Tuesday, 6 March 2012
Local Authority Housing
I wish to raise on the Adjournment the issue of elderly people who want to downsize their living accommodation as their house is too large, now their families have grown up and left. We had a programme in place that allowed local authorities to purchase those houses and provide alternative accommodation to them. I have come across a few cases recently where people were advised that this programme is no longer available to them. That is the context in which I tabled this motion. A significant opportunity is being lost. The value of property has dropped, the local authorities are trying to provide housing for families and we could have a situation, where an elderly couple live in a four bedroom house, but all they require is a two bedroom house. They want to relocate to an area, where their neighbours are people of a similar age and services are nearby. Their needs are two-fold, they want security and they can no longer afford to continue to maintain and heat their large house. At the same time, there is a major demand on local authorities to provide social housing but they do not have the money to build new houses. I wonder if we can restore that former policy. I understand that when it was in place it worked well, especially in areas where there were a large number of elderly people. I suggest that issue be examined by local authorities with a view to resolving a number of issues in the policy area.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, who is on Government business and I am taking this Adjournment matter on his behalf.
I thank the Senator for raising the issue. There is no specific national scheme in place to assist elderly people who wish to downsize their living accommodation by selling their house to their housing authority and arranging for their housing authority to provide them with alternative accommodation which is suitable to their needs.
The matter is dealt with under each housing authority's letting priorities and allocations scheme. Under section 22 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009, housing authorities are required to make an allocations scheme in accordance with the Act. It is a matter for housing authorities to determine the priority to be given in the allocation of dwellings to households assessed as being qualified for social housing support. An allocation scheme is solely a matter for the housing authority concerned to make and implement, as it is a reserved function of the housing authority.
A number of housing authorities operate some form of downsizing scheme within their schemes of letting priorities. These schemes may take the form of "empty nest" or "sheltered housing" schemes and allow older people to sell their houses to housing authorities in return for access to social accommodation, usually in the form of old persons dwellings or sheltered housing, often to enable older persons to live close together in a common community. These schemes involve some level of financial contribution from the sale of the house to be provided to the housing authority in return for the provision of social accommodation, and the provision of accommodation is often in conjunction with voluntary housing bodies.
It is also open to a housing authority to allocate housing from its general housing stock if appropriate units are available which would suit older persons downsizing, whether they are existing social tenants or new applicants. It is entirely a matter for housing authorities, independent of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, to allocate housing based on the needs of each applicant.
Downsizing schemes exist for a number of reasons. First, the accommodation may be too large to maintain if family members have moved out, or may be unfit for the needs of the owner occupier. Where the original house is sold to the housing authority and alternative housing is provided, the responsibility for maintenance rests with the housing authority. The financial circumstances of older persons may be taken into account as they may be unable to afford the maintenance and upkeep of existing accommodation.
Second, units are often specifically designed for older people, with fewer stairs and other adaptations for easier living. A number of such schemes operated by housing authorities take into consideration medical, compassionate or similar grounds. Third, in the case of older people living in a community with similar requirements, such schemes can provide independence and dignity for older persons, as well as encouraging a sense of community and companionship, in a safe, private and caring setting.
We are committed to supporting the issue of accommodation provision for older persons. Obviously the capacity to do so will be subject to the level of resources available to the housing authority. The Government's vision for the future of the housing sector in Ireland as delivered through the housing policy statement of June 2011 is based on choice, fairness, equity across tenures and on delivering quality outcomes and value for money for the resources invested. The overall strategic objective remains "to enable all households access good quality housing appropriate to household circumstances and in their particular community of choice".
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. An opportunity is lost by not having a comprehensive policy in place. The housing market has been at a standstill for the past four years and there are many elderly people who wish to make the move and want the security. I ask the Department to examine the issue and put in place a comprehensive policy. The Minister of State will recall the 1980s when we gave a £5,000 grant to people for the surrender of local authority houses. Suddenly, this resulted in a large number of houses becoming available at low cost which in turn created its own social issues afterwards. However, the measure was not thought out to any great extent. This is an opportunity that is being allowed pass us by. The issue should be examined to ascertain whether a comprehensive policy can be put in place. We should not allow the opportunity pass us by where we can get good property and where elderly people would be well looked after. Given that we are losing out on all fronts I ask that policy be reviewed in that area.
Under section 22 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009, housing authorities are required to make an allocations scheme in accordance with the Act. Obviously some local authorities do a superb job. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, has advised there is huge merit in the scheme. I have no doubt it is about the resources available in each local authority. In his overview of the governance of local authorities the Minister will examine the overall level of management in each local authority. While he may deem that a review of section 22 is necessary in respect of delegated functions, resources and availability of funding, the discretion of the manager and the elected members of each county council and their respective housing policies, I have no doubt the section is being used effectively by many local authorities. The message is that where people living in large houses can be accommodated in a friendly and restful home environment that has merits. I have no doubt the Minister will take on board the points made by the Senator in any review planned by him.