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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 29 Jun 2016

Vol. 915 No. 3

Other Questions

Housing Provision

Carol Nolan


6. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to review the criteria being used by the Dublin homeless executive and the Dublin local authorities to determine whether a household is accepted as in need of emergency accommodation, given the growing number of households being refused emergency accommodation by local authorities only to be subsequently placed in emergency accommodation by the freefone or rough sleeper team. [18509/16]

When a family presents as homeless to a local authority, they have to provide evidence of the reason for their homelessness. If they have been put out of private rental accommodation, evidence of notice to quit is sufficient, but the homeless agency tells us that about 28% of families are presenting as a result of family relationship breakdown. It is very difficult for many of these families to provide written evidence unless, for example, a social worker has been involved with them. Will the Minister, with the homeless agency and the four local authorities, review the criteria being used to ensure these families will not be left out on the street?

One particular case which the Deputy mentioned earlier has triggered this question. I have looked at it and its outcome. Ultimately, it is up to local authorities to make the judgment on whether a family are homeless or not before they provides emergency accommodation for them. It is important that I do not try to micro-manage by telling them what to do. There is a judgment call that needs to be made and the legislation which will guide that judgment is the Housing Act 1988. Clearly, there are huge pressures on councils, particularly in Dublin but also in other parts of the country. They need to make sure the people most in need of emergency accommodation get it first. If there are mistakes made in these judgment calls every now and again, we need to make sure we minimise them. There is a big need to put the emphasis on trying to keep people in their homes through the provision of counselling, support and outreach services in order that the first option is not simply to declare oneself homeless but to try to work through problems within families and so on. Obviously, there are cases of domestic abuse where this is simply not an option and there is a need to protect people by re-homing them and considering and classifying them as homeless. There are two to three cases every day in Dublin alone where Dublin City Council has to make judgment calls and re-house people in emergency accommodation, which is not easy. That is the situation in which we will find ourselves until we can do what I was talking about earlier in what will be a medium term project to dramatically increase supply.

Unfortunately, it does not involve just one case. The Focus Ireland intake team carried out research in April and May. In April there were 35 families who were turned away, many of whom were subsequently deemed to be in need of emergency accommodation. They were turned away from the local authority because, acting on the criteria it had been given by the homeless agency, it considered they were not in need, primarily because they had come from their parents' home. The figure increased to 55 in May. Subsequently many of the families concerned were deemed to be in need of emergency accommodation. I am not asking the Minister to micro-manage. He should not be involved in individual decisions, but clearly there is a problem with the guidelines that the homeless agency and the local authorities have developed. However, I am not blaming them. This is the result of the very difficult decisions council staff have had to make when trying to determine if somebody has a need. Ultimately, the problem is the lack of emergency accommodation. There is a need to review the criteria. I urge the Minister to consider that proposition.

The criteria are included in the legislation. The Housing Act 1998 states: "A person shall be regarded by a housing authority as being homeless for the purposes of this Act if (a) there is no accommodation available which, in the opinion of the authority, he, together with any other person who normally resides with him or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him, can reasonably occupy or remain in occupation of, or (b) he is living in a hospital, county home, night shelter or other such institution, and is so living because he has no accommodation of the kind referred to in paragraph (a)". That is legalistic language for making a judgment call on whether an individual or a number of people have a place where they can reside safely. I will speak to the local authorities about this issue. If the Deputy thinks there is a serious need to review the criteria, we will look at them, but we need to make sure the limited spaces we have available in emergency accommodation are prioritised for those most in need of them. We need to make sure we minimise mistakes in not providing emergency accommodation for those who absolutely need it.

I absolutely agree with the Minister on the last point. In addition to the legislative criteria, there are criteria on which the homeless agency has worked with the four Dublin local authorities to assist front-line staff in making these very difficult decisions. It is that aspect which needs to be reviewed, not the legislation. I urge the Minister, in addition to talking to the homeless agency, to talk to Focus Ireland and its intake team, to look at the initial research they carried out in April and May this year and to consider whether it provides at least some evidence that what is in place is not working. I am in no way criticising front-line local authority staff. More than anybody else, they know the implications in making a wrong decision, but they are being placed in an impossible position. The guidelines could be improved in the context of the Minister's closing remarks.

Perhaps the best body with which to raise this issue is the Dublin regional homeless executive which is trying to co-ordinate responses. I will raise it with it and we will have a look at the guidelines. We need to make sure the most genuine cases are prioritised and that we minimise mistakes. There can be serious consequences if and when that happens.

Irish Water

Mick Barry


7. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he has instructed Irish Water to discontinue with the installation of water meters; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18477/16]

Paul Murphy


17. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he discussed with Irish Water whether they plan to continue with the installation of water meters; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18468/16]

The Minister has effectively been forced to suspend water charges. Will he take the logical next step and suspend water metering also? Will he instruct Irish Water to do so or will it be like a bad B movie?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 17 together.

Since 1 January 2014 Irish Water has statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local level. This includes the domestic water metering programme. Irish Water's revenue shortfall arising from the proposed suspension of domestic water charges in 2016 is under consideration.

I intend to bring my proposals on this matter to the Government shortly. The future of the metering programme and its associated costs will be part of these deliberations and particular account will have to be taken of the very significant benefits in terms of conservation, leakage detection and the efficiencies in the management of the water network more generally, which the programme has delivered. If Deputies have any queries on specific issues with respect to water services, there is a dedicated team within Irish Water which can respond to those.

My view on this is clear. There is a contract in place to finish phase 1 of the roll-out of the metering programme. My belief is that this should be finished out. The charging we have seen in recent years, which I accept has been controversial, has shown that many people have changed their behaviour as a result of that. In fact, approximately 40% of people were paying charges at below the cap because they were using their meter; they were conserving water in a way that meters were designed to encourage. It has also been useful in detecting leaks. I accept that many of the leaks in the Irish Water infrastructure does not happen between the meter and household dwelling but a percentage of it does and there has been significant detection of leaks as a result of meters.

My view is that we should continue to roll out the metering programme. I believe people will see sense to metering in the medium term. It makes sense to understand how much water is being used, where it is going, where the leaks are and so on. Certainly the evidence to date shows that when people have meters and are paying for water linked to the amount of water they use, that they use those meters, change their behaviour and use less, and thereby conserve more, which is a good development.

I do not imagine the Minister has ever been at a community based anti-water meter protest. Therefore, I will give him some flavour of what it is like. It is a community event. It is not like a bill coming into one's letterbox, it is like Irish Water crews coming into one's community. Discussion starts in the community and members of it begin to get organised. Cars are driven around scouting for the Irish Water meter vans. People are watching and waiting; they are texting and going on Facebook. Women in particular come out and organise. They go door to door and get other women and neighbours to come out and join the protest.

I have sat here listening to the Minister several times in recent weeks say that with the new water commission he wants to take the heat out of the water charges issue. Carrying on with water metering is precisely how he will not do that. How does he square the contradiction between those two?

Acting Chairman-----

I will let Deputy Paul Murphy in next. As the time allocation for these two questions is doubled, the Deputy will have ample time.

Does that mean I will have four interjections? Is that how this works?

I will give the Deputy the time; there will be plenty time for interaction.

I do not mind allowing the two Opposition Deputies put their questions and I can respond to the two of them.

We can proceed that way if the Minister wishes. I call Deputy Paul Murphy to make his case.

I thank the Minister for that. Last week we had a debate that concluded yesterday in regard to the Water Services Bill and I made a definite point of saying clearly to the Minister that if the Government does not stop the water metering programme, it will be stopped by protesters and heat will not be taken out of the issue but rather it will become more hot. Yesterday, as if to test that hypothesis, Irish Water workers appeared in Carrigmore in my constituency where they were immediately met by residents. Tens upon tens of residents came out to stop them and they stayed there all day peacefully protesting to ensure that no meters were installed. I can assure the Minister that people do not see the sense of water metering because they know that the purpose of it is to prepare for the imposition of water charges and for privatisation. Therefore, water meters will not be accepted. Surely the Minister can see that the project has to be halted. Is he going to continue to have huge numbers of Garda resources imposed on communities to get the water meters installed in the remaining areas, which are the ones where there is the strongest opposition to water meters? Are more people going to go to prison in opposition to water meters even though the water charges have been suspended?

To put this into context, approximately 840,000 water meters have been installed and many people do not have a problem with that. The Deputy talks about this issue as if every person in the country is trying to block water meters being installed in respect of their own water systems, but that is not the case. Some people have real objections to this but many people do not. Many people have been using water meters to manage how they use water and to conserve it. We know that because 40% of people, which is way beyond what most people were expecting, were paying water charges at below the cap. We cannot operate as a Government on the basis of people threatening protests and therefore we must not do anything.

With regard to the metering programme, we are concluding phase 1 of the metering roll-out, which will be finished in the next few months-----

-----or in the next six months or so, that is my understanding. I can stand corrected on that. It is pretty close to being concluded. Phase 2 of the metering roll-out was always going to be more complicated because it involved flat complexes and so on, which is more complicated in terms of metering. My view is that we have a very significant number of water meters in the ground. They have served a useful function and they will do so in the future also.

I am answering the questions put by two Deputies.

I will allow the Minister back in; we have ample time. I must allow Deputy Paul Murphy back in and then I will come back to the Minister. I will bring in both Deputies Paul Murphy and Deputy Barry and Deputy Paul Murphy has a minute if he wishes to come back in.

Yes. I would say to the Minister that phase 1 will not be concluded. He is now approaching the areas where there are big communities who are opposed to the imposition of water meters who will simply not accept them. The Government will have to make a choice, and Irish Water will make a choice, as to whether it will push ahead against the opposition of these communities even when it has suspended water charges. It would be madness for the Government to do so.

The talk of conservation is a cover. Water meters are not about conservation, they are about charging for water and about pushing privatisation in the future and privatisation over the revenue stream. According to Irish Water figures, extrapolating them to the full imposition of water meters, we are talking about 3% of water being saved, that is, 3% out of 41% of water that is lost. That is where we need investment in our water infrastructure and that is also where Deputy Coveney, as the Minister with responsibility for housing, needs to change the building regulations in terms of grey water harvesting, rainwater harvesting and dual flush toilets being mandatory for the new builds that are taking place. That is where it would make a difference in terms of water conservation.

The Minister spoke about the number of meters that have been installed. The Irish Water target is for somewhere between 1 million and 1.1 million. Irish Water has said that approximately 850,000 have been installed so far. The bulk of the areas where the meters have yet to be installed are the working class communities where people have organised to resist their installation, areas such as Tallaght, the north east of Dublin and in Cork city areas such as Churchfield, Gurranabraher, Knocknaheeny and Ballyphehane whose communities have successfully kept the Irish Water meter installers out. Does the Minister seriously believe that he can calm things down on the issue of water charges and try to send the water metering crews into these areas over the next few weeks and months? I suggest he is sadly mistaken if he thinks he will be able to do that.

I wish to point out to Members in case there is any confusion that I am going strictly by the rules of the House, as agreed by all Members. Where two similar questions are taken together the time allocated is doubled to make sure there is fair play for all involved and that the Minister is also given adequate time. I am going strictly by the rules of the House, in case some Members might think I am not doing that.

The question is whether I am going to instruct Irish Water to discontinue the installation of water meters and the answer to that question is "No". I expect there will be a pragmatic response from Irish Water where there is significant resistance. I think that in time many people, who do not have water meters now, will want them.

Does the Minister mean that they will back off?

Deputy Barry, allow the Minister to respond.

I think he is saying that they are going to back off.

Allow the Minister to respond.

The Deputy wants heat in this issue because he has built a whole political campaign around it. He wants to keep people and communities divided.

They want to try to keep-----

The Minister is dividing people.

The Deputies do not like to hear it because it is the truth. This is what they have built their political campaigns and careers around: division, anger and protest.

It is what the Minister's career is going to falter on.

Deputies Barry and Murphy have a minute left each. If they allow the Minister to finish, I will allow both of them in.

When I answer questions honestly, I get threats, just as when we had questions on waste charges. When we were trying to resolve those issues, Deputy Paul Murphy's sole contribution was, "When you come to Tallaght, there will be protestors waiting for you."

And there were and the Minister backed off.

That had nothing to do with the solutions. The Deputy does not offer solutions. He wants to make people angry so that they will be divided and create political opportunity for him. I am in the business of trying to provide solutions-----

-----and there are others in the House who are doing the same.

I will finish because I have been interrupted.

The Minister will have another minute.

Water meters play an important role and will continue to play an important role in terms of water policy in Ireland regardless of the charging system which may or may not be voted for in the House in nine months' time. That is why Irish Water will finalise the phase 1 roll-out of the metering programme where possible.

I note with interest the comment of the Minister that he expects Irish Water to take what he describes as a pragmatic approach. In reality, he is saying that Irish Water is likely to back off where there is strong community resistance to the installation of water meters. I hope all the activists and campaigners in those communities listen carefully to the point the Minister has made, draw the appropriate conclusions and redouble their efforts to stop his and Irish Water's metering programme.

On the issue of anger, I am a reasonably calm and relaxed individual and the anger I have seen stirred up in Gurranebraher, Churchfield, Knocknaheeny and the other communities was stirred up by the Minister and his Government who tried to impose an unjust charge and ram it down people's throats.

To continue with that point, what has divided people and angered them has been that by December of last year, 188 people had been arrested at water protests. The majority of them were involved in protesting against water meters in their communities. Just three or four weeks ago, three people were in jail for protesting against water meters. Just last week, two people were up in Tallaght District Court for protesting against water meters.

It is not that simple.

When the Government is imposing water meters on communities that do not want them and using the force of the law to try to ram them in, it is going to divide people. I encourage people to heed the message that if there is resistance, the water meters will be stopped. That is the lesson. The solutions here have come from people organising to resist. The reason there is suspension of water charges is not because any of the Government members had a change of heart or Fianna Fáil had a change of heart but because of a protest movement that built pressure. The reason there was a partial step back in terms of bin charges was again because people protested. Protesting and organising achieve change. We are offering the Minister a solution here, which is to stop the water metering.

It is the same question, or rather statement, over and over again. It is important to say that people are not put in prison for peaceful protest.

They are. It is in the Water Services Act.

The Deputy has had his time. Please allow the Minister to finish.

I have answered the question repeatedly. My view is that meters have a value and that many households are using them effectively. Some communities referred to by Deputies have resisted the imposition of water meters and feel very strongly on the issue. I accept that and I do not pretend that is not the case. My point is that the roll-out of meters as envisaged by Irish Water is a significant and important addition to our water infrastructure in terms of understanding how water is being used and in terms of changing behaviour in a way that encourages conservation. From that point of view, it is a positive thing and it should continue.

Housing Policy

Ruth Coppinger


8. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he has completed any independent research into the component costs of building a new house and renting residential properties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18472/16]

The cost of a house emerged as a key issue in the Committee on Housing and Homelessness. If we want to be able to supply 140,000 families with housing, plus those who are not on the social housing list who are paying massive rents and need affordable housing, the issue must be tackled. Will the Minister get independent research on this issue as he takes over in his Department and not just that of the Construction Industry Federation or from surveyors? I refer to research from workers who work in the industry as well.

I thank the Deputy for the question. In the context of social housing provision, my Department has undertaken analysis in respect of the average costs associated with the delivery of a range of differently sized social housing units, both in terms of construction costs and all-in costs. These costs are based on an analysis of returned data from local authorities on social housing schemes and as such it is on actual costs. Nevertheless, information on the average cost of current social housing developments of various sizes is preliminary at this stage and will be better informed when a greater number of projects have completed the tendering stage over the months ahead. My Department has also had an input into work led by the Department of Finance on construction costs which was undertaken under the Construction 2020 strategy.

In general terms, the cost of delivering housing is largely dependent on the type, size and geographic location of the development concerned, the availability of services, access to infrastructure and on the contractual arrangements leading to its construction. Against this background, construction costs can vary greatly throughout the country which gives rise to difficulties in developing more accurate costings for the various house types in the absence of site-specific and evidence-based information. The prevailing economic conditions appear to suggest that without intervention, housing costs, including social housing costs, are more likely to rise rather than fall during 2016. This is due to the fact that, in general, housing supply currently falls significantly short of housing demand and construction input costs are subject to inflationary pressures as the construction industry transitions from under-activity over an extended period to significant growth in all sectors, including residential, commercial and civil construction.

On residential renting, the market has grown significantly in recent years and now accounts for around 20% of total households. In Dublin, rents are back to 2007 peak boom-time levels. While the most recent Residential Tenancies Board rent index shows that in the first quarter of 2016, rents have continued to increase, the rate of growth has slowed in most sectors. It is anticipated that this is the first stage in a welcome stabilisation of the rental market as the measures introduced through the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2015 begin to take proper effect.

In accordance with the programme for a partnership Government, my Department is preparing an action plan for housing to be finalised in the coming weeks. In that context, one of the issues being considered is the scope to reduce construction overheads in a manner that will support an increased level of housing output into the future. The action plan will also contain a commitment to publish a strategy for the rental sector this autumn, which will chart a path for the future of the sector.

The Minister of State is over his time.

One more line might just help the answer. Built into the plan is a gathering of information from all sides and stakeholders on the costs of construction. That includes those in the business, those who work for developers and those with various skills as well as departmental officials across Government. There is a lot of analysis there and we going deeply into the figures to see what we can do.

That was a great rehearsed reply but it did not answer my question. The Construction Industry Federation representatives came crying into their soup before the Committee on Housing and Homelessness and argued that 36% of the cost of a house was going on taxes. Thus, they argued that the Government should reduce VAT and taxes on builders. However, 36% is not the correct figure. It is 16% according to chartered surveyors. This demonstrates the need for independent research. In the programme for Government, there is a huge array of tax reductions for developers and there is no evidence that it will lead to housing being cheaper. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. All the evidence suggests that previous tax incentives were simply pocketed by developers and not passed on to unfortunate buyers. There is also a hoarding of land taking place while owners wait for house prices to increase. The developers are on strike and should not be rewarded with a range of tax cuts as indicated in the programme for Government.

If it is of help to the Deputy, I note that the programme for Government and the action plan for housing being developed are focused on increasing the supply of housing both in the private and social markets by a combination of all the various arrangements.

Part of that is ensuring houses are affordable and available to people in the right place, facilitating them where they want to live and work. If it was the case that developers were ripping people off and making a fortune, more than 12,000 houses would have been completed last year and supply would not be an issue. However, it is. There is something wrong across the sector. The aim of the programme for Government and any action plan developed is to find the barriers which are affecting supply across the system, change them and increase the supply of affordable, quality housing to the previous level. That is our sole ambition. It is not to make anyone rich; rather, it is to provide accommodation, which is what every Deputy has been seeking.

The Deputy referred to tax changes and so on. We are committed to considering everything. Everything we believe will help to increase the supply of affordable housing is on the table.

First, the Minister of State should stop using the words "housing market". Fr. Peter McVerry also said this. There is no housing market. The market led us to this problem in the first place. Second, the Minister of State should accept the fact that developers are deliberately not building because it would not be profitable enough. The CEO of NAMA let the cat out of the bag when he stated developers were not happy with a profit of €20,000 on a €300,000 house and were withholding on building until prices increased.

I was disturbed when the Minister of State did not use the words "local authority house building" in answer to any of today's questions. Clearly, he is not looking to local authorities to meet housing need. It is not the case that dealing with supply on its own will be enough. There was plenty of supply during the Celtic tiger boom, but it was unaffordable for most. We need a supply of affordable and social housing, not just private housing which would not be affordable for most. Local authorities can build houses more cheaply by using direct labour and cutting out the profit percentage and motive. This will keep the cost down, not off-balance sheet building or encouraging private developers. Using local authorities would cut out all of the profiteering by private developers. That is how we should supply housing with the money available to us.

I will make a couple of observations. The Deputy only hears what she wants to hear. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, and I have repeatedly said we wanted to increase greatly the supply of housing being built by local authorities. Has the Deputy missed that?

I have missed it all morning.

One of the Minister's first acts was to meet all of the local authorities to ask them how they would ramp up supply and what would be needed across government to make that happen. As the Deputy may have missed that, I will be clear - that is what we want to do. However, we also recognise that we need more houses across the system. The Deputy might not like calling it a housing "market", but it is my understanding that, anywhere there is a sale of goods, it is called a market. There is a housing market and we need to activate it to increase supply. That is what we are trying to do via a combination of social, private and rented housing, including student accommodation. I meet people involved in the building industry on a daily basis-----

I am sure the Minister of State does.

-----young people of all ages who want to use their skills. They want to work. They are not sitting at home waiting to increase profits. They want to work on sites. I accept that a percentage are involved in the speculative market, but the majority want to go to work and build houses and will settle for a small margin on that work.

Then why are they not doing it?

Exactly. That is what we are trying to fix.

They are waiting for prices to increase.

There is a range of reasons across the system. We will change the situation. That is our job. It will involve a major ramping up in the supply of social housing delivered through local authorities and the rebuilding of the capacity of the Department and local government to make this happen.

I thank the Minister of State, but we are way over time. This is Deputy Ruth Coppinger's question, but Deputy Jan O'Sullivan is allowed to make a small point.

Yes. Other Deputies are allowed to contribute in taking ordinary questions.

If the availability of affordable land is one of the problems in local authorities building houses, will the Government consider implementing a recommendation made in the Kenny report of more than 40 years ago, one that was considered to be constitutional by an Oireachtas all-party committee? I am referring to land being made available at its existing zoning level price, usually agricultural, plus 25%. That would help to provide land for local authorities.

I call Deputy Ruth Coppinger. I will take the questions together, if that is okay with her.

That is marvellous.

Only the Minister of State can contribute now.

Access to land for a range of developers, as well as local authorities, is one of the barriers. In most cases though local authorities have sites available, but there are delays in the system, issues in accessing finance, off-balance sheet concerns, etc. Affordable land is an issue for everyone in the long term. To deliver affordable housing, we need affordable land. There is some evidence that councils are purchasing land and trying to do the right thing at the right time.

The Kenny report made recommendations on the issue of affordable land.

Yes. In general, access to land at the right price is an issue for all providers. It has a major effect on the end price.

I must allow Deputy Ruth Coppinger to conclude.

The Minister of State has to conclude.

Are we out of time? My apologies. We will move to Question No. 9 in the name of Deputy Mick Wallace which I understand is being taken with Question No. 18.

May I clarify a matter? I contributed-----

-----for 30 seconds.

Yes, but Deputy Jan O'Sullivan was within her rights to ask a brief question under the rules agreed to by the House. I must interpret the rules accordingly. If Deputy Ruth Coppinger has-----

That does not take away her right to ask a second supplementary question.

I am sorry, but I am talking to Deputy Ruth Coppinger.

Deputy Mick Wallace is being help up.

If Deputy Ruth Coppinger has an issue with this, I ask her to contact the Ceann Comhairle's office.

No. I just asked how many-----

I was not given a second chance to revert.

Actually, the Deputy did. We gave her a lot of time. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan was within her rights to ask her question.

I am not trampling on her rights; I am just asking about mine.

May I make one point? In my capacity as Acting Chairman I seek to help the House.

I am interpreting the rules as they are laid out. If any Member has an issue with them, I ask him or her to contact the Ceann Comhairle's office.

Severe Weather Events Expenditure

Mick Wallace


9. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if his Department or Irish Water is responsible for managing storm water run-off countrywide; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18305/16]

Mick Wallace


18. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the amount of funding allocated, if any, to local authorities to deal with storm water run-off; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18306/16]

When the Government established a national entity called "Irish Water", why did it decide not to give it responsibility for storm water? What is the logic behind leaving that element with the local authorities while removing the more attractive elements from them?

I see the Deputy has been enjoying his time in France.

I was going to suggest he could do with a glass of water.

Members will be relieved to hear that I enjoy myself all the time.

I believe that. I do not take much convincing.

Deputy Mick Wallace must have received the award from the Parisian Government.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 18 together.

The Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 provides for the transfer of water services functions, with some exceptions, of the city and county councils to Irish Water. The provision, operation and maintenance of sewers other than storm water sewers are among the functions transferred to Irish Water. However, the operation and maintenance of storm water sewers remain functions of the local authorities.

There is no funding stream available from my Department to local authorities for funding storm water services. However, under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, income from development levies must be ring-fenced to pay for facilities servicing new developments. Local authorities fund the provision and maintenance of storm water sewers through moneys received from such development contributions. Any issue arising in respect of individual developments should, therefore, be pursued with the relevant local authorities.

I expect that this was a practical response to the fact that responsibility for the planning and building of developments and the run-off water infrastructure linked with same which is financed by the development charges applied to these developments remained with local authorities instead of being moved to a separate structure.

Since storm water management is unpredictable and difficult to cost, I understand it is not an attractive element of the water industry. I suspect one of the main reasons Irish Water was not given responsibility for the management of storm water was it would not have been attractive to anyone with notions of buying Irish Water were it ever to be privatised. People do not like to buy things that are difficult to measure.

In fact, it does not make much sense not to have all the elements of water under the one roof. It is unfair to expect local authorities to fund something when they are poorly resourced to do so. It is so unpredictable.

Given that local authorities no longer have responsibility for the supply of water or for sewerage, there will be a the huge decrease in the number of people working in local authorities who are involved with water, yet the local authorities will have to be able to respond to problems that arise unpredictably. That is surely not sustainable.

While the responsibility for storm sewers remains with local authorities, responsibility for combined sewers, which carry both foul sewage and storm water, has been transferred to Irish Water. A memorandum of understanding to establish principles and mechanisms through which Irish Water and each local authority will co-operate with respect to sewer flooding and storm water management is being developed. I understand this document is close to being finalised and signed off with each local authority. Most local authorities have a storm water management policy that encourages the use of sustainable drainage systems in all new developments.

The management of flooding, which is often a consequence of not having the right infrastructure in place, is very much the responsibility of local authorities, which work with the Office of Public Works, OPW, on some of the bigger projects. Therefore, there is a carryover across multiple organisations, from Irish Water to local authorities and to the OPW in the case of some bigger projects. What is required is a pretty seamless management system that can ensure that happens efficiently.

Does the Minister agree with me that we are not investing sufficiently in water defences at present when we bear in mind the weather has probably become less predictable owing to climate change?

The Minister is just out of the agriculture Ministry. Does he have concerns about the fact that the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, encourages farmers to clear upland areas? In doing so, it is effectively subsidising farmers to flood villages. It does not make sense to be clearing certain lands. Farmers get subsidies to create a faster flow of water to villages. Does the Government have any plan to tackle that?

I know a bit about the agriculture side. There are pretty demanding directives with which farmers must comply to get their CAP payments and to avail themselves of benefits under the various schemes we operate. Cross-compliance criteria require farmers to ensure they do not undermine directives such as the Water Framework Directive and wildlife directive. Therefore, there are many limitations on what farmers can do, particularly near waterways. They are often required to create buffer strips and to limit the type of drainage put in place. They are required to maintain hedgerows and so forth. Therefore, there is not the free-for-all that some might believe exists for farmers trying to extend productive farmland and, in doing so, causing drainage problems that contribute to flooding further down the system. The regime is much more restrictive than that.

I take the Deputy’s point on some of the more sensitive areas, especially around the Shannon catchment, which is a huge, challenging flood plain. Following the floods of the winter that has just passed, one will see much more co-ordination among all stakeholders to ensure better outcomes regarding flood management on the Shannon.

Is the Minister saying subsidies are no longer available for clearing land? I understand there still are such subsidies. It is a fact the water is reaching the rivers more quickly than ever before.

We used to have land adjacent to rivers that was able to hold a lot of water. This is no longer the case because so much of the land has been cleared. It has been a false policy on the part of the European Union to encourage the clearance of some land. I am not saying it was a bad idea to clear all of it. Making land more available for food production is fine but there ought to be joined-up thinking on the effect of the land clearance on water storage and the pace with which water reaches the channel of the river, and on the impact on the nearest towns. Given that we have had so many problems in this area recently, is the European Union making any effort to reconsider just how encouraging we have been towards clearing land?

The emphasis is away from clearing land under the new CAP. Obviously, there is a market that farmers want to access in terms of productive farming, which sometimes incentivises trying to create more productivity on farms and a greater output in terms of land management. However, if we examine all the support programmes that exist and the €4 billion rural development programme, it can be seen that it is primarily a question of environmental schemes. These encourage the planting of ryegrass and more hedgerows. Some 30% of the basic payment is linked to a greening element, whereby farmers are required in many cases to have 5% of their land in what is called an ecological focus area. This is about taking land out of intensive food production to promote biological diversity and so on. In many ways, many of the incentives and the public expenditure through the CAP, which we should not forget is to be worth approximately €12.5 billion over its lifetime, are about protecting the environment and ensuring waterways are protected. This is good, but that is not to say we are done and do not need to do more in this area. Certainly, if we are considering the kind of dairy expansion that is being planned, there will be pressures that we will need to manage through the transition.

Let me return to the issue of the storm water pipe. The Minister is now saying the combined system in Dublin is under the jurisdiction of Irish Water. Is that true?

Is the Minister saying the combined system in Dublin is now under the authority of Irish Water? That was not my understanding of it. I believe this is what he said in his reply to me. My understanding is that the surplus water was still the responsibility of the local authority despite the fact there was a shared pipe. Will the Minister clarify which body has total responsibility for the combined pipe?

My understanding is that responsibility for the combined sewers, which carry both foul sewage and storm water, has been transferred to Irish Water but that responsibility for the water run-off infrastructure for storm water management, etc., remains with the local authorities. I will clarify which body is responsible for which pieces of infrastructure afterwards if it is helpful. My understanding is that the pipe infrastructure is the responsibility of Irish Water but that the surface water run-off infrastructure and so on are the responsibility of local authorities. As I stated, I will give the Deputy a note on that.

Is it not a fiasco having two bodies?

Not really. There are many areas in respect of which there are multiple agencies working together to achieve better outcomes.

That concludes the answers to Questions Nos. 9 and 18. They were two separate questions and, as is evident from a close reading, one was entitled to treat them as such.

Urban Renewal Schemes

Barry Cowen


10. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government his proposals for renewal of town centre sites; and if he is considering legislation to allow the utilisation of compulsory purchase orders for the purpose of town renewal. [18556/16]

I am sharing my time with Deputy Lawless. The Minister of State, Deputy English, is well aware that there are many towns and villages with empty, dilapidated buildings that are not contributing to the well-being of the communities in which they are situated. The associated issues may concern title, conveyancing, lack of funds, banks not lending and no retail activity. As we know, this is against the backdrop of a housing crisis or emergency. Will the Minister of State confirm he is investigating ways in which compulsory purchase orders, CPO, powers for local authorities could be improved or council-sponsored loans or grants could be made available to initiate residential development in these buildings and revitalise the affected towns and villages?

The new programme for partnership Government sets out the ambitious priority attached to urban regeneration by the new Government. This is an area in which we wish to engage, specifically by redesigning and enhancing the current scheme. A series of specific actions has been set out as to how it is proposed to facilitate the regeneration of our urban centres, many of which were adversely impacted by our recent economic difficulties.

In this context, the Government intends to introduce a new town and village renewal scheme. This is part of my brief and it will be done in conjunction with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to support the revitalisation of our towns and villages and improve the living and working environment of communities. As Deputy Cowen stated, the objective will be to bring buildings back into use and make towns and villages attractive places not only to work and live in but also to expand business or bring buildings back into use. Using the €30 million available to local authorities for town and village regeneration from this year, it is envisaged that the scheme will seek to increase the attractiveness and sustainability of our towns and villages as places to live and work. I visited Clara yesterday and while it is not a small town, it is under severe pressure, with 64 empty premises on its streets. The focus will, as Deputy Cowen stated, be on bringing empty premises back into use and trying to make upstairs accommodation liveable again, where possible.

It is also intended to examine a series of further initiatives, including the introduction of a similar scheme to the Living City initiative to regenerate urban centres and villages; reclassifying and incentivising the use of under-utilised or vacant areas above ground floor premises in urban areas for both residential and commercial use; examining the scope to reform the Derelict Sites Act to tackle the under-use and hoarding of derelict land by the State, semi-State and private sectors; and the establishment of a national register of derelict sites, in addition to the new vacant site levy, to bring vacant and under-utilised sites into beneficial use for housing and urban regeneration purposes. The vacant site levy is a form of threat, whereas Deputy Cowen is seeking the introduction of measures to encourage and reward activity. Such measures will be considered as part of our new plan and we will examine the possibility of mandating local authorities with better land management powers, including the possibility of additional CPO capabilities. Deputy Cowen's question refers to these capabilities.

To drive forward these considerations, I will chair a working group comprising senior representatives from my Department, local authorities and other relevant actors, which has been established to bring forward proposals in the near future and allow proposals to be made to increase funding in this area in budget 2017.

I thank the Minister of State for his answer, which is all well and good. We both share a willingness to address this issue and revitalise towns and villages that have become dilapidated and lack vitality and vibrancy and, in many cases, do not have any residents. The Minister of State did not refer to compulsory purchase orders, CPOs.

I did refer to CPOs.

I listened attentively and he did not. I ask him to confirm that he will seek to improve existing powers to enable local authorities to overcome obstacles related to property rights, title, conveyancing and associated issues. Will he seek to secure funding, either on-balance or off-balance sheet, in respect of what we spoke about earlier? Will local authorities be involved in sponsoring a scheme or will they work with credit unions which are interested in entering the fray? Negotiations have been ongoing for too long on the contribution credit unions could make to resolving the crisis. Will a sponsored scheme or a system of grants or loans be introduced for the private sector and will improved compulsory purchase order powers be provided to local authorities to bring derelict and vacant buildings into residential development and create vibrancy and vitality where there currently are none?

I accept that I may speak a little fast.

However, in listing the actions we are considering I clearly stated that we were considering the possibility of "mandating local authorities with better land management powers, including the possibility of additional CPO capabilities". I am sorry if that was not clear.

Will the Minister of State give a commitment on that issue?

I also noted the reference to compulsory purchase orders in the Deputy's question. While local authorities have some powers in the area of compulsory purchase orders, they clearly do not consider them to be sufficiently strong. We are willing to examine this issue. Other State body stakeholders have CPO powers which are not being used. We will see what we can do to increase the use of these powers, where they are required.

As Deputy Cowen will be aware from his professional background, compulsory purchase orders are highly complicated and give rise to legal issues. CPOs do not always work and local authorities have indicated to me that they sometimes retreat from using them because they involve investing significant time and money which they would prefer to use to achieve specific purposes. Local authorities that pursue CPOs or other planning issues frequently lose the money they spend on doing so. We are, therefore, trying to find new ways to encourage activity. Deputy Cowen referred to grants, taxes and so forth. We will examine these options to try to reward activity as opposed to always threatening action. We are examining these issues and we are willing to act.

I understand Deputy Lawless will contribute for one minute.

Legislation on compulsory purchase orders needs to be upgraded and strengthened. I come straight from the front line, as it were, having dealt with this issue extensively as a member of Kildare County Council until my election to the Dáil three months ago. There appears to be great reluctance among local authorities to utilise the powers available to them. While I have heard many reasons for not using compulsory purchase orders, I have heard few reasons to use them. The existing derelict sites legislation gives local authorities powers to act. Dublin City Council appears to be better than other local authorities in this regard, having expressed an intention to intervene. Other councils require ministerial direction to move them towards taking action.

In the same vein, if we are using a carrot-and-stick approach and the use of a compulsory purchase order is the stick, the carrot must be the introduction of a rates incentive. I suggest the Department consider this possibility. When I tabled a proposal for a rates incentive in Kildare County Council I was informed that while my proposal could be sent to the Department, not one suggestion sent to the Department by any local authority in the past 30 years had been approved. That does not seem to be a great way to do business. I call on the Minister to examine the possibility of using rates incentives to encourage people to invest in revitalising vacant buildings and developing accommodation in them.

Deputies Cowen and Lawless outlined the issues the Department intends to examine. We will consider a range of carrot-and-stick measures. Deputy Lawless will be familiar with the Supreme Court decision on a case arising in County Kildare. That decision affects any change to legislation governing CPOs that we may consider. This is a complicated area that involves a number of statutes and legislative change cannot be introduced in one week. We will consider the issue, however.

Deputy Lawless raised an issue that is dear to my heart. Urban local authorities, especially in Dublin, have much more funding available to them through revenue generation and other State schemes. As such, they are in a position to use the legal and planning systems to a much greater degree than other local authorities and the latter may, therefore, be afraid to risk money on legal cases. Local authorities may have to make a choice between fixing a roads and footpaths or making a compulsory purchase order. CPOs require a significant investment which can go down the Swanee if it does not work out. We understand the reason local authorities are reluctant to use compulsory purchase orders and we must find a way of making the legislation clearer. However, as Deputy Cowen will know given his legal background, it is difficult to design legislation that is black and white.

We must accept that a funding issue arises for local authorities. If they choose to spend money on legal cases, they put their money at risk. We must work on that. We will try to use a carrot to stimulate activity, which is the objective we all want to achieve. There is nothing worse than driving through a town or village that should be thriving and seeing dereliction. Vacant buildings need to be used to provide accommodation.

The time for questions has concluded. I apologise to Deputies and Ministers for cutting across them at times. We are on a tight schedule and people will lose out if we do not stick to it. I thank Members for their understanding and co-operation.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.