I value the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this multifaceted Bill, which aims to address a number of issues of significance in the housing area. At the outset I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, and his predecessor in the portfolio, Deputy Noel Ahern, for the work that they and their officials have done in putting together a piece of legislation that has to date won broad-based support.
I have personally long been convinced of the critical importance of public policy on housing and social housing in particular. There are few who would argue with the fact that a quality built environment impacts on a household's quality of life. It also has an influence on the individual sense of personal worth, educational attainment, health and well-being and employment potential. Any legislation in the area is of major importance.
Sections 14 to 18 of this Bill introduce a requirement for local authority members to make and adopt a services plan for their jurisdiction and imposes subsequently on the authority manager a requirement to bring forward a housing action plan to implement the members' proposals. On the face of it this is a very sensible approach, building on the existing system of local area plans, county plans and county housing strategies. The introduction of the housing services plan and a managerial implementation plan completes the circle.
The problem may be the risk which exists for those thousands of families on our nationwide housing list that the making of these plans becomes an end in itself and that we continue to see inadequate or inconsistent output from our local authorities. Since the launch of the strategic management initiative and the advent of the Better Local Government strategy — which, in my opinion, has given worse local government — we have seen a significant increase in the output at local authority level in particular of glossy plans and reports with no commensurate improvement in the quality, extent and range of services delivered in all areas under local authority remit.
Social housing provision is a case in point. The Government has regularly been castigated in this House for the growing waiting lists but the Government has sought over many years to encourage and pressurise urban and county councils into increasing their output and availing of the funding on offer from Government. Whereas some authorities have responded admirably, many have not, including some controlled by the parties which have been critical of Government. In response to a parliamentary question on outputs in my own county tabled in late 2007, it emerged — to my surprise — that Kildare County Council had drawn down on average only 69% of available funding between 2002 and 2007 for social housing construction or purchase.
I acknowledge that the situation has improved significantly since 2007 in County Kildare but it is nonetheless the case that when I was elected to this House in 2002, I expected to have to lobby Departments and Ministers to secure funding for infrastructure for Kildare, including housing, and not the reverse, where my local authority had to be pressurised to avail of what was on offer.
The difficulties which have existed with some local authorities around the country in terms of their social housing output, and notwithstanding the fact that overall output may have increased, indicate that housing has lost its position as a primary local authority function. Had it not, and had elected members and county managers in particular not pursued other agendas, far more could have been achieved during the years of plenty. It is to our considerable discredit as a nation that those on our local authority waiting lists remain among the most marginalised people in Irish society.
Sections 19 to 24 of this Bill address the areas of social housing support, and in particular the making of an allocations scheme, or a scheme of letting priorities as it would have been commonly known. This was referred to by Deputy Ó Snodaigh. It is important that in making an allocations scheme, local authority members are cognisant of the fact that they have a crucial role not just in building houses but also in building communities. That is a far more difficult challenge. It is necessary, particularly in the allocation of new housing schemes, for this fact to be taken into account, and any scheme made should ensure the diversity which exists in society at large and in the county in question is reflected in the new local communities created in these estates. In other words, it is essential that new housing schemes include people who vary in age and nationality, people who are single and married, people with disabilities, people who are unemployed and people who work every day.
Achieving this type of balance and integration would go a long way towards preventing the anti-social behaviour which many Members have referred to and the marginalisation of social housing projects around the country. To achieve this end, the allocations schemes adopted around the country will need to be a lot more comprehensive and sophisticated than they have ever been in the past.
On the issue of allocations, I acknowledge the work done by environmental health officers. In counties like Kildare they carry out individual assessments of need on the housing applicants and at all times they demonstrate consummate professionalism. In this regard I suggest the need to introduce professional training to all those working in the housing area so that housing management in itself can be regarded as a lifelong profession rather than something people dip in and out of.
The sections up to and including section 27 deal with the rental accommodation scheme, an enlightened initiative on which I congratulate the Minister. It gives some significant security of tenure to people in private rental positions. This scheme must be resourced and promoted at local level, where its merits are not yet fully understood by either tenants or landlords, and I congratulate the Minister on placing the scheme on a statutory footing.
Sections 21 and 31 propose to remove the procedure whereby local elected members must give approval for the disposal of land or a dwelling in accordance with section 183 of the 2001 Local Government Act. I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate why the matter of disposal would arise in respect of the rental accommodation scheme. In any event, I object, as a matter of principle, to any provision that removes powers from local councillors.
Sections 28 to 34 deal with control and management and allow local authorities, by way of reserved function, to delegate the management and control of houses or estates to designated bodies, including those comprising residents of an area. This is a progressive move and I warmly welcome it.
Section 34 also deals with anti-social behaviour. As already stated, a better allocation system, coupled with Garda vetting of prospective tenants, would assist in preventing this growing phenomenon. However, in estates where such behaviour already exists, far stronger action, including, if necessary, court proceedings and eviction, must be taken by local authorities. The local joint policing committees have a major contribution to make in this regard in order that the perpetrators will be penalised and the innocent victims can enjoy the security of their homes and neighbourhoods. In many people's experience it has been the victims who have been obliged to flee their estates while the perpetrators of anti-social behaviour are allowed to continue to engage in their nefarious activities.
The incremental purchase scheme, which is covered in sections 35 to 40, is another positive new initiative to add to the variety of other schemes that support home ownership. The scheme involves a number of restrictions and I ask the Minister to outline how housing authorities and approved bodies will identify the properties to be sold. The scheme is generous in its provisions, particularly as it is intended to set the initial purchase price at 40% of the construction cost with the balance offset over 30 years of occupancy at 2% per annum. Funds from these sales, whether completed by local authorities or approved bodies should, I suggest, be ring-fenced for further capital projects and should not be subsumed into current spending.
Sections 41 to 43, inclusive, deal with matters including the housing adaptation grants for older people and the disabled person's grant. This topic was addressed by Deputy Áine Brady at some length. While I wholeheartedly agree with the points she made, I am of the view that the Bill could be further strengthened by the inclusion of a provision which would address the plight of applicants in counties such as Kildare, where the local authority has traditionally made totally inadequate provision in its estimates in respect of the matching funding required to make grant schemes work effectively and to meet the demand which inevitably arises on foot of the presence of a growing and ageing population. I fail to understand how it is possible for the local authority in County Kildare to justify to the people who live there the fact that it allocates approximately €1.6 million in respect of these grants, whereas the council in County Donegal, which has a smaller population, allocates in excess of €4 million per annum.
Voluntary and co-operative housing has been an area of massive growth, particularly during the past decade. At present, there are 679 approved bodies which have constructed and are managing in the region of 20,000 properties. The quality of the units built and the management of the estates are, with very few exceptions, of a very high standard. The sector, having made good use of the capital assistance and capital loan and subsidy schemes to provide specialised housing and meet the needs of mainstream housing applicants, can be extremely proud of its achievements. The providers in this area vary in nature, from local conferences of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and local community bodies — providing in the most part for the needs of small groups of elderly people and of those with disabilities in their local areas — to major organisations such as Respond, which is responsible for in excess of 3,500 units at present, which has a nationwide remit and which addresses a broad spectrum of social housing provision, including that of agency services to local authorities. I congratulate the Minister on granting to local authorities the power to devolve to such bodies further functions, including those relating to estate management. In many instances, the bodies to which I refer have proven to be more effective than local authorities, particularly in the area of estate management.
I must declare an interest in respect of voluntary housing because for more than 15 years I have been actively involved with local communities in County Kildare in the establishment and management of locally-based voluntary housing associations. To date, these associations have built or purchased in excess of 260 family units. The relatively small but effective housing associations in County Kildare operate on the basis of a self-help philosophy and see social housing need as something that can be addressed, at least in part, by local communities using the financial supports that Government provides. In practice, the experience in County Kildare has been that those in need of housing have come together to help themselves. These people have anchored themselves in their local communities by establishing locally-based associations or by joining existing associations that are managed with the active support and participation of established community activists who bring with them project development and management expertise. Without exception, the Kildare projects have been successful in the context of cost-efficient unit delivery and estate management. At a number of locations, Kildare County Council has co-operated with these associations to deliver part of its own social housing programme on a joint-venture basis.
In the context of the Bill, however, a number of issues arise. Section 22 confers on county managers the authority to make allocations in accordance with an allocation scheme drawn up by members in respect of dwellings provided by approved by voluntary housing bodies. In County Kildare, some 100% of units allocated under the former rental purchase scheme — currently the capital loan and subsidy scheme — have been allocated to households drawn from local authority waiting lists following consultation and agreement with the local authority. Will the Minister ensure that there is nothing in section 22 which would prevent or discourage self-help initiatives of this type, which have worked successfully in County Kildare, particularly in circumstances where the power might be given to a county manager to allocate houses on a scheme to qualifying applicants other than those who had been directly involved in the development of the project as a self-help initiative?
I warmly welcome the fact that the Minister has decided to include the sector in the incremental purchase scheme. In light of the difficulties that exist, I acknowledge the pragmatic approach that he is adopting in the Bill in allowing voluntary providers to determine the extent to which they will participate in the process. While the incremental purchase scheme is a forward-looking initiative, the Bill fails to address the plight of those who already live in properties provided by voluntary associations. Very few of those who live in homes funded by the capital loan and subsidy scheme have chosen this form of accommodation over local authority accommodation. Rather it is the case that there was no other reasonable alternative available to them.
We now have two forms of social housing provision, namely, that provided by local authorities and that provided by the voluntary sector. Both forms are being 100% funded by the Exchequer and both providers have drawn their tenants from the same local authority waiting lists. Those who have chosen the voluntary accommodation have done so because, in the vast majority of cases, they have had no real alternative.
At present, local authority tenants can avail of tenant purchase schemes whereas tenants of voluntary housing associations cannot do so. In view of the position I have outlined, it is fundamentally unjust that voluntary tenants cannot avail of tenant purchase schemes. I implore the Minister to amend the Bill to address this issue or to at least indicate that he will bring forward a new legislative proposal, within a reasonable timeframe, to address a matter which I firmly believe runs contrary to natural justice. Nowhere is that injustice more evident than in the schemes in County Kildare I referred to earlier where tenants, who came together to cause the housing project to be built, see their joint venture neighbours in council owned properties avail of tenant purchase while they, whose initiative caused the houses to be built in the first instance, cannot. That is an indefensible position and something that must be addressed.
I refer to the remedial works scheme. Deputy Upton spoke yesterday of the importance of the schemes currently under way and the type of developments throughout the country which gave rise to the need for remedial schemes. Valuable work has been done in my own constituency in locations such as Kilcullen, Newbridge and Athy. The Minister has an application on his desk for a remedial scheme for St. Patrick's Park in Rathangan, and I urge him to look positively on that. I express a fear that as we move, not just pressed by developers, bankers or others, as suggested by Deputy Upton, towards creating a much more dense urban environment as advocated largely by professional planners, in some cases we may be bringing into existence the sort of housing scheme that will need to be remediated in the future. I am particularly concerned about local authorities that build high density properties that are very small and which do not provide for lifelong living. That is something that must be addressed. I compliment local authorities generally on the high standard of properties they are building throughout the country, with the possible exception of the area of high density, because the quality of the design has improved beyond belief in recent years.
I refer to the issue of Traveller accommodation. Deputy Connaughton attended a meeting of the health committee with me recently where we heard concerns expressed by the Traveller community, and advocates on their behalf, about the high infant mortality and the low life expectancy in the Traveller community compared with the population at large. At least part of that problem derives from the inadequacy of the accommodation available to that community throughout the country. I support the Minister in the positive initiatives he is taking to address this intractable problem. I am happy to recommend the Bill to the House.