Seanad debates

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Housing Adaptation Grant Applications

10:30 am

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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My fellow Kerryman, Senator O'Sullivan, is first. The Minister of State is welcome.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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The Leas-Chathaoirleach looks shocked to see me up at this early hour of the morning.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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It is not that. I am delighted. It is always good to see the Senator.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. Before I was elected to Seanad Éireann, I served as a councillor in Kerry for 22 years, in which time I had the privilege of being mayor of the county.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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With distinction.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. In that time, I was involved in any amount of housing grant applications. Although one did not always get the desired outcome, I never came up against a case as unfair and inexplicable as this one. I do not say that lightly and, as the Leas-Chathaoirleach knows, neither am I in the habit of tabling Commencement matters on individual issues such as this. The Minister of State's office has been advised of the particular and unique circumstances surrounding the application. It is my hope that he will see how shabbily the lady in question and her loving and supporting family have been treated and that he will, even at this belated stage, intervene.

The Government and everyone else in these Houses know full well that we are in a crisis as far as public housing is concerned. The programme for Government sets as a high priority people who make a genuine attempt to house themselves, and rightly so. Far too many go for the easy option of putting their names on a housing list and waiting until someone comes along and hands them the keys. Many will refuse the first or second houses on offer for any variety of reasons until they get exactly what they want. Their houses will be fully furnished and equipped and, for the rest of their days, they will be will be maintained to the highest possible standard and the people to whom I refer will never be burdened with worries about mortgage. In the meantime while they wait, the State will assist them with all necessary supports, including rent allowance and income supplements. We all know what a burden that is placing on the Exchequer and how it perpetuates an unending cycle where demand will always exceed supply.

The lady in question chose another route - a more difficult and unselfish route. With tremendous support, financial and otherwise, from her devoted parents and siblings, she went about housing herself. She was fortunate enough to secure a suitable house adjacent to her family home. For reasons that I will not put on the record but that are known to the Department, this was crucial, because her personal circumstances made proximity to her parents essential to her being able to achieve independent, stress-free living. The house was purchased through a combination of family support and borrowing. It is a wonderful listed building and she has restored it to its former beauty completely in line with Kerry County Council's regulations, which were stringent. Prior to that, the building had become an eyesore in a lovely town that, as the Leas-Chathaoirleach knows, was this year's overall TidyTowns winner.

The story of this application for State funding makes for sad and disappointing reading. What was sought was recognition for her efforts and the fact that, instead of being a lifelong burden on the State, she just got on with the job of housing herself. She would have been a very high priority for local authority housing at God knows what cost in perpetuity, but no. She received a grant from Kerry County Council that would be deemed meagre under any circumstances, never mind in the context of her particular life history. I have been involved in facilitating grants for housing renovations paid out to some of the State's wealthiest citizens, people for whom the grant was just a welcome bonus and not a necessity. They were entitled to it and they got it, but that is not the point. I have worked with the officials and staff of Kerry County Council my whole life. No one admires them more. They are helpful and diligent at all times, but in this case something seems to have gone radically wrong. This has given rise to disappointment on my part in our local government system, with which I have been involved all my life.

Will the Minister of State set an example? He has reply that was prepared by civil servants but it is time that people in his position stand up and reward those who, like this young woman, want to help themselves. He should find a way to address her case and afford her and her family some much-needed financial relief.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator O'Sullivan for raising this case. I also thank him for his honest appraisal of the housing situation and how, despite being potentially complicated, it can work in many cases and help people who choose a different route and try to help themselves. There are systems and processes in place and it is important that we try to work within them. That works two ways, of course, and everyone on both sides must play his or her part. The Senator has given an honest description of the complications encountered in trying to house people. While there is still a major housing shortage, a great deal of progress has been made in every county, including Kerry, where the county council is meeting its targets, delivering many new houses, buying and refurbishing many more and bringing others back into use. There are many solutions. In every debate on housing in this and the Lower House, I stress that there is more than one solution and approach to the question of social housing, for example, purchasing, new builds, Part V, leasing, voids being repaired and brought back into use, the repair and leasing scheme, and the buy and renew scheme. There are many schemes, and I am glad that the majority of councils are beginning to avail of them. That is what we want to do, but it means that we will have to adapt our ways as we see different and better solutions. If they accommodate people, we will attempt them.

I thank Senator O'Sullivan for raising this case and giving me the opportunity to provide an update insofar as my Department is concerned. A representation regarding the case was received from the Senator and acknowledged by our Department in February. There has been ongoing consultation since then between departmental officials and Kerry County Council on this and many other cases. Where it makes sense and represents good value, every local authority is encouraged to acquire houses. Sometimes, people approach me about other issues, but I wanted to be clear on that point.

It is important that I indicate for the record that the detailed administration of the housing adaptation grants, including the assessment, approval and payment of individual grants to applicants, is the responsibility of the relevant local authority. While officials at my Department oversee the national budget for this programme - we have increased the budget in recent years, including for this year - and work with our local authorities to ensure all funding is spent effectively and the grants are implemented fairly and consistently, it is logical that the local authorities make decisions locally, based on the guidelines set nationally, and use their local knowledge of individual applicants and their personal circumstances. As a former councillor, Senator O'Sullivan will have tried to intervene down the years and bridge the information gap so that decision makers were not missing facts about cases.

In this particular case, Kerry County Council assessed the proposal as a derelict cottage in need of significant reconstruction and funding of €13,775 was awarded in October 2018.The approach the council took in this case is in accordance with the guidelines. However, the Department always emphasises to local authorities that they should make the best judgment in each case commensurate with the level of need and the circumstances of the applicant within the guidelines.

My Department raised this case with Kerry County Council, which agreed to revisit the application to consider other possible approaches to assessing the grant application concerned while remaining within the guidelines. There is some challenge and complexity to the case. The Senator referred to the purchase of a property, which can complicate application for certain grants because there are processes to be followed. Everyone had the best of intentions in respect of the case, but matters can sometimes become a little complicated. In the circumstances and based on the discussions between the council and my Department, I can assure the Senator that council officials will contact the applicant shortly to look at an alternative way to assess the housing adaptation grant application and see if there is a way to achieve a higher level of support.

The Senator outlined the details of the case and the amount of funding required. He will appreciate that I cannot pre-empt the precise outcome, given that decisions on applications of this kind are a matter for the local authority and not my responsibility. I am not allowed to intervene on any particular case and do not have the power to so do. I assure him that the objective is to bring about the fairest possible outcome for the applicant and recognise the reality of the situation. I trust that the prospect of a better outcome will satisfy the Senator for now, while allowing time for the council to re-examine the application. I recognise his work on this matter in recent months. I trust also that the follow-up by the council directly with the applicant will take place shortly such that the matter can be brought to a more satisfactory conclusion. There are many solutions to housing. Houses often need to be adapted because the residents may be of various ages and abilities. We try to facilitate that as we want to make the best use of our housing stock.

I know Listowel quite well. The Senator referred to it as a lovely town and clarified that the house in question is a listed building. The town was recognised at the national Tidy Towns awards and I am aware of the work done there early in the morning and late into the night by its Tidy Towns committee and many others. The preservation of houses and restoration of buildings within the town boundaries is to be encouraged. We try to facilitate such works through the many grants that are available. The grant in this instance is very often used to fund the adaptation of a house and is not essentially designed to be used for restoration. However, we try to encourage the usage of grants for various purposes. They are there to help people. We will continue to increase the number of adaption grants made available in the years ahead.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reasonably satisfactory response, including scripted and unscripted comments, and his understanding of the uniqueness of the situation and the bigger picture. I will not belabour the matter. I know the family will welcome a review and look forward to the promised contact from the county council in great anticipation. I detect a mood change from the words of the Minister of State. We will leave the matter rest.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising the issue.