Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
94. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government the progress that has been made in bringing vacant homes back into use in Cork city and county; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46470/21]
I am delighted the Minister is in the Chamber to respond to a couple of questions on dereliction. In the context of the Government's plans to tackle dereliction and bring back vacant units into use as homes throughout Cork county and city, will the Minister update the House on some of the work he is doing in that areas? Given the crisis we are in, it would be prudent for the Department to give a particular focus to this issue.
I thank the Deputy for the question, which he has raised with me directly in the past, as have other Members. It is important we ensure that the existing housing stock is utilised to the full extent, including by providing a targeted, effective and co-ordinated approach to identifying and tackling vacancy throughout Ireland. That is why there are very strong actions in the Housing for All plan that the Government has adopted in that area, some of which I will now outline.
We are pursuing a wide range of measures to make more efficient use of our stock, including a new local authority-led programme to help local authorities buy or compulsory purchase order, CPO, 2,500 vacant homes in their areas that can then be sold on the open market to ensure homes do not lie vacant. This is on top of local authorities CPOing homes for their public housing stock. I want some of those vacant homes to be used for first-time buyers who want to get on the ladder in towns and villages throughout the country. We have reformed the fair deal scheme to remove disincentives to selling or renting unused homes, which affects 9,000 properties. We made the legislative change in July in respect of sales, while in this quarter, with the help of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, we are moving to deal with the issue with regard to rental.
The Croí Cónaithe fund, to be delivered by local authorities for the provision of serviced sites for housing to attract people to build their own homes and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties, will enable people to live within towns and villages in all counties, including Cork and the Deputy's constituency, in a sustainable way. There is also the Historic Towns initiative, which is a capital grant scheme operated in conjunction with the Heritage Council. This initiative will be adjusted in order that there will be a particular focus to encourage private owners and-or occupiers to bring vacant floor area in historic buildings back into use. Planning exemptions, an issue I might return to, will be made available for above-shop conversions. A number of measures in Housing for All will make a big difference in respect of vacancy.
It is important to put the matter into context. We are in one of the greatest housing crises the State has ever faced and we need to use every resource we have at our fingertips, including the bringing back into use of vacant units throughout many towns and communities in my constituency and Cork city and around the country. One issue that has not been mentioned much in this House relates to the fact we are facing an international commodity crisis. It is yet to be established what effect this may have on the international economy, not to mention domestically. It would be prudent for the Government to put further focus on using some of the existing housing stock, which may be able to be delivered rapidly through the renovation of many derelict sites throughout the country. No matter where one goes in Ireland, in the main street of almost every town, particularly in the rural towns of many Deputies, the issue of dereliction is a blight. Easy initiatives such as those that have been proposed by the Government, such as giving funding to this issue to work with local authorities, will be crucial to deliver the additional housing stock we desperately need.
The Deputy is correct and that is why this is such a focus of what we want to do in the housing plan. Utilising our existing stock makes sense in the context of climate action and carbon. We do not have to build all the new stock we need; rather, we must utilise what we have. Our Town Centres First approach is also crucial. I have been travelling throughout Ireland and I have seen the issue in my constituency, both urban and rural. The levels of vacancy in some places is shocking. People who want to get on the housing list will, with some help we will give them, be able to renovate a home and make it their own. Moreover, we will help our local authorities in a more efficient way, through the housing agencies, to CPO stock as well. I will move on planning exemptions for above-shop living, a nut that has not been cracked over recent years. The Ministers of State, Deputy Burke and Noonan, and I are working hard to do that, although it will require some tough decisions to enable more live people to live above shop in our towns and villages.
Many Deputies in constituency clinics and offices will have experienced the challenges constituents have in respect of securing one-bedroom accommodation. We know the pressures on social housing waiting lists throughout the country and my constituency is no different in that regard. Bringing vacant units back into use for housing could have an effect in this regard, particularly for people who want to downsize. Not everyone would like to sell their home and downsize to smaller units or to move from where they reside, but it is something I deal with regularly. Many people want to move into town centres where they have easy access to services on foot and to more socialising and other aspects of life that, perhaps, when people are living in less congregated settings, can be an issue for them as they grow older. It could make a remarkable difference to that problem if the Government were to give a further focus in this area.
I commend Deputy O'Connor on submitting his question. It was specific to Cork city and county but it is an issue throughout the country, as he quite rightly pointed out. There is a great opportunity in the budget in two weeks' time to help address this issue and a number of measures could be implemented. One such measure I feel strongly about relates to the thousands of properties people are sitting on throughout the country. There is no incentive for them to go to market and the supply just is not there. The Government could give a generous window in respect of, for example, capital gains tax where someone sells to a first-time buyer, for a certain period, namely, a year and a half or two years, in order to get the properties on the market. It could also help that first-time buyer with schemes such as the home renovation incentive, HRI, scheme or help-to-buy in respect of such properties. That could get an awful lot of new units into the market very quickly and get very positive results. There are thousands these units throughout the country and it is an absolute shame, in the midst of a severe housing crisis, that this is happening.
I feel as though I am at born-again revival listening to Deputies from the Government parties talking about thousands of vacant and derelict properties. The official figure is more than 92,000. In Cork city and county - I thank Deputy O'Connor for raising the question - there are more than 9,000 vacant properties. The Minister indicated that he has been travelling throughout the State examining the vacancies and stated it is shocking. Did he just wake up this morning and realise that?
When the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, was the Minister with responsibility for housing - I want to educate people about this - he came to Cork City Council in that capacity five years ago and I told him to examine the fair deal scheme, which the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, just mentioned. I said the same to the Eoghan Murphy, who succeeded the Minister, Deputy Coveney, two years ago. They both said they would examine the issue and two years ago the then Minister talked about above-shop living as well. We discussed that in Cork City Council years ago.
The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, referred to CPOs. Parts of Cork city, on our main streets, that Cork City Council is finally CPOing were derelict and vacant for more than 20 years, in virtually every street in Cork. The Minister's party was in the confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael and allowed this to happen.
I agree wholeheartedly with what Deputy Griffin said about second-hand properties. I have submitted other questions on the matter, which we will come to. We need to incentivise first-time purchasers of second-hand properties. We need to ensure the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme will be available in respect not only of the purchase price but also of the cost of the refurbishment of second-hand properties. If we do that and focus on the many empty houses that can be brought back into use, we will not have to build new houses only.
We can bring town living back by ensuring we give incentives to first-time buyers of second-hand houses. It could be, perhaps, an exemption from planning or ensuring they can retrofit with some type of grant aid. It is important to do that. I compliment Deputy Griffin, because this is something I have been speaking about for the last year.
I thank Deputy O'Connor and those Deputies who made constructive comments about what we have to do. We have outlined very clearly in Housing for All the measures we are going to take on vacancy. They are serious measures and they must be taken. I point out to Deputy Gould that I am acutely aware of that. I have not woken up just yesterday. I know it, and I know we have a responsibility to get them back into use. More important, for the Members who are genuinely interested in seeing solutions to it, there are things under the Croí Cónaithe fund whereby we will be able to provide grant aid to people who wish to buy those homes. We are going to do that to help first-time buyers. It will not be done through the help-to-buy scheme but through our Department. We will also be providing funding for serviced sites in towns and villages. We are very serious about making real progress in this area. It is not about soundbites, shouting at people or shouting people down, but providing real homes for real people while also putting life back into our towns, villages and cities. That is why the Croí Cónaithe cities fund and the towns fund are crucial. I ask Members to acquaint themselves with them.