I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Notwithstanding the magnitude of the domestic and international recession and the resulting first priority of Government to stabilise the public finances, we must continue to plan for the future. In a housing context, this preparation involves, among other issues, the provision of a modern and appropriate legislative framework to allow local authorities to carry out their functions as housing authorities. Central to that work is a requirement to provide authorities with the tools to assess the need for housing in a fair and transparent manner, to plan how that need can best be met; and ultimately deliver and manage housing stock in a sustainable, efficient and cost effective manner.
Housing is an issue that affects everyone and is critical to the wellbeing of the economy. In these turbulent days, we are all only too familiar with the issues arising in the housing sector — not least the human dimension of the steep downturn we are experiencing. This places a spotlight on our public policy and finances. Are we getting value for money from our investment? Are we efficient and effective and, most importantly, are we protecting the more vulnerable sections of our society?
The priority afforded by the Government to housing has been clearly articulated in several important strategic documents including Towards 2016, the National Development Plan 2007-13 and the Government's statement on housing policy, "Delivering Homes. Sustaining Communities". We have made progress in implementing the commitments in these strategies.
The increased investment by Government has allowed for both an expansion and diversification in housing support. All the indications available to us at this stage would suggest that 2008 will be another year of significant delivery under the main housing programmes. Expenditure in 2008 on social and affordable housing totalled some €2.4 billion and it is estimated that the needs of some 19,500 households were met in that period.
I expect that the total Exchequer provision for housing in 2009 will be almost €1.6 billion and while this represents a reduction on the record provision of €1.7 billion in 2008, it is a good outcome in the current circumstances. However, even small scale reductions present challenges for us and for local authorities in maintaining levels of activity. We must, therefore, be creative about how we use the available resources, particularly in light of the 2008 housing needs assessment which has shown a substantial increase in net need.
One way or the other, the extent of current housing need demands flexible and imaginative responses, which can be tailored to take account of changes in our operating environment. The initiative I announced recently whereby long-term lease arrangements would be used for social housing purposes is one such response. Targeting the right accommodation in the right locations will be crucial. Having met these criteria, leasing will provide an opportunity for local authorities to get more for less — to take advantage of the greater value to be had in the current market and the stock of available units. At this time more than any other, the alignment of our social and economic objectives is vital and the deployment of units for leasing, including unsold new stock, will address a real social need while helping Ireland Inc. in a particularly difficult period.
The body of legislation on housing dates back more than 40 years and has developed on a piecemeal basis. This Bill will provide greater clarity and transparency to underpin the housing service of the future. It will give effect to the programme of social housing reform measures outlined in "Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities". It will provide a modern framework for the delivery and management of social housing taking account of the life cycle approach and the objective of delivering sustainable homes and communities.
Specifically, the Bill will provide for a more strategic approach to delivery and management through the use of housing services plans; a more objective basis for assessing need and making allocations; and a more developed statutory basis for the rental accommodation scheme. It will also provide the legislative framework for the incremental purchase scheme and for the adoption by housing authorities of strategies to address anti-social behaviour.
The Bill, as passed by Seanad Éireann, is set out in four parts with 44 sections and three schedules and I will refer in some detail to the main provisions.
With the exercise of any function it is crucially important that the structures and administrative tools are in place to guide strategic and operational activities. Part 2 outlines, for the first time, the range of functions of housing authorities. The Bill does not alter the basic distribution of functions across the different levels of local government but it does provide for better planning and integration of services by providing for housing services plans, which take a broader strategic perspective at county and city level. The Bill makes it clear that the key function of housing authorities is to provide a housing service. As section 10 outlines, this service comprises a range of different housing supports including social and affordable housing, management, maintenance and regeneration.
Sections 12 and 13 deal with funding issues. Section 12 replaces section 15 of the Housing Act 1988, listing the various types of support for which grants or subsidies may be provided by the Exchequer. Section 13 deals with resources available to local authorities from sales or clawbacks and provides that these should be placed in a single fund to be used for housing purposes with the prior approval of the Minister.
Sections 14 to 18 are at the core of strategic planning and operational delivery of housing services, as defined in section 10. They deal with the making, by local authority members, of housing services plans and with the preparation, by managers, of housing action programmes to implement these plans.
The housing services plans will provide a strategic focus for the planning of housing services, including delivery and ongoing management. The plans build on the multi-annual housing action plans introduced on an administrative basis in 2004. These proved to be a useful tool for the integrated planning of services. Placing them on a statutory footing will provide the necessary framework for engagement with the elected members and will also provide a link to work undertaken in preparing housing strategies in the context of development plans.
Under section 14 elected members are obliged to make a housing services plan not later than six months after the current development plan is made, and section 15 sets out the matters to be taken into account including the development plan, the demand for social and affordable housing and the need to deliver housing in a way that supports sustainable communities. Section 17 provides for a variation of the plan to be initiated by the manager or the Minister.
Section 18 provides for the making of housing action programmes. The programmes will be, in effect, the delivery mechanism for the plans and will be prepared by the manager. It is envisaged that the housing services plans will contain high level goals and objectives while precise annual targets for programmes will be set out in the housing actions programmes, which will probably be of a three year duration. This will allow for appropriate planning of projects and also for adjustment to take account of changing needs and resources.
Part 2, Chapter 3 deals with providing social housing support, which is a crucial component of the broader housing service remit of authorities. It provides the necessary legislative underpinning to the philosophy set out in Towards 2016 and Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities that housing support should be tailored to individual needs as they evolve over their life cycle and that the delivery of such support must take account of the broader sustainable communities agenda.
Section 19 updates and replaces section 56(1) of the 1966 Act and gives powers to housing authorities to purchase, build, lease etc., dwellings or sites and enter public private partnerships for the purpose of providing social housing support through a variety of methods. In providing such accommodation, subsection (4) obliges local authorities to have regard to their housing services plans as well as ensuring that they provide a mixture of house types to meet the needs of a range of different household types and to counteract undue social segregation.
An objective and consistent assessment of individual housing needs is key to providing social housing supports. This is essential for determining a household's priority relative to the needs of other households and to identify the appropriate supports. Section 20 is the basis for the new assessment of need and provides extensive regulatory powers to set eligibility criteria, classify need and determine the form of this assessment.
Section 21 allows for the individual assessments to be summarised in a prescribed form for a variety of purposes, including the making of a housing services plan under section 16. This will replace the current triennial assessment of need provided for in the 1988 Housing Act and provide for a more timely and clearer picture of the scale and nature of housing need in each local authority area and across the country.
Linking needs, assessed in accordance with section 20, to the allocation of resources is the next step in the process. Section 22 replaces section 11 of the Housing Act 1988 and provides housing authorities with a new approach to allocating dwellings. The new system is an attempt to improve consistency and transparency in decision-making, provide a better fit between needs and resources and respond, as far as possible, to the expressed preferences of individual households. Under the new approach, each authority will adopt a new allocation scheme which will allow for local discretion within the national framework. In this way, it is hoped to strengthen the link between local needs and the subsequent provision of resources and ensure consistency in the way in which applicants for social housing are prioritised.
Chapter 4 deals with the rental accommodation scheme, more commonly known as RAS. As Deputies are aware, RAS was introduced in 2005 and is aimed at providing a new housing option for people in receipt of social welfare rent supplement who have a long-term housing need.
Building on the experience of the scheme to date, sections 23 to 27 provide a comprehensive statutory framework for RAS so that it forms part of an integrated suite of social housing options. The main building blocks of that framework are contained in sections 24 and 25. Section 24 contains the power for a housing authority to enter into a rental accommodation availability agreement. Under this agreement, the provider makes the accommodation available for a period either for a sitting tenant or for any tenants allocated to the property by the housing authority. There are certain requirements to be met by the provider before entering into an agreement under subsection (2) and the terms and conditions associated with that agreement are set out in subsection (4).
Section 25 deals with the tenancy agreement to be known as a chapter 4 tenancy agreement between the person making the dwelling available and the tenant. It outlines what should be in the agreement and importantly, in subsection (5), sets out additional obligations to those under the Residential Tenancies Act. These include payment of the rent contribution to the housing authority and provisions in regard to tenancy termination under the Residential Tenancies Act. Any breaches of these obligations can give rise to terminations. The Bill, therefore, will provide a more developed statutory base for RAS to ensure it can continue to evolve and play an important role in broadening the range and choice of social housing options.
Sections 28 to 35 also form part of the social housing governance regime dealing with local authority responsibilities regarding housing stock, including tenancy agreements, rent schemes and a new requirement to adopt anti-social behaviour strategies. I draw the attention of Deputies to some of these provisions.
Section 31 provides for an authority to make a rent scheme setting out the manner in which it will determine rents taking account of national parameters set out in regulations. It is important to point out that the provisions do not alter the basic concept of differential rent, where rents are income-related, with provision for the temporary waiving of rent in cases of financial hardship.
Section 35 requires each housing authority, by reserved function, to adopt an anti-social behaviour strategy for the prevention and reduction of anti-social behaviour in its housing stock. I suspect few Members of this House or of society generally have not experienced, directly or indirectly, some form of anti-social behaviour. Anti-social behaviour disrupts the lives of householders and has the potential to destabilise communities. It is important that we make progress in this area and local authorities, as landlords of some 120,000 dwellings, have a duty to secure and protect the interests of their tenants by abating and preventing such behaviour in their estates.
Section 35, therefore, specifies the principal objectives of a strategy, notably the promotion of co-operation with other agencies, including the Garda. This is crucial, as local authorities alone cannot be expected to provide comprehensive solutions to anti-social behaviour issues in their estates. It also outlines the matters that may be dealt with in a strategy and sets out the bodies that must be consulted in drawing up a strategy.
The Bill also amends the definition of anti-social behaviour in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1997. Part 5 of Schedule 2 effects the amendment to extend the definition to include damage to property and graffiti and significant impairment of the use or enjoyment of a person's home.
I turn now to one of the more innovative measures contained in the Bill. Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities made a commitment to respond to the home ownership aspirations of those who face difficulty in purchasing homes on the open market or through the affordable housing schemes by providing paths to home ownership which are additional to social housing.
The incremental purchase scheme, for which provision is made in sections 36 to 41, is one such path. It involves transferring full title of the new house to the householder on the payment to the housing authority or approved body, as appropriate, of a proportion of the purchase price. The housing authority or approved body places a charge on the property in its favour for the portion of equity not paid for, declining over time until the charge is eliminated. In return, the buyer pays the mortgage and accepts full responsibility for the maintenance of the home.
Eligible households, as defined in section 36, include those assessed as eligible for social housing support by reference to section 20 and, subject to some conditions, existing tenants who wish to transfer to homes made available under the scheme. Section 37 provides that incremental purchase may apply to newly-built houses by housing authorities or approved housing bodies and to new houses that are vacant or come onto the market in the coming into force of the Act.
Section 38 provides the power to sell a dwelling under the arrangement by means of a transfer order and sets out the terms and conditions that should apply. Section 39 sets out, in detail, how the incremental features of the scheme will operate. It requires the housing authority or approved body to put a charge, by way of a charging order, on a house that it has sold under the scheme. The charging order creates a charged share in favour of the housing authority or body, equivalent to the discount granted off the purchase price. The charged share is reduced in equal proportions over the period of the charge. The reduction in the charged share for the first five years of occupancy is not applied until that period has expired and the section also provides for the authority or body to clear the charge when it expires.
Section 40 deals with the control on resale of incremental purchase dwellings. If the incremental purchaser wishes to resell the house during the charge period, the housing authority or the approved body concerned has the first option of buying it at the proportion of the market value equivalent to the prevailing share of the equity that is not charged. The resale of an incremental purchase house in the market is subject to the consent of the housing authority or body, which may refuse consent for specified reasons, including anti-social behaviour by the prospective purchaser or in the interest of good estate management. Where an incremental purchaser resells his or her home in the market he or she must make a payment to the authority or body calculated as the proportion of the market value of the house equivalent to the prevailing charged share.
The incremental purchase scheme offers a number of key benefits. For families, the scheme offers the earliest possible start on the path to home ownership for those willing and able to undertake a house purchase. In addition, giving the buyer responsibility for repair and maintenance of the home helps build up the householder's stake in the property. The scheme is also structured to make it attractive for people to put down long-term roots in the community and to commit to an area, thereby contributing to more stable and integrated communities.
For the State, the scheme will provide an opportunity to extract additional value for money from capital expenditure through our social housing investment programme. It will allow for capital funding to be recycled quickly which can be then used to provide additional social housing without the need for additional Exchequer finance. The full details of how the scheme will operate will be spelled out in regulations to be made under the Act in due course. This is a worthwhile and innovative initiative deserving of the support of the House.
The final part of the Bill deals mainly with the application of claw-back arrangements to the provision of sites for private housing and grants paid for extensions under the adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability. In the latter case, the claw-back applies in the event of the extended dwelling being sold within five years of the grant payment while, in the case of what is known as the low cost sites scheme, the claw-back mirrors the arrangements already in place under affordable housing schemes.
The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 is an important milestone in the development of housing policy. It provides a more strategic approach to delivery and management through housing services plans and housing action programmes. It presents a new, more objective and comprehensive basis for assessing need and allocating housing. It provides a more effective management and control regime covering rents and tenancy arrangements and a more developed statutory basis for the rental accommodation scheme. It is innovative as it introduces an incremental purchase scheme aimed at helping those seeking social housing support, and existing tenants, in some circumstances, to become house owners.
While the Bill addresses a wide range of issues, other aspects are still under development, which I hope to bring forward for consideration on Committee Stage. As the House is aware, the drafting of workable proposals for the sale of local authority apartments has proved problematic. My focus has been on establishing a sufficiently robust framework to allow sales to proceed, given that past endeavours had to be abandoned. In conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General, work is continuing to resolve the outstanding complex issues with a view to finalising proposals for a viable sales scheme in time for consideration during the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas.
I am also keen to progress work on a number of other issues, including the introduction of an affordable homes purchase scheme which, in the longer term, would facilitate the purchase, through a single equity based mechanism, of property under the various affordable housing schemes. In addition, during the Bill's passage through the Seanad there was considerable debate on providing a statutory basis for the preparation and adoption of homelessness action plans and I am also determined to bring proposals on this matter before the House.
We are living in difficult economic times. This Bill does not and cannot offer more finance to underpin the provision of social and affordable housing in this country and the Government has already demonstrated its commitment in that regard. It does, however, define for the first time in legislation what we mean by housing services.
It sets out a framework to allow for the delivery of these services in a way that meets individual needs, but respects the concept of developing sustainable communities and provides for a system where individuals and households are dealt with fairly and consistently across the country. It describes, in detail, how rental accommodation and incremental purchase arrangements are to be undertaken and prepares the groundwork for dealing with anti-social behaviour.
It is a forward-looking Bill which recognises the complex and changing needs of the household and the variety of mechanisms required to meet those needs. I commend it to the House.