Tuesday, 16 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
My Fine Gael colleagues and I from around the country want to raise this very important matter of vacant and derelict houses that could and should be converted to homes for people. In 2015, I proposed to the relevant Department what later became the repair and leasing scheme. The financial supports I proposed at the time were never implemented and the scheme has not been a widespread success, with the exception of Waterford. The success of Waterford should be learned from.
I reiterate the calls I have been making over a number of years for a plan for derelict properties. This can be addressed by getting properties on the market by providing a tax break window for owners to sell them to first-time buyers. The help-to-buy scheme should be extended to such houses without the requirement for total demolition. Generous renovation grants should be provided to first-time buyers and planning-exempt extension dimensions should be increased for the properties. We should also waive or rebate water and electricity reconnection fees for the houses, subject to an occupancy clause. The cities, towns, villages and countryside of the nation are dotted with such properties and we need to get them back into use.
I have been banging the drum about dereliction since I was elected and it could make a real difference in bringing people back to our streets outside normal business hours. In Mayo we have seen much-needed funding coming on stream, such as the urban and rural regeneration funding in Castlebar and Westport. It would also be very useful to see such funding have a greater emphasis on putting vacant units back into residential use.
Dereliction is a scourge on the areas it infests. Considering our efforts to boost housing supply, we really need to put in place solutions to this matter. I have heard all the excuses surrounding cost concerns, fire escape concerns and noise but I have seen very little in developing solutions for these problems. We really need to equip our local authorities to tackle this matter and lead the way in bringing vacant units back into use.
Since 2018, €7.75 million has been made available to local authorities to pay for vacant housing officers. Most of these officers have other jobs as well and recently I believe only five were full time. Those officers had other roles too. How can they do the work if they are not doing it full time? When will these officers be full time and why are they not full time already? Cork County Council, for example, should have three full-time officers for each of the divisions in the county to do this work. They should be identifying homes, which can be seen on vacanthomes.ieanyway. They should be talking to owners, tapping them on the shoulder and seeing what is available. They should be putting in the requisition to purchase these houses and derelict sites so as to bring them back into use. Many small towns and villages are full of empty houses that could be made available if the will is there. These officers must be made full time straight away. We need more of them and they must deliver.
It is very clear we need a more comprehensive strategy to assist the redevelopment of derelict and vacant properties. If properly implemented, such a strategy could play an important role in helping to address the housing crisis while also helping to rejuvenate our towns and villages.
A number of welcome measures have been introduced over the past number of years, such as a repair and leasing scheme and the buy and renew scheme, aimed at turning these dwellings into social homes.
Some local authorities are better at implementing these schemes than others. We desperately need our local authorities to step up in their efforts and use the powers available to them, such as a compulsory purchase order and the derelict sites levy. Many local authorities shy away from using these tools. We need quicker results in turning these derelict eyesores into social houses. We also need schemes to provide opportunities for affordable and private homes. The approach taken to date is piecemeal and requires a far more robust response.
I thank Deputies Griffin, Dillon, Carey and Stanton for raising this issue today. It brings me back to my previous role and part of the job I liked but did not make as much progress on as I would have liked to, because tackling vacancy and dereliction are essential parts of our work. Tonight, I will take this debate on behalf of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and specifically the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke.
We all know the importance of this issue. It is important that we use the new housing for all strategy as a way to focus our minds on this to get delivery, and to build on the work started in Rebuilding Ireland, which was far from being completed. I will tease through the issues raised by each Deputy. I wish to flag on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, that he will, very soon, publish the town-centre first framework, which will respond to the programme for Government aim to develop our town centres and build outwards. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, has chaired this across three Departments, including the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Rural and Community Development, and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. That should help us with a comprehensive strategy. Deputy Carey referred to the need to join all the dots and bring all Departments around the table, and our agencies, in order that we can drive on to address the issue of vacancies in our towns, villages and even parts of our cities as well. Vacant properties are misused assets. All the resources are generally there when it comes to water, sewage and so on. We need to find ways to make that happen.
Local authorities need to drive on with this and make it happen, as was touched on by Deputy Carey. Deputy Stanton is right in that we need to put them in a position to be able to do that. We have had this conversation before over many years. We need to put more money into the vacant housing teams and for officers in each county, and certainly in the larger counties, where there is more opportunity. I was in Cork recently, where one can drive around and see all the vacant properties. They are in every county as well. There are probably not as many as the census stated but there is a large number. If we can get this right, there are possibly 50,000 or 60,000 potential homes in the country. It is, therefore, important that we put the pressure on.
I will raise this directly with the Ministers and Ministers of State involved the need, under the Housing for All strategy, to allocate more money to the vacancy officers. There is a unit in the Department responsible for co-ordinating this work. It has put a lot of effort into that and has designed manuals. The importance of an easy manual in order that a house can be repaired was also referred to. Deputy Dillon raised the point about making it easy to take on an empty property or derelict house. One can use the manual published by the Department. It gives a step-by-step approach on how to cut through some of the perceived red tape to bring a house into use.
Deputy Griffin raised a number of issues. He probably speaks faster than do I, so I will try to deal with all four or five of them during this debate. On the planning exemptions, the intention is to extend them to make it easier to tackle these vacant properties or previous commercial properties to bring them into use as a house. All of us recognise the benefits of having families and people back living in our towns. It provides them with homes and breathes life back into our towns and villages from a job creation point of view as well. The Deputy is right about the repair and leasing scheme. It was something he brought forward in recognition at the time that people who own these properties do not necessarily have the cash to do them up, and are in need of a grant or an incentive of some sort. To be fair, that could have worked but it did not. It probably focused too much on social housing and a positive change to that would be to include housing for anybody. We get a return on that money and it is money well spent. It is something the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is clearly considering, but I will certainly raise it with him too. Having tax breaks to encourage this is the same thing, in that it provides some sort of assistance because it is costly in some cases. While it is value for money in the long run, someone needs to provide the money upfront to make it happen and that is where assistance is needed.
The help to buy scheme was originally introduced to bring in new supply, but at this stage we should accept that an empty house, vacant for many years, is as good as new supply if it can be brought back into use. I will raise that and some way to extend that scheme with the Minister as well. Planning fees and exemptions can be worked on. Local authorities could take the lead on that. I understand that they have the scope, when it comes to planning contributions, to make changes in recognition that the infrastructure is there, and likewise, with reconnection fees. Generally, those agencies will work with people as well. There is a lot of potential here and I thank Deputies Griffin, Dillon, Carey and Stanton for raising this issue and I will certainly bring their concerns back to the Minister and Minister of State.
In relation to Waterford, the local authority carried out 118 repair and lease schemes out of 267 nationwide. Based on those figures - that is not enough by the way - there could have been about 3,000 additional units around the country, had the other local authorities pulled their weight. There needs to be more money put into the repair and lease scheme and its remit needs to be expanded to open the scheme to everybody. The amount of dereliction in the country is an absolute sin at this time. We need urgent action from the Department. Not in six months' time or next year; we need it now.
While I welcome some features within the housing for all plan, including the planning exemption for above-shop conversions and streamlining the protective structures system, as well as the new Croí Cónaithe fund to promote development within our regional towns and villages, we need to be more proactive on this issue and make use of vacant properties and convert them back into residential usage. One need only walk along Main Street, Castlebar, Pearse Street, Ballina, or Bridge Street, Westport to recognise the vast amount of space above the shops and on ground level that is going to waste. Certainly, we need to prioritise this within government. Processes such as the repair and renew scheme and compulsory purchase orders are tools we should utilise.
I do not blame the vacant housing officers who are already in position. They are doing their best but they have about ten other jobs and this is probably the lowest one on the list. They should be freed up to do this exclusively because it is a hugely important job and it is a win-win. There are people all over the country now screaming for houses. There are vacant properties that could be turned around very quickly into usage. They do not need planning permissions very often; they just need to be made available. The owners need to be tapped on the shoulder by somebody, and those people need to have the time to do it. We also need a senior official at assistant secretary level in the Department to whom they will respond. Will the Minister of State come back to us to inform us of who that is?
The number of vacant and derelict buildings dotted throughout our towns and villages needs a much more comprehensive response. The schemes currently available are insufficient and must be opened up to allow the further development of affordable and, indeed, private homes. I welcome the initiative by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, in bringing all the Departments together. I also believe the Minister of State needs the backing of the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for taking this debate tonight.
I agree with all four Deputies. We need to add more schemes to the pot. There are also schemes that are available that could be utilised more. I accept Deputy Stanton's point that the vacancy officer cannot perform miracles out of fishes and loaves. We need to strengthen their teams. I have addressed this in many councils of all parties and I have listened to many in the Opposition over the years criticise vacancy. There is a role here for every elected representative on a councillor level to help join the dots when it comes to vacancy, to knock on the doors and tap on the shoulders to let people know about the schemes and options that are available, to make it easy and to work with the vacancy officers. Local councillors who take on that responsibility would be of major assistance.
In addition, a lot of our housing bodies and associations could also take a proactive role to pursue these vacant properties. The Peter McVerry Trust is an example of an organisation that has done that and has successfully brought back many houses into use throughout our counties by targeting vacant properties. The onus is on everyone's shoulders to play their part here and not just the Government schemes, while we certainly can and should adjust them as well.
The purchase and renew scheme, a successful scheme, worked well in Waterford along with the repair and lease scheme. There is no reason why it cannot work everywhere else. It is about the focus and commitment of all involved at local council level. Deputy Stanton is correct in that we should have somebody at a national level. There is a team in place, but perhaps it needs someone at assistant secretary level to really drive it home. There is a massive opportunity for win-win on that as well.
Deputy Dillon mentioned the proactive approach and the Croí Cónaithe fund. That is there to enable and help local authorities complete these projects and deal with these vacant sites and properties through a range of ways including to buy them, sell them on, make them available or work with the owners. In many cases, there is a massive story behind every vacant property. This needs the work of everybody involved and the local authorities to make it happen. We have made changes to the fair deal scheme which makes it easier for these properties to be rented out. It has to be worth people's while to do up the property, to make it available, either by selling it or renting it, for it to become a family home. There must be a recognition on all sides that this takes effort and schemes. Sometimes that involves giving people a grant to make it work. Everybody wins if we do that right.