Dáil debates

Tuesday, 20 September 2022

National Retrofit Plan: Motion [Private Members]


6:20 pm

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

"That Dáil Éireann:

notes that: — the refusal of the Government to reduce and cap electricity prices leaves households facing into an extremely worrying and uncertain winter, and this is particularly the case for those who simply cannot afford to retrofit their energy inefficient homes;

— emissions from the residential sector amounted to 11.4 per cent of the State's total greenhouse gas emissions last year;

— poorly insulated homes require greater amounts of energy to heat, increasing carbon emissions and resulting in higher energy bills for households;

— energy poverty in the State is currently at its highest recorded rate, and the last Strategy to Combat Energy Poverty lapsed in 2019;

— there are currently over 9,000 homes awaiting works under the Better Energy Warmer Homes Scheme (BEWHS), with a wait time of 27 months;

— just 1,584 local authority homes were retrofitted in 2021;

— installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on homes can increase our renewable energy generation and help decrease electricity bills for households; and

— this is especially relevant in the context on the ongoing energy crisis and the level of energy poverty that households are currently experiencing, which is expected to increase over the coming months; recognises that: — many low- and middle-income households are excluded from accessing retrofitting under the Government's schemes, as they do not qualify for the BEWHS and do not have the disposable income required to afford a deep retrofit under the One Stop Shop service;

— the Government's national retrofit scheme prioritises those with means over those most in need;

— State funding should be proportionately allocated on the basis of need, so those least able to afford home energy upgrades and most at risk of energy poverty are given the greatest levels of support;

— a clustered, area-based approach to retrofitting can help speed up delivery and reduce overall costs;

— Ireland needs a progressive and effective retrofit plan, which will help meet our emissions reduction targets, while delivering wider social and economic benefits for workers and families; and

— the existing grant support for solar PV is inadequate and leaves this microgeneration option out of the reach of low- and middle-income households; and calls on the Government to: — reform and reorientate their national retrofit plan by redirecting the focus, funding and resources towards those in greatest need of retrofits;

— replace the BEWHS with a new scheme, including an area-based component for low- and middle-income households, in order to improve delivery times, thus, achieve cost efficiencies and get more retrofits to those in need;

— continue free home energy upgrades for currently eligible social welfare recipients and older people and provide tiered grants based on household income, in order to open up retrofits to more people in need of energy efficiency upgrades while limiting support to the highest income households;

— establish a dedicated retrofit scheme for low- and middle-income households who rely on burning solid fuels for heat;

— increase the budget for solar PV grants and provide higher grants for those on lower- and middle-incomes;

— commit capital investment to facilitate the installation of solar PV infrastructure on school and community buildings;

— increase funding for the retrofitting of local authority homes; and

— immediately publish an updated energy poverty strategy."

I am sharing time with Deputies Tully, Martin Kenny, Ó Murchú, Gould, Clarke and Ellis.

The Government's retrofitting plan was announced to great fanfare in February but it was clear from the start that it was deeply unfair. This should come as no surprise given who designed it. This winter Deputies can access retrofitting quicker than two pensioners burning coal to heat one room. That is deeply unfair. It is not right. The Government's plan needs to be overhauled. We need a plan at a time of crisis that is targeted, based on need not ability to pay, flexible and responsive and one that will be rolled out rapidly and efficiently.

The Government has stated that 58% of its retrofitting budget is going to energy poverty schemes but the truth is queues are getting longer and budgets are not being spent. In fact, the Government is siphoning off money to pay for diesel back-up generators. The Government's retrofitting plan is deeply inequitable. It fails the equity test and the just transition test.

I will make a number of points of specific criticism. People who need retrofits - those living in the coldest and poorest homes - cannot access them. For people who are eligible for schemes, more than 9,000 homes are on waiting lists for works under the better energy warmer homes scheme, with a wait time of 27 months, which is getting longer. Otherwise, strict criteria mean that people are not eligible for schemes and they do not have the upfront money. They cannot put their hands on the money. People who have less need - those living in warmer homes - can access retrofits because they have access to funds. There is wait of greater than two years or a closed door, on the one hand, while, on the other, there is access based on ability to pay. This approach certainly fails the equity test.

There is a shortage of workers and those workers are, as a result, being inefficiently deployed to demand-led, random houses here and there. Contractors say they have never been more burdened with paperwork and bureaucracy. People who want to access individual grants are being denied because of upfront costs. The bureaucracy involved means budgets will be unspent. As I mentioned, €40 million has already been siphoned off this year's retrofitting budget.

In solar photovoltaic, PV, people face barrier after barrier. There is significant potential here. On solid fuel, people have been browbeaten over turf but no alternatives have been provided.

Sinn Féin’s plan would address all of these issues and it would do it without increasing carbon taxes. We would invest €503 million in retrofits in 2023. That is €153 million more than the Government's 2022 allocation – the outturn will be far less - and far ahead of its 2023 capital allocation. That money would be spent in a far fairer and more efficient way.

Sinn Féin would take a targeted, plan-led and area-based approach based on need rather than ability to pay. It would cluster houses together with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, as the lead agency working hand in hand with local authorities and other housing agencies and with one-stop shop contractors acting as delivery vehicles, commissioned by local authorities, the SEAI and private individuals, driving competition within the one-stop shop system and reducing costs. As we grow the workforce through expanded dedicated training in education and training boards, ETB, programmes, this area-based, plan-led approach would use existing resources efficiently and effectively. We would prioritise existing applicants on the better energy warmer homes scheme but we would replace that programme, broaden eligibility criteria for those on higher incomes and dedicate an additional €73 million to that. Works would be subsidised on a tiered basis based on income. We would also provide a 50% increase in funding for local authority housing, which would protect those most at risk of poverty and fuel poverty and the impact of the rising cost of energy.

Acting on the call of the Climate Change Advisory Council and the hundreds of thousands of people who are excluded from individual grants because they do not have the upfront costs, we would ensure that applications for individual grants, for example, for attic and cavity wall insulation, are assessed quickly and that upfront grant payments are made. We are in a time of crisis. The money needs to get out as quickly as possible and contractors need to be put to work.

We also have proposals for a dedicated scheme for those on solid fuel and additional spending on solar PV. We have a clear plan. The Minister needs to change tack and support the Sinn Féin motion.

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, for tabling this important motion. The Government's retrofit plan is not equitable. It excludes a large proportion of middle-income households, specifically those who do not qualify for free upgrades but do not have the significant cash reserves needed to access the one-stop shop service.

The prioritisation of wealthier households also contributes to the growing delays for those living in energy poverty, as evidenced by the better energy warmer homes scheme. The scheme is aimed at the most vulnerable households but there are now 9,000 people on that waiting list and the wait time has shot up to 27 months. Between 2019 and the end of January 2022, only 118 homes in County Cavan and 85 in County Monaghan had been completed under this scheme.

It is critical that we put in place a fair retrofit plan that will help lower and middle-income households. Sinn Féin's alternative budget proposes a significant increase in the retrofitting budget for 2023 and targets funding towards those who need it most and the poorest, coldest and most carbon-intensive homes. We would replace the better energy warmer homes scheme with a new scheme for low- and middle-income households, which includes area-based components and increased funding from the current €109 million to €182 million next year. This scheme would see the continuation of free home energy upgrades for current eligible social welfare recipients but it would also introduce a tiered grant support, ranging from 65% to 100%-funded deep retrofits, for low- and middle-income households depending on income. We would increase the local authority retrofit budget by 50%, from €85 million to €127.5 million, as those in social housing are most likely to be at risk of energy poverty and, therefore, in greater need of home energy upgrades.

We also propose a new €50 million retrofitting scheme for homes that rely on solid fuels for heating, which would particularly benefit households in rural areas. It would help improve air quality and health and at the same reduce energy poverty. Sinn Féin aims to put alternatives in place first, unlike the Government approach to solid fuel homes which relies on punitive action, such as turf bans and carbon tax hikes.

We would also establish a local energy action fund that would provide €8 million for sustainable energy communities to fund local community-led retrofits and increase the funding for solar panels, bringing the budget for that purpose up to €24.5 million.

6:30 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I commend my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, on bringing forward the motion. It is very clear that the retrofit scheme the Government has in place is not working and not delivering for very many people the length and breadth of the country, particularly those on middle incomes, who may be paying down a mortgage and who have all the other various issues in life to try to deal with. They simply cannot afford to take out another loan, which is what the Government insists they have to do to be able to retrofit their house properly. It becomes unaffordable to them. As my colleagues have outlined, a scheme needs to be put in place whereby we would have a tiered system, those on the lowest incomes could get a larger grant and that would tier off as people would get onto higher incomes. I have come across numerous people in my constituency, as I am sure the Minister has in his constituency, who want to do this work and are committed to doing it but find they simply cannot afford it because the scheme in place does not fit their income thresholds and where they are in their lives. If the Government is committed, as we understand it is or as it continues to tell us that it is, to dealing with the carbon emergency and the climate emergency we face, not just in Ireland but globally, we have to be able to assist people to do the right thing.

The motion before us does that. It ensures that the money is put in the right place, ensuring in turn that the people who have the coldest homes, the homes that need the most energy-efficient retrofitting, have the means to pay for that retrofitting. That is why we appeal to the Minister to change tack. The way this has been done up to now is simply is not working. The fact that we are heading for a three-year waiting list, with more than 9,000 people waiting, tells us there is a problem here. It needs to be adjusted and the Minister needs to ensure that adjustment is delivered.

Finally, solar panels and solar PV panels are one of the projects that I know very many people around the country consider doing and would love to be able to do but, again, they find that affordability is the big problem. In many other jurisdictions governments put solar panels in place on people's houses for free. Then, after a number of years, the householder takes ownership of them. There is no imagination at all on this Government's part to deliver that idea of microgeneration such that people may produce their own power for their houses. That needs to change.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Regarding the better energy warmer homes scheme, it has already been said that we have 9,000 households awaiting works and an average wait time of approximately 27 months. That should tell the Minister straight out that this is not working. We all accept that we need to make huge inroads on climate action. I think everyone would accept that we are in a very different world now and we need to make sure we do all that is necessary in order that we are not all under water or in far worse conditions over the coming years. For us to do that, we have to ensure that we have fit-for-purpose grants and actions taken by the Government.

We are dealing with queues and difficulties and obstacles that people say are being thrown up as they attempt to do the right thing by retrofitting. That has been going on since long before we ended up in the situation we are in now. We know that we need to move away from fossil fuels, not just because it is the right thing to do or because we are addicted to them but also because, beyond that, we do not have the strategic autonomy that is required. That is the determination being made across Europe, so we need to look at this again and ensure we target those who most need these retrofits. The problem is we have put in place schemes and systems whereby those who have the most money and, in some cases, the best houses, including from the point of view of heat and energy retention, are able to go out into the world, put their money on the table and get the retrofits, whereas those who are living in the worst of conditions are not getting what is necessary. We have to address that.

We need a huge upscaling in local authorities to make up for underinvestment over the years. I am sure the Minister will hear many arguments. We need something that works.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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A recent survey by Aviva showed that four out of ten householders say the grants available are insufficient to encourage them to upgrade their homes. We talk about solar energy and solar panels, for which grants of €2,400 are available, but to do it properly we are talking about between €7,000 and €9,000.

Where is the strategy on energy poverty since 2019? I do not know if the Minister remembers this, but a number of months ago he talked about retrofitting and the plans in that regard. As far as I know, there are roughly 172,000 social houses in the State. I think 36,000 of those are at an energy efficiency level that is adequate or better. Some 36,000, I think, are earmarked to be retrofitted between now and 2030. That leaves 100,000 homes of some of the most vulnerable and poorest people in the State with no retrofitting until at least 2030. I do not doubt the Minister's sincerity, but how could that be right?

My party colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, is trying to bring forward solutions and make a difference. Why is the Government and, in particular, the Minister, a person who cares about the environment and should care about the most vulnerable, not backing what we are trying to do? I have an example in Fair Hill, in Cork, where two houses were to get retrofitting, including wraparound insulation, windows - the whole lot. One family could get it done with the grant because they had the resources to pay for the rest themselves. The other family, two pensioners living on a fixed income, could not get it done. The people who needed it the most were the two pensioners but they were the people who could not get it done, and that is under the Minister's watch. He needs to be strong, he needs to be a leader and he needs to listen to others when we try to be positive and supportive.

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister has heard from my colleagues about the failures to date. I will list another one. In early August 2020, Kevin and Yvonne Conroy left their home just outside Mullingar to have a deep retrofit programme done. Today, almost 26 months later, they remain out of their home. Words simply cannot describe the severe emotional and financial distress experienced by this family, whom members of the Government, including the Minister, and the SEAI are aware of. Their experience has been nothing other than utterly horrendous and has, to my mind, shown the SEAI in an extremely poor light.

The initial complaint was made in December 2020. It took until November 2021 for Kevin and Yvonne to be assured that they were a priority and that they would be back in their home without further delay. February this year brought more promises from the SEAI, but from March to September the grant agreement remained in limbo, with correspondence unanswered, delays, false promises and an independent project manager withdrawn. This is simply not good enough. There needs to be systemic reform of the SEAI to ensure confidence because we need an effective retrofit plan to help reduce emissions and deliver wider social and economic benefits. That is not the experience of the Conroy family, who want back into their home rather than to be facing their third Christmas out of it. Today there is no start date, contract or signed grant agreement, meaning that the estimated completion date of February 2023, which simply cannot be met without a signed grant agreement, is not confirmed.

The litany of failures in this case is matched only by the litany of broken promises and deadlines. Where is the oversight and accountability? This is happening with the full knowledge of the Government. The lack of intervention is utterly astounding and should not be tolerated. I ask the Minister to take a more proactive step. Will he come to Mullingar and see for himself the impact the SEAI's delays and the effect that dealing with a cowboy builder who leaves a house in tatters has on a family? I am talking about a builder who the family sourced from the SEAI's own website.

This afternoon, before coming into the Chamber, I learned that they are not alone. There are other families who had the same builder in similar circumstances.

6:40 pm

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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Like many urban settings, Dublin North-West has a mix of dated and modern accommodation. Over the years, there was a great expansion of areas such as Ballymun, Finglas, Santry, Whitehall, Glasnevin and Meakstown. These areas saw substantial growth in housing estates, which contributed towards rapid growth in the population of north Dublin. Many older houses in such areas were constructed of brick or cavity blocks, and insulation was not even a consideration at the time of their construction. Houses these days are generally built to a high energy standard and require little work, if any, to improve their energy efficiency. Older houses, be they private residences or council owned, are the houses in most need of retrofitting. Their method of construction results in excessive heat loss through the walls and roofs; therefore, heating the house is both inefficient and costly to the resident. There is an urgent need for old housing stock to be brought up to a satisfactory building energy rating, BER, of at least B2. These houses will require a deep retrofit to bring them up to an acceptable energy standard.

Studies have shown that Irish households consume more energy per household than the EU average. This is a direct result of a poor standard of construction that leads to poor energy efficiency. Retrofitting will result in improved energy efficiency and lower energy bills, which is becoming an important consideration in the face of escalating domestic fuel, gas and electricity bills. However, the rising cost of living means that many households on low incomes and people with privately owned homes will be less likely to be able to afford retrofitting. In particular, a cohort of homeowners are stuck between not qualifying for free upgrades and not being able to make use of the 50% matching grant support as they would not be able to afford it. Renters can also be adversely affected as many face high energy bills because some landlords do not upgrade their properties or are unwilling to incur the costs associated with retrofitting. No protections are in place for such circumstances.

I would also like to highlight an inefficiency with the retrofitting programme itself. It is ridiculous that the funding for the retrofitting works programme for Dublin city will stop in October and will not resume in April, resulting in months lost waiting on next year's scheme. It also means that contractors can be left without confirmation of future contracts, and the council can ill afford to lose such experienced workers.

There must be more joined-up thinking when councils are working in an area. There are cases where a row of terraced houses gets wraparound insulation but a single house in the middle does not because the residents had bought their property from the council. This is inefficient, costly and displays a degree of inflexible thinking.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputies for raising these important matters of our time.

Clearly, the current situation we are witnessing regarding significant increases in energy bills and the cost of living is a matter of serious concern. The Government is keenly aware of the growing pressures this is placing on families and businesses, particularly households on lower and middle incomes. The increasing cost of energy is an issue that affects not just Ireland but all EU member states. Increased international gas prices because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have had a serious knock-on effect on the rate of energy poverty. The Russian Government is doing its best to use energy prices as a weapon against EU citizens, particularly the most vulnerable. Making people cold and turning them against governments is their precise desired outcome.

It is imperative that the Opposition and all parties here focus on issues the Government can address and what needs to be done. I will outline what we have done and what supports are in place for retrofitting, so that it is crystal clear what supports are available to homeowners. As Members will be aware, in response to this situation, the Government has already put a €2.4 billion package of support policies and measures in place. We understand that further action will be needed, and this will be forthcoming in the budget announcements next week. Given that energy poverty is influenced not only by the cost of energy and a person's income but also by the energy efficiency of his or her home, I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement to the House about the measures introduced by the Government which will make it easier and more affordable for homeowners to undertake home energy upgrades.

First, in response to the war in Ukraine, we increased the grant aid for attic insulation to 80% of the typical cost, with up to €1,500 available in grant support. The data is not conclusive, but between one third and one half of homes could benefit significantly from this measure. This will likely pay back in less than one year, and I understand credit unions and banks are supporting people if they need to bridge the gap. Similarly, for cavity wall insulation, up to 80% of the cost, up to €1,700, is available to help householders. We are seeing more uptake to the end of August than in the whole of last year. The SEAI has said that it had the busiest start to a winter ever. We are seeing a large increase in the interest in and application of solar PV on people's roofs. We have a target of less than 19,000 individual home upgrades this year, and we will deliver in excess of that target. We also opened this scheme to landlords to stimulate their investing in homes because those in the rental sector must also be protected.

Second, we have more than doubled the monthly output of the warmer homes scheme. However, it is still working through the backlog that built up during Covid. We are targeting a significant increase next year and, in line with the national development plan and with the receipts from the carbon tax that fund this, we must increase it significantly as it is a critical measure. In February, we announced reforms to the better energy warmer homes scheme so that it could better target free energy upgrades for those most in need. Since the announcement, the scheme now accepts applications from homeowners who previously had work done under the scheme so that they can benefit from the deeper measures now available. The eligibility criteria for the scheme were also extended to encompass people who have been in receipt of disability allowance for over six months and have a child under seven years of age. In addition, the scheme is now targeting the worst performing properties by prioritising homes built and occupied before January 1993 and with a BER of E, F or G. This scheme is working. The output has tripled. As is the case with so many other schemes, the level of response from the public and the industry is beyond compare, and it will continue to rise as we go into next year and subsequent years.

The third element of our retrofit plan is the national retrofit scheme, which launched in February and went live in April. This seeks to support homeowners by delivering deeper, decarbonisation measures. It hit a chord with homeowners with more than 20,000 people already engaging with one-stop shops. This programme is a long-term plan and is designed to build competence and capacity over time. It is a 30-year project. We will not reach the maximum of this scheme in one year; it will take five years of steady growth and good planning. Having spoken to those in the industry, I am aware that they are investing in new employees, training and hardware, and are rapidly scaling up their industrial capabilities. This was never possible before because there was much stop-starting in the support given in previous years.

The national retrofit plan is designed to address barriers to retrofit across four key pillars: to drive demand and activity; to provide financing and funding; to improve supply chain, skills and standards; and to improve the governance of the scheme. Barriers were identified for each pillar, and time-bound policies, measures and actions were put in place to address them. The initiatives in the plan are also guided by a number of key principles. First, we are seeking to ensure fairness to all and support a just transition. Second, we seek to embrace a universal approach covering all housing types and consumer segments. Third, we seek to design customer-centric solutions to reduce the costs and complexity, making the process easier for those investing in retrofitting. Fourth, we are seeking to encourage retrofits to cost-optimal level and maximise emission abatement. Finally, we seek to stimulate and support the market to instil the confidence to invest, grow and take on more workers. We are now delivering that for the betterment of the people.

A further element of the plan is how we work with local authorities and approved housing bodies. This last plank in our retrofitting plan is critical. I have been to many local authorities around the country, asking them what they are doing and making sure they are scaling up their capacity and competency to deliver higher targets.

We have also underpinned the upgrades in the rental sector with opening all these grants to landlords to upgrade properties for tenants. In addition, as part of Housing for All, the Minister with responsibility for housing has detailed that these retrofits will become compulsory for lower-performing homes in the coming years.

I am happy to report that SEAI data shows that since the launch of these new measures, demand across the retrofit schemes has been exceptionally high. As of the end of last month, more than 30,000 applications for support had been received by SEAI. This is more than double the number received during the same period last year. This demand is translating into delivery, with 13,400 home energy upgrades already completed with support from across the range of schemes. This is an increase of 70% when compared to the same period last year. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smith, will give further detail on these positive developments in his closing statement.

These initiatives are being funded by the unprecedented national development plan financial allocation for residential retrofit of €8 billion to 2030. A total of €5 billion of this funding will be sourced from carbon tax revenue. A total of €244 million has been allocated for SEAI residential and community retrofit schemes and the solar PV scheme this year. This is the highest ever allocation for the schemes and includes an allocation of €118 million for SEAI energy poverty schemes. In addition, €85 million funding has been provided by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage for the local authority energy efficiency retrofit programme. This means that of the total Government retrofit budget allocation of €329 million, approximately 60%, or €203 million, has been allocated to dedicated energy poverty schemes and local authority retrofits. This is progressive. We are deliberately targeting and making sure that the money goes where it is most needed. This does not mean we do not provide, help and assist other parts of Irish society. We are doing this in a balanced and deliberately strategic way.

On 3 August, the Department published a review of the strategy to combat energy poverty alongside a public consultation. The review showed strong delivery on the existing strategy with many of the original actions already exceeded. The public consultation closed on 5 September and the responses received are helping to inform the development of a new action plan to combat energy poverty. Other sectoral engagement across Government will also be considered in developing the new action plan.

The action plan will set out a range of measures to be implemented ahead of the coming winter as well as key longer-term measures to ensure that those least able to afford increased energy costs are supported and protected. The new plan will be published shortly after the budget. A cross-departmental steering group, chaired by the Department, is developing the new action plan. The Department is also engaging with relevant Departments, agencies and NGOs on a bilateral basis. The group will also work with the ESRI as part of a research network to improve the measurement and monitoring of energy poverty in Ireland and provide insights that enhance policy design to protect vulnerable householders.

These retrofit schemes are recognised internationally as some of the best examples and as some of the best funded and most progressive. We will never be satisfied because it will never be enough in these exceptional times. These plans are working. The Irish people are responding. We are starting to put in PV and insulation at levels never seen before and we are only warming up.

6:50 pm

Photo of Paul DonnellyPaul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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The debate is taking place in the midst of a massive rise in the cost of living. I urge people to attend the protest on Saturday, 24 September, at the Garden of Remembrance at 2 p.m. It will be one of the biggest protest marches we have seen in a long time.

The existing national retrofitting plan has two distinct streams. These are the better energy warmer homes scheme, which aims to provide free retrofits to those on certain social welfare payments, and the one-stop-shop service that requires households to have significant savings on hand to invest in retrofitting. For everyone else in between there is little or no support for upgrading the BER standard of their homes. This leaves them living in colder homes with mounting energy bills. We need to change this. Many households do not qualify for free upgrades and many do not have the cash needed to avail of the 50% matched grant support. The Government's plan excludes too many households.

What would Sinn Féin do? We would replace the better energy warmer homes scheme with a new retrofit scheme for low and middle income households including area-based components for deep retrofits. Among other measures, households could be eligible for various levels of funding from between 100% to 65% of the cost of retrofits depending on household income. We would increase funding for local authority retrofits. As always, the most disadvantaged are those who suffer the most and have to await local authorities. It is important that local authorities are given enough funding to ensure all the homes they rent are retrofitted. We would establish a new retrofit scheme for solid fuel homes under which households could be eligible for various levels of funding up to 100%. We would replace the one-stop-shop with tiered support for higher-income households. The scaled-down one-stop-shop scheme would continue but with the State's support tiered based on household income. Under this scheme households may be eligible for 50% to 100% of funding towards the cost of retrofits. Sinn Féin proposes increasing the retrofitting budget to a total of €500 million next year. This would be a 50% increase in funding compared to this year. However, we will not just increase funding. Most importantly, we will target those most in need.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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We are in the midst of a cost of living crisis and there is no doubt about it. I hope to see thousands of people on the streets of Dublin on Saturday. The cost of food has increased, as have the costs of energy, renting and home ownership. With a view to energy saving and reducing our energy consumption, retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient is a positive idea but it must be offered at an affordable rate to all households. We cannot exclude anybody. The better energy warmer homes scheme is not working for many of those who have applied. A total of 9,000 homes await the works, with a wait time of up to 27 months in some cases. It is not working for those on lower incomes who simply cannot apply as they are not on the specific social welfare payment. Those in local authority homes are not benefiting with only 1,584 local authority homes retrofitted in 2021. It will not happen for those waiting for the local authorities to do a retrofit. Those of us who have been members of local authorities know exactly what they will do.

The one-stop-shop scheme is beyond the affordability of many citizens who simply do not have the savings to commit to retrofitting. Expanding this and, importantly, delivering a progressive retrofit plan is a necessity. It will deliver social and economic benefits for citizens while helping us to meet our emissions reduction targets.

The motion sensibly calls for orientation of the retrofit plan towards those who have the greatest need for retrofit. These are those most severely impacted by energy price increases. Our proposal calls for an assessment of household income as a means of deciding what percentage of the retrofit is covered. The area-based approach in our proposed scheme would allow for homes in close proximity to be retrofitted at the same time, delivering savings and lowering costs. It is nonsensical to have some homes in an area covered and others not.

As part of the Limerick regeneration programme a commitment was made to retrofit houses in the four regeneration areas. The 2014 regeneration implementation plan committed €4.7 million to retrofitting homes in these areas. Unfortunately, here we are almost ten years later seeing no rhyme nor reason. Some houses have been done but others on the street have not while others have been skipped or excluded. I do not have faith in it.

A failure to deliver will condemn more of our vulnerable citizens to the unenviable choice of deciding whether to heat their homes or use that income for other vital needs. In his contribution the Minister said the Government is scaling up the capacity and competency of the local authorities to deliver higher targets. I would like to know exactly what money he will give the local authorities. If he does not give them funding they will not do anything.

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister, Deputy Ryan, said the Government was only warming up on these schemes. I can tell him the residents in the flat complexes have been forgotten about and they are freezing and terrified. The condition of the vast majority of flats is very bad. Dampness and mould as a result of poor insulation is rife in many flats. The flats in Mercer House, Pearse Street, Whelan House, Rathmines and many council-owned houses are in a disgraceful condition. Glover Court, as the Minister knows, was supposed to be retrofitted many years ago but, like many plans for the flat complexes, it never happened. In 2022 the flat complexes are like wind tunnels given the unacceptable condition of the doors.

One could fit one's hand through many of the old wooden doors that are basically unusable and then the windows are rattling and creating a wind tunnel. The flat complexes need to be prioritised for insulation. We need to increase the funding for local authority flats and houses. Sinn Féin's alternative budget would do this.

Equally, we need to see retrofitting prioritised for the flats. There seems to be an attitude that the flats do not matter - that they will be last and we will get around to them at the end. I can tell the House that if it was not for the ordinary working families living in the flat complexes, there would not be a front line during the pandemic. Households living in the flats such as Macken Villas and Beech Hill Villas kept the front line going during the pandemic.

A wealthy household can get €25,000 of taxpayer-funded grants for a deep retrofit, while households living in the flats cannot access this. To make matters worse, they would be waiting for years for decent insulation from their landlords, that is, Dublin City Council. Residents need a plan that is fair and is rolled out to those who most need it. Sinn Féin's plan will do that.

7:00 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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We are putting forward this motion at a time when energy poverty is at its highest-ever recorded rate. We are also in the midst of the biggest energy crisis we have faced in a generation with home energy and fuel costs going through the roof as we head into winter. The Government's totally inadequate retrofitting schemes are compounding the energy crisis. More than 9,000 households are waiting on works under the better energy warmer homes schemes, with a wait of well over two years. Just over 1,500 council houses were retrofitted last year.

The one-stop shop service gives the same grant funding to those who earn the minimum wage as it does to millionaires. It is galling that as low- and middle-income households face into frightening energy bill increases, high earners who can afford to install solar panels and are therefore eligible for grant aid will not be affected. Indeed, they might make some money by selling it back to the grid. As usual, it is the ordinary working people who are completely excluded.

Sinn Féin's plan would introduce a new retrofit scheme for low- and middle-income households. Our system would be tiered to ensure that different levels of household income receive a proportionate grant from 100% down to 65%. We would also increase funding for local authority retrofits by 50%. We would bring in a solid fuel retrofitting scheme for those who rely on burning wood, turf or coal to heat their homes. We would also help these households to insulate their homes and install heat pumps, with the priority being to change the fuel source. Our approach can be compared with the Government's attempts to ban turf and slap carbon taxes on people without giving them any alternative or choice. We would introduce area-based components to our scheme to see houses in close proximity retrofitted at the same time to reduce costs and building time. The way the scheme is managed at present is impractical and does not make the best use of resources. The Government's scheme prioritises those who have the most over those who have the greatest need. It excludes most middle-income households - those who do not qualify for free upgrades but do not have tens of thousands of euros to spare to access the one-stop shop scheme. Our scheme will address these issues. It will help households to become more energy efficient, saving them money in the long term. It will help us to reduce our emission targets and, most importantly, it is fair and equitable.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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Retrofitting is the low-hanging fruit with regard to reaching the State's emission targets and future-proofing energy security. As the Minister will be aware, in 2017 the built environment alone accounted for 12.7% of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions. To put this into context, the average Irish dwelling emits 104% more than the EU average. This is not a record we can be proud of. This has come about not only as a result of our reliance on more carbon-intensive fuels, but also due to the poor quality of insulation in our homes, which is another legacy of the Celtic tiger, cowboy builder era. It can also be attributed to a failure, in more general terms, to upgrade older housing stock over the years. As it stands, more than 80% of Irish homes and other buildings have a BER of C or worse. This is an astonishing figure.

It is estimated that 70% of current buildings will still be in use by 2050. Even if every new building and home were to be carbon neutral, this would not be sufficient to meet our targets, such is the number of properties with poor energy ratings. If we are to build a carbon-neutral Ireland, we will need nothing short of a massive State-led retrofitting programme over the next decade. Frankly, there is little sign of this. There is no real sense of a national campaign. There are bits and pieces here and there - a piecemeal approach - but no indication of a national town-by-town and street-by-street effort. The lack of such an effort was baffling a year ago and it is even more puzzling now, given what energy-impoverished households are facing into this winter. We need a national effort and campaign.

Aside from the urgent need to retrofit homes from a climate perspective, there is a double imperative with the current cost-of-living crisis. We know that energy prices are only going one direction, which is up. Reducing our consumption of energy on a household, business and national level will be key to helping to bring bills back down. Home insulation can be a win-win. Deep retrofitting has the dual impact of lowering emissions and reducing energy bills for households. It also creates good sustainable green jobs in our communities. It is a no-brainer of a policy which one would think the Government would be absolutely eager to adopt and embrace, as it would be the kind of real national campaign that the challenge we are facing demands.

One would think that the kitchen sink would be thrown at this but experience tells us that has not been the case to date. The energy-efficiency retrofit budget for local authority housing was a mere €85 million in 2022. This clearly is not the overwhelming national priority that it ought to be. Based on an average cost of €36,000 per unit, an extra €100 million would be required to ensure 5,000 homes are progressed next year. When some construction inflation is factored in, the package would probably need to be brought up to close to double that, or approximately €185 million. This should be the absolute bare minimum that we need to hear from the Government on budget day. Even that would not go anywhere near the scale of the ambition required, and nor would it go far enough fast enough. In contrast, my party has proposed how 100,000 homes could and should be retrofitted on a street-by-street basis each year. That is at least the level of ambition we need.

We know that cost is a major barrier to undertaking retrofitting work, as others have articulated during the course of this debate. While the national energy upgrade scheme now offers grants of up to 50% to 80%, this is no good to most working families who just simply cannot afford the initial upfront payment and all that involves. As it stands, they are struggling to make ends meet, with soaring prices and stagnant wages. They simply do not have €10,000 or €25,000 in savings to carry out a deep retrofit under some of the current schemes. Put simply, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They earn too much for the warmer homes scheme but not enough to afford major upgrades. They do not have the means to fork out the high cost that grants such as the one-stop shop schemes require. In the meantime, their gas and electricity bills continue to rise out of control. Too many households like this across the country are experiencing energy poverty but are excluded from free energy upgrades. It creates a lose-lose situation out of what really should be a win-win situation.

In contrast, the Labour Party is calling for a retrofitting programme targeted at those households earning under €50,000 and with a BER of B2 or below. We are also calling for a form of carbon credit, through the tax system, to help working families that do not qualify for most supports such as fuel allowance and the household benefits package. We also need to be conscious of other groups in the design of retrofitting and energy-saving schemes. This winter, energy prices for homes which are old and protected will be hit with extortionate energy bills. Homes such as these are excluded from retrofitting incentives and adequate fuel supports should be targeted at them. Likewise, there will be many people living in rented homes where the landlord is unwilling to apply to the one-stop shop for the various schemes. It is unfair that such people should have to face an effective rent increase due to the rising cost of paying for their fuel and energy bills. Those living in older apartment developments with managing companies that are uninterested in retrofitting require imaginative support too. The chronic apartment defects issues highlighted over recent years require support.

People who are experiencing those problems require additional support and we are looking forward, in the context of the budget, to see what the Government has in mind for that cohort of people. The mistakes of the past should not be repeated and a more proactive approach by the State will be needed in such cases.

We also need to see a faster, simpler and more streamlined application process for the various Government supports and grants. The current application process is too slow, too complex and too costly. That has been my experience when advocating for people in Louth and east Meath. The so-called one stop shop often consists in reality of visiting many other shops along the way until you conclude the process. As the Climate Change Advisory Council has noted, this red tape must be simplified urgently to assist consumers through the renewable energy process.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the lack of the apprentices and skilled workers needed to deliver the kind of change the climate challenge requires us to see. They are often forgotten from the conversation but without them none of these targets will be achieved; not today, not next year - never. One recent report has stated more than 50,000 construction workers are urgently needed to fill a black hole in the workforce if the State is to meet its housing and retrofitting targets. The Government has set its own target of just 27,500 additional construction sector workers over five years. That breaks down at 7,500 each year. In this context, last month's Core Research report for the construction industry is deeply worrying. It showed 63% of construction companies were struggling to find workers with 46% of industry professionals noting plasterers are rare and very difficult to find, as are carpenters. This is contributing to significant inflation in the cost of construction work and major delays for all kinds of construction projects, be they national, local, regional or simply domestic. Part of the reason for this is the precarious conditions in the construction sector. With the starting rate of pay for apprentices often being half the minimum wage, who could blame our young people for opting out? Let us not pretend we can have a functioning, fit-for-purpose, skilled construction sector while it continues to be so dependent on labour that is to a very large extent dominated by the phenomenon of bogus self-employment. If retrofitting at scale is to become a reality, which is a reality I think all in the House want to see, we will need to see an urgent increase in pay for apprentices to at least parity with the minimum wage in the first year and a sea change in the approach to security of employment in the sector if we are to have the skilled workers to service the ambitions of the retrofitting and housebuilding programme across the country over the next few years.

7:10 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I thank Deputy O'Rourke for raising this important issue. It emphasises very clearly how inaccessible retrofitting is for many households around the country and certainly for those who need it most.

Gas and electricity bills are already crippling and as temperatures start to drop as we get closer to winter, more and more families will be forced to choose between keeping the house warm or putting food on the table. That is a dehumanising decision nobody should have to make but is one thousands across Ireland will have to because of the Government's failure to provide adequate supports for low and middle-income households throughout the country. Retrofitting homes is no longer a matter of urgency but a matter of basic necessity for many. For many people, the State has left it too late and they will have to endure a winter of record energy prices and if they cannot afford them they will have to choose between living in a cold, dark room or sacrificing other necessities. That is not hyperbole on my part, as those figures are captured by a multitude of different organisations, including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It was also captured by Social Justice Ireland. It demonstrated earlier this year that 581,334 people are living in poverty in this country. They were already people who were choosing to go without food so their children did not have to, which is a choice nobody should have to make. These are families who did not have access to two warm coats and who did not have money left over at the end to have a basic thing like a night out with a friend. These are the families who are going to need it most. These are the vulnerable people who feel these shortcomings most. The shortcomings will be felt by families already experiencing poverty, including one-parent households, migrant families and all those already living on the margins. Estimates show that almost half of households could now be in energy poverty. That is only set to get worse with more price hikes coming into effect in the next few weeks. For people to pay any more than they already are is simply unimaginable.

The Government's inaction may have failed many this winter but we cannot sit idly by and find ourselves in the same circumstances for the next one. Earlier this year the engineer in charge of Dublin City Council’s retrofit programme said it would take 12 years to complete the retrofitting of the city’s social homes at current funding levels. That is completely unacceptable. Where else did we hear about 12 years? How many of us, the Green Party included, went out three years ago and campaigned to an electorate based on it being 12 years until a point of no return for climate change and biodiversity loss? We said we would demonstrate urgency yet a Dublin City Council official is telling us it will be 12 years before we can enact a retrofitting programme. That is not acceptable by any measure. This needs to be addressed by doubling the retrofitting grant in the budget next week. Bringing up a home’s energy rating is a huge financial undertaking, even with the help of the SEAI’s current grants and so we must see adequate investment in next week’s budget. However, grants alone are not enough to ensure energy security for all those who are struggling. Low-interest loans should be made available for households that still require them to complete their retrofit as too many households have been priced out of the scheme. As well as providing adequate grants and affordable loans for all those who need them, we need to see an investment in training and retraining programmes to build a workforce large enough to retrofit homes as soon as possible. All the funding in the world means nothing if there are no workers to complete the upgrades and that this has not been factored in is a sad indictment of this Government.

Just as we do not want to find ourselves in a situation next winter where households are still facing a crisis, it is crucial we do not fall short of our climate action targets in 2030. We cannot put off reducing our carbon emissions. This leaves us with not one but two vital reasons to retrofit properties around the country as quickly as possible. We simply cannot separate the cost-of-living crisis from the climate crisis. The Government has set a target of retrofitting 5,000 homes by 2030 but as my colleague Deputy Whitmore said, and I agree, there is little clarity on how this can be achieved and we need to see genuine commitment and a realistic plan to achieve these goals in writing in next week’s budget. As energy companies rake in profits from this broken market while families find themselves in crisis, we must also see a substantial windfall tax to reroute those profits to speed up retrofits for the households that directly need it. People woke up last week and saw the ESB had made €1.5 billion more than it did this time last year. Imagine seeing that while wondering how many pairs of jumpers you will have to wear not to be freezing in the cold winter months ahead. We are in a crisis and need a response that is in keeping with that.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I thank Sinn Féin for this motion, which we fully support.

Retrofitting is a key solution to two crises, namely, the climate crisis and the energy crisis but for us the latter is the immediate one. I will deal with the climate crisis in a minute but first I want to give an account of two homes I visited recently. They were two council-owned homes that were retrofitted to a high BER. One family is very poor with two special needs kids. You walk in the door and the house is warm even though they have not turned on the heating in months. They used to live off a pay-as-you-go card and were spending €60 a week on trying to just keep the heat in the house for the kids. Now they probably spend about €20 in the winter months, so it is a no-brainer. They are not lighting fires, the kids are warm and cosy and the bills are brought right down, particularly in this energy crisis. Another family got a proper retrofit with wraparound insulation, having the walls lined, having the attic properly lagged and getting new windows and doors. They are amazed at how warm the house is, as was I, and they never have to turn on the heating.

Retrofitting is therefore a no-brainer but there are huge problems with the current experience. People who were refused the fuel allowance are unable to access the SEAI schemes in most cases. However, if you are better off – it is important to emphasise this – and you have, for example, €50,000 to put upfront, you can access a very nice retrofitting scheme for your home, whereas the bulk of the other grants are small and piecemeal.

The big question for the Minister of State as a member of the Green Party is what do the current schemes to reduce emissions. We have some worrying complaints from people about the nature of the work being done and its effectiveness. There is little point in doing small, energy-efficiency work if it still leaves a home reliant on fossil fuel and does not actually reduce the CO2 emissions.

The Government's inaction may have failed many this winter but we cannot sit idly by and find ourselves in the same circumstances for the next one. Earlier this year, Dublin City Council's engineer in charge of its retrofit programme said it would take 12 years to complete the retrofitting of the city's social homes at current funding levels, which is completely unacceptable. Where else did we hear about 12 years? How many of us, including the Green Party, went out three years ago and campaigned to an electio based on

What we truly need is a national retrofit body, a company that is fully owned and run by the State, that does what has been described previously, namely trains loads of apprentices, and does not leave the provision of the work to a private company or run the risk that we will not lift people out of energy poverty or reduce emissions. A national retrofit body to directly employ workers and direct the scale and pace of the retrofitting by Government is needed.

The Government constantly talks about the €8 billion it is putting into retrofitting along with targets of 500,000 homes to be deep retrofitted and 400,000 heat pumps. This target was presented as a great achievement of the Green Party but it is precisely what was in the 2019 climate plan. There are several problems with this €8 billion figure. It is clear from the answers I received to earlier questions that this sum is heavily back-loaded to the latter years of 2028, 2029 and 2030. Just like our emissions targets, a lot is based on a mañana, mañanaapproach. It is planned we will spend €1.2 billion in 2028, €1.7 billion in 2029 and €2 billion in 2030. The problem is, of course, that according to the current trends, we will not reach those targets. Like emissions reductions, the Government's ambitions to achieve these targets may mean it and the current Minister of State will be out of office. We know that just ten homes had a deep retrofit last year and up to May this year it seemed that none had been fully completed. This comes on top of ongoing delays and problems facing people getting access to work on their homes that was previously done. I was told months ago that the no second visit rule was gone from the SEAI rules. It is not really gone. People must apply for a scheme that is organised by the one-stop shop or the better energy warmer homes scheme and, therefore, they have to fulfil the criteria of one of them to be in a position to apply for a deep retrofit. The vast majority will not fit into these categories. Other supports for individual upgrades like the attic, wall insulation, heat pumps and so on will not be supported by the SEAI if any work was previously done on the home in question. It may even have been done by a previous owner many years before and anyone seeking support now will be refused. That is just one example of where we are failing in this area.

Another example is people on the median wage who are not on social protection and are not well off. A single parent with two children who came to me during the week is being asked for €15,000 upfront to have the wraparound done on her home. That is not right and that is totally unfair. She can barely even raise the money to get the kids back to school even though she works full time. There is a clear class bias in the distribution of the supports. It is striking and I know there was great work done under the better energy warmer homes scheme but the reality is that the vast majority are not included and will not get access to this. The vast majority of homes that desperately need the retrofitting are, therefore, not benefiting from it.

"Glacial pace" may be the wrong term to use since the glaciers are melting at a rate of knots, but the slow pace of the social housing stock retrofitting is painful. It seems we are less ambitious now and are achieving less than we did in previous years. For example, the State spent €30 million on local authority retrofits in 2014 and retrofitted 18,000 homes. Last year, it spent €21 million and retrofitted just 1,500 homes. I see the targets but we do not see the real delivery or the ambition given the scale of the twin crises of energy and climate. We need to cut our energy demand and our CO2emissions. I do not accept the argument that it takes time to ramp up delivery. The logic here is that we must send signals to the market and hope that the market will deliver the numbers needed in retrofitted homes, workers and the resources to be allocated. If we have learned any lesson from the current crisis, it must be that leaving something as vital and important as energy and heating homes to the market is a recipe for disaster. This points to the vital need for a public body to take responsibility for retrofitting and for achieving the scale and pace of the work needed, and ensuring that we can recruit and train the workers needed. This cannot be left to the market and private companies.

7:20 pm

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the retrofitting scheme and how it can help with the spiralling cost of living, which is the biggest concern of my constituents at present. People are being crucified by inflation and electricity prices 89% above the EU average. This is completely unsustainable. If the Government refuses to cap electricity prices and get on top of the situation now, thousands of households will be facing into an extremely worrying and uncertain winter. Time is of the essence if the most vulnerable people across Ireland are to receive timely assistance. The ESRI estimates that more than 40% of people will be in energy poverty this winter.

With regard to prices, vulnerable constituents and housing poverty, my constituency office is acutely aware that the people of County Louth and east Meath simply cannot afford to retrofit their energy-inefficient homes. We well know that poorly insulated homes require more energy to heat which will result in increasing carbon emissions and even higher energy bills for households. I would not say that the Government has done nothing but it needs to do more. Currently more than 9,000 homes await work under the better energy warmer homes scheme, with a waiting time of 27 months, which is shocking. Recently I had a woman in my constituency office who applied under the retrofitting scheme for a heat pump to replace her energy-inefficient oil boiler. She met all means requirements. Due to the backlog of applications she went ahead and paid someone to install a heat pump. Subsequently one year later, when an assessor called to view the property, she was denied a grant as work had been done. This needs to be changed.

I, therefore, ask the Government to consider the immediate approval of allocations received under the national retrofitting scheme. We need to help the people now by providing a greater investment in retrofitting households as a matter of urgency. Not a day passes when there is not a queue in my office of people looking for help to fill in applications forms to see what is available. However, many low- and middle-income households in my constituency of Louth and east Meath are excluded from retrofitting under the Government scheme as they do not qualify for the better energy warmer homes scheme and do not have the disposable income required to afford a deep retrofit under the one-stop shop service. This needs to change. State funding should be proportionally allocated on the basis of need and specifically targeted at those who rely on burning solid fuel for heat.

It should be acknowledged that the amount the Department has allocated to this grant scheme has increased each year since 2014, which is welcome. However, we face significant challenges in meeting the targets in Housing for All and the retrofitting targets given inefficiently lengthy mean-tested grant applications and the limited throughput of apprentices in the construction sector, which is already understaffed. The biggest problem we have in Louth and east Meath is the increase in construction costs and material and the shortage of skills and labour. This is putting the cost of these upgrades and essential works beyond the reach of most recipients of grant approval. It is very hard at the moment to get value for money. In the incoming budget the Government should ensure that the grant scheme can meet the demands and reflect the increase in construction costs to meet targets for emissions reductions. The upper limit grants should reflect the increase in the cost of construction. If we are to tackle this issue we need to take a much more direct route.

I would also like to raise the concern that current and new housing developments in my constituency of Louth and east Meath are still installing gas lines instead of heat pumps. These developments are going to cost us in the coming years and they will have to be replaced. The Government must look at long-term costs and implement regulations now. Additionally, we cannot have a situation whereby people are in energy poverty which will have subsequent effect of increasing hospital admissions, causing further stress on health service. These least can afford this energy. There should be a reform of the current national retrofit plan whereby the focus of funding and resources is redirected towards those in greater need of retrofitting. We need to improve delivery times and cost efficiencies while increasing the number of retrofits, especially for those in need. In the upcoming budget the Government must keep its promises and we must follow up the allocation of the €165 million towards housing, climate change and balanced regional development. Families need a warm home and stability. Ireland needs a progressive and effective retrofit plan that will help our emissions reduction targets while delivering wider social and economic benefits for workers and families. Morale in the country is very low. Families are suffering. The people need help now. It has been said that either people are going to eat or heat. The Minister of State has an opportunity to heat the people's homes and, next Tuesday, the Government has the opportunity to let people eat. Many people are coming into my constituency office who want to avail of these schemes. As the previous speaker said, if they had work done ten or 15 years ago, that is affecting their applications as well. I ask the Minister of State to please have a look.

7:30 pm

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Ten years ago, in 2012, I had the opportunity to formulate a detailed and costed plan to deep retrofit 1.4 million houses in this State that were still, at the time, in need of deep insulation, in addition to the 130,000 non-residential buildings that were in the same state. I presented the plan to the Dáil. At the time, the costings that we worked out meant that it would cost approximately €14 billion to bring all of the residential housing stock up to an average BER of C1. At the time, according to the Institute of International and European Affairs, IIEA, €10,000 per home would have saved the average household approximately €1,496 per year, and it would have helped Ireland reach its 20% energy-efficient target by 2020. It was an incredible plan that was very detailed. We presented it to the Fine Gael Government at the time, which said, “Absolutely not.”

This Government launched a plan a few months ago. If one extrapolates the figures from the Government’s plan to do the same number of houses, it would cost approximately €24 billion. That is unlikely because of the massive spike in inflation that is happening at the moment. However, even on the Government’s figures, it would cost €10 billion more than had the plan that I produced in 2012 been put into place.

One of the reasons I came up with the retrofitting plan was that there was a massive flow of construction workers emigrating from the State. Many of them just could not find work here. I believed that if we involved them in a significant retrofit scheme, we would be able to achieve energy efficiency, save money for families and keep workers in Ireland. Unfortunately, again, Fine Gael, not caring much about our workers, sent tens of thousands of those construction workers away to other countries to start new lives. As a result, many of the construction workers we need now to deal with the housing crisis are simply not there. It was a massive mistake and a lack of foresight on the Government’s behalf in three separate, objective areas.

Common sense dictates that the barrel of oil that is cheapest at the moment is the barrel of oil that you do not burn. Most families understand that saving energy is probably the most important objective we have. It is a higher priority even than the generation of sustainable electricity and, therefore, it is frustrating to see how little progress has been achieved so far. I am not laying all the blame on the Green Party, because the Green Party is two years in this particular Government and I understand it takes time. However, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have dressed themselves up in greenwashing over the past ten years but delivered absolutely zero in terms of retrofitting. The figures are incredibly low. Over the past two years, the figures have decreased in certain areas. Indeed, the figures for 2020 were 25% below target and last year’s were also extremely low. Projects literally stopping and stalling is frustrating to see.

The Irish Examinerdid a wonderful report a couple of weeks ago. The Minister of State must have looked at it and perhaps blushed when he read it. It showed that thousands of public buildings are scoring as low as F and G for energy efficiency. They say charity starts at home, but certainly policy should start with the Government first and foremost. Yet, the Government is not doing its job in terms of retrofitting its own buildings. It is an absolute bloody disgrace that there are thousands of State buildings in this country that have F and G ratings, which are nearly impossible to heat and cost massive money to run. It is not by accident as well. We have senior public servants in this country who are happy to spend money without accountability. Why? Because it is not their money. The best type of money is other people’s money, in fairness, if one is going to spend money. That is one of the problems. This type of inefficiency would not be acceptable in people’s homes or businesses as well.

I will give another example. There are public buildings in my constituency, for example, a Department of Justice building, that is lit up every night like Las Vegas. It is incredible. It is lit up massively for no practical purpose – just for aesthetics. It is still happening. When one sees that level of inefficiency in State buildings and Ministers calling for lights to be turned off at night-time and for staff to be concentrated on one floor, jaws drop across the country. Most people cannot believe it has not happened already. Most people cannot believe we have attacked the earnings and incomes of farmers before we have even decided to turn off the lights in public buildings at night-time.

I urge the Government to get real on retrofitting and saving energy and make sure that we make buildings warmer and cost less to heat.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I support the motion tabled by Sinn Féin. It is if the Government is saying, “Do as I say and not as I do.”. “Lead by example” is an old adage that stood well in this country. However, Deputy Tóibín gave the appalling example of State buildings to show that the Government and public bodies do not give a whim about saving energy and retrofitting, for that matter. There is no such thing as retrofitting. The schemes are too onerous. There is a massive waiting list, not enough money and people have to invest a lot to get a report done beforehand. As far as I can see, the schemes are tailor-made for the leafy suburbs of Dublin. I mean the leafy suburbs and not the ordinary lads out in Jobstown, Tallaght or any place else. It is the people in the leafy suburbs of south Dublin. That is where the schemes are suited because they have the money to put up. They are the ones with the electric cars too. They are the ones who are dictating Government policy.

I said to the Ceann Comhairle before that Irish people were living in eco-friendly houses long before the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was – I will not repeat it – ever born. They were thatched cottages that were cold in the summer and warm in the winter with fuinneoga beaga - small windows. It is time the Government parties got some measure or modicum of reality, as well as a bit of humility, and brought the people with them. They should lead by example and bring the people with them. There is not near enough funding for this. The Government penalises farmers’ groups and the working man. The Government has a punitive carbon tax, which is totally discriminatory against rural dwellers. There are public transport reliefs for where the public transit is, which again, is mainly in Dublin and some other cities.

We had an excellent Tipperary Energy Agency based in Cathair Dún Iascaigh in Cahir. I think it was there 20 years. Now it is gone; it was scrapped. Some of the Government bodies sucked the staff away and it is gone. It is not there any more to advise people how to save energy when we need it most. The decisions that the Government is making are absurd. The demands the Government is making on people are abominable. It will not work. The Government is too much stick and not enough carrot. Is mór an trua é sin.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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This simply is not working. The Minister of State will probably say that he was going to stand up and say that anyway. However, I know that it is not working on the ground. The people of my constituency are telling me that retrofitting and the warmer homes scheme are not working. The funny thing is, if we go back 15, 16 or 17 years to when the Government rolled out the scheme initially and it was done through community alert schemes, it delivered. I was on the community alert scheme at the time; I was not a politician. It delivered door to door and it got attics insulated. Unfortunately, funds are not there to do a proper insulation package for houses today. The people who got that little bit of insulation that time are punished today because the current scheme makes sure that they cannot now get their homes insulated because they got a little bit of insulation perhaps 15 or 20 years ago. This scheme is completely outdated and does not work. People who want to get their homes retrofitted are waiting two years, which is far too long. The Government stated it could bring that down to a year. I am waiting for that.

People on fuel allowance are able to qualify. I accept that and that is great. However, there are people who are just €1, €5 or €10 above the fuel allowance threshold and are falling between the stools. They cannot afford their fuel but they cannot qualify for a fuel allowance because they have a pension or whatever. However, they might have a lot of payments coming out of that pension. That has to be looked at if the Government wants to do something.

The Green Party is trying to make people suffer. Certainly, I can feel that. Having been at the ploughing championship today, I would say to Members from that party that they would want to stay away from it, to be quite honest. There is strong ill feeling towards the Green Party out there at the moment because it is not delivering.

I met representatives of the hotel sector last week. They told me they want to put in solar panels. Centra, Musgrave and other shops want to that as well. However, they will not even apply for the grant because it a complete failure. The Government is failing to do the very thing it should be doing. It needs to look at delivering a proper retrofitting and warmer homes scheme that suits and fits everybody.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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The SEAI is the State agency designated as the national retrofit delivery body. It has received well in excess of €1 billion in funding over the past decade, yet it continues to operate a system characterised by significant delays between application, approval and the works being carried out.

The funding it will receive between now and 2030 will be in the region of €8 billion and half of that money is to be used for the energy-poor sector. What I fear, however, is that the scale of ambition and the work being placed on the SEAI will not be reached in any meaningful way. I am aware of pensioners in my constituency who are waiting long periods for essential works to be carried out. I am calling for more urgency to be given to this whole issue because it is one thing talking about retrofitting but if the action is not there, it is not good enough. I ask the Minister to take immediate action on that because I know of pensioners who are waiting very long periods.

I wish to raise the issue of the proposed ban on oil and gas heaters in homes. This was flagged recently and it struck me as the final nail in the coffin in terms of the Green Party's relationship with reality. We in the Rural Independent Group know from our briefings with the Alliance for Zero Carbon Heating that such a policy would place a massive financial burden on families across Ireland if their existing boiler were to fail unexpectedly and they were forced to switch to a heat pump. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has informed the Oireachtas that the average cost of the deep retrofit that is necessary to make a home heat pump ready is €56,000, while the average grant for these projects is less than €20,000. It is just not going to work. We need more input from the Government. It is as if the Government is making life very difficult for people. The key message people are receiving from the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties, which are very cosy with the Green Party and have endorsed its policies, is that the green medicine will be forced down their necks whether they like it or not.

7:40 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad to get the opportunity to talk on this important matter. It has been the Government's mantra that the carbon tax it is collecting is going into deep retrofitting. As the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, who is present, has been told here all evening, there is a wait of up to two years. What is happening to the money the Government is collecting from hard-beaten motorists, whether they are lorry drivers or tractor drivers or whoever? They are playing carbon tax at an exorbitant rate and the Government is going to charge them more in the budget. Where is the money going?

Up to 300 people were on the waiting list in County Kerry at the end of February. That number has doubled since then. As for Kerry County Council, we do not know why the voids are not being brought back into use. We are kind of being told that it is because the voids must all be deep retrofitted, at a cost of up to €60,000 or €70,000, but the Government is not providing the money to the local authority to bring back the voids. There are 150 of them at present. I am asking the Minister to direct the money the local authority needs to retrofit the houses. There are 30 such houses vacant in Killarney while people all around are crying to get housed. The Government is talking about putting heat pumps into old houses. Some of the houses are not fit for that.

In the case of grant aid for the elderly, in Kerry a person will only get €3,200 to repair a roof. That includes the VAT, so it is only about €2,192 that the person gets. I am asking the Minister to increase that money. If there is rain pouring down, what good is heating the house? We have to start with the roof and keep the water out.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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The national retrofit plan is not working. The SEAI has confirmed that it is now taking up to 28 months for applications to the warmer homes scheme to be dealt with. I am a contractor. I flagged this issue 12 months ago when the Minister, Deputy Ryan, was looking at bringing out this retrofit system. I also said that it would not provide value for money at a time of an energy crisis and prices going through the roof. Some people who are looking at the grant system will not take it up because, given the current high energy costs, they are afraid they will not be able to meet their bills alongside the cost of retrofitting the house. They cannot afford to come up with the 50% that would be needed. I can tell the Minister the scheme does not offer value for money. I just got off the phone to a woman who has been waiting eight months for us to turn up to find out if we would do a job on her house. There are people who cannot get a contractor to carry out the works. There is no incentive for people to do it because they do not have the means or the money.

I saw today that the Government's intake on electricity alone is up 30% even though it reduced the VAT rate to 9%. It is getting €4.64 billion extra in VAT even though it reduced the VAT bill, but now it is talking about putting it up to 13.5%. That would put more hardship on every business and person in the country while the Government is talking about retrofit grants and making it affordable. People will be lucky to have food on the table this year with the way the Government is going.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I am supporting the motion. The latest figures for fuel poverty seem to be from 2017. At the time, it was estimated that 475,000 households were affected by fuel poverty or, in other words, had to spend 10% of their income on heating their home. There is no up-to-date strategy to deal with fuel poverty.

The retrofitting of homes has to be a key element of combating fuel poverty by making homes easier to heat and cutting energy bills. It is also a key factor in meeting the State's climate change targets. It has been estimated that retrofitting all homes would decrease carbon emissions by 22%. However, the current retrofitting schemes are simply not up to the job. The cost of a deep retrofit for an average three-bedroom house is between €60,000 and €70,000, or more. A deep retrofit involves insulating attics and cavity walls and installing heat pumps to bring a house up to a B2 rating. The grant amount of €25,000 means that a householder would have to borrow between €35,000 and €45,000, which is beyond the means of most individuals. In effect, the better energy warmer homes scheme means those who cannot afford it are subsidising those who can. That is why I am opposed to the carbon tax. It is inequitable from the point of view of those who need it most.

Most Deputies received an email from a man in County Cork who had listened to Dr. Ciaran Byrne, the director of national retrofit for the SEAI, being interviewed on a radio programme and the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, being interviewed on the same programme shortly afterwards. The man states that he lives in a three-bedroom detached bungalow in west Cork. The house was built in 1980 and has a BER of D1. He wishes to deeply retrofit his home and, having done lots of research, hired an independent energy assessor from a company that does whole-house retrofit plans. The estimated cost for the deep retrofit drawn up by the energy assessor was €59,300. After the national housing retrofit scheme, NHRS, grant, the final cost to him would be €30,600, which he can just about afford. After the independent assessment, he contacted every one-stop shop listed on the SEAI website. He got a shock when the estimated quotes for the work started to come through. He attached to the email a selection of the quotes he received. One is for €92,400. After the grant, that would leave him with €60,000 to pay. Another came in at €108,700. His heart sank as quotes started to come in and he realised there was no way he could possibly afford this. When he heard Mr. Byrne expressing surprise at quotes as big as those and then later, in a separate interview, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, stating that no one in her constituency had complained to her about the cost of deep retrofits, he was really frustrated and left with the feeling that he cannot afford the retrofit.

That is the reality of what is going on in a lot of instances in the context of the schemes. The scheme needs to be reformed and reorientated towards those most in need. There needs to be funding for the retrofitting of local authority houses and the homes of those on social welfare, for example. Dublin City Council has retrofitted fewer than 900 homes in almost four years, with the average BER improved only from an F rating to a C1 rating. Those homes will probably need to be redone in future to bring them up to a B2 rating. Dublin City Council's target is to retrofit just 225 homes a year. On that basis, it will take 14 years to do the 2,800 homes remaining and 1,700 units will be left with below standard upgrades. There needs to be an increase in funding for local authorities to dramatically increase their targets and there needs to be oversight to ensure that proper standards are met. There should be increased funding to older people and those on welfare, while a new scheme to make retrofitting accessible to those on lower wages or incomes is also needed. There should be increased grant funding for solar PV, as well as a national body to run retrofitting by the State.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank Sinn Féin for tabling the motion and the Minister of State for being here. We want to bring people on board. In fact, people are ahead of us in respect of climate action and climate change.

We are not showing the vision or the practical steps that are necessary. We have succeeded in dividing and conquering. We have encouraged climate deniers, which I will have no part of.

This is a positive motion. It sets out facts and calls on the Government to do various things. The targets that have been set bear no resemblance to the delivery of those targets.

Galway city and county councils distinguished themselves before Covid-19, in 2018 and 2019, when no units were retrofitted in the city or county. Any Government that was serious about this would have the managers in to explain what is happening. Retrofitting houses is just one tiny aspect of dealing with climate change. It requires obtaining proper data then getting the managers or CEOs to account for the fact that no houses were retrofitted during those two years. There might be some excuse during Covid-19.

The Government failed to update the energy poverty action plan despite the data being presented to us by various groups such as the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS. The UCC policy briefing document 2021 found that 90% of households with low disposable income considered the cost of energy efficiency measures to be the biggest barrier in making their decision. The ESRI paper of June 2022 on energy poverty and deprivation estimated that recent energy inflation had increased expenditure-based measures of energy poverty to almost 30%. It considered a household to be energy poor if it spent 10%. The figure has become worse since June when the figure was 29.4%.

I have difficulty with the target of having 500,000 houses retrofitted. The various answers to me and other Deputies who have tabled questions indicate that the target is not to upgrade half a million houses up to BER B2 standard at all. It is a kind of trading system whereby all the emissions are taken together. It is extremely difficult to work with the Government and local authorities that are not giving basic data. When basic data are provided, for example, showing that zero houses were retrofitted in 2018 and 2019, nothing is done by the Government. No action is taken.

Galway City Council did great work on decarbonisation zones and identified west side as the decarbonisation zone. We are into our second year now. It was identified in February or March and submitted as soon as the Department asked for it. Nothing has happened. Would the Minister of State not think that two years after the decarbonisation zone was identified questions would be asked about what the Department is doing? I am critical of Galway County Council but in this case it has done its job and the Department has utterly failed to issue guidelines on operating the decarbonisation zone.

Climate change is a huge issue. The word "huge" does not capture it; it is the most important issue we have to face. We have to start using language in a meaningful way.

7:50 pm

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I support the motion. Some types of retrofit work, such as heat pumps and insulation in roofs, but doing insulation inside or outside older houses is an expensive job. Doing a deep retrofit costs about €90,000. Unless there are interest-free loans, it is not going to work. People do not have the money because they have their tongues out trying to keep themselves warm, never mind retrofitting a house. That is problematic.

On top of that, and this is calling it very clearly, a certain number of people are qualified to do retrofitting but builders may do the work for a person and forget about the grant that could make the job cheaper. I have seen cases of that. Under the Government's warmer homes scheme, most people do not get a deep retrofit but get only an oil or gas boiler. Condensing boilers are more efficient but they are not ideal because they will rely on oil or gas into the future, although they reduce bills somewhat. There are other options the Government has not looked at. If reducing emissions is the goal, why has it not considered hydrogen fuel, which is coming into the country at the moment? It reduces emissions by 90%. We have not gone down that road, which would help people and also help meet the targets.

Having ideals is grand and so is believing that next summer we might be in a better place. This winter is about keeping the lights on, keeping people warm in their homes and keeping food on the table. People are under pressure. I ask the Government to ensure in the budget that all the vulnerable sectors and middle Ireland are looked after. If it fails to do that, we will be in trouble.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I am delighted there is so much interest in retrofit. There was not always such interest. In the past, when retrofit schemes were proposed there were cynical responses about how many years it took for the payback. Those calculations about how long it took for payback were based on assumptions about the future price of electricity and gas. We have since found out that those assumptions were wrong.

In February last, the Government introduced a dramatic new retrofit scheme which allowed for grants of up to 80% for those measures which were the most effective, in other words, attic and wall insulation. The response to that change has been huge. There is no need to sell retrofit to the public. Everybody knows what it is now and everybody wants it. That scheme was introduced in February before the war started. The element of the war that Ireland is involved in is the response to the sanctions against Russia. Putin's response has been to attempt to divide Europe, make us fight against each other and crush our solidarity and resolve. I am glad to see we are all on the same page as regards the need to reduce our emissions and consumption, which is even more important than adding more energy to the grid.

I will quickly update Members on the retrofit scheme. At the end of August, more than 30,000 applications had been received by the SEAI, which is a 140% increase on the level that was seen in the same period last year. Applications for the new enhanced attic and cavity wall insulation grants tripled compared with the same period last year. These are highly cost-effective upgrade measures and they will help homeowners to save energy this winter. We are talking about an expenditure of between €300 and €400 for a home. Applications for heat pumps and external wall insulation are up 80% and 40%, respectively. In addition, demand for solar photovoltaic schemes has been extremely positive this year.

While driving demand is important, delivering the retrofits is even more crucial. In regard to what has been delivered so far, the SEAI target for this year is 27,000 home energy upgrades. The latest projections from the SEAI indicate that this challenging target will be met. This means 27,000 families will be made cosy in their homes. Figures for the end of August show that 13,400 homes had been upgraded across the SEAI schemes. This compares with a total of 7,900 for the same period in 2021. More than 4,200 of these homes are upgraded to BER B2 or better and this compares with a total of just under 1,800 for the same period in 2021, not ten as one Deputy stated earlier. Under the solar PV scheme output for this year, we will exceed the target for PV to deliver 6,600 solar roofs. Demand and delivery under the new national home energy upgrade scheme have also been robust, with a pipeline of work for the remainder of the year and into 2023. There are currently 11 one-stop shops registered. A 12th is expected to be announced shortly and another 14 organisations are at various stages of the registration process. We expect to have about 20 one-stop shops registered by the end of the year, which was the target.

The Government recognises that even with the enhanced grant rates, many homeowners will need to access finance to fund their upgrade.

For that reason, my Department is engaging with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, and the European Investment Bank, EIB, on the development of a residential retrofit loan guarantee scheme. This scheme will enable credit institutions to offer loans with reduced interest rates to private homeowners and non-corporate landlords and will make comprehensive home energy efficiency upgrades more affordable to the public. It is intended that the loans under the guarantee will be available in the coming months.

More than 2,400 homes have already been completed under the warmer homes scheme this year. That is nearly three times the number of homes completed in the same period in 2021. The retrofit works delivered under the scheme are extensive. SEAI data show an average investment of €18,750 per home retrofitted under the scheme in the first half of the year. Month-by-month delivery of free energy upgrades under the scheme has doubled since last year and has reached the target of 400 completions per month. To sustain and build on this progress, the following actions have been taken. First, the SEAI has been allocated additional staff to administer the scheme. Second, additional funding has been sought from the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF. Finally, the SEAI has completed a 4% increase in costs for all contractors from June in order to address the ongoing supply chain challenges.

In line with the national retrofit plan's principles of fairness and universality, there is a need to ensure that all housing types and consumer cohorts can participate. For this reason, specific measures to stimulate retrofit activity among approved housing bodies and in the private rental sector were also included in the package of measures which the Government announced in February.

The residential rental sector poses a particular challenge and in this sector the incentives to invest in energy upgrades are misaligned between landlords and tenants. This impacts negatively on the energy performance of the sector. This complex problem is seen in many countries and is referred to as the "split incentive". To address this issue, non-corporate landlords are eligible for the new grant supports available under the national home energy upgrade scheme, the better energy homes scheme and the community energy grants scheme. It is also intended that non-corporate landlords will be able to avail of the planned low-cost loan scheme for retrofit when it is launched in the coming months.

A further key step associated with addressing this issue for tenants will be the introduction of a minimum BER rating required for rental properties for all landlords. The Housing for All strategy, which is being led by my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, includes a commitment to introduce this requirement from 2025. Collectively, these measures will mean that the national housing stock is upgraded and tenants get lower energy bills and a more comfortable place to live.

There are approximately 36,500 local authority homes which will be retrofitted in the coming decade under the local authority retrofit scheme. This programme of work will not only benefit local authorities in assisting them in the upgrade and maintenance of their housing stock but will also directly benefit householders with an enhanced level of comfort and lower fuel costs. This year, the energy efficiency retrofitting programme will see approximately 2,400 local authority homes nationally being upgraded to a B2 or equivalent standard, with a significant increase in funding support to local authorities to €85 million. That compares with just two years ago when funding of €25 million was provided for local authority retrofits. When moving from funding of €25 million to funding of €85 million, staff must be provided. Staff were provided in every local authority in the country to carry out that work. These are trained retrofit engineers. It is right that this funding of €85 million is targeted towards local authority tenants who are at risk of energy poverty.

While it is important, retrofitting on its own will not address the cost-of-living challenges faced by homeowners across the State. The Government now intends to build on the €2.4 billion package of measures already in place to support people to meet the cost of energy in the forthcoming budget. A new action plan to combat energy poverty will set out a range of measures to be implemented ahead of the coming winter, as well as key longer term measures to ensure that those least able to afford increased energy costs are supported and protected.

I emphasise again the critical importance of the role of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, which oversees non-price aspects of competition and continues to take steps to increase transparency, customer protection and consumer engagement in retail markets. In August, under response No. 6 of the national energy security framework and following engagement with customer representative groups, energy suppliers and network operators, the CRU announced enhanced consumer protection measures. These include, an extension to moratoriums on disconnections, a reduced debt burden on pay-as-you-go meters, better value for those on financial hardship meters and the promotion of the vulnerable customer register. These are important additional protections for consumers during a very challenging time.

As outlined, this Government has set ambitious retrofit targets for Ireland for the end of this decade, including almost halving greenhouse gas emissions from the residential sector by 2030; upgrading almost a third of the country’s housing stock to a building energy rating of B2 or carbon equivalent; and installing 400,000 heat pumps in existing homes to replace older less efficient heating systems. This represents one of the most ambitious retrofit programmes in the world. However, under the national retrofit plan, we are making tangible progress. My officials will continue to work with the SEAI to build on the work to date. The operation of the schemes will be kept under review taking account of the overarching need to build a much bigger home upgrade sector, the evolving science, innovation and technology, and other relevant factors. We want to ensure that grant levels continue to be appropriately matched to the costs that people pay.

8:00 pm

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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I am glad to speak on this Private Members’ motion because there is so much worry and uncertainty about energy and keeping warm this winter. The issue is coming up at all the doors when I meet constituents in Prosperous, Naas and Kilcock. They are so worried about their energy bills and so scared they will not be able to turn on the heating for their children when they come home from school, they cannot even consider the Government’s retrofitting plan. People are particularly concerned about older parents who worry so much about paying bills and taking out loans. These are people who work hard and live week to week and month to month. They cannot even consider the Government’s retrofitting scheme which prioritises those who have the most over those who need the most. The Government’s stance on retrofitting projects, prioritising those who can pay the most over those who need the most, is the same as the unfair, unjust and unkind stance evident across its energy policy where the chosen ones, the haves, can depend upon warmth and fibre optics, while the have-nots can be consigned to the cold and candlelight. As my colleague, Deputy O’Rourke, said, its approach fails the equity test.

A constituent who contacted me the other day received an electricity bill of more than €400. He lives alone on a disability pension and has not turned on his heating. He has also decided not to turn on his lights and television and is only using the radio. He is trying to do everything by candlelight now, which is a worry as it is a fire hazard. He said the electricity supplier might as well cut him off immediately. Does anyone think this man is considering retrofitting his home? He and so many like him need what Sinn Féin is proposing in this motion for people on low and middle incomes. For example, we propose a €15 million retrofitting scheme for homes relying solely on solid fuel. This would be of particular benefit in rural areas and would also improve our poor air quality, which we suffer so much from, while tackling poverty at the same time.

We further propose a local energy action fund providing €8 million for sustainable energy communities to fund local community-led retrofits. We propose a 75% increase in funding for the solar PV budget, bringing that budget up to €24.5 million for 2023. These are no-brainers. Supporting the motion is also a no-brainer as it would make such a difference to my constituents in Kildare North and others across the State. We should use this energy crisis as an opportunity to lower our carbon emissions. The motion we have put before the House would do just that.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I thank my colleague, an Teachta O'Rourke, for bringing forward this motion and providing us with an opportunity to have this very important debate.

The Minister of State referred to all of us being on the same page. We are not really all on the same page, though, are we? Some of us are not even in the same book if truth be told. On the Minister of State's page, there are 9,000 people waiting up to 27 months to avail of the better energy warmer homes scheme. On his page, a wealthy household can access up to €25,000 worth of taxpayer-funded grants, while those on low or ordinary incomes are locked out. So, no, we are not all on the same page and, as I have said, we are not even in the same book sometimes. I genuinely wonder if Ministers hold constituency clinics and, if they do, whether they see how people are suffering. Have their constituents brought them their electricity and gas bills and explained what they are doing? Are they aware of the indignity people are living with during this energy crisis?

They are standing in a shop for longer than they need just to stay warm. If they are retired, they are getting money off their kids just to pay their heating bills or they are planning to go to bed at 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock in the evening just to stay warm. We need to be ambitious. The Minister talks a lot about the need to be ambitious but we also need to look at where people are. They are not on the same page as the Minister. He needs to recognise that. They need urgent interventions, they need support now and they need to know they will get through the winter. They cannot fuel their houses with ambitions. They cannot pay their bills with the Minister's ambitions. They need direct action.

That was the purpose of this motion. We need to ensure that people can be warm in their homes. The Minister referenced people being warm and cosy in their homes but that is just a pipe dream for many people as we head into winter. This is not in any way personal but I am genuinely worried for where people are at, for the impact this will have on their mental health and for the impact this will have on their families. I encourage the Minister, the Minister of State and their colleagues in government to act. It is instructive to note that the Minister's Government partners have not sufficient interest to come in and speak on this motion this evening. I would encourage them all to talk to people in their communities and to use the information they obtain, plus the motion we have brought this evening, to put in place measures that will make a real and meaningful difference to people who are now dreading this winter.

8:10 pm

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I thank those who have contributed to this debate. It is notable that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael could present a speaker. Maybe they do not see the same problems that we do. Maybe they do not represent the same constituents that we do, namely, those who are struggling to access these schemes and to heat their homes this winter.

I have to say in response to the Government contribution that we are setting out a clear challenge to the Government. We have identified weaknesses in the schemes, as the Minister heard from a number on the Opposition benches. We need the Government to increase funding. We need to reorient the schemes to ensure they are targeted to those in need, those on low and middle incomes and those in local authority houses. The schemes need to be targeted based on need. There are far too many excluded from the schemes based on waiting lists, on strict eligibility criteria or on the inability to pay, given that they do not have the upfront funding to access the necessary grants. I have not heard enough in response from the Government to be confident it is hearing exactly what has been said here, or that it is going to respond to address the barriers and the lack of flexibility. There is a need to address the roll-out and the speed of lower-cost or shallower retrofits.

I am very concerned by what I hear. The Minister of State gave a lot of information and figures benchmarked against last year, which was in the middle of Covid. It is no great achievement to do better than last year and to have that as a starting point. My understanding is that the overall target is 27,900. The Minister of State indicated that this is now at 13,400, but that just 4,200 of those are to B2 or B2 equivalent. That is a very low number and is of real concern. In that regard, I wonder is that the same as last year. Are many of those B2 or B2 equivalents the result of a move from C1 by just putting solar panels on the roof, and that is another one off the list? That is not the type of progress we need to see.

We need targeted investment towards people who are going to struggle to heat their homes, who are living in cold homes, who are poor. They need to be prioritised, not Deputies, Senators, wealthy people or people who have a spare €25,000. We will get to them but they are not literally at the coal face this winter. The schemes need to be reoriented and they need to be prioritised. Workers are busy retrofitting the homes of wealthy people. We need to take that resource, because we do not have enough of those workers and contractors, and we need to put them where they are needed and, in the first instance, to address the long waiting lists and to expand those schemes. Our approach is one that is efficient and effective. It is about identifying the needs with the SEAI and local authorities and then working through blocks of houses in groups.

The Government is not opposing the motion. I would rather that it took our motion and ran with it, reformed the schemes and delivered for people in need.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Paul McAuliffePaul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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On a point of order, there were a number of references in the previous debate to the absence of political parties. I would like the House to note that there is no speaking time for parties during Private Members’ business. If Sinn Féin wishes to make time available for backbenchers to speak, we are very happy to do that, but it is hypocritical to suggest that no one is present when they do not provide any speaking time.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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There is 20 minutes of Government time and the Deputy knows it.