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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 7 Dec 1995

Vol. 459 No. 5

Social Housing Policy: Statements (Resumed).

I am glad of the opportunity to speak on social housing. I recognise a fair amount has been done in this connection in recent years and the document on social housing was published a few years ago, but there are still a huge number of social housing problems which must be solved.

If we look at the range of schemes available, I suppose the one which everybody thinks of first is the scheme for the provision of local authority housing but there are other schemes with regard to repairs in lieu of local authority housing, housing aids for the elderly, essential repairs grants, the £3,000 new house grant, shared ownership and disabled persons' grant, not to mention the Gaeltacht grants.

I wish to say a few words about local authority housing regarding which some problems have yet to be tackled. There was a move some years ago to get away from segregated housing, particularly in our cities and larger towns, where the better off people live in one part and the less well off in another. Huge social problems have been created by that policy and the economic cost has been enormous. We must make a firm commitment that we will never again allow segregated housing in our towns or cities and we have a huge job on hand to undo the problems of the past. We must get away from that type of policy and ensure we never return to it.

Official recognition should be given for transferring from one local authority area to another. There are two local authorities in my constituency — Galway Corporation and Galway County Council. This should also be valid for a person who wishes to transfer from a local authority in, say, Dublin Corporation or Dublin County Council to the west or even the other way around. Sometimes people want to transfer from rural areas to the city but there is no official system to facilitate such transfers. When I ask council officials about this I am told it is done on an ad hoc basis only. When a person in Rosmuc wished to transfer to Galway city it was possible to find somebody in Galway city who was willing to do a direct swap but that is normally difficult to achieve. A number of people in Galway city are anxious to return to the areas from which they came, particularly unemployed people who have no ties with the city.

If the county council is to provide a unit of housing in rural areas and in that way release property in the city and other local authority areas, the authority providing accommodation is at the loss of one of its units while the authority who transferred the person has gained a unit. Obviously, that is not attractive to the local authority which has been asked to provide housing. Nobody will argue with anybody who leaves and makes a house available as long as they have got good alternative accommodation.

We should have a formal system whereby, if a person gives up a local authority house in one area and is provided with accommodation in another area by a different local authority, some resources would be given to the providing authority so that it would not be at a total loss. If that happened it would give people freedom to consider transfers, it would allow mobility and in rural areas it would allow people to return where they wished to do so. Will the Minister of State consider this issue in the near future?

Another issue which is causing a problem is the criteria on which housing is allocated in tourist areas. The housing officer normally allocates housing on the basis of overcrowding or the condition of the housing. A problem arises where homeless families who, because they are known locally, manage to rent good property but in the summertime the landlords are anxious that they move to other property. This can go on for years. Where this has happened for two or three years and where it is clear there is a need for housing and where permanent private accommodation is not available, the requirement for a settled place in which to live should be taken into account with the other two criteria. One family in my constituency has been on the housing list for the past five or six years. They have moved within a ten to 50 mile radius from house to house. This is very unsettling for the children as it means they do not know from year to year what schools they will attend. No other case has taken as long. We have to insert a criteria here because in rural areas there is a problem in regard to houses being available for the summer season.

The house purchase scheme has an advantage over previous schemes in that the intention is to keep people in the estate so that, in time, there is a mix between rented and purchased houses. In that way people are not taken out of the estates when they settle down and get some money together. I favour the purchase scheme but I regret that it is limited to 3 per cent per annum up to 30 per cent, plus £3,000. I recognise that the £3,000 was an addition this year. I do not understand the reason it cannot be extended for another ten years for those people who have been renting for 15 or 20 years and the reason the 3 per cent cannot be extended to a limit of, say, 50 per cent plus £3,000. Some long-term tenants find it difficult to purchase the houses, because they have never managed to get full-time employment, even in these circumstances. The ten years cut-off point is too low. It is a good scheme and it is one in which many people have an interest because there is still a strong interest in home ownership in the community.

There are two sets of flats in Galway in Rahoon and Mervue. Mervue accommodates mainly old people who are happy to live in flats but that is not the case in Rahoon. A huge amount of money will be expended on refurbishing them. I believe this is money wasted. Every week in my clinic parents with young families and single parents with young children beg to get out of the flats. The flats are a kind of purgatory through which one has to go to get a house. Nobody chooses to go there. Many people in need of housing are told they will have to spend three years in the flats but most refuse as there are too many social problems there. I accept that people of every class live in flats but when flats have a transient occupancy or are used by people who have not paid their rent this causes huge problems which cannot be solved by repairing their physical structure. There is a proposal to spend a huge sum of money on them but the public demand is for housing.

What people should want is not relevant but rather what they feel they will be happy with. In many cases people are much wiser than the social planners on these issues because they have a broader perspective of the whole package which includes, for example, the fact that one is living on the third floor. If you want to let your child out to play you have to come down three flights of stairs to supervise them. If it is an unsupervised flat, lifts will have to be installed and these will be interfered with. It includes many things which are not relevant when talking about private flats owned by private individuals in cities who intend to live there by choice and in many cases do not have young children and do not face the problems which mothers face in flats like Rahoon. It is clear that the only way corporations can get tenants into such flats is by saying they cannot get a house unless they take a flat first.

Given the cost in social terms and the damage caused to health, it would be much cheaper to invest the money in the provision of alternative accommodation. Galway is not unique in terms of this problem and serious consideration must be given to the provision of alternative accommodation. If there is a short-term once off cost so be it; if it reduces social problems and minimises the level of human misery in the long-term it will be money well spent.

There are approximately 4,000 people seeking resettlement in rural areas. The voluntary rural resettlement scheme frees up accommodation in areas with long housing lists and resettles the people in communities which have under utilised schools, health centres, etc. However, there is a shortage of houses in good condition for long-term rent in rural areas. Tenants in corporation or council houses receive a discount if they purchase a house and the Minister should consider giving the money to the rural resettlement group to enable it to secure houses on a repair and lease back basis over a long period. These houses could be used to resettle people in rural areas, thereby freeing up badly needed accommodation in cities. My proposal would not cost the Department anything more than it pays to people who purchase houses from a local authority.

The scheme of repairs in lieu of social housing has taken off in a big way in Galway. However, owing to a lack of funding it takes us more than five years to proceed with applications. Under the scheme houses are renovated to meet all the requirements of the late 20th century, that is modern facilities, water and heating. It would not require much money to make this scheme more worthwhile.

The scheme of housing aids for the elderly and the essential repairs grant scheme are run in tandem by the health board and the local authority. When old people ask me for advice on house improvement grants I give them two forms and tell them to apply to both bodies and see who will offer the help first. If the health board cannot provide a grant because it has run out of money the local authority might be able to fund them or vice versa. The two schemes should be administered by the county councils. The scheme of housing aids for the elderly was initially introduced as an emergency response. If we did our job properly there would be no need for emergency responses. A combined scheme should be introduced to ensure that old people receive an immediate response to their requests for aid.

I am baffled as to why the £3,000 grant scheme is administered by the Department of the Environment. Under the shared ownership option scheme council engineers examine the property and the Department of the Environment engineer repeats the examination. I do not understand why this grant is not administered by the local authority in each area. This would eliminate much of the duplication, simplify matters for the applicant and enable the county council to put a more comprehensive loan package together.

The shared ownership option scheme is a good idea but it is bogged down in bureaucracy and time has caught up with it. Although I welcome the recent relaxation in them, the income limits have been too restrictive. Owing to the huge reductions in interest rates on the open market people can get mortgages at a rate of 6.75 per cent or 7 per cent. The rent part of the shared ownership option scheme is 5 per cent. If a house costs £30,000 the purchaser can be given a grant of up to £12,000. The rent part of the shared ownership option should be done away with and a sliding scale of grant should be introduced in its place. It is very important to have a half way house scheme, so to speak, but the shared ownership option scheme is too complicated. A simpler scheme might be more effective. House prices in urban areas are very high and people will find it very difficult to secure a mortgage. A further problem has arisen in Galway city in that people cannot afford to purchase a second hand local authority house for £32,000-£33,000.

Much good work has been carried out under the voluntary housing scheme. For example, in my parish sheltered housing has been provided for old people. While I would not normally encourage people to leave the countryside, under this scheme people who live in very isolated areas are given the option of moving into sheltered housing in a cluster. This means integrated care can be provided for elderly people who are able to live independent lives. In my parish the housing is located at the back of the health centre which is beside the church and other facilities. This scheme has proven to be very popular and I would like to see it developed further in other areas.

The introduction of schemes is all very well but it is fundamental to provide adequate funding to ensure their proper implementation. There are certain things to which people have a basic right, and shelter is one of them. A decent house is fundamental.

Debate adjourned.