Priority Questions

Housing Issues

Barry Cowen


31. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the proposed powers and resources of the new national regeneration and development agency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9729/18]

This time last week, the Government was talking about its commitments in Project Ireland 2040 to build 500,000 homes. Unfortunately, it rings hollow when we study the figures released today which again surpass previous records on homelessness. There are 9,104 people in homelessness, of which 3,267 are children. There are 1,517 families in emergency accommodation. Announcements, rhetoric and plans are not solving this crisis but putting them into action might help. One of the announcements contained in that document was the setting up of a new national regeneration and development agency. Will the Minister inform the Dáil what proposed powers and resources are available to the agency and when we will see it up and running? When will we see it making decisions that can help regenerate brownfield sites throughout the country and allow people to live in, regenerate and revitalise homes in town centres and brownfield sites throughout the country, as the repair and lease scheme has not?

I thank the Deputy for the question. Project Ireland 2040 signals a significant policy shift towards securing more compact and sustainable urban and rural development, which requires significantly more effective land management in key development areas. Against that background, it is proposed to establish a national regeneration and development agency to assist in ensuring a more effective approach to strategic land management, particularly in terms of publicly owned land. The agency will act as a national centre of expertise, working with and supporting local authorities, public bodies and other interests to harness public lands as catalysts to stimulate regeneration and wider investment and to achieve compact, sustainable growth with a particular emphasis on complex regeneration projects.

The detailed arrangements on the establishment, staffing and powers of the agency will be finalised as quickly as possible. At this point, however, I envisage that the agency will be tightly focused and will seek to work primarily through the statutory powers of the stakeholders it is being established to assist, such as the local authorities that already have extensive powers to acquire lands for development, compulsorily if necessary, and to deliver infrastructure. Whether the agency requires further powers will be considered by Government in the context of its consideration of the detailed arrangements for the agency's establishment.

I thank the Minister for his response.

The clock has frozen but I will trust my watch.

The clock is frozen. We might get the leader of the agency responding to the weather situation here to fix the clock.

They are like Batman and Robin going around the past few days.

Will the Minister elaborate further? I am sure a lot of preparation went into the decision to put this agency on such a footing. Various powers associated with it would have been agreed by Government for implementation as soon as is practically possible. The Minister said it may have powers in addition to those local authorities have for CPOs. There are a lot of problems associated with the CPO powers of local authorities because they do not have the funding available to them to force issues.

What is the timeframe for the roll-out of the agency? What pilot projects are in the offing? Surely some have been identified. What staffing levels will it have? Will the Minister be reviewing the incentives and penalties for agencies to use? They are a number of simple questions based on the huge preparation by the Minister and his Department to put this in place. Rather than just announce it and tell us what it could potentially do, will the Minister give us some specific details on what it will do to help to alleviate the figures we have seen today?

A lot of consideration has gone into this initiative by the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and me. One of the key principles in Project Ireland 2040 is compact growth, which means that 40% of the 1 million extra population will be in the cores of our villages, towns and city centres. With regard to strategic land banks in our main cities such as the north quays in Waterford, sites in Cork and Limerick and even sites in Dublin, particularly around the Naas Road, the agency will have a mandate to work across local authority boundaries to get strategic land banks into use.

I imagine the number of staff in the agency will be no more than 20. It is not about developing a new quango; it is about a group of experts who can help project manage certain strategic pieces of infrastructure. The legislation we will be using to set up the body will be the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971 under which bodies can be established by order to provide services to the Minister and local authorities. It is the same legislation that set up the Housing Agency. Under that legislation we will set up a new land management agency to work with local authorities and my Department to make sure we can bring the strategic land banks back into use.

The Deputy raised the matter of the numbers of families and individuals experiencing homelessness at the moment. While we have seen an increase in the numbers, it is important to note that since Rebuilding Ireland came into existence a huge amount of work has been done to help people who are experiencing homelessness. In the course of 2017, 4,000 people exited homelessness. If we look at the number of people and families who are homeless, in Dublin in particular, the rate of increase in 2015 was 106%. In 2016, it was 51%. In 2017, the rate of increase was only 9%. That tells us that Rebuilding Ireland is working. We are making significant progress. If we continue our efforts over the course of 2018, we will see a significant decline.

On 27 February 2018, there are record numbers of people in homelessness. It is almost two years since the Government took office and Rebuilding Ireland came into being. The public has not seen the return on that investment to date. I hope that changes quickly. An example of how it could be done would be a quicker turnaround between announcements and the putting into place of various actions. In the budget last October, we were told €750 million would be made available for competitive finance for the construction sector but five months later I do not know what mechanism is in place for that to come to fruition. The announcement last week presents a similar situation. I need to know that the roll-out of this agency will give it powers to provide for 40% of the population growth to be in town centres. How do I know it will happen more quickly than other announcements and plans that have not yielded results? We have been waiting five months for the competitive finance fund or the mechanism by which it can be allocated and applied for and I am no further on. I do not want the same to happen here. I recognise the potential contained within this initiative but it is about implementation. We do not want to be here again in five months' time saying there has not been a follow-up or the action has not matched.

Rebuilding Ireland has yielded results. The figures for 2017 show that the number of homes that came into the social housing stock was far greater than anticipated over the course of 2017. The figures also show a significant ramp up in the commencements of building homes and the applications for planning permissions. Each of those headline figures tells us that Rebuilding Ireland is working. I accept the Deputy's sincerity in hoping we can reverse and see significant improvements in the number of people who are experiencing homelessness. It is important to recognise that since Rebuilding Ireland came into action, the rate of increase has dramatically fallen which shows the plans that are being put in place and implemented are working with our partners in the voluntary sector. We have a record number of people experiencing homelessness when we look at the total number of adults and dependants in emergency accommodation services today. The rate of increase in the number of families is not back on the high of November. We will continue to work over the coming months to help get families into family hubs, which is the best first response. As I said in the statement I made earlier this afternoon, there is an ambitious rapid family hub programme to get additional family hub places in place as quickly as possible. The establishment of the agency will happen in the coming months. A huge amount of work has already been progressed. We have identified the legislation that we will set up under the body. We also have an idea of the sites we want to take into our strategic control with the local authorities and others.

Social and Affordable Housing

Eoin Ó Broin


32. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the status of the commitment made on page 53 of Rebuilding Ireland to create a special purpose vehicle, involving investors including the credit union movement, to fund the delivery of social and affordable homes by the approved body sector. [9768/18]

The Minister is living in a parallel universe if he thinks Rebuilding Ireland is yielding results. In the months since that strategy was launched, the total number of adults and children in emergency accommodation has increased by a shocking 40%. The only result it is yielding is more children spending longer periods of their lives in emergency accommodation.

My question is directly related to it in terms of the supply of social housing. Will the Minister of State give us an update on what he is doing to assist the credit unions and approved housing bodies to draw down the funding now available as a result of the Central Bank's rulings at the end of last year on investing the savings of credit unions in social housing, particularly for the families about whom we are talking?

I remind the Deputy that Rebuilding Ireland is a five-year document. We all want it to work in week one, but it will probably take four or five years to deliver on its promise. I think it is on track to do so and the report launched by the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in January showed all of the headings under which it was delivering housing. Overall, it is way ahead of target and while we all accept that it is not enough to deal with the homelessness problem, as a document, it is delivering and we will push it forward even more. An additional 7,000 social houses not in use at the start of last year are now in use and this year there will be an additional 8,000 such houses. They will be new houses under all of the different schemes and add to the houses we are renting under the HAP and other rental schemes. Solutions will have been found for over 26,000 people, which is some progress, and we will not stop until we have dealt with the problem. That is why nearly €2 billion has been set aside to fund Rebuilding Ireland this year, with an increased budget in the years ahead. We are showing the results and, eventually, the trends will go in the right way. All of the housing we are delivering will provide enough homes. Over 4,000 people left homelessness last year. We have to acknowledge the work done by many people, from the local authorities to other partners who are delivering.

The Government's Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness emphasised the need to look at new ways of funding social housing delivery, in particular the need to provide structural, funding and policy supports to increase the delivery of social housing by approved housing bodies, AHBs.  In that context, it committed to providing support for the AHB sector to develop innovative financial models to enable approved housing bodies to further enhance their contribution in the delivery of additional social housing.

In May 2017 my Department announced that funding of €49,000 would be provided for the Irish Council for Social Housing to support an initiative through which it would develop proposals for special purpose vehicles.  The purpose of the initiative was to provide a mechanism that would enable the sector to attract investment in social housing projects from potential investors, including the credit union movement. The Irish Council for Social Housing has completed two of the three phases of the project and anticipates that the work should be completed later this year.

That is precisely why we have so many living in emergency accommodation. In 2014 the credit unions stated they wanted to invest in social housing. In 2016 their representatives appeared before the Oireachtas housing and homelessness committee to plead with us to put pressure on the Government to assist in that regard. In 2017 the Central Bank finally got around to approving credit union investment in social housing and all the Department has done is give a relatively small amount of money to the Irish Council for Social Housing to conduct a study of how to set up a special purpose vehicle. There are experts on how to do this in the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, while the Minister's own Department has experience of it. Are we going to have to wait another year before a special purpose vehicle is set up by the approved housing bodies? Are we going to have to wait another year before the credit unions have their own fund with which to invest? Would that mean funding would not be available until 2019 for credit unions to start building houses, which would mean that the houses would not have tenants in them until 2020 or 2021? What has the Minister been doing for the past year in implementing this specific recommendation, other than giving one third of the cost of a PricewaterhouseCoopers study of this matter, which the Irish Council for Social Housing has been conducting? Now that the Central Bank has finally agreed to allow credit unions to invest, will the Minister get everyone around the table, namely, the Irish League of Credit Unions, the Credit Union Development Association, the approved housing bodies, the Department of Finance and the NTMA, to agree how this can be done in order that the €500 million which the Irish League of Credit Unions wants to invest can be invested this year, rather than at some distant point in the future?

I had not finished my answer. We meet credit unions and both the Minister and I are conscious of their ability to invest. We always say access to cash is not restricting the provision of housing, but we welcome the involvement of credit unions through investment and providing loans. Six approved housing bodies applied to draw down funding and a sum of €104,000 was drawn down to expand four schemes. The Irish Council for Social Housing was establishing a sector-led financial vehicle to allow approved housing bodies to expand and draw down money through special purpose vehicles. Cluid is developing a set of procedures, guidelines and templates for mergers and acquisitions, while Oaklee has engaged with financial advisers to secure off-balance sheet funding. Túath has engaged with external experts to undertake research, while two schemes are waiting for inclusion in the affordable rental scheme. There are different approved housing bodies drawing down funding in different ways to invent new models to attract money. Credit unions met the Oireachtas committee on housing and homelessness. They also met us on a few occasions. I was involved with the credit union movement even before taking up this brief on the subject of allowing its members to invest in housing provision and provide loans for approved housing bodies. We are all on the same page in wanting this to happen. Many of the decisions to be made are outside the scope of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and proper to the Central Bank and the Department of Finance, but we have worked with them too. Credit unions have set out the proposed means by which funding could be provided for approved housing bodies for the development of social housing. My Department and the Department of Finance met credit union representative bodies on a number of occasions to examine the sector. Both Departments also met the Central Bank to provide information of a technical nature on social housing funding arrangements. Thankfully, it resulted in the changes announced in January this year.

That is all very interesting, but I already knew the information on approved housing bodies and credit unions and it was not the question I asked. It was what the Minister was actually doing. Now that approval has been given by the Central Bank, will the Minister of State and the Department bring all of the players around the table to ensure, in as speedy a fashion as possible, that the funds into which the credit unions need to put their money and the funds the approved housing bodies need to draw down can be established? Can the Minister of State give us any indication of the timeline involved? Will it be up and running this year, next year or the year after? According to the figures, the incidence of adult homelessness is up by 27% in the past 12 months; the incidence of child homelessness is up by 36% and the incidence of family homelessness it is up by 29%. It seems that whoever wrote the Minister's press release cannot even count, as they suggested there had been a 16% increase. There is no urgency on the part of the Government. There is €500 million that could be spent, in addition to the Government's financial commitments, but all the Minister of State is telling us is what we already know from other bodies, rather than what he and his Department are doing. Will he, please, inject some urgency in order that we do not have to sit here for another year, with another 40% increase in the incidence of homelessness?

The changes have been made by the Central Bank and kicked in in January, but it will only be on 1 March, at the end of this week, that the mechanism to allow the credit union movement to invest in housing projects will apply. My officials are meeting both credit union bodies today and we are moving as quickly as we can. We have engaged a lot with the credit union movement because we believe in what it wants to do, but taxpayers' money of €2 billion has also been set aside this year. We have the money we need. The issue is how quickly can we build houses and make them available. We are looking to bring back into use private vacant properties if we can acquire them at the right price and restore them. We are changing the rules and mechanisms for planning and delivery times for new builds which include rapid construction. We are doing all we can to speed up the delivery of housing because we have the money we need. The new regulations will allow credit unions to invest and we welcome their involvement. The Department has engaged fully. We will work to make it happen as quickly as possible. To this end, further meetings are planned in the weeks ahead.

Rental Sector

Barry Cowen


33. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the steps he will to take to regulate short-term lettings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9730/18]

Last year my colleague, Deputy Pat Casey, initiated a proposal for the housing committee to undertake a study and make recommendations on the regulation of short-term lettings. Airbnb has encouraged this type of letting which can impact further on the availability of conventional units in the rental market and contribute to the unfortunate and ridiculous rent increases we have seen, with the lack of available units to address the problem. The report contained 13 recommendations. This issue has been raised by me and others in the past two years and the Department committed to carrying out a similar study and coming back with recommendations. Will the Minister consider the recommendations made by the committee which was representative of all parties and none? There is universal approval for its approach.

Under action 18 of the strategy for the rental sector, my Department established a working group in June 2017 with representatives of all major public stakeholders with a policy interest in short-term lettings to develop guidance on planning applications and changes of use relating to short-term lettings and to examine the need for new regulatory arrangements. The proposals under consideration by the working group are aimed at facilitating short-term letting of accommodation within permanent residences, known as home sharing, while protecting existing stock of residential property in areas of high demand, safeguarding neighbourhood amenity and consumer protection, and generating revenue to address any negative externalities of short-term letting.

The working group completed guidance for local authorities on planning applications relating to short-term lettings, and my Department issued a circular on the matter last October. The group is now working on proposals for an appropriate comprehensive regulatory approach for short-term tourism related lettings as well as identification of amendments to legislation that may be necessary to give effect to such regulation. The draft report of the working group is being finalised and I will consider its recommendations when they are received before initiating a targeted public consultation on the proposals.

The short answer is the Minister is not yet ready to make recommendations apart from those that went to local authorities as to how they might be classified. Will the Minister tell me when he expects this task force to make proposals? When can this Dáil expect a debate on recommendations the Minister makes? When can this Dáil scrutinise and subsequently approve those recommendations to ensure this sector is properly regulated and this issue can no longer impinge upon the availability of rental units in the marketplace which is only contributing to the record levels being sought?

Following the issuing of a circular by my Department to local authorities last year, we are very close to a set of recommendations coming to me in approximately six weeks or by mid-April. At the same time, Dublin City Council is carrying out a study on short-term letting and we are reviewing the proposals from the joint committee's report. I have read those proposals and support many of them. I have looked at licensing arrangements in other cities relating to home sharing, which I support. The licensing arrangements that are in place seem to make a lot of sense. Airbnb produced some figures recently. While they are Airbnb's figures, what is interesting is that 70% of hosts on the platform in Ireland engage in home sharing, which involves people giving up their primary private residence for a weekend here or there or a week while they are away on holidays. What we have also seen from Airbnb's data is that the highest average number of nights being let over the course of a year is 53, which is well short of the 90 days recommended by the joint committee. If we were to move to a system of 90 days, for example, it would be well in excess of the highest average number of nights for short-term lettings in the country at the moment. As I said earlier, recommendations will come to me in the next number of weeks, at which point I will be able to engage with the committee and be able to go out to public consultation on the new measures we propose to introduce.

Under no circumstances do we have a problem with home sharing and the options people have in that realm. This is about the other 30%, those who, on a full-time basis, offer their property for short-term lettings. Up to 2,000 of these properties will be available in Dublin tonight. I take on board the Minister's response, belated as it is, that recommendations will emanate from this task force in April, and I look forward to the Dáil having an opportunity to work with the Minister to ensure that legislation is forthcoming, this sector is regulated, and that it is not allowed to continue to contribute towards exorbitant rents in cities throughout the country.

It is probably worth noting that legislation will more than likely be required. When that legislation is ready, we can move with it as quickly as possible in this House because both the Deputy and I support the objective of home sharing and the shared economy with the great benefit it brings our tourism industry, cultural exchange and people who let their home while on holidays themselves to help them meet other bills. This is all welcome. We do need to make sure, particularly at the moment, that we are not losing long-term private rental accommodation to this particular part of the market which could better serve the needs of our citizens who are living here.

Social and Affordable Housing Eligibility

Jan O'Sullivan


34. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government his plans to raise the income limits for qualification for social housing to address the problems of a growing number of low-income working families who cannot afford market rents or to save the necessary deposit to access a loan to purchase a home, and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10142/18]

My question concerns the growing number of families who are very anxiously concerned that they may be in the homeless figures in the near future because they are above the income limits for social housing but cannot afford the increases in rent they are being charged and cannot save for a deposit because of the rents they are paying. There is a growing number of these families throughout the country, especially in our cities. What is the Minister doing to address the needs of these families?

The Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011 prescribe maximum net income limits for eligibility for social housing support for each local authority in different bands according to the area, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy published by my Department. The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band are based on an assessment of the income needed to provide for a household's basic needs plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation throughout the country. The limits also reflect a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn and thereby promote sustainable communities and future proofing. We must bear in mind that this was a number of years ago.

As part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports has commenced with the detailed statistical work underpinning the review to be carried out by the Housing Agency. I expect the results of this review to be available for publication later this year. It is something that has been raised quite a lot here over recent months and certainly over the past year and at many local authority meetings. Most Members are conscious that the limits were set in 2011, so the Department is anxious to have this review completed as quickly as possible and to act on it as well. We should have it by the middle of the year or possibly a bit later, but we have certainly asked for it to be done as quickly as possible so that we can make some decisions based on it.

I urge the Minister of State to have the review carried out as quickly as possible. I was dealing with a woman last week who is the mother of three children. She is a lone parent who works full time and earns just over €32,000 per annum, which puts her above the income limit for social housing - an income of €32,000 with three children. Her rent has increased substantially. Limerick is not in a rent pressure zone. Even if it were, average rents have been increasing by approximately 10% in the past year. Statistics show that house prices are going up by around 12%. We are talking about a growing number of working families that are stuck in a situation where they are terrified they will be unable to afford increased rents. There is no way they can save for a deposit. If they qualified for social housing, at least they would have that possibility plus the possibility of the housing assistance payment, HAP. That sector of the community most certainly needs attention from Government because it is in fear of becoming homeless. Will the Minister of State speed that up? What about other measures, for example, affordable housing, which is the other option but which is very limited in terms of what the Government is proposing?

The case referred to by the Deputy is in Limerick. I am surprised. I know Limerick is in band 2 where the limit is about €30,000 plus percentage allowances for each child, so that person should qualify for social housing in Limerick with an income of €32,000. The figures we have are for net income, so that generally results in a rate of about €48,000 gross pay, so I would question the figures given by the Deputy. Perhaps she could get somebody to review that because the woman in question should qualify because it is €30,000 net along with the percentage increase for each child she has. I think the Deputy said she had three children. Perhaps the Deputy might get somebody to review that figure.

Like the Deputy, we agree that this needs to be completed urgently because the figures were set back in 2011. There has been a lot of engagement with the Housing Agency through our Department so there is no reason we should not have a result quite soon. We have asked it to do it as quickly as possible. My officials met the agency today. If there is an issue around staffing, we will help with that because we want these figures and the recommendations. It will assess whether any changes are required and produce a list of recommendations for how we should deal with this.

The Minister has made it very clear since last summer when he came into the Department that there are quite a number of people who are above that income limit and who need assistance with housing as well, and that is why there has been a lot of effort to develop and bring back an affordable housing proposal, which will be on the table in a couple of weeks, using State-owned lands to give people the option of affordable rental or purchase.

There does not seem to be any sense of urgency regarding families who are in these situations. It is taking a huge amount of time to roll out this affordable housing scheme. There is basically nothing available in terms of an affordable scheme at the moment for the kind of families about whom I talking. I do not see any reason the review of the social housing income limits could not happen more quickly as well.

I presume the Department is aware that incomes have not been rising at anything near the rates at which rents and house costs have been rising in the past year. There needs to be a sense of urgency about addressing the needs of this sector of the population who are going out to work, trying to raise their families and are absolutely terrified that they will end up not being able to afford rent and raise a deposit. The bank of mum and dad is not there for them as it may be for certain sectors of the population, although not for most people. They are stuck in a spiral and cannot see a way out.

There is a range of schemes designed to help people on different income brackets. Naturally in the first year of Rebuilding Ireland the main focus was to get the housing construction back up and to get local authorities back in a position of building houses, which they had not been doing for many years - probably even before the recession - because policy decisions were made to restrict their ability to do that. They are back doing that now and this year across 120 sites they are delivering nearly 4,000 new social houses directly built by local authorities, as well as being involved in acquiring houses, turnkey and so on. They will all become available as well.

In addition, the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme is up and running and many people are applying for it. It will suit many people in the income bracket the Deputy just mentioned. Regarding LIHAF, all 30-plus proposals have been signed and there is an element of affordable housing across all those sites. On the income limits the Deputy mentioned, they will be able to avail of them as well. We will also bring forward more affordable housing through our own initiatives, including on State-owned lands. There will be a major increase in supply there.

It is fair to say that the initial concentration was on getting social housing up and running again and then to concentrate on affordable housing in phase two, which is now happening in a big way. There will be considerable choice for people in the year ahead and rightly so. At the same time, there is great value to be had in many parts of the country. It is very attractive to use the Rebuilding Ireland home loan to buy up some of the properties that are vacant and are available to people at good prices in different parts of the country, although, I accept, not necessarily in the cities.

Construction Costs

Barry Cowen


35. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the status of the independent audit of residential construction costs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9731/18]

We have consistently said that the key to solving the housing crisis lies in supply. The key to supply is affordability and the key to affordability is cost. We have been conscious of the excessive costs associated with development levies, certification, credit or finance, and VAT. In April 2016, the Minister's predecessor and now Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, said that he would need an independent audit or assessment of construction costs before he could confirm the obvious fact that was staring everybody in the face. Where is the independent audit? What has kept it? Why in God's name has it not been laid before the House in order for the Minister to be in a position to competently make recommendations that could reduce the cost of construction and encourage more building in order to improve supply?

I thank the Deputy for the question. Under the Government's Rebuilding Ireland action plan, my Department committed to undertaking a detailed analysis, in conjunction with the construction sector, to benchmark housing delivery input costs in Ireland in order to facilitate an increased level of housing output.

To advance this work, a working group, chaired by my Department, was established and has been specifically reviewing the delivery costs and viability for affordable residential developments in the domestic market. In parallel, the Housing Agency has been advancing a comparative analysis of international construction costs.

An executive summary of the working group's report was published last month to provide context for the review and update of the design standards for new apartments, which I will be finalising shortly. In summary, the report analyses each of the main input costs in order to make recommendations that may lead to economies. The inputs considered include: land; construction and build costs; professional fees; development levies and contributions; finance cost and development margins; and value-added tax.

Based on viability modelling, incorporating a level of development margin needed to secure development finance, one of the key findings of the report is that the viability of urban apartment schemes at affordable price levels is extremely challenging at present, while suburban housing schemes at similar price levels are marginally viable. The report points to a number of initiatives to address viability issues and therefore support increased supply.

Both my Department’s and the Housing Agency’s reports are being finalised at present and I expect to be in a position to publish them both shortly.

I have a simple question. The then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, announced a plan for an independent audit of construction costs in October 2016. Is the Minister surprised we have not had that yet? He mentioned other recommendations that emanated from special design groupings within his Department and in conjunction with other bodies and so forth. However, this was specific. This was the then Minister saying he needed at his disposal an independent audit of construction costs. He appointed a group to provide that in October 2016. By 27 February 2018 this Dáil has not yet seen sight of it even though it is thrown at us consistently when we suggest that in order to assist in addressing the cost of construction, many factors needed to be dealt with. These include, for example, development levies, certification, the cost of credit or finance and the VAT rate applicable to the construction sector.

Irrespective of whether the Minister agrees with it, the Government decided that it would be led by this independent assessment. That would be fine and we could deal with it if it were laid before the House. It seems a very long time. Is the Minister disappointed it has not been published earlier? Why has it not been published earlier? He already said that the other report could be available in six weeks. Maybe a similar commitment could be given in this area.

The Department's work in this area has been led by our independent study of construction costs. I have seen early drafts we have received in the past few months. We hope to have the Housing Agency's report on international cost comparisons next week. I anticipate that will show that we are not wildly out of line with other close countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

When we finalise the apartment guidelines, I hope to be able to publish the full construction cost study report, a summary of which was published a few weeks ago. As the Deputy said, many of the factors and difficulties the building industry is facing at the moment are obvious and they have informed policy decision making. For example, when we have looked at construction costs, we have moved to use more rapid build in social housing as has the private sector.

We have looked at proper planning guidelines, including taking costs out building apartments to make them more viable, such as the provision of car parking for apartment buildings, the number of units per core, dual-aspect ratio, height restrictions and so on. Other factors include: LIHAF funding; development levies and the costs faced in the sector; consistency across local authorities regarding the payments made by them; State payments when it comes to the building of social housing; home building finance Ireland which is the recommendation that will flow regarding finance for builders; the vacant site levy which has been increased; and now this new land and development regeneration agency. All these interventions that we have made and are making are as a result of the work the Department has done and also work done by the private sector. Given that builders and construction companies have found it challenging, these interventions will help them build apartments and homes at viable prices.

To bring it to a conclusion, will the Minister give a commitment to the House that this independent assessment and audit of construction costs will be published in the coming month to allow all parties and none on this side of the House to analyse and scrutinise that so that we can be in a position to make recommendations, perhaps including some that have already been made, but with the benefit of this report confirming our belief regarding the various contributors to high construction costs?

Nothing is delaying the report's publication. I intend to get it finalised and published as quickly as possible. I hope both reports will be available next week, but the Deputy might bear in mind that the Department is working on responding to this week's weather event, which is taking most of my attention this week.