Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects

I appreciate the opportunity to raise this very important matter for my constituency, specifically Waterville and its hinterland in County Kerry. I was at a well-attended public meeting on Monday night last week at St. Finian's national school in Waterville.

There was not standing room in the school. The meeting was convened to seek support in the locality for a campaign for a new school. The support from the community was evident. A new school is very much needed and long overdue.

The State has never provided a school for the people of Waterville. The current building in which the children of the village and surrounding areas attend school was constructed by the British Government in 1913 and very little work has been done to it since. Since 2008, approximately €300,000 has been spent on maintaining the school and basic capital investment. It was, however, sticking plaster expenditure as there was nothing significant to show for the investment. The money went into a very old building that is very expensive to maintain.

Waterville is bucking the trend for many rural communities as it is doing really well. It is a place that is becoming very vibrant and where jobs are being created, which is wonderful to see. However, with that comes an increase in the population in the area and the school population is no different from the general population in that it is growing and will grow further. What is now a four-teacher school will soon become a five-teacher school. The Department keeps telling the school authorities in Waterville that an extension is the only viable option available. The problem is that the school is located on an extremely confined site of 1.5 acres. The site is on an extremely busy road that is a busy tourism route. Many large vehicles also travel on it. If an extra classroom is provided on the site, there will be no play area and no outside recreational area for the children. That is simply not good enough in this day and age.

The cost of renovating and extending a building that is already more than 100 years old is astronomical and would not be money well spent. A greenfield site is readily available in the village to the school. I support the view of the school community that an extension is not adequate and that a new school is the only solution for Waterville. I know that I speak for all of the Kerry Deputies when I say this because they have all expressed their support for the campaign. The Minister has met the school principal, Gearóid Moran, who is doing excellent work, while his team of staff are doing wonderful work. However, they are confined by the facility in which they are operating and can only do so much. The environment is simply not responsive to the needs of modern education. If we are serious about giving each and every child a top class education, we must prioritise schools such as the one in Waterville for replacement.

Waterville is not in the commuter belt, but it has the same issues faced by many schools in it. The building is inadequate and needs work. A new building is required. The Department must move beyond the current situation where it has sought drawings and further information and acknowledge that a new build is the only way to go. I ask the Minister to spearhead the campaign to try to give the people of Waterville and future generations what they so thoroughly deserve.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I can well understand the concern of the school in Waterville and many others.

I will put the Deputy in the picture in terms of the capital budget, the backdrop against which I must deal with requests such as the one he has made. Every year we must provide approximately 20,000 new school places which roughly are split as follows: 15,000 for new students, given that there is a population bulge, and 5,000 replacement school places. That gives the Deputy an indication of the pressure on the budget.

The Deputy outlined the history of the school in question. St. Finian's national school did make an application in December 2015 to the Department requesting a new school and the Department did engage with it, as the Deputy indicated, last August. The Department examined school enrolments, the building and other factors. At that stage it indicated that it would not be possible to advance a major project at that time but that it was open to undertaking work to improve the school's facilities. Having been fairly stable, last year there was a significant increase in enrolment numbers at the school from 99 pupils to 111, just short of the number required for the appointment of a new teacher. My Department has indicated to the school that it could seek to provide for additional needs with respect to an additional teacher coming on-stream.

I must be honest and say that when one talks about a totally new build, a project must compete with all other projects where currently there is no accommodation available for pupils. That is the difficulty. That said, I am aware that the school submitted technical reports this month to my Department and we will assess them. Only last year a meeting was held to address the future needs of the school. We will look afresh in the building unit at the technical reports, but the backdrop of planning is against a very tight capital budget and the Department must decide on priorities on a rigorous technical appraisal. We will look at the new technical documents submitted.

I must stress the urgency of this case and the Department must treat it as such. The projections are that the enrolment numbers in the school will surpass 120 in the very near future. The school simply cannot cater for that number. There is not an option to extend the school; as such, the Department must treat the project as a priority and fast-track it. The children of Waterville deserve the same treatment as children in the commuter belt or anywhere else in the country. It is not too much to ask that once every 100 years a community look to have a new school built. It is not the case that there is another school 2 km or 3 km away, there is not another school until one reaches Caherdaniel over Coomakista, 15 km away, or Aghatubrid national school near Caherciveen or Killeenleigh national school. The school serves a huge hinterland and it is not acceptable in this day and age to have children in school in the current conditions. I visited the school on numerous occasions during school hours and the children were packed into one classroom, in particular. They are small children, but when they reach the age of 11 or 12 years, they will be twice the size and the classrooms will not be big enough for them. A serious health and safety issue arises.

I spent a limited amount of time in the past working in the area of special needs. I also worked in an autism unit. There are children in St. Finian's national school with special needs and the environment for them is completely unacceptable. They deserve the same start in life as every other child, but they are not getting it. The standard procedure in the Department for processing the application is not good enough. We need more. The staff room is 4 m X 4 m and inadequate. More space is required. I am also very concerned about the lack of a drop off and collection area. The school gate opens onto the street and there is no place to park safely to drop off and collect children. A site is available. I call for the project to be fast-tracked.

Tá an Teachta thar am.

Deputy Brendan Griffin can talk to the Minister outside the Chamber, for example, at a parliamentary party meeting.

I note that the Minister did not use up his full allocation of time.

That is a matter for the Minister. My job is to ensure speakers do not take too much time. The Deputy is over time.

I cannot emphasise sufficiently the urgency of this project.

I accept the point made by Deputy Brendan Griffin and must reassure him on a couple of points. First, there is no difference in the rules applied in commuter belts or any other area. The Deputy might point to commuter belts where there have been huge explosions of population and new schools are required to respond to them. The figures will indicate that we only replaced a handful of schools last year out of the 4,000 schools across the country. It is very difficult to secure a replacement school. I can understand how people object to the procedures, but they are dictated by financial constraints. We can only stretch the money available to meet certain needs.

The same rules apply everywhere. There is the same prioritisation of technical need and the same assessment of buildings and their capacity and flaws or otherwise. We will look at these new submissions but what the Department has told the school is that it is open to new accommodation but only in the context of immediate needs. That is the position as of now and, unfortunately, I cannot give the Deputy a different answer. That is the position but we will look at the new submissions that have been made.

The Minister might visit the school if he gets the opportunity. It would be very much appreciated by the local community.

School Admissions

Page 89 of the programme for Government states:

We will publish new School Admissions and Excellence legislation taking account of current draft proposals (publication of school enrolment policies, an end to waiting lists, introduction of annual enrolment structures, and transparency and fairness in admissions for pupils). We will seek to enact this legislation for the start of school year 2017-18.

At the end of last year, the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 went through Second Stage in the Dáil and has yet to be taken on Committee Stage. One point in respect of this that I would like to raise is capacity and how this affects school admissions. How will this Bill help parents in Fingal? I am raising this Topical Issue matter with the Minister given the incredible urgency that exists to increase capacity in Dublin Fingal and schools in north County Dublin where parents are being told that there are no places for their children in September. Parents are contacting me in large volumes. They are worried sick because they have nowhere to send their child. They are worried there are no places, that these children are too old for preschool placements and that there are no alternatives. Years after putting their children's names down, they are being told that, come September, their efforts will be redundant because there is no room and the children will not be admitted.

I live in the fastest growing county in the country. We have a growing young population which means that, effectively, this problem will only get worse. Obviously, I do not mean children are the problem. Children are lovely. I mean that the problem of where they are to be taught will get worse. I will read out some of the e-mails I have received. One related to a school in Swords. It stated:

We have a son already attending the school and our second son, who was 4 last December and will be ready for school in September. With this in mind and as he already has a sibling attending the school we assumed that he would automatically get his school place in September. We enrolled him with the school last month only to receive the news last Thursday that he was 24th on a waiting list of over 100 children for a place in the school. So basically he has no place in our local school ... We were also informed that our son has no place in his preschool in September because the pre-school were of the opinion he would be starting school in September. His place was offered to a younger child. He also misses out on his free pre-school place due to his age and date of birth.

Another e-mail involved a school in Balbriggan. It stated:

I have a daughter who will be 4 years of age on the 27th of February, 2017. We enrolled her last year. Today we received a letter to say they cannot offer her a placement for September as all placements were filled from category 2 of the Enrolment Policy. This category is in relation to child's age. The cut off is the end of March which she meets. Brothers and sisters of present pupils of the school, which she meets ... She is from the catchment area ... we have been here for 17 years and is Catholic. On phoning the school I was told that they had a lot of older children applying for places this year.

Problems are rolling over from one year to the next and are having knock-on effects. Problems getting one cohort into school in one year means these children are applying again the next year as older children thus preventing other children coming through from getting a place.

Will the Minister advise me as to what I should tell these people? I received another e-mail from parents who want to send their child to a Gaeilscoil. They are Gaeilgeoirí, something we should be encouraging. They have had their child's name down for three years and have just been informed there is no place. There is issue with under-capacity. I am sure it is not exclusive to my constituency but I believe it is a more acute problem there. I want to know what I can say to those people. Their children deserve a place in school. They have been diligent in terms of keeping up with the waiting lists. What am I to tell them?

To avoid confusion, the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill does not involve the building programme. The Bill is about the admissions policies that schools operate. It deals with how schools deal with children with special needs, how they set their priorities-----

I am aware of that.

The Deputy's opening question was how the Bill would impact the problem in Swords. It is not designed to specifically build more schools. It is designed to have a consistent and transparent policy. That Bill is before the House and will go to Committee Stage. Pre-legislative hearings on some of these issues are taking place within the committee.

I am very conscious that there is population pressure in Swords. My Department is reviewing the demographic data for the Swords school planning area as part of its general assessment. My Department also has been in direct contact with a number of primary schools in the Swords area in respect of their junior infant capacity. In that regard, it is understood that at least one school is undersubscribed and has expressed a willingness to enrol further junior infants in September 2017, if necessary. As the Deputy will appreciate, it is important that school size is monitored and that a balance is preserved among all schools in school planning areas to ensure one school is not expanding at the expense or the viability of another school.

There are about 13 different planning areas in the north Dublin area. Four new schools have been built since 2011, so this is an area where there is continuing expansion. The demographic data are being reviewed again to see whether we are at a point where additional capacity needs to be planned for. As of today, the Department's assessment is that the need of junior infants enrolling in the schools in the Swords area will be met by the available places. Unfortunately, that does not always mean that a parent applying to the school of their preference gets the school they wanted. I know some schools have longer waiting lists. That is the current position. The Department will continue to assess needs. The building programme seeks to respond to the pressure of population demand.

It goes back to the point I made to Deputy Griffin. Each year, we must deliver 20,000 additional school places. The planning is such that it is only when the demographic need is clearly established that we trigger construction. That is the only way we can meet the pressure of demand but we are meeting that demand. The assessment will go ahead in Swords.

There are 100 children on a waiting list at the moment. The person I spoke to is No. 24 on that list. Is the Minister suggesting that the capacity exists in a school in Swords to absorb 100 additional pupils? I do not think he is suggesting this and I do not think the school has this capacity. I put it to him that we have a particular problem in north County Dublin that extends beyond Swords. It concerns the age of the population there. It is a serious issue.

I am still not sure what I will say to those parents who are deeply distressed and not just because their children cannot go to the local school. There are parents who have tried schools in the area and who cannot get their children admitted. This is only February. My prediction is that this will get worse because more parents are going to hear about it as these things happen. They are going to pick up the phone and question the school and they are going to be told the same thing. If a person is No. 24 on a waiting list of 100, I do not think the Minister is suggesting that those 100 pupils can be accommodated in the one school in Swords that has a bit of capacity. Perhaps the Minister could indicate if he has information because the information I have relates to discussions I have had with individual schools. All of the policies prohibit canvassing so, clearly, we are not going to get into that space. Does the Minister have an idea-----

What do they prohibit?

They prohibit canvassing. Canvassing is not appropriate because if there are not enough places, it is an issue about capacity rather than anything else.

What am I to say to these parents? They cannot send their children to preschool and have been told they do not have a place. The capacity identified in the one school will not be enough.

Does the Minister have an idea of how many people are currently on waiting lists?

The difficulty with waiting list data is that waiting lists are maintained by individual schools and the same child may appear on several waiting lists. Therefore, they are not the only indicator of the relationship between supply and demand. The position my Department has outlined to me is that there are 13 primary schools in the Swords area. They obviously have a junior infant intake. I do not know what it is but presumably it is in or around the 500 mark across those 13 schools. The Department's assessment indicates that capacity will be enough to meet the total junior infant enrolment need in the Swords area this year. However, they are assessing the demographic pressures and they recognise that there are growing pressures on the system. They are assessing the need in the Swords area. In terms of the Department's assessment of the position, there are enough junior infant class places to meet the need at present. I will bring the points the Deputy made to the attention of the Department and get it to double-check the enrolment figures because this assessment is now under way.

The question relates to north County Dublin and not just to Swords. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could broaden out those questions to the Department.

If the Minister and the Deputy want a discussion, I suggest they meet in the margins.

Ambulance Service

We were expecting the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment to be present, but we will say more on that later. I speak on behalf of Deputies Haughey and Darragh O'Brien, myself, all Fianna Fáil Dublin Deputies and all Fianna Fáil public representatives in Dublin. As the Minister of State will know, Dublin Fire Brigade, DFB, has been providing an ambulance service to the citizens of the city and county since 1898. That is almost 150 years. Uniquely, all firefighters are also paramedics and rotate between fire and ambulance duties. The dual role they have of fire-based emergency medical service is internationally recognised. It is also recognised as best practice. It is replicated in cities such as Seattle, New York, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, etc. The beauty of it is that Dublin is recognised as having the second best survival rate for out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in the world after Seattle. This is because of the fire-based emergency medical system. My colleagues will take up the debate.

I first raised this matter in the Dáil on 25 January and I stand over the remarks I made on that occasion. Yesterday was St. Valentine's Day, the anniversary of the Stardust tragedy in 1981. On that awful night we saw the efficiency and professionalism of the Dublin Fire Brigade and ambulance service at its best. International best practice indicates that combining fire rescue and emergency services greatly improves the response to a crisis. That was clearly seen in the case of the Stardust tragedy.

SIPTU is balloting for strike action at the moment. All indications are that the go-ahead will be given for strike action. The key issue is that the Dublin Fire Brigade is being starved of resources and support to do its job. The chief executive of Dublin City Council wants to transfer the call-taking and dispatching for ambulances to the national control centre in Tallaght. I oppose this. It is not in the interest of the citizens of Dublin. The expert panel published a report. That is the way forward to deal with this particular issue. I hope the Minister of State present will support it. It is a roadmap on how to deal with the problem and it was published in December 2015.

The time we have is wholly insufficient to deal with this particular item. Over a number of years, I have been writing to the Minister of State's predecessor. The bottom line is that the DFB ambulance service and its structure work extremely well, as my colleagues have outlined. What Fianna Fáil as a party and the members of the DFB are really concerned about is the removal of the delivery of that service from the DFB. The reason they are so efficient is because they manage it themselves. They are all trained paramedics and can work with any of the appliances. We saw it with the terrible bus crash in Dublin. Everyone who is on that rig is a trained paramedic. It works.

Dublin City Council and Mr. Owen Keegan have an issue with funding and that is all it is. The HSE is looking to amalgamate this. The DFB complements the HSE ambulance service. This is not a turf war issue. I ask the Minister of State to give a commitment on behalf of the Government that there will be no changes to the operation of the DFB ambulance and to pledge and commit to that. I ask the Minister of State to do that and to raise it with her senior Minister. I believe that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, should be here to answer this because he has big role in telling Mr. Owen Keegan to get off the stage and take his hands off the DFB ambulance service.

I thank the three Deputies for raising this issue. I give my apologies for not being Deputy Coveney or Deputy Harris. I am taking this on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, who gives his apologies. If there are commitments I cannot give, I will certainly take the requests of the Deputies back to both Ministers.

As the Deputies know, Dublin Fire Brigade provides emergency ambulance services in Dublin city and county by arrangement between Dublin City Council and the HSE. The HSE National Ambulance Service provides some emergency capacity in the greater Dublin area as well as non-emergency patient transport. I take this opportunity to commend the excellent work that is completed by the people that undertake that work for the Dublin Fire Brigade and the National Ambulance Service. In recent years, three comprehensive reviews of our ambulance services have been undertaken: the HIQA review, the independent Lightfoot review of National Ambulance Service capacity and the review of Dublin ambulance services that was jointly commissioned by the HSE and Dublin City Council.

The capacity review, published last year, examined overall ambulance resource levels and distribution against demand and activity. The review identified deficits in ambulance capacity, including in the Dublin area, which will require very significant investment to address, as the Deputies have pointed out. Implementation of the recommendations of the capacity review require a multi-annual programme of phased investment in ambulance manpower, vehicles and technology. To this end, increased funding has been made available for ambulance services in the HSE national service plan for this year.

The HIQA report on ambulance services, which was published in December 2014, highlighted significant public safety issues arising from two ambulance services operating in the same domain. The report identified concerns around the existence of two separate control and dispatch processes and also highlighted the need for greater clinical governance of both services. The HIQA report points very clearly to the need for enhanced integration of service provision in the greater Dublin area. The Dublin ambulance services review, which was commissioned in 2014, is focused on identifying a service model for the optimal provision of emergency ambulance services and patient care in the Dublin region, including service quality, patient safety, capacity and value for money for ambulance services.

I assure the House that the Minister, Deputy Harris, is fully aware and appreciative of the excellent historical tradition of service provided to the citizens of Dublin by the Dublin Fire Brigade. However, at the same time, it is fully accepted that in the interest of patient safety we need the DFB and the NAS to have a more co-ordinated and integrated approach to service delivery. It is important that we optimise and maximise all available resources to ensure the citizens of Dublin have the most responsive and safest ambulance service possible, which I know we all agree on.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, has not as yet received a copy of the final report on the review of Dublin ambulance services, which, as I mentioned, was commissioned by Dublin City Council and the HSE. However, to be clear, if any change to the model of service delivery is required, a formal proposal for those changes will have to be submitted to both the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, for their consideration and approval. To that end, discussions are taking place between officials in the Department of Health and the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. The Departments have requested a joint action plan from the HSE and DCC with regard to service and governance issues.

I have seven points to make in 60 seconds. The Dublin Fire Brigade gets 7% of the national ambulance budget but takes on 40% of the ambulance calls nationally. It is simple maths. Dublin City Council actually has the legal authority to run the Dublin Fire Brigade and ambulance service. It is not necessarily a moral obligation, but I believe that obligation has been well established after 150 years. The fire-emergency medical service model is the best model for an urban area. All expert reports point to that. The dual qualification makes the Dublin Fire Brigade ambulance service very efficient on the public purse. The Dublin Fire Brigade is very used to emergencies. It deals with emergencies every hour of every day. It is never off service. This is not a competition with the National Ambulance Service.

Dublin Fire Brigade is never off service. This practice has been well established for 150 years. The Minister of State's reply, particularly with regard to a decision not having been made, is very disheartening. We want to serve notice on the Minister that we are going to continue to press this issue and highlight it on behalf of Dubliners and on behalf of the national fire and ambulance service in Dublin.

I mentioned that the chief executive of Dublin City Council, Owen Keegan, wants to see a transfer of all call taking and dispatching for ambulances to the national central control centre in Tallaght. The Dublin Fire Brigade call centre is in Townsend Street. Technology and IT solutions are available to co-ordinate the ambulance service between Tallaght and Townsend Street. The national ambulance service has centres in Tallaght and Ballyshannon in County Donegal, so this is possible. Unions and staff must be consulted on any proposed changes. So far, everything that has been done in that regard has been done unilaterally. That is no way to do business. The unions and the staff must be consulted. Councillors in the local authorities have passed motions along the lines of what we are suggesting here this evening. As I mentioned, the pre-hospital emergency care services Dublin report was published in 2015. That is the roadmap with which to proceed, and I hope the Minister of State and her colleagues will take it on board.

I appreciate the Minister of State coming into the House to give the response but the second and third last paragraphs in the reply were written by HSE senior management. One can read in the answer that the divvy-up has already been done but we are putting the Government on notice that Fianna Fáil will not accept these changes in Dublin. The local authorities will not accept them.

We will not accept them.

It is a cross-party issue. Anyone with a brain will understand that if it is working extremely well, which is the case, it should not be changed. If anything, the combined emergency medical service, EMS, should be replicated in Galway, Cork and Limerick. It can and should be done. This is a case of Owen Keegan in Dublin City Council not wanting to fund it. We need to sort it out because we will not accept any changes to this service. It is a very serious issue for us and for all other parties which care about this service. I ask the Minister of State to take on board the comments we have raised, which I know she will do.

Finally, there has been no consultation whatsoever with Dublin Fire Brigade, DFB, ambulance or their employee representatives. The HSE making the decisions with the Minister is not acceptable at all.

I thank the Deputies. Many statements have been made that I will not disagree with because a fantastic service has been provided over the past number of years. However, the Deputies must accept best practice when it is put forward. The objectives of the review were to determine a cost effective model of provision going forward, ensure optimum value for money for the public purse but, importantly, determine the optimum model of ambulance provision which ensures that patients receive the highest standard of emergency response and that the care provided meets all national safety and quality standards. That is what we must aim to achieve.

The Dublin Fire Brigade ambulance achieves that.

It is my understanding that the review was originally scheduled for completion in 2014. However, it was not possible to finalise it prior to the conclusion of the national ambulance service, NAS, capacity review. Where funding is needed, it has been allocated in additional funding and this year's service plan has been allocated for our ambulance service through the HSE national service plan. This is about best practice and ensuring that we have the best service possible for the people who need it. I am sure that when recommendations are made and the report is given to the Minister he will discuss this issue and engage with the relevant bodies before any decision is taken. I will certainly bring the Deputies' comments to the Minister and raise their concerns with him.

Housing Issues

Despite constant announcements, promises and plans from the Government about its intention to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis as a matter of top priority, every time the Minister examines that crisis or talks about it and every day that passes, the crisis gets worse. It is a crisis that the Government promised in its programme for Government would be resolved within 100 days yet a year on it continues to get worse, not better, on a daily basis.

Yesterday's news of the escalating crisis was the daft.ie report showing that the biggest increase in rental inflation ever recorded by daft.ie since its inception, 13.5%, occurred in the last quarter of 2016. Dublin rents are now rising at a rate of 15%. Rents in Dublin are up 65% from their lowest point and 14% from their highest point before the crash in 2008. Average rents in Dublin are now €1,643 per month. In Cork, they are €1,096 per month while in Galway, they are €975 per month. They are €875 per month in Limerick and €745 per month in Waterford. Even with the Minister's rent certainty measures, another 4% can be put on that. Another 4% on rents in Dublin will bring the average rent cost up to over €1,700. In every category of rental property and in every single area, the rent allowance or housing assistance payment limits are very considerably less than the average rental levels. We have now also record levels of people in the rental market, at 475,000, which is an increase of 150,000 over the past five years, yet there are fewer than 4,000 rental properties available for rent, and most of them are unaffordable to anybody on a low or middle income.

The Minister's plan is not working. Even if his plan is to deliver increased supply - the magical mantra of the market - and that he will have 20,000 extra residential units a year, if I understand his plan, there will still be a massive surplus of demand over supply, even if his plan works, for years to come. That means there will be no pressure on landlords to reduce rents. For years to come, even if the Minister's plan works, rents will not decrease, and they are already unaffordable and continue to rise. The Minister has got to change tack or the situation will get worse.

I want to know what the Minister intends to do about this problem. If the HAP limit in Dublin is €1,300 and average rents are €1,600, how is somebody supposed to afford that? What are they supposed to do when they have nowhere to live? It is just not doable. If we think about it, 60% or 70% of an average worker's income is required to pay rent if they can get a property, and they probably cannot even get a property. It is just not doable.

We are asking for a radical change in tack to pin rents back to affordable levels, which means retrospectively reducing rents to something like 2010 and 2011 levels, and then have the rent certainty operating from there as well as a dramatic increase in council housing provision.

In response to Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett and the daft.ie report on rent increases, it is clear that there are acute rent pressures in the rental market; we all know that. Those pressures are driven by a number of factors - rising demand, lack of supply and the high costs indebted landlords face in servicing their loans. Those stresses are again confirmed in the latest data from the daft.ie rental report but as I have said publicly, that is not a surprise. We know this is happening and it is what we are trying to address. That is the reason we are putting plans in place.

The report shows that rent asking prices rose nationwide by an average of 13.5% in 2016. In Dublin, annual rental inflation is at an average of 15% and strong rent inflation is also seen in Dublin’s commuter counties. These increases are placing huge pressures on tenants, particularly those who are seeking new accommodation. We want to tackle that problem and as I said at an event this morning, and at a housing conference yesterday, we want to change the housing numbers for two reasons, namely, for social housing to give people that choice but also economically this will hold us back. We cannot provide accommodation for people, companies cannot grow, we cannot expand and we cannot continue to create new jobs.

We want to do this, and we fully intend to do it, but it is wrong to say that we promised to do it within 100 days. That is not what we said. We promised to put in place an action plan that would tackle this problem over a couple of years. It is not possible to magically come up with a solution overnight. Deputy Boyd Barrett gives the impression that if we click our fingers, the problem will be solved. It does not work that way. There was no plan in place that was backed with money. A plan has been put in place now. It was put together over the summer in fewer than 100 days, as per the commitment, and published in July. It will be rolled out bit by bit from August-September onwards.

It should be borne in mind that this report refers to the period prior to the Government's new strategy for the rental sector, which was published in December as part of the overall housing plan, and prior to the rent pressure zones announced at the same time.

There is no doubt the problems in the rental sector are part of a bigger issue. We are in the midst of a housing crisis and the problems caused by high rents reflect, and are reflected in, the other issues facing the housing market. There are not enough homes for first-time buyers, while there is an increased demand for social housing, with unacceptable levels of homelessness. The issue is the lack of supply. All of the actions outlined in Rebuilding Ireland are aimed at increasing the supply of housing. Likewise, in the rental strategy which was published in December we are trying to get the balance right between rent control in certain areas to ensure only minor increases and encouraging increased investment in the rental market. We have to do both. We are trying to win new investment in the rental sector to have more houses provided because we cannot fix this problem overnight and build all of the houses needed.

It is wrong to say nothing is happening in the housing plans. Last year approximately 15,000 new houses came onstream. The plan in 2017 is for approximately 18,000 to come onstream, but we now expect to see up to 19,000, as there is no doubt that we will beat the number of 18,000. We want to reach 25,000 a year. I made it very clear to the construction sector at meetings held today that if we could get to 28,000 or 29,000 new housing units a year for several years to help us to catch up with demand, that is what we would do. The aim at the end of the five-year plan is to have new 25,000 houses per year thereafter, but in the middle of the plan we will probably go a little higher because we will need to do so if we are to catch up. The Deputy is absolutely right in that regard.

Coupled with this, we have efforts and had new plans announced to try to bring vacant stock back into use as social housing. More than 5,000 voids have been brought back into use in the past two years, with 2,000 being provided last year alone because we had provided the money to do so. We are putting in place the repair and lease back initiative which involves cash upfront to private owners to bring their houses back into usage as social housing. There are other plans such as the buy and renew initiative for local authorities. We are supplying money in new areas to make this happen. The capital budget for housing in 2017 has been increased by 50%. We are reacting to this and a total of €5.5 billion of taxpayer's money is being committed to fixing the problem, but we cannot spend all of it in one day. The Deputy should not kid himself. It takes time to put a system back in place. The system of social housing provision was closed down well before Fine Gael entered government, as the Deputy knows. We agree with him and are trying to build it back up again.

The problem is that it just gets worse. If there was any sign that things were improving, I would give some credence to what the Minister of State said. It is not that the debate started today or yesterday or even a year ago. When I stood at the top of the Chamber in 2012 and warned that there would be slum conditions similar to those in Sean O'Casey's time, I remember that I was scoffed at from the Fine Gael benches. There was laughter across the Chamber because it could not possibly happen, but it is. Last week there was a newspaper report on a property in Lehaunstown. Today there is a newspaper report that a three-bedroom property with 16 bunk beds is being advertised to young women and rented out at €400 per bunk bed. The journalist who went into the place said it was absolutely squalid. We are back to tenement conditions and none of the measures proposed by the Minister of State will address the problems immediately. For example, a simple thing that could be done is, as we proposed in a motion passed by Dublin City Council, that the local authority should have the power to take and use any property which has been sitting empty for longer than six months if the owner does not signal an intention to use it. However, the city manager stated he would not implement it. I propose that he be instructed to implement the measure. It is completely unacceptable. I also propose that rents in the rent pressure zones be pinned back to affordable levels - approximately 2010 levels - as an emergency measure to make them affordable in order that everybody looking for rental property would not automatically be in a crisis, as is the case because rents are too high and HAP and rent support levels are simply not sufficient. Will the Minister of State do these things?

We have made the decision that in the rent pressure zones there will be a limit on increases to a maximum of 4%, one third of the rates in the daft.ie report today. The report reflects the situation before we published the rental strategy. Our intervention in these areas will help. I understand the Deputy wants us to move further backwards, but that is not something we are in a position to do. We have a rental strategy agreed to by all of the Cabinet which we believe has the balance right between trying to have predictability in rents in some key pressure zones and adding pressure zones where the evidence is available and encouraging more investment in the sector. If we cut off investment, we will have a bigger problem.

I recall the Deputy speaking in 2012 and fully compliment him as he flagged this issue, but I state repeatedly that the resources were not available. I wish they had been available in 2012 and 2013 to be spent on social housing but they were not. It became a real issue in 2014 and 2015 when we could see rents increasing. In areas in Dublin they have doubled from €700 to €1,400 in the past two or three years. They were not at these levels in 2012 or 2013, but they were in 2014 and 2015. I am saying the Deputy was right, but we did not have the resources we needed available. Now we have money to tackle the problem and have a plan in place to spend it. I have no doubt that it will make an impact. We cannot fix the problem overnight in the way the Deputy wants us to do so. He has a magic pen with which he could go and do it, but it does not work that way for us. We must crank the system back up, intervene where we can and put in place resources to activate sites and have State-owned land put back into use. The Deputy is correct on initiatives to bring vacant properties back into use.

On the motion mentioned by the Deputy, we have the site levy to be introduced in 2019. We have received advice from the Attorney General that we cannot intervene before then. In the meantime we will use carrots to try to get people to bring properties back into use. If the county manager wants to attempt to do this, so be it. I am not sure whether he would legally be able to do so. I understand what is behind the motion, but we are trying to use the carrot approach. We are asking people who have accommodation not in use to talk to and work with us through the various arms of the State. We can lease long-term or give them money upfront to bring the accommodation back into use. If people own land, we will work with them to service it to have it brought back into use. We will try all of these measures. We will get a better response in adopting that approach for now.

Sitting suspended at 4.15 p.m. and resumed at 4.55 p.m.