Wednesday, 10 March 2021
Land Development Agency Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I am glad to avail of the two minutes. The Ceann Comhairle and I know this subject well and it is very close to our hearts in the context of County Kildare. I would hate to lose any minute of support for this issue.
I believe we need about 800 houses as a matter of urgency - direct build, local authority houses. We also need a revamping of what used to be the local authority loans scheme under the Rebuilding Ireland scheme. It has to be simplified and brought into line so people can avail of it quickly. We also need what we used to call private sites, developed sites which can be made available at a lower rate to people building for themselves. If we have all those things in place, we can help the Minister to do a good job in the shortest possible time. In a four-year period in the 1980s, when things were not as sophisticated as they are now, as the Ceann Comhairle and I well know, something like 1,600 local authority housing loans were issued in County Kildare. That was a huge amount and took a huge number of people off the housing waiting list. It also took people who were not on the housing waiting list but whose incomes were within the scope of the scheme.
My final point concerns eligibility for loans. I ask the Minister to deal personally with the manner in which the qualification guidelines are laid out in regard to the income limits, the eligibility for loans and how long people have to be on the housing list. They should take into account the length of time people are paying rents on rental property as a prelude to introducing them to a loan which is much more effective and better for them. All of these things are required, to my mind, and I am sure, from his own knowledge of the same county, the Ceann Comhairle will heartily agree.
We wish the Minister well. We want him to succeed at this because it is hugely important to us and hugely important to the young people of County Kildare and the entire country, with no exceptions. The sooner, the better and the more, the better.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, the purpose of which is to place the Land Development Agency on a statutory footing and to confer on it various powers.
Housing was the dominant issue in the general election, and it was the dominant issue in the lifetime of the previous Government. It remains a dominant issue in society. Of course, it has been challenged by issues resulting from the pandemic and the impact that has had on different sectors, but there is a great onus of responsibility on this Government to address the housing crisis. This issue was to the fore in the discussions among the parties on preparing and agreeing a programme for Government. The competency and potential of the Land Development Agency were discussed at length and there was a commitment on the part of all parties to the agreement to prepare and bring forward legislation to give effect, impact and potential, by virtue of increased powers, to the Land Development Agency, in order that it could play its part in resolving this issue.
There are various tools, opportunities and avenues by which the housing situation can and should be addressed. They include the local authorities. Despite record amounts of funding being available to many local authorities, not enough houses are being delivered by them. Social housing associations have an increased role in the provision of housing solutions, but they are solutions that do not afford to those who acquire or avail of those units the opportunity to buy them, an opportunity that I believe must be available. We have seen the potential that the Part V provision relating to private house building can yield to the State. In recent times, thankfully, we have seen the restoration of the 10% affordable element of that provision. Unfortunately, however, the issue of supply means that this tool or avenue is not delivering as it could and should. Then we see local authorities being forced, due to the nature of the crisis and the need to provide instant solutions, into a position where they are competing with young affordable purchasers in buying stock. While that was a solution for some councils, and a welcome one, it was not a solution for many people who were seeking to buy such houses and get on the housing ladder to have that competition against them.
The provision of an affordable scheme, rental units and cost rental units and the provision of the Land Development Agency as an added tool to address this issue must be welcomed. I am thinking of the potential. People predominantly see many lands in State ownership that are not in use. They are not necessarily lands in the ownership of local authorities, but owned by the State. At the time those lands became available to the State through whatever means, at its foundation or thereafter, it was the contention of the State that such lands had specific uses, for example, for an Army barracks. Now when one sees an Army barracks not in use, with no benefit accruing to the community in which it is located, one would expect there to be ample opportunity for the State to make a new decision about such lands. In this instance, it has the potential to make such lands available for public housing, affordable housing and housing for the general public. These are all the supply chains that must be replenished.
The ability of local authorities is not necessarily challenged by the Land Development Agency. I discussed this with councillors in my constituency in recent weeks. There is a fear, of course. The fear or belief that is expressed is that somehow their role and potential to contribute to this crisis are threatened. In the first instance, and I welcome the commitment by the Minister and the Government, we are dealing with populations in urban centres of over 10,000. The agency is looking at lands that are not necessarily in local authority ownership but which are owned by the State and need to be used for the benefit of the public to address this crucial issue. I welcome the means by which there is provision for the Land Development Agency to address the fears and concerns that existed when it was first established with regard to the issue of State intervention and State rules and about tailoring the Land Development Agency to be in a position to make a contribution and not to be curtailed by those State rules. The means by which the Minister has done that are welcome. The ability thereafter of the agency to make a telling contribution is at its behest, and it is answerable to the Minister and the Government. The agency can work in conjunction with all others who have a contribution to make, be it the local authority, the private sector or the State. We all want to contribute and to provide opportunities for everybody on every step of the ladder. We all want to make a meaningful contribution to resolving this issue.
The contention is expressed by some that this is merely to appease builders and developers in their aspirations to make as much as humanly possible at the expense of others. That might be suitable for those who oppose this and who wish to oppose every proposal that is put before us without coming forward with credible alternatives. As already stated, however, the Government is hell-bent on addressing the housing crisis and assisting the different tools and means by which it can be addressed. I have mentioned the local authorities. Unfortunately, many local authorities have lost - I will not say the will - the wherewithal, expertise and, it appears, the ability to deliver the amount of houses they delivered in the past. That must be acknowledged. We have to press upon the members and executives of local authorities the need to improve their performance and ability to provide those units.
One tool that was provided by this Government is the increase in the local authorisation available to them without going through the four-stage approval process. The increase is from €2 million to €6 million. That gives the ability to local authority members to identify land in the ownership of the local authority and to put it to use. It is imperative and important that we and others hold them and their executives to account and allow the members to participate in finding solutions locally to which they can contribute. They should not be frightened by this agency, which they say is a train coming toward them. That is not the case. Ample time and space should be given to the Government to allow this agency, and all that is contained within it, the opportunity and time to ensure that it does its job effectively and makes the contribution we believe it can make.
Another issue I wish to mention in this context is something I spoke to the Minister about recently. I have his full support and, indeed, the input of his officials and the Department in bringing forward legislation to give effect to putting on a statutory basis the length of time An Bord Pleanála is afforded to make decisions on appeals or on applications made to it directly based on the current legislation. The current situation whereby An Bord Pleanála can take as long as it believes is necessary to make a decision cannot be allowed to continue. There is too much invested in this, in the form of people's expertise, money and in votes in the case of those of us who have a responsibility, too, to ensure that the atmosphere is right for applications to be made, without an arm of the State holding up such applications.
Another element that is no help in our efforts to move these developments forward is the avenue of judicial review.
Many strategic development zones that have successfully gained planning permission from An Bord Pleanála are then faced with the prospect of judicial review, with more time wasted. I am aware of many people who have invested heavily and had great difficulty and trouble in accessing finance, and who find themselves being financed by funds from outside the State. There is great surprise among the funders of these schemes when they learn that a scheme has permission but also does not have permission. Once a project has secured permission from the local authority and An Bord Pleanála after a lengthy period of time and procrastination on their part - the legislation needed to restrict them to a statutory time period is not in place - there is the prospect of further delay caused by adjudication in the courts of a judicial review that may be taken on the administrative aspect of the application. Many of those who fund schemes find it wholly inappropriate and amazing that there is a third stage and, in the midst of a crisis, they are being held up by these administrative planning delays that in no way reflect the urgency we want to bring to bear on addressing this issue.
In the context of the House discussing the Land Development Agency, its potential and the provisions of the legislation, I am glad the Minister has said that many suggestions and amendments being put forward by Deputies will considered as the Bill evolves, especially on Committee Stage when it can be explored even more. I welcome that commitment and I look forward to many Deputies making a contribution to improve elements of the legislation governing the Land Development Agency and ensure the agency does what we want it to do. We want it to be in a position to take over lands in State ownership that are not being used, so they can be put to good use in providing housing and in the development of an affordable housing scheme. Despite the ideology and all the rhetoric from all sides of the House, we do not have such a scheme. This proposal sets about putting one in place and delivering a firm contribution so that people can see its potential impact and finally be in a position to afford a home. For those who do not necessarily want to travel down that route, there is the potential for rental schemes and cost-rental schemes that have a wider appeal to many young people, especially nowadays given the nature of their jobs and the way they want to live their lives, including their desire to move without being held back by the cost of properties and the costs associated with a purchase. They can also take advantage of the advances in infrastructure, especially in our cities, through the provisions of this scheme.
I reiterate my support for the Land Development Agency and the provisions of the legislation. I thank the Minister for making available to Members across the House an opportunity to make amendments and improvements. I also reiterate the point to councillors that the Bill does not offer a stick with which to beat them but an opportunity to take lands that are not necessarily in the ownership of local authorities. The agency will be able to go after lands in the local authorities' ownership if the lands are left stale and not used or put to use. That is many years down the road because it will have a lot to do in the meantime.
The Bill has the potential, by virtue of the Minister's proposal to place on the lands an affordability lien, as it were, to overcome the state aid problem that has been a concern up to this point. This is a huge and telling contribution. The rate at which the Minister sets this will be appropriate to the land, its location, the lists and expectations. It will be done in conjunction and consultation with the relevant local authority, its planning section and also its members who have expertise and knowledge about what is needed in their constituencies with regard to the sites that come up to be taken in charge by the Land Development Agency.
At one time, I thought the Land Development Agency could have at its disposal a suite of builders who would be available under contract to do work on its behalf, with a view to leasing back social units to local authorities in the long term thereafter. That too would be welcome but our opponents and detractors would accuse us again of helping builders. The bottom line is that one cannot have a house unless one has a builder. We cannot build houses unless we have the relevant tradespeople - blocklayers, engineers, carpenters, plumbers and labourers - who are found in every community and in many of our families. They too have to be assisted and have at their disposal relevant and appropriate schemes and initiatives to help the country and its inhabitants to own their own homes or have available to them the opportunity to rent a home if they wish at cost price rather than market price. The vehicle of the Land Development Agency has within it the potential to realise that ambition. This is the first time we can say this with the degree of definitiveness that is necessary. This legislation is necessary to copper-fasten that.
In two or three years, we can review the effectiveness of the Land Development Agency and its ability to deliver and improve or, if necessary, scrap it. Nobody has a monopoly on solutions here but as a Government party, we had a responsibility to put in place a programme for Government that addressed what was perhaps the greatest issue to arise during the lifetime of the previous Government and, more importantly, during the course of the last election. That responsibility has been taken on board by the parties in government with various proposals, schemes, initiatives and policies that seek to address this housing crisis. This is one of them. I support and welcome the Bill and I will work with those who bring it before the House to ensure it can be strengthened to do what we want it to do, namely, play a major role in addressing a serious crisis that has not gone away and will most definitely not go away in the absence of legislation and the potential of these proposals.
The Land Development Agency will create the largest development company in the history of the State. This first raised its head back in 2018 when the then scheme proposed just 10% social housing and 30% affordable housing on public lands. It was the brainchild of the former Fine Gael housing Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. When I was a councillor on South Dublin County Council I saw at first hand the lengths to which Fine Gael would go to scupper social housing and cosy up to developers. Clonburris is a site that runs between Clondalkin and Lucan. It is a strategic development zone initiative under which up to 8,500 homes are to be built in a phased manner alongside community infrastructure such as schools, transport, sports facilities and businesses. The difference between this SDZ and previous SDZs is that South Dublin County Council owned more than 22% of the land. This is public land. At the time, I submitted a motion on behalf of the Sinn Féin group that saw the council maximise its land and develop up to 2,700 much-needed social and affordable public homes. This plan would also see the delivery of public transport such as trains and buses linked to the phased development. If the National Transport Authority, in conjunction with all the relevant stakeholders, delivers this plan, Clonburris will have sustainable, long-term transport solutions.
However, not only did Fine Gael oppose the motion I submitted, along with Fianna Fáil, it wanted to see the number of public homes in the development reduced to just 10%. Fine Gael not only voted against the development but also appealed it to An Bord Pleanála alongside NAMA and private developers. It was like the unholy trinity. The Clonburris strategic development zone, SDZ, is not perfect but if it was not passed it would have given way to developers to build on their own sites and maximise their own profits without the need to develop the schools and the much-needed community infrastructure I mentioned.
I am from north Clondalkin and when I first moved to the area there were no schools, transport or shops. My area was a victim of bad planning in the past and Fine Gael, supported by Fianna Fáil, wanted to inflict that bad planning again on the people of Lucan and Clondalkin. All this appeal achieved was to delay the building of homes in the middle of a housing crisis by a minimum of one year.
This Bill will also see elected councillors stripped of their powers to vote on land transfers from local authorities to the Land Development Agency, LDA. I received an email today - I am not sure if the Minister received it - from the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, which represents councillors the length and breadth of the State. They were concerned about the potential implications for local authorities in terms of their ability to deliver social and affordable housing given the proposed extensive powers the Land Development Agency will have as envisaged in the Minister's Bill. This move is designed to make it easier for public land to be used for the delivery of unaffordable homes in cases where councillors want to use the land for genuine affordable homes for working people.
The LDA will also be made a development authority giving it strategic development zone master plan powers. Here we go again with the Land Development Agency Bill as proposed by the Minister. It is like the baton being passed from Fine Gael to Fianna Fáil that will see public land used again to make big profits for private developers. This is public land. Public land should be used for public housing, social and affordable purchase and affordable rental.
This Bill will not address the waiting lists in South Dublin County Council. The average wait time for a two- or three-bedroom property in the local authority in Dublin Mid-West, which I represent, is more than 11 years. The average wait time for a four-bedroom property in South Dublin County Council is 14 years. We are talking about a whole generation of families who are living in their parents' back bedrooms or in unsecured private rental through the likes of the housing assistance payment, HAP. There is also a generation of children who have been brought up in hotels and in homeless hubs. This Bill will not address that.
There are countless people in my area who are also over the threshold for social housing but they will never be able to afford to purchase their own home because of inflated rents. I briefly looked at daft.iethis morning to see the average rental price of a three-bedroom property in Lucan. The price was €2,200 per month. I have heard the Minister saying that Fianna Fáil built houses but at what price does it build houses?
Under a Sinn Féin Government we will see genuine affordable homes for working people, evenly split between affordable cost rental homes and affordable purchase homes. Affordable homes on public lands are doable for €230,000 or less but not under this Government, which seems to be determined to sell off as much public land as possible to private developers.
This Bill represents failed Fine Gael policy dressed up in Fianna Fáil clothes. The Minister was against this Bill when it came before the housing committee in the previous Dáil and now he is all for it. He claims that the Bill has been fundamentally changed since then but we all know that is not true. The fundamental flaws remain and they were outlined in great detail by Sinn Féin's housing spokesperson, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, previously in this debate. Section 56 of this Bill will strip section 183 powers from councillors. It will stop councillors being able to insist that public land is used for 100% public housing and that it must be genuinely affordable. That will have terrible consequences, including in my constituency in County Louth. Coupled with that, the Bill will enshrine the definition of "affordable" in law. Unfortunately, the definition will falsely state that "affordable" means below the prevailing market price to buy or rent. By that logic, anything below €460,000 in the Minister's constituency will be affordable.
The Minister's party's response to the housing crisis is to gaslight the nation. We all know that this is absolute rubbish and outrageous but that is what Fianna Fáil, supported by other Government parties, is doing with this Bill. In the real world outside of this bubble, where real people are suffering because they are stuck paying sky-high rents or living at home or in temporary accommodation because they are victims of the crisis, "affordable" means a price for a house that working people can afford to pay.
There might be a place for the LDA but not when it comes to residential property. Local authorities are best placed to manage that. They can deliver public homes on public lands and, when they are properly funded and resourced, they always do a good job and have proven that through the decades. We need to return to the council model of housing and allow councils to provide public housing.
In Louth, we have more than 33 acres of land banks lying idle. The Government instructed the council to buy them at the height of the boom. We need them developed into public housing but we need the council to do that. However, it cannot do it when the Government keeps stripping it of funding and eroding the democratic mandate of councillors. As a result, those land banks are sitting idle, barren of any development of houses, despite the fact that we have almost 5,000 people on the housing waiting list in County Louth alone.
The Minister is stripping important powers from local authorities and handing them over to quangos, developers and the Land Development Agency when all he needs to do is support local authorities to do the job they should be doing, that is, building social and affordable housing on public land. The council in Louth does not even have an appropriate maintenance budget to manage the existing stock. In Louth, if one's windows are broken or one's boiler gives out in the second half of the year, it will not be fixed by the council. That is how dysfunctional matters have become due to the neglect by the Minister and his Department.
If this Government wants to increase the housing supply it needs to keep away from the LDA and increase capital investment for public housing on public land but I suspect, deep down, that the Minister knows that.
I said at the outset that when this Bill came before the housing committee in the previous term the Minister was opposed to it and that he now seems to be all for it. That seems to be a bit of a habit developing on the part of the Minister. That is not the only issue on which he has flip-flopped. I had hoped the Minister would deliver but I have discovered he is good at making promises during election time and then reneguing on them afterwards. I want to take him back to early 2019 when he visited Drogheda, County Louth, as his party's spokesperson on housing. He met his Fianna Fáil colleagues on the election trail but he went one step further than that. He actually called a public meeting on the port access northern cross route. He stood up at the public meeting, giving it welly, and stated that this road needs to be built and that it was a vital piece of infrastructure that Drogheda needs. He said that if this road gets the funding, which he said it should do, it will open up land for development to deal with our housing crisis, get rid of the traffic gridlock that Drogheda is renowned for, help to open up the town centre, take lorries out of the town centre directly to the port and allow Drogheda, businesses and the town centre to prosper. He swore black was white in that if he was in government that is what would be done.
At the start of this week, after three applications by Louth local authorities for funding for the northern cross route, two were refused. We had high hopes. Given what the Minister did - he got his media coverage, his photographs in the paper and the whole lot out of it - I thought he fully understood how crucial and how vital this piece of infrastructure is for Drogheda but, lo and behold, last Monday came the news that he too had refused funding and had reneged on the commitment he gave. He has been only a year in power. He is the Minister in charge. He is the Minister with the purse strings. He has already publicly identified the need for this, but when push came to shove he did what his party is renowned for doing; he reneged on his election promises.
In the Government's Project Ireland 2040 plan Drogheda is designated as a growth centre and there are population targets etc. If one were to take the plan at face value, one would say that if Drogheda is in it and has been identified and designated as a growth centre, surely it must be a priority for this type of funding. No, it was not a priority, which leads me to believe that the Government's Project Ireland 2040 plan is not worth the paper it is written on. I spoke to Louth local authorities yesterday. As of yesterday afternoon, they had no confirmation whatsoever from the Minister's Department as to why the application was refused. Earlier last year the previous housing Minister said Louth County Council had met representatives of his Department after the last refusal and had consulted widely with the Department. He said the Department would engage and assist local authorities in submitting their applications and Louth County Council did consult with the Department. That application has been sitting in the Minister's Department since last May. Despite the number of times I have raised it here and the number of times I corresponded with the Minister, not once did he flag for one moment any weaknesses in the application. Neither he nor his Department ever contacted the local authorities to say there was any weakness in the applications or to say "you may not get this" or "you ought to apply to X, Y and Z". There was nothing, not a word. The Minister kept them dangling there for the guts of ten months after the application was submitted.
Thinking back, I had high hopes, as I said, that the Minister was genuine. Those hopes are gone. I do not know if the Minister has any idea of the anger of the people in Drogheda and south Louth over this. I have not felt such anger for a long time. We have waited for this funding for 15 years. For the first time ever we had a Minister who publicly stated and who benefited from that statement by getting media coverage that this was a vital piece of infrastructure and that if he were in government, the funding would be granted. What did he do then? He turned his back on them. I ask him to overturn this decision, given that we have been 15 years in the waiting. In addition, is there an appeals process whereby the local authorities can appeal this decision? The northern environs plan is for 7,000 houses to be built in an already traffic-congested town. While 2,000 of those houses have been built in recent years; there are a further 5,000 to go. Does the Minister want to destroy Drogheda with poor planning and lack of infrastructure? Is that what he is about? I appeal to the Minister again to overturn this decision because if he thinks for a split second that I or the people in Drogheda will let this go, given what he said previously and the way he just turned down that application and refused it point-blank, he has another thing coming. Is there an appeals process and will he overturn this desperate decision?
Housing is a basic need. Without housing, all aspects of life become radically more difficult. Physical and mental health starts to deteriorate and a family's ability to provide even simple nutrition falls apart. Education and work life are next to impossible without a home, and the human condition disintegrates if a person does not have a house. Ireland is suffering from a prolonged housing emergency and the level of human misery being caused by this prolonged housing emergency is unprecedented. I firmly believe that about 1 million people in Ireland are currently in housing distress in some fashion, whether it be mortgage distress, homelessness, years spent on housing waiting lists or grossly unaffordable rents and mortgages. This crisis has been going on for so long that the media and the political establishment have now become desensitised to it. The whole housing crisis has been completely eclipsed by Covid and this is an absolute disaster for many people around the country. It is the primary responsibility of the Government to make sure that people have access to affordable and reasonably priced homes and that those who cannot afford homes at market prices have an alternative route to a home. In this, in every measure, this Government and the previous Government have failed. In a normal society the cost of a house should equal about two and a half times to four times a person's annual income. In the South of Ireland, the average wage is about €44,000 but the average price of a home is now eight times the average income of an individual. That is double the high end of what the cost of a home should be in relation to a person's income. Even the Minister has to admit it at this stage, to hold up the white flag, to hold up his hand and say that the Government has radically failed the people of Ireland when it comes to homes. In Dublin a family on an average wage pay well over 50% of their after-tax income on average rents. For people on the minimum wage, both buying and renting homes is now absolutely impossible in Dublin. The record of three successive Governments on housing and homelessness has been nothing short of shameful. Last year 79 people died in homelessness on the streets of Dublin. The Minister's response to this shocking humanitarian crisis has been very poor. First, the fact that he has not rushed to make all the other local authorities in the State record the deaths that are happening in homelessness in those other counties annually is amazing. We will go through another year during which only Dublin will have recorded the number of people who died in homelessness. That is a major mistake. Second, the issue I brought to the Minister's attention in the dying months of last year in respect of people who are from outside of Dublin being refused homeless services in Dublin has not been fully resolved. It needs to be fully resolved. In addition, many people with disabilities on local housing waiting lists have been waiting more than a decade. The average rent in Dublin is well in excess of €2,000. Annually, this is a full €3,000 more than the before-tax income of a person working full-time on the minimum wage. In my home county, people who are single must wait well over ten years on the waiting list for a home, another shocking fact.
I note that last week, a Green Party Minister stated in the context of a plan for direct provision that he would guarantee a person coming into Ireland a home after, I think, four months and that he or she would have a guarantee of his or her own front door.
I oppose direct provision. It is a shockingly inhumane way to house people who are fleeing war, violence and famine. This country should offer refuge to people from abroad who are fleeing war, violence and famine. However, the idea that this country, which currently cannot home a person who has been a waiting list for ten years, will have the capability to home people with their own front door within four months or arriving in this country is so outlandish that it is amazing that the Government has even made that ambition known. We believe that people who are going through the direct provision system should have their application for direct provision fully completed after 18 months. Those who are refugees, seeking refuge from violence, war and famine should be offered refuge, and those who do not fulfil the law should have the law imposed on their particular situation.
To afford the cheapest accommodation in Dublin, a couple or individual needs to have an annual income of around €100,000. The cheapest two-bedroom apartment available to buy in Dublin costs €375,000, which would require a deposit of 10%, or €37,000. The list goes on. The fact of the matter that in housing terms, we are in a perfect storm that has been handed down from Minister to Minister like a hot potato, with each of them afraid to deal with it. At the same time, there are tens of thousands of houses around the country which are empty. At the same time, there are thousands of acres of land around the country that have been zoned, are in developers' hands, and are lying idle. There are sites that are not being taxed for site valuation tax. There is a dysfunctional housing market that this Government is refusing to make functional.
One of the difficulties that I have with this Bill that the Minister has brought forward is the fact that the Government is saying that local authorities will be bypassed. Local authorities have been gutted by this Government and previous Governments for a long time. The town councils were derailed and closed and local councillors are basically in hock to the officials in councils with regard to what they can and cannot do. They are extremely powerless already. One power they have is to represent local people when it comes to the building of social and affordable homes. They provide rich and invaluable information and oversight, in respect of how those homes get built in local areas. That is going to be deleted by the Government's plan. Local democracy is going to be totally deleted with this Bill.
I have concerns with regard to the percentage of the lands that will go to social and affordable homes. I know that the Fine Gael Bill, of which this is a close copy, contained a 30% limit in this respect. I am not sure exactly what the Minister is planning but I am significantly worried that much of that property will end up in the hands of private developers and the lands will be used to build homes under a definition of "affordable" that is marginally below the current market price, which to many people is absolutely unaffordable.
Before I finish, I make the point that the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, recently warned the Minister that the Affordable Housing Bill would jack up house prices. It is incredible that the Minister is deaf to many independent economists and organisations that are trying their best to advise the Minister on keeping house prices down, and the Minister is implementing policy that is actually going the other way. I note there was a report in the Irish Examinerwhich stated that when the ESRI was making its presentation to the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, there was lobbying from Deputies, asking it to tone down or delete its critique of the Minister's work. Perhaps the Minister had nothing to do with that but nonetheless, it was reported. If it is the case that we are going to seek to reduce the ability of third-party organisations and experts in their fields to present us with information that is economically sound for political reasons, that would be a big mistake.
I welcome the Land Development Agency, LDA. It will be an important mechanism as we look to undertake a strategic review of State lands and fully utilise these lands with the aim of building sustainable communities and affordable homes. I know that the Minister and his Department are passionate about affordable housing and committed to delivering it for Dublin and for other major urban centres. However, I have, on a number of occasions, reminded the Minister that there is a need for a not-dissimilar scheme in six to seven counties, namely, a sustainable housebuilding programme. County Longford will be at the front of the queue when this comes.
The current average price for a new standard three-bedroom semi-detached starter home should be around €229,000 in Longford, yet the average house price locally is around €122,000. The reality is that it has not been commercially viable for builders to build houses in County Longford and it is extraordinary to think that it is now 12 years since a three-bedroom semi-detached house was built commercially in the county. Throughout that time, the local authority will have turned down in excess of 500 families for social housing support on the basis that they were over the income threshold for supports. All these people now find themselves in a housing nightmare, unable to access social housing supports because they are earning too much and unable to access expensive private rental because they simply cannot afford it or the housing stock is not there. I am currently working with many young couples who are caught in this very bind. They are working hard and trying to save for a deposit on a house that in all likelihood will never materialise because the supply simply is not there.
Several counties that share a similar socioeconomic profile and housing market to County Longford need a cautious and measured intervention, modelled on the affordable housing scheme, in the hope of kick-starting sustainable housebuilding activity again in these counties. This is the type of measured, assured and cautious intervention that will reinvigorate provincial Ireland, just as the country saw throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when the Governments of those days put the principles of housing for all and affordable housing for all, front and centre.
The existing affordable housing scheme can and should be tweaked to suit counties such as Longford. It is to be hoped that local authorities will be mandated to invite expressions of interest for two to three housing developments in the county, with the guiding principle of sustainability and affordability for would-be homeowners. For many in rural Ireland, the media obsession with delivering affordable housing in the big cities and towns is frustrating, because many of these communities are themselves dealing with a nuanced but challenging housing crisis, and one that still could be easily fixed. I know that I have spoken with the Minister about this issue several times, and that he comprehends the viability challenge that currently exists for builders in the Longford market, and that of other counties. The hope and expectation is that the Minister will be able to tweak the affordability scheme to foster sustainable housebuilding in counties such as Longford and thereafter give local authorities the mandate to invite expressions of interest, with the aim of recommencing the construction of affordable housing in our communities.
I wish to start by expressing my thanks for being able to make a contribution to this most important debate. At the end of the day, any Government and any Minister for housing will want to be judged positively by the people they represent in providing affordable and local authority accommodation, and having a situation whereby people can afford their own door at a certain stage of their lives, when it is available to them to do so.
Yesterday would have been the late Jackie Healy-Rae's 90th birthday, if we could be fortunate enough to have him still with us. In getting prepared for this debate, I was thinking about the work that he and people like him did on local authorities before ever coming to Dáil Éireann. I thought of the great county councillors and how simplified the housing process was at the time. County councils got money, bought land and built houses. That is exactly how it was. They used local contractors, not necessarily big contractors but, as a rule, people who came from within the county. This created local employment and kept the hardware shops going. The houses got built and after a period of time of their being lived in by local authority tenants, those tenants could, if they were fortunate enough to get the legs going under them, purchase their house. That was great.
I would say to the Minister not to overcomplicate things and to try to keep to that system. We need to ensure that our local councils can build houses, give them to people on the housing list and let those people have an opportunity, whenever it would be prudent for them financially, to buy the homes at an affordable price. That is what I and every other person elected to Dáil Éireann wants, as do, most importantly, the very hard-working councillors throughout the country. I do not want anything we do here in passing legislation and setting up new agencies ever to interfere with what I could call the autonomy of local councils and country councillors. In Kerry, the council's housing department does excellent work, from the director of housing down to the investigating officers and the staff who process the grant applications and deal with the people who fill out forms to go on the list. They do their work in an excellent fashion. Every elected member of our local authority is, to a man or woman, a driven person who wants to represent every part of the county and do good for the people on the housing list.
There are certain questions I have to pose about what the Government is proposing. The Minister knows that I am not one of those people who stands up in this Chamber and says that all Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are out for is to promote the big developers. I believe that is nonsense. Perhaps things happened in the past that neither I nor anyone else would be proud of, but I do not believe that anybody will go pointing fingers at a current Minister and say that this person is all for the big developers. That is a populist thing for politicians to be saying about any individual. If I thought it was true, I would not be standing up and defending a Minister. When I think that a Minister is being blackguarded by that sort of talk, I do not like to hear it when I believe it not to be true. I want that to go on the record.
However, as I said, there are certain things I have to question and nobody can blame me for doing so. I have my own very strong, heartfelt views on direct provision because of the simple fact that in the county I represent, I have met and dealt with many people over the years who come from places where they were not safe to seek protection, our hospitality and to be taken care of in this country. It is right and proper that Governments should offer that protection, but the question is how to do it in the best fashion. We all want to get better and do better all the time. I have seen the White Paper that has been produced, which states that a person who comes to this country will, after a certain period, be entitled to own-door accommodation. I ask the Minister to remember that I am on record as saying that the ideal situation is to process the applications quickly of people coming here, in order that they are not left indefinitely in a particular situation. To me, hotels are a place where people go on holidays or for short-term stays. Everybody knows that is what a hotel is and what it should be. It is not a place for a long stay for anybody.
Having said that, when it comes to people seeking asylum having own-door accommodation, it is stated in the White Paper that they would, or could, have it after four months. How does that marry with the people who are on our local authority lists in Tralee, Listowel, Killarney, Killorglin, Sneem, Kenmare, east Kerry, north Kerry, west Kerry and all of south Kerry? How in the name of goodness can we tell people that those who come here from abroad will get a house after four months but the people living here and who are on a housing list will have to wait seven, ten, 11 or 12 years? Where are the houses going to come from so quickly? I would be delighted if I could be proven wrong in this. I would be delighted if the Minister could say to me that he can do it. However, would he be telling me in the same breath that the young couples and people starting out who are on housing lists and have been waiting for a long time will no longer have to wait? We cannot say one thing to one group of people and something else to another group. If we are able to fast-track the giving of local authority housing to anybody, we should be able to do it for everybody or else we should do it for nobody. I would like the Minister, at some stage, to explain to me and to the House how he can tell people that they will have own-door accommodation, or be entitled to it, after four months. I cannot see where the housing is going to come from in that period of time.
We all have to work very diligently to ensure that young couples who might not be looking for local authority housing at all but might be able to secure loans and mortgages to buy or build their own houses are able to do so at affordable rates. I am sure the Minister is acutely aware of something that has happened in the past number of months, but I want to remind the House of it. I refer to the increase in the cost of materials. The price of timber, steel, concrete and every other material that is used in construction has gone up enormously. I will not bore the House with the statistics but the increase is frightening. If one priced a steel structure, for instance, 12 months ago, compared with what it would cost today, there have been something like five increases in the price of steel and four increases in the price of timber. That is all within a 12-month period and every one of those increases was what I would call substantial.
We have to take that factor into account and it leads us on to other debates such as where we are going with the forestry industry in Ireland that we are importing all the timber because we cannot cut down our own trees and have our own mills milling our timber. That would obviously be at a cheaper cost than importing it from Russia, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, which does not make sense. There are common sense things like this that we must do to try to keep the cost of the raw materials for construction down.
I referred to things that are said a lot in this House about Minsters and big developers. I do not know what people would define as big developers but we should remember that any person who has a building business, whether a big, small or medium-sized business, must have people working for that business. There is no sin and there is nothing dirty or wrong in being a developer or builder. I want to send that message out from Dáil Éireann to the people who are maligned an awful lot. As I said, things might have happened in the past with big developers, big money and things like that, but it does not pertain to the politicians I know today or the developers who are operating today. One thing I do know is that we need builders. We need people with gumption, who have the ability to take on projects and are smart enough to know how to do the finances, employ the contractors and subcontractors and do the work in local areas. That ability does not fall out of the sky. The politicians who are sometimes jumping up and down and criticising those types of people could not organise a tea party themselves. I certainly would not put them in charge of any building project because not only would it fall down, it would not fall up in the first place to fall down in the second place. We have to remember who we are talking about and what we are saying when we are critical about any section of society. To me, builders might be big, medium or small employers but all they are doing is giving jobs to people in local areas and providing a service.
I am glad to have an opportunity to talk on this very important matter. Housing is the dominant issue that we are asked about every day.
I appreciate that the Minister is trying to do something about it. While I might not agree with the Land Development Agency aspect, it is not personal. It is my view versus the Minister's.
I, too, compliment the local authority in Kerry on what it has done in very difficult times to provide housing. While it has a fairly hefty housing list all the time, it continues to do its best. It has done so going back as far I can remember, during which time it built rural cottages and brought out demountable homes. In this regard, I can think of a special man who did an awful lot of work and who I am not sorry to mention, namely, Mr. John O'Donoghue from Knockaderry, Farranfore. He was a clerk of works but he carried out some works and organised some houses. He used local builders who employed local tradesmen. They did magnificent work with very little. They did not have teleporters or much of the modern equipment available to builders today but, nevertheless, they had a massive housing programme over the years. The only thing we are short of now is finance.
I am not happy about the Land Development Agency and have significant concerns about it because it is removing accountability from ordinary elected members, ordinary county councillors who have done their best over the years and who are still doing their best in Kerry County Council. I acknowledge there are problems acquiring land and getting houses built here in Dublin, which may have tempted the Government to go the way it is going. Maybe that approach is needed in Dublin but it is not needed in Kerry. I have concerns over public lands being handed over to private developers. Like Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, I have nothing against developers but I believe public lands should remain in public ownership. It would be fine if the developers built the social or affordable housing for the local authority but I am very concerned about the Government's statement that they could acquire public lands, and even private lands, at agricultural prices. It could create a civil war in a town or county if land were purchased compulsorily from private people. I would be very worried about that.
I am also worried about accountability. It is accountability that we need. We have lost accountability in many of the sectors. Where roads are concerned, when a councillor puts down a motion in Kerry County Council, the request is sent on to Transport Infrastructure Ireland. It is a step removed. Refuse collection is working fine in our county but in other places, the local authorities have no role in it. We are lucky in Kerry with the refuse collection. Town councils did great work in their towns but they were abolished. They were very necessary for local representation. I rue the day that they were abolished.
There are various schemes that the Minister could help us with. The tenant purchase scheme is not working. Those who have been paying rent for 30 or 40 years are not allowed to purchase their house if they are not working and have become pensioners. The scheme was abolished for a number of years and the affected individuals exceeded the maximum age before it was reinstated. No one is allowed to purchase any house built since 2015. Normally, they could be purchased after 12 months.
Rural cottages are very hard to get built in our county. We cannot get enough money. The scheme that was in place was great. A young couple could provide a site, more often than not on their family-owned land, and could pay back the council the cost of the house when they got up and running. The council, in turn, was able to build more houses. This helped to pay for the voids. Kerry County Council is doing well enough now but, for a period, it was struggling seriously because it did not have the money to turn the voids around and put people back into the houses.
Many couples would build their own house if they could get planning permission. That is all they want. The urban-generated pressure clause is depriving many couples of the ability to build their own house.
The Government is saying people should consider building in towns and villages. We do not have the sewerage schemes. I hear the Green Party talking every day about the environment, stating we must protect it. I want to protect it as much as anyone else but these people do not want to talk about the sewerage schemes. Places such as Scartaglin have no sewerage scheme. They have proud communities. Brosna is another example. In Kenmare town, a developer who has got planning permission cannot proceed with a development because the sewerage scheme is not adequate. It is being said that money will be got but that has been said for a long time.
There are other issues, including those affecting young couples. Consider the case of a young couple who obtained planning permission and built a house without any loan. They have the roof on and the windows and doors in, and all they need is money for the wiring and plumbing, but they will not qualify for the grant of €30,000 because they did not get a mortgage. One of the conditions to qualify for the grant is that the applicant has a mortgage. The county council cannot give the couple a loan because they do not have a greenfield site. That is absolutely ridiculous.
Another case involves a grand young fellow who only wanted to borrow €100,000 to build his house. He could do a lot of the work and had enough money to go so far but no bank would give him the €100,000. The banks would not lend without lending the entire cost of the house. Can the Minister understand how ridiculous that is? There are rules and regulations on planning and getting a small bit of help that are driving people down through the ground.
The levies and charges for connecting to the local sewerage and water systems and for connecting the electricity are absolutely ridiculous. If the Government really wants to help people — I know it would like to — it will have to suss out the amount of VAT and other taxes chargeable. As Deputy Michael Healy-Rae stated, the cost of materials has become very high but, on top of that cost is the cost of the VAT and other taxes. It is nailing people to the cross. Many would try to build a house for themselves and would do their very best but they are nailed by rules, regulations, levies and charges. Many who want to build a one-off house in Kerry cannot get planning permission. They would gladly build if they got a small bit of help. I ask the Minister to get someone to reconsider the urban-generated clause that is depriving so many of planning permission in Kerry – people who just want to put a roof over their heads with hardly any help required from anyone else.
I welcome the opportunity to speak. I have waited for quite some time for it.
The Minister's comments about ideology on the left are not helpful and his comments about hysterical Deputies on this side of the room are not conducive to a reasonable debate either. I come from a large family and I have had broad experience within that family. We have had many trades and experienced every side in relation to jobs. My father was a small builder. I watched him all my life working extremely hard, putting in hours when he would price jobs and never get a penny and so on. I fully understand the situation from a number of perspectives. The Minister's comments are not helpful.
Deputy Cowen talked about housing coming up at the last election. Since 2011, I have stood in three elections in February. In 2011, 2016 and 2020, the same issues came up consistently, namely, housing, public health, climate change and public childcare. There were other issues but they were the major four issues. It seems to me they are all intermingled if we are to have a sustainable society. Since those three elections, we have had the pandemic and we have has the mantra repeated in here that we cannot go back to the way things were. That is what the Minister is doing with this Bill. Maybe I am wrong and I will be the first to put my hand up if I am. Maybe there will be appropriate changes to the Bill but I have serious concerns about what this Bill is doing. We are not learning from the pandemic that we need a sustainable society. That must be built on principles of equality. The most basic part of that is that people have homes and that, whether one rents or buys, the price is affordable and related to income, not the market.
I live in the Claddagh, which is a beautiful place. I saw a two-bedroom house recently for rent for €2,000 per month. I do not mean to single out a particular house but that is simply unsustainable. I use as an example a two-bedroom house in Galway city at €2,000 per month. How could that be sustainable? My difficulty is with successive governments, starting with the Labour Party and Fine Gael Government when it introduced the housing assistance payment, HAP, in 2014 and enshrined it as the major Government policy. People were taken off a housing waiting list if they received it and it enshrined in policy that tenants, who until then had paid under-the-counter payments, had to pay over-the-counter payments. The Government or local authority would pay so much, nobody could get a house at a rent that was under the limits and tenants had to pay the excess.
The purpose of every scheme that successive governments have brought in has been to bolster the market. That is my difficulty. There is a role for the market. I have heard various Deputies talk about how we need developers. We certainly do and we need builders, including small builders. I am all for that but that is not what this proposal is about. Let me put this in perspective. I have given one example of a rent of €2,000. The Simon Community has produced its 18th snapshot, Locked Out of the Market: The Gap Between HAP Limits and Market Rents. In the Galway city summary, it states:
There was an average of 62 properties available to rent in Galway City Centre over the study period.
For the fifth study period in a row ... there were no properties available within standard of discretionary HAP limits in Galway City[.]
This is the eleventh time over the 16 Locked Out studies that there have been no properties to rent within standard HAP limits in Galway[.]
I could go on but I will not. According to daft.ie, rents in Galway have increased by 4.9%. The report goes on to show that the position in the city suburbs are marginally better. Out of 61 properties, there were three available within the discretionary limits. I have read each report that came out and with each report the crisis intensifies.
Over the three elections I mentioned, the message has been consistent. I ask for a message from the Government that the market will not provide sustainable homes for our people. The market is for profit, and fair play to anyone who can make a profit. However, that profit must be made within a policy set by a Government that says a house is not a commodity to be traded. It is the most essential building block if we are to have a civilised society. That message is not coming from the Government. There are mixed messages, which is confusing.
We have asked repeatedly on this side of the House for a declaration of a housing emergency. We did that with climate change. That has not happened. We have asked for housing and homes to be enshrined as the most basic right in our Constitution and that has not happened. We have utterly relied on the market and it is getting worse and worse. HAP payments now amount to more than €1 billion a year. Every time I mention that, some Minister shakes their head, but I will keep saying it until a Minister tells me I am wrong.
We still have rent supplement. There is nothing wrong with rent supplement but it was a temporary measure. Instead of building houses and dealing with the problem, we did the opposite and enshrined HAP as a policy document. Unfortunately, it was brought in by the Labour Party and Fine Gael. That sent a strong message to the market that, from now on, we would allow the market to house people with insecure tenure, we would pay the rent and when we do not succeed in paying a sufficient amount to the landlord we will put the onus on the tenant to come up with the cash.
I looked at the Bill, consisting of 78 sections, ten Parts and two Schedules, many times as I waited for my chance to speak. The problem is set out at the beginning of the text. It is an "Act to regulate relevant public land in order to increase the amount of land available". There would be nothing wrong with that if we did it to increase the amount of land available for public housing on public land. I might come back to the term "public housing". However, we are doing it "for the provision of housing so as to address deficiencies in the housing market". We are not recognising there is a crisis or that we need dramatic change, as the Minister knows, if we are to face the next pandemic or climate change. We need to have a sustainable approach to housing. This Bill is twisting language to say we will look at public land but leaving numerous escape routes to allow that public land to be used for private housing that will be sold off or rented with no guarantees about who will own it and so on. There are so many questions. If the Minister comes back to tell me that in Galway - or wherever it is necessary, as I am not parochial - there will be public housing on public land, I would be the first to support him but that is not the message being given here.
Many Deputies have mentioned the undermining of local democracy and the Minister has shaken his head and said it is not happening. That is exactly what is happening with regard to the disposal of public land. It is enshrined in section 56. I will not read out the text but it enshrines that councillors will not have a say in the disposal of public land to the Land Development Agency. I would have thought that before putting the Land Development Agency on a statutory footing, the Minister would at least look at what it has achieved to date and what it has cost. It was to establish a registry. What progress has been made with the registry of public land? What does it cost us in rent to have another quango and a CEO? We run down our local authorities all the time. The Minister is shaking his head. The CEO of the county council has moved on to greater things in Mayo. He was acting CEO for five years or maybe longer. We have left the county council without a manager after having someone as the acting manager for five years. Galway has a city manager who has been in office for more than seven years. The only idea the previous Government came up with was to amalgamate the two local authorities in Galway against the overwhelming decision of councillors, who opposed the proposal and argued that bigger was not better. They said smaller, well-resourced and well-staffed was better and they would deliver.
Two reports at the time were in favour of the amalgamation but not before under-resourcing and understaffing were dealt with. Those have never been dealt with.
In addition to taking power from councillors, the Minister also set up a quango in the Land Development Agency. I will stick with Galway because, perhaps, it best captures this. I have never tired of highlighting the crisis in Galway. I will take one aspect of that crisis. I mentioned there are not enough properties for rent and certainly not enough properties within the housing assistance payment, HAP, targets or objectives.
On top of that, however, people are waiting for 15, 16 and 17 years on the local authority list. My regular email to the county and city councils asks that they please explain to me how these people were never offered a house in that length of time. That is one aspect. The second aspect, which I observed with my own eyes and heard, is that from 2009, all construction was suspended in Galway and other areas. As a result, we had lovely quarterly reports in which the final category was "housing suspended". We bought land at a very high price. Programmes for building social housing were all suspended. Not one house was built. On the one hand, the Government stopped all housing construction, while on the other it gave out money under the HAP scheme to bolster the market. Now, we find the market can provide something we knew all the time.
When I read this Bill, I want to thank Dr. Rory Hearne for his many articles on housing. His analysis has been very helpful to me and other Deputies. He talks about looking at housing through the prism of the market and as a commodity to be traded for profit. If the Minister calls me an ideologue because of that, I will take it. I do not believe I am an ideologue. I do not believe I have any ideology in that respect other than that I believe fundamentally in equality. I believe it is right because it makes for a healthy society and a more sustainable economy.
I see no equality here. I see snobbery built into the comments on the Bill and references to undue social segregation, whereby we cannot have too many tenants of the same type in the same area. I have lived long enough to observe Shantalla, the local authority estate from which I come. The houses have not changed. The estate has the same appearance, yet the price of a house has gone up to €500,000. That tells us something about perception and in-built snobbery. What was once a local authority house, and many still are in Shantalla, is now worth €500,000. The railings outside the hospital are exactly the same colour. The estate has exactly the same type of road structure and the same houses, but the price has gone up.
I am really allergic to in-built snobbery I see in the term "undue segregation". Personally, I would not like to live beside any of the men who have been caught up, to put it mildly, with the Davy stockbrokers scandal. I certainly would not like to live beside one of the few bank managers who have been exposed. Segregation works in many ways. I will go back to basics and stay away from the emotion but it really gets to me when I hear that comment.
I would like to see a massive construction programme of public housing that is available for all of us, if that is what we choose. With that, the Minister would send a message that would bring the prices of houses down. The price of my house must come down whether I like it or not. It is simply not sustainable for house prices to keep going up as if a house is a commodity. If that message were to go out, prices would come down and we could then look at building public housing on public land.
We have no master plan in Galway city. I have tried to explain this. I have extra time today so I will dwell on it. We have no master plan to manage our overall land in the city. CIÉ is doing its own thing in Ceannt Station, as are the docks. The Land Development Agency, with Galway City Council, is looking at Dyke Road. We have substantial public lands in all these areas.
The Land Development Agency has been involved in Galway, yet we do not have a report. A task force was set up. The Minister might recall that it took some effort on my part to get correspondence from his Department regarding that. When the Minister shakes his head, I waste my time responding. I ask him, in his own time, to look at how long it took to get these three letters, none of which contains a report showing an analysis of the position in Galway and what is required. They refer to attachments, none of which were provided. The point about setting up a task force is that I foolishly breathed a sigh of relief at the time and thought we were going to look at what was wrong in Galway. I thought we would get a master plan for all the public land but we did not get one.
We have infrastructure deficits in Conamara, in the smaller towns and on the east side of Galway city. This has been mentioned by Deputy Canney and Senator Kyne lately in the Seanad. We cannot have balanced development because there is a lack of infrastructure. For example, there is a shortage of drinking water in Ceantar na nOileán in Conamara because of an absence of progress with Irish Water. We now use Irish Water as the punching bag as opposed to the State setting what is required and insisting that Irish Water do it. We have raw sewage ag dul isteach san fharraige taobh amuigh den Cheathrú Rua agus gan aon chóras athchúrsála i gceist ansin.
We have no infrastructure year after year. I could mention many other things but I will not single out areas. I am singling out the absolute lack of commitment to balanced regional development and an overdevelopment of cities which cannot even cope with what they have. Mutton Island is struggling to cope with the population we have in Galway. We have no sewerage infrastructure on the east side of the city, yet we are now coming in with the Land Development Agency, a CEO, rent and extra staff.
We have systematically undermined our local authorities and denuded them of staff and power. We took away waste management. In 2001, we produced a plan in Galway city in which we stated we did not want an incinerator but put forward an extremely positive proposal. The response of the Government was to take our powers from us. This Government is taking local authority powers in the area of housing without an analysis of what is required. I will give the Minister an example of this with regard to the strategic housing developments. I refer to a very courageous submission on the review of the strategic housing commission by a chief planner in Galway. If the Minister does nothing else, I ask him to read this report from 24 July 2019. The individual in question certainly took their courage in their hands in setting out that the strategic development was not appropriate and used up the resources and time of the staff in the city council and, presumably, all the local authorities, to no avail and without any recognition whatsoever. Let me read one tiny bit of it: “The meetings with the applicant and An Bord Pleanála are more dictate than dialogue or negotiation.” Trust was a problem and it included the use of additional staff, time, meetings and resources. It is a long submission and my time is nearly up so I cannot go into it. I invite the Minister to read it. I also ask him to give me whatever analysis was done by the task force in Galway. I have three letters but no attachments or conclusions from a task force that has sat for more than two years in a city which is crying out for a master plan.
Finally, and this worries me, the docks in Galway are under a company and Ceannt Station is separate. Will those lands be available for the Land Development Agency to consider? Are they outside the agency's remit because the docks have a commercial remit? I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I will not go over my time.
As Deputy Connolly stated, this Bill does not recognise, in any shape or form, that there is a housing crisis or emergency. Although the previous Minister said that there was a crisis, we never actually took it on as a task with which to deal. This crisis and emergency did not come about by accident. It is a consequence of policy decisions and an ideological stance going back decades through successive Governments involving Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens. All of these parties should be honest and accept their responsibility for the current situation.
One of the most basic and fundamental human rights is the right to shelter. In this case, it is the right to affordable and good-quality housing with security of tenure. The failure to provide such a basic need is a signifier of a failed state. This situation will not be solved by tinkering with the present system of reliance on the private sector or the managing of the figures on social housing. It needs an immediate and fundamental change in policy. It needs a declaration of a housing emergency and a commitment to a mass programme to build public housing.
The Minister knows Mel Reynolds, an architect who has compiled many reports over the years. In March 2019, Mr. Reynolds made the point that there is enough zoned public and State-controlled land to build 140,000 housing units. He claimed that there was enough zoned lands owned by local authorities in Dublin to effectively clear the 40,000 waiting lists across the four Dublin local authority areas. Instead of action to build public housing on State-owned land, however, we got the land initiative, a scheme to give State land to private developers for a return of a paltry supply of social housing. This went nowhere mainly because of lack of interest on the part of the developers and, rightly, opposition by councillors.
I welcome the idea of having the Land Development Agency to manage and develop publicly owned land in conjunction with local authorities, semi-State and other public bodies. However, serious questions need to be addressed in this Bill. Dublin City councillors are concerned that the Bill contains clauses which might remove their right to vote on the disposal of local authority lands. They have asked the council to take legal advice in this regard and are expecting a report on the issue next week. This may not be the Bill's intention but it is an issue that needs clarification and a possible amendment.
What does the commitment to a certain amount of affordable housing mean? Will public land be given to private developers? How much land will be set aside in this regard? What does the Minister consider to be affordable? We are looking at up to €400,000 for a private apartment or house. This is not affordable for a couple on an average income.
We need a change of mindset if the Government is serious about solving this crisis. We need a commitment to public housing and only public housing on State-owned land. By public housing, I mean a mix of traditional council houses and cost-rental units. This will accommodate those who are not eligible for social housing because their incomes are higher than the limits allow. The thresholds are too low anyway and should be raised. It would also ensure mixed-income communities alongside public spaces, parks, community crèche facilities and good public transport links. From this point of view, local authorities should have the key role of developing their zoned lands. Local authorities would build better quality housing with more focus on public space. This would avoid the problems with fire safety regulations and construction problems which occurred with privately built housing during the boom. In theory, local authorities should be able to build cheaper because they already own the land, which is the main cost factor for private developers. Local authorities would also forgo the average 15% profit margin raised in the private sector.
The other aspect of this issue relates to land held by semi-State and public bodies such as the Department of Defence. The development of the former Clancy Barracks at Islandbridge is 100% private. We also have Iarnród Éireann, probably the largest holder of public land, seeking a developer to build on land around Heuston Station. In this deal, the developer will rent out the units for 25 years and then the properties will be owned by Iarnród Éireann. Again, this will be a 100% private development on State-owned land.
There is a meeting tonight about the development of cost-rental accommodation at St. Michael's Estate in Inchicore. Dublin City Council has the option of 20-year or 40-year loans from EU Structural Funds. If it is a 20-year loan, the cost recovery through rent charges will not be significantly lower than market rents. This will defeat the whole concept of the cost-recovery model. Instead, there should be affordable rents for good quality housing with long-term security of tenure. A 40-year loan would mean much lower rents and affordability for people in the communities in question.
I am on the board of the Dolphin House regeneration project. We went through phase 1, which was successful. When we moved to the next phase, however, problems arose. They arose because the local authority said it could not cover the cost of providing community facilities and green spaces in the regeneration development. Seemingly, this issue has arisen in Limerick and other places as well because, under the planning regulations for regeneration projects, community facilities and properly controlled community land must be provided. The Dolphin House community was forced to hand over a piece of land to a private developer who would pay for these facilities. This is outrageous. We either have regeneration or we do not. All moneys must be given to the local authorities to create and develop community spaces and facilities.
As already stated, a State development agency to manage public land in conjunction with local authorities and other public bodies is a step forward. It must have a clear mandate, however, to build public housing of mixed tenure on publicly owned land.
I will start by going back in time a little and examining how we came to this point. I will go back ten years to be precise to a Government that had taken power in a slightly different economic situation but one that I fear is about to be revisited. I supported not all but many of the difficult decisions taken by that Government. The Minister was critical of the 2011-2016 Government, perhaps rightly in some instances. However, one achievement of that Government, and one of the reasons I supported it, was that there was no sell-off of State lands. There was a huge amount of pressure to sell off State lands at the time regardless of what entities owned them. They were preserved in public ownership, however, a testament to that Government. It was important that those State lands were maintained because they are now what the Government is proposing to develop for public housing. I have no problem whatsoever with that.
The 2011-2016 Government's record in house building was not great. The Government before it, which the Minister supported, was no better. Both of them were in difficult economic times. The economy determines what services we provide, be it health, education or public housing. It also determines how efficient and how successful society is in vindicating social and economic rights. It is very difficult to build houses if there is no money. The Soviet Union built millions of houses from Białystok right across to Vladivostok.
They were not building many of them by the 1990s because their economy was on the rocks. The previous Government has a particular failing to answer for in that the country was doing well economically but houses were not being built.
To go back to my point about the importance of land banks for building houses, even if one gets a Government that does not have the wherewithal to build houses because of what it or a previous Government has done to the economy, the moneys at least are there. The land bank remains. That is why I would join with some previous speakers in expressing concern, in particular, at sections 49 and 56 of the Bill. The Local Government Association, which is a non-party political organisation and on which there are representatives from all organisations, has expressed concern.
I want to be clear that I do not have a problem with the Department or even a local government management agency taking property in instances where a local authority has manifestly failed to develop lands but the powers that are currently contained in this Bill are far wider than that, and that is my concern. As I say, I have no problem with what I think is the Minister's intention. I acknowledge and applaud that but I suppose we must legislate not only for the Minister's intentions but for the intentions of future Ministers of the Department, whatever it may be called in the future.
The powers to acquire land from local government must be tightened somewhat. There has to be a demonstrated failing by the local authority in question before the land can be taken off it and if there is such a failing and the land is taken by a development agency to develop public housing, who could possibly complain about that?
My other concern is that there is the power to take lands in public ownership and develop private housing on it. The Minister has made it clear in the case of Dublin - in fairness, it is his intention right across the country - that is not what he intends to do with this Bill. I repeat that we are not legislating for the Minister's intentions; we are legislating for future Ministers.
I want to be absolutely clear that I am not in any way talking about the Minister but predecessors in his office have been found to have been corrupt. I would worry in the event that there was a corrupt Minister in the future. Obviously, it is the Land Development Agency that would seize the land but, of course, all of the members are appointed by the Minister. The Minister, as Ministers do in the vast majority of agencies, will set the tone of the agency, be it a move towards the development of private housing on public lands or a commitment to developing exclusively publicly housing on public lands, or indeed something much more untoward. It is not impossible. If it has happened previously, it can happen again. The whole issue around development of lands, particularly in west Dublin, but in many other parts of the country, was fraught with corruption for years. Thankfully, I am not aware of any such corruption at present. I am certainly not aware of any such forces in Irish politics that were there previously but I am making the point that we are not legislating for now; we legislating for the future. We should be cognisant of that.
The other issue I wish to raise as we are talking about housing is a failure by local authorities, including the local authority in Clare, which I represent, to adequately use the Derelict Sites Act 1990. There are many derelict buildings in towns across Clare, as there are right across Ireland. They are damaging to the morale of a town and I suppose they are particularly offensive in circumstances where there are long housing lists.
If the Derelict Sites Act needs to be amended, that is fine. Clare County Council has made the point that it feels the Act is inadequate. On the other hand, I believe Louth County Council has used it quite effectively to acquire. As for who is right and who is wrong, I do not know. I know about towns such as my own home town of Scariff and, in particular, Tullow, which is very near to me. The Minister has been criticised quite a bit for his plans to visit various areas of the country. I applaud the Minister for visiting areas of the country. A Minister should know what is going on across the country at all times. However, I would ask the Minister, when he is visiting an area, to look out for derelict buildings. I would ask the Minister to visit Clare and look at the amount of derelict buildings, in particular, in Tullow. It is a problem in Kilrush, Kildysart and Scariff. It is a problem on the street of Killaloe. In every town, there are these buildings which are not being utilised and must be brought back into use. If the owners have immediate plans to bring them back into use, that is the purpose of the Derelict Sites Act where a person is notified that it is intended to put his or her site on a register and the person can say that although it is a bit messy, he or she plans to carry out the following works in the following timeframe and the site is not put on the register. Alternatively, the site can be put on the register and if the site remains on the register for a period, the local authority can compulsorily acquire it and bring it back into use, either residential or retail, or a mixture of the two. It is something that we badly need to see utilised. Just as we badly need to see public lands being developed for housing, we need to see people back living on the main streets of our towns instead of those buildings falling in as they are at present.
I do not have a problem with the Minister's stated intentions and if local authorities are not developing the lands at their disposal, they should be taken off them and given to an agency which will development them for public use. My concern is that the powers provided in this Bill are greater than that and could be abused in the future, either to bring about the development of private housing on public lands or for more nefarious purposes.
I have no problem with the Bill. I will be voting for it on this Stage but I strongly advocate that the Minister bring in amendments to tighten up the powers to take the lands, on Committee Stage or further down the line.
Finally, I also urge the Minister to look at the Derelict Sites Act and its operation to ascertain whether it is adequate. Various local authorities will have different views on the matter but it must be adequate. Just as there are a lot of public lands that are not been adequately used in the Minister's view and need to be adequately used, there are a lot of derelict sites right across the country. If particular local authorities are not stepping up to the plate and are not doing enough to bring them back into ownership, some strategy needs to be developed by the Minister and his Department to ensure that the blight of dereliction in our towns is combated.
Ar dtús, gabhaim míle buíochas le gach Teachta a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht seo. Bhí sí an-úsáideach agus bhí na Teachtaí, den chuid is mó, an-dearfach freisin. D’éist mé leis na pointí a bhí á phlé ag mo chomhghleacaithe agus oibreoimid le chéile chun dul chun cinn a dhéanamh leis an mBille. Táim ag súil go mór le Céim an Choiste den Bhille go luath. Táim oscailte freisin chun féachaint ar fíorleasuithe agus leasuithe úsáideacha. I thank the Members who contributed to the debate. We have had a good debate with different views on it but I welcome that most of the contributions have been constructive.
The Land Development Agency Bill is important legislation which will endure for years We are all in agreement that we need to manage State land in a better way. Tá brón orm.
This agency and the legislation that underpins it will endure for some time. We need to get it right. As I said, I have listened to Members and I look forward to working with them on Committee Stage. There are reasonable and useful amendments that I will be open to considering. Let us remember why we are introducing this legislation. We need to ensure that State-owned land is used productively to house our people. It is not an attack on local government. The local government sector and councillors are of great importance and they will be the main driver and provider of public homes, both social and affordable. I want that to continue but I also want to ensure that land that is not being used, which some speakers correctly noted could house 114,000 families, is used. We have to get on with this. There is too much State-owned and agency land not being put to productive use and there are many reasons given as to why this should not happen. I will certainly not stand over that as the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
I am looking forward to working with Members on Committee Stage to craft and improve the Bill, while doing so expeditiously. We need to ensure the agency is up and running, is capitalised and can fund itself to deliver cost-rental and affordable housing and assist in delivering more social housing. I thank Members for their contributions which have been noted. I look forward to working with Deputies from all parties and none on Committee Stage.