Seanad debates

Friday, 4 June 2021

9:30 am

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)

I thank all Members for contributing to this valuable debate. I understand an amendment to the motion has been submitted, which demonstrates the depth of views on this matter. We support the motion and I thank Senator Mary Fitzpatrick and her colleagues for moving it.

It is important that we do not rush to judgment in making a commitment to the electorate. We must ensure we give all aspects of a referendum on housing detailed consideration. There are many complex matters involved that can affect rights in the Constitution, so the process must be balanced in any proposed amendment. Our Constitution is for every citizen and we must protect against unintended consequences. We must be absolutely clear on the full implications that could arise from any amendment for the sake of all. A lack of clarity on all implications of an amendment could result in legal complications for years to come and deflect important resources away from our primary focus, which is to deliver the provision of homes for citizens and the key goal of preventing homelessness. We do not want to see that.

That is why the Government has committed to historic levels of funding for housing and homelessness prevention and to ensuring affordable, quality housing solutions for everyone in our society. The acknowledgement in the motion of the work currently under way across government to deliver affordable housing for all our citizens is appreciated. It is this Government's aim to embed affordability at the heart of Ireland's housing system and prioritise the increased supply of social and affordable homes.

Almost €690 million will be put into affordable measures, including a new affordable purchase shared equity scheme, a new cost rental homes scheme, Rebuilding Ireland home loans, an expanded help to buy scheme and the work of the LDA. The Affordable Housing Bill is currently before this House. The measures in this Bill will, in the near term, improve market access for first-time buyers, stimulate and increase the number of new homes being developed and provide the legislative structure for the development of a cost-rental system in Ireland for the first time. The Bill also sets out the basis an affordable purchase shared equity scheme, which will help alleviate housing affordability challenges for certain groups in the short term and will stimulate supply by providing confidence in the viability of future private housing developments. This Bill also provides the statutory underpinning for affordable housing into the future while the work to deliver the schemes outlined in the Bill is under way.

In addition, on 4 May, the Government also approved the drafting of amending provisions to Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 for inclusion in the Affordable Housing Bill as Committee Stage amendments. This will see an increase in the current 10% social housing requirement related to all new housing developments to a mandatory 20% for social and affordable requirements. This is in addition to measures previously introduced to ensure traditional family homes are protected from bulk purchase by investment funds. This is being done through immediate tax measures, with a stamp duty hike and longer-term measures through the planning system. These steps complement other Government supports such as direct build of affordable homes by local authorities, the expanded help to buy scheme and the new shared equity scheme to help level the playing field for first-time buyers and turn generation rent into a generation that can own its own home.

Tackling homelessness remains a key priority for this Government. Budget 2021 reflects this priority with a provision of €218 million to support the provision of homeless accommodation and supports to those experiencing homelessness. We all acknowledge that securing a safe and affordable home for all needs real action on the ground and amending the Constitution on its own will not deliver what is needed. Central to addressing homelessness is increasing the supply of public, social and affordable homes. The historic housing provision of €3.3 billion from budget 2021 will allow us, subject to the impact of Covid-19 this year, to meet the social housing needs of 28,500 households and support the delivery of 12,750 social homes. The review of the national development plan and the upcoming housing for all plan, which will be published this summer, will set out the ambitious range of affordable housing targets throughout the country over the coming years.

It is important to acknowledge that the commitment is to hold a referendum on housing and not just a right to housing. We do not want to restrict thinking on all options. It would be a mistake to think that the right to private property only relates to the wealthy in our country. The private ownership of a home is a matter of great concern to all and we must not ignore this.With this in mind, there is another commitment in the programme for Government that will be critical in supporting the holding of a referendum on housing in a balanced and democratic way. We are establishing a commission on housing and it is intended that this commission will examine a referendum on housing. Work on establishing this commission is advancing quickly and the Minister announced the appointment of the chair-designate last week. This will be Mr. John O'Connor, the retiring chief executive officer of the Housing Agency, who will bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the new post.

The terms of reference will now be drafted in consultation with him and, having regard to the commitments in the programme for Government and the forthcoming housing for all plan, we intend to establish the commission by September. The duration of the commission will be set out clearly once the terms of reference have been completed and a reporting requirement has been established. Our approach will bring together experts from various sectors and will allow for the involvement of stakeholders and for a collective approach. This is an important step to support the holding of a housing referendum in a considered and democratic way.

The proposals in the Private Members' motion that is tabled this evening, along with the amendment, can be evaluated further by the commission, as well as text proposed by many other stakeholders who have expressed an interest in this referendum. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has had the pleasure of meeting some stakeholders in this area already, including representatives of the Mercy Law Centre and the Home for Good coalition, and we are keen to ensure that all voices can be heard in a fair and balanced way.

The commission will be asked to consider and evaluate all proposals and undertake research of relevance. Once the commission has reported on the most appropriate form of words for a constitutional amendment, we intend to consult Cabinet colleagues and seek the advice of the Attorney General before putting it before the people.

By supporting the debate in this House, and indeed in the Dáil yesterday evening, we can inform the development of policy for the holding of a referendum on housing and the establishment of the commission on housing. This is a critical part of the process to ensure considerable thought goes into the approach. Members can clearly see the direction of travel for the Government and that is why the motion put forward by Senator Fitzpatrick is very welcome in that regard, along with the motion before the Dáil last night.

I can make a few brief comments on matters raised by Senators. It is clear that we face a huge challenge and we are working hard to resolve it. Successive Governments have done that. We must first acknowledge where the demand has come from. I have always pointed out that from 2011, demand was increasing rapidly year on year when the State did not have the capacity to deliver social homes at scale. That often gets lost in our debate. Right up to 2011, home building in Ireland decreased by 96% and practically no homes were being built.

We can look again at the backdrop - I am at pains to point this out - which is that getting to an equilibrium is such a challenge because at that time, there were 3,000 ghost estates across the country and we were borrowing money at an interest rate of 14%. We were in an International Monetary Fund programme and two thirds of construction workers had left the State. When we accessed the markets midway through 2014, the rate was 14% so it was very difficult to deliver housing at scale. The local authority system was piloting mortgage to rent because the system was saturated with debt from unaffordable mortgages that had been given out.

The challenge was so great that every single year, the demand for housing increased despite the lack of capacity within the State. The objectives of the Land Development Agency will therefore be a game changer in the market because it will be able to operate in a countercyclical fashion. When the State is stressed, for example, it will be able to borrow on the market to raise its own funding and when there is stress in the market, we hope it will be able to use the State for funding. This is a better insurance policy for delivering housing to meet demand.

Senator Seery Kearney mentioned the housing need and demand assessment, which will be a major measure for detailing the type of housing needed for particular areas and the demand in a locality or community. It will give us key assistance in building sustainable communities in each area and it is important to have such data.

I do not want to make this a political matter.However, I will unapologetically stand up for the record of my party in government since I was first elected to the Dáil in 2016. Rebuilding Ireland not only hit its targets for social housing delivery every year from 2016 to 2020 but exceeded them. The big problem in the State was the fact the private sector was still not building each year. This presented a significant challenge because the State was shouldering the lion's share of delivering housing in this State and the figures back that up. I want to be very clear on that. Drafting the idea and intention of the LDA will prove to be a very considered and good policy choice for this country because it will deliver for all of society across all forms of tenures, from cost rental to affordable to social, giving certainty to many households and citizens who deserve that.

Some people try to blacklist developers. When you are talking about our 31 local authorities building houses, who builds those houses? The local authorities enter into a public works contract under procurement law and a builder in the private sector builds those homes. That is a fact. We need to work with the private sector to raise finance. I have made the point that over the next decade, our society will require a minimum of 350,000 new homes. The State cannot take the building of all those homes on its shoulders alone. It needs assistance to do that. In respect of the affordability measures in the Bill, a number of Senators have raised the issue of the minimum of 50%. When we put Part V together with that, it brings it up to 70%, so Members can see that the intention on behalf of the Government is very strong.

There is a significant amount of work to do with regard to Irish Water because the review of the national development plan is ongoing. I accept that a lot of development is held up because the infrastructure is not in place, but we have tried to change that in planning policy and through Project Ireland 2040. We have tried to ensure zoning and housing are aligned with key infrastructure. If we look around the different counties, as I have done, we can see that almost all local authorities have to increase their housing demand by 100% over the next six years. Nine local authorities have to go over 200%, so the challenge is huge. The zoning capacity is there to do that so now we must get on with the job and do the simple things well. That is very important. The issue of vacancy was raised as well in terms of the significant work we must do through our vacant homes offices in our 31 local authorities.

I took the Affordable Housing Bill in the Seanad last week. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, continued that today. I took amendments from the Opposition and I understand the Minister of State did so today as well because we are listening to the contributions and we value what this House has to offer. I am at pains to point this out. We look forward to working with Members throughout the period during which my ministerial colleagues and I are humbled to do this job. I thank everyone for their contributions.

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