It sounded very personal.
For the past three years we have done our best with very constrained finances available to us to address the serious problems that exist. That is why the housing policy statement published shortly after the Government came into office in 2011 highlighted that meeting social housing need within the available resources for the future will necessitate smarter and more innovative approaches in order to maximise output, and that the main focus in terms of housing supports provided by Government at that time had to be on meeting the most acute needs of those unable to provide for their accommodation from their own resources. This philosophy has informed our policies and programmes since.
We are beginning to turn the economy around and therefore we are able for the first time to announce a mainstream housing programme, albeit limited, with the limited capital available. Almost 70% of the entire budget for my Department this year will go directly to support housing in 2014. The total housing allocation for 2014 will result in an investment of over €0.5 billion on a range of programmes, which maintains funding for housing at 2013 levels. I was also pleased to announce recently a return to mainstream local authority housing construction in 2014 and, in particular, a €68 million construction programme over 2014 to 2015 that will enable local authorities to construct approximately 450 new social homes. I see this as a rolling programme of local authority house construction. I hope to add to the programme in 2015, and if possible in 2014 as well, by announcing a further tranche of new housing starts. I also signalled my intention to approve a €35 million voluntary housing programme which will deliver up to 250 new homes over the 2014-15 period. I intend to announce details of these projects very shortly.
An additional €30 million is being invested in local authority housing in 2014. Some €15 million of this will be used to kick-start the local authority construction programme I referred to earlier. This will be of interest to Deputy Tom Fleming, who raised this issue: €15 million will fund a special measure to bring over 950 vacant and boarded-up units back into social use. A further €10 million will transform the most difficult unfinished housing estates and result in enhanced quality of life for families. That is a legacy issue we must clean up, as Deputy Clare Daly said.
Housing adaptation grants will also benefit by €10 million and this will help older people and people with disabilities to remain at home for longer. In all, over 5,000 social housing units will be provided for in 2014 through leasing and existing capital programmes. This will include 175 new units for people with special housing needs; a further 150 new units, to be provided specifically for people with disabilities leaving institutional care through leasing arrangements; an additional 200 new homes under the social housing investment programme; an additional 950 new units from the construction stimulus package for void properties; up to 350 new transfers under the mortgage to rent scheme; approximately 850 new units through leasing arrangements; and a further 2,500 new transfers under the rental accommodation scheme.
In the context of rising need, the priority must be to maximise delivery of social housing to cater for the greatest level of need at good value. It is just not possible to simply purchase or build anything like the same number of units as can be provided for through a mixture of approaches such as those outlined above. This does not mean turning our backs on traditional modes of delivery but we must tailor those supports according to the market conditions and the financial parameters in which we are working. Flexibility will be key to maximising delivery into the future. I have signalled that I want us to get back into significant construction as soon as we possibly can.
The Government's housing policy statement of June 2011 acknowledged the capacity and track record of the voluntary and co-operative housing sector and placed approved housing bodies, AHBs, at the heart of its vision for social housing provision. AHBs will play a key role in the future in the delivery of social housing and, in particular, in its capacity to attract external financial investment. In response to Deputy Clare Daly's point, that is one of the reasons we are using AHBs. Many in this Chamber have said very good things about organisations such as Focus Ireland and Simon etc.
I have just mentioned two but there are many more.
This recognises the record of steady achievement by the voluntary housing sector ever the last 20 years and the fact that Exchequer-funded large-scale capital building programmes are no longer financially possible, at least at this stage. As new social housing provision will instead rely on revenue funded housing options such as leasing and on private investment into the sector, greater use must be made of the skills and expertise of the AHB sector and its capacity to attract external financial investment which will not count towards the general Government debt.
My Department is working to create a regulatory framework that will provide assurance to stakeholders that the sector is operating well, in accordance with its stated aims and that it is a sound long-term investment option. My Department is currently in consultation with the AHB sector regarding the development of a regulatory framework to support the expanded role for the sector as envisaged in the 2011 statement. This framework will provide support and assurance to the tenants, the boards of AHBs and their external partners that it is well regulated. It will safeguard the investment that has been made in the sector and encourage future investment. The first step in this regard was the publication on 15 July 2013 of Building for the Future, a voluntary regulation code for the sector that is available on my Department's website. The code sets out key governance, management and financial principles that AHBs commit to meeting on signing a charter of commitments. To date, just over 130 AHBs have signed up to the code. It is anticipated that the majority of AHBs will engage with the code as it will present an opportunity to influence the final shape of statutory regulation.
In February this year I announced the establishment of an interim regulatory committee for the sector to oversee the implementation of the code and to advise on the development of statutory regulation. The committee includes experts in regulation, housing, law and finance, and it has been constituted as an independent committee operating, for the time being, within the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency. Implementation of the voluntary code will be a valuable source of information on the scope and final content of the proposed statutory regulation to be developed by 2016. In addition, there will be widespread consultation in the normal way during the development of the new legal framework
My Department, together with the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency and the Housing Finance Agency, is currently working with the sector to define more detailed financial benchmarks to which AHBs seeking private financial investment could also sign up to. In the meantime, it remains open to AHBs to apply for external funding, whether from the Housing Finance Agency or from private lenders such as credit unions and other sources. At least seven bodies have been certified by the HFA as eligible for loan finance with approximately €40 million in loans approved.
We are also working to extend to tenants in the AHB sector the same rights and protections afforded to tenants in the private rented sector via the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. While recognising that the vast majority of AHB tenancies work very well, the rights and obligations afforded to landlords and tenants in the private rented sector will soon be extended to the AHB sector via the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012, which has passed through the Dáil and is currently in the Seanad.
The private rented sector is an increasingly important element of the housing market, with the proportion of households in the sector almost doubling in the period from 2006 to 2011. Approximately one in five households is now renting a home in the private sector. Against this background, the growing evidence of increasing rents, particularly in Dublin, is cause for concern. The Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, rent index for the fourth quarter of 2013 showed a year-on-year increase in rents of 3.3% nationally. However, this national average figure masks differences by property type and location. Nationally, rents for houses in the fourth quarter of 2013 were 1.6% higher than the same period in 2012, while rents for apartments were 5.2% higher over the same period. In Dublin, rents for houses increased by 6.4% and for apartments the figure was 8%. It is worth noting however that, on average, rents in Dublin are still 15.5% lower than they were at their peak in the fourth quarter of 2007.
Resolution of the housing supply situation is a key element in restoring stability to the market. In the meantime, there is scope to explore measures that would protect tenants in the short term from the consequences of market failure. I have asked the PRTB to carry out focused research on options for addressing the difficulties being experienced in segments of the private rented sector and to report back to me with policy recommendations in that regard before the end of June. In doing this, I am conscious of the need to avoid introducing measures that would have adverse consequences on the private rented sector. My goal is to achieve stability and sustainability in the market for the benefit of tenants, landlords and society as a whole.
The Residential Tenancies Act 2004 sets out the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants in the private rented residential sector. The PRTB was established as an independent statutory body under the Act to operate a national tenancy registration system and to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants in the sector. It should be noted that the PRTB replaces the courts for the vast majority of landlord and tenant disputes. For a fee of €25, which is low compared to the cost of initiating full court proceedings, parties to a dispute can apply to the PRTB for adjudication or mediation services rather than go through the courts system. Demand for the PRTB's services has grown significantly in recent years, reflecting sizable growth in the private rented sector. The board has responded to these challenges by pursuing a programme of outsourcing, shared services and improved ICT systems. An online registration system was launched in November 2010, online dispute management services were introduced in 2012 and a programme of shared services has involved electronic tracking of legal documentation and, most recently, the launch in 2013 of a quarterly rent index in association with the Central Statistics Office.
In addition to these efficiency measures, legislative changes are in train to support of the work of the PRTB. In November 2012, I introduced the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, which will, inter alia, streamline and simplify aspects of the Act to assist the board in meeting its service obligations. The Government recently approved the drafting of amendments to the Bill which include measures to address long-standing issues such as deposit retention and the non-payment of rent in dispute cases, which are the most common dispute types brought before the board, accounting for close to 37% of all dispute types in 2012. The Bill will also provide for the separation of the governance and quasi-judicial functions of the board and will simplify the mediation process
In regard to security of tenure, an issue I know to be of interest to the Technical Group, the grounds on which a tenancy in the private rented sector may be legally terminated are set out in the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. In addition, the Act contains provisions relating to the setting of rent and rent reviews and sets out the procedures and notice periods that must be complied with when terminating a tenancy. The Act prohibits the setting of a rent that is greater than the market rent for a particular tenancy. A difficulty arises when there is market failure and there is evidence of this in the form of a lack of supply of suitable properties, mainly in the bigger cities and especially so in Dublin. In 2006, housing completions in Dublin had risen to 19,470, or approximately 21% of the national total of 93,419. In 2013, of the 8,301 housing units built nationally, only 1,360, or just over 16%, were in Dublin.
Rent supplement is administered as part of the supplementary welfare allowance by the Department of Social Protection. The purpose of rent supplement is to provide short-term support to eligible people living in private rented accommodation, whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have access to accommodation from any other source. The overall aim is to provide short-term assistance rather than to act as an alternative to the other social housing schemes operated by the Exchequer. There are currently approximately 78,000 rent supplement recipients, for which the Government has provided over €344 million for 2014. To facilitate a top-up arrangement, the tenant, landlord or landlord's agent must complete the rent supplement application and jointly declare that the information provided is correct and accurate. The application form clearly states that making a false statement or withholding information may lead to prosecution. In June 2012, the Department of Social Protection introduced powers of inquiry for staff to formally request and oblige landlords to provide information in respect of rent supplement tenants to further improve the governance arrangements. In such cases the Department's representative will discuss the circumstances of the case with the tenant before making any decision on ongoing entitlement. The primary concern in dealing with such cases is to protect the tenant.
When I spoke earlier of the need to focus on the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities, one of the groups I was referring to was those who are homeless. In February 2013, the Government's homelessness policy statement was published. The statement elaborates on commitments made in the programme for Government to review and update the national homeless strategy to end long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough by 2016. I intend to reach that target. The statement emphasises a housing-led approach, which involves accessing permanent housing as the primary response to all forms of homelessness. As this is a priority matter for Government, the decision was taken to ring-fence funding for homeless services in budgets 2013 and 2014 in support of the discharge by local authorities of their statutory role in the provision of accommodation for homeless persons.
The availability and supply of secure, affordable and adequate housing is essential in ensuring sustainable tenancies and ending long-term homelessness. In the past two years in Dublin, some 1,500 people have moved from homeless services to independent living, with the necessary supports. When the policy statement was published I also established a homelessness oversight group to review progress, identify obstacles and propose solutions. The group submitted its first report last December following which, on 25 February 2014, the Government approved the establishment of a homelessness policy implementation team and an implementation unit.
The team has been asked to implement the recommendations of the oversight group's report. This includes the preparation and publication of a structured, practical plan to make the transition from a shelter-led to a sustainable housing-led response. This plan will be a practically focused delivery plan and will contain actions that are direct, immediate and solution-based. I will be going back to Cabinet in coming weeks in order to ensure we have full approval for the various actions that need to take place with regard to that programme.
The Government, including my Department, is taking steps to address the challenges in the property and construction sectors. These will include the development of an overall strategic approach to housing supply, identifying and implementing relevant improvements in the planning process and the completion of the review of Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 in the near future, while also seeking to improve financing options for development and mortgage provision. My Department is also committed to delivering a social housing strategy later this year.
The forthcoming construction sector strategy, which is being led by the Department of the Taoiseach and which other Departments, including my own, are feeding into, builds on recent work on the construction sector, including the publication of a Forfás report, a Government statement last July and more recent targeted measures in budget 2014. The strategy aims to support increased activity and job creation, primarily through the identification and removal of any obstacles that might be acting as a brake on or disincentive to activity. It is expected to be considered by the Government shortly.
I thank the Members of the House for listening to my contribution. I have endeavoured, through my amendment to the motion, to reassure Deputies of the priority the Government accords to the issues of housing and homelessness through the range of actions it is taking to improve the situation for the most vulnerable members of our society. As I said at the outset, concern in this area is not the preserve of any one side of this House. As Minister of State, I am working every day to find new ways, better ways and more ways to provide additional housing and to achieve the Government's target of ending long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough by 2016, and to improve access to secure and suitable housing for all.
The role of housing and the housing market in our economic downfall is well documented, and the problems we now face - though of a different nature - reflect the effects of the downturn on our economy. As we continue to recover, it is critical that housing is accorded its proper place as a critical social and economic asset, providing homes where people can grow and flourish. Housing is fundamental to our development as a society. Nobody, least of all I as Minister of State, would say we do not have a long way to go, but let there be no doubt of our commitment to deliver housing and to a programme of meaningful and sustainable reform. There is no point in pretending that we can magic houses from thin air, but there are ways, with resources, innovation and political will, to deliver those homes.