Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Land Development Agency

Darragh O'Brien


37. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the amount and location of lands transferred to the Land Development Agency to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37699/19]

Darragh O'Brien


225. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the amount and location of lands that have been transferred to the Land Development Agency to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37686/19]

At the outset I wish to correct the record of the House. Earlier on in my contribution when I was complaining about the grouping of questions, I mentioned that I had written to the Office of the Ceann Comhairle and had not received a response. On checking my records, I did receive a response and that response further clarified that the grouping of the questions is a matter for the Department and the Minister. I ask the Minister to speak with his team in the Department to ensure we do not have a situation where Priority Questions are grouped into the future. It is not helpful. I want to correct the record because I laid the blame at the Office of the Ceann Comhairle inadvertently and incorrectly.

I looked at this the last time because it was raised when there were grouped Priority Questions on a previous occasion. I checked with Department officials and I was told that the Ceann Comhairle had grouped them. I repeat that it is not in my interest to group Priority Questions either because I cannot get the answers out.

It is clear that it is a matter for the Minister's office to decide. Before we come to Question No. 38 from Deputy Connolly, which is grouped with Question No. 58 from Deputy Darragh O'Brien, I point out to Deputy Darragh O'Brien that he will have the advantage there.

I ask the Minister for an update on the great big idea of the Land Development Agency which was announced by the Government. What land has been transferred to the agency to date? Could the Minister provide an update on legislation surrounding this? The issue was raised in the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government just before the recess that the LDA is not set up on a legal footing yet.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 37 and 225 together.

On establishment, the LDA had access to an initial tranche of eight sites that have near-term delivery potential for 3,000 new homes. The sites concerned are: the Central Mental Hospital site, Dundrum; Hampton, Balbriggan; Hacketstown, Skerries; Devoy Barracks, Naas; the former Meath Hospital, Dublin city centre; St. Kevin's Hospital, Cork; Columb Barracks, Mullingar; and Dyke Road, Galway.

The ownership of seven of the sites will not be formally transferred to the LDA until the Land Development Agency Bill is enacted, while the site in Galway is owned by Galway City Council and will be developed on a partnership basis. It is intended the Bill will be published and brought before the Oireachtas later this year. The Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, of which the Deputy is a member, will conduct pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill soon. The LDA is also working with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on a delivery plan for a site at Shanganagh.

Notwithstanding that the legislation has not yet been finalised, the LDA is already working on the initial sites made available to it. While passing the LDA legislation is a priority, it does not prevent the agency from progressing these sites. In addition, because the sites are public lands rather than lands in private ownership, the issue of ownership and transfer is not an obstacle to early progress. The LDA is entering into pre-sale agreements with the landowners, as appropriate, to ensure that it has full access to the sites to carry out necessary pre-construction activities. Significant preparatory work is under way, with feasibility and planning work initiated and the first planning applications due to be submitted later this year. Construction activity is envisaged to commence on some sites by the middle of next year, subject to the granting of planning permissions, with the first homes due to be completed by the end of next year.

The Minister's response is a fantasy. He stated that no land has been transferred to the LDA and that it is not likely that anything will be transferred. He hopes the legislation will be enacted quickly but he should hurry up if that is what he wants to happen. For example, at Castlelands in Balbriggan, the local authority is rushing through a master plan in advance of a potential transfer of the land to the LDA. The master plan was produced over and above the heads of the residents, with over-intensification of the site and inappropriate housing. It is being rushed because the local authority wants to get it done before the land is transferred to the LDA. If the LDA is to be the vehicle that will deliver housing on a mass scale, it is certainly a slow-moving one.

I read reports in the newspapers during the summer that some of the staff within the LDA stated that they would not be subject to the Regulation of Lobbying Act. Who are they to decide whether they will be subject to the Act? One would have thought that would be for the Oireachtas to decide by way of legislation. Is it the Minister's intention that the LDA will be subject to the Regulation of Lobbying Act? If not, I put him on notice that I will table amendments to the legislation when it is published to ensure that the agency will be subject to the Act.

This is great idea. What is proposed should have been done decades ago. If it had been, we would not have a housing crisis.

It remains an idea.

The LDA will exist for 15, 20 or 25 years and will provide hundreds of thousands of new homes. We did not waste time getting it established. I established it under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971 and made €20 million available to it. An interim board and chairperson have been appointed, we have just finished the competition for a CEO and we are hiring staff. As I noted earlier, given that public land is involved, is the transfer of land to the legal entity necessary? The agency is already examining sites and will soon submit planning applications. It has not needed to own the sites to do that. The Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum, for example, is in the process of being decanted but we will not wait for the site to be fully decanted before we examine what we want to do. We are already there looking at it. Once the site has been decanted by the Department of Health, we can move straight into construction. That is how the LDA is approaching the matter. This does not mean that the legislation is not a priority; of course it is. We want to get the full capitalisation into the LDA, provide as many of the powers in respect of compulsory purchase orders and so on, and address issues with lobbying, transparency and accountability to the Oireachtas. All such steps need to be taken, which is why the legislation is important and it is a priority to publish it this term. I want to get it enacted in the first half of next year and the €1.25 billion funding in licence.

As for the site at Balbriggan, if the Deputy wishes to ask about individual sites, tabling a question for written reply might be more helpful. Based on the plan I have to hand and the information I have from the agency, the number of units it hopes to provide is between 800 and 1,000, in a phased way. It is moving efficiently in respect of the plan for the site.

I look forward to the introduction of the legislation. It is important that the House and the members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government get to see the legislation in order that we might discover what powers the Minister intends to give to the agency and how it will operate. It is not appropriate that Deputies should read in newspapers the views of staff within the LDA on how they believe it will operate. If the agency is to be established properly under legislation, it will have to be done quickly. There are political cycles and different Governments may have different ideas about this very approach.

Is it the Minister's intention that the LDA will, under the legislation to be published, be subject to the Regulation of Lobbying Act? What is the current head count versus the optimal staffing level in the agency?

If the active land management functions of the LDA are to work, it has to have strong compulsory purchase order powers. According to a story in the newspapers in July, there was a view in the Department, on foot of advice from the Attorney General, that state aid rules would be breached. As a result, although we have only the heads of the Bill, the final version will contain greatly weakened powers in the context of compulsory purchase. I accept that the Minister cannot answer questions about the legal advice of the Attorney General, but will he tell us whether he has a concern about a breach of state aid rules? Does he plan to weaken the compulsory purchase powers originally envisaged under the heads of the Bill in order to avoid any conflict with EU law?

Let us be clear: the Oireachtas will, through the legislation I bring forward that will, I hope, gain majority support in the House, decide how the LDA operates. Deputy Ó Broin referred to an important issue in the context of the compulsory purchase powers of the agency. For the initial eight sites, arrangements have been reached with other Departments or State agencies. It is being done because we are trying to manage actively the land in the most efficient way for the Departments and agencies in question. It has not required any stick; it has been a carrot approach. Nevertheless, when we undertake site assembly in some parts of the country with some private landowners, the threat of CPO powers will be important. We are resolving those issues through bringing forward legislation and can then agree on how we want to take it forward. We will have to be mindful of issues such as state aid but we are being mindful.

The LDA has been established with a full interim board and the names of those on the board have been published. Mr. John Moran, the chairman, has spoken at length about what he hopes the LDA can achieve while keeping to the vision we have as a Government. It is important that when we bring the legislation through, we address every matter that has to be addressed and that we do so in a timely fashion. Deputy Darragh O'Brien mentioned a future Government and the composition and ideas it may have. I do not want to leave the matter to a future Government. Given that the LDA is up and running and working, has sites and wants to lodge planning applications, it is important we get it set up on its own two feet as quickly as possible. That is my ambition, as Minister, between now and the election in May 2020.

Tenant Purchase Scheme Data

Catherine Connolly


38. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the number of homes purchased in Galway city and county under the 2016 tenant incremental purchase scheme; the number and value of loans accessed by tenants under the scheme; when the review of the scheme will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37721/19]

Darragh O'Brien


58. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government when the review of the tenant purchase scheme will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37696/19]

How many homes were purchased under the 2016 tenant purchase scheme? What were the number and value of the loans accessed by tenants under the scheme? Has the promised review of the scheme been completed and, if so, why has it not been published? When will it be published?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 38 and 58 together.

The Housing (Sale of Local Authority Houses) Regulations 2015 set a commencement date of 1 January 2016 for the introduction of the tenant incremental purchase scheme of 2016. In Galway city, the number of homes sold under the current scheme in 2017 was eight, while a further nine homes were sold in 2018. The scheme in Galway city was not started until December 2016, having been slower to implement it, which is why there are no figures for that year. In the case of Galway county, the number of homes sold under the scheme in 2017 was 11, while nine homes were sold under the scheme in 2018. No homes were sold in Galway city or county under the scheme in 2016.

In respect of the loans accessed and their value, it should be noted the financing of a house sold under the tenant incremental purchase scheme is a separate matter to that of a tenant being deemed eligible under the scheme. If the tenant is deemed eligible, he or she may fund the purchase of a house from one, or a combination, of his or her own resources or a mortgage provided by a financial institution or a local authority home purchase loan. My Department does not hold information on local authority loans accessed specifically by the tenant purchase scheme. One can also use one's own funds to buy a house.

In line with the commitment given in the Government's Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, a review of the operation of the 12 months of the tenant purchase scheme has been completed and a full report has been prepared setting out our findings and recommendations.

It is intended that a comprehensive package of social housing reform measures will be brought to Government by the Minister in the near future and the relevant recommendations made in the review of the tenant purchase scheme will be progressed as part of that process. The publication of the review will also be addressed in that context.

I thank the Minister of State for the figures. They are very clear. In the context of the review, the Minister of State has given similar responses in the past. The review arose from the work of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness. One of its strong recommendations was that there be an urgent review of the tenant purchase scheme. Various comments were made by different contributors concerning the scheme, some positive and some negative. On 29 June 2016, the Minister of State responded to a Fianna Fáil Deputy to the effect that, in line with the commitment in the programme for Government, he planned to undertake a review of the scheme. That was fine and the Minister of State provided clarification. On 25 January 2018, he indicated that the review was almost complete and then, in July 2018, he stated that it had been completed. That was over a year ago. It was stated that the review was completed and that a full report had been prepared. Why is the report not available? When exactly was it completed?

I thank the Deputy for outlining our work in the past few years. I clarify again that the tenant purchase scheme is open, working and successful. It is a favourable scheme and quite a few people have managed to avail of it in order to buy their homes in recent years. It is not as if the scheme is closed. We are talking about making changes to it and we debated different possible solutions, both inside and outside the House. The Department has gone through the review and has done much work on it over the past few months. We have been going through all of the recommendations, as well as the science behind the original decision made in 2016. As already stated, that will be brought forward by the Minister in the weeks and months ahead as part of a package of reforms on social protection. We will tease through all of the recommendations and suggestions for changes at the appropriate time. That is where matters stand.

I asked about the review. It seems that somewhere between 25 January and 3 July 2018, the report was completed. When was it completed? Why is it not being published? The Minister of State stood up and told me that the scheme is working. I did not question whether it was still ongoing. I asked about figures and about the review. I ask the Minister of State to please tell me when was it completed and why it is not being published. There are issues regarding the scheme but I do not have time to go into them here. The Minister of State is telling me that the scheme is working. I do not know if it is working. The figures for 2017 and 2018 in Galway city are very low, and only slightly higher in the county. I cannot judge those figures without context. Perhaps many other people might have applied if there were different variables involved. My question is simple. Let us bring some type of integrity back into the English language. When will the review be published? If it is not being published, then the Minister of State should tell us why.

The purpose of the review was to allow the Department to look into this scheme in order to see what changes might be made, if any. There have been discussions about that. Regarding when the review was finished, it is within our Department and it has been feeding into discussions over the last year. There has been much debate in that context and many issues now have to be checked. It may lead on to recommendations for changes, which will be brought forward in the months ahead by the Minister for a decision to be made. That is where matters stand. On when or if the review was completed, I will try to see if I can identify an exact date. It has, however, been discussed in the appropriate division of our Department in the past year or two because it is an ongoing discussion document. We committed to reviewing this scheme and possible changes. Many people have told us that they like the scheme as it stands, while others have indicated that they would like changes. Many local authority members have suggested changes. That will all be brought to a head now when the Minster brings forward recommendations in the weeks and months ahead.

I wish to support Deputy Connolly on this issue. We have learned that the review is an ongoing discussion document within the Department. From time to time, the Minister of State and his ministerial colleagues can kick around possible recommendations but not let any of us know what is in the review. There are different views on the current scheme. I agree with Deputy Connolly. The anecdotal evidence I have from Dublin is that the tenant purchase scheme has pretty much ground to a halt. There are different views, particularly as we are trying to build up our housing stock, of what a future tenant purchase scheme should look like. Some people argue that such a scheme should not be in place, while others argue that it should. That is a matter about which we can have a discussion. I do not see why we should actually bundle this issue into the new social housing package that the Minister is apparently bringing forward. If the report exists, and it has since July 2018, why not bring it into the House for discussion? I mean that in a very constructive way because I have views on it, as do colleagues. Why wait until the end of the year and then bundle it in with everything else? This is an important issue.

I want to be very clear. We have discussed this matter on many occasions in this House, at the committee and elsewhere.

We have not discussed the review.

The review relates to the first 12 months of the 2016 scheme. Tenant purchase schemes have been in operation since the 1970s. The commitment was to review the first 12 months. Many issues have been raised and we will bring forward the suggested changes and recommendations as part of an overall package. It is not to be addressed on its own and many issues have fed into the scheme and the review. I reiterate that the scheme is open. Yesterday, I met a family that are currently involved in purchasing their house. The scheme is open, successful and very favourable, for most people. I ask the Deputies to bear that in mind as we continue the debate.

After all of those questions and all of the back and forth, we are no further down the road. I ask the Minister of State to publish the review in order that we might see it. I know we discuss the issue of tenant purchase but the Minister of State has just engaged in a bit of linguistic gymnastics. I am trying to understand what exactly he is saying. If the review is ready, then please publish it and let us discuss it. I know we discuss the topic of tenant purchase but we have not discussed and nor have we seen the review. It could be helpful just to let the committee be involved. Members, such as Deputy Connolly and others, who are interested could then come to the committee and offer their tuppence ha'penny on the review. That is all we are asking. We should not need to be rowing about this. It should be simple.

I call the Minister of State for a brief response.

I did not sense that there was any row. I just want to clarify that the scheme is open, working very well and it is a-----

I know the scheme is open but I am talking about the review.

-----very generous and favourable scheme. People have been delighted to use it. Many people have told us not to change the scheme, while others have indicated that we should change it. That is where the debate will go in the weeks ahead. If we want to look at properly reviewing tenant purchase schemes, however, there also has to be an examination of succession rents, succession rights, etc. There is much more to this issue and that will mean that a proper and full discussion regarding the social housing reform package. The Minster has explained that he will bring that forward in the weeks ahead. We will be debating that here, and certainly the housing committee will be discussing it. A great deal of information has to feed into that discussion because that is what is needed.

Local Authority Housing Maintenance

Maureen O'Sullivan


39. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the way in which it is planned to address the turnaround times for maintenance sections in the context of refurbishing local authority units for allocation to new tenants; his views on the fact that these times can often be excessive and that this can have an effect on tenants and general length of local authority housing waiting lists; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37492/19]

This question relates to local authorities and the turnaround time of their maintenance sections before flats and houses can be allocated to new tenants, and the effect of this on the tenants and waiting lists.

The management and maintenance of local authority housing stock, including pre-letting repairs to vacant properties, is a matter for each individual local authority under the Housing Act 1966. Local authorities return vacant properties to use through their own resources, but my Department also continues to provide Exchequer support, under the voids programme, for properties that require significant investment prior to re-letting. In 2018, more than €26 million was provided to local authorities for this purpose.

I recognise that whether a local authority is availing of the voids programme support or is reletting properties through its own resources, there can be challenges depending on the condition of the vacant property and some such properties require very extensive and costly works before they can be safely retenanted. It is better in the long term if these extensive works are completed while the property is vacant. This means that when the property is relet, a new family moves into a high-quality, energy-efficient home.

Unquestionably, local authorities need to complete these upgrades and relet the properties as swiftly as possible. It is important also that this be done to the necessary standard, but without excessive cost. Local authorities need to have a common approach to this work, based on established best practice, which is why I welcome the work that the City and County Management Association, CCMA, is undertaking to identify and implement best practice in respect of housing stock maintenance and repairs across all local authorities. I also believe that councillors can take a strong role in this area, by overseeing the performance of their local authorities in achieving timely relettings and pressing for improvements in this regard, where needed.

I thank the Minister of State. I acknowledge that there has been movement. The reality is, however, that local authority housing lists are lengthy, exhausting and deeply frustrating. There are people who have been on those lists for a long time.

The waiting times on the list, measured in years, are now moving into double figures. We need accurate statistics on the length of time for which flats and houses undergo maintenance. There is a discrepancy between the figures of the local authority, in my case Dublin City Council, and those of the National Oversight and Audit Commission. The reality is that the turnaround is slow. I accept what the Minister of State says about certain works that have to be done, but properties undergo maintenance for an inordinate length of time before they are reallocated. Are enough resources devoted to maintenance to ensure a speedy turnaround? Dublin City Council has one of the highest numbers of persons on its local authority housing list. I see a lack of urgency. I contrast that with the speed and ease with which student accommodation is going up in Dublin 1 and 7. We have discussed this before and I still cannot understand why this is seen as a solution. Students are only there for eight or nine months. That student accommodation, which consists of lovely buildings, is going up so quickly but it takes months before renovation of houses and flats begins to allow them to be given to people on the housing list.

The issue of student accommodation is separate from this conversation. It is a very different issue. I am happy to discuss it with Deputy O'Sullivan because a lot of progress has been made on student accommodation. Some 6,000 new units have been built, 6,000 are currently being built and 7,000 are planned. Great progress has been made. It is probably unfair to students to generalise by saying this is not positive for a neighbourhood. A lot of work has been done with neighbourhoods and communities to ensure the new accommodation fits in. There are quite good reports on that. I accept that there were fears before the accommodation was built but those fears have been addressed. Again, student accommodation and the voids programme are separate issues. In essence, student accommodation is a form of accommodation which was needed and can be built quite quickly. That is why we have adapted the planing process to allow it to go through planning quickly. They are new builds on new sites, more often greenfield than brownfield sites.

The voids programme, planned maintenance and the timelines involved are different issues. Naturally, as a Department, we would like to have a standard timeline throughout the country and we want to achieve standards regarding the works completed on empty houses. Local authorities take different approaches. We have been working with the local authorities association to implement a standardised approach. There has been considerable engagement with the Department on this over recent months and much progress has been made. Timelines will be outlined, as will guidelines on the level of work to be carried out on houses.

We also want to move towards planned maintenance. At the moment, maintenance takes place in an unplanned and responsive way in most cases. When a house becomes vacant a local authority can go in and do all the work. Very often, this is an expensive job and it takes time. We want to address that. We need a planned maintenance regime and we signalled that in 2018. That is what we are working towards. That will help us with a faster turnaround. More than 1,700 voids were brought back into the system last year. A large amount of money has been spent on this area in the past three or four years.

I will start by acknowledging the movement that has taken place. However, I must note a couple of other facts. There are issues around the general maintenance of local authority housing. That is also extremely slow. I know of one flats complex with three flats that have been lying vacant not just for weeks but for months. There does not seem to be any movement on those. I know they have to be refurbished to a certain standard. However I have been in state-of-the-art flats and houses whose tenants have left for various reasons where everything is ripped out again. Some common sense is needed.

There are increasing difficulties for housing assistance payment, HAP, tenants trying to stay in the properties they are renting. It goes back to what Deputy Boyd Barrett was talking about, namely, that vulture funds come in and take over these buildings and there is absolutely no doubt that they want to get rid of HAP tenants.

I return to the issue of student accommodation. I know it is not part of this question. According to one statistic I saw recently, 79% of the student accommodation is for international students. I would not deny these students a place to stay, but this is not helping the housing situation. I note the ease, quickness and urgency with which student accommodation was built. We do not see the same urgency when it comes to refurbishing local authority housing and making progress on the housing waiting list.

Again, Deputy O'Sullivan has addressed many issues in one question. People often mention cases concerning HAP properties. There are more than 40,000 HAP tenancies. We have not received 40,000 complaints. The majority of these tenancies work well and the tenants are happy. They want something permanent in the long run and that is fine. Some do and some do not. HAP tenancies are often portrayed here as a major problem. There are some cases of HAP tenancies that are not satisfactory. We all accept that. However the majority of cases are positive. If there are a couple individual problematic cases, I will be happy to look at them.

The Deputy mentioned three void properties. I do not know where or what they are but she can always bring details of cases to me and we will be happy to look at them. We regularly engage with local authorities on this issue. We want properties to be turned around much more quickly, in line with turnaround times in the private sector. Many local authorities achieve that and have very good timelines, while others perform poorly. We have worked with the local authorities on that. Again, we want a planned maintenance approach. Local authorities are meant to fund this from their own resources and rents. Some will say they do not get enough from their rental schemes. That matter is also being examined. In the past couple of years, our voids programme has brought nearly 10,000 properties which had been left empty by previous administrations back into the system. They are now back in use. That is money well spent. We want to see it spent more quickly and that is also something we are working on.

Question No. 40 replied to with Written Answers.

Wastewater Treatment

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


41. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the steps he will take to ensure that the recurring closure of Dublin beaches due to sewage leaking into Dublin Bay from the sewage treatment plant at Poolbeg is addressed. [28302/19]

Eoin Ó Broin


63. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government his views on the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, assessment concluding that the Ringsend water treatment plant is not big enough to properly treat all the wastewater that it receives; the conversations he has had with Irish Water on the recent discharges of large volumes of untreated sewage into Dublin Bay; the steps which will be taken to ensure that the State is not in further breach of the urban wastewater treatment directive due to these ongoing breaches; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37633/19]

Thomas P. Broughan


75. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the steps he is taking to protect the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, designated ecosystem of Dublin Bay, Baldoyle Bay and the wider Dublin coastline following continuous overspills from the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35807/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 41, 63 and 75 together.

  This summer, Dublin has experienced above average rainfall and some periods of exceptionally heavy and sustained rainfall.  As a result, there were sewage overflow issues at Ringsend and at West Pier pumping station in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.  Specific and temporary bathing prohibition notices were issued as a precautionary measure for a number of Dublin beaches during the summer to protect people pending water test results. Overflows are designed to ensure that sewers do not back up and flood streets, businesses and homes, which would be a much more serious threat to public health. 

There are other multifaceted sources of pollution that impact on bathing waters in Dublin Bay, many of which are outside Irish Water's remit, including sewer misconnections to surface water drains and streams, wildlife and dog fouling.  In these cases, the Dublin local authorities are working together to diagnose the root causes and put programmes in place to solve these issues. 

As these events happened, I was in contact with Irish Water through my officials. My Department maintains close contact with both Irish Water and Dublin City Council on the issue.  A meeting is being convened in the coming weeks with Irish Water, the EPA, the HSE and the Dublin local authorities to discuss bathing water in Dublin Bay. I have signalled the need for clear communication and better early warning systems.  The EPA has agreed to work with my Department and the other partners on examining ways of further enhancing the communication to bathers regarding potential water quality issues, including early warning systems in the event of weather alerts. The EPA recently reported an overall improvement in the quality of our bathing waters nationally.  Some 94% of our bathing waters meet the required standard and almost 86% are classified as either "good" or "excellent".

It is well established that our wastewater networks and treatment plants require investment to bring them up to the required standards. Ringsend wastewater treatment plant was originally designed to treat wastewater equivalent to a population of 1.64 million and is now overloaded. Irish Water is undertaking a major upgrade of the plant at a cost of more than €400 million to ensure the wastewater is treated to the required standard and to improve the water quality in the lower Liffey estuary.  This staged upgrade will increase the capacity of the plant to the equivalent  of a population of 2 million to deliver compliance with EU law by the end of 2022.  Planning permission was granted for the project in April of this year.

Following a judgment in March 2019 by the Court of Justice of the European Union on Ireland's non-compliance with the urban wastewater treatment directive, my Department, accompanied by Irish Water, met Commission officials and proposed a programme of measures to ensure this case is resolved.  My Department will maintain close contact with the Commission while the case remains open.

Dublin Bay is a unique amenity for Dublin city residents and visitors. The investment in wastewater infrastructure which this Government is providing will help protect the bay and its biosphere designation for future generations.  Under the national development plan a total of €8.8 billion will be invested in public water services over the ten-year period to 2027. Investment in wastewater infrastructure has been prioritised in the Irish Water strategic funding plan for 2019-2014, with an estimated investment of €1.9 billion planned in wastewater projects over the period, including investment in the Ringsend plant. 

The Dublin Bay UNESCO designated biosphere reserve comprises Dublin Bay, north Bull Island and adjacent land, including parts of Dublin city. It is managed in partnership by communities, non-governmental organisations and relevant public bodies at local and national levels.  Dublin Bay is the only biosphere reserve worldwide which includes a national capital city within its area. This adds to its value and importance.

The Dublin Bay biosphere partnership's biodiversity conservation and research strategy 2016-2020 recognises the need for a research project to assess environmental pressures on the bay, including the contamination of rivers and bathing waters and the impact of climate change driven effects on water pollution.  This project is now under way in the form of the INTERREG-funded Acclimatize research project at University College Dublin. My Department will consider the outputs from that study once it is completed.

I thank the Minister. The problem is this. Irish Water's explanation of the discharge of raw sewage into Dublin Bay is that the wastewater treatment plant is functioning properly.

That is, when one gets an adverse weather event and in order to cope with the additional water flow and the mixing of surface water and sewage, there is a natural discharge into the sea. The problem is that because we are having an increase in the number of adverse weather events these instances are becoming more prevalent. It is not just that they are inconvenient; they are causing huge damage to our local environment. It was only this summer that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, said the Ringsend plant had repeatedly breached its standards and that it was not in line with its wastewater discharge licence, and the EPA is urging the Government to do more. How long is it going to take before that plant stops discharging large volumes of raw sewage into Dublin Bay? What additional investment will be made to ensure that takes place as quickly as possible?

It is astonishing, given this repeated and outrageous environmental vandalism of our UNESCO designated bay and all the associated waters, that the Minister and Irish Water would say that it is normal when one has storm water overflow then sewage will be pumped into Dublin Bay. Our great beaches of Dollymount and Sutton end up with an unbelievable smell and with contaminated waters. It is totally unacceptable. The Minister said it is a UNESCO designated bay, and it is the only one in a capital city on the whole planet, and yet he is not protecting it or taking the necessary steps. Everything seems to be future based. We have had discussions about the second sewage-wastewater plant. Irish Water appears to be determined to go ahead with placing that plant in the wrong location. It will exit into Baldoyle Bay, which is part of the Dublin Bay ecosystem. Nobody wants that plant located there. It should be based further north. I put it to the Minister that we need strong and urgent action so that there will not be a recurrence of this. It is disgraceful.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. The previous Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government did not invest in water and in wastewater treatment like it should have.

Of course, this overflow is not normal but unfortunately the discharges have been necessary because if the discharges had not occurred into the sea they would have occurred into the streets and into people's businesses and homes. The health repercussions of that would have been far more significant than what we have seen.

There are other complex pollution issues happening in Dublin Bay currently. There are sources of algae that are not as a result of these discharges and that have led to distressing sights and smells for people. These have coincided with the timing of some of the discharges but they have been an ongoing problem in Dublin Bay for several years, before the recent events of this summer.

We have committed €400 million to this plant upgrade, which is incredibly important. Planning permission was achieved earlier this year, which means that they can now commence on site. I have visited the plant and it will be a very significant upgrade. It will not be completed until the end of 2022. I have had direct contact with Irish Water to tell it that early warning systems are to be put in place. When, for example, a yellow weather alert for rain is forecast a warning will go out to bathers that until we have had sufficient time to test the quality of the water they should not bathe in it. These are the types of things we can proactively do to protect citizens.

As I said in my initial reply, there will be a meeting in the coming weeks between the different stakeholders, such as the EPA, Irish Water, the local authorities and the HSE, to see what we can do in the interim before the actual plant works are completed. The other important project, on which the local authorities are leading, relates to sewage pipes that are not connected properly to the sewerage system.

The Minister is correct that investment in wastewater treatment was very low under the Fianna Fáil Government, but it was the actually the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government that cut capital investment in wastewater treatment to historically low levels. That was the reason the European Commission initiated the infringement proceedings. That is why there was a case brought to the European Court of Justice, and why the Government still faces the possibility of very significant fines. The most recent word from the European Commission is that it is not satisfied with the progress to date. Having said all that, Ireland's own Environmental Protection Agency says that this plant is failing to meet the requirements of its wastewater discharge licence and is failing to meet Ireland's legal obligations. Irish Water has said that the upgrade should be complete by 2023. Is that the Minister's expectation? Is he saying that the residents of Dublin city and the users of Dublin Bay will have to wait for three full years before these discharges stop, or does he believe it can be done sooner? What is the Minister doing to assist Irish Water in that?

It is correct. The Minister's Government cut capital investment to below the depreciation rate and we could not even maintain the systems we had at the Ringsend plant and at other facilities. Will the interim measures proposed by the Minister ensure that we do not have a repetition, week after week, of noxious pollution of our beautiful bay? The Minister represents the bay area on the south side, and I represent it on the north side. It is a jewel. It is important for the whole cultural life of the city. I am aware that currently the sewerage plant deals with the sewage from the whole of mid-Leinster, or half of Leinster. The other facility is needed but at this stage the Minister should be looking to Irish Water to forget about the plan to base a treatment plant in Clonshaugh in the suburbs north of the city. This would provide further emissions into the ecosystem at Portmarnock, which is totally intolerable. This plant has to be moved further north to cater for Swords and the rest of Fingal.

Yes, capital investment was cut to protect current expenditure investment. It was not Fine Gael's reckless policies that drove the economy off a cliff. We wanted to protect schools, hospitals, nurses, social welfare payments and so on. We cut the capital spending-----

What about the children's hospital or the broadband plan-----

-----but we are investing €8.8 billion into our water infrastructure between now and 2027. This is very important.

-----and the €300 million worth of tax cuts?

The biggest issue that I am dealing with at the Commission is the fact that water charges were taken off the table by politicians in this country, which means we are not dealing with the effective treatment and use of water that we should be, as happens in other EU countries.

That is not true. It is the failure to comply with the Water Framework Directive.

Can we let the Minister speak without interruptions, please?

I will be honest with the public. Planning was achieved this year for a major €400 million investment that will be made between now and the end of 2022. That is the timeline for the investment, but the meetings that will happen in the coming weeks will see what it is we can do to minimise, prevent or alleviate any future problems we may have when there is substantial rainfall and capacity difficulties, specifically at the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant. When those meetings are concluded I will be able to inform the public in Dublin as to the outcomes of them.

We have time for one more question. I believe the next question, in the name of Deputy James Browne, will be asked by Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

Housing for People with Disabilities Provision

James Browne


42. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the way in which he plans to address the issue of social housing for persons with mental health issues; his plans to provide additional housing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36517/19]

I ask this question on behalf of Deputy James Browne who cannot be in the Chamber. It is an issue I have raised also in committee. What plans has the Minister to address the issue of social housing for persons with mental health issues? What are his plans to provide additional housing and does his Department intend to track in each of the local authorities housing provision for those with disabilities, be they physical or mental disabilities?

Housing needs for people with mental health difficulties are considered in the national housing strategy for people with a disability. The strategy sets out the Government’s framework for housing delivery for people with disabilities and it was developed in conjunction with the Government’s mental health policy, A Vision for Change.

Flowing from the strategy, local authorities have been mandated to set up housing and disability steering groups that are tasked with achieving a co-ordinated and integrated approach to meeting the housing needs of people with a disability, including mental health difficulties. The Housing Agency is also developing a manual to assist local authority staff to support people with mental health difficulties to access housing.

Over the last number of months, the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and I have visited a number of new social housing developments, recently in counties Meath, Kildare and Clare and in Tralee, which have made provision for those with special housing needs. Some very successful projects have been brought forward by those local authorities. The developments have been designed around the needs of people with mental health needs, sensory issues and acquired brain injuries.

Not all people with mental health difficulties require a specific type of housing but, in many cases, social care supports are required to assist with adjusting to independent living, which includes issues such as maintaining a tenancy. Together with the Department of Health, my Department currently co-funds a national tenancy sustainment programme to assist persons with mental health difficulties in the transition from HSE facilities into mainstream social housing to maintain their tenancies.

The national strategy for people with a disability will be reviewed in 2020 and housing for people with mental health difficulties will again form part of the considerations in that review. I hope this is useful to the Deputies.