Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Fisheries Protection

Jan O'Sullivan


67. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if the steering group tasked with recommending ways to improve fish passage at Parteen and Ardnacrusha on the River Shannon, which was announced by the Minister of State at his Department and the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, is accepting submissions from the public; if so, the way in which and the location to which submissions should be sent; the timeframe for the group to report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46899/18]

My question is around an issue of concern whereby salmon stocks are under threat right the way up the Shannon basin. A steering group was recently announced and the Minister of State, Deputy English, was one of the two Ministers of State who announced it. I am looking for more information because this is an issue I have been raising in other areas, particularly with the other Department involved. I am trying to get practical information on how to contribute to the work of the steering group.

The establishment of the steering group in regard to the fish passage at Parteen is a key measure of the Government’s river basin management plan for Ireland 2018-2021. The Parteen area of the Shannon is designated as a heavily modified water body under the water framework directive and it is incumbent on us to apply enhancement measures, where practicable, to improve the ecological status and potential of the river.

My Department is undertaking a national analysis of barriers to fish movement through Inland Fisheries Ireland and I intend that this will form the basis of a future prioritised restoration programme. When the steering group makes recommendations regarding a fish passage improvement project for the Shannon, it will serve as an ideal pilot to advance this future restoration programme and the project will have important economic co-benefits for communities along the Shannon.

The steering group brings together all parties with a statutory remit in the area, as well as the Shannon Fishery Partnership, and it will issue its recommendations not later than April 2020. At its inaugural meeting a fortnight ago, the group identified outreach as a key issue and, recognising the importance of securing external inputs into its deliberations, has undertaken to put in place an appropriate mechanism in this regard as one of its first actions. I expect further information on this matter will be made available by the steering group shortly.

As I said, I attended the launch of the steering group, which is made up of a core group and a consultation group. The core group comprises the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, ESB, Inland Fisheries Ireland and Irish Water, and the consultative group around that includes the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Office of Public Works, the Shannon Fisheries Partnership and Waterways Ireland. Everyone around that table is very interested in ensuring we get a solution. They will be very happy to engage at the appropriate time with the public and certainly with the Deputy. I will send all the information I have to her and will put her in touch with the relevant people. We want to bring forward new solutions based on some new technologies that are out there.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. He said various statutory stakeholders would be involved but the people I really want involved are the people involved in fishing. I have seen a proposal from the Kingfisher Angling club in Castleconnell, County Limerick. It was once renowned as an area for fishing but the stocks have reduced significantly, as they have in other parts, all the way up the Shannon. I grew up beside the headrace and I know the structure of Ardnacrusha and the fact the salmon have a problem getting up by the headrace. However, a man called Paddy Guerin has developed a simple plan to divert the salmon away from Ardnacrusha up the old river basin, that is, up the river instead of up the tailrace and the headrace, which are part of the Ardnacrusha structure. I want to make sure the people presenting this plan, which is based on experience and which is supported by the Federation of Irish Salmon and Sea Trout Anglers, can get a proper hearing. They feel the so-called experts are sometimes listened to more than the people who actually experience the river. I want to get information that this plan can be presented and will be taken seriously.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan. We had a similar conversation at the meeting at Ardnacrusha with a view to making sure we look at any and all solutions, both the ones brought forward by engineers from all over the world and the local suggestions. The steering group has 18 months of work ahead of it to look at all the different ideas and different solutions, but also to try to take advantage of any technical, scientific and engineering solutions that might have been brought forward over the years, as well as to engage with the experts. We have also tried to bring an independent voice to this by bringing in experts from abroad to work with us. The group will be led by our Department. We are cognisant of the importance of public engagement as part of this deliberative process. There will be a mechanism to engage with the public and to look at local suggestions.

To be clear, it is not one suggestion that is being looked at. It is a group to look at suggestions and to bring forward a proposal at the end of the process. Naturally, it has to be based on evidence and on something that can work, not just a gut feeling. However, if there is a possibility of doing something, we will do it. When the group brings forward solutions to the Department, we will certainly be in a position to fund that and to give it the backing that is required. At that stage, it will also need to go through a proper planning process. I will give the Deputy the details of the local consultation process, which is very important. We all want to achieve the result, which is increased salmon stocks.

I would like clarity on whether the other Department is the lead Department and to what extent the Minister of State, Deputy English's Department has direct involvement. I want to reiterate that, from the statistics I have been given, €1 billion of income and 12,000 jobs come directly from angling. I want to stress again that this is vital for anglers, both those in Ireland and those who come to Ireland through the tourism industry. We need to get this right. There are simple solutions that I have been presented with and that make sense to me. I ask that they are taken seriously.

To be clear, our Department will be chairing and leading this. It is a commitment the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, gave when he launched the river basin plan in April of this year because it is an important area of work, for all the reasons the Deputy has outlined. I again commend all the stakeholders for coming together around the table. It is very clear to me there is a good working relationship. ESB is a key player on this and has been very proactive in regard to the conservation of fish species over the years and has tried many different mitigation measures. It is certainly interested in and committed to bringing forward new solutions. Everyone around that table is committed. I believe the group covers all the stakeholders who should be there but if we find any are missing, we will take the chance to engage them. This is a proactive committee and stakeholder group that is trying to find a solution. It is not to block out anybody or to turn up our noses at any suggestion. It is to help solve the problem, which is what we are committed to doing.

If the anglers federation is not on the group, it should be.

Emergency Accommodation Provision

Louise O'Reilly


68. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the number of persons in emergency accommodation in Fingal; the steps being taken to tackle the issue of homelessness in the area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46902/18]

My question relates to my constituency, Dublin Fingal. I ask for an update on what is being done to tackle homelessness. I would be grateful if the Minister could address the issue of how people are being accommodated. The number of homeless people in Fingal is rising and they are not being accommodated in the area.

My Department's role in respect of homelessness involves the provision of a national framework of policy, legislation and funding to underpin the work of housing authorities in addressing homelessness at local level. Statutory responsibility for the provision of accommodation and related services for homeless persons rests with individual housing authorities.

In the Dublin region, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive provides a shared service on behalf of the four authorities in the Dublin region, including on behalf of Fingal County Council. The funding provided to the Dublin region for homeless services has increased significantly in recent years, from €68.6 million in 2016 to €83.6 million in 2017. The latter amount is likely to be exceeded this year.

While published monthly reports identify the number of persons utilising State-funded emergency accommodation at regional and county level, details on persons accessing services in a specific local authority area are not available in my Department. The monthly report for September showed that there were 3,940 adults and 2,869 associated dependants accessing homeless services across the Dublin region. In 2018, Fingal alone has a target to support over 1,630 households through build, acquisition and leasing programmes and through the HAP and rental accommodation schemes.

Homelessness is most acute in the Dublin region. In September, I wrote to the chief executives of the four Dublin local authorities about additional actions that are required, including increased levels of emergency accommodation for both singles and families and the greater prevention work that is needed. I met subsequently each of the chief executives, including the chief executive of Fingal County Council, and my Department is continuing to engage with the Dublin local authorities to ensure every effort continues to be made across all the relevant agencies to address homelessness in Dublin. In that context, while considerable progress was made earlier this year in addressing rough sleeping, with the numbers recorded in Dublin falling significantly to 110, a further 200 additional emergency beds are being provided by the end of the year to ensure that there is sufficient capacity in the system to meet any needs arising.

The Minister stated earlier that this issue cannot be solved overnight. We have had eight years of Fine Gael-led Governments and nobody is suggesting that the issue could be resolved overnight. Significant numbers of people are entering homelessness in Fingal and ending up in emergency accommodation. In my own experience, which is why I tabled this question, there has been a spike in women presenting as homeless due to domestic violence. I say this because they are appearing and presenting at the clinics that I hold and in my office. They are falling through the cracks. They are not being counted as part of the homeless figures but they have no homes. They have no stable accommodation in which to live with their children. If that does not constitute homelessness, I do not know what does. Some are in emergency accommodation. They have been given HAP but cannot find places to live. They are often accommodated far from their home places, which presents a particular difficult for their children. The travel distance that they have to undertake causes a problem with the attendance of their kids at school. Their right to education is being undermined by the lack of housing. What supports are in place at local authority level to help people who have HAP but cannot find somewhere to live? What, if anything, is being done to make sure that people who are from Fingal are accommodated in Fingal?

We have a five to six-year plan in place in Rebuilding Ireland to dramatically transform our housing sector and rebuild it in a way in which it cannot break as it did before. If we look for a quick fix, we will get a quick break and we do not want that. We want to make sure that when we provide supports for people to get housing that they will not lose it in the future and that as we build thousands of extra homes, that will not stop if there is a future shock in the economy. The Deputy talks about us being in government for eight years but house prices were still falling in 2012. We emerged from the bailout in 2014 and people thought we would need to avail of a second. Since then, we have focused on some of the low-hanging fruit such as council vacancies and voids. We have brought thousands of these back into use and that has been very important. We have to give every care that we can. Fingal and the other Dublin local authorities have had to do and are doing a lot of work to make sure that families and individuals who find themselves in this crisis get the supports that they need.

Over the past three months, we have seen the number of presentations in Dublin decrease and we saw 44 families present in Fingal in September. Some 27 families were prevented from entering emergency accommodation because of the work the local authority did. Some 17 families unfortunately entered emergency accommodation but 11 families exited it. That speaks to the amount of work that the local authority in Fingal is doing. The net increase in September was six families. We want no increase but for the numbers to go down continually. Until more houses are built, we will have to continue to put in place supports such as HAP. The additional supports for someone in receipt of HAP are the HAP uplift of 20% if necessary or the homeless HAP uplift of 50% if necessary. We also have placefinders in place to help people source accommodation and those are doing one of two things. They go into hotels to help people out of hotels or when people present, they go out with them to prevent them from having to enter emergency accommodation in the first instance. Fingal needs extra resources and I have told the council it can have those extra resources. The rent and deposit will be covered too to make sure there are no unnecessary delays in getting people into secure, safe accommodation.

The Minister calls this a crisis in their lives. It is a crisis created by Government policy and he cannot put himself at a remove from the actions of his Government and their results. There is council land in areas such as Donabate, Castleland and Hacketstown. We hear that the council wants to allocate some 60% of this for the private market. That cannot be allowed to happen. House prices are spiralling out of control. They are getting further away from the people who need them. What supports are in place to ensure that people who have HAP get somewhere to live? How is that being deployed for people in Fingal? Is any effort being made to ensure that the people who live in Fingal will be accommodated in Fingal and will the Minister comment on the impact this has on the lives of children who are missing school because their mother, in many instances - a mother presented to me - is fleeing from domestic violence? Why are these people not counted in the Minister's figures? They are homeless with no stable accommodation and their lives are in crisis.

I am at the coalface of this crisis because I am Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. I am responsible for working with local authorities, our partners in the NGO sector and all stakeholders to put in place appropriate supports and solutions for those who need them. This crisis is complex. It stems from a number of issues. The supply crisis stems from the fact that our housing sector exploded in the late 2000s and would have brought down the economy too. The crisis that people are experiencing in their lives is because in some instances there are not enough homes and in some instances landlords, which the Deputy's party continues to attack, are leaving the market. That leads to a notice of termination and housing insecurity for them. There are other crises from family breakdowns. Some families present because of a breakdown in family relations.

This is a complex issue. That is why we work with partner organisations such as the Peter McVerry Trust, Simon Communities Ireland, St. Vincent de Paul and Focus, because they are the experts. We provide funding to them from the taxpayer and work with them, with the local authorities, to put in place relevant supports. I outlined the relevant HAP supports, including the HAP placefinder, payment of the deposit, payment of the rent and HAP uplift. We have a responsibility as a Government to provide housing for everyone and every local authority is responsible for its own placements, including who it is placing into the stock of social housing that is in increasing in its own local authority area. I have met too many children in family hubs and coming out of hotels and I have met their parents and spoken with them about the difficulties we are experiencing. We know a family in a family hub will spend less time there than in a hotel. On average, it is less than six months before we get them into a secure, safe and sustainable home. That is what our policies try to achieve.

Social and Affordable Housing Funding

Imelda Munster


69. Deputy Imelda Munster asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government when he will fund the roll-out of a social and affordable housing building programme on the 50 acres of council-owned landbanks in County Louth in view of the housing emergency. [47155/18]

I ask the Minister when he will fund the roll-out of a social and affordable housing building programme on the 50 acres of council-owned landbanks in County Louth in view of the fact that we are in a housing emergency.

The development of publicly-owned lands for housing is a key Government priority. In 2019, the Government will provide over €2.4 billion for housing. All local authorities are encouraged to bring forward viable and appropriate development proposals that can be funded through the range of schemes and programmes which have been put in place.

The Department, the Minister and I are in regular contact with the local authority in County Louth regarding the accelerated delivery of social, affordable and private housing. On social housing delivery under the Government's Rebuilding Ireland action plan, 194 homes have been completed and 740 further homes are currently at various stages of progress in the social housing construction programme across Louth, which is being added to on an ongoing basis. Furthermore, a site at Mount Avenue, Dundalk, is approved under the local infrastructure housing activation fund for funding of over €3.3 million for an access road which will support 200 homes initially and potentially up to 1,200 on associated wider lands.

In budget 2019, under the serviced sites fund, SSF, the Government is providing €310 million to enable the provision of infrastructure on council lands in order to facilitate affordable housing. The first call issued to local authorities, including Louth County Council, in June. While Louth did not make an application, further calls will be made and the council will have further opportunities to submit applications. My Department also hosted an affordable housing workshop for local authorities last week at which site development and affordable housing were discussed. Further bilateral engagement between local authorities and my Department will now follow, with a view to progressing further social and affordable housing projects on council lands.

I wish to be very clear, as far as we are concerned as Ministers, we want more progress. I have met officials from Louth County Council. I have also met its housing team and the county manager. I have asked them to put in place a pipeline of projects to increase the number of houses it will provide in the coming years. We are committed to that as well. The council has a landbank, which means it has enough land. It has more than 68 ha and it could bring forward proposals for up to 1,700 houses. The Minister made the point earlier that we want to make sure local authorities bring forward proposals not just for social housing but also for affordable housing and also to work with the private sector as well.

My question was very specific.

So was my reply.

No, it was not. It is the same old spiel every time. The reply referred to the 50 acres of council-owned land that are lying barren of houses. A speaker earlier referred to the fact that the Government is eight years in government. Is the Minister of State aware that Louth County Council has been paying millions out of its budget every year in interest on the landbanks? Is he also aware that the council has consistently asked the Department for funding for the roll-out of social and affordable housing? What is the point in having landbanks or the Minister collating the location of landbanks if after eight years funding has not been released? One could build upwards of 800 houses on those landbanks if the political will was there. However, the reality is the political will is not there and the Government does not believe in social housing. The Minister talked about the Land Development Agency. That is the biggest farce he ever came up with, out of all the spiel he has given in the midst of the housing emergency. It is an insult.

There is one particular family of four or five sharing one room in emergency accommodation and they have been there for months.

The Deputy has exceeded her time.

Three or four generations of a family are living under one roof, yet the Minister continues to look at his phone.

I will again be very clear, as I was in my initial reply. There are 68 ha of land, not 50 acres, available to the local authority in Louth to develop housing. That land could accommodate 1,700 houses. I say it again for the record, we are very clear that funding is available to develop more schemes on lands owned by Louth County Council. I cannot make it any clearer than that. We have engaged with the council and I have met with officials so I am aware that the council is paying interest on debts associated with the purchase of land. I made it very clear to the council that the best way to solve that problem is to bring forward proposals to develop the land. The most recent opportunity was under the SSF but Louth County Council did not make an application in that regard. I wish to be very clear. A second call will be issued to local authorities very soon and we will work with the council to bring forward proposals under the fund. We want the landbank to be developed. We also made it very clear a number of months ago that we will fund some feasibility works on all the sites to enable the council to bring forward proposals. We want the lands to be developed. That is black and white.

I am sure the Minister of State is aware that Louth County Council had an overspend of several million euro this year, which resulted in it not being able to provide housing adaptation grants or carry out repairs. People in Drogheda and Dundalk and elsewhere in County Louth have broken heating systems but the council cannot send anyone to fix them because it is in dire financial straits. Is the Minister of State saying that the CEO of Louth County Council and the director of services for housing have refused point-blank to contact the Department about funding for the roll-out of projects? I want the Minister of State to clarify the position. Have they said point-blank that they do not want housing on the land? Has the Minister offered them money for the roll-out of social and affordable housing and they have refused it? I want to clarify the position on the record.

I hope the Minister of State does not even hallucinate about targeting the council-owned lands for the farce of the Land Development Agency because only 10% of the 800 houses would be social and only 30% would be affordable. In the Minister of State's thinking, €320,000 is affordable. This would mean that a person would have to have to have a deposit of €32,000, get a mortgage for €288,000 and be earning a salary of €82,000. Will the Minister of State get real?

I did not mention the Land Development Agency. I am very clear that we have met with Louth County Council. It has a pipeline of projects to deliver more than 740 houses in the coming year or two. We have been very clear that we would like more projects to be in the pipeline. There are schemes to do that and we are very happy to engage with the council in this regard. We are funding projects. We are very clear as a Government that our job is to make sure social housing and affordable housing are delivered and also to increase the number of private housing development, which thankfully is happening as well. Local authorities are involved in that. Where landbanks can deliver all three categories of housing and help recoup some of the costs the council has expended the landbanks should be used for that as well where it is suitable. Some of the sites are large and it would not be suitable to only bring forward social housing on them. The local authority in Louth is very aware of that and it has engaged on the sites as well. We will engage with the council and make available our technical teams to help it develop those sites. There is more opportunity for more projects and for more sites to be developed.

Did the officials refuse the funding?

No, they have not refused. No one has refused.

The Minister of State indicated that they had.

We are very clear.

The Minister of State did not offer it.

I am telling Deputy Munster that there are opportunities to develop schemes and we will work with the council to do that. We are an open book in this regard.

The Minister of State has contradicted himself in his two responses.

There is a pipeline of projects I am happy with but we want to increase the number of projects and the funding is there for it as well.

Homeless Persons Data

John Curran


70. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the number of beds available for rough sleepers in Dublin; his plans to deal with the challenges and risks posed to rough sleepers during adverse weather conditions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46926/18]

We are at the time of year when, as the weather changes, the challenges and risks for rough sleepers increase significantly. Specifically, how many beds are available in the Dublin area for rough sleepers, how many people are deemed to require this accommodation or are classed as rough sleepers and what plans are in place for severe weather conditions during the winter?

As I stated previously, supporting individual and families experiencing homelessness is an absolute priority for this Government, particularly in the case of those who, without such supports, may end up sleeping rough. Budget 2019 reflects this commitment by allocating an additional €30 million for the provision of homelessness services in 2019. That will increase the total budget available to local authorities to €146 million, which is a 26% increase on the provision for 2018. Budget 2019 also provides for an additional €60 million in capital funding for the provision of emergency accommodation, including further emergency facilities for single adults and couples.

Providing additional accommodation for rough sleepers is essential. In this regard, I recently wrote to the chief executives of the four Dublin local authorities requesting the delivery of additional emergency accommodation across the Dublin region. A plan submitted to me subsequently by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive will deliver over 200 new permanent beds across the city before the end of the year. That will add to the existing emergency bed capacity of some 2,200 beds. Furthermore, as we move into winter, I have also requested all local authorities, including in Dublin, to ensure that cold weather arrangements are in place for rough sleepers, including additional temporary emergency beds, as necessary.

Many individuals experiencing homelessness and rough sleeping as a result also require other supports to exit homelessness into an independent tenancy. The implementation plan for Housing First, published in September, is designed to provide this response, by delivering permanent housing solutions for rough sleepers and long-term users of emergency accommodation. The plan contains targets for each local authority, with an overall national target of 660 tenancies to be delivered by 2021. Crucially, implementation will be driven by a new dedicated national director of Housing First who was appointed earlier this year.

The Minister quoted a lot of figures but I am not sure if he outlined what I specifically sought. I will try to keep it simple. I specifically asked him about the number of beds that are available for rough sleepers in the Dublin area. I then asked him what is the current number of people deemed to be rough sleepers. The reason is that I am trying to ensure there is adequate capacity. From time to time we have, unfortunately, seen rough sleepers die on the streets. While bad weather may be a contributory factor in some cases, neglect has always been a cause. I am not abdicating our responsibility. We all have a role to play to ensure that does not happen. From the point of view of clarity, in order to understand the situation, we need the Minister to provide those figures. What is the number of beds available in the Dublin area for rough sleepers and what is the number of people who are categorised as sleeping rough and are they a match? Anecdotal evidence from this summer, and even today walking through town, is that we are beginning to see more people who are rough sleepers. I am concerned that if we are seeing them on such a scale that we do not have the required number of beds. I am very concerned about what that will mean in the winter months.

The cold weather initiative has been implemented in some local authorities because we have already had spells of cold weather.

The initiative means more outreach teams go out and we keep facilities open for longer.

The count of people sleeping rough, which is separate from the count of people in emergency accommodation, happens twice a year. The most recent count was done in March of this year and found that an average of 110 people were sleeping rough on a nightly basis, down 40% on the previous count conducted in November 2017. All of the additional beds, supports and work that we put in place last year helped to get people off the streets. People who are sleeping rough are in complex situations and it is not just a question of providing shelter and accommodation for them. They need wraparound supports and services as well and that is why the Housing First plan is so important.

I assure the Deputy that there will be enough beds in place before the end of the year. While the official numbers tell us that 110 people are sleeping rough, that count is months old and more people may be sleeping rough on our streets now. Between now and the end of the year, therefore, 248 new emergency beds will be delivered. Some 20 have been delivered and a further 200 are in the pipeline and will be delivered in the next three to four weeks. In addition, 65 new beds were put in place but we do not count them as new because they are replacing 65 beds that were lost on St. Stephen's Green. In January, another 40 beds will come on stream. Between 200 and 300 beds will come on line while the most recent rough sleeper count told us that there were 110 people on our streets. Anecdotal evidence from our outreach teams suggests that there are still people sleeping rough and that some new people have presented. We do not know if the number is less than 110, given the new emergency beds that have come into the system over the course of the year. When we do the next rough sleeper count, we will know the number involved. That count will happen in the very near future but no matter what the number, we are putting in place at least double the number of beds that will be required to make sure that no one needs to sleep rough, particularly during the cold weather period.

I thank the Minister for his response. For those of us who live in Dublin and who walk around the city, particularly in the mornings, the anecdotal evidence is that more and more people are sleeping rough. That said, I agree with the Minister that anecdotal evidence is not enough.

Seven or eight months ago, there was a spell of particularly bad weather, including Storm Emma and so forth, and emergency initiatives were put in place. Despite all the additional emergency accommodation in the system, rough sleepers, who were out in challenging and difficult conditions, had to be accommodated in a sports hall on Marrowbone Lane. Four or five marquees were erected and more than 100 people turned up who had never been included in the equation. How do we determine the need that exists because as accommodation and supports are provided, more people are turning up to avail of them? I am concerned that the scale of the problem is greater than we realise, with rough sleepers who are outside the immediate catchment area, along the canals and so forth, not being included in the official figures. When the weather turned bad last winter, 100 additional people turned up who had not been anticipated and had to be accommodated in a sports hall. That is my underlying concern.

I understand and share the Deputy's concern. As the Minister responsible, I visited said sports hall during Storm Emma. The Peter McVerry Trust did significant work to get that facility in place. What was needed, primarily, was safe and warm shelter for people but they were also provided with medical attention and food. The Deputy is correct that these people would not traditionally have been sleeping rough. They were squatting or were in other forms of accommodation. The most important issue was to get them to safety.

As I said earlier, the rough sleeper count from March of this year showed 110 people but we will put in place approximately 250 new emergency beds before the end of the year, with another 40 to come on stream in January. In addition, we are setting up a permanent, standing emergency solution to deal with major storm events and other natural disasters or God forbid, more malicious incidents requiring the immediate provision of emergency accommodation. Half those beds will be in place before the end of November, with the other half to come on stream later. This is in addition to the 250 beds I have mentioned. It is a further contingency for incidents like Storm Emma, for people of whom we are not aware or should something else happen. Each time these events happen, we learn from them and money is available to put in place the additional supports needed.

Constitutional Amendments

Thomas P. Broughan


71. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government his views on a constitutional right to housing; if he is examining the implications of such a right; the steps he is taking towards realising that right for persons here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46921/18]

Given our experience over the past decade of poor performance in the delivery of social housing, does the Minister agree with the many excellent civil society groups, including the Mercy Law Resource Centre, who argue that we should insert a right to housing into our Constitution? Numerous Opposition Deputies have tried to bring forward motions and Bills on this issue, including Deputy Thomas Pringle who introduced the Thirty-Seventh Amendment to the Constitution (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) Bill 2018. Is it now time to include the right to housing in our Constitution?

I thank the Deputy for his question. As he may be aware, the eighth report of the Convention on the Constitution recommended that a range of economic and social rights, including the right to housing, should be inserted into the Constitution, subject to available resources. A motion to refer that report to the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach was passed by the Dáil on 28 September 2017 and by the Seanad on 11 October 2017. I look forward to the committee's deliberations on the matter in due course.

I have previously stated that the convention's proposal merits further thought and due and careful consideration, paying particular attention to the role of Government, rather than the courts, in deciding on the allocation of resources. I also firmly believe that the best way of ensuring that the State fully meets its obligations to those who need a home is through continued delivery on the ambitious programme of action set out in the Government's Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness and the development and implementation of further policies and measures, as required.

The significantly increased Exchequer investment in housing since 2016 is resulting in a substantial ramping up in social housing delivery and a consequential reduction in the numbers on housing waiting lists. The wider programme of actions being implemented is also resulting in considerable increases in the supply of housing in the market generally. This demonstrates how an unprecedented level of political and financial commitment can deliver housing supports on the ground for those who need them most, responding effectively to the housing needs of our most vulnerable citizens while positioning others in society to meet their housing needs themselves. The Government remains firmly focused on making the further progress necessary in this regard, irrespective of what transpires following the Oireachtas committee's consideration of the Convention on the Constitution's report.

Does the Minister agree that including a right to housing in our Constitution would provide a basic floor of protection for people? A total of 81 jurisdictions around the world have either a constitutional or legislative right to housing. In Europe, countries such as Finland, Scotland and France have legislatively or constitutionally insisted that people have a right to shelter. This right is also included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the European Social Charter. All of this would indicate that the Government should move on this issue.

The Minister seems to be suggesting that including a right to housing in our Constitution would impinge on the Government's ability to deliver housing. However, the Government has not delivered and is only beginning to ramp up delivery now. We are often told that Articles 40 and 43 of our Constitution lay down the right of private ownership and the general right to transfer, bequeath and inherit property and while there is a section which delimits those rights, it needs strengthening. Surely this is something with which the Minister would like to be associated, given that housing is his ministerial responsibility.

As the Deputy knows, we recently made three important changes to our Constitution but this followed on from processes involving the Constitutional Convention and Oireachtas committees. In that context, I am happy to let the committee do its work, to deliberate on this matter and come back with recommendations to the Dáil and the Government.

Countries that have a constitutional or legal right to housing have not been able to provide the basic floor to which the Deputy refers. Those countries with a constitutional right, including South Africa, Belgium, Finland, Spain and Sweden, all have a homelessness and housing problem. Those countries that have a legal right, including Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Scotland, also have homelessness and housing problems. Enshrining such a right in law or in the Constitution will not necessarily provide the floor the Deputy mentioned.

I agree that people have a right to security and dignity and that the Government has a responsibility to provide housing. That is why we have such an ambitious programme of housing delivery, starting with 50,000 homes under Rebuilding Ireland. Under the new national development plan, the target is to provide 110,000 social housing homes between 2018 and 2027. In addition, we will also deliver subsidised homes through various affordability schemes that we are rolling out. The Government is working, through both policy and resources, to do everything possible to meet peoples' housing needs. We do not need a constitutional right or a legal obligation to do that but will do it anyway. If the committee makes a recommendation in that regard, we will consider it.

If such a right were in the Constitution or in legislation, it would be possible to go into court and argue and advocate for people who were homeless, something that is precluded at the moment. What is the Minister's own view on this? What does he think about the proposition, as the Minister with responsibility for housing? Is this an issue on which he is prepared to take the lead? Generally, we have seen political leadership on some of the other matters to which he has referred. The Minister may not be in favour of a general constitutional right to housing but given the fact that more than 4,000 children are in emergency accommodation, with thousands more living in overcrowded accommodation, would he at least favour a constitutional amendment to give children a right to housing?

There has been strong criticism from, for example, the Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Ms Emily Logan, who has stated that homelessness is an acute denial of the human rights of children.

I do not need someone to go to the courts to advocate for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. We are doing a great deal of work with the local authorities and through funding our partner organisations, such as the Peter McVerry Trust and Focus Ireland, to put in every care and support we can for people sleeping rough, people in emergency accommodation or people at risk of entering emergency accommodation. Next year, the Government will spend more money on housing than it has ever spent in a single year.

That is the commitment and dedication we are giving to solving our housing problem and our homelessness crisis. We have to ask ourselves a question about the balance of power and responsibility between the Judiciary and the Oireachtas when it comes to the allocation of resources. That is something the committee is looking at. That said, we can find ways within the existing constitutional provisions to look at the current balance of power between the individual and the collective to see if we can rebalance it towards the collective.

Is the Minister in favour of a constitutional amendment?

We introduced the vacant site levy by means of which we are taxing people on the basis of how they are not using their land.

The Minister does not seem to be in favour of such an amendment.

In the context of rent pressure zones, we are capping the amount of money people can earn from their properties. We are also changing other rights in this regard. Within the existing provisions and without making a change to the Constitution we can rebalance things in favour of the collective in order to meet people's demands and needs when it comes to housing and, in particular, when it comes to the terrible crisis relating to homelessness. That is what we are doing.

The Minister does not seem to be in favour of a constitutional amendment.

We will wait for the committee to adjudicate and we will then consider its adjudication.

Is Deputy Broughan finished?

Yes, I have had a couple of shots.

Questions Nos. 72 to 74, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Local Authority Housing Data

Maurice Quinlivan


75. Deputy Maurice Quinlivan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the number of local authority units awaiting refurbishment in Limerick city; the amount these will cost; if Limerick City and County Council has requested funding to refurbish these units; when these units will become available; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46901/18]

My question relates to the number of voids in Limerick. Limerick City and County Council has informed me that it does not have funding and the Department states that there is money available. Will the Minister of State explain why more than 70 houses in Limerick city are vacant and awaiting refurbishment?

The Department does not keep data on the number of vacant or void local authority houses awaiting refurbishment at any given point in time.  Statistics in respect of social housing, including the number and percentage of total local authority dwellings that are vacant, are compiled by the National Oversight and Audit Commission in its annual reports on performance indicators in local authorities.

As the Deputy will be aware, there will always be a number of vacant social housing homes at any given time and this figure will change on an ongoing basis as the turnover of social housing stock is continuous.  All local authorities, however, are actively encouraged to ensure that all vacant properties are brought back into active use as expeditiously as possible.

In the context of Limerick city, my Department has approved 70 properties for funding under the voids programme this year.  That money has been approved but it has not been drawn down yet. Deputy Quinlivan is the second person to say that Limerick City and County Council cannot get money for void programmes. That money has, however, been approved. I understand that a claim for funding in respect of work carried out is to be submitted by Limerick City and County Council shortly and my Department is liaising with the council regarding any additional funding requirements it may have.  It is now a matter for the council to progress the refurbishment and allocation of the homes involved.

A letter was sent to all local authorities in September to encourage them to bring them forward any void they might have. If they had those houses fixed up and in use we would be able to fund those as well. In addition to the allocation and the work that was done, they were also told to do more and bring in more. Many local authorities are doing that as well. If there is any confusion, I will be happy to clarify the position. We engage with local authorities regularly and I am sure that this local authority is aware that there is money. If clarification is needed, I will be happy to provide it in writing to Deputy Quinlivan as well. We have been very clear with Limerick City and County Council and it is aware that there is money available for voids. The council also does not want properties left vacant.

In addition to the voids programme, Limerick City and County Council is also actively engaged in social housing delivery more generally, including under the main capital investment programme and the regeneration programme.  It has also been proactive with the repair and lease back programme. I have visited many of the houses that were vacant that it purchased and restored. I think it is over 23 properties in the past couple of months. Some of them have been an excellent success and Limerick City and County Council is probably leading that scheme as well.

There is confusion there then. The Minister of State is indicating that there is no problem with the money while Limerick City and County Council has informed me on a number of occasions that it is awaiting approval from the Department in respect of the void houses. I have a list here of 70 houses. There are always going to be vacant houses. Nobody is disputing that fact. These houses are in the metropolitan area of Limerick and are boarded up. Other houses have been allocated but the people involved cannot move in because there is no funding to do them up. They are not on this list of 70, so there are actually more houses.

One family was allocated a house a year and a half ago. Another was allocated a house in March and they have still not been able to move in. Officials from the Department were in Limerick on 1 August and visited those two houses. To date, no work has yet been done in respect of either. There is a problem. If the Minister of State is indicating that there is no problem with the money being allocated to the council, then what is the problem? The council is stating it has not got the money. The Minister of State is telling me that there is no problem with the money being drawn down yet the houses are still boarded and vacant.

People are not allocating them. There are more than 70 families in the mid-west region, the bulk of them in Limerick city. The problem is that people see the boarded up houses and see their own families in hotels. These are in areas where people would cut off their own arms to live. The Minister of State needs to find out what is going on. There seems to be much bluster and bluff, with the Minister of State indicating that money is not the problem while Limerick City and County Council is telling me it does not have the money.

I will certainly engage with the local authority to see what the issue is and to see if there is any confusion. There is no confusion on my part. We wrote all local authorities in September to ask them to bring forward any additional voids they have. If work is completed by 14 December, this will be covered under the budget as well. More than 1,800 voids will be refurbished this year. Deputy Quinlivan mentioned 70 houses. I confirm that funding was secured for 70 houses. It has not been drawn down yet so perhaps there is some issue there. We will look into it. Properties should not be vacant and families should not be left waiting.

An additional €700,000 was allocated in the past couple of months in order for other properties to be refurbished. The council has also done well with the repair and lease back scheme. There is something wrong if properties are vacant. They should not be vacant. If there is any confusion, I am happy to bring people together and sort it out because the funding is there. I cannot make it any clearer than that. We want the money spent and we want people in these properties. There is no excuse any more for long-term voids. There will always be cases where voids will be empty for some months as refurbishment takes place. However, there is no excuse for long-term voids in circumstances where houses were allocated a year and a half ago. That is something we will certainly deal with as well.

Questions Nos. 76 to 98, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Housing Issues

John Curran


99. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if a review will be carried out of the structural integrity and safety of houses and apartments in view of structural defects identified at a significant number of schools built in recent years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46925/18]

Catherine Martin


103. Deputy Catherine Martin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government his plans to conduct an investigation of the extent of latent defects in residential housing with a view to providing practical State reliefs for homeowners in view of the announcement of a redress scheme for those affected by mica; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47171/18]

Brian Stanley


114. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if consideration has been given to moving to a system of certifying old standards of having local authorities carry out the inspections of new builds in view of the difficulties with school buildings. [47080/18]

Catherine Martin


132. Deputy Catherine Martin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government his plans to establish an independent building regulator to administer building control on a nationwide basis; his further plans to provide a supervisory regulatory function in relation to those involved in the construction industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47170/18]

This is such a high number for a question. In light of recent structural defects identified at a number of schools, has there been a review of housing, particularly in larger developments and units?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 99, 103, 114 and 132 together.

The question comes in the context of recent issues in the Department of Education and Skills with the construction and structural integrity of certain schools. That has caused concern for parents and families attending those schools as well for the principals and teachers who work there. I commend my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, for the way he dealt with that so swiftly to make sure the children and schools were safe, people were reaccommodated where they needed to be and the problems identified remedied in the best way. That work will continue.

We looked at this matter as well because we are responsible for the delivery of so many houses through the local authorities on social housing sites. We looked at the companies that may have been involved and if they had been involved in the delivery of social housing etc. Since 2014, we have been operating under a different regime when it comes to the construction of houses. It is a much better regime than that which existed before. This has led to what is known as the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014, BCAR, system and the building control management system.

Through that system we have been able to ensure houses built as social housing by local authorities are built to the highest standards possible. That being said, after the Grenfell Tower fire last year, I immediately made sure that the fire authorities in each local authority, working with the local authorities, would investigate all of the social housing stock we have to make sure that it was safe from a fire and life safety point of view. That involved doing certain checks in those buildings. It also involved looking at any tall buildings over a certain height with particular cladding systems as well. As that work was being done, other work involving the fire authorities, the local authorities and people responsible for privately-owned buildings has ensured that the necessary checks and secure arrangements were put in place for those buildings as well. The interim report of that group was published in early June of this year.

It referred to the work it had done and no major defects had been identified. In some cases some remedial work was needed and that work was being carried out. It also stated that some further checks had to take place. That group will report to the national director of fire and emergency management as it continues to do its ongoing work to ensure that people can have confidence that their homes - whether they are living in social housing, for which the local authority has responsibility, or in private rented accommodation in a multi-storey development - has been built to the best specifications and that those specifications have been complied with.

I refer to life safety and fire safety being in the buildings in which people live. Some buildings remain which have defects in the context of fire safety, balconies, etc. We have spoken before about where the responsibility lies between the owner, the management company and the builder. That is to be resolved. As part of the budget for next year, we announced that a significant programme will be unveiled for people who have issues with mica or pyrite damage in their homes.

Further details will be brought to Government later this year with an announcement as well of funding to initiate a scheme in 2019.

I acknowledge the important work done in the review carried out as a result of the Grenfell disaster. The Minister said local authority schemes and social housing were built to the highest standards. It is interesting to note, however, that over the last number of years since the issue was highlighted in schools, a number of residents in local authority housing in various schemes have indicated that they are concerned about structural issues, namely external cracks in walls and condensation and dampness. My question referred specifically to multi-unit development schemes rather than to the traditional semi-detached or terraced block. A number of people have come forward about this. Is a review under way or due to be carried out to look at the structural integrity of those buildings?

The Minister might communicate with the Deputy afterwards as the time for Priority Questions is over.