Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill, 2001: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

For a few moments I had hoped there would be a rather unexpected interest in the comments I am about to make on the subject of housing. I am afraid, however, that like the unfortunate people who suffer from disabilities – some of whom are outside the gates of Leinster House today – the attention is directed elsewhere. It is not being focused on the very real and immediate problems that many people face, whether they suffer from disability or a lack of housing.

I wish to refer to the contribution made by the Minister when introducing the Bill, focusing on one sentence in particular, which I find quite remarkable. The Minister stated, "This Bill addresses a wide range of issues but the urgency of some of its provisions means that it is not as comprehensive as I would have liked." If the provisions of the Bill are urgent, as they are, why has it taken the Minister almost five years to introduce them? After five years in office, why is the Minister not in a position to introduce legislative measures which are, in his own words, as comprehensive as he would have liked? I have never seen a Government which after five years in office makes such a total and comprehensive admission of failure as is contained in that sentence.

This is the first specific housing legislation that has been introduced by this Government in its five years in office to deal with what is one of the worst social problems. The Bill is titled as miscellaneous. It contains a number of tidying-up provisions in relation to the shared ownership scheme, affordable housing and the reporting of information by building societies. It contains a rather strange provision in relation to the purchase of dwellings by local authorities to which I will refer on Committee Stage.

It is probable that the reason the Minister described it as urgent is the provision to increase the borrowing limit of the Housing Finance Agency from £1.5 billion to €6 billion. I support the Government's measure to increase the borrowing limit of the Housing Finance Agency and the use of such moneys to solve the housing problem. When I read the Bill first I confess I was a little surprised that the borrowing limit was being extended from £1.5 billion to €6 billion. Even the very radical measures which are advocated by the Labour Party, as distinct from the Government, to deal with the housing crisis would hardly reach €6 billion. My surprise was answered when I saw paragraph (c) of section 17 which makes clear that this increased borrowing limit is being introduced to provide moneys to local authorities “to be used by them for any capital purpose authorised by or under any enactment mentioned in the Schedule to this Act”. Not surprisingly, the Housing (Private Rented Dwellings) Act, the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Acts, the Waste Management Acts and the Water Supplies Acts, are listed in the Schedule. Under the camouflage of what it calls a Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, the Government is bringing a provision before the Dáil to increase State borrowing. The reason the Minister described the Bill as urgent in his introductory speech is that the Government is pretending one thing to the public and doing something else in reality when it comes to borrowing.

The Minister's colleague, the Minister for Finance, came into this House on budget day and like a conjurer held up a budget and said he had balanced the books and given us a budget and a Book of Estimates with no Government borrowing. Yesterday we had a Bill in relation to energy which provides for an additional €1 billion in borrowing; today we have the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill which provides for about €4 billion in additional borrowing. This Bill is not about housing at all; it is about providing a vehicle whereby the Government can borrow money to carry out the infrastructural programme that is badly needed.

The Labour Party agrees that we should borrow to carry out infrastructural projects and to implement the national development plan. In the next couple of months when we argue that point in the context of an election, people on the Government side of the House and their spin people will be the first up to the microphone to say the Labour Party is proposing borrowing. It is true that we propose borrowing for capital purposes but I wish to bring to the attention of the House that the Government in this Bill is borrowing, despite the fact that the Minister for Finance denied he was borrowing. The Government is continuing to pretend to the people that it is not borrowing funds.

It is a Bill which in reality has little to do with the housing crisis because its provisions will do nothing to address the immediate and real needs of people who cannot afford to buy a house or pay the exorbitant rents being charged in the private rented sector and who cannot feel secure in the flat or apartment they have rented because of the Minister's lack of legislation to provide protection for tenants, or people who are on council housing waiting lists. This Bill is giving a legislative basis to the shared ownership scheme, which is already in operation, and is providing a vehicle by which the affordable housing scheme can operate, which is already in operation albeit not very successfully. It gives local authorities the right to draw up some kind of priority system for the affordable housing scheme for which the Department of the Environment and Local Government has already issued guidelines and many local authorities have already gone ahead and implemented the scheme. In reality this Bill offers nothing new to deal with the housing crisis.

The Government describes itself as the longest serving Government in the history of the State. Through that time it has, by and large, enjoyed a good press, paid for by the taxpayers who must not only fund the normal public relations staff of Departments and Ministers but the various public relations agencies and consultants who are attached to Ministers and whose job is to spin the good news to the press in advance of announcements. This also covers some instances of public relations agencies who work for State agencies but who, in their off hours, appear to work as the private PR consultants of Ministers.

History will be very unkind to this Government. Every Government is remembered for some achievement or failure but this one will be remembered as the Government which put owning a home beyond the reach of the ordinary family. That historic achievement, if it can be termed such, has changed not only the nature of housing tenure in the State but it has changed Irish society fundamentally for at least a generation in the same way as British society was changed in the 1980s following the economic changes wrought by Mrs. Thatcher.

Until the Government took up office, home ownership had been the normal form of housing tenure and most young couples realistically aspired to owning their own home. In many cases council tenants graduated from renting to buying. Ireland had one of the highest levels of home ownership in Europe, at approximately 80%, and home ownership was the rock on which society was built. It was the aspiration to which the Government nominally subscribed on taking office when, in its Programme for Government, it declared as its objective the protection and promotion of the concept of home ownership.

However, when the Government took up office the average price of a house was €87,202, whereas, according to the latest figure, for September 2001, it is €169,191. Since the Government took up office, the average price of a new house has increased by 137 points on the house price index scale. In the same period, the consumer price index rose by only 20 points, from 113 at the end of 1996 to 133 in the third quarter of 2001; average earnings rose by only 35 points, from 121 in 1996 to 156 for the latest date for which figures are available and the cost of building index rose by only 49 points, from 116 at the end of 1996 to 165 in the third quarter of 2001. Under this Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government, house prices have risen by almost seven times the rate of inflation, by four times the rate of pay increases and, lest anyone think that the rise in house prices is due to the wages paid to bricklayers and building workers, by three times the rate of increase in the cost of building.

In practical terms this means that families on moderate incomes, who could afford to buy their own home when the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, and the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, took over responsibility for housing, can no longer afford to do so from their own resources. Such families include teachers, nurses, gardaí, factory supervisors and postal workers with some overtime. They are the people who are building the economy the Government is so fond of praising and their taxes are contributing to the increased revenues the Government has had available to it to deal with problems such as housing and other public services.

Some of these people eventually manage to buy a home of their own and they do so in three ways. First, they get financial help from their parents. A financial institution recently estimated that, typically, parents are now putting up €50,000 for a child buying his or her first home. This money comes from pension lump sums or savings. A price will eventually have to be paid for it because, understandably and generously, it is money which parents provide to enable their children get a toe on the house purchase ladder. It would otherwise have been used at a later stage in those people's lives for nursing home care and retirement. At some stage somebody else will pick up the tab.

The second way in which young people are managing to get their toe on the house purchase ladder is to saddle themselves with crippling mortgages. Responding to the demand from new borrowers and to increased house prices, lending institutions have changed their lending policies in the lifetime of the Government. It is ironic that when houses were affordable the lending institutions were much more restrictive about what they were prepared to lend. When I bought a house 20 years ago the maximum loan available was 2.5 times the principal income plus what was called the subsidiary income. Now, when houses are expensive, the lending agencies have a new maximum of three times the combined income. Almost every young family which took out a mortgage in the lifetime of this Government has locked itself into a 25 year financial commitment which, in many cases, they will not be able to afford if things go wrong, for example, if either of the partners gets sick, loses a job or some unforeseen financial obligations arise.

In view of the high mortgages, both partners in a relationship must work. High house prices have abolished the right of families to choose that one parent will remain at home with children, even for a limited period, typically when the children are small. The Government has abolished that option.

The Labour Party has always supported the right of everybody to work but the Government has gone a step further in making work for parents compulsory to pay the mortgage. If there was any doubt about the Government's intention, the taxation policies pursued by the Minister for Finance, when he introduced a tax regime penalising stay at home parents, have underlined its approach. All of this has created a new crisis in child care. Parents who must work to pay a mortgage must find somebody to mind their children. There is so much demand and such limited supply that they incur an enormously increased cost. In many cases – the third consequence of high house prices – the only house a couple can buy is some distance from their place of work or family networks.

In Dublin there is a new commuter belt. It extends to Gorey – the property pages of today's newspapers advertise new houses in Gorey with a map of the east coast showing how close it is to Dublin – Athy, Mullingar – the new suburban estates which can be seen when driving through Rochfortbridge – and Ardee and is contributing to the increased traffic and transport clog with which we are all familiar. It is also increasing wear and tear on the individuals who have to drive to and from work to these new far flung traffic congested suburbs. It is putting a strain on children who do not see their parents from very early in the morning until very late in the evening and on normal human and personal relationships. This is to be found, not only in Dublin, but in other cities also.

We hear much from planners and those who have an interest in planning about the 40% of dwellings built last year which were one-off housing. That one-off housing is built, not because of any intention on the part of those concerned to do something that is regarded as bad planning, but because it is the only way a couple who buy a site, three or four miles from a village or town, will be able to afford a home of their own.

It is some achievement for the Government that those whom we describe as the lucky ones, those who have been lucky enough to buy their own homes, have to get up at 6 a.m., leave their children to a minder at 7 a.m. spend three hours a day in traffic getting to and from work, return home at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. jaded and have little time to spend with their children or enjoy a normal relationship. They have no escape because of the cost of their mortgage. This is mortgage slavery. The Government, through its housing policies, has turned a generation into mortgage slaves. Those who have not been lucky enough to be mortgage slaves have no choice but to rent.

Let us look at the rental situation. Those who could buy their homes before the Government took office are now joining the queue for rental accommodation – students, temporary workers, single people and, in some cases, those waiting for local authority housing. Much attention has been paid to the lack of supply of private rented accommodation in respect of which I agree there is a problem. The reason such accommodation has become so expensive is that the demand side has also increased. The increase has been brought about by those who, before the Government took office, would have been able to buy a home of their own. The apartment or house which one could have rented for €500 per month, before mid-1997, now costs about €1,200.

On top of this the Government has failed to introduce any legislation to give protection to tenants. When the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, took office he could not see the problem. He ended up being embarrassed into establishing a commission on the private rented sector which reported to him in July 2000. He made a public statement that he would do something about the matter in September 2000 and announced in January 2001 that he would bring forward legislation to provide protection for private tenants which we have not yet seen.

In its report the commission on the private rented sector estimated that there were 135,000 private rented tenancies, an estimate it based on the figures available for 1997. Given what has happened to the housing market since 1997, there are 200,000 private rented tenancies in which about 400,000 people live. Unlike other countries, they live in an insecure regime where they can be evicted at a month's notice, where rents can be increased as often as a landlord wishes and, in some cases, they are evicted.

Eviction has always been an emotive issue. Evictions are a daily occurrence in this prosperous country of ours. Old private rented accommodation is being upgraded or sold. In some cases landlords believe they can get a higher rent from the next batch of tenants. Thousands of families have been evicted legally under the Government while a large number of illegal evictions have been well documented by Threshold in particular. It is some achievement for the Government that more Irish families have lost their homes through eviction in the five years it has been in office than in any corresponding period of the land war in the 19th century under the British.

These evictions have created the new homeless, typically a single parent with one or two children, who are accommodated temporarily in bed and breakfast accommodation. In some cases they are in such accommodation for 18 months or two years. Under this regime they have to be out in the morning by 10 a.m. They take their children to school and find something to do during the day. Sometimes they have a younger child whom they push in a buggy. They collect the children from school and find a place to occupy their time, such as a public park, go in and out of shops, perhaps visit a friend, until it is time to go return to the bed and breakfast accommodation at 6 p.m.

All of us who are parents know that there are holidays for two or three weeks and people have to live a mobile life where they manage children in buggies. Young mothers visit my advice centres with children in buggies who, understandably, are restless. I really do not know how they manage. They push a child from Billy to Jack for the entire day with little or no prospect of housing being provided for them. This is the new Ireland that the Government has created through its housing policies. I admire the fortitude of the parents of those children, but what are the social, educational and health consequences down the line for both parents and children who have to live in such conditions? The Government's housing policy has been a disgrace, testified to by the fact there were 26,000 applicants on local authority lists when it took office, yet when I asked the Minister with responsibility for housing for the current figure last week, he could not provide an answer. Either he does not know how many applicants are on the waiting lists or he will not tell us – I do not know which is worse. I estimate there are about 60,000 families on local authority waiting lists. The Taoiseach has admitted that the official programme of building 25,000 local authority dwellings under the PPF will not be met. It is time the Minister of State, the Minister and the Government were swept from office and a Government elected which will deal with the housing crisis.

With the permission of the House, I will share my time with Deputy Keaveney.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

There has been a great deal of vilification of the record of the Government on housing, some of which we have just heard from Deputy Gilmore. I compliment the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, and the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, for the way in which they have pushed out the boundaries on housing. I accept that not everything is perfect and much remains to be done. However, the Bill tries to address some of this. For example, it creates certainty about a number of schemes which was lacking heretofore.

I hope the Minister will be in a position to address a couple of my concerns about several schemes on Committee Stage. I welcome the opportunity to comment on the two schemes which are making a huge difference to home ownership. The shared ownership scheme, commonly known in Dublin as the 50/50 scheme, has been extraordinarily successful. The numbers availing of it are growing by the year and it is probably the most popular scheme in the Dublin City Council area. It gives people who would not otherwise own a house a sense of expectation of owning one. The scheme is open to individuals with an income of less than £25,000 and couples with an income of less than £62,500. Very large numbers of my constituents are availing of it.

I compliment the Minister and the Government on the introduction of the excellent affordable housing scheme. The site subsidy of around £30,000 made available by the local authority also assists many people to acquire their first home. I also have concerns about the scheme, one of which, the delay in progressing projects, I have previously raised in the House. Dublin City Council varied the 1991 development plan in 1998 to allow the construction of an affordable housing scheme of 106 houses in my constituency. Apart from the erection of boundary fencing at the site before Christmas, nothing else has happened and the site works have yet to be carried out. This raises a concern about the capacity of local authorities to deliver on schemes of this nature, and I ask the Minister to address this matter.

While I do not always agree with proposals emanating from the Labour Party, in this case I agree that serious consideration must be given to the proposal to set up a national housing agency to build houses. A system of faster delivery is needed. The backlog of cases on the housing lists would not be half as bad if we had a better delivery mechanism. Other problems associated with the shared ownership scheme are outside the Minister's remit. For instance, the extraordinarily long time it takes to process them through the legal system in terms of solicitors, conveyancing and land registration puts some people off participating.

It is possible that my concern about the issue of clawback as it relates to the sale of affordable and shared ownership houses is misplaced. The vast majority of shared ownership houses with which I have dealt are secondhand. In many cases people who buy into the scheme transfer to a standard building society or bank mortgage after three or four years because the interest rate is lower and they can buy out the local authority's equity and receive tax relief on the mortgage without penalty. Will the Minister clarify whether such transfers from the standard shared ownership to a bank or building society loan could be regarded as a sale and, therefore, subject to the clawback to which the early sections of the Bill refer? If that is the case, I ask the Minister to revisit the provisions.

I welcome the proposal on the selection of applicants for affordable housing. In Dublin City Council we have come up with a selection process which we believe to be about right. Under this template, 35% of applicants are selected on the basis that they live near the site, a further 35% are drawn from the general constituency and the remainder is selected from other areas in the Dublin region. Given the importance it attaches to the interests of community stability, this method should be treated as the template.

The introduction of the multi-annual approach, by which the allocation for local authority housing will be made every four years, is an excellent measure which most local authorities welcome. In Dublin, we are meeting and even exceeding our targets. However, because of land shortage in the city area, the only way to do so is to buy back houses. This raises a problem which, I suspect, may be unique to Dublin. Once the houses have been bought back, they are handed over to a private builder for refurbishment. Six months later, however, they are still unoccupied and boarded up, which means we cannot get them delivered fast enough. In my ward, Finglas, there are 23 or 27 houses – I stand open to correction on the figure – in this condition. Boarded up houses attract anti-social behaviour and their quality deteriorates. It bothers me greatly that perfectly good houses, which are well furnished and decorated and have aluminium windows and good kitchens, have to be torn apart to conform to building regulations and the directives of the Department. That matter needs to be addressed.

The Bill needs to address another housing issue affecting the Dublin region. Estate management and the responsibility of the local authority for matters such as common areas are covered. Under current legislation local authorities are able to take action in response to incidents of anti-social behaviour by tenants, but are powerless to do anything about tenant purchasers. While I agree that one should not be able to introduce measures retrospectively, is it not possible to ensure that future tenant purchasers are subject to the same local authority supervision and control as applies to tenants?

On the issue of common ownership, years ago in Dublin there was a practice of building maisonettes. Members are probably aware of a test case in Cork in which a long-term tenant is attempting to buy the maisonette in which he lives, but is being hampered by the inability of the local authority to find a way around the problems arising from the sale of a single maisonette in a block of tenancy dwellings. For example, how would it address the legalities of burst pipes or water leaking from a tenancy dwelling into a private dwelling? Will the Minister address this matter?

The Minister raised the matter of Traveller accommodation. A large number of Travellers live in and around my constituency, 99% of whom do not cause problems and are quite well settled. Many of them have asked me if Travellers can have the same type of letting agreement open to other people in local authority accommodation. I understand this is not the case. It causes problems as far as security of tenure is concerned. It also causes problems for the local authority in terms of acting against anti-social tenants. There were a number of court cases involving local authorities prior to Christmas but they are dead in the water unless some kind of provision is made in that area.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill. I would like the Minister to address the points I have made. I know they are very specific but they would add a further degree of certainty to the schemes, which are working well.

As a rural Deputy, I am glad to speak on the Bill after the contributions of so many Dublin Deputies. We may have the same difficulties of housing people in Donegal but the way we deal with them is slightly different.

The Minister must be commended on the unprecedented rise in the number of houses being provided, although there is more to be done. Since I last examined the statistics we have approximately €1.07 million in the budget for housing compared to £507,000 during the reign of the rainbow coalition, a three-fold increase. The facts speak for themselves. People are making an effort and the results can be seen, particularly in Donegal where there has been a 500% increase in the amount of money provided for housing. It can be seen on the ground also. When I first came into politics 16 years had passed since a house had been built in my home town, not unlike the situation around the peninsula. Since then estates have been built in Carndonagh, Buncrana, Moville, Greencastle, Clonmany, Culdaff, Gleneely and Newtowncunningham, and that is only in my own immediate patch. Council estates have been built or expanded in other areas. The turnkey projects are well supported and they have speeded up the process of getting houses built and occupied.

Water and sewerage infrastructure difficulties are not helping the situation but they are being addressed. Since this Government came into office, Muff sewerage scheme has been completed and with all the development a small village has developed into a large town. Carndonagh sewerage scheme is currently under construction, which is aiding investment in a town whose population had begun to decrease and which would then have suffered in terms of support for schools, shops, etc. I know that Malin town will be accommodated soon, possibly under an extension of the Carndonagh scheme, and Killea is being serviced under the serviced land initiative, another initiative of this Government. We will soon be pressing the Minister for money for the Moville and Greencastle sewerage scheme, which we had hoped to have in operation ten years ago but which for one reason or another did not happen. These projects are important given that these areas come under the town renewal scheme. I trust the Minister will also look favourably on the needs of the Buncrana phase 5 proposal, commonly known as the Aghilly scheme.

Initiatives have begun in the smaller towns also that need a serious level of support in the form of group sewerage schemes. I am thinking in particular of Ture and Ballyliffen. I am aware that the issue of pilot areas is being examined, but I ask the Minister of State to talk to his senior Minister about the concept of the group sewerage scheme grant which must be raised to that of the group water scheme. I am aware there have been discussions on the issue but with the proliferation of septic tanks and individuals coming together in groups, the group sewerage scheme would serve a useful purpose. It is important, therefore, that people at local level get the support they deserve but current funding does not deal with that reality. I ask the Minister of State to examine that issue again in terms of an immediate progression.

Water supply is also a major aspect in terms of housing provision. Turnkey projects and individual homes in my home town could not be progressed over the past two years due to a lack of water. That there can be a lack of such basic infrastructure in 2002 is daunting, but the problem is being addressed by the Government. When I first came into this House the areas around west Innishowen and the Lagan desert were without water but with an allocation of £32.5 million we have water in most pipes with serious progress being made on the remaining group schemes.

I look forward to the announcement on the rural water programme and to the delivery of more funding, particularly for east Inishowen, to overcome the problem of aged infrastructure and the difficulties created by the traditional loughs coming under pressure through new levels of building.

Huge developments, particularly in the Border region, are creating new towns on the sites of old established villages and I trust the Minister will help county councils in their quest to address the social and infrastructural issues created by such sudden growth. While this may be old news to the people of Dublin, it is a new world with which we have to come to terms.

I want to raise the issue of the new house grant. I am aware that everybody is complaining that if we raise the £3,000 to £10,000 it will go straight into the cost of building and to the developer, and not to where the money is needed, but with a bit of imagination and initiative it could be tied into mortgage relief or something that could be claimed back over a number of years. If it was increased it might encourage some people to make the effort to build within the terms of the grant because currently the grant is not an incentive to encourage people to build.

The changes in the disabled person's grant and the essential repairs grant are very important and I compliment the Minister on them. Housing aid for the elderly is the best scheme in relation to housing at present, although perhaps the ceiling should be raised. It is currently approximately £2,000 but it could be raised to about £4,000. Perhaps it is decided on a health board by health board basis. There can never be enough investment in the scheme because councils would be under more pressure to re-house people.

The housing aid for the elderly scheme should be expanded to accommodate widows. Widows who have experienced a sudden bereavement might not anticipate that work needs to be done on a house. They find themselves in a situation where their income has decreased but the house might need a new roof or new windows. Widows are a special case and their situation should be addressed.

I look forward to improvements in relation to specific instance houses which are well supported in Donegal, but co-ordination needs to improve. I congratulate the Minister for the Environment and Local Government on the grant aid he allocated to Donegal County Council for a number of one stop shops. There are so many sections in the council, whether it be in Lifford, Buncrana or Carndonagh, that the SI process can takes years. That should not be the case and I hope the one stop shop initiative will deal with that.

I look forward to the advancement of opportunities for devising a policy on couples without children, particularly single people and those who cannot get onto the council's priority list. The Bill will begin to address those types of issues, but I want to take this opportunity to congratulate all those involved in voluntary housing, whose contribution to society has been enormous. They have been able to address issues that councils have been unable to prioritise. That process was very well supported in terms of the initiatives from the Government and I would like to see this support continue. I am aware they have been doing excellent work in Donegal.

The multi-annual approach, which we talk about in almost every sector including health, housing, etc., has been excellent. County councils and urban councils should know a number of years in advance what their budgets will be because it gives them an incentive to draw down as quickly as possible the current year allocation with a view to progressing many of the schemes. Our own council is responding well to the moneys allocated to it.

Many of the answers to the housing problem lie in council housing schemes but a small minority of people living in council houses are either engaged in anti-social behaviour or do not look after the premises to the standard of the majority of the people in the estate, which can cause friction. The question of councils having sufficient manpower to inspect their estates, with the necessary back-up, should be examined. Support from health boards and a cross-departmental approach are often needed as the problem may not be solved by the council alone. Given the fact that manpower in the councils is at full stretch, other professionals may be needed. Policies in this area need to be examined with a view to tightening them up. I know that people sign tenancy agreements, but I am worried about what follows.

As the national spatial strategy is about to be concluded, I would hate to miss the opportunity to stress once more to the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, that County Donegal needs to be carefully considered. Deputy Gilmore complained about the fact that houses for commuters are being built in towns like Ardee, but access to Donegal is just as important.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Tom Hayes.

I was slightly surprised to hear that the number of completed units in 2001 had increased to about 50,000, as I thought the figure would be below that for 2000. Having said that, the figure would be even greater if the Government had not taken certain measures in recent years. House completions had been increasing at a good rate in the mid-1990s and the industry was gearing up for further developments. Following the Bacon report, however, the Government took steps which led to a decrease in housing supply, as they discouraged developers and builders. I do not wish to speak on behalf of developers, as they are well capable of putting their views across, but the Government must understand the importance of working with those involved in the industry. Those who try to understand developers sometimes have slurs cast upon them.

I wish to be constructive and not overly critical, but our housing system, which involves the Department of the Environment and Local Government working with local authorities, does not work. A national housing agency, similar to that in Northern Ireland, is required. The implementation of policies put in place by the Department cannot be supervised if it has to work with up to 80 local authorities. There are far too many housing authorities and it would be better if we at least restricted the number to one per county. This crazy situation is evident in the Bill which recognises the housing agencies in various towns. I am sure those involved with housing authorities would be disturbed to hear a politician say that their powers should be taken away, but I believe this duplication needs to be eliminated.

Deputy Keaveney quite rightly mentioned the housing aid for the elderly scheme, a worthwhile programme operated by the health boards. I would like to relate two instances of difficulty, however. I recently had to contact the South-Western Area Health Board about a document which had been sent to it last August by Wicklow County Council regarding a disability grant and discovered that there has been no examination of the application to date. I was told some weeks ago that about 645 applications for houses have been received by the South-Western Area Health Board. It is impossible for the health board to keep up with the applications it is receiving.

Deputies are aware that many houses are in poor condition and that some are without electricity, water or bathrooms. Local authorities and health boards do not operate a proactive system to identify those in substandard accommodation and usually find out only when contacted by a local politician, concerned priest or solicitor. My arguments are based on the areas I know best, but I assume the experience is not too dissimilar elsewhere. Those who are given houses are generally quite deserving, but far more deserving people sometimes suffer as a result of having nobody to speak for them. A proactive national housing authority, which can act directly without having to deal with local authorities and health boards, is needed.

I would like to make a few points in relation to the Bill. Previous speakers have referred to section 17, which does not seem to be in line with the rest of the Bill. It was discussed out of sequence in the Minister's speech and it is really a separate item, which does not belong in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill. It should have been given a Bill of its own or introduced in a different context. Perhaps I am misreading the section, but I am concerned that the cost of the provision of additional sewerage and other facilities will be passed on to developers or builders. If this is the case, areas which are deficient in such services at the moment will remain inferior. What businessman in his right mind will develop houses in an area where large levies have to paid as a contribution to a sewerage system or water facility, especially when developed sites are available? I read in a newspaper that the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, is the second longest serving Member of the House, so I am sure he will consider this matter if he has not done so already. The Government needs to ensure that there is a balance between those that have benefited in the past and those that have been neglected. I ask the Minister of State to clarify the matter when he concludes this Second Stage debate.

In relation to section 8, it is important that we do the right thing as regards affordable housing, as it is a matter that will cause great controversy in local areas. The Ombudsman's report some years ago stated that local authorities should impose a points system. While I understand that it is impossible to have a perfect system, a transparent system needs to be put in place so that people can understand how decisions are made. There will always be people who are disappointed when housing lists are compiled, but it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the reasons why certain decisions are taken. The Minister of State may argue that he has given guidelines to local authorities and that it is now a matter for them, but that, in itself, may be an example of how the system does not work.

Sections 9 and 10 deal with the situation that arises when houses people have bought from the State are sold a few months later. It is very important that regulations in this area are put on a statutory footing, so that nobody can be seen to benefit to an extreme extent from the State's decision to facilitate their housing needs. We should not allow such people to make a killing.

Section 11 deals with housing grants, which were introduced in the 1970s or 1980s to assist the building industry. If I was the Minister responsible for housing, I would abolish the housing grant. It is clear that the grant, which is for first time buyers, goes straight to builders. Only about one third of first time buyers are assisted in this way, however, as about two thirds of them buy second-hand houses. Deputy Keaveney said that we should consider increasing mortgage interest relief, which is probably the best way to assist first time buyers. As I believe that we need to be prudent, such an increase may be offset by decreasing the length of time of the relief from 20 years to 10 years, by limiting the relief and by making most payments in the first five years. These provisions would mean that the benefits of the grant would be felt right across the board by first time buyers, regardless of whether the house being bought is new or second-hand. I am not in favour of the grant as it is currently distributed. While I condemn the first time buyers grant generally, I welcome the fact that it is to be extended to separated persons. It is good that we recognise the difficulties faced by separated people.

Section 13 deals with data, information and research, areas in which we are very weak. I am sure the Department would admit that we have not had enough research, so it is good that these areas are to be strengthened. The Minister mentioned some of the amendments he intends to make on Committee Stage. It is surprising after all these years that Bills still undergo major changes on Committee Stage. I hope that certain elements of Deputy Olivia Mitchell's Bill in relation to temporary Traveller encampments can be taken on board, as it is important that we deal with them.

Deputy Pat Carey pointed out that 99% of Travellers are fine and integrate well. It is not necessary that they integrateper se, but they are well behaved. However, a small number of Travellers manipulate the system. Members are familiar with this practice in our constituencies and this should be dealt with.

Acting Chairman:

The Deputy's time is up.

I will take a few more minutes if Deputy Tom Hayes is agreeable.

That is agreed.

Deputy Brian Hayes introduced an anti-gazumping Bill and I think it was the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who expressed constitutional doubts about the legislation. In the debate I referred to a judgment by, I think, Mr. Justice Kenny who referred to an Article in the Constitution which dealt with the exigencies of the common good superseding individual rights. In a court case contesting the 20% social housing provision the Government defended the scheme on the basis of the exigencies of the common good while it had earlier used that principle to defeat the anti-gazumping Bill. I hope measures are introduced to deal with gazumping. It is crazy that we have so many housing authorities.

The rent subsidy scheme operated by health boards, to put it mildly, is being ripped off around the country. One bedroom flats in small towns are being let for £200 or £300 per week and the rent is paid for by the health board. It is often the case that these premises are not inspected and are of an inferior quality. I accept that this issue comes down to manpower and this goes back to my main point that the present system is unsatisfactory to deal with the housing issue. In conjunction with the Minister for Health and Children, will the Minister of State ensure that, at the very least, premises are inspected? Young couples, individuals and single mothers are living in atrocious conditions and the State is subsidising 90% to 95% of their rent. I do not deny these people the subsidy, but it is terrible that they are being subsidised to live in such conditions.

There is a great push on the part of local authorities to build housing units, but we must take account of quality and the social environment. The professions, particularly architects, argue for high density developments with 25 or 30 units per acre. We have to tread carefully and put money aside for playgrounds and parks. The day is gone when one could let kids wander up the fields. Children must have facilities nearby where they can be supervised by parents or whoever. It is important that we put such facilities in place. Many areas do not have such facilities and this has given rise to much social deprivation.

I refer to the manner in which the strategic planning guidelines are being interpreted by some councils. The Department is re-examining this issue, but one of the problems is that the guidelines issued for Kildare, Meath, Wicklow and Dublin are being interpreted differently by different authorities. This is not good enough. If a guideline is issued local authorities should know what they are supposed to be implementing. Wicklow County Council is interpreting the guidelines incorrectly and the Department should produce a definitive definition or bring in the county managers. I accept that this is a function of the members, but they received incorrect advice. I would not support that advice.

Under the tenant purchase scheme, a tenant buying a house in which he or she has lived for ten years or more gets 30% off the price. I presume this is the same throughout the country. We have to build in a claw-back system. I am sure the Minister of State has heard my earlier points, but I would ask him to take account of the many people who have lived in the same house for 20 or more years who only receive the 30% provision.

I am aware of someone who began renting a house in the late 1960s which cost £3,000 to build. There has been a dramatic rise in the cost of houses recently. People in their sixties whose children may have a steady job for the first time and who wish to buy their house which is now valued at £80,000 or £90,000 only get one third off that price. A neighbour may have bought a similar house five or six years ago for £15,000, but they now have to pay £50,000 which they cannot afford. Will the Minister of State examine the possibility of a scheme whereby those who have lived in a house for 20 or more years would get two thirds off the price if they wished to buy it? Such a scheme would have to include a strong claw-back arrangement to ensure that the house is not sold the following day. Many families are caught in a trap and cannot buy their houses due to the increase in value. When replying to the debate will the Minister of State give some indication of whether he will examine this issue?

I thank Deputy Timmins for sharing time and I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Housing is a major issue. Deputies who are members of local authorities deal on a weekly basis with the housing needs of constituents, whether young or old.

Many Members can identify with the issues raised in this debate. One of the important issues is the slow pace at which developments proceed. We must urgently address the delay from the time the Department allocates money to a local authority to the day when people can take up residence. This delay adds to people's hardship and frustration and this is the case with small and large schemes. If the Minister of State takes one message from this debate I hope it is the frustration caused by the delay from planning stage to the moment when residents move in. I would be interested to know the average length of time involved in such developments.

We need more housing due to the fact that this is a rapidly developing country with many young people. There has also been a change in society in that there are now more single parent families. At a recent council meeting in my area it was pointed out that 400 to 500 people are being investigated for or are on the housing waiting list. However, the council is only building about 60 houses which is significantly less than the number required. This issue goes back to my point about the speed at which we are building such houses.

One of the main elements of the Bill concerns the shared ownership scheme. However, many people and local authority members find the scheme cumbersome and difficult. Deputy Gilmore referred to the number and cost of houses being built in Bray and the counties surrounding Dublin. I have spoken on many occasions in the House about the building of an increasing number of houses on the east coast, particularly in the counties surrounding Dublin. We must address this issue urgently. I am aware of beautiful three bedroom houses in towns in Tipperary which cannot be sold for £100,000. These houses would sell for much more in the east. When discussing the overall development of the country we must address the locations at which houses are being built.

Several local authorities are drawing up plans for villages. There is no point in drawing up plans for houses unless sewerage schemes are put in place. All too often I have come across cases where villages have plans for sewerage schemes which will take years to establish. As well as housing developments and schemes, back-up facilities such as water and sewerage are required. Developers, councils or voluntary bodies may then develop those schemes. There can be no developments without back-up facilities.

A key area which is not under the jurisdiction of the Minister but that of the Department of Health and Children is the housing aid for the elderly scheme. That should be administered by the Department of the Environment and Local Government. It could have an immense impact on many old people. I have come across people who have no toilet facilities or proper doors and windows. To have these houses upgraded, so that they could be passed on to grandchildren, for example, would take some pressure off the housing market. I intend to address this issue on another occasion.

I wish to share time with Deputy Haughey.

The economic boom we have experienced in the past few years has brought a variety of benefits. However, there were also unpleasant consequences. This housing Bill is an attempt to rectify some of the consequences of the spiralling price of housing. The Bacon report has considered the issue. I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, on the way he has handled this issue during the term of this Government. He has been proactive in terms of considering ways and means for young people, in particular, to have the opportunity to own their own homes. This Bill is another step in the right direction. At one stage the prices of houses in Dublin and Cork and all over the country were spiralling out of control. Potential first-time purchasers were not in a position to buy their own homes. For a while we had to drive the investor out of the market so that reality could be restored. Having done that, we can now be satisfied that common sense has been restored and house prices have dropped steeply.

The provision of affordable housing is significant as it will bring about a proper social mix in our estates. Obviously there is resistance to that. People will want to know whether there is social housing provided or to be provided in their estates. They might prefer that there was not. However, as time goes on, we all have a responsibility to the communities to be up-front in promoting social housing and in persuading builders and landowners and everybody else involved to be sensitive to the needs of young couples who want to buy their own homes.

Deputy Timmins mentioned rent subsidies. My understanding was that we were to transfer, some time ago, the responsibility for rent subsidies from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of the Environment and Local Government. This would be right and proper, because most people who receive rent subsidy are on the housing list. If that were the case, they would be subject to investigation by the housing inspector, their needs would be assessed and they would be visited in their current dwellings. Inspectors could examine the state of the property being rented and would be aware that the property was rented and should be registered. They would also ensure the standard of rented accommodation was in keeping with the social needs of tenants. Under the present scheme, whereby the community welfare officer from the health board is approached because of rent, he or she is usually not in a position to inspect the accommodation due to the size of his workload. I call on the Minister to accelerate the process.

Some Members are also finding that many private property owners will not rent to people who are receiving a rent supplement. This may be because they have not registered due to the income tax difficulties involved. We now have a mechanism whereby we can overcome this difficulty once and for all and whereby everybody in the rented housing sector can be compliant. I compliment the Government on its budget provisions which encourage the investor back into the housing market. It did not make sense to be sending millions of pounds to Spain or to the UK. While the measures that were taken were needed at the time to restore reality, the Government reacted quickly and strongly to arrest immediately the spiralling increase in house prices. As a result of its measures, the investor has now been restored to the market, which will mean that rents, due to the plentiful supply of rented accommodation, will not be as high as they have been. The take-up for housing, according to many house builders, has accelerated since the budget. It is to be hoped that we will soon have more and cheaper accommodation for everybody.

The issue of housing density will also need to be addressed. While Bacon suggests that there should be higher density in housing and that we should consider European models, there can be problems with this. For example, there may be a green space zoned for development which is surrounded by houses at the traditional density of eight to the acre. It will be difficult for the immediate community to accept the building of apartments at a density of 14 to 16 to the acre. They will be concerned because of the lack of privacy. Instead, we should take a sensible approach. The possibility of a new development interfering with the privacy of existing houses, some of whose residents may have been there for many years, should be taken into consideration. In many of the older estates, as a result of the Celtic tiger and the massive increase in the number of cars on the road, car-parking facilities are inadequate. Some of the residents of older estates are in contact with Members on a regular basis, asking whether some green area can be removed to provide parking.

Local authorities will be faced with a problem. The Bacon report recommends increased density but the parking accommodation that is going to be part and parcel with that high density is not on a par with it. We appear to be reducing the car parking spaces while we are increasing density. Obviously there is a very good reason for that but it is posing problems where one does not have effective public services in tandem with it. I would have thought high density would ensure increasing numbers of people would leave their cars at home to use the public service but, unfortunately, we have not arrived at that situation yet.

The housing aid for the elderly scheme is outstanding. I compliment the Minister on the fact that he saw the common sense in increasing the budget to this sector in each of the last five years. In doing that he has brought great comfort to many elderly people around the country, be it in the provision of a front door, a window or sanitary facilities. That scheme is most worthwhile and I exhort the Minister to ensure the budget for it continues to be increased on an annual basis.

A problem is posed in regard to the disabled person's grant. In order to allocate a disabled person's grant an occupational therapist has to ensure that the person qualifies for it, but due to the lack of occupational therapists there is a major delay in having the merits of the case examined. That is not something we are going to overcome in the short term but we should look at how we might speed up the process to prevent the delays that are currently being experienced.

I welcome this Bill in that it brings forward a number of measures to improve the housing situation. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, when dealing with the planning and development legislation in 1999 in this House said the following:

The provision of adequate housing for all members of society has been a major issue of public policy for Governments of all shades since this State gained its independence. It has further been a traditional aim of Government to facilitate people in buying their own homes where this is possible. This has had a stabilising effect on Irish society and home ownership is an aspiration which the vast majority of people hold dear. This Government will continue to support that aspiration but the State also has as responsibility to assist those who cannot afford to house themselves in the market. This has been done through the provision of local authority or other social housing. Part V of this Bill is designed to underpin these two planks of our housing policy.

That summarises the Government's policy in relation to housing and I wholeheartedly support it. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, for getting that legislation on the Statute Book. He was opposed by powerful interests, including the building and construction industry. He was also opposed in this House by Fine Gael. He persisted with Part V of the Bill, which deals with the preparation by local authorities of housing strategies and brings forward the 20% social and affordable housing provision. The constitutionality of this section was tested in the Supreme Court and the Minister won the argument. I congratulate him—

He won the argument and lost the battle.

—because that 20% social and affordable housing provision is the cornerstone of how we are going to deal with the housing problem we have today. It is being implemented slowly but surely.

In regard to the housing situation in the greater Dublin area, I wish to refer to the strategic planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area for 1999 and also to the high density strategy put forward by the Department. This aims to avoid a sprawling city, to deal with traffic problems and so on. We need to implement these policies with caution, because they can pose a threat to some of our traditional neighbourhoods. We need to utilise the protected structures' provision of the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1999, but more particularly we need to utilise to a much greater extent the architectural conservation areas' provision in the Planning and Development Act, 2000 in order to save our trad itional communities from high density developments that are very often of poor quality and out of character with the surrounding streetscape.

Dublin City Council, having regard to these guidelines, is now preparing a north fringe action area plan in which I as a representative of Dublin North Central will be particularly interested. I congratulate it on its plan. In implementing these guidelines a massive new housing development is proposed for the north fringe of the city taking into account public transport availability and so on. Private housing will be provided as well as social and affordable housing. That will go a long way towards meeting the accommodation needs of my constituents. I wholeheartedly welcome it and look forward to a speedy construction of these houses.

The position in Dublin City Council regarding the shared ownership loan scheme is that the maximum value of a house allowed to be purchased under this scheme is £140,000. The council will also allow an applicant to put a £10,000 gift on top of that bringing the permitted value up to £150,000. These increases were only announced over the past year or two. Unfortunately the scheme is hopeless from a Dublin point of view, having regard to house prices here. Very few people can avail of it because they simply cannot find a house within the permitted price range.

There is a very serious situation with regard to the disabled person's grant. The problem lies with the delay in the processing of applications in Dublin City Council. Applications that were made last September still have not been acknowledged. In 2001 there were 674 applications for the essential repairs grant and 1,692 applications for the disabled person's grant. The council now says it needs to prioritise the applications because of the backlog and has suggested it will only deal with applications from terminally ill people. That is an absolute disgrace. Will people have to submit medical evidence to show they are terminally ill before their application will be dealt with? I urge the Minister to intervene with Dublin City Council to sort out this scandal. In many cases people were dead by the time permission was granted to build their necessary extensions or downstairs toilet facilities or whatever. This is totally unacceptable.

The scheme for affordable housing is very good and must be implemented without delay. I am not sure if many houses have been provided under this scheme in the Dublin City Council area. It will be very popular once it is up and running. Dublin City Council has prepared its scheme of priorities to allocate these houses but until we get these houses constructed the scheme will not be particularly useful. We need to move without delay to get houses constructed under this scheme.

I call on the Minister to initiate a review of a number of schemes: the essential repairs grant, the disabled person's grant, the new house grant and the housing aid for the elderly scheme run by the health boards. There are many inconsistencies between these various schemes which could all be brought together in one new targeted home improvement grant scheme. Such a new scheme could be much more flexible in dealing with the real needs of people. I suggest that is particularly urgent. Any new scheme should focus in on the elderly, especially with regard to the provision of heating. That is a serious issue for elderly people and I do not think the existing schemes deal with it adequately.

I pay tribute to the role of voluntary housing associations. The Minister has supported and encouraged these in many ways over the last few years. Several voluntary housing associations operate within my constituency of Dublin North Central such as Sonas, HAIL, ALONE, NAFCO and Respond!, all of which provide first class accommodation for people. I welcome the support and encouragement which the Department of the Environment and Local Government and the local authorities have given to those associations. I suggest there is great scope to develop and promote this sector further with new initiatives.

Social integration was referred to. This is particularly relevant in the context of the provision for 20% social and affordable housing. We should be under no illusions that this will be resisted fiercely when we try to implement it in our communities. At present, local authorities often buy back houses for social accommodation and if the community gets to know about it there is opposition. We need to explain the provisions of the Planning and Development Act in this regard and encourage social integration. It has been found to be constitutional and I believe public representatives have a role to play in accommodating that provision so that all our citizens can find suitable and adequate accommodation.

I welcome the Minister's comments on Second Stage yesterday with regard to Traveller dealers and traders. This has become a huge issue, particularly in the greater Dublin area. These Traveller dealers and traders cause a great deal of annoyance when they move in and take over private areas and the only way of moving them is by means of a High Court injunction. Very often, the proprietors will not take that course because of the expense involved. Accordingly, I totally support the Minister's initiative in this regard. We really need to ensure there are adequate laws in place to deal with this very serious issue in suburban areas.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. If the Minister's approach to the provision of extra funding is genuine, then it is welcome. It will benefit some people who currently have no hope or opportunity of providing a home for themselves. However, I see nothing in the Bill or the present combination of programmes and measures to solve one of the greatest current scandals, namely, homelessness. One can walk from Leinster House in any direction after nine o'clock any evening and practically fall over many unfortunate people who live in doorways along the streets, in cardboard boxes or similar makeshift material. That phenomenon here in Dublin is replicated elsewhere, including the Minister of State's home city of Galway. What is in this Bill or in all the measures which the Minister of State has mentioned that will in any way touch the lives of those people or their prospects of getting a home of their own? Sadly, I have to answer "Nothing" and I greatly regret that.

With regard to affordable housing, what does "affordable" mean? The concept is very welcome, but what confidence has the Minister of State about the delivery of affordable housing throughout all the local authority areas? Based on my own experience, there is a hesitancy, a lack of experience and a big question mark as to whether, if local authorities build or acquire such housing, they will be able to get people to take them up. Why do local authorities ignore the housing lists? For some reason, there is a hesitancy which I cannot understand. As Deputy Haughey mentioned, were it not for the voluntary agencies leading the way and the recognition of those endeavours by the Minister of State's Department, the concept of affordability in housing would be very limited indeed. The wonderful projections for the period of the NDP in the Minister's opening statement mean nothing. They are absolutely unachievable. The Minister of State may disagree but the reality is that there is a lack of determination to deliver results. What has he done to push local authorities to get down to providing the required housing? Galway County Council has 200 people on the waiting list and that figure is increasing rapidly because of the unaffordability of private housing.

Because of the downturn and lack of confidence in the building industry in recent months, partially completed private housing developments have been lying unsold. Uncertainty reigned and nothing happened. The developers are now downloading large housing estates to local authorities. I had regarded it as encouraging that local authorities were changing from the system of large estates to smaller, more manageable and more intimate group housing developments. That trend is now being reversed. Under severe financial difficulties, developers have to off load to local authorities. In some cases local authorities have to buy out people who may have entered into contracts for some of the properties in large estates in order to bring the entire estate into the social and affordable housing category. By going back to the system of large housing estates, we are increasing the problems that we were trying to get away from. I ask the Minister of State to undertake a thorough investigation of what is happening in that regard.

Some backbenchers on the Government side of the House spoke in glowing terms of the 20% social and affordable housing provision, but in reality there is double-speak. Back in their own local authorities they are saying it will not work. They are first in line to object to social housing. The Minister of State knows them. The barriers which they have put up against the plans and schemes which the Minister of State is putting in place are well publicised.

I also wish to refer to the part played by the planning sections of local authorities with regard to housing in general and particularly in relation to social and affordable housing. Every barrier possible has been put in place. I am a member of a local authority. One of the first town development plans to be completed was for Loughrea. The scathing letter sent by the Minister of State's Department to those members who participated in the implementation of the development plan for Loughrea – it is on the record and the Minister should read it – is contradictory to what is happening.

Bureaucracy gone mad.

We were rapped on the knuckles for the outrageous amount of land being proposed. Why? We designated land in Loughrea for commercial, industrial, residential and amenity rezoning. It was the first time land in Loughrea had been rezoned for amenity and recreational development. The reality is that Galway is encroaching on the county boundaries. It is acquiring land in the county area for industrial rezoning. Despite decentralisation IDA Ireland does not have, in its landbanks, any land in Loughrea for the location of new industrial developments. The Minister continues to say that we cannot designate land for industrial development. The Department is operating in a confused manner and must be co-ordinated. The message filtering down to local authorities is also confusing. What can they do? Should they leave things in abeyance or let them progress without focus?

It is regrettable that an opportunity was missed to locate industry in areas which previously had none. Such a move would have brought additional housing and all the other facilities needed for the proper and planned development of any community. Without proper structures, co-ordination and organisation the Department will not be able to meet the Government's plan to develop 41,000 units during its lifetime in Government. It is unachievable.

On housing grants, if anyone in the Department understood the reality of life for young people building houses—

Hear, hear.

—he or she would examine the futility of the current restrictions under the new house grants scheme. It is useless. Perhaps the Minister will supply the statistics for those applying for the new house grant. How many such people are there? There has been a sharp decline in this area over the past ten years. A grant of £3,000 is meaningless given the overall cost of building a house. No one will stay within the floor area limits required for eligibility for the grant because the cost of building an extension at a future date will be enormous. The Minister should abandon the grant or increase it substantially. Every couple who buy or build houses of their own free up a place on the housing waiting list. That list is, unfortunately, growing each day because of the inability of many couples to provide housing for themselves. Over the past five or ten years there has been an easing in the availability of loans for young people and a resulting buoyancy in new house building. However, we have stepped back five years in the past couple of months and that is unacceptable.

On spatial strategy, restrictions are being imposed by planners and consultants who are feeding off the Department. We are aiding and abetting the depopulation of rural Ireland. That is the reality whether we accept it. I do not know if that is what was intended by those who think of spatial strategy as fully orientated in a Pale mentality. They do not think beyond Dublin or a few miles outside it.

Most of our time as public representatives and local authority members is taken up pleading with planners who are not in tune with what is needed. I am not asking for willy nilly planning. I have great confidence in some aspects of our planning. It is a futile exercise to implement a spatial strategy in Donegal, Kerry or the west which is orientated to a Dublin scene. The Minister of State may have time remaining to him to stop the rot and redirect those who are causing this hardship.

Time is running out.

Very much so but it is never too late.

The Minister of State should substantially increase the floor area within which people can build and be eligible for the grant. People are not building mansions, they are simply liveable units. We were all restricted by resources in the past. People are now prepared to invest in comfort for themselves and their families and they need recognition for providing their own houses.

I very much welcome the facility whereby a person leaving a local authority house is very generously recognised by the Department in the changeover to providing their own home. I cannot, however, reconcile that with the position of those who undertake to provide their own home, at great demand to their income, in the first instance. People leaving local authority houses and providing themselves with new homes receive £9,000, yet those buying their first homes receive only £3,000. That is unjustifiable. The Minister should substantially increase the new house buyer's grant – Deputy Haughey referred to this earlier.

As a member of a health board, I very much appreciate the housing grant for the elderly. There is a great need, because of the profile and structure of the population in the west, to respond generously and the Minister has made a positive response in that regard which I gratefully acknowledge. It is probably the best scheme in terms of value and I will explain why. A health board issues an application form which is subsequently processed and the person is told to get estimates for completion of the work. The person should make sure the contractor doing that work has a C3 and that their taxes are in order. Then the job is done with a cost-effective return. Unfortunately, if one compares that with any of the schemes operated by the local authority one gets into the realm of red tape as highlighted by many Deputies in past few days. Many people, including engineers, medical people, observers, overseers and goodness knows who else must come out to examine things. Why must there be such delays in the process? Very often, and very tragically, the applicant is dead before the work is carried out.

These are good schemes in so far as they upgrade living conditions for people. We are talking about people with disabilities, who are protesting outside Leinster House today, and people who have suffered the trauma of waiting for basic facilities to be provided by the local authority because of the uncertainty of grants and money available to them. They are entitled to that money as of right and the delay is humiliating to them and to their spouses or siblings who look after and care for them in all instances.

A previous Fianna Fáil led Government disbanded the reconstruction grant scheme that was in place a few years back. The first thing Fianna Fáil did when it came into Government was to disband the scheme. It rings hollow in my ears when I hear backbench Fianna Fáil Deputies calling for its introduction. They are doing so because there is an election in the offing and they want to be all things to all people. Yet they were the people who disbanded these very good schemes. Not only were they good schemes but they improved the housing status for many throughout the country, particularly in rural Ireland.

It is no justification to say the scheme had to be abandoned because it cost too much due to doctors, solicitors and Deputies securing new windows and doors for people. Was there no facility to correct the anomalies in the scheme while allowing it to continue as an important support to the many people who wanted to upgrade their housing? This is important and I support all the calls from the Government benches for a new reconstruction grant scheme. However, it rings hollow when I know that the same Deputies sup ported the abandonment of that scheme a few years ago.

They did.

They certainly did.

It was an act of vandalism.

I want the Minister to say whether he will investigate the purchase of these semi-abandoned schemes that the developers could not proceed with, and whether he will now purchase them under a turnkey scheme or under this affordable housing scheme. If we are to succeed in the delivery of anything like the number the Minister spoke of, there has be to be an enthusiastic push from the Department towards the local authorities to say that we are confident we can deliver houses for the people who want them. The €6 billion to be provided during the lifetime of that plan, if delivered, is to be welcomed, but it will never come to fruition unless there is leadership in the housing sector. The Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Molloy, has failed to lead that initiative to deliver on the ground.

(Wexford): I thank the Chair for the opportunity to speak on the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill. It gives us an opportunity to talk about housing and the needs of so many people. I will not call for the re-introduction of the house improvements scheme but I would like the essential repair grant, which is a worthwhile scheme covering re-roofing and chimney repairs etc., extended to include windows and doors where there is a genuine need for them, particularly amongst old people and in old houses. Currently the scheme, while worthwhile, is very rigid. Many county councils say it is only available to those aged 65 and over. That system needs to be loosened up because we already have housing aid for the elderly which covers people aged 65 and upwards. I understand that in some counties the county managers or the housing officers are very flexible while in others they are very strict on the 65 year age limit. That needs to be seriously examined.

Every county, including Wexford, needs a plentiful supply of housing for those on the local authority housing list. The duplication on local authority housing lists between urban and county councils sometimes baffles me. It smacks of laziness by local authorities which are not able to sort out whether people are on dual lists. I know of recent cases where people who came before a council for re-housing had already bought their own houses or had been re-housed by another local authority. It is necessary to examine how to keep a list relevant to what is happening at a particular time. Local authorities, particularly housing officers, need to be prodded and poked to make sure the list is as it should be and is not exaggerated because of laziness.

In relation to rent subsidies, which were mentioned by a number of speakers and are an essential part of looking after those in need of re-housing, I have serious concerns about them being paid to landlords who provide substandard houses and flats while charging exorbitant rates. In the small town of Enniscorthy it is now £125 per week to rent and, in some cases, one would not put a dog in the type of place available. The health board subsidises this although it may have no choice. However, the standard of housing provided by landlords needs to be inspected on a regular basis and landlords need to be forced to spend some of the exorbitant profits they make from tenants on bringing their property up to date. It is an area that should be seriously looked at.

I know that if builders presented 20% of their land for affordable housing, they got higher densities. However, we must also consider the need for playgrounds and play parks. Rather than calling for the introduction of grants for house repairs, there should be grant aid available to local authorities for the provision of playgrounds. At the moment, Enniscorthy Urban Council is in the process of building a playground that will cost in the region of £70,000. It is only a small playground because of the cost of equipment. There should be grant aid from the Department of the Environment and Local Government to help the local authority because small local authorities are not in a position to provide the number of playgrounds needed in large extended urban areas. I understand that something like this was mooted by the Minister last year but never got under way, and I urge him to look at it.

Planning permission is a big issue with every member of a local authority at the moment. The Minister will probably reply that the development plan belongs to the local authority, and it is true that was the case in my area when Wexford County Council passed the county development plan last July. However, its interpretation by five different planners in the county is ridiculous. In one part of the county the planning officer will grant planning permission for a single house but in another part such permission will not be granted. They will not allow brick, dormer, two-storey or bungalow house. Planning is a joke at present. There is no doubt that many people are going on to the housing lists because they have been refused planning permission. It may not be within the remit of the Minister of State to do anything about it but county managers and key planning officers must be more consistent.

An Taisce should be added to that list.

(Wexford): Most of the planners are only out of college. They are very talented but they are unaware of the practicalities on the ground. Some rural areas are being turned into wildlife reserves because no one is allowed to live in them. The Government talks about rural renewal and development and keeping people in rural areas while the planners make sure very few people will live there in the future.

In Enniscorthy, in an estate called Andy Doyle Close, which I call the one-stop-shop of housing estates, there are private sites, affordable housing, social housing and private housing in one complex, as well as land purchased by Enniscorthy UDC. It is a tremendous scheme that could be copied in other places. The people who live in the Respond voluntary housing schemes and other such schemes are unable to buy their houses and they are annoyed about this.

Wait until the new Respond schemes are unveiled.

(Wexford): I do not blame the Minister because other Ministers have also examined this matter but I would like to know what is the problem. Another problem for the voluntary housing sector is the delay in getting schemes off the ground. There are obstacles in the Department.

Several of them.

(Wexford): Projects are approved by councils but rejected by the Department. It is not entirely the fault of the Department because there is a lack of knowledge in certain councils as to what the Department will accept for voluntary housing. A circular defining what is acceptable to the Department of the Environment and Local Government should be published and distributed.

There is no doubt that this is a worthwhile scheme. There are 150 houses in Enniscorthy that have been built by voluntary organisations and they complement the local authority lists. Wexford is one of the better counties for building houses. In a housing report published by the Department of the Environment and Local Government in September, it was stated that in 1999 132 houses were completed in Wexford while in 2001 there were 250 completions, an increase of 100%.

The Government is making money available for the building of houses but it is important that local authorities look for available land. When Enniscorthy UDC or Wexford County Council looks for money to build houses there is never a problem if the schemes are ready. The two local authorities will allocate 50 houses by the end of April and there are plans with the Department for another 50 houses. If the schemes are prepared and planning permission granted, the Department will grant the money, and I thank the Minister for that.

The new house grant of £3,000 has been mentioned. Unlike most Deputies in the House, I do not think this should be increased. Most people who come to me are looking for planning per mission for a new house of 2,500 or 3,000 square feet. Everyone wants to build a mansion these days even though the average sized family consists of a husband, wife and two children. When I tell someone that will cause the loss of the grant, they are not worried. Perhaps the Minister will adjust the new house grant to cover second-hand houses. People who buy second-hand houses are at the lower end of the income scale and a second-hand house grant of £3,000 would be a major help. I would not, however, be in favour of increasing the new house grant because no one wants to avail of it – that is obvious from the size of the houses they are building.

Housing aid for the elderly, the disabled person's grant and the essential repairs grant are all worthwhile but there are delays in getting these schemes off the ground. In recent years there have been problems finding builders because there are so many large scale housing developments throughout the State that builders do not want to do small jobs anymore. It has been difficult, therefore, to get the two or three quotations upon which the council has insisted. This area should be streamlined and made more easily available to people.

There are major problems in county councils in relation to the disabled person's grant. To get an occupational therapist to examine the needs of a person takes a long time while to get the area engineer to come out is nearly impossible. These are people who may require an extension or a change of bathroom facilities because of disability. It is vital they are not kept waiting.

When a builder completes a scheme he hands it over to the council, and that is an efficient way to make housing available. There are, however, problems within the Department with the types of schemes and some problems in local authorities about how this should be done. A combination of turnkey schemes, affordable housing, social housing and private sites can make inroads into the difficulties we are experiencing.

Many councils in the 1970s and 1980s acquired substantial land banks but these are now running out. The county managers and directors of services feel a reluctance to purchase land because of high costs. If they do not buy it this year, it will be more expensive next year and certainly more expensive the year after that. If the Government is returned to power, it will encourage local authorities to buy as much land as possible. Land banks are an essential part of the house building programme and the Minister should put pressure on the councils to purchase land that is available.

I thank the Minister for the opportunity to raise these issues and hope he will take them on board. I thank him for the number of housing starts made in Enniscorthy in the past few years.

Debate adjourned.