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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 16 Nov 1995

Vol. 458 No. 4

Social Housing Policy: Statements.

I very much welcome this opportunity to focus attention on the important issue of social housing. Decent housing for all our people is a basic concern of Government. Each and every family is profoundly concerned about, and influenced by, the quality of its housing. Accordingly, it is appropriate that Deputies should have the opportunity to consider and debate the Government's policy set out in the document Social Housing — The Way Ahead.

Housing is the key determinant of many of our attitudes, our capabilities and our life choices. People cannot develop properly if their housing conditions cause them difficulty, anguish or distress. Relationships suffer in the absence of decent housing and those who are marginalised will remain so if we do not enable them to enjoy housing conditions appropriate to their needs.

Housing, therefore, is one of the priorities of this Government. Our special commitment to the social housing area was written into the Government's policy document “A Government of Renewal” with the undertaking to increase social housing starts to 7,000 annually. This was a significant commitment when one considers that there were fewer than 3,000 starts under the social housing programme as recently as 1992. We are well on our way to delivering on this commitment of 7,000 starts this year. Overall, and including vacancies in the existing local authority housing stock, we expect to cater for some 9,500 households in housing need in 1995 rising to over 10,000 next year, compared to just 6,000 households in 1992.

There has been an enormous increase in recent years in the financial resources directed to the social housing programme. Capital funding for social housing in 1995 amounts to some £286 million compared to £226 in 1994 and £148 million in 1993. The sum of £286 million is enormous, and in this context I would like to refer briefly to a recent assertion that the cost to the housing budget of introducing divorce would be £135 million. This is simply scremongering. Marital breakdown is already a significant factor in housing need. Divorce, and the giving of what I consider a basic human right of a second chance, will not increase the rate of marriage breakdown. Indeed it may well serve to assist marriage where second unions exist. To argue that divorce will increase Government expenditure on housing is untrue. It is further evidence of the alarmist and misleading approach of the No Divorce Campaign that this argument is being used. I can assure this House that voting "yes" for the amendment will not lead to additional demands on the housing budget.

I also emphasise that the provision of funding does not solve all housing problems. Proper policies and structures must be in place to ensure that the funding is spent wisely, benefits those most in need and has a positive effect in the long term.

While I have given some figures relating to our social housing output to indicate progress over recent years, housing progress simply cannot be measured in terms of numbers alone. We remember the mistakes of the past, the large, sprawling local authority housing estates on greenfield sites where basic communal development proved difficult. Nor can we easily forget the problems of the low cost housing experiment — the legacy of which continues to absorb so much badly needed capital. The numbers of new local authority houses being built were very impressive when the low cost housing programme was in full swing, but these numbers were achieved at great social cost to the tenants and economic cost to the taxpayer to remedy the defects inherent not only in the concept but equally in the houses.

We still live with the social and financial consequences of these mistakes. However, the important thing is that we have learned. My aim, therefore, is to ensure that we do not have to rely on a single policy response to social housing needs but that a variety of appropriate measures are available. In addition we must ensure that the increased output from the social housing programmes is of the highest quality in terms of the physical housing conditions and their location and integration with the wider community.

Against that background "Social Housing — The Way Ahead" was published in May. It grew from a review of the measures introduced in the earlier "Plan for Social Housing" which was, in many ways, a groundbreaking document. It radically redirected social housing policy from the traditional single solution of building local authority housing and brought to the forefront many important concepts, such as counteracting social segregation which had not previously been a major objective of housing policy. It brought choice into the social housing area in a radical way through programmes to expand housing provision by the voluntary sector and additional options for local authorities, including the purchase of existing dwellings to meet needs. It made home ownership available to persons who previously could not have aspired to owning their own homes. It, furthermore, stressed the need for better management of the public housing stock.

However, circumstances change. In 1991, local authority waiting lists stood at 23,000 households but subsequently reached 28,600 in 1993. The pressure of increasing needs made it urgent for us to consider the social housing area in detail and this has been achieved in "Social Housing — The Way Ahead".

Accordingly, this document reports progress in housing since 1991, reviews the operation of the new measures in the "Plan for Social Housing", gives details of important changes being made in the terms of these and other longer established schemes to increase output, and maps out the further development and implementation of the housing commitments in A Government of Renewal.

My Department commissioned the ESRI to undertake a detailed analysis and evaluation of the 1993, assessment of local authority housing needs. I have decided that the next assessment of needs should be undertaken in March 1996 and that this assessment should take account of the conclusions of the ESRI analysis. My Department will, therefore, shortly issue detailed guidelines to local authorities which will assist them in carrying out a comprehensive assessment of social housing needs which takes account of the range of needs, including homeless and travellers, and the social housing options now available.

Local authority housing remains the mainstay of the overall response to social housing need. The previous Government more than trebled the size of this programme in 1993 to 3,500 starts and maintained it at that level in 1994. This Government has further increased the programme to 3,900 starts in 1995.

However, the local authority housing programme of the 1990s is fundamentally different in character from that of previous decades. A key policy consideration now is to provide housing in a manner which does not contribute to or reinforce social segregation. Local authorities are now providing housing in small, well designed schemes often on infill sites and without recourse, as in the past, to large estates on greenfield sites at the edges of cities and towns. Authorities are also increasingly purchasing existing houses to meet needs. These acquisitions should reach approximately 600 this year in comparison with 462 last year and, of course, few, if any, under the old style local authority housing programme. The expanded local authority programme is, therefore, now responding to needs in a much more sensitive, flexible and socially aware manner.

The improved physical appearance of recent local authority housing schemes is marked. Dublin Corporation's Bride Street development in the inner city is a good example of how local authority housing can and does compare favourably with the best private sector developments. To encourage authorities towards better and more appropriate housing I have recently introduced a design award scheme. These awards will recognise the excellence and quality which we now find in the design of many of our local authority housing schemes. It will encourage all authorities to achieve higher standards in their housing provision.

The policy document "Social Housing — The Way Ahead" also deals comprehensively with the management of the existing local authority housing stock. The provision of a quality service to tenants and the general public alike through proper management by authorities of their housing estates is a particular priority. As a former councillor, I am well aware that housing management is a demanding task for local authorities. Nationally, it involves responsibility for some 95,000 dwellings and expenditure of approximately £90 million annually. Good management requires planning, organisation, direction and effective implementation.

Management relates, in part, to taking care of the physical condition of the housing stock. In this regard, my Department and the housing authorities have worked well to bring about significant improvements in the quality of existing housing. Since 1985 capital investment of over £136 million has been made through the remedial works programme. Similarly, since 1991 £13.5 million has been invested in providing bathroom facilities in local authority dwellings.

Good housing management is about more than maintaining and improving the physical fabric and facilities of housing. It is also about improving the quality of life in the estates and addressing issues such as alienation and anti-social behaviour. Tenants need to be involved in running their estates and have an opportunity to contribute to the development of their community. Good housing management hinges on good relationships between the local authority, as landlord, and tenants. I want authorities to increase and improve tenant involvement at all levels in running estates as they know better than anybody else the strengths, weaknesses and problems in the area. The key point is to develop mechanisms which allow the knowledge and interest of tenants to be utilised and harnessed for the betterment of everybody. Involving tenants in a real way in housing management requires new skills and attitudes by local authorities. Many of the new housing management initiatives contained in "Social Housing — The Way Ahead" will assist tenants and local authority housing officials to develop the new concepts and skills confidently and successfully.

I wish to refer to some of the initiatives which have the capacity to contribute significantly to improving housing management. Last May I announced a new scheme of grants to support and encourage selected pilot projects in housing management. We set aside £100,000 for housing authorities to develop projects focusing on specific activities, additional to their normal day-to-day management and maintenance. These projects must have the scope to deliver lasting benefits to the authority itself and have potential to be replicated by other authorities.

The response to the scheme has been very encouraging. Thirty four authorities put forward 55 projects for consideration and I have now chosen 16 of them for grant aid. Eleven of the proposals focus on involving tenants in the management of their estates and include training programmes for both tenants and housing officials. These projects should help to promote greater skills, knowledge, understanding and closer working relations among the participants. We must build on these pilot projects and extend the lessons from them throughout the country. I foresee each authority, in due course, developing its own blueprint for effective estate management which reflects its own unique combination of needs and resources.

I also announced in May my intention to establish a housing management group, comprising representatives of the local authorities and the Department, to promote best practice in housing management in consultation with the voluntary sector. This group can contribute significantly to developing policies on many key housing management issues. These issues include training programmes for local authority personnel, provision of housing information, identifying key performance indicators for use by local authorities and developing an overall programme for the promotion of best practice throughout all authorities. In dealing with its remit, I expect the group to liaise with other interests, including the voluntary housing sector whose experience and perspectives will be relevant. New ideas and ways of dealing with problems are always valuable and should be sought on as wide a basis as possible.

In recent years the role of local authorities has moved from the traditional function of the direct provision of housing for rent towards a new promotional and facilitating role in the delivery of the full range of housing services within their area. This involves the authorities in actively and imaginatively promoting the various options and schemes now available to address housing needs.

One of the most important tasks of the housing management group will be to set out proposals for the development of a comprehensive housing information service through the local authorities. In common with all public bodies, authorities must become much more responsive to the needs of their clients, they must be customer driven. Accordingly, I proposed the establishment of local housing advice centres or "one-stop-shops". A major element in the Department's support for the new housing information service is the preparation and publication of a range of housing information in leaflet form. Ten housing information leaflets have already been published by my Department and supplied to authorities and voluntary organisations. They cover such issues as a summary of the range of housing options, local authority housing, the voluntary housing schemes, disabled persons grants and so on.

One of the most important features of housing policy is the expanded role for the voluntary housing sector. Progress in this area has been considerable since 1991. Overall voluntary housing output doubled to 900 units in the two years to 1994. Some 1,000 units will be provided this year and I expect output to continue to increase.

In order to support this expanded role for the voluntary sector significant improvements to the terms of the capital assistance scheme and rental subsidy schemes were provided for in "Social Housing — The Way Ahead". The maximum assistance under the capital assistance scheme was increased by £2,000 to £27,000 per unit for one and two person dwellings and by £7,000 to £33,000 per unit for family type dwellings. The rental subsidy scheme was boosted by the raising of general income eligibility limits, improvements in the unit cost limits on construction from £35,000 to £41,000 generally and to £46,000 in major urban centres and by a 50 per cent increase in the maintenance and management allowance.

The benefits of involvement by the voluntary sector in the social housing programme extends beyond the provision of accommodation, vital though that role is. Voluntary bodies generally have a key role in developing community spirit, in fostering self-help rather than dependency and in enabling people to become active players in shaping their own futures rather than passive recipients.

There is no single repository of all housing knowledge. We can only tackle the range and complexity of housing needs in a modern society with a corresponding range and diversity of responses. Above all, the statutory and voluntary sectors must work together and exchange the benefit of their experience if we are to successfully address housing problems and build thriving communities rather than soulless housing estates.

The priority housing needs of travellers and the homeless were particularly addressed in "Social Housing — The Way Ahead". All of us who have responsibility for the housing system — and I specifically include among this group Deputies who are members of a local authority — must strive to secure minimal acceptable living conditions for the travelling community. Whatever extra funds over and above the annual provisions are required for the local authority traveller accommodation programmes will be provided.

There has been some progress in recent years but despite the best efforts of a number of local authorities lack of action by others continues to adversely affect the programme. The report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community was published in July 1995. The implications of implementing the task force's wide-ranging recommendations, including the proposed establishment of a travellers accommodation agency, are now being considered by a group representative of the Departments involved. I expect the group's findings to be with Government before the end of the year.

The homeless, of course, clearly benefit from the expansion of the local authority housing programme. They will also benefit particularly from the changes I have introduced into the capital assistance scheme which, in recent years, has provided much badly needed accommodation for homeless persons. However, our policies on the homeless must be continually assessed and developed to ensure that our actions are targeting the areas where needs are most acute. "Social Housing — The Way Ahead" identifies a number of specific priority areas to deal with homelessness, including the availability of accommodation in which homeless persons can be assisted to make the transition to a more settled way of life; improving liaison between statutory and voluntary bodies in order to provide a more integrated service; the availability of suitable accommodation for certain categories not adequately catered for at present, for example, emergency accommodation for people with particular needs arising from health or addiction problems.

To provide accommodation is vital but in the case of the homeless it is rarely enough on its own and a range of support services are usually also needed. I am anxious that the statutory and voluntary sectors are properly structured to ensure that services are available not alone to provide accommodation but also to prevent homeless persons from becoming trapped in the cycle of homelessness. Services must be comprehensive, responsive and flexible. No single statutory agency working alone will be able to meet the complex needs of homeless persons. I have been examining the position over recent months including the roles and responsibilities of local authorities and health boards, especially in the Dublin region. I hope to be in a position shortly to announce the results of my review.

Before leaving the issue of homelessness. I simply cannot let the opportunity go without expressing my appreciation of those who work with the homeless, whether in statutory or voluntary agencies, for their selfless dedication, hard work and real achievements.

"Social Housing — The Way Ahead" recognises the increasingly important role of the private rented sector in meeting social housing needs. Important steps have been taken to improve the lot of tenants since 1992, including the introduction of the requirement of at least one month's notice to quit; mandatory rent books; legally binding minimum physical standards of rented accommodation; the abolition of distress, under which a landlord could seize tenants' property to enforce the payment of rent; and tax relief on private rents provided in this year's budget.

I am also moving ahead with my proposals for the registration of private rented accommodation. I have consulted widely with the various interests in relation to registration and I intend to finalise the necessary regulations as soon as possible. This will also assist local authorities in the enforcement of the other statutory requirements relating to the sector and the fees payable on registration will provide a source of income to assist authorities in discharging their regulatory functions in relation to the sector.

Home ownership is the preferred tenure of the vast majority of our population and "Social Housing — The Way Ahead" includes a number of measures to assist marginal house purchasers. The shared ownership system was introduced to assist low income households who aspired to home ownership but who simply could not afford home ownership under the conventional loan repayments system. I am glad to say that over 3,700 households moved into their own homes since 1991 with the aid of shared ownership. Arising from the review of the system, I took the opportunity to reduce the minimum initial equity that must be purchased under the system from 50 per cent to 40 per cent. The new limit gives additional flexibility and should enable the system to make a greater impact on social housing needs without attracting people into the system who do not have the resources to achieve ownership. For example, the initial purchase of 50 per cent of a £30,000 house would cost £15,000 whereas £16,000 would purchase 40 per cent of a £40,000 house.

Local authorities continue to provide mortgage finance for people who cannot obtain mortgage finance from a bank or building society. The maximum house purchase loans from local authorities has been increased from £25,000 to £33,000 generally with a higher limit of £35,000 on certain off shore islands.

The mortgage allowance scheme is an important incentive for local authority tenants and tenant purchasers who wish to return their present house to the local authority and acquire their own house in the private sector. I have significantly improved the terms of the scheme from £3,300 payable over five years to £4,500 over the same period.

It reflects well on the quality of the vast majority of our local authority housing stock and the living conditions of the tenants, that, when the opportunity arises, many wish to purchase rather than continue to rent their houses. Tenant purchase of local authority dwellings has, for many years, been a feature of our housing system. Tenant purchase has now been put on a permanent, open-ended footing rather than the earlier schemes which tended to apply for set periods only. During my review of the social housing system, I noted that the 1993 scheme was much less generous than those which had previously applied. To redress this situation, I was pleased to be able to introduce in "Social Housing — The Way Ahead" revised terms for the tenant purchase scheme to make purchase more affordable to a greater number of tenants by increased discounts and also a shared ownership option.

The publication of a policy document such as "Social Housing — The Way Ahead," is sometimes mistakenly seen as the end of a process. It most assuredly is not. Housing needs are constantly evolving, constantly changing. Housing policy must therefore, continually adapt to new situations, concerns and challenges.

"Social Housing — The Way Ahead" acknowledges the need for change and sets out a framework for the development of social housing policy which will stand us in good stead over the coming years.

I congratulate the Department of the Environment on its policy document "Social Housing — The Way Ahead". I had not expected a comment on divorce but as the Minister of State managed to refer to her pet issue, I wish to contradict her assertion that the argument that divorce will increase Government expenditure on housing is untrue. I could not agree with that, but I will not argue whether it will cost £1 million or £135 million. Obviously, there would be some additional demands on Government if divorce were introduced.

It is said that a man's home is his castle and Irish people very much want to own their own home. Housing is very important but cannot be considered in isolation from other priorities such as job creation, schools, shops and so on. Historically, the Government put money into providing housing without making adequate provision for infrastructure such as schools and shops. Resources were scarce and priority was given to housing. In many respects that strategy worked. People were housed in green field sites a mile or two from the nearest shop, with the school being built six years later. With unemployment becoming a fact of life in these new estates those people have been caught in a downward spiral.

It is regrettable that many unemployed people are located in green field sites with few facilities and little hope or community spirit. In politics, particularly in regard to housing, we are inclined to let issues slide until there is a major problem and then try to address it quickly and cheaply. Ballymun is frequently portrayed as an example of cheap housing, but it is not a true portrayal. We merely tried to do too much too quickly, and it is not the worst housing development in Dublin.

There have been many good housing developments in Dublin in the past ten or 15 years and the award scheme proposed by the Minister will encourage local authorities to design better schemes. I find the word "starts" used by the Minister very confusing. Perhaps I am old fashioned in taking the word to mean house construction when the meaning the Minister attributes to it includes vacant houses and house allocations. In the mid-eighties Fianna Fáil introduced the £5,000 surrender grant scheme which led to a number of house vacancies. The scheme solved many housing problems but tore the heart out of many communities and created problems. In seeking innovative measures to solve problems, we should hasten slowly. A quick solution can often mean a greater problem in the long term.

I compliment the Minister on providing additional money for house construction. Fianna Fáil also did a great deal of work in this area. There were many major drives in local authority house building when my party was in power.

The cutbacks in house construction from 1987 to 1989 can be excused on two grounds, the economic position and the introduction of the £5,000 grant scheme. There were 420 empty flats in Ballymun at one stage during that time and houses were being vandalised, burned and used by children for amusement. In that type of atmosphere, the obvious thing is to stop building.

A sum of money is generally allocated each year in the Government's programme for housing schemes and if that stops for a year or two, it is difficult to get approval for it again. Even when it is approved, it can take up to two years to complete a development as architects may have been transferred to other projects. House building approved three years ago was completed only last year. As a housing crisis has developed in the past few years I am pleased that funding is being allocated to deal with the problem and that the houses for which money was approved two years ago are now being completed.

The current plan is an update of the 1991 plan, for which Padraig Flynn did not get much credit. It was rubbished by people who believed the only way to solve the problem was to build more houses. The plan confirms that the 1991 plan was innovative and proposed strategies geared to the changing housing scheme. As a local authority member at that time. I believed the Department was innovative, particularly in estate management. At many meetings during that time departmental approval for house building was given, subject to proper estate management. Many of us did not know what the Department meant as we felt proper estate management was common sense. We considered it a delaying tactic by the Department. We could not understand why it would not allow us get on with the job of building houses. However, while we labelled that a time wasting tactic, having regard to the extent of the current housing problem the Department was very innovative at that time. The Minister outlined the key achievements under the excellent 1991 plan, but in hindsight the main emphasis must always be on construction. Now that more resources are available the plan is seen to have been worthwhile.

Our main objective must be to provide good quality housing for those who cannot afford to purchase houses and I support the Minister's view that they should have a choice in that regard. The Minister mentioned the number of house constructions. I agree with the policy of having infill developments of 75 houses as greenfield areas are often the site of social problems. I wonder how long the scheme will last as every available site will have been infilled in a few years. There will be problems in Dublin about infilling sites labelled as amenity or play areas. However, it is a good policy.

As regards design, some distinctive local authority housing was built in the last three years. While Bride Street is an architectural gem, unfortunately, one would pick out a local authority house a mile away. People complain that the houses have small windows. We were told that was necessary to comply with the planning and energy regulations but surely that must apply to private houses also. Local authority housing has the look of an army barracks about it. Although many are wonderful houses, built to a very high standard, they are easily identifiable and people would prefer if this were not so.

The Department has provided funding for refurbishment. It is stated in the plan that there will be a review of the future direction of refurbishment. What does that mean? Is the Government suggesting that as money is now being put into house reconstruction it will not be put into refurbishment? I would not be happy with that. We must continue to fund refurbishment projects. In Dublin it was not necessarily the oldest buildings that were refurbished but those in areas with great social problems. Some established blocks of flats built around the turn of the century were passed over in favour of houses built 30 or 40 years ago in areas of social deprivation. Some refurbishment was of a Rolls Royce standard but I am not sure if that is necessary. Sometimes all that is required is money to replace windows, provide indoor toilets and so on.

Wooden houses were built in 1969 in parts of my constituency. It is said they had a 12 or 15 year life span although I have my doubts about that. Many of them were purchased by the tenants under the 1988 scheme for £8,000 or £10,000 and sell today for £30,000. The cost of maintaining them is very high and as many of those who live in them depend on social welfare a scheme will have to be introduced to make money available for essential repairs.

Many people aim to own their house. The shared ownership scheme is a marvellous one, although in the beginning there were many legal and teething problems. I urge the Minister to continue that scheme. I am glad the initial equity has been reduced to 40 per cent but that does not fully solve the problem. The scheme is only used by those on a low income.

The best form of estate management is to allow people own their houses. If they own even 10 per cent of it they will have a different approach to how they look after it. While many tenants would like another chance to avail of the 1988 tenant purchase scheme the £3,000 grant and the shared ownership option has reopened the door for many on social welfare.

I raised with the Minister last week the issue of houses with an indoor bathroom and an outdoor toilet. Under the current scheme the local authority cannot help such people. The bathroom scheme should be extended to cover such houses. It is fine to build new modern houses but we must try to keep the old ones in good repair. Last year Dublin Corporation received funding from the proceeds of the tax amnesty for replacement windows. That was necessary in the refurbishment of many flat complexes in Dublin. The Rolls Royce scheme is not always necessary.

The report does not mention a house repair grant scheme. I hope such a scheme will be introduced. Social housing and private housing are intertwined. Many local authority houses become private houses as a result of the tenant purchase scheme. Much money was spent on the previous scheme. What is needed is a better focused scheme, targeted at older houses. On a previous occasion I opposed the provision of a grant to a person in a 15-year-old, £100,000 house for the building of a conservatory. That is a waste of taxpayers' money. There are many houses, some of which were previously local authority houses, which would benefit from a well controlled grant scheme, and I hope such a scheme will be introduced in the near future.

Many of the anti-social problems in Dublin occur in flat complexes. A scheme should be considered to provide for the sale of flats. The report states that there are legal difficulties in this regard, but if the legal problems can be overcome such a scheme would be welcome. Many flat complexes are considered as transit camps, although I should not use that term. People move into them in order to get points with a view to being transferred to a house. If people could buy flats it would help to reduce many of the problems in these areas.

I would ask the Minister to proceed with the changes proposed in the private rented sector. It is unacceptable that voluntary regulations apply whereby people with houses and flats may register their interests with the local authority. A fee must be paid and there must be policing in this regard. Many people rent houses which are not fit for a dog. People wishing to be put on the local authority housing list should be provided with accommodation that is up to a certain standard. Some houses in my area are simply passing camps for people wishing to get points in the hope that they will qualify for local authority housing. In many cases people are living in dreadful conditions. Some of the accommodation provided by the Eastern Health Board is not fit for human habitation. Landlords, who are interested only in the subsidy they receive, are ripping off the system and provide accommodation that is in very bad condition.

Many people are unhappy with maintenance standards. Local authorities cannot maintain houses due to a lack of finance. We should consider a system under which, as in the case of private accommodation, local authorities would receive a rent subsidy. Since such a system operates in the private rented sector I see no reason that it cannot be introduced for local authority houses.

When will the ESRI report on this matter be published? A newspaper report some months ago suggested that in future emergency cases would become the priority rather than housing people on a points basis. I have much sympathy for people who have to live in a flat or in a parent's front room while waiting for a house. A system whereby a person who arrives off the train or boat is housed immediately on the basis that it is an emergency case would be unfair. There are concerns in this regard in view of the abolition of the residency qualification. People who have accumulated points over the years must get priority.

There is an ongoing argument between Dublin County Council and Dublin Corporation about which body governs certain areas. I would like to know when action will be taken on this issue. It was expected that some measure would be introduced 18 or 21 months ago but the problem still exists. I could go on at length about the problems that may arise in future for Dublin Corporation in regard to the building of houses and so on.

I welcome the report and hope that the good work continues. I would ask the Minister to consider the points I raised particularly in regard to Dublin. Dublin Corporation is buying 300 houses this year, but the result of the purchase of such a large number of houses is that prices will increase, thereby impacting on the shared ownership scheme. Therefore, the lifespan of schemes such as that may be limited.

I welcome this report, a forward looking, innovative document which gives much grounds for encouragement in the way we shape public housing policy in future. It incorporates certain key elements of the 1991 plan devised by former Minister, Padraig Flynn, with which I agreed enthusiastically at the time. I am happy those principles have been included in this document. There must be a good deal of openness and flexibility in terms of housing policy in the years ahead.

Dramatic changes have been made in recent years in the composition of family and family size, and public housing policy must respond vigorously to such changes. It is critically important that policy changes be based on the best up-to-date information available at any given time. In that respect I note that the ESRI is currently engaged in an indepth analysis and evaluation of housing and I understand its report is imminent. A full debate of that report in this democratic forum would be very worthwhile. Arising from such a debate we would be better equipped to formulate future housing policy. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind.

Enormous improvements have been made in the manner in which we have dealt with housing in recent years. For example, there is a much stronger awareness of the need to put in place new principles in respect of management and maintenance of local authority housing. That is a key element in this plan, which I welcome. Such principles are already in place and working well in parts of the country, including my constituency of Cork North Central. We must learn from that experience and strive to extend this system to all sections of older housing estates, many of which are currently grossly undermanaged and undermaintained. I refer specifically to flat complexes, but is also applies to older housing estates, particularly in urban areas.

I welcome the many changes indicated here under the umbrella of the social housing programme. Many more and better options are open to housing authorities and housing applicants than has been the case since the foundation of the State. Voluntary housing programmes run by groups like Respond are proving particularly successful as they have put in place an excellent model of a housing estate in terms of how it can be best designed, managed and maintained. They have provided for the active involvement of families in the management and maintenance of their estates. That approach has made a fundamental difference and the key beneficiaries are the children who grow up in a healthy environment in an estate free from vandalism and despoliation of public property. The long-term benefits of such a scheme are obvious and must, of necessity, benefit the next generation.

An estate management system was put in place in a local authority housing estate in Cork approximately two years ago, and it reduced the level of petty crime by more than 50 per cent. Observers in the area relate that reduction in the level of crime directly to the better principles of estate management that have been put in place and are being sustained. We should learn from the experience and extend that system to other estates.

I recommend that the housing programmes of voluntary bodies which provide essential services should be funded on a multiannual basis. Voluntary bodies should be informed of their estimated budgets on a three or five year basis. If that was done and if there was a stable funding environment, it would enable those bodies to make better forward planning and to develop their schemes. To date their schemes are proving very cost effective. I ask the Minister of State to consider that matter and to provide additional funding for special programmes of housing aid for the elderly. Deputy Bradford could testify to the existence of a shared housing programme for the elderly in Cork under which houses are built on a voluntary basis to address not only the housing but the integrated needs of the elderly. Those programmes have proved eminently successful. Given the direction of the age profile of our population, there is great scope for extension and development of those programmes and I recommend them to the Minister as a future objective.

Another option being explored rapidly in the provision of housing is the payment of rent and mortgage subsidies under the supplementary allowance scheme. I understand that in 1994 approximately £54 million of taxpayers' money was paid out under that scheme. I appeal to the Minister to point out it is critically important to ensure that such money is not used to prop up slum landlords. I urgently call for proper control of such rentals. It is essential that minimum standards, as defined in our housing Acts, should be applied to such dwellings. It is important that the owners of such dwellings are subjected to the requirements of section 14 of the 1995 Finance Act. If those requirements were met fully, I would be pleased to give my full support to that scheme. It enables housing agencies to provide housing for young single people in particular who, traditionally, have fared badly.

In my local authority area there is an ongoing housing crisis. If young single housing applicants were taken off the housing list, it would cut the list by almost 35 per cent. I recommend it is a significant factor which should be examined.

Recent changes in social welfare have encouraged young people to leave good homes to live in poorly maintained flats to qualify for their full social welfare payment. If those people continue to live at home, they would draw down as little as £5 per week social welfare benefit whereas if they leave home they are entitled to draw down approximately £40 per week social welfare benefit. That measure which was well intentioned in terms of finance has had a counterproductive effect in creating large bills for health boards in terms of supplementary welfare allowance. I ask the Minister to confer with the Minister for Social Welfare to examine that provision as it is a bad deal in economic and social terms. Young people would be better off if they lived with their families for as long as possible. I ask the Minister to seriously examine this matter to ascertain how that trend can be reversed.

There is great merit in the shared housing scheme. I commend the Minister for raising the limits in terms of eligibility and the money given to those who wish to participate in that scheme. It goes a long way towards meeting the ideals of people who wish to own their houses and any step we can reasonably take to assist that trend is welcome.

I commend all the bodies involved in providing housing for the homeless such as the Simon Community, Focus Point and other such bodies. I also commend the Minister and her Department for putting before us a number of options under the social housing document that opened up the way for a much more flexible and intelligent approach to the provision of public housing in the years ahead. I look forward to a comprehensive debate on housing when the ESRI report becomes available. That document must be given the widest possible democratic debate in this House. I also look forward to discussing the issue of housing on the publication of that document. I thank the Minister for her presentation today.

I hope we have learned from bad experiences in the past when authorities built huge housing estates which at the outset were undermanaged and undermaintained. I hope we never return to such a housing policy, that we will build public housing estates in much smaller units and put in place at the outset proper recreational facilities for young children who will be raised in those estates. The lack of such facilities for young people has been a major defect in some of the older housing estates.

I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Currie, will agree with what I have said. We are now dealing with the result in trying to come to terms with vandalism, hooliganism and petty crime, much of which is derived from the fact that young people in large sprawling housing estates were not provided with constructive outlets for their energies. Instead they embarked on destroying and despoiling public property. We must learn from that experience and move on.

Debate adjourned.