Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Local Authority Housing Standards
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am disappointed, however, because I saw the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in the canteen. It is disappointing that the Minister cannot make himself available. Regardless of who someone is or what party or political group one represents, if any, if a Minister is in the building then he or she should endeavour to do his or her very best to attend. I have other opportunities to engage with the Minister on a range of matters because I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. I am more than happy, however, to drop the Minister a line to tell him how disappointed I am. It is disrespectful to the House for the Minister to not come in. I know Ministers are busy, but so are we and the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, is very busy. That was clear from the answers he gave to the earlier Commencement matters. That said, I do not doubt his commitment and ability to pass on this message.
I ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to empower the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, or somebody else, to monitor local authority standards on housing. Local authorities randomly inspect the properties of private sector landlords. Who is keeping an eye on the local authorities, however? People with young children have come to me because they have mildew on the walls of their residence. They have been told to go out and buy a bottle of bleach by the local authorities and those people have that in writing, by the way. They were told they had to ventilate their residences better, use bleach and take the mould off the walls.
People across the country, and probably in the Minister of State's constituency, are living in appalling accommodation which is part of our social housing stock. Who is monitoring that situation? This is an important issue because tenants often fear that continuing to harass the local authority about the poor standards of their accommodation will result in some sort of rancour, to the detriment of a transfer or move to another property. It is not acceptable for local authorities to be acting as judges and juries in their own causes.
An independent inspectorate is needed to ensure that our local authority social housing stock is maintained to high standards. I acknowledge that some authorities are making better progress than others. We still have situations, however, where there is bad ventilation, damp and even pyrite in some of our social housing. We have serious problems, in certain spots, concerning local authority standards. I ask the Minister of State, at his convenience, to ask if the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will consider putting in place whatever mechanism for inspections might be possible to give comfort to tenants in those situations.
There is no point in all of us, from all parties and none, bellyaching about standards and doing nothing about the problem. This is our forum during Commencement matters and that is why I want to bring this topic to the attention of the Minister. The record will show my disappointment that he is not here. Leaving here today, I commit to contacting some local authorities and I undertake to send photographs of the problems to which I have referred. I will zone in on the constituency of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government himself. I will identify a few appalling houses in his electoral area and bring them to his attention within the next week. I thank the Minister of State.
I thank Senator Boyhan. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, neither of whom could be here today. I assure the Senator that both of them do their very best to be present when they can.
They are both unavoidably absent today and they asked me to stand in. I did not question where they are, I just took their bona fides, which I have no reason to doubt. I assure Senator Boyhan that I will pass on his sentiments to the Minister and the Minister of State. Officials from the Department are also monitoring this debate and taking on board the points raised by the Senator. He can rest assured that he is not making his case in vain.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter of monitoring standards in local authority housing stock. The Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations, last amended in 2019, specify requirements on a range of matters such as structural repair, sanitary facilities, heating, ventilation, natural light and safety of gas, oil and electrical supply. These minimum standards also include measures covering fire safety, carbon monoxide and window safety. The regulations apply to all rented dwellings, both private rented houses and local authority housing stock, with just a small number of exemptions. All landlords have a legal obligation to ensure their rented properties comply with these regulations. Responsibility for the enforcement of the regulations rests with the relevant local authority. Local authorities are responsible for the management and maintenance of their own housing stock under the Housing Acts, 1966 to 2015, including responsive and planned maintenance and the identification of housing in need of upgrade, regeneration or adaptation.
The Government's Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness committed all local authorities to adopting a preventative maintenance approach to housing stock management, including consistent standards and the adoption of a common national re-letting performance standard. The City and County Management Association, CCMA, on behalf of local authorities, is driving a shared approach to the planned maintenance of social housing, including stock condition surveys, building on the work that several local authorities have already launched in that regard and there is ongoing dialogue between the CCMA and the Department to advance reform in the area.
In addition to funding provided by the local authorities themselves in respect of their own housing stock - approximately €350 million per annum - the Government provides funding across a number of programmes to support local authority work to maintain and improve social housing stock, for example the energy retrofitting and voids programmes. In all cases, however, it is the local authorities that identify priorities. Local authorities have a multi-stage procedure for dealing with complaints from their tenants regarding housing conditions. The first involves discussing the complaint at the point of service. This is usually the quickest and most efficient way to address matters that have arisen. If someone is unhappy with the outcome of this first stage, a formal complaint can be made under the council's complaints and appeals procedure, details of which can be found on the websites of the local authorities. If a person continues to consider the response from the local authority to be unsatisfactory, the matter may be pursued further through the Office of the Ombudsman.
The Residential Tenancies Board is an independent statutory body established under the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004-2019 to operate a national tenancy registration system, provide information and advice to the public, and to resolve disputes between private landlords and tenants. The inspection of rental properties is not a function of the RTB. Social housing is subject to a separate legislative regime under the Housing Acts and it would not be appropriate for the RTB to have an enforcement role in relation to social housing.
I thank the Minister of State for the response. I take on board the official response concerning the role of the RTB. It is a valid point and I am happy to take it on board. There is, however, a need to regulate and inspect independently of the local authorities. They are failing on a whole range of fronts and we need to monitor them because no actor currently has responsibility in that area. We need to find some way to zone in on those standards. I reiterate that I undertake to contact some of the housing bodies today and I will identify a few houses on the social housing list in the constituency of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. I will then come back with a further Commencement matter on this topic, because we need to drive home notice of the existence of this problem right into the political heartland of the Minister.
I thank the Senator and I reiterate that I will convey his sentiments and that officials from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government are watching this debate. As a fellow practitioner in the political world and to be helpful to Senator Boyhan, it may be of interest to him to consider contacting the Office of the Ombudsman to ascertain the current level of complaints.