Tuesday, 10 December 2019
Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Bill 2019: Second Stage
I am pleased to have the opportunity to present this much needed and important legislation, the Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Bill 2019, to the House. This Bill was passed by Dáil Éireann last week and I hope we can progress it through the Seanad this week in order that it can be enacted before the end of the year.
As it progressed through the various Stages in the Dáil, there were good discussions on the principles and provisions of the Bill as it relates to the regulation of approved housing bodies, AHBs, which are incredibly important for the delivery of much needed social homes. It is important to have robust and effective regulation of the sector. I am pleased to say that there has been a great level of support for this Bill, including in the context of the amendments made in the Dáil.
Prior to today, Senators will have received a briefing note setting out the background to the Bill, outlining amendments made and some additional information on the regulator and the AHB sector. I hope this has been useful. This is a balanced and proportionate Bill which provides for the regulation of AHBs for the purposes of supporting stronger governance within and the financial viability of that sector, with a particular focus on safeguarding the significant public investment being made in the delivery of social housing by AHBs. Similarly, the Bill will provide stronger assurance to tenants, the public and potential investors that the sector is well regulated. We need to keep our focus on the tenants, who are the people going into housing body homes under social housing agreements.
Senators will be aware that AHBs provide thousands of social housing homes in Ireland. They operate as independent, private, not-for-profit organisations, formed for the purpose of relieving housing need, which is often of a certain type. AHBs have a particular expertise in meeting that need, be it for people with disabilities, those coming out of homelessness or individuals with special needs. AHBs have played this role since before the foundation of the State. Consider, for example, an organisation such as the Iveagh Trust, which has being doing this work for many decades.
Under existing legislation, housing bodies are granted approved status by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government under section 6 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 for the purposes of being able to receive funding from local authorities in order to provide social housing. This arrangement has been in place since that time and, although operating well, it is acknowledged that a more modern regulatory system needs to be put in place to oversee a sector that has developed significantly in the interim. Ahead of the establishment of a statutory regulator, which is the aim behind the Bill, an interim regulatory office for AHBs has been in place based in the Housing Agency since 2013. The interim regulator, supported by the regulation office, oversees implementation of a voluntary regulation code for AHBs. This existing framework will ensure that the statutory regulator, once established, can become fully operational much sooner than would otherwise be the case.We hope this can happen in 12 to 18 months once the Bill is enacted. Regulation is currently conducted through Building for the Future: A Voluntary Regulation Code for Approved Housing Bodies in Ireland, and is underpinned by financial, governance and performance standards. At present, there are 275 AHBs, including all of the larger tier 3 AHBs that have signed up to the voluntary code. My Department’s register indicates there are 552 AHBs in existence. However, many of these are inactive and an exercise will be carried out to delist inactive AHBs from the register. Preliminary work has already commenced in this regard.
As the Senators will be aware, the Rebuilding Ireland action plan for housing and homelessness recognises the key contribution approved housing bodies make to the delivery of social housing. AHBs are committed to delivering one third of the 50,000 new social housing homes that are to be provided over the period of the plan through a blended delivery of build, acquisition and leasing. Last year, the AHB sector was responsible for 38% of the delivery of social homes. The target for delivery of new social housing in 2019 is up more than 20% from 7,869 to 10,000 this year. The target for new build homes has almost tripled from 2,260 in 2016 to 6,545 in 2019. Next year will be a record year for social house building. We will build more social housing homes than we have built in any of the last 20 years, including the boom years.
Approved housing bodies receive significant levels of funding from the taxpayer to take people from our housing lists and they build on local authority land. They are part of our new and more sustainable approach to social housing, where delivery is not dependent on one single stream like it was in the past, but social housing is now delivered in a number of ways, protecting would-be tenants from any adverse shocks to the economy or the sector. They complement but do not replace social housing delivery by local authorities. In cases of particular need, such as those with disabilities, for example, they have the required experience in providing the most appropriate housing. I have big ambitions for this sector. I want it to continue to grow and to continue to provide the quality homes for those most in need. I would like to pay tribute to the Irish Council for Social Housing, ICSH, the Housing Alliance and all involved in what was a record year for them in 2018 for the delivery of new social homes. This Bill will support and strengthen that ambition by demonstrating to all that the sector is well regulated.
Let me now move to the detail of the Bill itself. The Bill contains 70 sections in nine parts, together with one Schedule. In Part 2, the approved housing body regulatory authority - the regulator - is laid out in sections 7 to 24, inclusive, providing for the establishment of the regulator and sets out the functions and the organisational structure of the regulator, the appointment of a chief executive, staff, preparation of a strategy statement and other related matters. The functions of the regulator are set out in section 9, namely: to establish and maintain a register of AHBs; register persons as AHBs; prepare draft standards for approval by the Minister under section 38 and publish the approved standards; monitor and assess compliance by AHBs with this Act, in particular the approved standards; carry out investigations under Part 5; under Part 6, protect tenants and AHBs and cancel the registration of AHBs where necessary; encourage and facilitate the better governance, administration and management, including corporate governance and financial management, of AHBs by the provision of such information and advice, in such form and manner, as the regulator considers appropriate; with a view to promoting awareness and understanding of this Act, make available such information as appears to the regulator to be expedient to give to the public about the operation of this Act, in such form and manner as the regulator considers appropriate; collect such information concerning AHBs as the regulator considers necessary and appropriate for the purposes of the performance of the regulator’s functions; and, publish such information, including statistical information, concerning AHBs as the regulator considers appropriate. Section 9(1)(f) originally provided for the regulator to intervene in the functioning and management of housing bodies and cancel the registration of housing bodies under Part 6 of the Bill. This was raised by Deputies on earlier Stages of the Bill and I therefore proposed an amendment, which was accepted on Committee Stage in the Dáil, to better reflect the fact the regulator will not be involved in the day-to-day running and management of housing bodies. Rather, one of its functions is to protect tenants and housing bodies and cancel the registration of AHBs under Part 6 of the Bill.
Sections 14 and 15 are important oversight provisions which provide that the chief executive shall appear before the Committee of Public Accounts and other relevant Oireachtas committees when requested to do so.
I know some Members have raised queries about having too many regulators. I agree it is a crowded regulatory space. However, section 23 will require the regulator to agree memoranda of understanding with other regulators, such as the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, the Charity Regulator and the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, for example. This will ensure there is no regulatory conflict and will ensure clear lines of competence between regulators. It is an important provision.
Part 3 provides for the regulation of approved housing bodies and includes sections on the registration procedures for AHBs and their entry onto the register, as well as the drafting and approval of standards. To be eligible to register as an AHB, the persons or bodies must be: a company with at least five directors; a registered society; a friendly society; or a charitable trust with at least five trustees. The persons or bodies must include in their constitution the provision or management, in the State, of housing for the purpose of alleviating housing need as well as provisions prohibiting the distribution of any surplus, profit, bonus or dividend to members, directors or other persons and requiring that its assets and profits be applied solely towards its primary object or objects. Sections 26 and 27 provide that the regulator will establish and maintain a register of AHBs and set out where and when the register may be inspected, along with setting out procedures for those persons or bodies who wish to apply for registration and what should be included within the application. Section 34 enables existing housing bodies approved under section 6 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 to be deemed registered. Sections 28 to 33 enable the regulator to grant or refuse applications. Section 35 provides that a person who knowingly provides false or misleading information to the regulator as part of an application will be guilty of an offence.
Part 4, comprising sections 38 to 43, inclusive, provides the regulator with the powers to monitor compliance by housing bodies with the standards. Arising from the assessment, if the regulator deems that a housing body is not complying with the standards, it may require the body to draw up and submit a compliance plan. Section 42 deals with the failure of a housing body to implement a compliance plan. Where the regulator takes the view that the housing body is failing to implement a plan or is not implementing it in accordance with its terms; the regulator may issue a notice on non-implementation. Section 43 provides that the regulator shall enter on the register details of a non-implementation notice.
Part 5, comprising sections 44 to 52, inclusive, relates to investigations. It provides the regulator with powers to appoint inspectors and undertake investigations into the affairs and performance of housing bodies. It also sets out the powers of the inspectors and the mechanism for the production of inspectors' reports.
Part 6, comprising sections 53 to 60, inclusive, relates to interventions. It allows for intervention powers to be afforded to the regulator in respect of assets of a housing body where an offence has been committed, a housing body has failed or is failing to comply with the provisions of the Bill, there has been misconduct by a director, officer or member of staff or the financial viability of a housing body is threatened.
Section 54 empowers the regulator to seek a High Court order if he or she suspects that: a housing body has committed an offence under the Bill; a housing body is failing to comply with provisions under the Bill; a housing body is misusing or mismanaging property in such a way that endangers the property; there has been misconduct or mismanagement by a director or employee of a housing body in relation to its affairs; there has been unlawful or improper use of funds; there is a serious risk to the financial viability of the body; it is necessary for the purpose of the protection of the tenants of dwellings provided or managed by a housing body; or where there is information indicating any of what I have just outlined. In such circumstances, the court may issue an interim, interlocutory or permanent order. Such orders may include: removal or suspension of any director or officer or employee of the body; appointment of other people to be a director or officer of the body; vesting of any or all of the property of the housing body with another housing body identified by the regulator; prohibiting the removal or sale of the property without the regulator's consent; non-payment by a debtor to the body for a specified period; or the restriction or prohibition of a housing body to enter any agreements.
Section 58 enables the regulator to cancel a registration on the following grounds: that the housing body:has been convicted of an offence under the Bill or any other indictable offence; has failed or is failing to comply with any provisions under the Bill; no longer satisfies the eligibility criteria for registration as a housing body, or is deemed to be a housing body under section 35 and has been deregistered under the provisions of that section. The section also provides for the procedures that the regulator must pursue in cancelling a registration, including allowing the housing body to make representations and allowing a housing body to appeal the decision to cancel registration.
Part 7, comprising sections 61 to 64, inclusive, concerns appeals. It provides for a housing body to submit appeals to an appeals panel where the regulator exercises its powers in relation to registration, compliance plans or cancellation of registration. Section 61 provides that the Minister shall establish an appeals panel to determine appeals under the Bill. It sets out the qualifications and number of members, terms of office, grounds for removal of members and disqualification for appointment and the provision of resources to support the work of the panel. Section 63 provides for the process that the panel should follow in considering an appeal. It also provides that the panel shall be independent in the performance of its duties. Section 64 allows for any party to an appeal to appeal the decision to the High Court on a point of law within three months.
Part 8, comprising sections 65 and 66, inclusive, covers miscellaneous issues. Section 65 prohibits the unauthorised disclosure of confidential information. It makes it an offence for a member of the regulator, staff member, inspector, adviser or any other person engaged under contract with the regulator to disclose confidential information acquired during the course of performing their duties unless they are required to do so by law or with the regulator's permission. The section does not prevent the disclosure of such information to the regulator or a Minister of the Government by or on behalf of the regulator or in compliance with provisions of the Act. Section 66 is a new section which was inserted on Report Stage. It requires the Minister to commission a report, within 12 months, relating to the transfer of dwellings provided by housing bodies, which have received funding through the various funding schemes for housing bodies from the Department. The amendment ensures that there will be consultation with key stakeholders and that any matters arising, including legal and financial matters relating to transfers, will be examined. This report will be important in determining and evidencing if any further policy initiatives are required in respect of stock transfer. The Minister is obliged to lay the report before the Houses of the Oireachtas and to publish it online as soon as is practicable thereafter.Part 9, comprising sections 67 to 70, inclusive, covers consequential amendments and transitional provisions in detail.
Several amendments were made to the Bill on Committee and Report Stages, as I have outlined. I have referred to some of these amendments as I discussed the contents of the Bill, but there are two others to which I would like to draw Members' attention now. A particularly notable amendment was the deletion of the section on fees. This was discussed at length on Committee Stage and I was pleased to bring forward amendments in the Dáil on Report Stage to reflect that positive engagement. As the Bill now stands, fees may only be charged under two subsections. Subsection 26(3) provides: "The Regulator shall make a copy of an entry in the register available, on request, on payment of such fee (if any) as may be determined by the Regulator". Subsection 62(2) provides: "An appeal shall be accompanied by such fee (if any) as may be determined by the Regulator with the approval of the Minister".
Another amendment of note was proposed by the Opposition on Committee Stage. This was to delete paragraph 56(1)(g), which required a housing body to notify the regulator if it received a determination order within the meaning of section 121 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. The Irish Council for Social Housing expressed the view that to notify every order made by the Residential Tenancies Board would be disproportionate and unnecessarily onerous. I agreed to accept this amendment.
I restate that this is a balanced and proportionate Bill. It will support stronger governance and the financial viability of the very important housing body sector, safeguard the significant public investment being made in the delivery of social housing by housing bodies and provide stronger assurance to tenants, the public and potential investors that the sector is well regulated. I commend this Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister for coming in for the Second Stage debate on this Bill. We will also be discussing amendments on Committee Stage. I want to ask one simple question. The programme for Government contains a promise that regulatory impact assessments would be carried out on all legislation. This Bill will obviously put a particular onus on many housing bodies. Has a regulatory impact assessment been carried out to determine the impact this legislation will have on the housing sector?
I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and his officials to the House. The briefing he provided on the Bill and the various amendments that have already been submitted was very useful. It is a comprehensive Bill which will ensure oversight of the entire approved housing body sector. The Minister knows that I was involved in the early stages of the Bill's development and I am delighted that it is now coming to its final fruition and passing through the Houses of the Oireachtas. Hopefully it will be in place by Christmas.
The Bill is essentially intended to ensure effective governance and regulation of the approved housing body sector. As the Minister said, the primary focus is to protect tenants who use approved housing body housing and to ensure that any public or private investment in the approved housing body sector is made with proper oversight and accountability. This Bill does this through the establishment of the regulatory framework and the board which will act as a regulator in this sector. Most, if not all, of us agree that approved housing bodies play a significant role in the provision of social and sheltered housing. One hears from time to time that too much investment goes to approved housing bodies and more should go to the councils and local authorities. I will come back to that but, irrespective of the debate, it is important that in the interests of confidence there is adequate oversight, transparency and accountability in the approved housing body sector. The purpose of the Bill is to provide that oversight and governance and to provide for a register of approved housing bodies. That is important. There are quite a few approved housing bodies, some very large and some quite small.
It is also important that we have full compliance with the standards in the provision of social housing set down by the Minister or any of his successors who review them. It is important that there is a proper structure and framework in place by which reporting and investigations, where necessary, can be carried out in a fair and balanced way, with the right of appeal. That is provided for in this Bill. A framework is also needed where interventions are necessary, whether in a management or a capacity role, and where assistance is needed for approved housing bodies. We must remember that the directors and staff of many of these approved housing bodies are voluntary.There may be times that interventions and supports are necessary to support those who are willing to give their time and expertise to provide more housing in this sector. That is a positive and it should be seen in that light. Also, there is an important role to be played in promoting awareness of and providing information on the sector to the public, where appropriate, and on its performance in retaining statistics and data that could be utilised to improve efficiencies in delivery as we see fit. By and large, the vast majority of approved housing bodies perform extremely well. We acknowledge that but there is a need for governance and oversight of the sector where interventions are needed.
The primary people involved are the families and tenants who utilise social housing governed by approved housing bodies. We can all point to numerous examples of sheltered housing, housing for the elderly and disabled and other types of housing in which the approved housing body sector has been involved. I commend those working in the sector and thank them for their efforts in working to provide homes for those in most need.
Some approved housing bodies in my area in Waterford are long established. One is the well-known Respond housing association, which provides housing and apartments for people in need throughout the country. Clúid Housing is another well-known body and there are hundreds of others.
I am sure the Minister will agree with me that, sadly, the approved housing body sector lost a great advocate recently with the death of Simon Brooke, the head of policy for Clúid Housing Association. I had many engagements with Mr. Brooke over the years and he was a passionate advocate who always put the tenant first. His buzzwords were "providing great homes". Clúid has certainly lost a great man and I extend my sympathies to Mr. Brooke's family. The sector is at a loss on his passing.
The Minister outlined the increasing number of social housing units being delivered. I acknowledge he has substantially increased the building and delivery of housing units throughout the country. As he correctly noted, unprecedented funding is being provided for housing provision. I commend him on that. It is a difficult challenge we have all faced. If we stick with the task and support all the stakeholders who are working assiduously to deliver more housing, I have no doubt we will get there. The challenge of housing provision cannot be resolved in a simplistic way. We cannot wave a magic wand to solve it. There are many stages and steps involved in the provision of housing. We must acknowledge the increased number of houses being built, refurbished and let. Substantial progress has been made but more still needs to be done, as all of us will agree. At the end of the day, it is a matter of supply and delivery, which are critical.
We need to continue working with all the stakeholders, including the Oireachtas and the Minister on the policy side, the Department and its officials and the housing authorities, namely, the councils, and their staff. We need to keep the bar high and the foot to the pedal. We need our elected officials - councillors around the country - to support that aspiration and effort. I also mention the State agencies where lands are available. Much work is going into unlocking potential lands to provide more housing. There is capacity in the private sector to continue to provide more houses. I also mention those in the construction sector who are available and willing to build more houses. Of all of those stakeholders, a very important one is the approved housing body sector. Many of these bodies are passionate about housing. They will continue to invest their expertise and give their time voluntarily in an effort to provide more housing. This is a good day for the approved housing body sector in that it builds confidence for further investment in that area. It is an important stakeholder which will continue to deliver additional housing and will need continuous support to do that.
We will deal with the Bill in more detail in the coming days. I note all the amendments that have been made to improve it and the Minister outlined the reasons they were made. I wish the Bill well and look forward to further debate on it in the coming days.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus a chuid oifigigh don phlé ar an mBille seo. Tacaíonn Sinn Féin leis an reachtaíocht atá os ár gcomhair inniu. I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House for this debate.Sinn Féin welcomes the Bill and is strongly supportive of its enactment. As colleagues have said, the Bill establishes a regulator for approved housing bodies but also puts them on a statutory footing.
While voluntary housing bodies and co-operative housing models are somewhat underutilised, it is our hope that once we can establish a statute in this area, we can allow these types of models to flourish. Many of the bodies do great work in providing housing, for example, to the elderly, those with disabilities and the homeless, in respect of whom our State has not delivered. It should be noted that, as with other registered charities, the bodies act where the State has failed. Ideally, the State would have such a robust social and affordable housing model that the objectives of the bodies would be met and there would be no need for them to intervene. While these bodies are approved under the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 for the purpose of accessing assistance from local authorities for housing provision, some level of independence is needed for the sector, and the execution of the Bill needs to be robust in that regard.
I agree with my Dáil colleague, Deputy Ó Broin. I, too, am disappointed that social housing is exempt from these regulations. While it is always the aim of the State to build good social housing that lasts, it does not always work out that way. I believe the State should subject housing, both public and private, to a high threshold of standards. With the lack of application of the minimum rental standards regulations and the fire safety defects that are rife in apartment blocks, we are entering a quality crisis as well as a quantity one. In this regard, tenants should have a voice. While social housing stock is severely limited, not having the same resolution process means a tiered version of tenants' rights, which is unreasonable.
We have concerns regarding EUROSTAT and the Central Statistics Office in respect of the level of Government control of the sector. These concerns relate not just to financing but also to governance and policy. If we were to manage getting approved housing bodies off the balance sheet, matters such as a no-deal Brexit would not hinder them to any great degree, bearing in mind the current economic framework. Where capital expenditure is limited, it will have consequences for delivery. I would be interested in the Minister's thoughts on this.
I would like the Minister to give us an update on the establishment of a special purpose vehicle for credit unions. The credit unions can and want to make a contribution in housing. They have the ability to invest in approved housing bodies. Society will reap the benefits as more housing stock will be generated as a result. The Irish League of Credit Unions has the capacity to provide €347 million annually for an approved housing body loan for social housing. It proposes to build up incrementally to a funding position of €1.42 billion over the period of six years. It seems to me like a no-brainer if the Government is ambitious in allowing this and establishing good regulation in that regard.
Sinn Féin will support the Bill. I hope the Minister will take away from this debate the fact that there is a genuine belief in approved housing bodies in both the Dáil and Seanad, but we need further discussions outside the scope of this Bill on how we allow them to flourish.
I echo Senator Coffey's acknowledgement of Simon Brooke's work regarding approved housing bodies and the housing sector in general. Simon was a friend and I send condolences to his family on his untimely passing.
I broadly welcome this Bill, which introduces the regulation of approved housing bodies. I speak as a current member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and former chief executive of Cork Simon Community, which was itself an approved housing body. I was for many years a member of the Irish Council for Social Housing, which I am aware was very constructive in the drafting of this legislation.
I welcome the Bill because we need activist, well-run approved housing bodies if we are to tackle the housing crisis and, in doing so, meet the needs of the 3,800 children living in emergency accommodation. Approved housing bodies have an important role to play in turning this around so no child will be without a roof.
I acknowledge that a significant number of issues identified in respect of the Bill have been dealt with on Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil and through the examination by the Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. These issues included my own concerns about proportionate regulation for very small approved housing bodies with voluntary boards, which often provide small-scale, though much-needed, special needs housing in rural areas and communities, including, for example, the senior citizens' housing in my town, Macroom.We do not want to squeeze out such small-scale providers and small-scale AHBs with overly bureaucratic or duplicate regulation.
I was glad to hear there will be a memorandum of understanding among other bodies such as HIQA, the Charities Regulator and the Residential Tenancies Board. A voluntary housing board with eight or ten houses will not want to be drowned in unnecessary bureaucracy, although some is necessary. Small-scale AHBs are very much part of the effort to address the lack of housing and have made a great contribution, not least to special needs housing. Issues relating to finance and reporting as well as functions including control, overshadowing directors and governance have been addressed to a large extent.
Members of the regulatory authority will come through the Public Appointments Service and such transparency is important and welcome. It is also welcome that a compromise approach has been taken to the categorisation of special needs housing in that section 37, on standards, refers to "different accommodation needs of different categories of tenants". Nevertheless, the definition of special accommodation needs in housing should be revisited, perhaps through future legislation on housing needs assessment and support.
I have proposed a few minor amendments, which I hope the Minister will accept. They will provide that in the preparation of strategy statements, there will be sector agreement with AHBs and it should be part of the strategy preparation to ensure full consultation with the most important parties. We would not want the regulator to develop a strategy without consulting the groups it will regulate. Given that publication of an interim report may be damaging to individuals without recourse to the full due process of a finalised investigation, I have proposed the publication of one report without having a possibly unfairly damaging interim report.
Although the Minister has answered the following question to an extent, I will need his explicit reassurance. What protections will tenants have if the regulator refuses to register, or cancels the registration of, the AHBs? Who in law will be the tenant's landlord in that event?
I broadly support the Bill and hope the Minister will take on board my feedback and accept my minor amendments. I ask that he will offer some clarity as to tenants' status in the event of a refusal of registration.
The Senator made a point about the quality of housing built by local authorities, about which he is worried. A major supporter of the republican movement built Priory Hall, which caused an awful lot of problems for people throughout the country.
Some of the houses being built by local authorities nowadays are to a very high standard. I attended a public private partnership meeting between a builder and representatives of a local authority. The quality of the houses the local authorities build is outstanding and is a credit to them.
I will support the Bill because it is important to have regulation of AHBs, given that, as the Minister noted, there are 552 of them. There have been finance issues with one or two of them in Kildare.It is important that there is some regulation in this area.
What sort of budget will be required in order to run the regulator’s office? How many staff will be required? The Minister removed the section on fees and introduced two small amendments in respect of appeals. I was hoping that some of the fees would go towards the cost of the office itself.
The Land Development Agency will be a significant influencer, particularly in the context of the landbank held by the State. Is there a possibility that some of that land will be made available to high-quality AHBs? As Senator Kelleher mentioned, there are smaller housing bodies which might find it difficult to acquire land. Could they work in conjunction with the Land Development Agency to ensure that they will not be squeezed out of the market, leaving only three or four main housing bodies?
I also wish to express my sympathies to the family of Simon Brooke of Clúid. I was quite shocked when Senator Coffey mentioned that he had passed away because I had not known about it. Simon was a great supporter of AHBs for decades. I worked closely with him in the 2000s when we tried to bring performance standard requirements into Dublin City Council in respect of AHBs. One housing body decided that it would report me to my party's leader at the time, Pat Rabbitte, because it felt I was bringing in requirements for AHBs that were too harsh. Simon Brooke said to stand fast and do not give in. He had a great sense of humour and will be deeply missed. Again, my sympathies to his family.
There is much covered in the Bill before the house. One of my concerns with AHBs relates to 30-year mortgages. While I am not painting all AHBs with the same brush, in other jurisdictions some housing bodies sold off their housing stock in valuable areas. The argument was that they were selling the stock to develop more housing in other locations. Those other locations tended to be miles away from city centres, however. Much of our approved housing stock is in and around Dublin city centre. Are there safeguards in this regard? There are safeguards in respect of mortgages and loan periods. In the early days, the term of a mortgage was 25 years. However, there was nothing to stop an AHB selling off the stock after 25 years. I accept that some provision is made in section 66. Will that provide protection at a later stage when the mortgages or the initial leases are have ended? AHBs have approached Dublin City Council in order to get some stock in expensive landbanks. I would hate to see the properties involved moving out of the social housing mix, regardless of whether it is in 25 or 30 years’ time. A social mix within Dublin city is important.
The performance standard requirement was published earlier this year.I become a little worried when we hear people speak of performance standard requirements on maintenance. I have encountered an issue around value for money and tenant satisfaction with approved housing bodies. In one case where we sought maintenance to be undertaken, the approved housing body argued on value-for-money grounds that the level of maintenance required was not sufficient to send workmen to the property. It was waiting until a certain amount of maintenance was necessary before sending someone to carry it out. The tenant in question had to wait six or seven weeks for the maintenance to be carried out because the approved housing body argued it would not represent value for money to do so. There is a balance to be struck between value for money and tenant satisfaction. I would like to see a clear definition of that. It goes back to the performance and standard requirements that Dublin City Council developed with the assistance of the Simon Communities. It specified the number of weeks within which maintenance had to be done, with various items graded. A leaky roof would have to be dealt with immediately, whereas the response time for a broken handle on a door would be six to eight weeks.
Much of the housing going to approved housing bodies consists of apartment blocks in cities and towns. Has any consideration been given to end of life for those blocks and how that will be funded? This has been an issue in private apartments developed in the 1960s which are now approaching end of life and the sinking fund does not necessarily cover the costs of that. This means full demolition and rebuilding is required, as opposed to deep retrofitting. As the Minister will be aware, in several blocks in Dublin Bay South an extra floor has been added to cover the costs of bringing the blocks up to meet building standards. Guidelines are needed to address end of life housing.
Last weekend, I paid a very interesting visit to a construction site in Islandeady outside Castlebar in County Mayo where New Era Homes Limited is building a passive house. It is a very impressive, concrete building. While the house will be A-rated, it will cost no more per square metre than a regular house built with concrete. The annual energy bills for the property will amount to about €100. This is undoubtedly a house of the future. The firm has been engaged in Castlebar to construct a small development on behalf of an approved housing body. The heating comes from photovoltaic solar panels on the roof and goes into each individual room. The foundations are also insulated and there will be less heat loss. It is very impressive.
There is an affordability challenge for people trying to buy houses. Under the current criteria, borrowers can borrow 3.5 times their gross income. This means people cannot get loans of the size needed to buy a house or construct a new house. We are aiming to increase stock but builders cannot get enough money to make it worthwhile to build. It is a catch-22. Will the Government raise the borrowing limit with the Central Bank? If a household's energy bill will be €100 annually, surely people will save a lot of money in energy costs over their lifetime?Surely what I am saying has to be fact if we believe that energy efficiency measures and renewable heat sources work. I believe they do. Why should people who are buying new houses that are A rated, such as the one I described, not be able to get an increased multiple of their gross incomes? Why can they not be entitled to borrow more, given that they will save money elsewhere? This issue needs to be taken by the horns. It is impeding the construction of new houses for people who would otherwise be in a position to service mortgages for their houses. By coming out of rented accommodation, it means that-----
That is fine. That is my point, and I look forward to the Minister's response to it. The issue of housing is multifaceted and requires a multifaceted solution and approach. There is a solution for where I am located, but people cannot borrow what they need.
I will respond to the Senators as best I can. Senator Mark Daly asked about a regulatory impact assessment, RIA. One was done in 2015 and was published during the pre-legislative scrutiny stage. Obviously, there has been a time lag between then and this point, but in the interim we were beefing up the voluntary regulator in the Housing Agency. That important preliminary work means that, once we pass this Bill, we can move quickly to having an official regulator in place, given that the regulator is already up and running in many respects.
Senator Coffey mentioned the Bill's support for the housing body sector. When we talk about regulation, it is not just all stick. There is a carrot as well. This legislation is there to help those housing bodies that may not be as up to speed with regulations, governance and standards as others to get to that position and improve certain aspects of their performance in a way that is not overly onerous on them. To take up the Senator's point, we must recognise that many of the small housing bodies have volunteers who are putting in their own time. With every extra form we ask them to fill out, we take up an extra hour of their time that might be better spent doing something else for their respective tenants. In every regulation we introduce, we must find a balance.
The Senator also spoke about Mr. Simon Brooke of the Clúid Housing Association. The Dáil had a chance to speak about Mr. Brooke last week and note his passing. He is deeply missed by everyone he worked with, not just in Clúid, but in the wider ecosystem of housing in which we are all involved. Mr. Brooke talked about great homes. That is an important thing that we are now seeing in housing policy. It is not just a question of throwing up any old house or block of houses. The homes that we are building are the best that are being built in the State at the moment. I have visited many of them - public housing and private housing, there is no difference. Nor should there be. In many instances, the social housing is better because it has better performing energy, heating and ventilation systems owing to the needs of the people moving into those homes. It is important that we have that hardwired into our future housing policy.
The Senator from Sinn Féin lamented the fact that we were not regulating local authorities in this Bill. While local authority provision of housing is social housing for people coming off the housing list, it is a different mechanism of funding, oversight and governance. As such, it would not be appropriate to have the regulator for housing bodies over the local authorities. Where standards are concerned, these are the best homes ever built by the State.
It is one thing for Sinn Féin to come to the Chamber and talk about the great work that housing bodies do, but when we debate the provision of social housing, Sinn Féin refuses time and again to count social housing homes that are delivered by housing bodies. For some reason, it refuses to recognise them in the official numbers. I cannot understand it. The Iveagh Trust has been building social housing homes since before the existence of this State. Many housing bodies build fantastic homes, including homes for people with particular needs that the local authority may not be best suited to delivering whereas the housing body has been doing it for decades. Why would we not count those homes? It is part of the hypocrisy that we see in the housing debate that people will say one thing and do another.
I recognise the contribution that Senator Kelleher has made, not just to this debate, but to people's housing needs. She is right, in that this is not just about the big tier 3s, the housing bodies that are in the Housing Alliance.They are fantastic in what they do and they have big plans and vision. I fully support that. I know some of the smaller ones in my constituency and they are meeting very particular needs. They must be with us too. They do the smaller and more specific stuff that has a real impact on families. These are the tier 1 and tier 2 bodies.
When we look at the number of housing bodies that we think are inactive, we hope that, through some work, some of the smaller bodies will come together where it makes sense for them to do so. That has already happened in my constituency, where a couple of smaller housing bodies formed decades ago felt that they some of their volunteers were coming to the end of their ability as a result of their age. Those bodies were happy to amalgamate. That has happened. We are not trying to force anybody into that position. Where a smaller housing body needs help, it will, as Senator Coffey stated, will be provided.
The memorandums of understanding between this new regulator and the regulators already in existence are very important. Nobody should be duplicating work or demands on housing bodies. At the same time, nobody should be missing anything and there cannot be a gap that allows something to fall between the two regulators. The memorandums of understanding are very important in that regard.
The measure relating to the recognition of special accommodation needs was not being put in the appropriate part of the legislation. It may not be appropriate to the legislation. One of the inherent reasons for a housing body to exist is to meet those particular needs. It is a good definition and I gave a commitment to try to find a place in which to put it in other legislation. In doing so, we could all point to what we mean when we speak about certain special needs in housing being met. There must be consultation on the strategy statement but we must ensure the independence of the regulator. It must be independent in its functions.
We debated the merits of an interim report on Committee Stage in the Dáil. We must absolutely ensure that there is a process in place and that person's good name can be protected. We can imagine a position whereby an allegation might be made against a housing body regarding improper financial or governance conduct. The benefit of an interim report is that if the report is done in a phased way, it may be possible to say at an earlier point that there is no improper financial conduct, thus helping to clear a name earlier and before the work is finished on the governance aspect. All of these matters will be handled with due care so no information will enter the public domain that is not meant to do so without the housing bodies having the right to answer calls being put to them. That is important. I definitely saw a space whereby an interim report might help rather than give the wrong impression to the public about a housing body before it had a right to respond.
There was mention of the cancellation and deregistering of housing bodies. In part, this comes from the amendment I accepted that within 12 months a report will be produced in this regard. We will likely see a case where a housing body might, for whatever reason, need to be deregistered or have its assets transferred. We must put the protection of tenants at the centre of that. The regulator would have the power to intervene with another housing body and transfer assets and responsibility in that regard. If a regulator cannot continue to regulate a housing body, it may still receive some funding from my Department through a local authority in order to keep tenants safe until we find a proper route for such assets under the housing body. The legislation provides for that by again putting the tenant at the centre of these issues. We do not want to find a tenant in a precarious position all of a sudden after a housing body gets into difficulty, leading to people getting hurt. It is what we are trying to avoid with the legislation in place and with some of the amendments brought forward.
Senator Lawlor referred to fees. We do not want this to be self-financing. The regulatory office cannot be self-financing. If there were fees, they would only cover part of the cost of regulation. We recognise there will be work to be done, particularly with smaller housing bodies, and we did not want to impose any additional or onerous costs on them. They have costs because of the annual registration of tenancies with the RTB and we did not want to hit them with something else. We removed section 11, which provided for fees in the future, but we have allowed for the charging of fees if an appeal is made or if a person is seeking a copy of the register.If there is to be fees for regulation in the future, they will have to be brought by way of an amendment in a future Bill. We have done that to safeguard housing bodies, to do with their finances, in the immediate future.
Yes, it will be possible for the Land Development Agency to work with a housing body to achieve the minimum 40% of social and affordable housing on the LDA landbanks. So there is nothing precluding them from doing that.
In terms of the Housing Agency, there are 16 staff working there at the moment.
On the voluntary code for regulation, I imagine they will transfer across to the full regulator. We will want to hire more staff on top of that and I would say at least five, if not ten, but that will be determined by the regulator as needs be. We have provided funding of about €2.25 million between now and 2021. That is for the next two years but the funding also covers some of this year to allow all of that work to be done in terms of getting the regulator up and running, and doing its first piece of work in terms of the automatic registration of existing housing bodies and then looking through the list of those that did not register under the voluntary code.
Senator Humphreys asked about maintenance and standards. What we are talking about are standards around governance, finance and management of the stock. He referred to issues of performance criteria for managing the stock. The regulator will set out standards after a period of consultation as to what good performance might look like. Then it will mandate for transparency in terms of the housing body reporting on those things. What we will not do in that space is step on the toes of the RTB. If there is an issue around the actual standard of the accommodation, for example, where the housing body's landlord is not meeting its responsibility as a landlord, the reference there for the tenant will be to the RTB. That will all be agreed with the memorandum of understanding between the AHB and the RTB. It is clear that we have a delineation between responsibilities but that is what will happen with the standards piece.
In terms of apartments and end-of-life, the points that have been raised are relevant to apartments in the private housing sector and what happens at the end-of-life point. There is a piece of work that needs to be done here. As I have mentioned before, and I think I mentioned this in the Seanad, we want to do something around this and see how best we can do it. This matter currently does not reside in my Department. I will engage with the Minister for Justice and Equality to see how we can go about putting in those protections for when one gets to later on in an apartment development's life when it might need a more serious amount of funding to bring it back up to a fit standard, but also where management companies have not put in place a sinking fund where they should have done so.
When it comes to a housing body, particularly the tier 3s, they are the developer but they are also the management company so it is a separate issue for them. One of the things that we have put in place in terms of what happens towards the end-of-life cycle is, obviously if a housing body ceases to meet the housing needs of people off the housing lists or starts to make a profit, then it no longer becomes a housing body. So a whole separate set of consequences come in for that housing body at that point in time.
I shall address the following to Senator Kelleher. There is an onus on the regulator to make sure that tenants do not find themselves in a position where they would be in that precarious position where the assets were about to transfer and they did not have somewhere to live. The powers are there for the regulator to deal with that. Section 53, in particular, contains the powers for the regulator to step in and protect tenants where needed.
Senator Mulherin mentioned the quality of new homes that are being built today.
I will come to the Central Bank point in a minute as it is a little bit tangential in this Bill.
The Senator talked about the quality of new homes and the cost of heating same. Every time I visit a new housing estate and meet new families who have already moved in, because sometimes I meet them a couple of months after that, the first thing they talk about is the comfort of the home, how their home is always warm and there is always hot water. Some of them have even gone so far as to say they have noticed an improvement in their health because many of these new homes have new ventilation and airflow systems. Computers run these homes, which is interesting to see. These people also talk about how cheap it is to heat their homes, etc., compared with what they spent previously on fuel and how their bills have been dramatically reduced. That is something important to recognise because people sometimes question the cost of building new homes. It is a lot more expensive to build new homes today than it was ten years ago because we have improved the standards so much.
In terms of Central Bank lending and the macroprudential rules, the Central Bank is independent of the Government. One of the things that is interesting, and we continue to shout about it, is that under the Rebuilding Ireland home loan a 3.5 income multiplier does not apply.While one has to have a 10% deposit for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, the affordability criteria is based on being able to use one third of one's income to service the mortgage. It is an exception to the Central Bank rules because it is targeted at people who may not be able to get a mortgage from one of the banks because the interest rate charged is too high or because of the macroprudential rules. It would be interesting to see data on the Central Bank's exception policy. It can give limited exceptions to either the 3.5 income multiple or the 10% deposit to each bank. Is it giving those exceptions to people who are on lower salaries or is it giving them to people who are already on very high salaries and able to afford a home to allow them to buy an even more expensive home? Should the exceptions be targeted at people who cannot afford to buy a home but who could with an exception? Data from the Central Bank on what the banks are doing in that regard would be very interesting but the Central Bank is independent of Government so we cannot interfere.
We are, however, perfectly able to express our opinions as to where we believe these exceptions should be targeted. The whole point of the macroprudential rules is to make sure that people are not borrowing an amount they cannot afford to pay back should there be a shock to their circumstances. We have to recognise that people who might be starting off in very good jobs, such as a teacher, a nurse or a garda, will always be needed. We will always need them to perform that role and they will always have a certain guaranteed income. Why exclude them from the exceptions which individual banks may deploy? Again, it is a matter for the Central Bank to decide on that. I just believe it would be interesting to discuss given that we are able to give out mortgages based on what people can afford to pay based on one third of their income through the local authorities. Obviously, we have robust criteria in place to make sure that we are not lending to people who cannot afford to repay. That is, however, tangential to the Bill we are discussing, which relates to housing bodies.
I thank Senators for their contributions. I note that all of the Senators who contributed were aware of exactly what was in the Bill and of the changes that were made as the Bill came through Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil. Everyone is aware of what is in it. I would like to conclude this Bill as quickly as possible and get this regulator up and running because housing bodies will again deliver thousands of social housing homes next year and even more in the following year. This is long overdue.