Priority Questions

Planning Issues

Barry Cowen

Question:

53. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the timescale for the appointment of an independent inquiry into planning irregularities following the High Court decision of 14 June 2013 to quash part of the internal planning review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33939/13]

The planning review report I published on 12 June 2012 was prepared internally by my Department. I committed to having the report assessed by an independent planning expert and on 8 March 2013, I published the independent evaluation of the planning review report of June 2012 prepared by Mr. Hendrik van der Kamp. The planning review report produced strong recommendations which have stood up to independent assessment. Both reports are available on my Department's website, www.environ.ie.

On 14 June 2013, the High Court made an order quashing that part of the planning review report relating to County Donegal following a settlement between my Department and another party who had brought judicial review proceedings in respect of that part of the report. The matter has now been disposed of to the satisfaction of both sides.

I am continuing my efforts to restore public confidence in the planning system by opening up the review process and system to maximum scrutiny. Accordingly, and for the avoidance of any doubt over the validity of the process to date, I have decided to appoint independent consultants, following a new tendering process to be commenced shortly by my Department, to conduct an independent review of the application of planning practices and procedures in the other six local authorities included in the planning review report in light of the settlement of the judicial review proceedings. A request for tenders will issue shortly. I have also sought the Attorney General's advice on how best to proceed in the case of Donegal County Council.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. On foot of her statement that the Department is in the process of instigating a new independent review and considering that we are back in the position we were in three years ago, does she accept that the original decision to terminate the independent inquiries was incorrect? In light of the decision made by the Government to bring down the independent review and the High Court decision in this matter, is it a fair analysis that the Government has concluded it is necessary to establish a new independent review?

Would the Minister of State not consider utilising the panel put in place by the former Minister, Mr. John Gormley, in January 2011 in order to expedite any such process involving putting an independent review back in place?

In the interest of accuracy, first, it was a review and not an inquiry and second, it was not instigated. A panel was set up but the process was not commenced by the then Minister, Mr. Gormley, nor was it commenced by Deputy Ó Cuív who took over when Mr. Gormley resigned from the then Government. A decision was made in good faith by my predecessor to carry out an internal review. It was held open that if necessary there would be an independent review, but it was always a review and not an inquiry. I have now decided, in view-----

We are now back where we were two years ago.

No, we are not because we have had a number of recommendations from the internal review and also from Mr. van der Kamp's appraisal of the review. I intend to implement those very solid and practical recommendations with regard to the planning process.

On the Deputy's second point, I am now having a review by external experts. I cannot use the process and the people put on the panel by Mr. Gormley. Apparently for fair procedure we have to start a new process because of the time that has elapsed.

Does the Minister of State consider they were inappropriate?

It will not take long. We will shortly put it out to tender. There is a period of probably two months or so when that will need to be considered and then a decision will be made. I expect the process to be in operation in the autumn.

Water Services Provision

Brian Stanley

Question:

54. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the progress being made on the Dublin, Garryhinch, Shannon water supply project; and the timeframe for planning, construction and completion phases of this project. [34089/13]

The Dublin water supply scheme long-term water source is listed as a scheme at planning stage in my Department’s water services investment programme 2010 to 2013. Dublin City Council is the lead authority for this scheme, on behalf of all of the water services authorities in the greater Dublin area.

Studies carried out for the city council and a strategic environmental assessment have identified a preferred option which involves abstraction of raw water from Lough Derg and pumping the abstracted water through a new pipeline to a proposed storage reservoir at Garryhinch cut-away bog in County Offaly, forming part of a proposed midlands water-based eco-park. After treatment, water would then be conveyed to the west of Dublin where the new supply would be integrated with the existing storage and trunk distribution system.

In December 2012, the Department approved a brief for the engagement of consultants for the planning and statutory approval phase of the scheme. Dublin City Council has carried out a procurement process and I understand it will shortly be in a position to appoint a consultant to advance the further planning of this scheme.

The programme for project implementation has been developed based on the planning and statutory approval phase taking approximately two years. The detailed design and procurement phase should take a further two years, while the construction and commissioning phase should be completed in three years

Following their appointment by Dublin City Council, the consultants will undertake the environmental impact statement and other statutory requirements in preparation for a submission to An Bord Pleanála which will adjudicate on the matter.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply. This is a huge project with major implications for the midlands and in particular for Laois and Offaly in terms of long-term jobs and jobs in construction, and it is clearly the Government's preferred option. However, the reply the Minister of State just gave does not outline when a planning application will be made, when it will start construction or when we are likely to have completion. Is Dublin City Council, as the lead authority, pushing it? A 12-month monitoring stage to collect data is required before it can start at all. Finance needs to be accessed and legislation is required, as the Minister of State will know, to establish Irish Water. I understand that legislation has implications for this project.

Where is it at and where is it going? I understand very little has happened on the project in the past two years. It needs to go through various phases, including the planning phase.

The Minister of State has just outlined that if this started tomorrow morning it would be seven full years before it would be brought on stream, that is, 2021. I assume that it will not start for some time yet since Dublin City Council is only now in the process of working out how to hire consultants for some of the studies and the planning phase. We need something firmer in terms of a start-up date.

We have been told that Dublin and parts of the east coast are running out of water. I realise this is partly due to leaks but this is what we are being told by the Minister of State and experts in the Department. It appears to me this project is on a go-slow. If the Minister of State is serious about going ahead with it, then it needs to be pushed on. My concern is that with all the toing and froing associated with the establishment of Irish Water this project has been left to one side.

Deputy, the Minister of State needs some time to respond.

Regardless of whether one is for or against it we need to know when the construction phase will start, as well as the estimated completion date.

With respect, it has to be done properly and well. Although it may take up to seven years it does not mean each process is not fully thought out and planned. All of the issues that might arise must be dealt with. The project requirements for implementation by 2020 include the planning phase and the preparation of the environmental impact assessment; the preparation and submission of the planning application to an Bord Pleanála; the processing of the planning application by An Bord Pleanála; compliance with EU procurement directives; the assessment of procurement options; the drawing up of contract documents; the procurement and assessment of tenders; the appointment of service providers, contracts and operators, since the construction phase will involve multiple contracts operating in parallel in greenfield site conditions; and commissioning.

Dublin City Council is running the project. It is not that the Department has been doing it up to now. The council is procuring a consultant to progress the planning phase. It is envisaged that Irish Water will be responsible for the delivery of capital projects from 1 January next year. Responsibility for the delivery of the project will, therefore, transfer to Irish Water in 2014. Bord na Móna has a key critical role in the successful delivery of the project. The recommended location is a Bord na Móna cutaway bog at Garryhinch. The proposed route of the raw untreated water pipelines traverses the heartland of Bord na Móna's activities and the communities in which it operates.

We cannot afford to rush this but some things can be done in parallel. In other words, when Irish Water takes ownership of the project it may be able to find synergies in terms of times within the seven-year period. The fact is that this must be done right and properly. Clearly, significant planning issue are involved. I am confident that it will progress. There has been no delay on the part of the Minister or the Department in this matter.

The Minister of State has said that Dublin City Council is the lead authority. I am aware of that but the point is that the project seems to have been put in the go-slow lane for the past two years. It appears from the reply of the Minister of State that when Irish Water takes over in 2014 it may move on at that stage. To me, the fact that Dublin City Council is only now setting about procuring consultants to examine the planning phase tells me that nothing is moving fast under this project. It needs to be moved on if we are to go ahead with it.

Dublin City Council is aware that there is only a 1% difference between supply and demand. Therefore, if anything significant occurs the supply could be in crisis. Normally, a city has a 15% surplus because of other outages or problems that might arise. I refute utterly that Dublin City Council is dragging its heels. If the Deputy has questions then, he ought to ask Dublin City Council to come before the relevant Oireachtas committee and he can carry out due diligence and question the council. That is the proper place to bring the council at this time. I believe the council is doing its best and there is no unnecessary delay in this matter.

I understand Deputy Joan Collins is taking Question No. 55 with the agreement of the Ceann Comhairle.

Local Authority Housing Issues

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

55. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to outline his plans to deal with the circa 90,000 persons on the housing waiting list; if he will provide a progress report on the number of National Asset Management Agency units that have been given over for social housing; if he will provide full details of all plans for social housing new builds throughout the country; the timeline for the transfer of rent supplement to his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33941/13]

The Government's housing policy statement, published in June 2011, clearly identifies that the priority for Government will be to meet the most acute needs of households applying for social housing support. I am determined to ensure the social housing programme optimises the delivery of social housing and the return for the resources invested. To achieve this, it is essential that we tailor the use of available Exchequer supports to prevailing conditions and explore the full range of solutions to address housing needs.

The financial parameters within which we will be operating for the coming years rule out a return to large-scale capital funded construction programmes. The Government is committed to responding more quickly and on a larger scale to social housing support needs through a variety of mechanisms, including through increased provision of social housing. In July 2012, I announced details of a three-year funding programme of €100 million to deliver some 800 new units of voluntary and local authority owned social housing. This includes a construction programme for 185 local authority houses and 111 houses for special needs accommodation for the approved housing bodies.

Delivery of social housing will be facilitated through more flexible funding models such as the rental accommodation scheme and leasing, but the Government is also committed to developing other funding mechanisms that will increase the supply of permanent new social housing. There is also obvious potential, across a range of housing programmes, for the Government's objective of sourcing and providing suitable residential units for use as social housing to be aligned with the commercial objectives of the National Asset Management Agency.

At the end of quarter 2, 2013, some 296 properties had been delivered for social housing from NAMA's portfolio, with contracts signed in respect of a further 101 properties. This brings the overall total number of residential properties completed or committed to social housing under the initiative to date to a little under 400 properties. It will continue to be my Department's objective in 2013 to maximise the delivery of social housing from the NAMA portfolio using all of the resources available. In spite of the currently challenging circumstances the overall final outcome for social housing in 2012 is some 5,000 units. It is provisionally estimated that in the region of 5,000 units will be provided in 2013.

In March 2012, the Government approved in principle the transfer of responsibility for recipients of rent supplement with an established housing need from the Department of Social Protection to local authorities using a new housing assistance payment, HAP. My Department and the Department of Social Protection have been working closely on the legal, policy and operational issues involved in the project. It is intended that the test phase of the HAP would be carried out in early 2014 subject to the necessary housing and social welfare legislative provisions being in place, including those relating to facilitating deduction of rents at source from welfare payments. Once the test phase is complete the scheme will be extended to other local authorities.

The Minister of State should admit to the reality that we have a housing crisis. This is the main issue that comes through my door every day. People come having waited ten years for a housing allocation and with problems with transfers. The rental accommodation scheme is drying up. Some landlords figure they can get more from the private rental schemes than the RAS. We are moving to a position whereby rent allowance is being run by the local authorities. How will it be run? Will the same conditions of the RAS apply such as not allowing landlords to push people out of private rented accommodation unless they are selling the home? Staffing levels in the local authority are having to deal with this. Are the resources in place? Housing workers are under severe pressure without having to take on rent allowance.

Between 90,000 and 100,000 families in the State are on housing waiting lists but the Minister of State referred to 397 units from NAMA, 800 voluntary housing units, 185 new builds and a total of 285 units in Dublin city between 2013 and 2016. It is a disaster. The Minister of State, a member of the Labour Party, is standing over all of this. Why is there no immediate plan to sit down and figure out that 90,000 families need to be housed? That does not include the homeless section. Some ten people present themselves every day to the local authorities from the homeless sector. It is a disaster and there should be a critical response from the Minister of State to the crisis we are facing.

I agree with the Deputy that we have large housing waiting lists. Those housing waiting lists have been building up for many years, including during the Celtic tiger years when there was money around. Unfortunately, we are constrained in terms of funding. That is why we are adopting a flexible approach whereby we are delivering 5,000 units per year.

The Deputy asked a specific question about the HAP. People will pay a differential rent when they transfer to the HAP. It will be different to rent supplement. We will be getting rid of the poverty traps under the rent supplement arrangement. This has generally been welcomed throughout the House.

The Deputy asked about private landlords and whether people in private accommodation could be subject to the whims of the landlord.

The Government is also amending the legislation under which the Private Residential Tenancies Board operates and this measure is going through the Oireachtas at present. The Government wishes to give as much security as possible to tenants in all situations, no matter who is their landlord, be it a local authority, a private landlord or an approved housing body. As for NAMA, it has been very slow and I have expressed my concern about the transfer being slow but it has speeded up this year. This is because what is called a special purpose vehicle has been put in place into which NAMA is gathering appropriate units and that is speeding up the process. This is the reason there has been a much more significant number this year than was the case last year, bringing the total from NAMA up to almost 400. The Department meets NAMA regularly and in so far as it can, it is putting on pressure to ensure delivery from NAMA. However, the Government is in a tight financial position and cannot spend money the State does not have. Nevertheless, I am as concerned as the Deputy to ensure the needs of people who need housing support are addressed and this is the reason the Government is taking all the measures being taken.

While the time for the question has expired, I call Deputy Joan Collins for a brief question.

No real plan is in place.

The Government has not stated, given that 95,000 families nationally are concerned, how it should address this issue over a three to five-year period. It will not be resolved through the provision of 5,000 houses per year, even were the Government to meet that level. As for the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, I have encountered cases in which a RAS landlord has sold the housing unit and the occupant has remained in that house awaiting support from the local authority. The landlords in the area realise they now can get more from private rentals and that person remains stuck and cannot move. A free for all is taking place and it is absolutely horrendous. The Minister of State has no plan.

I thank the Deputy but must stop her there, as we are way over time.

I must make two points in response. First, of those people on the housing waiting list, approximately 40% are in receipt of rent supplement and therefore are already getting some support from the State. Second, with regard to the RAS, such schemes are the responsibility of local authorities. Consequently, if the landlord sells the house, the local authority has a responsibility to the people concerned.

Leader Programmes Funding

Barry Cowen

Question:

56. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the total amount of money provided for projects in the Leader programme 2007-2013; the amount sanctioned in each measure to date; the amount that remains to be sanctioned; the total spend to date on projects in the programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33957/13]

The Leader elements of the Rural Development Programme 2007–2013, RDP, commenced in February 2009 after a delay of more than two years. This reduced the time available to allocate funding to less than five years, rather than the original seven.

Following the reduction of funding available under the programme due to the increased co-funding rate from the European Commission for 2012 and 2013 and the opening of the programme on a "first come first served" basis in 2012, the local development companies, LDCs, were issued with revised programme allocations in May 2013 on the basis of an estimated programme value of €370 million. The final programme value will not be known until the end of 2013 when the precise value of programme expenditure that can be reclaimed from the Commission at 85% can be established. All programme expenditure after the end of 2013 will be refunded at the original co-funding rate of 55%.

Expenditure to date under the programme has been slow, with €19.6 million spent in 2009, €44.2 million in 2010, €47.5 million in 2011 and €53.2 million in 2012. My Department is monitoring commitments and expenditure on an ongoing basis and has given a commitment to examine all unallocated funding at 31 August with a view to reallocating funding to other qualifying projects. The final date for approvals under the programme is December 2013.

The total expenditure to date under the programme is €189 million, which includes administration costs of €42.7 million. The value of outstanding contractual commitments is €101 million, leaving a balance of approximately €80 million to be allocated to new projects and for administration costs. While up to 20% of each LDC’s total programme expenditure can be spent on administration costs, all LDCs have been advised they should aim to spend substantially less than the maximum 20% allowed.

The European Commission has allowed Ireland to spend its programme in line with demand rather than on specific allocations under each measure of the programme. A revised financial plan will be submitted to the Commission by the end of 2013. My Department has requested that all LDCs submit financial plans indicating and detailing their estimated monthly administration and project expenditure in order to conclude the programme during 2014. As soon as these plans can be agreed, the LDC contracts will be extended accordingly.

I propose to circulate in the Official Report a tabular statement setting out the information requested at measure level.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Table 1: RDP Expenditure Information by Measure

I look forward to the tabular details of the funding, as requested in the question. It could be construed and may appear that the Government could be on course to underspend significantly on this programme due to failure to plan effectively. This being the case, at this juncture would the Government not allow immediately Leader companies to approve additional projects, based on the fact that no additional funding can be allocated after March 2015? Based on previous years, there is a 10% rate of non-take-up and consequently, would it not be appropriate, prudent or effective for the Government to allow Leader companies to put in place a qualified list and qualified commitments? This could be done rather than maintaining the hard and fast rules in which the Government seeks to establish the position after the horse has bolted by virtue of what commitments were made, what was spent at the end of 2013, an examination of those figures with a view to making a decision on how this might meet the demand in the following year and so on. Would it not be a lot easier to allow for companies to make qualified commitments, which are understood by those who may be in receipt of them, should the opportunity arise, on the basis of the failures of others, to maximise the potential or the use approved to the latter in the initial allocations?

First, the Department is monitoring the position carefully and, as I indicated in my initial reply, there is a commitment to examine all unallocated funding at 31 August with a view to reallocating money. Consequently, the Minister would consider it prudent financial management to ensure he does not ask them to enter into contractual arrangements that could not be honoured. The intention is to monitor carefully, at 31 August to reallocate money that apparently will not be spent and to impress upon all the various bodies and local development companies that in the first instance, they should ensure they allocate fully and second, they should ensure full expenditure.

As I stated, my fear is based on the possibility to construe that there has been a failure to plan effectively in this regard. The Minister of State obviously will contradict that, which is her right and is understandable as long as she can back it up with factual figures bearing out the point. Can the Minister of State give an absolute commitment to Members, to Leader companies nationwide and, by association, the public who can derive benefits from such funds that can have the positive impact the programme was meant to have in the areas for which it is designed, that there will be no loss in funding by the State with regard to the allocation that comes towards the Leader programme in its entirety?

The Minister of State to respond, briefly.

The local development companies must ensure they play their part also. This is the reason there is ongoing communication with such companies and it is being impressed on them they must be accurate and must give the Department the correct information as to what they can allocate and spend. They have a responsibility to ensure this happens, the allocations are accurate and the expenditure is carried through fully. However, the Minister is determined that Ireland will get every bit of the money to which we are entitled.

The Minister of State is convinced.

It is okay, it is on the record.

Homelessness Strategy

Dessie Ellis

Question:

57. Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government his targets for the delivery of the homelessness strategy; the short and medium-term goals for the ending of long-term homelessness; and any deadlines related to these goals. [33778/13]

My Department’s role in respect of homelessness involves the provision of a national framework of policy, legislation and funding to underpin the role of housing authorities in addressing homelessness at local level. Statutory responsibility regarding the provision of accommodation and related services for homeless persons rests with the housing authorities. Expenditure on homeless accommodation and related services of approximately €50 million will be funded by my Department and housing authorities in 2013. While it is clear that a proportion of funding must be used to provide sufficient bed capacity to accommodate those in need of emergency accommodation, it is equally important that resources are channelled to deliver more permanent responses in a more focused and strategic way.

When I published the homelessness policy statement in February, I outlined the Government's aim to end long-term homelessness by the end of 2016.

The statement emphasises a housing-led approach which is about accessing permanent housing as the primary response to all forms of homelessness. The availability and supply of secure, affordable and adequate housing is essential in ensuring sustainable tenancies and ending long-term homelessness. A set of indicators will be used to demonstrate the dynamics of homelessness as it is addressed. These indicators will give a clearer picture of homelessness in Ireland and, in quantifying its ongoing extent, will support the introduction of realistic and practical solutions.

The arrangements for devolving funding to tackle homelessness to the lead housing authority in each of the nine regions in 2013 will seek to ensure the measures being pursued by housing authorities reflect the housing-led approach, that actions are in place to achieve the target of ending long-term homelessness by the end of 2016 and that evidence to support progress will be presented through the reports on the indicators.

I thank the Minister of State. Focus Ireland has recently stated the number of people who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes and seek support from the charity has increased by 23% over two years from 6,500 in 2010 to more than 8,000 last year. Recently, it warned that the continued impact of the recession and additional factors, including a feared increase in the number of family homes being repossessed due to the new code of conduct on mortgage arrears, will mean many more people and families will be at risk of homelessness.

The Minister of State said there would be a multifaceted and housing-led approach to homelessness. How will that work in the short and medium term? The use of rental supplement does not provide permanent housing. It is one part of the plan, in conjunction with local authorities.

There are different needs in terms of homelessness. There are people with mental health difficulties and those who have nowhere else to go. Homelessness involves a multitude of factors. Are the 2016 targets realistic? Meeting them will be very difficult unless we produce more social housing. NAMA is not delivering quickly enough one way or another on the amount of social housing it is providing.

The Minister of State referred to 400 homes, and 100 more are promised in addition to the 280 in place. We are not delivering housing quickly enough. I have seen an increase in homelessness. Placement units have reported that an increasing number of people are coming to them. It is clear many people are sleeping rough. We need to have more goals and to make social housing available. Until we do so, we will not be able to address the multitude of problems encountered by those experiencing homelessness.

I agree with the Deputy that this is very challenging and that there has been an increase in the number of people presenting as homeless. That is why we have been so focused on a housing-led policy. Research has shown it is a much more effective way of ensuring people settle in a home with the necessary supports and do not, as has happened in the past, present repeatedly as homeless. We want a more long-term solution that works for the people which the Deputy correctly said often have very complex problems. I am working very closely with service providers and the agencies to which the Deputy referred.

We will build more social housing as soon as we can. I will continue to make the case for social housing under stimulus packages. I believe in that very strongly. In the meantime, we have to use the various methods to which the Deputy referred, such as the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. We have to provide support, which is something I also feel strongly about. There may need to be visits to ensure someone is all right, people may need to liaise with the health services, and so forth.

With regard to repossessions, the mortgage-to-rent scheme will address some, but not all, of the cases where people qualify for social housing area and are in danger of repossession. The number of mortgage-to-rent homes has increased in recent times. Things were slow to start because it was a new scheme.

One of the major concerns is youth homelessness. A strategy was announced. Many single people are living in their parents' homes or living rough and moving from place to place. We are not seeing the full extent of the problem. A single person has little or no chance of being housed because there are more than 98,000 families on housing waiting lists. We need to examine youth homelessness. The problem needs to be addressed in a more rigorous manner because some people will end up in long-term homelessness. In many cases we need to urgently tackle short-term homelessness.

I have liaised, and will continue to liaise, with the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, who published a document on youth homelessness. The voluntary sector is particularly effective in the area. It has worked very hard in terms of provision but there are ongoing issues.