Wednesday, 14 July 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
This morning it is being reported that the Cabinet could not agree the summer economic statement yesterday, due to disagreements in government about funding for housing in advance of budget 2022. While this is very alarming news to those of us who want to see a massive increase in the construction of family homes, it is not surprising given the track record of the Government over ten years, including Fianna Fáil's track record in propping up Fine Gael under the so-called confidence-and-supply deal, during which Fianna Fáil claimed it had secured a housing budget year after year. It did not. What it did was acquiesce to Fine Gael housing policy at every turn and it is still at it; continuing with Fine Gael's failed models of housing delivery, including long-term leasing, which represents nothing but bad value for the taxpayer.
In May, it was reported that there was another disagreement at Cabinet. On that occasion, the Fine Gael leader, Deputy Varadkar, pushed back when the Taoiseach suggested the Government should make housing its number one priority. Now, it seems that his Fine Gael colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is not content with signing off on an increase in the funding to be allocated for housing. This is incredible. The level of current funding is woefully inadequate. Anyone with an ounce of wit or any sense of the depths of the housing crisis knows that. The Taoiseach should not just take my word for it. Last month, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, called on the Government to double capital investment in public housing; to provide €4 billion annually to deliver 18,000 public houses and homes that workers and families can afford on public land. We in Sinn Féin have been telling the Government this for years. That is the scale of what is required to tackle the crisis.
When in opposition, Fianna Fáil signed up to the 2018 Dáil motion from the Raise the Roof campaign. Does the Taoiseach remember that? The motion also called for a doubling of investment in public housing. During the general election in 2020 Fianna Fáil campaigned on a commitment to deliver 20,000 social and affordable homes every year for five years but once it joined Fine Gael in government, it very quickly abandoned those promises and once again fell under the shadow of Fine Gael's failed housing policies.
Budget 2021 saw the same inadequate level of investment in social and affordable housing as all of the budgets before it. This year, things must change. The Government must finally listen to the advice of Sinn Féin, the ESRI and more recently the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, and the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. The number of voices calling on the Government to do the right thing in housing grows ever wider and louder. My question is simple. Will the Taoiseach now commit to doubling capital investment in social and affordable homes to deliver at least 20,000 homes that workers and families desperately need and rightly deserve? Could he confirm that this will form part of the summer economic statement or is it a fact that his partners in government are pushing this back and preventing it from happening?
The Deputy's alleged facts are again wrong. There is no disagreement on the prioritisation of housing by this Government. In fact, over the past month or so we have seen a manifestation of the commitment by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to radically change the approaches to housing in terms of social housing, affordable housing, cost rental, getting voids back in use much more quickly, and in a whole range of supports for people to enable them to buy their own houses. The key issue will be supply.
The summer economic statement will outline the broad fiscal framework. The national development plan will outline the very significant capital investment the Government is going to undertake. The Housing for All strategy that the Minister will publish will equally outline a step change in terms of the construction of housing, social and affordable and right across the board, in terms of what is required. We all know that we need to build more houses. That is the key point.
The Deputy has asked me to listen to Sinn Féin. With the greatest respect, I have heard her party pontificate about housing on an ongoing basis, but it comes up with very few, if any, solutions. This is a political game for Sinn Féin. Its politics are fraudulent in terms of what it is doing here. It wants to exploit housing for electoral gain and no other reason. It does not ever come forward with substantive, clear solutions but it opposes a lot and it speaks out against a lot of initiatives that are taken. I do not know whether the Deputy wants me to listen to her and her party when they continue to oppose houses up and down the country. Is that the advice she wants me to take? Does she want me to stop the thousands of houses Sinn Féin has opposed and voted against in Dublin, for example? Is that the advice she wants me to take from her party? Is Sinn Féin really sincere about wanting more houses built, when it has stopped social and affordable houses in Tallaght, Clondalkin, Donabate and Swords? Is that the advice she wants me to take from Sinn Féin?
Some 22,000 people benefited from the help-to-buy scheme. Sinn Féin opposed the scheme. The Minister came forward recently with affordable housing initiatives, which Sinn Féin railed against. I noticed that despite railing against them, Sinn Féin quietly voted for them. That is interesting. It illustrates the degree to which this is a political game for Sinn Féin. There is a lack of sincerity at the heart of what Sinn Féin is about when it comes to the housing problem. The party says one thing in here and it does something alternative when it counts on the ground in terms of various projects because it is afraid of losing local electoral support.
The Housing for All strategy will represent the largest investment in social housing in the history of the State over a sustained period. It will also represent significant State intervention to provide affordable homes on State land for people who need to be able to access such houses. It will also outline supports for people who are in the market to buy houses, in particular, younger people. The Minister has already moved to take action on rent. In rent pressure zones, rents will not be allowed to increase beyond inflation in the future.
There has been a 48% reduction in homelessness among families in the past 12 months. That is good progress but it is not enough. We want to do more, and we must do more to deal with homelessness and in giving people access to all types of housing. The cost rental initiative is a very good one. That will make progress and it will expand in the future also. The legislation that has come through the House in the past six weeks in terms of the Land Development Agency and other matters, that Sinn Féin railed against, will make a difference-----
No amount of personalised invective, ducking and diving or failing to answer questions can disguise the fact that this Administration, under the leadership of the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, is failing miserably, most especially in terms of housing. The Taoiseach's response and the manner in which he bristles at the notion of being held to account as the Head of Government are nothing short of extraordinary.
Let me repeat my question. Will the summer economic statement contain the resources we require to tackle the issue of affordable and social housing, which people desperately need? The programme for Government commits the Government to examining the issue of defective housing. This was to be done within its first 12 months and was in response to a report by my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, entitled "Safe as Houses?", through the housing committee. This will require resourcing, as will the commitment to the people of Donegal, Mayo and beyond in respect of the mica scandal and the need for 100% redress. The media suggests-----
-----that the working group in respect of defects is behind schedule. It was also suggested that the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage was trying to limit redress options. Is that true?
The issue in terms of tackling the housing crisis will not be one of resources. It will be one of delivery and getting projects built - getting them built in Tallaght, getting them built in Clondalkin, getting them built in Galway, Cork and around the country. That means that parties such as the Deputy's no longer have the luxury of opposing significant housing projects when it suits them to do so for votes on the ground. She has never responded to the points I have made to her in that regard. I have listed them all out: 975 homes being built in Clondalkin, but Sinn Féin opposed them; and 500 homes in Tallaght, 278 in Swords and 1,200 in Donabate. The Deputy has never explained to me how she thinks opposing those projects advanced the need to increase supply. We do not have enough supply.
-----I lead a Government that will invest more in social housing than any other in history. I lead the Government that will get the State and local authorities building homes again despite Sinn Féin's objections-----
Last week, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan of Fianna Fáil was quite blunt in his assessment of the party's handling of the housing crisis. He said: "[Fianna Fáil] doesn’t understand the scale of the housing crisis". I happen to think that the Deputy was being unfair. It is not just Fianna Fáil that does not understand the scale of the housing crisis, it is the entire Government. Given the Government's shameful U-turn to facilitate tax breaks for cuckoo funds last week, that much is clear.
If the Taoiseach wants to begin to comprehend the scale of the crisis facing renters, might I ask that he read the survey published by the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, today, which lays bare the hardship being endured by renters all over the country? Nationally, more than 50% spend more than 30% of their take-home pay on rent. That is after they pay tax, PRSI and USC and cover the cost of going to work. In Dublin, 64% of renters spend more than 30% of their take-home pay on rent. On average, tenants in Dublin spend 40% of their disposable income on rent. Matters are even worse for a significant proportion of renters in Dublin, 23% of whom are paying more than 50% of their disposable income on rent. This is unsustainable. In my constituency, it is not unusual to see a three-bedroom house rented for €2,000 per month more. That is someone would pay for the mortgage.
Of the renters surveyed, 36% still expect to be renting in ten years' time. The RTB's summary report is quite clear as to why. According to it:
Many tenants in the focus groups see no real path away from renting, believing that they have no financial option now and in the future other than to rent. They may wish to own a home in future, but it is more aspirational than feasible in their current situation. Fundamentally they believe that they are locked out of the purchase market because of high house prices and their inability to qualify for a mortgage.
In recent months, we have seen a belated reversal of some of Fine Gael's disastrous 2016 policy of capping rent increases at 4%, but this Government has linked increases to inflation just as inflation is beginning to rise. If rents had been linked to inflation back in 2016, as some of us called for, then they would have increased by 2.8%. Since then, they have soared by 40%.
Will the Government freeze rents for a period, perhaps three years, instead of linking them to inflation, which will only drive up prices? When will we see the summer economic statement and what kind of budget will be available in the context of the Housing for All plan? That is the first thing we will all look for because we will want to know what the intent is.
My genuine view is that we have to be solution driven in respect of housing. I get the housing crisis, and nothing motivates me more in government as Taoiseach than exploring every available option to get more houses built and houses that are affordable for people to buy, and also to get more social houses built that people can get access to. In addition, we are looking at other options, such as cost-rental, which the Minister is developing and will allow for houses to be rented at 25% below market value. We want to bring voids back into use. In fairness to the Minister, with the July stimulus money we brought back 2,500 last year. We will bring back 3,000 this year. When we say "voids", we mean local authority housing that is not currently occupied. Those are the types of initiative that are being developed. The Deputy knows that. A range of measures, including the Affordable Housing Bill and the Land Development Agency Bill, are coming close to coming through this House and their commencement and they will create pathways to enable us to facilitate people to access housing in a much more affordable way than has been the case. That is the overall agenda of the Government, and housing for all will provide a broad range of measures and will illustrate the prioritisation of this issue at the heart of Government. It is a crisis facing society that has built up over time.
In terms of rent, I think that is a very comprehensive and important report today by the RTB. From our perspective, I think the Minister's initiative to reduce rent increases and link them to inflation is a very important and significant step and change, but also one that the Government entirely supports and is doable.
The Deputy's rent freeze of three years is just not doable constitutionally.
It is great to call for it, but it is just not doable. We have explored all aspects in relation to rent and rent freezes and we have been very clearly advised that it is not constitutional. That is just the position. It is easy to call for it. We are in the engine room in government and we have to-----
It is true, Deputy. We have to deal with what we can do and so forth. I think the Minister's initiative has been quite significant in terms of reducing the amount that rents can be increased by in line with inflation, which I think is a good step forward and one that was asked for in the House in terms of reducing the 4%. He did that.
Different circumstances were pertaining. There is a need to increase capacity around house building within the local authority system. I am sure the Deputy knows that as well. That is something that we are very committed to doing.
I would challenge the Taoiseach regarding the rent freeze.
I do not accept it is not constitutional and at the very least, it should be challenged. Linking it to inflation when inflation is going up will not give certainty. The only certainty renters have at present is the date on which their rent will go up. That is completely unacceptable.
Affordability right across the spectrum, whether it is purchase or rent, is the key issue. There is little I can see the Government doing that will deliver affordability. In the case of the Land Development Agency, public land is being handed over and there is a profit motive. We look at the cost rental model with a profit element to it.
The Affordable Housing Bill debated last week was misnamed. We did not vote for it because we see it as the unaffordable housing Bill. Every expert group said some of the initiatives would drive up house prices. That is the last thing we need. I do not get the sense that the scale of this issue is understood by the Government. Will the Taoiseach tell us about the economic statement and what kind of budget will be available in terms of housing?
First, the summer economic statement will be published by the Government. There is no issue there. It is quite obvious the Government will look at frameworks around the summer economic statement looking out over five years. The Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform work in harmony on that with the rest of Government. The point I made earlier is that it will reflect significant capital investment in whole areas of the economy, such as enterprise, environment and climate change but particularly in housing. The Housing for All strategy will reveal that.
The issue, as I said earlier, will not be one of resources. It will be one of delivery. That has to happen at local authority level in terms of the building, at approved housing bodies and through the Land Development Agency. It has to be a suite of measures. It cannot just be one particular measure. That is why there is a range of measures on affordable housing. I accept the Deputy voted against it. My understanding is Sinn Féin spoke against it but voted for it. While the Deputy did vote against it, my view is she was wrong in voting against it. It represents opportunities in terms of affordable housing, as does the commitment to build more social housing.
The Taoiseach is facing an autumn of discontent in this country when it comes to his failure and that of successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments to address the housing crisis we face. This morning, the Raise the Roof coalition met to discuss dates for a major demonstration before the budget. The national housing and homelessness coalition has already set a date for a demonstration on the date of the reopening of the Dáil.
As a member of the budget scrutiny committee, I can tell the Taoiseach that my concern and the urgency of building those protests to demand public and affordable housing and protections for renters have been greatly strengthened by this morning's reports about the summer economic statement. We were due to meet the Minister for Finance tomorrow morning to discuss the summer economic statement. We are now not sure if that will happen because it is being reported there is a row in the Government about the amount of money that will be allocated for housing and debates about reducing deficits as against housing expenditure.
I want to be helpful. In fact, we have been very helpful over many years. I thought I would bring in our pre-budget submissions. I flicked through them. People Before Profit's submissions in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 called for €4 billion additional expenditure on housing. The ESRI is now calling for this precise figure. We also had the Raise the Roof demonstration at which time People Before Profit put a motion before this Dáil on behalf of that coalition, which was passed, calling for a doubling of the expenditure on public and affordable housing, in addition to controls on rents and action to be taken on vacant properties in this country.
We have set forward the demands. We have put forward figures year after year as to what should be spent on public and affordable housing and these figures are now being endorsed by the ESRI. The Government still fails to do it and if the reports are true, is still rowing about saying that is too much and we have a deficit problem. We have a much bigger problem. We have a dire housing and homelessness crisis.
There is a simple solution to this. We are spending in excess of €1 billion on housing assistance payments, HAPs, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and leasing arrangements. It is €1 billion down the drain and into the pockets of vulture funds, landlords, property investors and so on. That €1 billion is supporting 100,000 tenancies of people who are mostly in insecure HAPs, RAS or other leasing accommodation, which could be pulled from them by these vulture funds and landlords, at any time.
There is a simple solution. Invest the €4 billion per year we need to deliver 20,000 public and affordable houses every year for the next five years. We would save all that money, own the property at the end of it, people would have secure tenancies and homes and we would generate revenue for the State with the rental revenue coming back to us instead of into the pockets of landlords and vulture funds.
First, 86% of landlords own one to two properties. As we lost approximately 3,870 landlords, who went out of the market in 2020, it is a contracting market. Supply is the key. You cannot take €1 billion out of the HAP tomorrow morning. The Deputy knows that. It is not that simple. There are tenancies tied up in HAP for many years now. You cannot simply replace that overnight or pretend you can. I do not think the Deputy should suggest that. Nor can you do that over the next two or three years but I will accept that the more we build, the less reliance on HAP and other forms of current funding in which the State is currently engaged in terms of rent.
I agree with the Deputy that we want to build more social housing. I said earlier the issue will not be resources in the context of the summer economic statement. There is no row. The issue will not be resources. The issue will be delivery across the system in terms of getting more houses built in the public sector, both social housing and on the affordable side, where the State is and will become involved through the Land Development Agency and other avenues, as well as through local authorities in terms of serviced sites funds, for example, in which the State is investing significantly. The Minister has undertaken an initiative in that respect.
The State is now the biggest actor in terms of housing with some €3.3 billion this year alone. The issue will not be resources; it will be delivery on the ground. We need supply. This year, we will be lucky to get to 18,000 units. Obviously, Covid-19 has had an impact. It has taken approximately 5,000 to 6,000 units out of what would have been built and likewise last year. Over the past number of years, we have not been at the level of house construction at which we need to be. Covid-19 has clearly has interrupted the momentum around house building but we can get it back.
All energies are now focused on getting more houses built. If we get more houses built, we can ease pressures on the rent market. The Minister's initiative to limit the increases in rent to the rate of inflation is significant and will make a difference over time. Key to this is getting the number of houses built in this country significantly up by the State and the private sector. That needs to happen. We need far more houses built than are currently being built. That means building up capacity, getting skills back into the construction area and using every possible avenue available to us to get more State social houses and affordable houses built. We are up for that as a Government. That is what we want to do.
The issue will be one of delivery. Across local authorities, people will have to swallow hard and vote for projects even if they do not measure up to the purity of a person's particular position on a given project.
The misguided and ill-fated Rebuilding Ireland programme to solve the housing crisis put forward by Fine Gael and Labour projected 87,000 HAP, RAS and leasing tenancies. It was a disastrous plan which has left us reliant on vulture funds and so on to deliver housing. Of course, they have not delivered. That is not their job. Their job is to make money and charge extortionate rents. That target was bad enough but does the Taoiseach know what we up to now in terms of HAP, RAS and leasing tenancies? The number is 91,000, not including some of the approved housing body, AHB, leasing. It is probably around 100,000.
That is even higher than the mad target set under Rebuilding Ireland, completely reliant on vulture funds, corporate landlords and so forth.
Of course, one cannot pull the rug on all of that immediately. We are not suggesting that. We are saying that the Government's targets are not ambitious enough. The Government's target is for 12,000. By the way, last year local authorities and AHBs only built or purchased just over 4,000 - they did not build them all - and the target for next year is 12,000. Even the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, says that is not enough and that the Government needs to double the expenditure to get the figure up to about 19,000. We would say to go a bit further, but it is in the right ballpark. The Government is not committing to it and we hear that there is a row in the Cabinet about the expenditure levels. The problem is that the Government is not putting the resources forward and is not having the targets delivered. In the meantime, it could impose rent controls and stop no-fault or economic evictions which are putting people into homelessness.
The Minister has introduced rent controls in given areas and looked after people who were vulnerable in respect of rent. He has introduced new legislation to restrict rent increases. The Deputy knows that. However, he summed it up himself. It is not about resources. Of course, resources matter. The Deputy is going on about a billion here and a billion there, but my point is that it is about delivery. That will be the big challenge. The Deputy refers to another €4 billion or whatever, but it is about getting the capacity into the system to build more houses than we are currently building. What is key is that local authorities will have the capacity to build more social houses because they will have the resources to do so. That funding will be allocated to local authorities. The challenge for local authorities will be to get those houses built to the targets we want. It is the easiest thing in the world for the Deputy to say we should do 20,000 next year.
When can the people of Limerick expect to have a proper drinking water supply? This week, Irish Water customers were advised that a new water website has been launched to enable customers to access up-to-date information for their area. I went on the website and the information that was available was negligible. I spoke to a group of people from Fedamore, County Limerick, who have been on a boil water notice for the last 16 months. During that time they have never received a call from Irish Water. One father told me that his household is using up to 50 bottles of drinking water per week, at a cost of €60 per week or €15 a head. Another community in Kilteely has been waiting for a new water line for the last three years. Irish Water came to plug a hole each time there was a leak instead of replacing the pipe. Now, the cost of the amount of repairs for the last three years outweighs the price of replacing the pipe. We are paying people to repair pipes instead of replacing them. All our money is now going into repairs.
The quality of water has not improved. It should have improved, considering that €5.5 billion has been spent in Irish Water over five years. Something must be done about it. Everyone in this country is entitled to have good drinking water. We have set up Irish Water and it is a failed entity. It is not delivering, even though €5.5 billion has been spent on water systems. Fedamore in Limerick has been on a boil water notice for 16 months, costing a family €60 per week for water. With regard to anybody in this country who has an inadequate water supply due to the failure of Irish Water and the Government, will the Government subsidise those people for their drinking water, which they should have in their taps? Will the Government subsidise them until Irish Water can fix the problem? They have been 16 months without drinking water. A match in the local GAA club between two counties was cancelled because people were afraid of the water supply. There was the same issue in Croagh last year. Will the Government pay the people who have inadequate drinking water and subsidise them until the problem can be fixed? I am asking for that for the people of County Limerick. The biggest polluter in Limerick is the local authority because it is pumping raw sewage into the Shannon.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Deputy will appreciate that I am not responsible for, and do not have detailed knowledge of, every area in the country in respect of water supply and water quality, but I accept that if a particular district is 16 months without a consistent sustained water supply, that is not acceptable. That issue should have been addressed by now, but I will have to get a report from Irish Water on its perspective on this, what the challenges and problems are and why the issue in Fedamore or Kilteely has not been resolved.
It has to be said that Irish Water has made a great deal of progress across the country. The allocation for 2021 is €1.4 billion. There is continuing investment in Irish Water itself as a utility, to continue to expand treatment plants, replace pipes and improve water supply. In many respects, the fact that €1.4 billion in capital has been allocated this year, and there were similar amounts over previous years, illustrates the scale of the challenge confronting the country in respect of water infrastructure. Given the economic development and expansion in the country and the increase in population, this is a significant challenge which the utility, acting on our behalf, must address. We have to marry that with the housing issue, because the housing issue is inextricably bound up with water supply and the speed with which we can get water infrastructure in place to facilitate housing developments. The constant refrain we hear from people in the housing sector is that they would prefer much faster connections and so forth. Water and housing are inextricably linked.
In addition, the quality of water is very important. There are many pollutants, as the Deputy knows from the EPA study this week. The problems we have were in its urban wastewater report, which was published a few weeks ago. Again, there are issues. With regard to the local authority, that speaks to the need for proper wastewater treatment facilities, which require very significant investment as well. All of us have to be clear about our responsibilities in terms of nutrients going into the waterways and so forth. The Deputy's key point is that Irish Water must deal with the issues in Fedamore and Kilteely. The Government's commitment is to continue to fund Irish Water's capital programme. Last year, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform significantly increased expenditure for Irish Water given the challenges it was facing. We will continue to support Irish Water in that regard.
Legislation to clear the way for the extraction of 350 million litres of water per day from the River Shannon to feed Dublin's needs is seriously defective and was raised by the Oireachtas independent legal advisers. Dublin is looking for 350 million litres of water for its needs. I want a metre put on the water leaving the Shannon and in every county through which it passes. I want Dublin to pay for every drop of water it gets from the Shannon. That should be reinvested in County Limerick and in all the other counties that have inadequate water supplies. That is how to pay for infrastructure in our area.
The Taoiseach spoke about a report on the infrastructure. The Government wants people to live in the towns and villages. Hospital in County Limerick has been told that the existing system will be upgraded, but it will not allow for any capacity. Dromcollogher has been told that the biggest polluter in the River Deel is the local authority. Again, Irish Water said it will upgrade the existing system, but it will not expand it. That means I cannot get anyone to live in our towns and villages, even though the Government is saying on every television programme that it wants people to move into towns and villages. However, there is no capacity and no infrastructure. Dublin wants water.
You can pay for every penny of it and put the money into infrastructure in County Limerick and all of the other counties that will be passed through to service Dublin.
We need solidarity in the country. I genuinely believe when I say solidarity that we have to find solutions to problems in the country. Dublin is expanding. Many of your people-----
There is a very serious issue with water supply in the east part of the country. We need to be practical about it. We need engineering solutions. We need to do so in a way that does not damage the environment or local communities. We need to do it practically and with a bit of common sense. That is all I will say on that one. The idea of having to pay for every drop of water the whole way up is not realistic in terms of how we can apply it.
I note you are wearing the Limerick mask. I understand the success of the Limerick hurling team. You are fully in your rights to have that self-confidence and that projection forward. I understand that fully.