Thursday, 26 March 2009
I am grateful that the Minister of State has come into the House to respond to my representation on behalf of the Castlelyons Community Council in Cork, which has made an application for grant aid under the voluntary housing scheme. To assist the elderly in the area, Castlelyons Community Council, which is a long established and very effective community council in east Cork, decided some time ago to establish a voluntary housing association that would lodge an application for funding under the departmental scheme. It decided to work in conjunction with Cork County Council to provide 12 units of accommodation for the elderly in the parish of Castlelyons.
I understand that the application was made in 2006. There was ongoing contact between the community council, which had to constitute a sub-committee that would be a recognised housing body. There was communication between the community council, the Department and Cork County Council on the project. Significant fundraising was required from the local community to purchase the grounds for the proposed housing development. Fundraising was required to carry out the drawings and the design for the housing scheme and to lodge a planning application. That was successfully done with the support of many people in the community. It is fair to say that in Castlelyons, as in many other communities across the country where voluntary housing projects are being considered, there was a level of satisfaction and anticipation within the local community at the progress which was thought to have been made.
Unfortunately, difficulties emerged during 2008. There was a necessity for much debate and correspondence between the housing body, the Department and Cork County Council. Consideration had to be given to changing house design, though it was eventually deemed that the original proposals put forward by the local community council were the best possible plans. However, that caused some delay. A serious problem then arose in December 2008, when the housing group in Castlelyons was informed that the rules of the scheme for tendering had changed in March 2008. The Castlelyons group was not informed of this rule change, and I am led to understand that in late December 2008 the group was advised that as the rules had been changed, its application was basically null and void and would have to be withdrawn. This was obviously very disappointing for the group in question as it had conceived the project, raised the money, purchased the land, designed the houses and was expecting the go-ahead. Instead, it got a very negative response.
The group members are obviously very disappointed that a rule which was changed in early 2008 was not brought to their attention earlier. They are also disappointed that the time, effort and money spent to date now seem to have come to naught. They made the point to me that there should be a much greater level of dialogue and co-operation between the local authorities and the Department on this matter. Groups such as Castlelyons Community Council are doing valuable work with these housing projects, work which would otherwise come under the remit of the Department and perhaps would not get done. These groups conceive projects which allow people to live out their autumn years in their own houses in their communities. That surely is very desirable.
I ask the Minister of State to look at the rules of the scheme to ensure there is greater progress between the housing bodies, the Department and the local authorities. In this case, will the Minister of State review the entire file and acknowledge that a difficulty arose because of a change in the tendering system? If the system changed in March 2008, but those changes were not brought to the attention of the association in question until almost nine months later, is it possible to have the application reinstated and decided upon? I look forward to the reply of the Minister of State, who would, I am sure, acknowledge, as I would, the tremendous work done by voluntary housing bodies.
The emergence of such bodies was a very desirable concept some years ago. At that time,housing associations and bodies such as the Respond Housing Association, Threshold, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and others, took over part of the role of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. They built houses and brought a sense of local ownership, community involvement and participation to social housing. This was a new departure and we moved away from the previous one size fits all concept of local authority housing. We must retain hope and optimism within these groups. For such applications as that of the Castlelyons Community Council, where a technicality appears to have blown the project apart, I hope the Minister of State and the officials at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will work to get the project back on track at the earliest opportunity.
I thank Senator Bradford for raising this issue. I reassure the Senator that meeting housing needs through the current range of housing programmes remains at the very top of the Government's agenda. In particular, the voluntary and co-operative housing sector has a proud record of achievement in the provision of accommodation for people with special needs and low income families under the capital assistance scheme, CAS, and capital loan and subsidy scheme, CLSS, respectively. Since their inception in the 1980s, more than 21,000 homes have been provided to households in need throughout the country under these two schemes. This represents a considerable success story by any measure of social housing delivery.
Even in these times of more constrained public finances, support for voluntary housing remains a priority for my Department and I am confident that we will be in a position to substantially meet our ambitious Towards 2016 target to start 6,000 new voluntary houses between 2007 and 2009. More than 4,000 of these have already been delivered, at a cost to the Exchequer of some €850 million. This is a clear demonstration of our commitment to supporting the valuable contribution by the sector in meeting housing needs of vulnerable groups and households.
The voluntary and co-operative housing programme is delivered through two schemes, namely, the CAS and CLSS. Resources under these schemes are substantially committed for this year, the third year of the initial Towards 2016 delivery period. It is, therefore, timely that we take the opportunity to look ahead and, taking account of the changed economic situation, begin the process of preparing a new multi-annual programme to underpin future progress. The very active voluntary and co-operative sector has already submitted an impressive number of new projects for consideration in future years.
This brings me to the project in question, an application for 12 sheltered housing units at Bridesbridge, Castlelyons. This project has not been refused. It remains under consideration, in the context of the overall pipeline of projects designed to provide new accommodation for households with special needs. My Department and the local authority are engaging closely with the voluntary group concerned to consider issues of the project's compliance with our "sustainable communities" policy requirements, in addition to the various capital appraisal and procurement requirements for publicly funded projects.
All construction projects, including those undertaken by approved housing bodies, must now be procured under the new forms of contract for publicly funded projects. This has been communicated to local authorities on several occasions in the past three years. Three circulars issued from my Department between October 2006 and August 2007 highlighted these new requirements. Following an examination of the procurement process undertaken for this project, my Department advised the local authority that it did not appear to comply with the requirements of the new forms of contract. I understand that this has since been communicated to the community council and the need for compliance with the new procurement requirements has been emphasised. It is a matter for the approved body concerned, in the first instance, to consider its next steps.
I re-emphasise my Department's commitment to supporting the voluntary and co-operative housing sector as part of our overall approach to meeting housing need. Obviously, our capacity to do so will be subject to the level of resources available. Individual projects will have to meet our "sustainable communities" objective as well as comply with various capital appraisal and procurement requirements. In this way, we will maintain a solid foundation for continued progress, and value for money, in meeting housing need through the voluntary and co-operative sector.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am somewhat consoled by his statement that the project has not been refused. Let us suppose the negotiations between the Department and the housing body involved, namely Castlelyons Community Council, result in the ability of the community council to respond favourably to the new procurement contract system. If the documentation is resupplied to the Department, will the file be considered on the basis of the earlier date of application? I fear it might be deemed a new application and that the whole process would have to be gone through again. On the basis that the Minister of State has stated the application has not been refused, is it simply being held in abeyance until such time as he has satisfactory correspondence and tendering documentation from the community council? Can the application be re-activated and returned to its former place in the queue, rather than placed at the end? That is my concern. I thank the Minister of State for his interest. I advise him that once the community council makes progress, it will probably correspond directly with the Minister of State on the matter. Will the Minister of State intervene personally and offer his support?
I thank the Senator for his comments. The matter is under consideration. The Department and the local authority are engaging closely with the voluntary group concerned. When the information is forwarded I will discuss the matter with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Michael Finneran.