questions. I also thank the Deputy for acknowledging the good measures that have been taken. From talking to those on the front lines, in the NGOs and in the local authorities I know they are doing everything they can. It is admirable. They did it anyway all the time and once again they are stepping up in this crisis. As a result of their work there are people safe today who might not have been safe had that work not been done. I do not think we can thank them enough.
I am trying to establish what measures can be permanent and what cannot, such as what can we buy, what can we lease in properties and what we could secure on a longer term that may be on a temporary basis currently. Some of the accommodation is in the right location, is the right type of accommodation and we could really use it into the future. That work is happening now. I have asked the NGOs that are service delivery providers and the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive to give me their input so that as we lift the restrictions we can look at holding on to as much as we can. We know that we will not be able to hold on to all the hotel spaces. That might be the first challenge we face. The hotels will open up when they can and we must look at where those people will go.
The second piece of work is around securing properties that might have been used for short-term letting, which should not have been and will not be into the future. We may secure them for long-term leasing for ourselves, either for people who are in emergency accommodation or those on the social housing list. We are looking at that currently. We also need to see what measures can be made permanent, such as the arrangements between our Department, the Department of Health and others, which have made a significant difference to people's lives with regard to outcomes. They must remain in place.
I want to raise an important issue with the Minister, which is the decision of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to continue processing adjudications on evictions and other cases without holding hearings. I have a letter from the RTB that says due to the Corona virus all cases will be handled as paper-based adjudication and there will be no physical hearing. There is no proposal for a virtual Zoom or Skype hearing or anything else. The RTB says very clearly that it will be a paper-based hearing, which will be the RTB adjudicator looking at the evidence as presented on paper by the landlord and by the tenant. There is no capacity to question or for a tenant to come in, a tenant who may not be very comfortable or confident when writing their case down but who could make a good case in person. There is no capacity for the adjudicator to investigate things by asking the landlord if something is accurate. These are things that, in my experience, have been absolutely essential in adjudicators making findings in favour of tenants. This is in direct contradiction to the RTB handbook that says the adjudicator will give both sides an opportunity to present their case and may ask questions. This creates extra stress and pressure on people who are already struggling to get by. Effectively, it may mean a fast-tracking of evictions when the coronavirus crisis is over and the moratorium on evictions has been lifted by cutting tenants' rights to a fair hearing. Does the Minister agree with this decision? If not, will the Minister ensure that it is reversed, that tenants can access their right to have a hearing and that we can put an end to this supposed paper-based adjudication process? I hope to ask a second question.
I apologise to Deputy Boyd Barrett. I forgot my time limit and I was not able to answer some of the points he made about Brian, Anthony and others. I ask the Deputy to contact me offline if he could. That has worked before in the past.
I shall now turn to Deputy Murphy's points about the RTB. Because of what is happening during this emergency period there has been a big decrease in the number of cases the RTB has had to handle. Essentially, we have been able to protect people in their homes due to a decision this Oireachtas made around freezing of notices to quit and a freeze on rents. The RTB can still continue to do its work but it must do so in a way it believes is safe for its staff. When we communicated the new laws to the RTB, and when I spoke to them, it was very much on the understanding that they had to take into account that we are in an emergency period, that we are all trying to deal with a pandemic and to act accordingly.
I am not aware of any increase in the number of notices to quit being served over this period. The freeze is in place until the end of June and may be extended. At a certain point, the RTB will be able to go back to the previous, normal way of working, as we hope would most offices or other places where there has to be some sort of a public hearing or engagement with the public. I do not think we should suppose that as the rest of life gets back to some degree of normality or whatever the new norm is, the RTB will not too. The freeze is in place, it is protecting people, and it may be extended.
The Minister did not really answer the question. Adjudications are still happening, even if they may be happening at a lesser volume than before. It is significant that the RTB is saying, and I have a letter from the RTB to someone involved in the case, that it will not be holding hearings. It will not hold physical hearings, but what is contained in that is that it will not hold hearings at all and will instead do paper-based adjudication. These adjudications will have the same weight as a proper hearing that would have happened before the moratorium kicked in and, therefore, people will have decisions made in advance. Maybe the Minister is not aware of that, in which case I find it surprising, but he might inquire of the RTB. Does he agree it would be wrong to get rid of, in this phase, the right of people to have a hearing and replace it in this way?
It is not my view that people's rights are being infringed by these temporary measures, and they are temporary and are happening based on the health advice we have at the moment because of the current pandemic.
I am very glad to be in the Chamber to discuss this very important issue of housing. I thank the Minister for his update and strong hints that the rent freeze may be extended next month. If that were to be the case, be it by ministerial order or Cabinet decision, I assure the Minister of my full support in that regard.
I have three questions to ask on behalf of myself and my good colleagues in the Regional Group. I will ask two of them first, give the Minister an opportunity to respond, and then follow up with my third question. The focus of the questions is to find solutions rather than merely identify problems. The first relates to empty housing, and it is a particular genre of empty houses. The retail banks in this country have declared to the Central Bank of Ireland that they have more than 1,000 houses on their balance sheets. Has consideration been given to the State purchasing these houses directly from the banks, transferring their ownership to the local authorities or the approved housing bodies, and taking a vast number of people off the homelessness and housing lists? There would be considerable advantages. We would increase the number of public houses owned by the State and, most importantly, save a fortune on the emergency accommodation bill.
I would be grateful to hear the Minister's views on that. He quite rightly pointed out that this is a wonderful opportunity to do such a thing. House prices are probably at their peak and will probably come down, and I believe that the banks are keen to offload the properties. The time is right. We should go in, negotiate hard and fast, and lock in and secure discounts on the properties. It would be a good, quick fix that would have a very positive effect on the housing situation in this country.
My second question doubles up on what Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Ó Ríordáin said in respect of the mortgage deferrals, holidays or breaks, or whatever one wants to call them. Some 70,000 people have applied for them, and it is incredible that the banks will profit or even profiteer on people's hardships. To be charging interest on top of interest is completely unacceptable. I wonder where the Central Bank is in all this. It has a statutory function, a consumer protection function, and a leadership role in this regard. I am sure the Minister is familiar with the Irish Banking Culture Board from his time on the banking inquiry. I was on the board's website before I came to the Chamber and noticed that its home page states that the board's "overriding mission [is] to make banking in Ireland trustworthy again".
It goes on to say that it plans to "promote ethical behaviour and advocate for humanity, decency and respect in the banking sector." That statement is on the IBCB home page. Members should feel free to check it on their way home.
I fully understand that the finance portfolio is not the Minister's brief but failures in the finance portfolio have a habit of ending up on the desk of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. I would be grateful for the Minister's views on whether we can refer this interest and mortgage deferment issue to the Irish Banking Culture Board for its considered opinion in this regard. I will allow the Minister time to respond and I will return with my third question.
I do not like to comment on matters unless I have had a proper chance to think them through so I might not respond as directly as I would like to on the matters the Deputy raised about the banks. I made a comment to Deputy Ó Ríordáin about my experience with the banks in the banking inquiry where they told us their culture had changed and what subsequently emerged had been happening in the banks. The Deputy's suggestion of referring what is happening to the Irish Banking Culture Board is an interesting one and I would be interested to see the board's reply.
One of the things I was determined to do when we were looking at the Rebuilding Ireland home loan was to make sure that mortgage break would not come at a cost to the borrower. On the basis that we have been able to make that arrangement through the local authority lending system, it will not come at a cost, even if we have a six-month extension. That is good news for people who have come through the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. There is a lot more money available and people should continue to apply for the loan because it is a real help in getting people affordable mortgages and into affordable homes.
On empty houses, the previous Dáil established a rolling fund for the Housing Agency. I may have referred to the Housing Agency as the Housing Alliance earlier, which is a different body, but I meant to refer to the Housing Agency. Off the top of my head, I believe the rolling fund amounted to €70 million. I have spoken to the CEO, John O'Connor, on many occasions and he has been doing a deep dive into the books of the banks to see what vacant properties on their books - they are vacant because they are in the banks and they have not been sold, dealt with or unencumbered - could be taken. A number of properties have been taken. I do not have an up-to-date figure on how many have been taken to date but there was a lot more potential to use the rolling fund to get those vacant properties back into use.
Another related matter we have been looking into is strengthening the compulsory purchase order, CPO, powers of local authorities so that they can compulsorily purchase a vacant property, not necessarily for social housing but to sell on at an affordable price to someone who may be looking to buy a home but may not be able to avail of social housing. Any mechanism to release vacant housing, whether it be for social, affordable or private housing, should be used. That option is under consideration and it is something we would have liked to have done previously but we did not get around to it in the lifetime of the last Government. Bank-led vacancy, as we used to refer to it, is very important. I will get an update from the Housing Agency on the figures, how much of the rolling fund it has spent, how many houses it has secured and how much it thinks is left.
My last question is on an issue that is close to my heart and the Ceann Comhairle's heart from his work in the Kildare South constituency. It is the matter of military housing and military accommodation. Many of the Deputies in the Chamber may not be aware that over half of the military installations in this country have been shut down and closed by the Department of Defence in the past 20 years. Unsurprisingly, this has left us with a serious lack of military accommodation and housing for troops and their families. The international norm is that military personnel stay on base. There is an operational reason for that, namely, that if an emergency breaks out, troops can go straight to the army and draw weapons, sailors can jump on a naval ship and put to sea for a search and rescue operation or an air crew can scramble an aircraft and fly a five-year old child to London for an organ transplant at short notice. There is an operational imperative for military housing on base. There is also a humanitarian need for it because we know that the Defence Forces pay is so appallingly bad that it is difficult to compete in the private rental sector in garrison towns all over the country. It is likely the next Government will allocate more funding to the housing portfolio. What are the Minister's thoughts on having a portion of that funding allocated to the Defence Forces budget and ring-fenced exclusively for military accommodation and housing?
There is very little accommodation and housing on base even though there are vast tracts of land in the Curragh Camp and in Baldonnel air base, for example, which could be used exclusively for military accommodation. Any accommodation we have is completely inadequate in quality and quantity and much of it is in appalling condition. I would be grateful to hear the Minister's thoughts. I realise it is a hypothetical situation but I am nonetheless interested in his view.
This is the first time I have ever been asked about military accommodation. It is not something the Department deals with as it comes under the remit of the Department of Defence. We have been looking at different barracks in Dublin city, which have large tracts of land, and wondering about what uses they may or may not have if the military were to give them up or whether there could be shared use of that land to provide more housing. In such a scenario it would make perfect sense that some of the housing would be allocated to people working on that site or working with the military. That is due to be managed by the new Land Development Agency, LDA. When the legislation on the Land Development Agency is passed, and I expect it to be a priority of the new Government when it is formed, some €1.2 billion will be available in capital supports to invest in housing for our citizens. There may be a way, if the LDA is able to work with the Department of Defence, that it could meet both needs - the need for better housing and housing on site for people in the Defence Forces as well as public housing, which is its overriding remit. However, it is the first time this has been raised with me and I thank the Deputy for doing so.
Thank you, Minister. It is an interesting point, not least because the Department of Defence for many years has been pursuing a policy of depopulating places such as the Curragh Camp. I call Deputy Michael Collins.
The turnover of local authority houses must have been held up due to Covid-19 and the disruption of construction. Has the Minister a timeline for when works can commence on these houses? While everything has slowed down, which is very stressful for those urgently seeking homes, I am delighted that two houses became available in Drimoleague and one in Durrus in west Cork yesterday. It was good news for the applicants. I expect the Minister will not be able to answer my question now, but two new social housing developments, one in Dunmanway and the other in Bandon, received a large number of applications when they came up on choice based letting, CBL. When will these houses be allocated? Perhaps the Minister will refer back to me with the answer as I am inundated with people pleading with me to find out when the houses will become available. They have made their applications.
We have been pressing for housing so people can live in rural Ireland and on our islands in west Cork. We now know why rural Ireland is the safest place for people to live. The rules for once-off housing in rural areas will have to be relaxed now to allow people who wish to live in rural areas to do so. Will the Minister support this? It is a straight question. In addition, I have long been an advocate of a rural resettlement scheme where the focus would be on taking people from overcrowded hotels in our cities and resettling them in rural communities. Small towns and villages in west Cork such as Allihies, Goleen, Kaelkill, Leap, Ballinacarriga, Ballinadee and Union Hall could benefit greatly from such a scheme. The people could live in a healthy environment that is almost clear of the coronavirus. A rural resettlement scheme was included in the last programme for Government. Why did it not happen? Are there any plans to implement a rural resettlement scheme in the future?
The Deputy will not know this but my grandfather is an O'Sullivan from Adrigole. I know the area well enough, but not as well as I would like. I was due to go down there again to look at social housing provision in Castletownbere and on Bere Island and to see how we could use public money to help repopulate parts of our country in line with the national planning framework and what we want to do in the broadband plan. I will have to refer back to the Deputy on the Bandon and Dunmanway sites. I do not want to give him the wrong information and I do not have it to hand now.
An important thing we have been able to do, notwithstanding the emergency and the closure of construction sites generally, is with regard to between 35 to 40 sites now open where social housing homes are being built. It is approximately 1,000. There were 6,500 homes under construction on site at the end of last year and about 1,000 of them are back under construction because they were almost at completion. Working with the Housing Agency we gave sanction to local authorities to open certain sites. There is a next wave coming but that will probably be overtaken by the lifting of restrictions on 18 May for construction generally. We are trying to get that started up very quickly.
Indeed, work is under way on some sites at the moment.
With regard to how we approach planning and house-building in some parts of the country, particularly smaller villages and towns, there were a number of pilot schemes. We are now trying to ascertain whether we can broaden them into national schemes so we will see new homes being built, and not just vacant homes being repurposed, under the funding lines. It is important work. It will be faced by the next Government.
A major part of the national planning framework is making sure 75% of future growth will happen outside Dublin. We have identified different regions, regional drivers and balances of growth between regions that we want to achieve. These can be achieved only if we are building new homes in almost every part of the country, but also building with the right planning strategy in place. We do not want to build homes and leave people stranded in them without services and a community.
With regard to one-off houses I know of, especially in Limerick, planning permission was granted by the authority for applications that were up for decision in the first quarter of this year, subject to minor objections or observations, but they were refused by An Bord Pleanála. This is because it is implementing the 2040 plan, which has not yet been enforced. If the 2040 plan is implemented fully, there will be no more one-off houses in rural Ireland, because of the way it is structured.
A bigger problem we have in planning is conservation. We have iconic buildings throughout the country that we need to protect and refurbish but there are also towns and villages that are falling down that are subject to conservation orders. They cannot be done up because the finance does not exist. I know of a couple who bought a house and added a big extension to the back but whose insurance company would not insure the front part because it had a timber ceiling. The conservation officer would not allow them to take down the timber ceiling. Where there are houses in poor condition that could be done up, we keep the front façade, roof and chimneys. Keeping the front façades respects the original streetscape. If we have to knock the rest and build new structures behind, we are saving the front façades of all the villages and towns and getting people back into the buildings at a low expense.
When the matter of the rent freeze arises in June, I will be fully in favour of it. As the Minister said, it could involve a ministerial or Government decision. I am happy with the waiving of the rates for three months.
What will the Minister do for the people who are building one-off houses? He stated he allowed certain estates to open up to get houses finished. We made many representations to the office and asked for work to continue on one-off houses that were within one month of being finished. The people affected are renting, and some of them are working in front-line services. Although building their own houses, they have had to pay rent for an extra two months. They now probably have to join a queue because there are people waiting for their houses to be done and the construction industry does not have the manpower to finish them at present. There are people building one-off houses who are both renting and paying a mortgage. What is the Minister going to do for them?
We have been talking about social housing. What about the people in rural Ireland who are building their own houses or renovating them? I refer to small, one-off houses. Social distancing could have been observed. I have seen some of the sites the Government has allowed to reopen and noted no social distancing on them. I witnessed this myself at the back of the hospital yesterday in Limerick. The Minister allowed the sites to open and closed down the rural sites at the expense of the people concerned, who are working and renting while they are building. What is the Minister going to do for them?
I thank the Deputy for his questions.
While An Bord Pleanála falls under my Department, its judgments are independent of me. I cannot get involved in its judgments or decisions. I do not agree with the Deputy's interpretation of Project Ireland 2040 and the national planning framework. Further iterations of the regional spatial and economic strategies have been agreed. It is a matter of how they will be implemented in development plans. Every local authority must be in line with them. What we will see in this regard are the opportunities the national planning framework is providing for housing.
Deputy O'Donoghue is absolutely right about the balance in terms of conservation. We are only getting in our own way if we are not allowing ourselves to buy, restore or rebuild homes because it might then have too much of a negative impact. If the choice is between letting it fall apart or getting someone back into it with some alterations, we should get them back in. That is so important for our streetscapes and for the older parts of towns, villages and cities.
In terms of houses being built now, we were able to find a measure in the emergency Acts where we could get some social housing sites open because they were going to provide accommodation directly for people coming off the housing list, out of overcrowded housing or out of emergency accommodation. My choice was basically no housing sites open or some, and so I went for some. I would have liked it to have been all, but that was not possible. That is what 18 May is about, including for people who are doing self-builds. I am sorry that is the case because the points the Deputy makes are absolutely correct. If one is doing a self-build one would think one would be able to manage the site in a socially responsible way in terms of the health measures. We will have guidance for every site and sites that do open must open in accordance with the guidance that is in place if they are to be able to operate safely. I think that is very important. I think they were the main questions Deputy O'Donoghue asked.
The debate has been very interesting. It also has been interesting to listen to the Minister's responses and those of his Department to the crisis as it has been unfolding. In his initial comments he spoke about how the bodies enabled him to prepare for and deal with the crisis very early. He said that it was through their foresight that he was able to foresee what was happening and was able to deal with it. There could be lessons for other Departments in that regard. Right through the crisis, very often it has been the case that the voluntary agencies and bodies working on the ground dealing with these issues are far better able to deal with them than Departments. That is a failing of the Government rather than full praise for voluntary agencies. I do not say we should move over fully to voluntary agencies but the Government could learn from them.
The Minister said he must wait and see how the situation evolves in terms of how he will continue and what will happen in the future. What will the Minister seek to continue after this crisis is over? It would be important to know that. I was struck by what I consider to be a sea change in how the Department has looked at these issues. The Department in the crisis is far better than the one we had before it and I would like to see it continue.
Could the Minister indicate how many homeless people are staying in hotels at the moment and the impact of that? A quick and easy solution would be if he were to stop the use of Airbnb accommodation, as that would ensure accommodation is available for people who need it. I would welcome a comment in that regard. In the future, what could prevent the Minister taking such a step to deal with the crisis?
I thank the Deputy for his questions. No doubt there will be lessons that Departments can share with others. We have experts working in health, in homelessness, in care provision, in different types of treatments, and in the provision of food, all of these things. It is one of the benefits we have in the public sector, in that there is real expertise there and they really have led the way. I think back to the end of January and February and a lot of people were sceptical about what Covid-19 might mean in reality and if it could ever come here. Thankfully, the experts working in homelessness, in the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and in the NGOs, whether they were sceptical or not, put plans in place. It is absolutely the case that those plans have saved lives and, in addition, they have vastly improved the experience of a lot of people who are in emergency accommodation or sleeping rough.
As the Deputy rightly points out, we need now to understand how we can keep that new reality, make it the new norm and not go back to how things were being done before. Sometimes in a crisis one gets the opportunity to move much more quickly than one might otherwise do. Bureaucratic walls fall away. The Taoiseach talked about this when we had the engagement in Grangegorman.
When one goes to design policy, one often wants to design the perfect policy but it gets in the way of something good that might help people more quickly. I am thinking of the interagency group which we set up has been doing great work since 2017; some of the things that we wanted to achieve happened almost overnight because of this crisis. It should never have taken a crisis for that to happen, but it did and we should take advantage of that and see what we can make permanent.
On things we might keep in place, earlier I mentioned a dedicated health support for Dublin which was not there. It has been absolutely fantastic. People were sharing videos which were helping to instruct staff how to deal with people who they suspected might have Covid in a congregated setting, and so on. We have to maintain dedicated health supports and it is clear that there must be a funding line for them from the Department of Health. We could be clear about that. We could look at the housing support and say the funding in the housing budget will get X amount of accommodation at X price and that health support funding will get X number of care workers to come in and do this work; to really have that aligned. We have to break down some of those bureaucratic walls that have existed for too long.
This is the first opportunity that I have had to address the Minister since the general election. One issue I campaigned on was dereliction in rural towns and villages. There are many derelict houses across Clare as there are in most of Ireland. Deputy O'Donohoe alluded to the problem. Shelley McNamara, one of Ireland's leading architects, who recently won the Pritzker prize for architecture, has spoken of the need for a pilot project and to look in particular at regulations to bring old buildings in our market towns up to current standards. It is almost impossible. It is far more expensive than what Deputy O'Donohoe proposes which would be to leave the front facade, knocking the rest down and rebuild them. There could be a big long architectural discussion of whether it is the same building after one does that, but would the Minister consider a pilot project, preferably in a town in Clare and unfortunately there are many in Clare with much dereliction but it could be any town in Ireland, and see if leading architects can be brought together to end dereliction? We need to get people living in those houses to end homelessness but it also has an effect on the morale of a town when its main market square or main street is full of derelict buildings. I see Deputy Feighan in the Chamber. He is from Boyle, a town in which there has been much renewal. I dare say there is not a single town outside County Dublin or north Kildare where there is not dereliction in the main street.
Local authorities are effectively on their knees. Around 1,000 people are employed by Clare County Council, all of them carrying out essential services to their community. A rates holiday has been announced. Local authorities need money. They have three sources of funding, the central grant, rates and the local property tax. People simply cannot afford to have their local property tax increased. How will local authorities fund themselves in the future? The three months rates break announced is very welcomed by all businesses, but it may have to be much longer for pubs and restaurants in particular as well as others in the hospitality industry to make it worthwhile reopening. If they face a hefty rates bill even in six months, it will not be worth their while to reopen.
Deputy McNamara is very welcome back to the Dáil. I have not had an opportunity to speak to him either.
I agree with the point on the difficulty in bringing derelict homes up to the right standard for living in. We can make changes here, of course we can. We need to be careful that in making those changes we are then not criticised for lowering standards, but it makes absolutely no sense if the only choice - it is not really a choice - people feel they have is that they must leave a home vacant, derelict or going derelict because they cannot afford or are not allowed to renovate it in some way. I love to watch all those architecture programmes on TV, such as "Grand Designs". They do amazing things but it always costs a hell of a lot of money to do them. We want to be able to try to protect the fabric of our communities, villages and towns.
This is one way in which we can do it.
We have tried several different schemes but some have not been as successful. One example was the change to the need for planning permission if a shop owner wanted to convert above the shop. We got rid of that. If a property owner owns a protected building, that is not going to make much of a difference. There are other standards that might not be put in place. Work is being done in terms of town and village renewal on what might be achieved there.
Local authority funding of €500 million has been secured now for the three-month waiver and for the new restart fund. The three-month waiver is there for everyone, even if they open up early. It is there until the end of June. If a business owner was to be able to open in two weeks' time, he or she would still have that waiver until the end of June. If he or she cannot open until August, he or she will get an extra waiver. Some €500 million is going to be added because additional money will be required for people in the hospitality sector who will be unable to open before August. That is the position at the moment according to the plan, but hopefully that can be brought forward. With the restart refund, a business owner can apply for up to €10,000 in a rebate or waiver of rates. Some 80% of businesses pay less than €10,000 per year in rates. Basically 80% of businesses can have their rates waived for a further 12 months if that is what they want. Alternatively, if they want, they can get the money upfront to re-purpose their businesses or to do some of the social distancing things they might need to do. It can be used to reinvent their businesses if that is necessary. They will be able to get that cash based on the money they paid in rates in 2019. That money is available and it will be added to as necessary.
Thank you, Minister. That brings our debate to a conclusion. It occurs to me that over several years now we have probably debated the housing issue more than any other issue in this Chamber. I have often thought that if words were building blocks, we would have solved the housing crisis many times over. Yet, tonight's debate was noteworthy for the goodwill that seemed to be evident across the House, so I congratulate all the Members for their common sense and goodwill.