Thursday, 8 February 2024
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting my Commencement matter. I was chuffed by the fact that the office of the senior Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, rang to say he was not able to take it and that the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, would deputise. The Minister of State is quite welcome to deal with this and I am sure he is very competent as well.
My issue relates to SEAI grants and the considerable delay - sometimes up to two years - for house wrapping in particular. It probably also applies to the underfloor heating systems but I will not concentrate on that.There is an unusual situation whereby SEAI personnel must carry out the building energy rating, BER. I checked on Google this morning; there are 11 or 12 reputable companies advertising rating from A to G, A being the maximum and G the minimum. When a property is being sold, it is more or less taken as standard among solicitors and auctioneers that there has to be a BER certificate. The SEAI people visited the widow to whom I refer and who is getting her house wrapped, four different times. There could be a four-month delay to get SEAI BER certification because nothing else is accepted. This is a dangerous monopoly.
Any competent qualified engineer could do this work. There is one in a west Cork town who has a masters degree in engineering. She specialises in BER certification and many solicitors and auctioneers deal with her. In one instance, a contentious issue was challenged in court and upheld. It is an unhealthy monopoly. Ordinary citizens get little information when they phone the centres providing this information.
A councillor in Kerry said he had contacted a centre in Cahersiveen on a number of occasions and that getting information was like trying to get teeth out of a duck. A delay of 18 months or two years is unwarranted. Is there too much demand for the services? In my area, a widow in her 70s purchased a local authority house, something which was encouraged. It was built in the 1970s. She wants the house to be wrapped. She has a stove and is using solid fuel. She sometimes uses coal, if she can get it, as well as turf and timber. In one sense, the Department of the environment has said that is a no-no but she has no other way of heating her house. She has waited in excess of 18 months and does not know when the job will be done.
When builders do restoration or other work on houses, they usually say that they will be with someone within two weeks and will let them know when they are starting work. Another lady who spoke to me said she did not know when workers were coming. They arrived one Monday morning when there was a family wedding. She was totally unprepared and was told that if she delayed the work they would not be back for another nine months. She went ahead with the work, but it did not happen at an appropriate time. It would have been more appropriate to be told three or four weeks earlier that the workers would be with her in the first week of February or March and would proceed with the building.
I am concerned about inordinate delays. The SEAI is probably understaffed. I am also concerned about the monopoly in respect of BER certification. I am asking questions in a careful and managed, rather than a derogatory, way. Is it the case that grants may run out and SEAI schemes evaporate or slow down? Are those involved saying they will manage things as best they can because if everything folds in five years' time, which we hope it will not, they will be without jobs? Is it a case of jobs for the boys?
I thank Senator Denis O'Donovan for raising this issue. It is obviously an issue which is close to his heart. He represents people in his area when he raises it here in the House. It is an issue that is cropping up in every county in Ireland.
I am speaking on behalf of the Minister. The climate action plan and the national retrofit plan set ambitious targets to retrofit the equivalent of 500,000 homes to a BER B2 rating in a cost optimal manner and the installation of 400,000 heat pumps in existing homes to replace older and less efficient heating systems by the end of 2030. To promote and incentivise the achievement of these targets, the Government has put in place a package of supports to make it easier and more affordable for homeowners to undertake home energy upgrades for warmer, healthier and more comfortable homes with lower energy bills. As part of this support, increased grants have been made available under SEAI-administered schemes.As part of the support, increased grant rates have been made available under SEAI-administered schemes. The better energy homes scheme offers individual grants and allows homeowners to take a step-by-step approach or to self-manage the project, while the national home energy upgrade scheme and the community energy grant scheme are aimed at homeowners wishing to undertake a whole-home energy upgrade to achieve a BER of at least B2. The better energy warmer homes scheme provides fully-funded upgrades to homeowners at risk of energy poverty.
Last year, demand across the SEAI schemes was exceptionally high. Indicative figures show that in 2023 a total of 47,952 homeowner energy upgrades were supported. This represents a 76% increase in outputs year-on-year. Of this total, 17,599 homes achieved a B2 rating. This represents an increase of 107% on B2 upgrades supported in 2022. Under the better energy warmer homes scheme, 5,897 free upgrades for energy-poor homes were delivered. This represents a 33% increase compared with 2022. Grant support for external wall insulation was provided to 6,110 homeowners in 2023 across the better energy homes scheme; the national home energy upgrade scheme, which is delivered by the one-stop shops; the community energy grant scheme; and the better energy warmer homes scheme, which is fully funded. Overall, 67,411 applications for grant support were received by the SEAI, equating to a 34% increase on 2022 levels. This indicates a strong pipeline and demand for works for this year.
The time taken for the completion of works varies depending on the scheme applied for. The better energy homes scheme and the solar PV scheme are demand-led schemes that require homeowners to procure their own contractors following grant approval from the SEAI. This approval process is instantaneous once requirements for the SEAI grant application portal are met by the applicants. Works must be completed within an eight-month period, starting from the date of grant approval. This is a reasonably short timescale where the homeowner is directly involved.
Under the national home energy upgrade scheme and the community energy grant scheme, homeowners engage a registered one-stop-shop or project co-ordinator, respectively, to manage the grant application process and oversee delivery of the retrofit work on their behalf. Works must be completed within 12 months of approval. Under the better energy warmer homes scheme, the average waiting time, from application to completion, for upgrades to homes completed in 2023 was just under 20 months. This is a decrease from 26 months for homes completed in 2022. It is definitely a very long timescale but the waiting period has been decreasing since 2023, and we hope there will be further reductions in the waiting times in 2024.
I have no doubt that these are extraordinarily good schemes. I put my hands up and applaud what is being done, but I think there should be greater interaction with and more explanation given to the customers who ring up and ask where their applications are at and what is delaying them. I refer to those customers being told it was going to be six months down the road. Perhaps the Minister of State will convey my next point back to the Minister and the personnel in the Department. I still cannot understand why the SEAI insists that nobody else can do these BER certificates except itself. It is ludicrous because there are plenty of qualified people out there. I checked here in Dublin this morning and there were six or seven groups offering a service where people could phone a number and get a certificate done within four to six weeks. The current requirement has delayed some of these projects by six months, and it is only adding insult to injury. Elderly people deserve better. I know there is probably great demand in this regard but perhaps something could be done to ramp up the delivery of these schemes and ensure that the people out there, mostly elderly, waiting for them get proper attention and satisfaction.
I listened carefully to what Senator O'Donovan said and I absolutely take on board the point he raised concerning the limited number of people who can provide BER certificates. This can cause a logjam. I will take this point back to the Minister and ask if additional people can be added to that list to ensure people's applications can be dealt with earlier. I think this is a fair point and that I am right when I say the situation the Senator spoke about applies right across the country and not just in his area. The main principles of these schemes are fairness, universality, that all types of houses are covered and that the issue of the consumer is also taken into account in this regard too.As regards work to reduce the waiting time, the SEAI has allocated additional staff for the warmer homes scheme and a significantly increased budget allocation has been given for this year. The SEAI works to increase contractor output through active contract engagement and management.
On the issue raised by the Senator, which I have encountered personally, where workers arrive almost unexpectedly and the householder is told they are ready to do it, if they cannot start work immediately, the householder will be put to the bottom of the list. That is bad customer relations and needs to be dealt with.