Other Questions

Housing Provision

Bernard Durkan

Question:

6. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the extent to which he remains satisfied about the effectiveness of the steps taken to date by his Department to deal with the ongoing housing crisis which he inherited from his predecessors; his proposals in this regard, given the extent of hardship and concerns among those who are on local authority housing waiting lists or those who are about to become homeless as a result of rent increases or other circumstances; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28941/15]

This question relates to the ominous growth of the housing crisis. Notwithstanding the tremendous efforts made by the Minister and the Minister of State in this regard, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the issue is much larger than was anticipated. It was inherited from a previous era, which is unfortunate, and came at a very bad time. This might be a good time to examine whether the measures already taken are sufficient to deal with the issue.

The Government’s social housing strategy targets the provision of over 110,000 social housing units to 2020, through the delivery of 35,000 new social housing units and meeting the housing needs of some 75,000 households through the housing assistance payment and rental accommodation scheme. This will address the needs of the 90,000 households on the housing waiting list in full, with flexibility to meet potential future demand.

I set ambitious targets for local authorities for the period 2015 to 2017 in my announcement on 1 April 2015, with an investment of €1.5 billion in a combination of building, purchase and leasing schemes which will accommodate 25% of those currently on social housing waiting lists. On 5 May I announced funding of €312 million to support 100 separate housing projects, providing 1,700 units of accommodation across all 31 local authorities. I will make further announcements, with the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, in the coming weeks and months.

Ultimately, a shortage of supply is at the heart of rising rents and the Government is addressing the issue on a number of fronts. Construction 2020: A Strategy for a Renewed Construction Sector, published last year, is aimed at addressing bottlenecks that might impede the construction sector in meeting demand. My Department, in particular the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, is leading on a range of actions under Construction 2020, including two significant pieces of planning legislation, one of which, the Urban Regeneration and Housing Bill, is progressing through the Oireachtas, as the Deputy is aware.

My overriding objective in regard to rents is to achieve stability and sustainability in the market for the benefit of tenants, landlords and society as a whole. The regulation of rent raises many complex economic and legal issues and I have to be satisfied that any measure proposed is balanced and will have the desired effect on the rental market, while being fair to landlords and tenants alike. Ultimately, any decision on rent certainty is a matter for the Government. It is my intention to bring proposals to the Government for consideration in the very near future.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I appreciate and fully support the measures taken to date. My only problem is the extent to which he has been able to identify, in respect of the various local authorities, in particular in the greater Dublin area, the number of houses acquired, purchased or built with a view to allocating them immediately. In County Kildare alone, about 600 houses are required to address the housing emergency. It would not solve the problem, but it would be a major step in the right direction. I, therefore, ask the Minister whether it is possible to re-examine the extent to which local authorities have the facilities and ability to urgently deal with the question.

I thank the Deputy. I will not deny that everyone knows that there are issues regarding housing. It is probably the biggest priority in my Department and the main reason I took this job. There is a legacy issue. It is like stopping a ship from turning to face the opposite direction and getting it moving again because the policies in place for a number of years had to be rescinded and changed to allow houses to be built once again. I will refer to the position in Dublin and surrounding areas, including County Kildare, because that is where the need is greatest. As late as two days ago I met in one room all local authority representatives, chief executives or senior housing representatives, depending on who was available, to outline the priorities and focus on how we needed to deliver solutions in terms of timelines and turning around developments quickly. I have made local authorities well aware that the resources they require will be provided for them, within reason. I will be very open to providing whatever resource allocation is required. In excess of 350 staff have been recently allocated to local authorities.

I fully appreciate the efforts being made, but I am anxious that they succeed in the short as well as the medium term. Might it be possible to ask various local authorities to implement, or can the Minister set, particular objectives for them, with a view to achieving them within a two or three month period? One cannot build a house in a day, but a means needs to be found to identify the period within which those now in a crisis might expect to access housing.

It is interesting that the Deputy has asked that question. Not alone am I doing it, but we have measurement and management information techniques built into every decision we make. On the allocations given across a range of areas, I have informed local authorities that within a couple of weeks we will conduct an analysis of those that are up to speed. If they are not, funding will be taken from them and used where it is most necessary. Local authorities which are actively providing accommodation and using the available funding will be rewarded for so doing and they deserve to be. We will not fall below a certain threshold. The measurements applied to local authorities have been in place for some time. In profiling every area of expenditure local authorities are well aware that anything that may have happened in the past will no longer happen and that they will have to show results.

Housing Assistance Payments

Thomas Pringle

Question:

7. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he will consider raising the housing assistance payment rental levels for applicants in recognition of the fact that it is impossible to secure rental properties at or near the current levels in County Donegal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28765/15]

This question relates to the housing assistance payment in County Donegal which has been rolled out in the past four or five weeks. I refer to the possibility of increasing the levels of payment.

I thank the Deputy for his question. The housing assistance payment has been rolled out to all categories of household in 13 local authority areas, including County Donegal. There are now over 2,600 households nationally in receipt of the payment. The payment has been operational in the administrative area of Donegal County Council since 25 May. In the seven weeks since it has been introduced over 40 households have been accommodated under the scheme in County Donegal. I am pleased with this progress and would like to commend the local authority on its engagement with the scheme to date. Of the six local authorities that have been added, Donegal County Council has performed the best by far, for which the local authority deserves to be commended.

The maximum rent limits for the different household classes that apply in each local authority where the housing assistance payment has been commenced are set out in regulations and are currently based on the rent supplement limits as set out by the Department of Social Protection. In prescribing these limits household size and prevailing rents in the relevant areas are taken into consideration. In the context of implementation of the housing assistance payment, my Department works closely with the Department of Social Protection and monitors data gathered by housing assistance payment pilot authorities for the rent limits applying and difficulties that may arise. The operation of the housing assistance payment by Donegal County Council will be kept under active review in this context.

The levels set for the HAP are in line with the rent assistance and I suppose the only positive difference with the HAP is that one does not get refused if one is paying a rent above the HAP level that is set. The rents are not based on the market in the local areas. In County Donegal, this morning there were five properties available under the HAP limit for a family with one child in a county the size of Donegal with 160,000 of a population and over 2,500 on the housing lists.

The HAP limits are not high enough and they need to be increased if the Government is serious about addressing this issue. While applicants are not turned down for being over the limit, they are still struggling to meet those rents and still have to pay the landlord the difference between the HAP limit and the amount that the local authority pays. No doubt Donegal County Council will work the scheme well because its housing office has always been proactive. If the Minister of State is serious about the success of this scheme, the limits need to be increased to reflect what is happening on the ground. A simple two-minute search on daft.ie by the Department will show the extent of the lack of properties available within the limits of the scheme.

The figures speak for themselves, especially in regard to Donegal. In the seven weeks since the HAP has been rolled out, and it is only the second wave of HAP local authorities of which Donegal is one, over 40 households have been accommodated. That, in itself, proves it is working quite well in Donegal.

We have ambitious targets for the HAP. With the Department of Social Protection, my Department will be monitoring closely the rent limits. We actively review that constantly. As I explained earlier to Deputy Catherine Murphy, in South Dublin County Council, where it was proven to us that there was a strong demand for flexibility, we applied such discretion. If that arises in other local authority areas, the same will apply. We are keeping it under active review.

Donegal is performing well and we expect it to continue to engage with many more households in the successful HAP accommodation scheme.

In the past seven weeks, if the HAP had not been rolled out in Donegal, 40 applicants would have got rent allowance because they would have submitted on their form that they were under the rent limits and they would have been approved. What the Minister of State says bears no reality to the situation on the ground. I would be interested to see if he would go back and ask Donegal County Council for how many of those 40 applicants was the rent at or below the HAP limit. That would show first-hand from the Minister of State's own officials what the situation is.

The Minister of State can get an official in the Department to spend two minutes on a computer and see the position on rent limits and whether the HAP limit is suitable. That would be a simple exercise for him to do and it would show that the HAP limits are not viable or realistic for anybody.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Department of Social Protection has issued instructions to its local staff to use discretion as required. In the overall sense, we have ambitious targets for the HAP around the country and we are rolling it out to a number of local authorities. The second wave has just been announced and Donegal is one of six local authorities in that second wave. These are new applicants who are joining the scheme in the HAP and we will also be transferring recipients of rent supplement into the HAP scheme. That will be ongoing.

I have committed to the Deputy that we will review the scheme. We actively review and evaluate how successful the scheme is in each area and if problems arise, we will engage on that basis, as has been done on South Dublin County Council. We are committed to this and we want a successful efficient HAP scheme. The scheme is new. It is taking time for applicants to understand it and engage in it. Limerick City and County Council has proven it. It has over 400 people on the HAP scheme and is continually engaging, as are the other local authorities, to ensure that there are more people joining the scheme, almost on a daily basis.

Pyrite Remediation Programme

Clare Daly

Question:

8. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government his views regarding the operation of the pyrite remediation scheme, with particular reference to any consideration being provided to widen the terms of the scheme to include more homes with pyrite, particularly those which do not have a Building and Construction Authority rating of 2; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28734/15]

I welcome that the pyrite remediation scheme is up and running. A number of units have been entirely remediated and a number of others are under way. What are the views of the Minister of State? Is he happy with the progress, is he fully briefed on the issues that have emerged in the course of that remediation which may require a change to the scheme, and is he looking at revisiting those who are eligible for the scheme, most particularly those who do not have a building condition assessment, BCA, rating of 2?

I note Deputy Clare Daly and many other colleagues, from all parties and none, are actively engaged in assisting homeowners with the pyrite remediation scheme. I have been briefed on it. I visited a number of sites where remediation is getting under way and it is progressing at a rapid rate. I expect to be reporting considerable progress over the coming months.

The pyrite remediation scheme, which was first published by the Pyrite Resolution Board in February of 2014, was developed having regard to the recommendations set out in the Report of the Pyrite Panel and the relevant provisions of the Pyrite Resolution Act 2013. The full conditions for eligibility are set out in the scheme, which is available on the board's website. It is a condition of eligibility under the scheme that an application to the board must be accompanied by a building condition assessment carried out by a competent person in accordance with I.S. 398-1:2013 Reactive pyrite in sub-floor hardcore material.

I emphasise that the pyrite remediation scheme is a scheme of last resort which aims to repair homes with substantial damage due to pyritic heave and is targeted to assist a restricted group of homeowners who have no other practicable options to access redress. Deputy Clare Daly has been active on this issue, as have many Deputies. I do not want to see residents left in the lurch. I have seen the distress that it has caused to many families.

In the first year of the scheme, we were setting up the board, the housing agency and the technical staff had to be put in place, and we ran a pilot scheme before Christmas. I am happy to report that substantial progress has been made and many tenders are being prepared so that they can be contracted out for further progress. However, it is a scheme of last resort. We are prioritising those that are worst affected, that is, category 2. It is my job to ensure that this scheme is run as efficiently as possible to ensure that these residents are assisted with the problems with which they have been left due to the legacy of poor standard regulation in the building sector. The priority is category 2, and that is where the priority will remain for the moment.

We are now in a new phase of the scheme. Inevitably, there would be teething problems. The board is confident that it can achieve its target of having 600 houses completed by the end of next year. I welcome that and hope it is the case.

I refer to some of the issues that have emerged during the remediation works. In some areas, when homeowners moved out, the job took longer because of structural problems that emerged in the course of the remediation of the infill or other issues that were outside the control of the homeowners. These homeowners have had to enter into three-month leases in rented accommodation, move their post and, for example, be eligible for two water charges bills, and the idea of the works being extended beyond a couple of weeks throws that into crisis because of the inability to extend. People do not operate on that basis. Is the board considering that it is not reasonable to expect the homeowners in that situation to bear the extra cost?

Issues have emerged about the quality of the replacement products, that they are not up to standard with what some of the homeowners had in terms of flooring, house decoration, etc. That needs to be looked at. In particular, there is the issue of the need to change the scheme away from being purely damage-based. Once the scheme gets up and running, we must look at those who have pyrite with less damage.

Deputy Clare Daly acknowledges the progress that is being made. It is not before time. I am committed to ensuring we give it full focus and priority over the coming months. As I said, I expect substantial progress to be made now as more homes are remediated.

The Deputy is correct in saying that some issues are coming to light when the mediation crews are moving onto site where they are discovering further defects, in terms of substandard building and construction works. This is something about which we need to be careful, first and foremost, because the pyrite resolution scheme is essentially to deal with the pyrite-related issues only. As other substandard work arises, it is important that it is highlighted as early as possible after it is discovered. The remediation crews have a responsibility to ensure that no house is handed back in a dangerous or substandard condition.

It is not appropriate that the cost of remediating other structural works that have nothing to do with pyrite should fall back on the taxpayer. That would give rise to all kinds of issues, not just concerning pyrite, right around the country. The scheme is a scheme of last resort. We are conscious that other issues arise. We are working with the homeowners through the project managers to ensure the issues are addressed as appropriately as possible.

We need to revisit the other structural issues that emerge, including in respect of HomeBond, for example. I do not know whether the Minister of State has done any work on this. He is correct that some of these matters are very serious. While the taxpayer should not be liable under this scheme, the homeowner should not be either.

With regard to the basis of the scheme and the idea that it is connected with damage, the board has asked what the problem is if one's house is not damaged. If there is pyrite, the house will get damaged. One cannot build an extension and one cannot sell the house, decorate it or put in a new floor. One cannot move the house. Therefore, there needs to be a system that captures those people who have pyrite that may result in problems. There needs to be some way to alleviate the burden of testing so those concerned might be able to get a green certificate after a certain period. If there is to be no oxidisation and further damage, the homeowner needs to be able to show this. Unless the problem is remediated or the homeowner gets a green certificate, he or she cannot move on. We are talking about tens of thousands of homeowners. This will have to be addressed, probably sooner rather than later.

The budget is being provided for, and priority is being accorded to, those who are most affected, namely those in category two. However, I am conscious of many of the issues that arise. I have met many of the householders who have concerns. They do not know whether they have pyrite in their houses. Core testing is the only way this can be decided upon. I appreciate that it is costly but our funds are going towards remediation.

As I said to the householders, I do not want to leave anybody behind who has been affected by pyrite. The Government has committed to addressing this but the scheme is one of last resort. I will work with the homeowners to determine whether we can find solutions. As I said to them, the more houses that are remediated, the closer we will be to dealing with their issues. I mean that and do not want to leave anybody behind.

The Deputy referred to HomeBond. It is on the record and I have no problem saying that HomeBond did not cover itself in glory regarding this issue. If other structural defects are found — some are arising — it will be open to the homeowners or other householders to pursue HomeBond or any other insurance company or builder associated with the building. We cannot let this fall back on the taxpayer. It is completely separate from the pyrite remediation scheme.

Septic Tank Inspections

Mick Wallace

Question:

9. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he will provide details of the number of houses in County Wexford that have their own septic tank unit; if he is satisfied with the number of inspections carried out by the local authorities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29011/15]

It is nearly two years since we were arguing with the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Commissioner Phil Hogan, about septic tanks. One day I tried to pin him down and asked him how many septic tanks would be inspected. He said that one in eight would probably be inspected. I asked about the other seven. Whatever about inspecting the other seven, the inspection of one in eight is a long way off also. We have serious problems. If the Government is genuinely concerned about the water table, it will have to review the scheme.

I was not present for the debate but I am sure I can access the record of it. Census 2011, published by the Central Statistics Office, indicates there were 21,242 septic tanks and 4,369 individual treatment systems in County Wexford in 2011. Those are the facts.

The Environmental Protection Agency is the supervisory body for the purpose of meeting the objectives of the National Inspection Plan 2015-2017: Domestic Waste Water Treatment Systems. The plan is managed and implemented by the local authorities. The plan underpins the risk-based inspection of septic tanks and other on-site treatment systems. My Department does not have any direct role in monitoring the implementation of the EPA's plan by the local authorities. However, the plan has been drawn up to best international standards and I am satisfied the risk-based inspection system is consistent with the necessity to ensure compliance with the provisions of the EU waste directive and the European Court of Justice ruling against Ireland in October 2009. It also has regard to the European Parliament and Council’s recommendations of 4 April 2001 regarding the minimum criteria for environmental inspections in the member states.

Inspections are objective, evidence based and aimed at identifying septic tanks and similar treatment systems that are a risk to public health or the environment. The EPA has set the minimum number of inspections to be carried out in the years 2015 to 2017 at 1,000 nationally per annum. It is important to note this is the recommended minimum number and there is nothing preventing a local authority from carrying out more inspections than the recommended minimum should it consider it necessary or appropriate to do so.

In Wexford, there are two members of staff working on this. The local authority inspected 54 tanks in the first year and it hopes to inspect 104 this year. At this rate, it will take over 200 years to inspect all septic tanks. I said initially and it is a fact that half the tanks in Wexford are faulty. Therefore, we are poisoning the water table. This system must change. At present, one cannot request an inspection even if one knows there is a problem with it, and third party complaints are being ignored. If one carries out the work oneself, one cannot apply for a grant retrospectively. The fact is that if one is not on the council system, one cannot possibly qualify for a grant. This is not a good structure and the Minister would find it hard to stand over it. He did not invent it and I am not saying it is his fault, but I believe a new structure needs to be put in place. The contamination of the water table is a serious issue. The Department of Health should be seriously concerned about it.

I thank the Deputy. I remember the debate on this although I was not centrally involved. There were many Deputies in the House who opposed the inspection process, although I am not saying Deputy Wallace did. The plan is in place and it predates my term of office, but I now have responsibility for it. There is an agreed plan in place for the period 2015 to 2017. As part of that, we will be reviewing in 2016 how it will work from the following year onwards. I am certainly committed to this analysis.

The 1,000 inspections resulted in no issues in approximately half the cases. Of the 500 odd with issues, half had only sludging issues or small issues. The remainder have some work to be done. These are rough figures.

There is a plan in place for the period 2015 to 2017 and it is evidence based. With regard to considering changes, I agree with the Deputy regarding self-referrals to local authorities from 2017. Local authorities can inspect more tanks than the designated minimum.

Is the Minister telling me that if Wexford local authority wants more staff to work in this area, the State will cover the cost? I believe the local authority would inspect more septic tanks if it had them. Let me outline a big problem with the evidence-based system. Many tanks built in the early years — I built many of them — were built according to the planning conditions laid down and agreed by the local authority but they are not right. We have built many of the tanks incorrectly but we did not know at the time.

In the past few years, the raised-bed idea was introduced. The idea behind this was that one would import soil that could actually take the bacteria out of the water before it reached the water table. However, one needs good quality topsoil to take the bacteria out of the water. Good topsoil was very expensive and importing it was even more expensive. Transport is even more expensive than the soil itself. This meant people did not import the soil and instead created a raised bed with the soil already in the land. Was that cheating? It was, but the practice was prevalent. I know for a fact that there are many cases of it in Wexford. Those concerned will not even be caught in the risk-based assessment. A lot of thinking must be done on this. The Government will have to spend more on it or we will continue to have a contaminated water table, which I believe is directly linked to the high rate of cancer in Ireland.

The Deputy made many comments. Given his previous occupation, he has much direct evidence and knowledge of this subject.

The plan that is in place has been signed up to for 2015 to 2017. I am not afraid of change or of looking at some things a second or third time. I am not that type of person. I am committed to dealing with issues if I see them.

The Deputy asked a specific question about resources. I have allocated almost 350 staff across local authorities over recent months. If there is a specific issue relating to perceived water contamination in some counties and they look for resources, I must look at that. If the Deputy tells me or the local authority writes to me to say it believes it needs additional resources because of concerns it has, I must look at that. That goes for any local authority. If it is perceived there is a particular issue in a region or location such as the south east and if the local authorities make a submission to me, I must consider it.

Building Regulations

Catherine Murphy

Question:

10. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the reason he and his colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning, wrote to each chief executive of the four local authorities in County Dublin on 10 June 2015 on the matter of building standards; if he will describe precisely the unreasonable and excessive requirements in the standard of housing or ancillary services to which he referred in the letter; the standards he would deem acceptable; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28763/15]

The Minister and the Minister of State wrote to the local authorities in Dublin about building standards. They spoke about unreasonable and excessive requirements. What precisely did they mean by this?

The current indications are that to meet rising demand and address recent under-supply, the level of house building in Dublin needs to at least double from the 3,000 or so new homes that were built in 2014. Consequently, the Minister and I wrote to the chief executives of each of the four Dublin local authorities regarding the preparation and finalisation of the new development plans for their areas. The letter requested the local authorities to focus on practical measures for inclusion in the development plans to boost housing supply and ensure good quality housing in suitable locations is available at prices that people can afford and that investors will find attractive to develop for the rental market.

Current indications are that viability of new housing construction in Dublin, although improving, remains in a very fragile condition. Therefore, it is essential that the development plan places the viability of development and early delivery as a high priority. Requiring particular or proprietary forms of housing construction or large setback distances of existing housing from new apartments will increase development costs and result in higher house prices and rents.

The purpose of the letter is not to compromise quality or standards. Indeed, it should be clearly understood and I want to emphasise that the building standards in this country respect and meet all relevant EU requirements. The intent of our letter is to encourage the local authorities concerned to ensure the development plan process supports the viability of new development through rigorous economic and regulatory impact assessment of any new or existing development plan standards that are above relevant national minimum requirements.

We have had many examples of bad decisions being made during a crisis, which is why I asked the question. It is fine as long as the standards end up being good standards and we do not end up paying money in the future for cutting back on something on which we should not have cut back. Insulation standards are an example. We do not want to end up with a situation where we have to retrofit storage in apartments. It can be very off-putting and expensive for families. Families frequently have to sell baby stuff and then buy it again when a new baby arrives because there is no place to store things. Setback distances can be really important if buildings are higher so that one does not lose light, which can be very unattractive and unhealthy for people. I am looking to explore this aspect.

I understand where the Deputy is coming from and I want to reassure her that this is not about reducing standards. We already have minimum standards in this country and we comply with EU requirements. This is about ensuring we have development that is sustainable and affordable and that the construction of housing from the concept to design to planning to construction is affordable. Otherwise, we will price ourselves out of the market. I recognise that we need good quality development plans that are sustainable and the Deputy is right to raise this issue in the House.

She asked what unreasonable and excessive requirements we were referring to. One area that has been highlighted to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council was the inclusion of the passive housing standard as a minimum energy performance requirement. I have no issue with housing construction standards being as high and efficient as possible and believe they should be encouraged, but we need to careful that we are not overly prescriptive or restrictive in our county and city development plans. It is important that issues such as the location of apartments are more appropriately considered in the individual planning application. There is nothing stopping local authorities from applying conditions rather than having overall restrictive or prescriptive conditions in a county or city development plan. In other words, one has belts and braces when one does not need them because they will add to cost and restrict housing output, which is not something any of us wants to see.

Sometimes, if one does not put standards in place, one gets the lowest possible standards with the applications. This is a counter-argument to not setting that out. We should seek not to have to end up doing or reversing things in the future. Has the Government looked at other elements of the cost of building other than the standards? I presume it has. What evidence does the Minister of State have that what is happening in these particular local authorities is driving those costs up?

It is not the Minister or I who are saying this. We have utilised expertise in the Housing Agency, which has carried out a deep analysis of the cost of delivering on housing units. We have addressed other areas that have added to cost. We debated some of those in the House last week during the debate on the Urban Regeneration and Housing Bill. Overheads like development contributions under Part V were very high in the past. We are giving local authorities flexibility to reduce these. This is just one way in which we are trying to reduce costs.

I reassure the Deputy that we are not trying to undermine what are already quality standards in building construction in this country. What we are warning against is having standards that are over and above what is in place, that may not be necessary and that may restrict any application that comes before a local authority. We want to ensure we boost housing construction and increase the output. If we restrict that in any way, we will all have a right to complain. It is important that our Department's efforts to tackle any impediments or barriers are addressed. We are writing in good faith to those local authorities to ask them to take that on board.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.