Thursday, 31 January 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy.
While most logical people understand the difficulty in reviving the building industry after the carnage wrought on it by the disastrous Fianna Fáil-led Governments, it is good to finally see real growth in the numbers of new houses being built. However, when many members of the public pass a vacant dwelling, they reasonably ask why it cannot be brought back into use to help those who are living in emergency accommodation or seeking to buy their own home. It is a question I often ask myself and I hope the Minister will provide some answers.
In preparing for the debate on this Commencement matter I started to look at housing statistics in County Westmeath. According to the 2016 census, the total housing stock in the county was just under 37,000 homes, of which 3,728 were classed as vacant. However, in 2017 GeoDirectory, compiled in conjunction with An Post, gave a figure of fewer than 1,500 that were vacant. Therefore, the vacancy level in County Westmeath might either be 10% or 4%. To compound the problem, Westmeath County Council estimated that two thirds of the homes listed by GeoDirectory as vacant were actually occupied. Of those that are left, half are either in probate or the owner is living in a nursing home. This suggests the real vacancy rate is less than 1%. What is the correct figure?
Answering this question is not just an academic exercise but has real-life implications. Could it be that there is a considerable under-response to the census? If that is the case, much of the social planning for housing, schools and health services could be based on flawed figures. Could it be that many of the policies put in place to bring vacant properties back into use are failing to deliver because they are based on notional vacant properties which do not exist? Is there a case to be made that local authorities are using different sets of definitions to minimise the extent of the problem and, therefore, their duty to respond? Does the Department have a current register indicating how many properties are vacant? If so, how is "vacancy" defined? What is the number and how has it been arrived at? Has the Department compiled an audit of the reasons for vacancies and the possibility of returning properties to use? How many properties fall into each category and what can be done to bring these homes back into use? Are there restrictions or impediments, the removal of which could be helpful? To what extent is Government funding, or the lack of it, a limiting factor? What best practice in better performing local authorities could be shared with others? Are there sanctions imposed on local authorities which are not fulfilling their responsibilities?
I keep coming back to the simple question that comes to my mind, as I am sure it comes to the minds of many others, when I see vacant properties. Why can we not use these properties to house people who do not have a home? Last year Westmeath County Council spent €660,000 in providing private emergency accommodation. That money, if used to find and upgrade existing properties, could have been used to provide permanent homes for a dozen families. What has been the uptake of schemes such as the repair and lease scheme? How can they be better promoted? Should we advertise them in local newspapers, as well as on local and community radio stations?
I know that the Minister is familiar with the west side of Athlone because he walked it with me last year when I was seeking funding for an urban regeneration project. He saw that as many as one in three properties was vacant or had vacant units overhead which could be used to house families. This area is no different from many others. The urban regeneration scheme would help areas such as this and I am grateful that the west side of Athlone was among those chosen to receive funding. However, it is a medium to long-term project. What can we do in the short term to put people into homes? How can we free up vacant properties to provide accommodation? If Government funding is not a mitigating factor, the delays and difficulties must be systems failures. I am keen to hear from the Minister on what we can do to alleviate them.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I was in the Chamber yesterday debating the issue of housing for two hours. I had to yield the floor to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, to begin a separate debate on housing for the elderly. Wth this Commencement matter, I appreciate the time Senators are giving to considering the challenges we face in housing provision. I thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to outline the work the Government is doing with local authorities to address the issue of vacancies.
Rebuilding Ireland sets out a range of measures to assist in meeting housing needs by ensuring the existing housing stock is used to the greatest extent possible.
One action within pillar 5 is a national vacant housing reuse strategy. This strategy, which I published last July, strives to provide a targeted, effective and co-ordinated approach to identifying and tackling vacancy across Ireland and draws together all of the strands of ongoing work into one document with a clear vision for moving forward in the next few years. It builds on the significant work already begun by the various stakeholders, including the Housing Agency, local authorities and approved housing bodies in 2016 and 2017 in order to meet our goals in respect of vacancy.
We have been very proactive in dealing with vacant properties and there are a number of schemes available to incentivise reactivating suitable dwellings into the liveable housing stock. This again relates to the frustration about which the Senator spoke. People see an empty home and want to know why it is empty and how it can brought back into use. That is what the strategy is about. Each local authority has prepared a vacant homes action plan and submitted that plan to my Department. They have also appointed vacant homes officers to co-ordinate local actions needed to look at the vacant residential stock in their areas. We are continually examining new ways of reducing the number of vacant homes.
The initial national roll-out of the innovative repair and lease scheme did not yield the results we had hoped for. We examined it and made improvements and we are now seeing more homes coming back into use through that scheme. Corresponding to that is the buy and renew scheme, which also has strong potential. We have seen a number of homes that might have been brought into the repair and lease scheme brought under the buy and renew scheme instead. Under this scheme the local authority buys the home outright, renews it, and puts it into use for social housing. The two schemes work very well together and we are now seeing greater interest in them. We have also advertised them and we can roll out further advertisements if that is seen to be necessary. As an alternative to these schemes, the long-term leasing initiative allows owners of vacant properties that are in good condition to lease their properties to local authorities. Leasing under this scheme takes the uncertainty out of being a landlord for as long as ten or 20 years. It gives certainty to the person who owns the property.
Aside from the wide range of incentives available, local authorities are also being encouraged to utilise their legislative compulsory purchase order, CPO, powers in order to bring vacant and derelict properties back into use. This approach can result in the delivery of housing more speedily and at much lower cost than new builds, often without having to go to the court. Simply invoking the CPO powers and giving notice that it is intended to use them can bring properties back into use. We have seen that happen very effectively in Dublin and Louth.
Away from the centrally funded schemes, my Department has made legislative amendments that will support the reactivation of vacant properties. For example, new exempted development regulations came into operation this time last year. These allow for a change of use of vacant properties above shops, below a certain amount of homes, without a requirement for planning permission in order to bring them back into use. We also introduced regulations on the application of disability access certificates to existing buildings when brought back into use and other such matters.
Work undertaken by local authorities, drilling into the available vacancy data, coupled with the initial results of the first wave of visual inspections by six local authorities are getting us closer to the actual number of vacancies in the country. Initially, when looking at the high numbers from the CSO, people thought that this was low-hanging fruit. It is not that the CSO data are incorrect, it is that when one looks at what is actually counted, which includes holiday homes, homes that are for sale, and homes that are between lettings, it is not vacancy as we would understand it. The work with the local authorities and their teams continues. It is starting to bear fruit. Whenever we talk about housing, we should talk about supply and the improvements we are seeing, but also about how we are using existing stock and getting it back into appropriate use.
I thank the Minister. I appreciate the fact that he is here again today. I know how hard he is working on housing and homelessness. There are a lot of things I would like to mention but I do not have time for everything. One of the things I always look at is houses that are in probate and sitting idle while the bereaved family goes through the necessary procedures. Could there not be an incentive for that family to lease the house to a family that is living in a hotel? Surely an incentive could be offered there. It would be a win-win situation for both the family dealing with the probate and the family that is in a hotel.
The Minister talked about advertising. We should be advertising those schemes all of the time. We have community radio in Athlone, which is part-funded by Pobal. Why is the Department not using that radio station to advertise the repair and lease scheme? I was reared on Connaught Street, to which I brought the Minister when we were looking for regeneration money. When I was a child there were 70 families living on that street. It did us no harm to live over a shop. It might have made me a little bit cheeky, but I do not think it did me any harm. Many of those premises are vacant. The county council should be out advertising this scheme and putting families into these premises.
I know we have a vacant homes action plan and vacant homes officers in the county councils, but one vacant homes officer is not enough for the whole of County Westmeath. It is not enough even for Athlone. These officers should be going from door to door finding out exactly why premises are empty and seeing what can be done to bring them back into use.
The other worry I have is that developers are buying properties and sitting on them. They are holding onto them until they can get enough adjacent properties to develop a site. Councils are doing that with CPO purchases as well. That needs to be looked at. There are several such situations in Connaught Street. There is a lot we can do. I know a lot has been done, but we are in a housing crisis and we need to take drastic measures immediately.
I thank the Senator for those follow-up questions. On the initial question about properties in probate, it is very difficult to enter into new legal agreements in respect of such properties because they are in probate.
On advertising, local authorities have budgets for advertising. If a particular local authority is having difficulty making money available to advertise available schemes, we can absolutely support it. To look at Westmeath County Council and its own vacancy statistics, as the Senator pointed out the CSO said that the vacancy rate in 2016 was 10%. In 2018 GeoDirectory showed us that it might have been closer to 3.6%. The information I have received from the local authority tells us that it is lower again. This brings us back to the point that this area is not the low-hanging fruit we thought it was. Nevertheless, we still have to pursue it because, while it might not yield as many homes as we thought it might, they are homes in the right areas. They are homes in the centre of our towns and villages. That is what we want to get after.
We have Westmeath County Council's vacant homes action plan and the council has mapped the potential vacant homes identified on GeoDirectory and vacanthomes.ie, removing duplicate entries. It has also mapped the CSO vacant homes data and done colour-coding in that respect. I will show the Senator those maps if she would like to take a look at them. The vacant homes officer is in place and is using this mapped data systematically to identify potentially vacant homes. Once vacant homes are identified they are inspected and, where appropriate, the process of identifying ownership, engaging with the owner, and establishing the potential to reactivate and recover these vacant homes commences. Additional funding of €100,000 was provided to Westmeath over 2018 and 2019 for the vacant homes office.
To the end of last year, 176 homes were identified as vacant and inspected. Of these homes, 108 were confirmed as vacant while 68 were occupied. Again we are getting into the data and seeing the true level of vacancy. Details of ownership were identified for 13 of the vacant homes. It can be difficult to identify ownership. The council has had positive engagement with the owners of nine of these properties and the owners have indicated their potential willingness to consider either the repair and lease scheme or the buy and renew scheme. In addition, one further property has now been identified for a CPO. As part of the work it is doing, the council is in discussion with a number of local estate agents to identify properties that are vacant and that could be recovered as part of this scheme. The officer is in place and working. Funding has been made available to the officer. The mapping has been done and the officer's plan has been given to the Department. The officer is now pursuing those properties but, of the 176 that have been identified and inspected, 68 were occupied. The officer is pursuing the others and CPO processes are under way.