Planning and Development (Urgent Social Housing Supply) Policy Directive 2015: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the following Policy Directive in draft:

Planning and Development (Urgent Social Housing Supply) Policy Directive 2015,

copies of which have been laid in draft form before Dáil Éireann on 29th October, 2015.

On behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the motion that Dáil Éireann approve this draft policy directive regarding urgent social housing supply. This was discussed at the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht last Tuesday and relates specifically to the unprecedented and increasing number of homeless families that are presenting, in particular in the Dublin area, with resultant disruptive effects on family life and the health and well-being of children. To put this in context, of the 637 families currently homeless in the Dublin region, 401, comprising 534 adults and 843 children, are being accommodated in unsuitable arrangements in hotels. The Minister and I are concerned about this increasing phenomenon. Undoubtedly, that concern is shared by all Deputies.

The new capacity being created by the various housing solutions currently being implemented is not yet sufficient to accommodate the numbers presenting. Therefore, there is an urgent need to accelerate the provision of housing to address the accommodation needs of homeless households, especially families. In this context, the Government has approved a comprehensive programme of measures, including the initial delivery of 500 modular housing units for the Dublin region, which will help to reduce the number of homeless families in hotels by providing more appropriate family living conditions. In the first instance, these units will provide emergency accommodation. The placement of households in these units will be on a temporary basis, but they will offer a greater level of stability than the alternative of hotel accommodation while options for long-term living are being secured.

It is intended to have the first 153 units delivered in the Dublin City Council area, with the city council expecting the delivery of an initial 22 units by December, approximately 131 units in the first quarter of 2016 through a fast-tracked procurement process and 350 units across the Dublin region in mid-2016. This fast delivery compares with a timeframe of up to two years to provide conventional social housing units.

In this light and with a view to supporting the use of the fastest planning process in order for the modular units to be in place as quickly as possible, the Minister indicated his intention to issue a policy directive under section 29 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 addressed to the four Dublin planning authorities. A draft directive has been prepared and, as required, laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The purpose of the draft policy directive is to remind those planning authorities of the statutory provisions of section 179 of the 2000 Act and the related Part 8 measures in the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, which set out the procedure for local authority own development, such as the provision of new housing developments.

In the context of discharging these functions and the requirement to provide urgent social housing to meet the needs of homeless families, the draft directive directs these planning authorities to utilise all powers available to them under section 179, as appropriate, for the purpose of finding solutions to the situation and accelerating the delivery of developments to address the urgent and increasing need for social housing accommodation in the Dublin region. Subject to Oireachtas approval, this directive will issue to the four Dublin planning authorities under section 29 of the 2000 Act and they will be bound to comply with it.

The legislative basis for a policy directive underpins and strengthens any policy direction that the Minister may wish to issue. The issuing of a policy directive in the context of the delivery of social housing will underscore the importance of the expeditious delivery of this programme of modular housing, as approved by the Government. It is essential that the programme be implemented speedily. From a planning perspective, the draft policy directive is aimed at assisting by supporting the programme and the relevant planning authorities that are delivering it.

The recently announced Government package of housing measures, entitled "Stabilising Rents, Boosting Supply", which is aimed at improving stability in the private rental sector and supporting increased housing supply, demonstrates that addressing the current problems in the housing market is a key Government priority. The programme for delivery of modular housing, supported by this policy directive, is just one element of the response to the housing issue. Along with the implementation of the Construction 2020 strategy, the social housing strategy and the housing package, it provides a comprehensive framework for ensuring that homes are provided for those who most need them. Accordingly, I trust that, following discussion, this important policy directive will be approved by the Oireachtas so that it can be issued to the relevant planning authorities.

This is amazing in the extreme, notwithstanding the fact that homes are immediately required by those to whom the Minister of State referred. As usual, he has been thrown the hospital pass. There are no cameras present, but if there were, I know who would be here. That said, what is proposed in this motion-----

We received a hospital pass from the previous Government.

-----is as clear as mud. I am led to believe that Deputy McNamara has a legal brain. He might be able to direct the House.

There was nothing but mumbo jumbo in the Minister of State's speech.

Deputies should direct their comments through the Chair.

What is the planning process? For 18 months, we have been calling for emergency legislation to give effect to procurement so that housing provision can be made to meet requirements. In September, it was announced that we would go down the road of modular homes. Three months later, and after my calling regularly for a programme of events or a planning process under which applications could be made in order to have these homes put in place, we are being told that the Government will advise local authorities of their responsibilities under section 179 of the 2000 Act and the related Part 8 provisions. The Part 8 that I remember from my time on a planning authority - I was a member of Offaly County Council for almost 20 years - required a local authority to go through a consultation process with the public and it was thereafter a reserved function of the council members to discuss and agree the provisions and services pertaining to the laying down of those homes. An environmental impact assessment would conclude the process. Will Dublin City Council and so on now be able to bypass planning procedure, including the practice of affording local residents any consultation or notice as to where the homes will be placed?

Will it not have to produce any environmental impact reports or impact reports concerning waste water, sewerage and traffic infrastructure? Perhaps most worrying from a planning perspective, this directive precludes the council from having to undertake any impact assessment as to whether the units are supported by local services in the community.

To add to the confusion, there is no definition of "temporary." The units, if they are to cost €190,000 each, cannot be too temporary. Does "temporary" mean six months, six years or 16 years? The Minister of State said he plans to provide 500 of the units up to mid-2016. I do not know what process or planning procedures will apply regarding their installation. In the absence of a definition of "temporary," I wonder whether the Government is bypassing Part 8. As Deputy McGrath asked the Tánaiste during the Order of Business, has the Attorney General sanctioned this process under the planning and development regulations? In the absence of a definition of "temporary," the units, if they are to cost €190,000 a pop, could be in place for much longer than six months. They could be in place for 60 years. What planning process has been entertained or entered into in respect of which residents in the vicinity of the proposed units have a say regarding their impact on local services?

It is unbelievable that this whole motion is to be done and dusted in 20 minutes in this House of Parliament. That is the level of respect that the Government, including the Minister, and the Department and members of the Government parties are showing for the rest of the country, including the people who will be affected.

As I said at the outset, I have no issue whatsoever with the provision of the units. I have seen them and I believe they are appropriate and could accommodate people in the short term. They are better than hotels, as the Minister of State said himself. However, had the Government gone through the Part 8 process when it announced its plan, it would be through it by now and the units could be put in place with no issue. However, the Government has failed to do that. We are now told the temporary accommodation units cost €90,000 over and above units that are being sold around the country by Project Arrow. NAMA, through a job lot sale, is selling property worth €7 billion for €1 billion. We are told some 50% of the properties are residential units. They are completed and available and could house people on waiting lists, yet the Government has no interest in them and would rather pay €190,000 each for temporary units. We do not know how temporary they are. I have no recourse even to a response on this pivotal issue from the Minister in the Dáil, where Ministers have a responsibility to inform the rest of us so we can relay the information to those we represent. That is what is absolutely shocking.

It is claimed the intent of the directive is to support the fast-tracking of the planning process in order for modular units to be put in place, yet the title of this motion is very misleading. The motion masquerades as something to do with the need to urgently increase the supply of social housing, but any fair and responsible definition of "social housing" would conclude that modular units for emergency accommodation for the homeless do not meet that definition. Modular housing comprises an ugly and messy emergency measure to provide a roof over the heads of families who have become homeless and who have to date depended on bed-and-breakfast accommodation and hotel rooms, which provide them with no access to cooking facilities or other badly needed amenities. A kitchen counter does not make a home.

If the Government wanted to increase the supply of social housing urgently, it should have fast-tracked planning for social housing five years ago. It could have taken all the money it spent on emergency accommodation over the past five years and put it into delivering social housing. Instead, it has waited and dragged its heels. It has directly hurt those in housing need and those most at risk of homelessness through cuts. It has done little else bar compiling plans and strategies to distract from its inaction, and it has kept the spin doctors at work.

It is particularly bizarre that in an area such as Ballymun, where rent supplement was banned by ministerial order, houses cannot be bought for social housing because of the social mix required on foot of the regeneration programme. The plan to spend €4.2 million on building 22 units at a cost of €191,000 each at a site in Ballymun that already has facilities in place, including roads, parks and underground services, is absolute madness when one can already buy such units in the area. We checked this and discovered there are units for sale valued at less than €120,000. These can be bought in other areas, such as Finglas and Ballyfermot, for €80,000 less than the price the Government is paying for modular housing. They are available and could be occupied almost immediately. In Hampton Wood, which is beside the site we are talking about in Ballymun, there are 30 units already available at a price that is competitive. A sum of €4.2 million would have bought them.

I welcome the acknowledgement that the new homeless families are coming from the private housing sector. Will the Government now accept the need to properly regulate the private rental market to protect against homelessness? Will it now accept that the private market has every interest in exploiting the crisis and no interest in solving it? Will it accept that its cuts to the rent supplement and other basic payments and supports exacerbated the homelessness crisis? Will it now accept the need for rent certainty and rent control? Sinn Féin recognises the need for emergency measures to provide urgently for people who are currently homeless. In the absence of preventive measures and social housing provision, the response is hopelessly inadequate. It is like treating a bullet wound with a Band-Aid, a very expensive one at that.

We are not opposed to emergency accommodation. We want it to be temporary, but it is no substitute for building or even buying houses. There is an emergency. Almost 5,000 people are homeless and there are 1,500 children in hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Around 80 new families are reporting homeless every month. The number of applicants on the housing waiting list has increased to almost 130,000. This is a crisis. We have failed to deliver on social housing. Some 200 units have been built in the past year. It is absolute madness. Most of the Government's housing policy is dependent on leasing arrangements, be it through the rent supplement, the rental accommodation scheme or the housing assistance payment. There is no building of social housing, however, and very little is planned despite the Government's plan worth €3.8 billion.

A large number of people have mortgage problems. One hundred and ten thousand mortgages are in trouble. Of these, 17,000 are in real trouble. Some 12,000 of these cases will be fought in the courts, and five thousand properties will be surrendered. What are we to do? Can we not get our hands on these properties? Can we not get our hands on the NAMA properties that are being sold off for reckless prices? We are not against temporary housing but believe there are solutions available that should be considered.

I was at the committee meeting some days ago when this directive was debated. What new powers were being afforded to the local authorities that they did not have already? I cannot see where there are new powers. I cannot see what this directive achieves that could not have been achieved through a telephone call. Essentially, this is about blaming the local authorities for not building the houses that they were not given the money to build a year ago. It is a Carr Communications response and not a real one.

One of the main concerns is that the modular units are to have a life span of 60 years. They are not temporary and are to cost in the region of €190,000 per unit. The big problem is that the planning shortcuts could end up causing very major problems by ghettoising people. The units are not being considered in the context of the kind of rigorous planning that would normally apply. I understand completely there is a crisis and that there must be a response to it.

There are large amounts of vacant accommodation. For example, in Dublin city there is a vacancy rate of approximately 8%. Essentially, every time that is reduced by 1%, around 5,000 units are made available. It is one particular area where there are physical structures currently in place that could be part of the response.

The Minister of State needs to describe exactly how temporary these modular houses will be. How long is the maximum period for which a family could be living in one of these houses? They should not be called "temporary" unless there is a means of ensuring they are so. These houses could have doubled as student accommodation in the future; that would have been one way of dealing with the matter.

First of all, it is utterly outrageous that we have only a short time to discuss this emergency matter. It is absolutely disgraceful.

Second, this is yet another false dawn from the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, when it comes to social housing. It is a PR stunt and a misguided, madcap plan. The Minister of State is issuing a directive to tell councils something they already know. All he needed to do was phone them up, not that they even needed that to know the legislation that is there. The real issue is whether the Minister of State will give local authorities funds, resources and staff to produce the Part 8 schemes and build council houses directly.

By the way, we do not need to get rid of Part 8 public consultation in order to do that. Part 8 schemes are not the problem. The problem is the flipping tendering process, which is outsourced to the private sector, so that it takes six months or a year, where previously there were direct-build schemes whereby the council employed people directly to build council houses. We do not need to override proper planning in order to achieve that.

I have thought long and hard about modular housing, because anything that will make a difference is worth doing. I have come to the firm view, however, that this is a mad mistake. Today on myhome.ie there are 781 houses for sale in Dublin for less than €200,000. The Minister of State is proposing 500 temporary modular units, which are not houses, at €190,000 each. Should we buy 500 permanent, real existing houses that people could be in by Christmas, or spend the same amount of money on these crazy modular units, which effectively are Portakabins? That is a direct choice for the Government. We should spend that money on buying those houses that are for sale on myhome.ie. They are permanent houses that would be suitable for children, and it would provide the required social mix.

In addition, the Government should immediately grab hold of NAMA and open its books, because we want to see what it has. It is absolutely outrageous that NAMA is selling property at below market rates, which would be cheaper than these flipping modular houses and which could accommodate people not in three weeks or six months but immediately. They are physically there now. The Government could do that as an emergency measure. In addition, can we have the resources and funds for Part 8 schemes to deliver a minimum of 10,000 council houses per year? That is a medium-term matter, but it has to start now.

Question put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 51; Níl, 33.

  • Breen, Pat.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Keating, Derek.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McLoughlin, Tony.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Spring, Arthur.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.

Níl

  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Collins, Joan.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Coppinger, Ruth.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Keaveney, Colm.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Mathews, Peter.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Murphy, Paul.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Brien, Jonathan.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Troy, Robert.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Joe Carey; Níl, Deputies Barry Cowen and Dessie Ellis.
Question declared carried.