Tuesday, 16 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 19, inclusive, together.
The economic division in my Department supports me and the Government in developing and implementing policy across relevant areas to support sustainable economic development and these include policies in the areas of job creation, infrastructure, housing, climate action, digital, social dialogue, quality of life and well-being. This work aims to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of the programme for Government and any issues that cut across multiple Departments. The division supports the work of the Cabinet committees on economic recovery and investment, housing, the environment and climate change, as well as associated senior officials' groups. The economic division also maintains an overview of progress in key policy and sectoral areas, in line with Government priorities, liaises with the Central Statistics Office and provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues.
The housing and infrastructure unit is part of the broader economic division and the unit supports the work of the Cabinet committee on housing, which oversees the delivery of Housing for All. The unit supports the delivery of wider public investment through Project Ireland 2040, which falls under the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. The unit is also responsible for publishing the national risk assessment, which has provided a high-level overview of strategic risks facing the country since it was first published in 2014. The national risk assessment 2021-2022 is at an advanced stage and publication is expected in the coming weeks.
Last week, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage recommended 1,720 structures of architectural heritage to Dublin City Council for inclusion on the record of protected structures. It appears the Moore Street terrace did not make the cut despite recent planning observation by the Minister's officials. It is their view that many of the existing buildings, in addition to the national monument, are capable of refurbishment and adaptation and they have recommended to Dublin City Council that it should consider an alternative design for the redevelopment of this site that would allow for the retention and sensitive adaptation for reuse of these significant existing structures. It looks now as if the Government is on the side of Hammerson. We need a change of heart. I urge that, at the very least, the Minister would view the relatives' alternative master plan for the Moore Street area. The completed plan, which they launched last month, addresses all of the Department's planning concerns and unlike Hammerson's development, will meet all of the economic, social, cultural and heritage needs to sustain Moore Street and the surrounding area.
Dubliners are very worried about the erosion of the city's uniqueness. There are also other issues. I could go on.
What is being done to reduce the number of homeless people sleeping rough on our streets? The latest figures show there are 95 people sleeping rough in Dublin. I have met people on our streets who say they feel safer sleeping on the streets than in emergency accommodation. There is no Garda vetting of staff in privately run emergency accommodation. The basic national quality standards are not applied. The local connection rule is used to prevent people from progressing from emergency accommodation to housing. When will Garda vetting of staff in privately run emergency accommodation start? When will the national quality standards be applied to this type of emergency accommodation? When will the Government take action to ensure local connection rules are not used to block people from moving out of emergency accommodation and into housing?
I hope the Taoiseach and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will address urgently what I hope is an unintended consequence of a new statutory instrument that was introduced in March of this year. The instrument changed the income assessment arrangements for social housing. I have been trying to get to the bottom of this because I am dealing with a family of eight who have been homeless for three years. They are currently in emergency accommodation in a hotel and are solely dependent on social welfare, but they are being told they will be evicted from emergency accommodation because, for a period during the 12 months prior to their being assessed, the father was working and the family's income went over the threshold. The father has lost his job and the family is now well below the threshold, but a change requiring an assessment of income earned in the preceding 12 months will now apply. This was not the case previously. I cannot believe the Government intends that those below the threshold should be made homeless. I want the Taoiseach to examine this as a matter of urgency.
The Finance Bill going through the House provides for a new zoned land tax to replace the vacant site levy, which should be collected properly in the meantime. However, the zoned land tax will apply only to serviced land and not to land with planning permissions in place. We will have to wait another year for a vacant homes tax. Our party is calling for the zoned land tax to apply much more broadly. Limiting it to serviced land restricts its usefulness, especially if planning permission is in place for housing. There are huge delays in getting electricity and water connections for housing developments that have already been built. My colleague in Wexford, Councillor George Lawlor, has encountered homeowners who have received quotes of €90,000 for a water connection. In Bryanstown Wood, just outside Drogheda, County Meath, there is a delay in the building of a number of houses until 2022 because of an issue with an electricity connection. It is incredible that we have completed houses lying empty while they await grid connections. Could this be put on the agenda of the Cabinet subcommittee on housing? Will the Taoiseach return to the House with a report on the matter because these stories are ridiculous?
The lack of supply is the biggest issue around the country. I am aware it is a massive issue in Carlow. However, there is a new company, CarlowBuild, that can deliver prefabricated homes. I do not know whether there are similar companies around the country but we need to consider this possibility. It could be part of the solution to the housing supply issue and the delivery of homes. The homes would be efficient and affordable and would help to alleviate the housing crisis. CarlowBuild builds modular housing, and it can build a house in 11 days. This is incredible. Its system has secured the approval of the National Standards Authority of Ireland and meets the requirements of the latest building regulations. The houses are top-line houses. How can we fast-track this? How can we have a process by which we can deliver homes? I ask the Taoiseach to examine the process of CarlowBuild and ascertain whether there are other such companies. We are still dealing with the mica issue. We need to build homes. The lack of supply is the issue. I ask that the Taoiseach consider this.
Rents went up 14.6% in Cork county from the end of September 2020 to the end of September 2021, according to Daft.ie. Huge parts of Cork county are not designated as rent pressure zones, nor are they covered by any of the Government's rent controls. How can the Taoiseach justify this? When is he going to extend rent controls to the county as a whole and, more than that, to the country as a whole? Kerry and Clare had some of the highest rent increases.
Furthermore, how can the Taoiseach explain so many vacant local authority houses throughout the country in the middle of the worst housing crisis in the history of the State? How can he explain the fact there were 5,000 vacant local authority houses in the State at the start of the pandemic and 400-plus vacant local authority houses in Cork city at the end of the summer? Crucially, what does the Taoiseach intend to do about it?
The importance of delivery under Housing for All is known to everybody. What work is the Department doing to monitor delivery and the appointment of staff to various authorities at engineer and quantity surveyor levels? Without such staff, none of the promises under Housing for All or the defective blocks scheme will be delivered upon. Is there regular monitoring of the appointment of staff to local authorities to ensure they can deliver on what is expected of them?
I thank all the Deputies for their commentary. Deputy Ó Murchú raised the issue of Moore Street. Again, I regret the endless partisan politicisation of this issue by the Sinn Féin Party given that there has been considerable and very significant cross-party engagement involving Dublin City Council and many in the Oireachtas for many years on the preservation of the site of the Rising. A Fianna Fáil Government made Moore Street a monument, if I recollect correctly. The entire area has been derelict and lacking development for decades. My sense is the Deputy wants to take us back to that for political ends. There was a lot of agreement and discussion on this. Do we want to go on for another decade or two and allow the dereliction to continue or do we want to transform the area? It has great potential in terms of employment and history. It is a matter of integrated development that ensures a good, modern, rejuvenated and revitalised streetscape with more employment and security. It is also a matter of transforming the site to reflect its historic importance and attract people. In its current state, despite its centrality at the foundation of the modern State, it does not attract people in the desired numbers.
We are on the side of getting things done now. There has been enough discussion. There has been substantial engagement and ongoing consultation, and a resolution has been arrived at. Decisions have been taken on the matter. I genuinely believe the development should be proceeded with, under the planning processes and so on it will go through.
We have discussed this with relatives as well, and the Deputy knows that. I do not want to have an engagement that is too partisan but I believe what is going on is regrettable. I believe there is an electoral and definitely a political agenda associated with what is going on. There has been cross-party engagement on this matter for a long time. I can go back five, six or seven years in the more recent period.
Could Deputy Boyd Barrett give me or the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, the information on the family he mentioned? I will raise the issue with the Minister. There should be flexibility in assessing people, particularly a family of eight, for emergency housing accommodation. There should always be flexibility in whatever legislative framework exists.
On Deputy Kelly's point, the zoned land tax is part of the Finance Bill. It is a substantial part of it. In one year a very substantive proposal has emerged in the context of Housing for All that will make a difference, in the view of the Government, in getting housing and land developed.
It is probably the most substantive decision that has been taken and move that has been made in decades in respect of unused land. I will relay the views of the Deputy regarding what he perceives to be deficiencies on water connections to the Minister for Finance.
More generally, there are a number of work streams flow. The Secretary General of my Department chairs a group of Secretaries General in terms of implementation of Housing for All and, every quarter, the targets and progress on them will be published. The first quarter has been published, with ten of the 11 recommendations having been fulfilled. The second quarter will be published in January in terms of much more expansive and ambitious targets. The three key Secretaries General oversee issues in terms of what overall finance will be required to deliver the entirety of the plan, both public and private, and the working through of that. They also oversee the public service and what it takes to get the entire public service on board in respect of delivering Housing for All, which involves the ESB, EirGrid and Irish Water. There have been meetings already in this regard. The three Secretaries General chair the different work streams. The other issue relates to capacity and skills in terms of training up, apprenticeships and so on. There is a fairly significant implementation.
Deputy Calleary asked about this as well in terms of the various work streams that are headed up by a Secretary General who chairs each work stream and engages with the different State agencies and public authorities. For example, I refer to the effort to compile a database of land that the Land Development Agency can pursue to get houses built on land that is in the possession of, but not needed by, a Department or State agency so that we can get land utilised, particularly in urban centres, for housing. That is already under way at Heuston Station. There are plans afoot in respect of that whole area.
Deputy Murnane O'Connor raised a very important point. There is work under way in terms of innovation and how we can accelerate house construction. Prefabricated and modular housing is one aspect of that. It is used in the UK and to a degree here, as I saw when I visited the Intel site recently, in terms of industrial building. Prefabricated and precast structures and so on are a feature of construction in industry but, likewise, there have been some instances of their usage in housing. If a product is NSAI approved, then there is a role for it in certain circumstances.
Deputy Barry raised the issue of voids. He referred to a figure from before the pandemic. He ignored the significant impact of the July stimulus programme in the context of voids. Since the Government was formed, 6,000 voids have been brought back through additional resources being allocated. We are saying to local authorities that there is no excuse for leaving a house void. As soon as a property is empty, it should be reallocated. The Deputy mentioned rent pressure zones, RPZs. The Minister is bringing in legislation to reduce rental increases in RPZs to 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is the lower.
My apologies; I am coming to that. There are several Deputies to answer. In terms of the homeless, preparations are in place for the homeless coming into winter. The Government has worked with local authorities so that the cold weather arrangements are in place in time. They allow for additional temporary beds to be brought into use across a range of existing services and facilities for those who need them during periods of cold weather. Increased outreach is also a key feature of the cold weather arrangements. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive implemented its cold weather strategy on 4 November. It details increases in capacity for the homeless on a phased basis throughout the winter months. As the beds come on stream, they are triggered as needed, depending on the demand for homeless services on any given night. The Deputy raised issues in terms of the local connection. The Minister has been very consistent that it is not a barrier to a person getting access to homeless accommodation.
On Garda vetting, that is-----
On the Garda vetting, that is a more recent ask, if you like, in terms of recent developments. I will come back to the Deputy in respect of any timelines in that regard.
The Dublin Region Homeless Executive, in partnership with the Dublin Simon Community, continues to implement the outreach programme. There is a stepping up of activity and engagement in respect of the homeless during this period.