Seanad debates

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Commencement Matters

Rural Resettlement Scheme

10:30 am

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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The Minister of State is earning his keep this morning. I thank him for coming to the House to provide clarification on a statement made in respect of a Commencement matter tabled by Senator Conway on 14 December last year.

Mr. Jim Connolly asked me to bring this issue to the attention of the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. Mr. Connolly is the founder and Chair of Rural Resettlement Ireland. To date, over 800 families have been resettled in rural areas. The project has been hailed as a major contributor to rural regeneration. As the Minister of State will know, Rural Resettlement Ireland is a registered housing body that provides free services to anyone who wishes to relocate. Rural Resettlement Ireland received core funding from the Department every year until it was cut in 2012. That move resulted in the final and very regrettable closure of the organisation this year.

During a Commencement debate last December, the Minister of State said:

[T]o guarantee that the rental properties supported by RRI are sustainably managed and maintained, fees for the management and maintenance of capital loan and subsidy scheme supported properties continue to be available to it, subject to compliance with the relevant terms and conditions. These fees, together with loan and interest charges, amounted to more than €696,000 over the past five years.

From my discussions with Mr. Connolly, and having had sight of the audited 2016 accounts for the charity, this is at best an inaccurate figure due to unclear accounting or, at worst, an outright misrepresentation of the facts. To place the matter in context, the 21 social houses referred to represent only 0.25% of the 800 families resettled since 1990. The Department's management grant paid to all voluntary housing bodies is €436 per house or €9,156 per year, which amounts to €45,780 for five years. This is a far cry from the €696,000 referred to during the Commencement debate last December. While it is true that amortisation, which is an accountancy term, of the Government grant appears in Rural Resettlement Ireland's accounts, it relates to the normal method of building 21 houses with non-repayable mortgages. This does not translate into ongoing cash support in any way and to imply that it does is wrong. The immediate clarification of this aspect is a matter of personal and public significance to Mr. Connolly, who is seriously aggrieved by the statements.

The rural resettlement initiative is one of the most successful voluntary initiatives ever undertaken in this country. The scheme has provided one-to-one relocated services for 800 families who have rejuvenated rural communities. It has give the families an exceptional qualify of life in communities of their choice through sustained co-operation with the Department, State agencies, family and local services. Rural Resettlement Ireland built up a wealth of experience, wisdom and knowledge that cannot easily be replaced. Since its State funding was cut in 2012, Rural Resettlement Ireland has still managed to assist almost 40 families to move to rural areas in private rented housing. The work has been done entirely on a voluntary basis. I find it incomprehensible that this project had its funding cut in 2012 and is now being wound up during one of the worst urban housing crises that this country has seen. Instead of cutting funding to a recognised housing body with a wealth of experience, one would have imagined that it would have been viewed as a viable solution.

Earlier this year, when speaking about the Government's Action Plan for Rural Development of 600 towns and villages, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, said that people are needed to revitalise towns. In light of decreasing rural populations, initiatives that promote relocation should be encouraged. The Minister's grant aid for home purchase and renovation is laudable. However, we must remember that not everyone has the money to purchase his or her own home and, for many, long or medium-term rental is the optimum solution.

What Mr. Connolly and Rural Resettlement Ireland have achieved through relocation has been more enduring and successful than any Government policy. We need more , not less, of such inspirational commitment, which has been given over decades. Far from misrepresenting or discrediting the work of Rural Resettlement Ireland, however accidentally, we should applaud it and give it the due acknowledgement in respect of its indisputable success.

I ask the Minister of State to clarify the position regarding figure of €696,000 to which I refer. I also ask him to give serious consideration to the reinstatement of the grant aid to Rural Resettlement Ireland, which would allow us to harness the wealth of knowledge and experience that it has accumulated. I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to come to the House. I hope that he will answer my queries, particularly my call for the re-establishment of Rural Resettlement Ireland. We have been told that there are many houses available in rural Ireland, so all we need is to get Rural Resettlement Ireland and similar organisations up and running again.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The context of the question that was supplied to me is a little different from what he has asked today. I shall endeavour to answer all of his queries to the best of my ability.

Let me be clear, I took that debate in December. I thought I went out of my way on that occasion to praise the work done by Mr. Connolly and Rural Resettlement Ireland over the years. I wish to make it clear that Mr. Connolly and Rural Resettlement Ireland have done great work. I am very conscious of the more than 800 families that have been helped. I have watched numerous programmes that featured the work. Certainly, the debate on the previous occasion should not have left Mr. Connolly with the wrong impression. If I need to talk to him directly, I shall do so.

The original question tabled by the Senator did not feature this matter so I may be unable to reply to everything. We have discussed this matter on two occasions. I have definitely discussed it with Senator Conway and with other Oireachtas members from the Clare area. I have complimented and recognised the work of Rural Resettlement Ireland. Mr. Connolly has engaged with the Minister's officials about ways to develop and fund new rural resettlement projects. There is a homeless situation in many of our larger cities and urban areas, yet there are many vacant properties in rural areas. We are trying to join the dots in terms of this matter. We have engaged with Mr. Connolly because of his expertise and we are happy to continue to do so. There should not any doubt about the quality of his work or that of his organisation. If anything I said last December gave that impression, then I am happy to correct same.

I shall clarify matters that relate to the rural resettlement initiative. From 2011 to 2016, my Department provided €696,228 to Clare County Council. This money was solely in respect of 21 properties developed by Rural Resettlement Ireland. The funding was provided under the terms of the capital loan and subsidy scheme, CLSS.The capital loan and subsidy scheme, CLSS, provides capital funding via the local authorities to the approved housing bodies, including Rural Resettlement Ireland, to construct social housing for those on the waiting lists of the local authorities. More than 10,000 social homes have been delivered through the CLSS since it was commenced in 1991. Under the CLSS arrangements, local authorities access funding from the Housing Finance Agency through loan finance arrangements. In turn, the local authorities provide this funding to the approved housing bodies by way of a non-refundable loan, provided that the AHB complies with the terms and conditions of the CLSS. The local authorities repay the loan finance received from the Housing Finance Agency over a 30-year period using the funding they receive twice yearly from the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. Of the overall amount of €696,228 provided from 2011 to 2016 by the Department to Clare County Council in respect of 21 Rural Resettlement Ireland properties, the sum of €662,220 relates to the servicing of the loans the council received from the Housing Finance Agency. A smaller amount of €34,008 relates to the management and maintenance subsidy paid to Clare County Council for the dwellings occupied by tenants of Rural Resettlement Ireland under the terms of the CLSS.

Unlike local authorities, approved housing bodies do not receive capital funding from the Department for the upkeep of their housing stock or for upgrading works. Instead, the approved housing bodies rely on rental income plus the management and maintenance subsidy to maintain their stock. Similar to the funding received for the servicing of the loans, the management and maintenance subsidy is provided to the approved housing bodies via the local authorities. To qualify for the management and maintenance subsidy, dwellings of the approved housing body must be let to tenants approved for housing by the local authority.

To clarify this matter, the figure of €696,228 provided by the Department between 2011 and 2016 relates to the 21 houses developed through the capital loan and subsidy scheme by Rural Resettlement Ireland at various locations in County Clare. The figure is broken into two elements: €662,220 of funding provided by the Department to Clare County Council towards servicing the loans, and the balance of €34,008 for the management and maintenance subsidy paid to Clare County Council. I can confirm, therefore, that none of the funding included in the €696,228 relates to the administration of the rural resettlement initiative. Separately, grant assistance was historically provided by the Department to Rural Resettlement Ireland as a contribution towards its administrative costs. In the five-year period to which Senator Craughwell refers, €30,081 of such funding was provided: €20,081 in 2011 and €10,000 in 2012. I hope this clarifies the matter and it was certainly not my intention in December that there would be any doubt around that. I am glad to have had the opportunity to clear that up. I am sorry that I did not realise that was reason the Senator asked the question in the first place.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. There is no doubting his commitment to the housing crisis, or indeed that of the senior Minister. It might be no harm to contact with Mr. Jim Connolly and also to reconsider or to try to organise that the agency would not close but rather would continue to do its good work. We need to get people back into rural Ireland. I thank the Minister of State for attending.

Sitting suspended at 11.13 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.