Wednesday, 28 September 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
14. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government his plans to put measures in place to support the refurbishment of vacant property in rural communities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46926/22]
36. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government the number of full-time vacant homes officers in each local authority tasked solely with identifying vacant properties and bringing them back into use; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47193/22]
41. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government if the new grant for the refurbishment of old derelict houses will be extended to rural areas given that at present the scheme it is only available in certain towns. [46755/22]
45. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government his views on whether the strict criteria for the location of suitable housing under the Croí Cónaithe fund are too exclusionary and reducing access to the scheme. [47312/22]
For a number of years, I was a lone voice in this House in highlighting the need to reopen vacant homes. I acknowledge the steps the Minister has taken in introducing a refurbishment grant for vacant properties in our towns, villages and rural areas. However, the Department was slow to issue guidance to local authorities, although it eventually did come. We now need to actively encourage the uptake of this scheme.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 14, 36, 41 and 45 together. I acknowledge the Deputy's input on this. We have discussed it. This scheme can be vitally important in breathing life back into our towns, villages and rural areas. I will explain where we are at the moment.
As Deputy Naughten will know, pathway 4 of Housing for All sets out a blueprint to address vacancy and make efficient use of our existing housing stock. All of us want to do that and we should do so. Many areas in our cities, towns and villages of all sizes face the blight of vacant properties. On 14 July this year, I launched the vacant property refurbishment grant as part of the Croí Cónaithe towns fund. That grant will benefit those who wish to turn a formerly vacant property, house or building into their principal private residence. There grant is worth up to €30,000 and is available for the refurbishment of vacant properties for occupation, as I have said. This includes the conversion of a property which was not previously residential. I have also made a change to planning exemptions to allow conversion from commercial to residential use without planning permission. Where the refurbishment costs are expected to exceed the grant of €30,000, there is a further grant available if the local authority designates the home as derelict. This comes to a total of €50,000 comprising €30,000 where the property is vacant and €20,000 where it is derelict.
On 21 September, I launched the ready-to-build scheme, which is the equivalent of the serviced sites fund for our towns and villages. There has been a great response to that. When I launched the original Croí Cónaithe fund for our towns and villages, I committed to an ongoing review of the schemes under it. I am now expanding the scheme. Guidance has issued. In fairness, we only launched it on 14 July. In the first four weeks, there have been 169 applications to the scheme with most local authorities making applications. There is incredible interest in it and I believe it will work very well because it is simple. It has been broadly welcomed. We are retaining it in the budget. Others who are sitting not too far away from Deputy Naughten would get rid of it. That is something they can explain. This is a simple grant that will help homeowners. I have now extended it to rural areas. That will take effect from November. I have also extended it to urban towns like Drumcondra or Ballincollig. It is open right across the Twenty-six Counties and has already had a very good start. I thank the Deputy for his input on the scheme.
From a climate perspective, this is a no-brainer. We have already put the infrastructure in place. There is water and electricity and broadband is going in now. In climate terms, every square metre of new-build takes 1 tonne but the refurbishment of a square metre of an existing house takes half of that. There has already been an incredible level of interest in the scheme but we have set a cap of 2,000 premises by 2025. Conservatively, we are looking at somewhere between 90,000 and 160,000 vacant properties across the country. Can the Minister assure local authorities that, if demand is shown, funding will be made available to refurbish more than those 2,000 premises?
I welcome the steps the Minister has taken but I have a few follow-up questions. With regard to the top-up from €30,000 to €50,000 in the case of a derelict property, does the property have to be on the county's derelict sites register or can the council say that it missed it but accepts that it is derelict? That is the carrot side of things, which I greatly welcome, but will greater use be made of the Derelict Sites Act 1990 to put pressure on people who own derelict sites to sell? There are many people who want to buy these sites and the Government is clearly incentivising that through this excellent scheme, which I congratulate the Minister on. The Minister has said he is expanding it to rural areas. Do the same grant amounts and limits apply?
I very much welcome this scheme. By way of clarification, when will this be a nationwide scheme? It is in the villages and towns at the moment. When will it go to the big urban areas, to rural areas and to city centres? It would make a great difference in Limerick city centre and within the environs of the city. When will it become a blanket nationwide scheme covering all older properties? Young couples and other young people come to me. In many cases, they can buy a second-hand house and do it up more cheaply than they can buy a new house. It will bring benefits to towns and villages. Will the Minister give us an idea of when it will cover all areas, including city centres, city environs and rural and urban areas in addition to towns and villages? What are the timeframes and levels of grants, which my colleague asked about previously?
The scheme is badly designed. The targets are too low and it only applies to a small number of towns. Like the repair and lease and buy and renew schemes, it will come back not having delivered its targets. My question is this: why only 600 units a year? What guarantee is there that people will be able to buy and renovate vacant and derelict properties on €20,000 or €30,000 of a grant?
That is a perfect example of Eoin ar dhá thaobh. The scheme is going to work. It is already working very well. It is a good scheme, as Deputy Naughten has mentioned, to use vacant stock. Deputy Ó Broin would abolish it.
I ask the Deputy to relax for a second. I am going to answer the Deputies who are constructive and who want to actually make a change. First, the grant levels apply across the country. That will happen from November for rural and urban areas, including rural one-offs and city centres. That will be in November. In response to Deputy Naughten, and this might disappoint Deputy Ó Broin because he does not want to see progress, these are baseline targets. If we can get more applications in, we will provide the funding for it. That is because we have a multi-annual housing plan.
Being serious, this is, as Deputy Naughten said, a no-brainer. It is open to every local authority. It is a simple application. To answer Deputy McNamara's question, if the local authority designates the house as vacant, so if someone comes to it with an application when purchasing a house and the local authority says it has been vacant for two years or more, that is all that is needed. There and then they will get the €30,000 grant. If the prospective homeowner comes forward and says the home is derelict and that is agreed with by the local authority, the €20,000 top-up grant applies. It is not "up to". It is €30,000 for vacant properties and then €50,000, regardless of the value of the property or the purchase price. I have made the further changes that I and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, announced at the ploughing championships. Most reasonable people see this scheme as an excellent initiative that is going to work.
Yesterday, the Minister for Finance brought forward the vacant property tax, which will be managed by Revenue, and we have the vacant site register too. I can assure the Deputies that if the interest in this scheme translates into applications, which is happening now, we will provide additional funding above and beyond. There is no question about that.
I thank the Minister for that reassurance. The difficulty is that across my constituency of Roscommon-Galway we have approximately 6,000 vacant homes, fewer than ten of which are available to rent today. Across the Northern and Western Regional Assembly area, there are 44,000 of these vacant properties. We want to see them back in use, bringing life back into rural communities. Will the Minister give an assurance that if there are barriers to the uptake of this scheme, they will be addressed? Take the repair and lease scheme, for example. In principle, it is a good scheme but the social housing test placed on it is acting as a barrier to local authorities refurbishing some of these vacant properties. Right across this country at the moment there is a social housing need in every village. There are Irish people or Ukrainians who will take those houses and yet we still have a social housing test in place for that scheme. That needs to be lifted.
I am trying to be constructive and positive. I welcome the scheme but there is a difference between vacant houses and derelict houses. The Government has introduced a vacant house scheme but there are a lot of derelict houses across the country. They do not accrue local property tax at the moment. Bringing in a vacant property tax is not going to be a stick to force those houses onto the market. We need those houses on the market because the Government is incentivising people to buy them. We need those houses done up for the sake of the communities but most of all for those who are looking to buy houses. Will there be a measure to get those derelict houses onto the market? The vacant house tax announced yesterday will have no impact whatsoever. The Government can treble or multiply by ten the local property tax but zero by ten is still zero.
I am not the Minister for Finance but the derelict site levy is in place. We need that stick. The vacant property tax is a commitment in the programme for Government and an action in Housing for All that we are bringing forward too. We have made some quite significant changes to the repair and lease scheme recently and removed a lot of those barriers. Repair and lease is a very good way of getting vacant and derelict properties back into use for social housing. I have seen many of them right across the country. Earlier this week I was with Deputy Aindrias Moynihan in Macroom and saw some fantastic work being done there in relation to town regeneration. It is happening all over the country. It might disappoint some people but it is. We kept the scheme as simple as possible. This will be on top of using CPO through the Housing Agency. There are a number of streams there. This Government and most Deputies are committed to keeping this assistance and making sure the scheme works. If it needs to be tweaked along the way, we will do that. It only launched on 14 July.
When in November? Will it be for the cities and rural areas? When will it be available nationwide? What is the precise date? Will there be a public awareness campaign? I am still getting questions from people about the actual commencement date.
It is a fair point. We launched the scheme in July to get it up and running and test the interest in it. Without pushing it and doing a public information campaign there has already been a very good response. There will be a public information campaign around it and we will expand it to the cities. I am sorry; I neglected to answer that question. It will be in the month of November but I cannot give a precise date. We have to make sure the guidance is out there already. I will have housing summits with the local authorities on 13 October and I will be going through this and the changes with each director of services for housing. To be fair to the local authorities, it is another role they are taking on and they have done it very well already. As I said, there have been 169 applications in less than four weeks. I do not have the up-to-date figures. It will be open in November nationwide, for cities, rural areas, towns and villages.