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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 28 Jan 2021

Vol. 1003 No. 6

Response of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to Covid-19: Statements

I am sharing time with the Ministers of State, Deputies Peter Burke and Noonan.

In the 11 months since the first case of Covid-19 was recorded, our public services have been tested like never before. In this worst of times for so many, the best of public service and community spirit has come to the fore. The concept embodied in the Irish word "meitheal", daoine ag teacht le chéile chun obair a dhéanamh agus a gcuid fadhbanna a shárú or community co-operation in a time of social need, has been visibly lived across Ireland.

At the outset, I must acknowledge the sustained efforts and commitment shown by the staff of my Department since the start of this emergency. From the first day, the rapid redeployment of staff and a roll-out of ICT equipment have kept our essential services operating and allowed for full remote working. The Department's Covid-19 response plan consolidates national best practice with specific reference to our several work locations across the country. In addition, the Department assimilated almost 500 new staff following the transfer of heritage functions to it in September, leading to an almost 50% increase in the size of the Department. The vast majority of departmental staff are working from home, as is the Government's advice, but a minority is required to attend physically at work to deliver key supports in areas such as ICT and in Met Éireann to provide weather forecasts and warnings, services to aviation and flood forecasting. The park rangers and the staff in the National Parks and Wildlife Service are arguably busier than ever with people exploring their local areas within the 5 km limit, restrictions permitting. All State bodies have taken large leaps in providing services in virtual, online ways, and this will be one of long-term positive legacies of the Covid-19 experience.

In particular, I pay tribute to the members of the fire service throughout the country. As emergency responders, they are on the front line. I wish to mention especially the Dublin Fire Brigade paramedics, who are at the coalface of this pandemic. In addition, I pay tribute to all the staff in the 31 local authorities, many of whom are working in housing support and other crucial areas through the pandemic.

The shutdown of construction has been extended to 5 March. This nine-week shutdown will undoubtedly have a significant impact on housing delivery. I am working with the Department to assess this impact, but we will not be found wanting in exploring all options to make up any shortfall.

Regarding homelessness, we continue to protect the most vulnerable. That has been a key priority for me and my colleagues in the Department, especially those living in homelessness. The rapid and joined-up response by our homelessness services and their extraordinary commitment resulted in an unprecedented upscaling of services to keep users safe. To meet the challenges of social distancing, new facilities were rapidly opened. Shielding has been provided for those most at risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19 and additional accommodation has been put in place to allow for self-isolation. Thankfully, outbreaks of Covid-19 have remained low among the homeless population, a testament to the hard work of all those involved in co-operation between the homelessness services and our colleagues in the HSE and the Department of Health. The response of service users to the supports provided, as measured by the HSE's national Covid-19 service user experience survey which reported last November, has been broadly positive. The needs and challenges expressed by service users in the survey will be integrated into service planning and this will inform the provision of more integrated, person-centred services for anyone experiencing homelessness in Ireland.

My Department has provided approximately €12.5 million per quarter in additional Covid-19-related funding to support these efforts. I have also provided for the further costs that have arisen from the provision of 24-hour services in facilities, which were introduced to minimise the need for service users to travel. During this period we have made significant progress in tackling homelessness, although the situation is still challenging. The homeless figures for November show a decrease of 1,964 individuals or 18.8% on the total recorded in November 2019. Thankfully, there has been a 38.6% decrease in the number of families in emergency accommodation and a very welcome 72% reduction in the number of families accommodated in commercial hotels in the past year. We must do more, but more progress has been shown. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive recorded its highest number of tenancies created in a month last November, with 381 created in total. It is helping to prevent people from entering homelessness services as well as helping those who are engaged in them to exit successfully. The next quarterly report on homelessness will be published tomorrow, Friday, 29 January, and I expect to see a further reduction in the numbers of homeless individuals and families, which will be extremely welcome.

In budget 2021, we allocated €218 million for homelessness spending, an increase of 31% on budget 2020. With numbers falling we are moving towards long-term solutions, not just keeping our head above water. Rough sleepers are at the sharp end of homelessness and are among the most vulnerable individuals in society. Rough sleeping is a persistent issue and I have provided the resources to ensure there is a bed available for everyone who needs one. In addition, I have instructed all housing authorities that local connection criteria should not be a barrier to accessing services. I am keeping this under review to ensure it is adhered to. Enhanced outreach teams operate 18 hours per day, interacting with people on the street and encouraging them to take up offers of a bed or to return to accommodation they may already have. I thank and highly commend all the people in the outreach teams throughout the country, many of whom I have met. They have been magnificent through this pandemic.

While Covid-19 has posed huge challenges, there have also been opportunities. My Department, local authorities, the Department of Health, the HSE and NGO service providers have worked together and existing relationships have been strengthened. The strong collaboration that has developed must continue and should yield longer-term benefits. For example, it is essential that health supports are provided in tandem with housing support, particularly for the most vulnerable homeless individuals who are on the streets or at risk of rough sleeping. I meet and speak to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, regularly and can say with a great deal of confidence that this is something on which we agree and are making progress. I also regularly meet my homelessness task force. The response to the Covid-19 pandemic is to the forefront of our thoughts and we regularly assess what is and is not working, what measures we must put in place and how we can improve. This will continue long after we have seen the back of this pandemic.

On rental measures, tenants and landlords are experiencing economic difficulties as a result of the series of restrictions aimed at suppressing the spread of the virus.

In order to mitigate those impacts on the rental sector, a number of legislative changes have been implemented to better protect tenants.

At the outset of the first lockdown, emergency measures provided that tenants could not be forced to leave their rental accommodation. Those emergency laws ceased to have effect on 1 August. Thereafter, I introduced the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 to protect tenants facing rent arrears and at risk of losing their tenancies. Subject to the eligible person making a declaration, this will provide protection and the earliest termination date allowed is 13 April 2021. In addition, for relevant tenancies, rent increases are prohibited until 13 April 2021, with no backdating allowed. Some members of the Opposition voted against these protections but, thankfully, they had a change of heart, which I welcome, and recently voted for their extension. In October, I introduced new legislation that automatically linked a 5 km travel restriction on public health grounds to an eviction moratorium. That legislation is in place now and runs up to at least 15 March. Again, there was some initial opposition to these measures but a more balanced response from Members opposite has occurred since and I welcome that.

Shortly after taking office in July, I announced a €40 million allocation to bring 2,500 vacant social homes back into use. This has been absolutely successful, with 2,565 social homes refurbished and allocated to people on the social housing list. This is very much focused on those who are experiencing homelessness in order to get them permanent homes. Overall last year, 3,607 social homes were brought back into use. The voids programme remains a very important tool in our armoury and is particularly relevant and important in light of the current shutdown in construction. I ask people to recognise where progress has been made, though others have sought to criticise.

As part of the July stimulus response to Covid, the Government took a decision to expand the help-to-buy scheme, which has helped over 21,000 people buy and own their own permanent homes. Again, some Members opposite have opposed this €30,000 grant to first-time buyers but I and my colleagues in government firmly believe this is a good use of Exchequer funds, which can help people own their homes. That was implemented in the July stimulus.

As regards local authority mortgages, in recognition of the financial pressures some borrowers are facing I have just this week put in place the fourth consecutive mortgage repayment break for local authority loan recipients. This is a further step to alleviate the burden on struggling households. Thankfully, just 3% of local authority mortgage holders have availed of this option but it is good that it is there.

Planning remains open. We are working with the Attorney General and looking at measures that we may have to bring in to extend existing planning permissions due to the construction shutdown.

These are extraordinary days of challenge but we can draw solace in some of the words passed down to us from generation to generation, containing a deep and abiding truth. Anois agus muid i ndorchadas an gheimhridh, tagann dhá sheanfhocal chugam: "Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid" agus "Ní neart go cur le chéile". The wisdom of these Irish proverbs reminds us that we all exist in each other's shadow and that strength comes from unity. This should guide us in the months ahead as, slowly but surely, we turn the tide on this pandemic and look to brighter days ahead.

The essential role played by local authorities in our lives has never been more evident than during the Covid-19 crisis. They have provided real local leadership across the country and have helped communities to work together in these exceptional and difficult times. They have maintained virtually all of their services, even during lockdowns, and have played key roles in supporting local businesses and protecting vulnerable people in our communities.

Some €900 million was set aside by the Government in 2020 to provide for commercial rates waivers to a wide range of businesses. This was done in recognition of the fact that many ratepayers had to close their businesses or suffered significant reductions in turnover. This unprecedented measure provided support to businesses and certainty to our local authorities, enabling them to continue to deliver services across the country. Most of the waiver funding was paid to local authorities in December, with the balance being paid this month. To date, almost €730 million of commercial rates have been waived for almost 122,000 ratepayers, which is almost 85% of all ratepayers. The Government has recently announced a further rates waiver to be provided in the first quarter of 2021, for the businesses most seriously affected by ongoing restrictions. Some €160 million has been allocated to this end and details were issued to local authorities yesterday, 27 January.

Income from services and local charges accounted for 26% of the local government sector's total budgeted income in 2020. That income is down by an estimated €71 million due to Covid-19's impact on areas such as parking charges, planning fees, and leisure or tourism related activities. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has sanctioned the distribution of any unspent funds from the overall rates waiver allocation to the sector, in order to help minimise the impact of the reduction in these income streams and to meet other costs arising from Covid-19, such as for PPE.

Local authorities have also played an instrumental role and a critical part in the roll-out of the restart and restart plus scheme. This grant scheme made €635 million available to help micro and small businesses with the costs of reopening and re-employing workers following Covid-19 closures. Local authorities processed over 108,000 applications and made subsequent payments to SMEs on behalf of the Departments of Finance and Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

From the very beginning of this emergency, it was recognised that people who were cocooning or self-isolating would need extra help, particularly if their usual networks of support were not able to reach them at that time of strict public health measures. In response, the Community Call initiative was launched as a safety net for such people, many of whom were among the most vulnerable in our communities. The initiative brought together national government, local government and the community and voluntary sectors to ensure practical supports, like the collection and delivery of food, meals, fuel, medication, pensions and other essential items, would be in place at a local level. Each local authority established a Community Call forum to co-ordinate this locally. This brought together all those involved locally, including the HSE, An Garda Síochána, Civil Defence, an army of community and voluntary organisations, volunteers and councillors. I acknowledge the huge amount of work that went into this initiative.

I also pay tribute to the dedicated team in our Department and the HSE working with our Traveller community in this time of crisis. We spent almost €4 million on specific Covid measures for 2020. I met last week with the Irish Traveller Movement and am keeping in constant contact with that very vulnerable community. We have also established a programme board to implement the 31 recommendations of the expert report and we are working very closely with them to ensure they are kept safe during this very difficult time.

While the formal transfer of heritage services to the Department was only finalised in September 2020, I am delighted to have the opportunity to reflect on how those services have responded to the challenges posed by Covid-19. The value and importance of our natural heritage has been appreciated as never before since March 2020. Our national parks and reserves protect a diversity of natural life and provide an invaluable resource which, I am proud to say, has remained open since the outset of the pandemic. I recognise and thank all the staff who have made it possible to keep appropriate parts of our network of State-owned land accessible to the public during this emergency. Our network of six iconic national parks and more than 80 nature reserves has given us both the physical and head space to absorb nature. They let us breathe and reflect. Visitor numbers have remained strong and I encourage the continued enjoyment of these wonderful outdoor resources. However, I also remind the public to adhere to all public health restrictions and advice, particularly the requirement not to travel more than 5 km from home.

Regarding national monuments in State ownership, many sites are now closed and measures are in place at those that remain open to enable adherence to public health guidelines. My heritage division continues to liaise with OPW colleagues in order to protect the national estate during these times.

Last year, over 450 heritage projects benefited from a sum of over €4.3 million under my Department’s built heritage capital grant schemes. The schemes provided some much-needed economic stimulus right around the country, and gave employment to the many small businesses, skilled conservation specialists and tradespeople involved in heritage-related construction activity. In November, I was delighted to announce a combined fund of €6 million for these schemes in 2021.

In my short time as Minister I have seen how dedicated our staff in the heritage area are. I have seen the value we place on heritage and I understand our commitments to the land and its history. This pandemic has not changed this; it has only made that commitment stronger. The public should seize the opportunity of international travel restrictions to explore our own island of Ireland this summer, once restrictions are eased and a mass vaccination programme is under way.

I am sure that for many there is more of our country that has not been explored and so much more of our rich and diverse built natural and cultural heritage that can be explored, spending time and money in our local shops, restaurants, cafés and hotels. Despite the messages to "vax and go", people should consider holidaying in Ireland where our teams are waiting for them and will give them a warm welcome.

On voting in a time of Covid, we recently published the general scheme of the electoral reform Bill 2020 to help make elections safer if taking place during Covid-19 restrictions. The Bill provides for important electoral reforms, including the establishment of an electoral commission and the modernisation of our electoral registration processes. It also provides for the conducting of a poll over two days to facilitate social distancing and for a postal vote for those on the special voters list, should nursing homes and similar institutions be inaccessible. The Department is also in consultation with Returning Officers regarding practical Covid compliant arrangements for the conducting of a poll. While there are no immediate electoral events on the horizon, it is important that we plan ahead and be prepared.

I am sharing time with Deputy Gould. A year ago, during the general election campaign, the Fianna Fáil election manifesto promised the delivery of 50,000 affordable homes over the lifetime of the incoming Government. The Minister said on the election stump said that those homes would be available at prices of €250,000 or less for first-time buyers and others yet when we saw the final text of the programme for Government gone was that crucial commitment. Despite that, the Minister spent the first two weeks following his appointment promising to deliver affordable homes at prices between €160,000 and €250,000. Astonishingly, just like the disappearance of affordable homes from the programme for Government so, too, had that commitment disappeared from the budget. There was no increase in the serviced sites fund on the moneys already committed by Fine Gael, despite that it is the crucial mechanism for delivering affordable homes through local authorities. A measly €35 million is provided for 400 affordable cost-rental homes this year which, while welcome, are nowhere close to the thousands of affordable cost rental homes recommended to Government by the Housing Agency, ESRI, and the National Economic and Social Council, NESC.

What we did get is a return of Fianna Fáil and the bad old days of the Celtic tiger in the form of an increase to the help-to-buy scheme. This has not only been criticised by the Opposition. NESC and the ESRI have said it will push up demand at a time of limited supply and, in turn, push up prices. Worse than that, we had the introduction of a toxic shared equity loan scheme. Again, it is not just the Opposition who are critical of this scheme. The most senior official in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, in emails to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, said that this will increase house prices and, at least, it will lock in the unsustainable level of house prices currently if not push them up further. What is really interesting is that this scheme was not in the Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael manifestos. This scheme was written and designed by two property industry lobby groups at the start of 2020, which I know because they also met all of the housing spokespeople at that time, me included. It is based on a controversial and well-criticised scheme in the United Kingdom. It will also lock in and push up unsustainably high prices while loading working families with ever greater levels of debt. Not satisfied with this, the Minister seems intent on bringing the banks into the shared equity loan scheme. He is currently in negotiations through the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland to double the €75 million of State money with €75 million of banking money. I understand there is a dispute between Government and federation regarding interest payments. No matter the level of interest, all this will do is saddle hard-working people with ever greater and, at the outset, unquantifiable levels of debt and all the while the banks will profit. This is no way to address our housing crisis.

All the while, because of the failures of Fine Gael and, now, Fianna Fáil housing policy, house prices and rents continue to spiral out of control. The report of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, published this week makes for grim reading for those wanting to rent or buy at affordable prices. The cheapest suburban apartment currently under construction is €359,000. The cheapest city centre apartment in Dublin is €439,000. Who can buy these apartments? Not ordinary working people or even working people on good incomes. More than 70% of these properties are being built by build-to-rent developers. If that is not bad enough, the rents are sky high, ranging from €1,850 per month, which is the cheapest in the suburbs, to €2,600 per month in the city centre. Does anybody think hard-working, single people, let alone couples, can afford those types of rents and still have a decent standard of living?

The SCSI report shows that Fine Gael's housing policy has failed. This is the consequence of a decade of Fine Gael politicians and Ministers not taking housing affordability seriously. It has failed to deliver affordable homes to working people. In 2018, the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, introduced the serviced sites fund and from the Opposition benches, the current Minister claimed credit for that €300 million. The then Government promised to deliver 6,200 affordable homes by 2021. Not one of those houses has been delivered and only 150 are currently in construction and we do not know when they will be ready or what the final price will be. The Fianna Fáil response within six months in government is to throw even more fuel on the flames of house purchase and rent inflation and to continue to underinvest in genuine affordable homes to rent or buy. It is not increasing the targets for social housing as outlined by Fine Gael in the national development plan or investing in local authority-led affordable homes to rent or buy.

As we all know, there is an alternative. Not only the Opposition but an increasing range of voices in industry, the NGO sector and the academy are saying that in light of negative interest rates for Government borrowing now is the time to invest directly in local authority and AHB-led affordable homes, which working people can buy without hidden equity charges or spiralling costs to buy or rent. The scale of capital investment that would be required would be double what was agreed in the budget a few short months ago. We need in the region of €3 billion to deliver at least 20,000 social and affordable homes each year. The Minister when campaigning during the general election promised that Fianna Fáil would deliver 50,000 social homes and 50,000 affordable homes. Now that he is in office, when Sinn Féin proposes that, he says it is not achievable, there are no planning permissions and no delivery mechanism. If he thinks that now, why during the election did he promise the very same targets being proposed now by Sinn Féin? Perhaps as Pat Rabbitte famously said, "That's just the kind of thing you do to win elections."

In the remaining three minutes available to me before I hand over to my colleague Deputy Gould, I would like to put some simple questions to the Minister. He is developing a reputation for bluff and bluster. Perhaps in this short exchange, he will give some direct and simple answers to direct and simple questions. First, how many affordable homes to rent and buy will be delivered by Government this year? I am seeking only a number, not a speech.

The Deputy raises those questions while we are in the middle of a construction shutdown due to a pandemic.

I am just asking for the number. Does the Minister know how many affordable homes will be delivered this year?

I will not be badgered by-----

Does the Minister know the number?

Deputy Ó Broin please allow the Minister to reply.

The Deputy might show some respect for the Chamber and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin has never delivered affordable homes. We have secured €110 million for affordable homes this year.

On a point of order, I have asked a question and the Minister is making a speech.

I will not be badgered.

There is not a point of order. The Deputy has asked a question. I ask the Minister to answer it.

I am happy to answer it. We have secured funding to deliver----

How many units?

There is no point in continuing if every time I stand up to reply I am interrupted. The Deputy does not want the answer.

I have the greatest respect for this House and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle but I do not have respect for a Minister who will not answer a straight question.

I have the floor. The Minister had his time for a speech.

The Deputy talked over me and would not let me respond to the question. It is unbelievable.

The straight answer is this-----

Let him carry on with his games.

I ask the Minister and the Deputy, please-----

I have the floor, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, with one minute left.

The Deputy had the floor and the Minister then had the floor to answer the question. If the Deputy is not happy-----

The Deputy would not let me answer the question.

We are going to waste time and Deputy Ó Broin is going to eat into his colleague's time.

I appreciate that.

Does the Minister want to answer the question?

I would love to answer the question, if I am not interrupted.

If the Minister will answer the question directly please, how many units-----

The Deputy has asked the question.

-----will he deliver this year for hard-working people to rent or buy?

The Deputy might let me answer the question now. The target for public homes this year is 12,750-----

How many affordable homes will he deliver?

This is beyond ridiculous. The Deputy will not let me answer. I am not blaming the Leas-Cheann Comhairle at all and I respect her completely on this. The Deputy will not even let me answer the question.

The target set for this year for public homes, to put it in context, is 12,750. A total of 9,500 will be built, which is the largest target ever set in the history of the State. In regard to affordable-----

That was not the question. How many affordable homes will be built?

If the Deputy would stop shouting, I could answer. This is beyond ridiculous. He does not want to hear the answer.

The Minister does not have the answer.

Deputy Ó Broin has asked the question and I ask that he let the Minister answer it.

The Deputy is being ridiculous and he is being juvenile. Will he let me answer the question?

I ask the Minister to give his answer.

Yes, I will. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for trying to put some type of control on the Deputy. A total of 400 affordable rental homes will be delivered this year.

How many will be available to buy?

I should be allowed to answer the question. People may be interested in the answer to it. The Deputy may not be and that is fine because what he will always do is try to play politics with a situation.

A total of 400 affordable rental homes and a national affordable rental scheme will be launched this year. There will be 400 homes tenanted this year. In the coming couple of weeks, if not in the next week, we will be announcing the specific areas where the homes will be delivered. We have put out the call on that.

I thank the Minister.

It is not just bluster like we get from the Deputy; we have done it.

Deputy Gould is waiting to get in.

I will let him in. Absolutely.

I thank the Minister.

The latest managers' report from Cork City Council states that there are 8,913 individuals and families on the housing list in Cork city alone. That does not include all the people on the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme or the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. On average, 1,054 new applications are received in Cork annually. Cork City Council built approximately 600 houses in 2020. Before the Minister mentions the issues arising because of the Covid crisis, I will point out that it built 654 the previous year.

I want to note that Cork City Council is recognised as one of the best local authorities for delivering social housing. It meets all the Government targets that are set out every year. My issue is that the Government targets are not good enough and they are not high enough. To put it simply, the Government's targets are too low. It knows it and the Department knows it. The targets that are being set will never solve the housing crisis. It is as simple as this: if there are 9,000 people and families on the housing list, 1,000 new applications coming in every year and 600 houses being built, the housing crisis will never be resolved. Surely the Minister and the people in his Department know this. The bare minimum that is needed if they are going to tackle the crisis is to build the number of houses that matches the number of people coming onto the list every year, plus extra.

The Minister is not providing enough funding for Cork City Council and other local authorities to build the social housing that is needed to tackle the crisis. I have given the figures. The Department gets those figures every month from Cork City Council. For him to come in here telling us about all the great work that is being done is not acceptable. That is one of the other major issues. Successive Ministers with responsibility for housing have come into the Dáil with new plans and told Deputies how the housing crisis will be solved. People ring me in my office and say that they hope I can get one of the houses for them. However, those houses are not being delivered at all because the list keeps going up and up. It is estimated that in four years' time, Cork City's Council's housing waiting list will include more than 12,000 individuals and families. At this time, there are 911 families and individuals on the waiting list for more than 12 years. It is a scandal. I have listened to the Minister talk about what he is hoping to do. This is what is happening now and this is what people are living with.

There is much more I could say but I will raise just one more point. I attended a meeting yesterday about the development by the Land Development Agency, LDA, on the St. Kevin's Hospital site in Cork, which involves the building of 266 units. Twenty-seven apartments, or 10% of the total, are being provided for social housing. This means that 90% of the units under the plan as it is now - the closing date for submissions is tomorrow - will be put out to the public for private purchase. How can the Minister stand over that? Will he put in a submission tomorrow to An Bord Pleanála to seek the provision of more than 10% social housing? Will he also look to extend the date for submissions in respect of this project? The people in the community do not know about it. There has been no engagement with residents and community groups. There is no transport infrastructure and no roads infrastructure in place. The LDA wants to rush the project ahead. Will the Minister request that the closing date be extended for four weeks to allow people time to make submissions? Will he put in a submission seeking more than 10% social housing?

Unfortunately, Deputy Gould has left the Minister no time to respond and I must move on to the next speaker.

As the Minister knows, we are in the middle of a housing crisis and a homelessness crisis. We have a social housing crisis, a rent affordability crisis and an unaffordable house price crisis. The cause of these crises is an outdated, right-wing, ideological approach to planning and development which has led to a chronic underinvestment in public housing for the past 20 years and a housing market that is fundamentally broken. I represent the constituency of Dublin Bay North, which the Minister knows well. The hardest part of my job - the hardest part of the job for any of us in this House - is the hundreds of representations I receive every year from people in desperate need of adequate housing. There are more than 29,000 people on waiting lists in the greater Dublin area. In Dublin Bay North, there are 8,320 people on the Dublin City Council area B housing waiting list. Between January and September 2020, there were 196 allocations in area B, including transfers. At that rate, it would take 42 years to clear the list. People are suffering from the constant stress and fear of rent hikes or evictions. Some are living in overcrowded accommodation, with several generations of a family living in one house. There are some in severe medical need.

There are three practical things I would ask the Minister to do to address this social housing and greater housing need in Dublin Bay North. First, I ask him to work with my colleague, Councillor Alison Gilliland, and the cross-party working group in Dublin City Council, which is coming up with a new plan to deliver housing on the Oscar Traynor Road site. Second, I ask that the Department would pay for the community infrastructure required to support developments and that it separate those costs from the housing costs. The stand-off in this debate a few minutes ago calls to mind the attempts by Sinn Féin Deputies to pretend that they are hugely ideologically opposed to what the Government is doing. I would say to those who consistently vote down proposals for local property tax increases in the local authorities that this funding could go towards housing need, housing infrastructure and community infrastructure. It could go towards homeless services and sheltered housing. I do not see how anybody from Sinn Féin could side with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil in local authorities to vote an extra €375 into the hands of somebody who owns a €1 million property. Let us have less of the grandstanding and populism and more of a realisation that this sort of vote, whipped by Sinn Féin, cost Dublin City Council €12 million that could have been gratefully received and used for the types of projects we are discussing.

Third, we need the Minister to finance Dublin City Council to allow it to accelerate its apartment regeneration projects across the city. This would improve not just the quality but the quantity of units. I know plans are advancing for Cromcastle Court in Kilmore and St. Anne's Court in Raheny, but there are many other opportunities. The current plan would take 15 years but, with a bit of ambition, there is no reason that we could not get it down to maybe half that.

Given the low cost of capital and the exorbitant rates being paid for the housing assistance payment in areas of Dublin 17 in my constituency, investment in public housing in Dublin Bay North will actually save the public purse money over the long term.

As well as the crisis in social housing, we have a crisis in homelessness, unaffordable rents and house prices all caused by a broken housing market. The Minister and I have spoken before about the potential for a rent-to-buy scheme. I know the Minister has shown interest in it and I believe it is one of the schemes we should recover and invest in again. The reason for the broken market is that we have a system and a Department, as far as I can see, that has been almost completely ideologically captured by the private sector mindset. No finer example of this can be found than in the strategic housing development, SHD, process. It is an anti-democratic process that has utterly failed to deliver units. Instead, it has had a less-than 30% success rate in five years. It has been publicly stated that the SHD legislation was delivered almost line by line by the Property Industry Ireland lobby group to the Department and the Minister's Fine Gael predecessor, the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney.

Now, we find ourselves with unaffordable half-empty high-rise buildings and unsustainable co-living applications that are entirely aimed at maximising the value of a single site instead of delivering sustainable and affordable housing across Dublin. The brutal truth has been highlighted in recent days by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland report, which shows that high-rise buildings are more expensive. This exposes the lie that height is a panacea to our problems. We have to stop allowing developers to use the housing crisis as an excuse to ride roughshod over all the principles of sustainable and affordable housing, including the principle of having a planning process with proper scrutiny of planning applications and a development plan voted in by elected councillors who understand the dynamic of the local authority area. There are big questions that we need to address to do this, like the right to housing, implementation of the Kenny report and proper taxation of speculative development land. I call on the Minister to break the influence of the developers and hedge funds on the Department and to get rid of SHDs. The Minister has committed to doing this, in fairness to him. We need to reinstate the eviction ban, implement a proper rent freeze and ensure that the same groups which caused the last crash are not allowed to exploit this housing crisis for their own ends.

I appreciate I have not given the Minister much time for a response but if he wishes to correspond with me I would appreciate it, especially about the constructive suggestions that myself and my colleague, Senator Moynihan, have given to the Minister and the Department recently.

I can respond briefly to Deputy Ó Ríordáin. I thank him for his questions and the manner in which he put them, which was in stark contrast to the performance of Deputy Ó Broin, who, unfortunately, has left the Chamber to go to RTÉ now. It shows the respect he has for the Dáil Chamber when he leaves to speak on RTÉ radio at 4.30 p.m.

On a point of order, the public health advice is to leave the Chamber as soon as a Deputy is finished. It is the health advice.

Minister, you have less than one minute to reply.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin asked about the Oscar Traynor development. We are working with the council and with colleagues of Deputy Ó Ríordáin in the Labour Party on revised proposals there, especially around the contribution potentially from the Department. I met the executive straight after that vote. I think it is an important site. It would show considerable progress.

There are things we are working on in the affordable housing Bill around the serviced sites fund and how it can be used or perhaps altered and used more appropriately. The concept is good but its delivery has been slow. I will respond to the other points raised by Deputy Ó Ríordáin in writing.

Before we go any further, there are public health guidelines and directives. I am addressing everyone now. Comments about Deputies leaving the Chamber or not being in the Chamber are not appropriate. Deputies come in, make their contribution and leave. They are in their offices and they are watching. It is important for listeners to know that.

We will move now to the Government side. There are three speakers. Deputy Bruton is next and he might indicate the breakdown of time.

I understand the time allocation is four and a half minutes, four minutes and three minutes, in that order.

I thank the Minister for his speech and for outlining the challenges we face. I believe the Land Development Agency is a potential game changer in addressing housing supply. The report yesterday from the surveyors shows that we will not have compact development in our city if we rely solely on the market because of the cost.

I fear we will not have regional dispersion, involving the growth of Waterford, Cork and other cities if we do not have an active Land Development Agency. My point to the Minister is that our plans must be ambitious. The agency must be equipped with sufficient powers to carry out the acquisition of lands and assembly of sites.

I fear that the system will be too conservative in terms of the Land Development Agency. It is important that we have a State developer that challenges private developers and hoarding and some of the features that have developed in that market. It is also essential that the Land Development Agency develops master plans for all our housing needs, not only the needs of those on public housing lists but those of everyone who is looking for affordable housing.

I support the affordable housing Bill, the heads of which the Minister has published in recent days. It is true to point out that many of the people who the Bill will help are paying up to €20,000 in rent per year for one-bedroom apartments. The scheme will allow these people access at three quarters of the cost in terms of their monthly payments to a far larger dwelling suitable for their long-term needs. It is to be commended.

It is of course true that if one lets people into the market who have been blocked out, one adds to demand. The key to ensuring that this does not create pressure in prices is supply. That is where we come back to the crucial ambitions of the Land Development Agency. The agency must be equipped to drive on that supply.

I wish to point out the many useful recommendations from the National Economic and Social Council in that area, including aggressive use of Part V provisions, more aggressive use of the various funds that the Minister knows about and use of infrastructural funds and serviced sites funds and so on. There are new dimensions in public procurement that can be more innovative and drive down costs, as well as new dimensions in zoning. All these measures should be put in place. There are schemes, like the repair and refurbish scheme, where we have seen low levels of take-up in most local authorities. Some 19 authorities have not bothered at all. Yet 45% of applications have come from one council, namely, Waterford City and County Council.

I strenuously oppose the narrow ideology that has sunk the 853 homes in Santry. The development was going to offer balanced supply, with 256 social, 170 affordable, 213 cost-rental and 213 private dwellings. This was badly needed on a site that has lain derelict for 40 years. There was four years of planning, which was approved by Sinn Féin at the time it was initiated. It was then sunk at the last minute by the vote of the council. This is the sort of innovative procurement from local authorities that we need to see. It will drive down the cost of producing public housing. There is more than a hint of hypocrisy in the way it has been dealt with.

The mantra of "only public housing on public land" must be called out for what it is. It will block the potential of the Land Development Agency to really change the way in which our housing market works. The agency has an obligation to provide homes for all our community. We must not see a return to segregated housing for one type of tenant only.

I will be brief because I am conscious that I am sharing my last three minutes with Deputy Duffy. I will make three or four brief points and leave the remainder of my time for the Minister.

We need to welcome the homelessness figures released recently. Obviously, it is not enough and there are still far too many families and individuals in homeless and emergency accommodation. Yet, since the Minister has taken office there has been a reduction of almost 2,000 in homelessness figures, which is welcome.

I commend the Minister on his voids programme, which delivered almost 600 houses in Cork city and county in 2020. My first question is whether the Minister envisages that the scheme will be rolled out again in 2022.

My next question relates to wind energy guidelines. In County Cork, there are several planning applications at present for wind turbines. I seek clarity and an update on the guidelines. The draft guidelines were published in 2017 and we are still waiting for the publication of the final guidelines. Does the Minister have an update on that?

As Deputy Bruton mentioned development and we are currently going through our development plan review in Cork county and city. I agree with the Members from the Opposition on one thing, which is that we need to be ambitious in these development plans. During my time on Cork County Council, we often spoke about active land management and how it needs to be incorporated into the strategy. We need to set ambitious targets and in my experience, we often see how land might be zoned for a lengthy period, often several decades, before it comes to the point of development.

I ask that the Minister consider talking to the local authorities and implementing that active land management strategy effectively. If people are sitting and hoarding land or waiting for it to appreciate, we need to entertain the prospect of possibly dezoning that land, looking elsewhere and zoning land that is available for development. It might not be popular to say, but it would be far more proactive and beneficial in the long term.

Finally, the Minister is undertaking a review of the HAP scheme. Is there any update on that or any intention to undertake that review? In addition, does he have any information on any new tenant purchase scheme?

It is my intention, with colleagues, to roll out another voids programme for 2021. We brought back in more than 3,600 units in 2020 very successfully. We have allocations for this year, and with the construction shutdown, we may put more into that. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, will answer on wind energy guidelines. I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan on active land management.

The review on certain anomalies surrounding HAP limits is under way. It is not concluded yet. I referred to it during Question Time in the Dáil just before Christmas.

We are working through the submissions that came in from the public consultation on the wind energy guidelines. We are working with the Department of the Minister, Deputy Ryan. There were more than 500 submissions. Some of them were very technical in nature. It was aimed to have a draft before Christmas. That was not possible, but we are still working through it and I hope it will be published shortly.

I thank the Minister for taking my two questions. This pandemic has made us fully realise the importance of a safe and secure home. The referendum on a right to housing will enshrine this in our law. When will the Minister deliver on this commitment? What role will the commission on housing have? Can he ensure that organisations such as Home for Good, which have worked resolutely on this, will be engaged to deliver on this commitment?

Last year, an estimated 18,800 homes were delivered, though currently our housing demand requires in excess of 30,000 homes each year for the foreseeable future, as projected by the ESRI. Considering the impact Covid-19 has had on the construction sector and, therefore, housing delivery, what are the 2022 projected targets, and will the Minister give a breakdown of the social, cost-rental and affordable housing units?

Those are my two questions: the timeline for the right to housing referendum and the projected figures for 2022 and the breakdown of same.

Is the Deputy referring to this year or 2022?

There is a commitment in the programme for Government, as the Deputy rightly stated, to a referendum on the right to housing. I see the commission on housing, which we ourselves negotiated during talks on the programme for Government, playing a central role in that. I spoke at a virtual conference just last week about outlining our plans to establish the commission that would look at certain issues, including a legislative right to housing. Mercy Law Resource Centre and others have done incredible work on this but looking at other jurisdictions. I expect that work is under way - we have some work on it - to establish the commission. I would like it established this year. There will be certain segments within the commission to deal with legislation, homelessness, housing delivery, costs and other elements. The Department is working on that. I did a lot of work on it over the summer. I do not expect a referendum this year, to be frank. We have to work on a proposal that would be put to the people. We have to look at how that would be framed. We will seek submissions from all groups, such as those the Deputy has mentioned, that have been heavily involved in this, many of which I have met, at the correct and appropriate time to feed into that. It would be important for this country and it is an important commitment in the programme for Government.

Housing delivery was affected last year. We are concluding the figures for housing completions last year. Deputy Duffy has a figure of 18,800. It might be slightly more. This year's target for public housing is 12,750. That will be impacted by the nine-week shutdown so far as a result of Covid. I earnestly hope we will get the sector back up and running fully on 5 March. It is my desire to do so. We have to see what the effects will be this year to be able to project into next year. As for affordable homes, there were 400 cost-rental this year, which is not insignificant. Others may dismiss that. Cost-rental is a new tenure of housing that is incredibly important and we will start it off and build on it incrementally. We will not make outlandish promises on housing delivery. We need to readjust on 5 March, when the sector gets back open, and look at our targets for this year for affordable homes. We will have a fund of €110 million to deliver affordable homes for this year and over the next 12 months. It is too early to talk about 2022. We need to try to get 2021 dealt with. What we are targeting, though, and based on the research we have sought and that we will publish, including from the ESRI, is that the State needs 30,000 homes, both public and private, per year in the short to medium term. We are well off that at the moment, with the pandemic having an impact, obviously.

I wish to ask the Minister about the shared equity scheme. He frequently cites the British shared equity loan scheme, and I assume that his proposed scheme is similar to that introduced by the Tories. First, I am surprised that the Minister for Finance has given the green light to the scheme because it is a demand-side response to what is a supply-side problem, and that is patently obvious to anybody. As an economic policy, it is completely wrong-headed.

Second, the scheme, if rolled out, could have an immediate impact on the share prices of developers in this State. A study by Geoff Meeks of Cambridge University found that in the three years before the shared equity scheme was rolled out in Britain the share price of leading developers increased in line with share prices of the FTSE 350 but that in the four years after the shared equity scheme was introduced, share prices on the FTSE 350 rose by 47% while the share prices of leading developers rose by 230%. Shareholders, managers and CEOs, therefore, prospered under the shared equity scheme in Britain, and the impact here is likely to be no different. The Minister has already heard from the most senior civil servant in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that his proposal is about lining the pockets of developers, but sure are those not the spots Fianna Fáil has always worn?

My immediate concern is about the impact this scheme will have on the borrowers and on the market. In 2019, the British National Audit Office published a progress report on the scheme. It found that 63% of buyers could have bought a property without the scheme. Under the Minister's intended scheme, it is understood that the taxpayer would take a 30% equity stake in all new builds purchased. To be clear, this is the taxpayer investing in the property market. As Gareth Davies, head of the British National Audit Office, commented, "The scheme has ... exposed the government [and the taxpayer] to significant ... risk if property values fall." The risks extend to borrowers. The same progress report found that buyers who want to sell their property soon after they purchase it might find they are in negative equity. This concern was raised also in February 2020 by the Financial Conduct Authority, FCA, the British equivalent of the Central Bank. The FCA warned that borrowers who had availed of the shared equity loan scheme were more likely to face negative equity if property prices fell.

My understanding, which the Minister can clarify, is that under his proposed scheme, first-time buyers will require a deposit of 10% of the value of the property, that a special purpose vehicle, SPV, will be established taking 30% equity for the State and that the buyer will then take the mortgage worth 60% of the value of the property. From year six the property will involve interest-only payments on the equity, with the equity to be paid on the sale of the property or at the end of the mortgage term. This could mean buyers taking out an overall debt equivalent of more than five times their income, circumventing the Central Bank's mortgage measures and loan-to-income limits. These measures were put in place to protect borrowers and to avoid what the Central Bank describes as a credit-house price spiral. By circumventing these rules, the scheme risks such a spiral.

I hope the Minister will be able to clarify some of the matters before us. Perhaps he will also respond to what Robert Watt has claimed, that is, that the Minister's scheme is about filling or lining the pockets of developers. First, is he setting up an SPV with any retail banks to manage this equity scheme? Second, what rate of interest will be charged on this equity? Will it vary annually and, if so, how? Third, can he guarantee that the taxpayer will fully recoup the equity invested? Fourth, will a first-time buyer under the scheme be able to take out combined loans worth more than five times his or her salary?

Fifth, will the Department be able to tell a first-time buyer who uses the scheme the full cost of his or her repayments for the full term?

Unfortunately, the Minister only has slightly more than 50 seconds to respond.

That is okay. I thank the Ceann Comhairle. The scheme is still being worked through. We are bringing forward several affordability measures. Approximately €468 million was allocated in budget 2021 in this regard, covering the serviced sites fund, the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme, the help-to-buy scheme, the shared equity scheme and the affordable rental scheme. We will publish the shared equity scheme. The Bill has been published. We will move forward with regulations.

I have been bemused by Sinn Féin Deputies trying to shoot down the scheme before they have even seen it. Perhaps they should look at equivalent or comparable schemes. My Department and I have looked at such schemes in other jurisdictions. The help-to-buy scheme in England increased housing supply by 14% and house price inflation has increased by less than 1%. We are negotiating through the scheme and working on it because we believe in home ownership. We believe in giving-----

The question I asked was------

Sinn Féin Deputies have been trying to interrupt me all afternoon. The Government believes in home ownership and giving young people the chance to own their own homes. We will bring forward a scheme that will work and that is one element of our affordability package. Those who wish to shoot down a scheme before they have even seen it are doing so purely for political reasons.

The Minister's time is up.

We are interested in actually------

I asked the Minister five questions. I even numbered them for his benefit.

Deputy, please.

It seems to be a trait of Sinn Féin Deputies today to just try to shout people down. They have been doing so all day. Deputy Ó Broin did it. Deputy Doherty will probably leave now after doing so. Good luck to him.

I thank the Minister. His time is up.

On a point of order, I ask the Ceann Comhairle to clarify a matter. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle did it. The Minister has again made an accusation. The public health advice is for Members to leave the building or the room when they have finished speaking. The Minister should not use that to attack me. I asked five specific questions. The Minister refused to answer any of those questions and that is not acceptable from a Minister in his position.

Deputy, please. It is not exactly on the reasonable side to leave 50 seconds for the Minister to answer five questions, in fairness.

Maybe he could have answered one question in the 50 seconds. He did not do so.

That may be so. I thank the Deputy.

I have two sets of questions and I would be grateful if the Minister were to let me back in halfway through my time to ask the second round of questions. I will not interrupt him while he is responding. On 7 December, the Minister, speaking on the "Morning Ireland" radio programme, categorically denied that anyone was being turned away from emergency accommodation. Four days later, "RTÉ Investigates" filmed this cruel and inhumane practice taking place when Joe Nolan, a Carlow man, was refused access to emergency accommodation and had to sleep rough in a car park, as he had been doing for quite some time. That happened on a night 75 emergency beds were lying empty. Since the "RTÉ Investigates" programme aired last week, this practice has continued on an ongoing basis. In addition, people who have fled domestic violence have also been refused access to shelter based on these rules. Keeping it under review is simply not good enough. It is not good enough for people who were sleeping rough last night or for those who will do so tonight. Does the Minister acknowledge that, in spite of what he has said, the practice of turning people away from emergency accommodation is continuing? Will he issue to local authorities and the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, explicit instructions leaving no room for discretion that they are to stop turning people away? Will he now act to end this cruel and inhumane practice?

I respect the Deputy and the fact that all Deputies wish to play their part in helping those who are homeless and getting them into emergency accommodation when they need it, but some of the charges he has made do a disservice to those who are working in the sector here in Dublin. Let us be straight about this. I gave very clear direction on 7 December and again on 9 December in writing. The Deputy is aware of that. It was not about discretion; it was very clear. I have met the DRHE since the "RTÉ Investigates" programme, in which I participated, aired. The two gentlemen in question should not have been refused emergency accommodation. I stated that very clearly. There are other elements in each of those instances, which I cannot go into here, that occurred that evening. We have been very clear.

There is emergency bed capacity in all major cities. That is the case because we are funding it. In Dublin, 300 additional beds have been put in place. I am in daily contact with outreach teams as well. It might be worthwhile for the Deputy to seek a briefing from the DRHE. I can arrange that and I think he would find it useful because there are complexities around rough sleepers and getting people into emergency accommodation from time to time. People cannot, and should not, be forced into emergency accommodation. What I can tell the Deputy is that those on outreach teams have already recognised the changes we made around the requirement for a local connection. I am not ambiguous about this; I am very clear. The local connection requirement is not a barrier to people accessing emergency accommodation. That has changed. If any instances that have occurred since that change are brought to my attention, I and my Department will deal with them. It is a positive change.

Let me be clear that we are not talking about anyone being forced into emergency accommodation; we are talking about people who are asking for access to emergency accommodation and are continuing to be refused. It is quite shocking that at this point, after everything that has been documented on this issue, the Minister is not aware of this.

I am trying to be helpful because this is a very serious issue. I am engaging on it every day. If there are any instances, the Deputy needs to bring them to my attention. He has not done so. I ask that he do so. I wonder whether he has picked up the phone to call the outreach teams and bring those instances to their attention. I hope that he has done so. If he has not, I urge him to do so in order that we can deal with it. At the end of the day, we are dealing with people. If a process falls down, we need to fix it. There is not a push for this not to happen. The local connection requirement is not a barrier to people accessing emergency accommodation. As far as I am concerned, it is not occurring any more but if it is, I ask the Deputy to please let me know of such instances and I will deal with them.

It is occurring. My colleagues and I have been bringing this to the attention of the Minister for several months. I will continue to do so. It is occurring on an ongoing basis.

Since the correspondence was issued on 9 December, I have not received from the Deputy any specific instances where this has occurred. I was made aware of one case last weekend and it was addressed immediately. That was it. I have received nothing since then. I have received nothing from the Deputy. Let us be honest about it. If there are such instances, I am happy to engage with him about them and to deal with specific matters. People are not being turned away from emergency accommodation. If, in a rare instance, that happens, I ask him to please bring it to my attention and we will deal with it. He should not wait and come into the Dáil to make a charge if he is not addressing such instances himself.

People are being turned away from emergency accommodation. As Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien has a responsibility in this area, rather than putting it all on the Opposition. We have been making him aware of this issue on an ongoing basis. I will engage with him on it further, but he has a responsibility in this area and he cannot charge that I and other Deputies have not being engaging with him on the issue or raising it with him. It is on the Dáil record that we have done so. I have been doing so on an ongoing basis.

Why is the National Quality Standards Framework, NQSF, not being applied to all providers of emergency homeless accommodation, including private providers?

It is being applied to all providers. We have provided for additional inspectors as well as funding for those inspections to take place. I think the Deputy is aware of that. More inspections need to happen, but the national standards do apply to private hostels as well. I have raised that issue.

To clarify what I stated earlier to the Deputy, I am not laying any responsibility on him. The responsibility is mine as Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, but if the Deputy, as spokesperson on housing for an Opposition party, is aware of a specific instance where an individual has been refused emergency accommodation since I brought in the changes, he should pick up the phone to call me. He has not done so. I urge him to do so and we will deal with it. It is a serious issue.

The next contributors are Deputies Cathal Crowe, Durkan and Cahill.

I have certain points to put to the Minister and I ask him to reply within the four minutes I have in order that my colleagues can make their contributions. I wish to again bring to his attention the issue of rural villages without sewers. I know he has been very engaged on this issue as Minister. There are several such villages in County Clare. It is a real inhibitor of rural life. It is a standout issue in the village of Broadford, which is in my neck of the woods, just a few miles from my house. The village cannot grow. It has the same infrastructure it had in the 19th century. In some places, when one flushes a toilet, it goes out into a gravel soak pit out the back. There are no sewers or even septic tanks for some homes. It is archaic infrastructure. I know the Department is looking at ways of addressing the issue. I would like to hear more in that regard.

I grew up in Ballycannon, Meelick. A housing estate was built in the village in the 1970s.

The residents were told that the sewerage infrastructure was temporary and that they would be connected to the mains in a matter of years, but nothing happened in the decades that followed. We now have some positive news, that is, Irish Water has told us that it is undertaking design works this spring to decommission the existing infrastructure and connect those houses to the main Limerick drainage system, but that construction might not be complete until the second quarter of 2023. They cannot wait that long. The smells are a knock-out. It is nauseating; you would be sick if you went there. I am asking the Minister to look at advancing that.

I also wish to bring the construction sector to the attention of the Minister. We are at the height of level 5 restrictions, dealing with peak Covid-19 and an emergency in our country, but we have seen the construction of local authority housing continue, which was a good decision on the Minister's behalf. There are people around the countryside asking about houses that are semi-complete. I get the points that the Minister has been making quite vociferously in the media about this, but can we get any further clarity on the issue?

I will deal with the Deputy's last question first because it is very important. I want the construction sector to fully reopen on 5 March. The reason the construction sector is closed has nothing to do with its operation. Companies in the sector have operated safely, been agile and shown an ability to take on new work practices to keep workers safe and to deliver. The sector is closed simply to reduce the movement of people and I hope it will be fully open again on 5 March. That is my earnest wish. There are some small exemptions to the restrictions around social housing and emergency works, and rightly so. We are working through those regulations and they will be published later this evening. I have engaged extensively with the sector because people's jobs and livelihoods are at stake and the provision of homes for people is, and remains, an essential service.

I will come back to the Deputy directly on the other couple of issues he raised. I met with the Deputy and constituency colleagues about the issues he raised about Broadford. We are working on the preparation of a pilot scheme for rural villages and towns that do not have the requisite Irish Water infrastructure, or indeed any sewage infrastructure. Work has advanced following the meeting I had with Oireachtas Members before Christmas. I will come back to the Deputy on the other two matters he raised.

I am glad to have an opportunity to say a few words on this important subject. The Ceann Comhairle knows that there is a serious housing problem in our county that is not going away. We all have to combine to do something about it. It affects young people and families. There must be 100,000 young families all over the country who have been directly affected and cannot house themselves. A recent report showed that a two-person family on average incomes needs €96,000 in order to qualify for a house, never mind to buy a house.

Covid-19 is affecting this matter and it is deeply upsetting that the pandemic came at this particular time but nobody has any control over that. A number of us were members of a special housing advisory group four and a half years ago. I made some submissions to that group with which not everybody agreed, although that is not unusual. The fact of the matter is that drastic measures are required to deal with the housing issue. I am happy to do everything that I can by way of co-operation and will help the Minister to work out something that will bring results. We need to do that as a matter of urgency. I hope that we can bring Covid under control and, once we have, the next issue that has to be dealt with as a matter of national emergency is the housing issue.

House prices are far beyond what is affordable. Twelve years ago, I set out to prove that. With the acquisition of private sites from the local authority, we organised the building of 96 houses in two towns. When the houses were built, they came in at 50% less in cost than the affordable houses that were available through the local authorities at the same time. I felt at that time that house prices and costs were too high and so on. I believe it is within our ability to resolve that matter. I am not looking for a reply from the Minister. I am simply saying that I will do my best to help the Minister to achieve that.

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for their presentations. We heard a Sinn Féin Deputy talk about the spots that Fianna Fáil always wore. Their frustration is born out of the fact that we are now in government and building houses. That is where their frustration is coming from. Sinn Féin cannot bear to see all the housing projects that have started in the past six to eight months. That is where that frustration comes from. I am proud to be a Fianna Fáil Deputy because we are addressing the housing crisis that has beset this country for a long number of years.

I want to talk about a family firm that is a key cornerstone in getting houses built. Two brothers and a mother run a company that employs 50 people. They had just started a housing project in Louth including 94 social houses but, unfortunately, the building work had to stop with the Covid restrictions that have been imposed. They invested heavily in different forms of machinery and materials to get this project off the ground. They have commitments with their banks and lease companies. They are being told that if they do not honour their commitments, the banks will give them a moratorium but it will affect their credit rating. For two young men who have recently set up a very efficient firm, that is just not on. This cash flow problem is completely outside their control. As the Minister said, hopefully they will be able to restart construction on 5 March, get back to work and their cash flow will get back on stream. As it stands, both the banks and the leasing companies they are dealing with are not treating them fairly. This is not an isolated incident; it is happening to many other construction companies around the country. Others might scoff at developers but these are the people who will build the houses and we need them to do that. We worried about the availability of tradesmen and everything else when we were trying to get our housing projects up and running. It is absolutely essential that the companies that are going to build these houses for us are kept in business and treated fairly by our banks and financial institutions.

I support Deputy Cathal Crowe's comments on the infrastructure in rural counties such as my own, Tipperary, and Clare. An awful lot of our small towns and villages do not have any waste treatment infrastructure and that is hindering development. We see plans about clusters of houses being built in these villages but the infrastructure to do it is just not there. That needs to be addressed immediately.

The national framework plan focuses on houses being built in clusters in towns with a bar on building houses in rural areas. That needs to be looked at. To say that family members cannot build houses where they were born and raised will not be acceptable to rural villages and will decimate local communities, whether the schools in local areas or the hurling or football teams. If we do not have the ability to build house in rural areas, it will have a hugely detrimental effect going forward.

People are off work for prolonged periods and in mortgage arrears due to Covid restrictions. A moratorium that does not affect credit ratings must be examined.

There are houses being built where construction has had to stop due to Covid. Some of those houses are at a stage where the weather will have a serious impact on them. A builder who is building four houses at the moment was on to me this morning. He visited the site this morning and dampness is having a serious impact on those houses. Could they be allowed to do remedial work on those houses to bring them to a point where the weather will not continue to damage them?

I will bring in the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, on the rural planning guidelines. The Deputy mentioned an instance of damp and in that case, or if a site needs to be secured during the lockdown, those works could take place on an emergency basis. We ask people to use a commonsensical approach to that, as I am sure they will. That would apply in the instance the Deputy mentioned.

The Deputy also mentioned funding and the SME sector that is going to be crucial in delivering the housing stock that we need. Coincidentally, I engaged this morning about a couple of issues around banks and finance firms that apply to equipment. We will be working on that, particularly for the five weeks of the lockdown, and that should not affect any firm's credit rating, particularly on the SME side.

The Department is currently embarking on a review of sustainable rural housing. The previous one was carried out in 2005. When one looks at the annual report of the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, in the majority of counties the approval rating for planning permission for one-off houses is almost 90%. We carried out an analysis of County Limerick, where there were significant complaints, and it transpired that only 8% of planning applications for rural areas were withdrawn and 85% were approved. We will carry out a review to codify it. The national planning framework, NPF, is facilitating the need when social and economic aspects are demonstrated.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on housing, which unfortunately is a topic I deal with in my constituency offices on a daily basis. The Minister has responsibility for housing in the State but, like me, he is also a representative of the people of north County Dublin. As he is aware, we represent the fastest growing constituency in the country, one that has also has one of the youngest populations in Europe. Many of the people we represent are renting or looking to buy their own homes but the housing market across Swords, Balbriggan, Skerries, Rush, Lusk, Donabate and right across north County Dublin is broken. The house price report for quarter 4 of 2020 showed that house prices in Fingal increased by 7.8%. In normal times that would be bad enough, but during the pandemic this is utter madness. Many people across north County Dublin have lost their jobs or have seen their wages cut. We know that from the workers in Aer Lingus, who have had their wages cut by 70%. Others have lost their jobs completely, their income is gone or they are on the PUP or EWSS. Nobody in Fingal saw their wages increase by 7.8%, so how can they be expected to afford a house when prices are increasing at this rate?

When an Teachta O'Brien was appointed Minister in the summer he said he wanted affordable homes delivered at a cost of between €160,000 and €250,000. Where are these homes in Balbriggan or anywhere across north County Dublin? Where are they in Swords or any of the areas we represent? I receive a stream of emails, calls and letters each week from young people in the constituency who are desperate to have the security of knowing when they close the door in the evening that they do not have to share their accommodation with someone else, that they are not confined to their mother's back bedroom and that they have their own home. It should not be beyond their reach. What we have instead is crippling high rents and the chance of home ownership gets further away from them every single day.

The same goes for the building of council houses. We must invest now in the constituency to make up for a lack of building in previous decades so that we can tackle the housing waiting list, which is currently 8,000. We must get people out of the rental trap, off HAP, and out of emergency accommodation and into decent accommodation that they own. There are so many people, especially young people, caught in a rental trap who do not qualify for social housing. They cannot even dream of owning their own home. The Minister quoted a seanfhocal in his contribution. I have another one for him. Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin. It should not be beyond the aspiration of the young people that he and I are charged with representing that they would own their own home. From what they tell me, they are desperate. They have lost hope. They do not believe that this is going to happen. They have no evidence to support that, despite the claims from the Minister's colleagues about all of the houses the Government is building. There does not seem to be much of that in our constituency. People are frustrated and hurt. What hope is there for them if the house prices are rising by 10% and their wages are not going up? What hope do they have of ever owning their own home?

The shared equity scheme the Minister has talked about is only going to deliver higher house prices. It is not going to bring home ownership closer for these people. We only have to quote from the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, who said that the property industry wants an equity scheme because it will increase prices. The Minister is continuing with the failed polices of the previous Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and Fine Gael. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is better than that. He must be ambitious, not just for our constituency but for the State. He cannot simply continue the failed housing policies of the previous Government. We know how serious the situation is. The Minister must hear it as well as I do on the ground in our constituency. The people whom we represent want to see him succeed as Minister, but they have very little hope.

I have two questions for the Minister in the short time remaining. The answers are just numbers, so they will be very quick. How many affordable homes costing, as the Minister outlined, between €160,000 and €250,000 will be delivered in Fingal by the end of the year and how many social homes will be built by the end of this year by the Government?

In the Deputy's constituency, which happens to be mine, which I know very well, we will be delivering affordable homes in Lusk and Rush this year. I do not want to be too colloquial about it. She will be aware of that. There are more than 90 active sites in the area. I believe in home ownership, as does my party and the Government.

I thank the Minister.

That is the reason we want to help first-time buyers. I do not want to shoot schemes down before they have even been seen. We will deliver home ownership for young people.

I thank the Minister.

We will deliver affordable rental in the constituency too.

I asked the Minister how many affordable homes will be delivered.

All Deputy O'Reilly and her colleagues want to do is shoot down anything-----

Okay. I thank the Minister.

-----because what they really want to do is to capitalise politically. I am interested in getting people safe homes to live in-----

I thank the Minister. We are out of time.

-----public and private. We will do that.

How many will there be in our constituency by the end of the year?

There is something completely unsatisfactory about a question and answer session where people asking the questions consume all the time with the question and then there is no time for an answer. That is frustrating and we need to look at how we do our business. Deputy Boyd Barrett is next and he is sharing six and a half minutes with Deputy Mick Barry.

If we had a little bit longer for the small groups, we might have time.

A modern day plague or infestation has struck most of Dublin and perhaps other parts of the country. The infestation is particularly acute in south Dublin. It is not locusts but property developers and property speculators, who are drawn like bees around a honey pot or perhaps flies around a less pleasant substance, but the attraction point is strategic housing developments, SHDs. They are really just a mechanism to print money for speculators and property developers, facilitated by Government policy. The extent of the infestation is extraordinary.

Deputy Bríd Smith referred earlier to the Player Wills, Bailey Gibson and St. Teresa's Gardens sites, where there is talk of 19 storeys, mostly for developments of one-bed or two-bed units of build-to-rent units with rents of between €1,350 and €2,800. They are completely inappropriate, unaffordable and driven by profit. There is nothing strategic at all about it. In my area, on the Dalguise House site in Monkstown it is proposed to build 300 units up to nine storeys, in Abingdon in Shankill it is proposed to build 193 units up to eight storeys and a proposed development on the car park of St. Michael's Hospital in Dún Laoghaire is for 13 storeys. All those sites are build-to-rent developments. In Deansgrange there is a proposed development of 151 units over six storeys; on the Europa site, it is 101 units over nine storeys; and on the site in Eblana Avenue, it is proposed to build 208 co-living units over six storeys. The Charleville site in Dalkey is for 105 apartments over six storeys and there is also the Cluain Mhuire site. One can go through the list. These are all SHDs and, as we know, at a national level will provide 43,000 homes. They are mostly one-bed and two-bed apartments and permission has been given through the mechanism by which these speculators, frankly parasites, operate. How many units have been delivered? A total of 700. When they are delivered the rents are shocking, as is the cost of building them, as the quantity surveyors pointed out to us. This is what is actually going on. SHDs are just a means to print money for property developers and they are totally unaffordable for ordinary families, with shockingly high rents. Will the Minister get rid of the SHD process and instead start to build affordable housing on public land?

The truth is that it is one or the other.

Does Deputy Barry wish to contribute and I will respond to both Deputies then?

Yes, we are sharing time.

Deputy Boyd Barrett has spoken about SHDs in Dublin and I want to talk about one in Cork at the old Ford distribution site in the marina, which is part of the Cork docklands site spanning 146 ha. This represents a real opportunity for public housing to be built on public land, both social and affordable housing. There is a large number of publicly owned sites at Cork docklands including the ESB lands, the Marina, the Marina park, Kent Station, which is considered part of the docklands development site, the Camp Field, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Tivoli docks, the old National Oil Reserves Agency premises, as well as the old Ford distribution site. These sites present huge opportunities for public housing on public land.

The case for public housing on public land has been strengthened by Covid-19. In September last year the ESRI stated that the State should increase its investment in social and affordable housing now to offer future supply to deal with the supply shock caused by Covid. Residential property prices were stagnant last year but are expected to increase by 4% this year because of shortages of supply. Approximately 35,000 homes will be needed in the State each year in response to demographic changes but barely more than half of that number were delivered last year, estimated at less than 20,000.

What is up at the Cork docklands? Privatisation is what is up. The LDA will oversee the biggest privatisation programme in the history of the State in the coming years, with 60% of public land to be used for private development at market prices, 30% for so-called affordable housing and only 10% for social housing. The 60% at market rates will be beyond the means of young workers and those on the average wage, while the 30% at so-called affordable rates will be at market price less €50,000, on average, which is also beyond the reach of many of the workers I mentioned.

What is happening at the Ford distribution site? An application for a strategic housing development with more than 1,000 apartments has been lodged. What price will those apartments be? Will they be affordable for young workers and those on the average wage or are young people and workers on average pay going to be priced out of the market yet again? This is a big mistake and the privatisation should be reversed. We should be building public housing on public land, including social housing for people on the lists and genuinely affordable housing for working people at reasonable prices, not market rates or market rates minus €50,000.

I will do my best to respond in the 23 seconds remaining. Under the programme for Government, the SHDs will expire at the end of the year. That is what has been agreed between the three parties. I believe in public housing on public land. I believe in real affordable housing but I also believe in delivering it. I do not know whether Deputy Barry, when he was a councillor in Cork, ever voted for a development plan but I sincerely doubt it. We will move forward with the biggest single investment in public housing in the history of the State this year. We have provided €3.3 billion for housing. Our plan was to deliver 12,750 new public homes but that will be impacted by Covid. We may be blamed for that too but we will our damnedest to deliver public and affordable homes for working people and will do so.

I welcome the opportunity to analyse and discuss the Government's housing policy, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has had a terrible impact on our society and economy, with more than 3,120 people dying and many more seriously ill. This has put huge pressure on our front-line healthcare workers. Rightly, the Government has moved to suppress the virus, a strategy that will continue as the vaccines are rolled out.

While necessary, it is expected that the Covid restrictions will have an impact on overall housing supply in 2021. I welcome the fact that the Minister has kept social housing projects open and that regulations on other essential sites will be published later today. It is critical we continue building these badly needed homes and essential projects. Covid indicators are showing an improvement and hopefully it will be possible for the construction sector to restart when the situation is next reviewed.

Unlike many on the Opposition benches who offer no realistic solutions, the Minister has taken concrete steps to help families at risk of homelessness. New rental legislation introduced over the past six months provides greater protection for renters and families. The ban on evictions has been strengthened and extended and record funding has been provided to bring vacant homes back into use. The target is 1,189 in Dublin alone and 3, 620 nationally. I welcome this and ask the Minister to ensure that this work continues into 2022. The results of all of this are clear. Homeless figures have fallen by 18.8% over the past year, meaning that over 2,000 families were supported out of homelessness. While the numbers of homeless people are still far too high, the progress to date should be acknowledged and must continue.

Many Irish people want to own their own home and I welcome the supports given to first-time buyers, particularly through the help-to-buy scheme, which assisted 21,000 people to get on the property ladder. I would welcome other supports that provide affordable homes and also an expansion of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. In my own constituency of Dún Laoghaire, we are seeing a phenomenal amount of housing construction, especially along the Luas green line corridor. The housing stock in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown is projected to grow at almost four times the national average over the next ten years. The proposed LDA development of almost 600 social and affordable on lands in Shanganagh will provide much needed housing locally. I ask the Minister to continue to liaise with his colleagues, particularly the Ministers for Transport and for Public Expenditure and Reform, to ensure public transport and green infrastructure projects are developed in tandem with new housing developments.

I welcome the publication of the general scheme of the affordable housing Bill. There is great interest in an affordable housing scheme. Unfortunately some on the Opposition benches dismissed the Bill out of hand before they had even seen it but as they have always opposed affordable housing schemes, this is no great surprise. I look forward to examining the Bill in detail as it proceeds through the Oireachtas. I wish to acknowledge the work the Minister, his officials and local authority staff have done over the past year. As we begin to exit from the Covid restrictions in the coming months, I ask that a greater degree of urgency be attached to development.

The moratorium on evictions remains in place for the duration of Level 5 restrictions, which is vital. The deadline for applications for local authority mortgage payment breaks has been extended until 31 March 2021 but that does not go far enough and I ask the Minister to look at it again. What are we doing for private mortgage holders? Is the Government actively calling on the banks to do the right thing and reinstate mortgage and loan payment breaks? I have had many phone calls from people who are out of work through no fault of their own and who are finding it very hard to pay their mortgages. I ask the Minister to revert to me on that issue.

Last week I highlighted the case of the Carlow man who was turned away from an emergency accommodation hostel in Dublin. I was in contact with the Minister about it and have been working with a member of the man's family in Carlow and Carlow County Council to get the issue sorted. We are continuing to work on the case.

I welcome the affordable housing Bill. It is important that the Government builds affordable housing for those people who do not meet the criteria for inclusion on the local authority housing list. What is the situation with regard to the income threshold review? It has been ten years since the income thresholds were last reviewed. The review must be completed urgently because we are in a different time. I ask the Minister to come back to me in that regard. We also need to build more local authority housing.

I cannot let the Minister go without asking him about the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, which is so important to me. I have been in touch with the Department constantly to find out the timescale on that. I believe it will be announced in February but I ask the Minister to confirm that today. That fund is important for Project Carlow 2040. We all welcome the good news that institutes of technology in the south east will be granted technological university status in 2022. That is very welcome. We are very lucky in Carlow to have two excellent third-level institutions but we need to make sure that we have proper infrastructure in and around Carlow town itself for the people of the town and the wider county. We also need to look at the supply of housing in terms of local authority provision, affordable housing and making sure that those who need to rent are able to do so. I look forward to the Minister's answers.

We will go to the Minister at the end of this slot. Deputy McAuliffe is next.

I am thinking of the many people in my constituency who have approached me about the issue of affordable housing, some of whom may be tuning into this debate this afternoon.

They can see Opposition spokesperson after Opposition spokesperson getting angrier than one another during their slots, which are the right length for Facebook, in order to get a video. They gesticulate at the Minister and give him 50 seconds to answer five questions, 11 seconds to answer two or 30 seconds to answer four questions although they do not want the answers. The people who do want the answers are the people in my constituency who want affordable housing. The people who want the answers are councillors around the country who want the tools to vote in favour of the schemes their officials put before them. The Minister has not had the time to answer the questions because he has not been given it.

Deputy O'Reilly asked the Minister where the houses were six months into his first term. I imagine that, had the Minister started building a house himself when he was elected, it would not yet be complete. I will tell the Deputy what the Minister has done. The single-stage approval process for councils for developments up to €6 million gives every council in the country permission to start building on sites. Fingal County Council has confirmed that it is already preparing for work on five sites in the constituency of the Minister and Deputy O'Reilly. In Dublin City Council's jurisdiction, sites are being prepared in my own area of Ballymun.

The affordability element is also key. We have published the general scheme of an affordable housing Bill that has three components. These are public housing on public land and affordable housing, the shared equity scheme and the cost-rental scheme. These are three answers, three tools and three ways to deliver mixed-tenure and mixed-income developments. They are three reasons for every councillor to vote in favour of development on sites that come before them.

To the Opposition I say that, while it is important to highlight the problem, this Government is about delivering housing. It is in this business for one reason only. It is not to line a developer's pocket or to increase the share price of a construction company. That is not why I am in politics and it is not why Deputies Murnane O'Connor, Devlin and Flaherty and the Minister are in office. We are in office to build homes for the people who contact us and who need to live in those homes. We are going to do it and we are going to give people the answers they have been seeking for more than ten years.

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for his intervention and for affording me some time to respond to some of the charges. The level of aggression, particularly from the Sinn Féin Members in the questioning and barraging in which they have engaged, has been telling. I get a sense that the reason they are so focused on the affordable housing scheme is that they do not want it to work because they want people to be disaffected. They do not want the housing crisis to be dealt with. They see the progress being made by this new Government of the Green Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in housing and in driving down homelessness figures in a short space of time. Deputy Ó Broin, the main Opposition spokesperson on housing, was even critical of the fact that we had brought 3,600 public homes back into use over a six-month period. That really smacks of the fact that they will use any opportunity to advance their political cause, which relates to them and them alone. It certainly is not for our country and the good of our people.

As a party and as the Government, we believe in home ownership. I have said that time and time again. I have never voted against affordable housing in the Oireachtas but Sinn Féin and Deputies Ó Broin, Doherty and O'Reilly have. Deputy O'Reilly questioned me about the constituency in which I have lived my whole life and which I have seen develop over that time. I wonder if she has told any constituents who have been in contact with her about wanting to buy a home that her party, Sinn Féin, opposes the first-time buyer's grant, the €30,000 grant which this Government increased to help people get on the housing ladder? When answering the phone or answering emails, does she tell people that her party opposes assistance for first-time buyers? I wonder does Deputy Ó Broin. He probably does but I am not sure.

We will deliver 400 cost-rental homes this year for the first time. This Government has deal with that issue within a six-month period. It is a priority of this Government made up of the Green Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and we will deliver on it. Some on the Opposition side do not want to see that happening and that is fine, but I think people see through it. They see through the noise and aggression of Deputy Ó Broin and of Mr. Angry himself, Deputy Doherty. That is fine; people are used to that. What we are about is delivering solutions for people, driving down homelessness, building homes for people and making sure that our young people have a chance to own and live in their own home. It should not be forgotten that the budget, which Sinn Féin also opposed, included the single biggest housing budget in the history of the State which is to deliver 12,750 public homes on public land. I also remind people that the biggest serial objectors to housing, both public and private, across the country are Sinn Féin and their colleagues on the hard left.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. He will find that, on Galway City Council, it is actually Fianna Fáil councillors who voted against certain public housing being built. I am glad that he wants to hear constructive solutions. I will get straight into them.

A report released on Monday by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland stated that the construction cost of two-bedroom apartments in urban areas of Dublin now stands at between €219,000 and €262,000. Despite this, the council's own figures for social housing apartment projects, which are built on council-owned land, show prices averaging between €304,000 and €373,000, which is almost €100,000 more on average. In that report, the society calculates that the professional fees attached to the building of a two-bedroom apartment to be between €18,000 and €21,000 yet Dublin City Council was charged between €44,000 and €54,000 for the professional fees attached to its projects. One does not need to be a chartered accountant to see that something is clearly amiss. People have pointed out that there seems to be collusion between competitors to keep prices high. We need a normal functioning market. The State should be allowed to play its rightful part as a competitor, driving down these prices.

Dublin City Council tells us:

All our construction projects go through a thorough public procurement process in line with European Union and national regulations. At the end of that process the most economically advantageous tender is selected to carry out the project.

This raises the question of for whom is it most economically advantageous. It is not just the cost that is a problem. The reality is that it takes at least 18 months from a council deciding to build public housing to actually being able to deliver it. The timeline for project completions is astonishingly long. Before it could build social homes at Cornamona Court in Ballyfermot, it took Dublin City Council four years to get final stage approval from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage for those 61 homes. For the 30 social homes built at North King Street near Smithfield, it took the council just under four years to get final stage approval from the Department.

One of Fianna Fáil's supposed big achievements in the area of social housing was to increase the value of projects eligible for single-stage approval. This was increased from €2 million to €6 million. The increase in the number of houses this has brought about has been minimal and the increase in turnaround time has been negligible. It is quite clear that the procurement process in respect of the provision of social housing has failed.

There are ways to address this. The Minister has asked us to outline ways in which this and the delivery of social housing can be improved so here we are. We need a radical overhaul of the procurement process. We need to allow councils to develop long-term relationships with builders. We absolutely need increased competition in the marketplace. We need to look at establishing a publicly-owned construction company. We also need to go back to direct build. This is the kind of realism and honesty that we need in the housing system. We need to fundamentally change the procurement process to deliver social housing and to finally remove the shackles and red tape that is hindering the councils' ability to deliver.

I take issue with what the Minister said earlier about Sinn Féin not wanting houses to be built. In Galway City Council, we have consistently supported the building and delivery of housing at times when Fianna Fáil members of the council did not. I ask an tAire to remove the red tape and to outline directly how he is going to make it easier for councils to fast-track the building and provision of public housing.

I thank the Deputy for her contribution but our changes have not failed. They have been in place for less than six months. We have increased the eligibility limit for the single-stage approval process to €6 million. I have met the chief executives and directors of services of all the main local authorities either virtually or in person to set their housing targets for 2021, leaving aside Covid. The change to the single-stage approval process will work but it needs to be given a little bit of time. Even the Deputy and her party colleagues might think that a new process for the procuring of social homes should be allowed four months to bed in.

Let us give that time to allow it to happen. I welcome any constructive suggestions that are made.

On costs, I met with the SCSI yesterday. Its report is very telling. One thing it states is that the cost of the building of apartments in suburban areas has dropped by between 4% and 9%. That is not always reported.

I thank the Deputy for her questions. The responses I have not had time to give will be provided to her in writing.

Last Friday, a 69-year-old man known as Iggy, who was originally from Poland, was found dead in a laneway off Little Catherine Street in Limerick city. Pauline Casey and Sarah Beasley, an Aontú representative and homeless activist in Limerick, knew Iggy from their work in helping the homeless. They spoke to Iggy on the night he died. This was especially poignant for Pauline because she had lost her sister Louise on the streets in 2016. I know that gardaí in Limerick city are involved and that efforts are under way to try to repatriate Iggy's remains to his native Poland. The Minister may know about this particular case and may be able to update us as to the efforts in this regard. My party, Aontú, is happy to see if it can help to raise funds for some of the costs associated with the repatriation of Iggy’s remains. God rest his soul.

Iggy is just one of the people who have died in homelessness in the past year. I raised this issue in the House in October, November and December. The Minister mentioned a previous Deputy leaving the Chamber before the debate had finished. In two of those debates, before I rose to speak and provide this information on the floor of the House, the Minister had left. He would not have heard my contribution in respect of these particular cases. I was the one who brought to the floor of the Dáil the information that just under 60 people had died in homelessness in Dublin city last year. This figure was higher than those for the two previous years, which is shocking. An RTÉ journalist had a camera in front of the Minister on a site where houses were being built and asked him a question on the figures I had brought to the Dáil that day. The Minister responded by saying that he would hold an investigation into the deaths of people in homelessness who have happened in Dublin in the past year. Where stands that investigation? Is it near completion and will the Minister share the details of what is known so far with the House?

I thank Deputy Tóibín for his question. The Deputy will understand why I will not refer to a specific case, but every death of a person accessing homeless services is an absolute tragedy. My condolences and those of the Government go to that gentleman, his family and his friends. I said that we would investigate this issue. The deaths of those accessing homeless services constitute a complex issue, as the Deputy is aware. I have written to him before stating that many who unfortunately die while accessing homeless services may do so in emergency accommodation for other reasons, with complex health needs and other elements involved. There was a worrying increase in this regard in 2020, which I have accepted and acknowledged to the Deputy. As outlined in the reply to a parliamentary question, I commissioned a detailed report on this issue. Dr. Jo-Hanna Ivers of Trinity College is compiling that for us right now and her work is nearing completion. I expect that Dr. Ivers will complete her work in the first quarter. I stated in replies to parliamentary questions on the matter that when the report is completed, I will certainly publish it. We will engage with the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the report. That is where the matter stands at the moment.

I also raised at that time the fact that homeless people who were not from Dublin and who were presenting to homeless facilities were being turned away and told to go back to their own counties. This was despite the fact that another arm of the State was telling them not to travel because of the Covid-19 restrictions. Months after I raised that issue, the Minister appeared on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme and he seemed to be shocked by what had been uncovered, even though I had brought details in that regard to the floor of the House previously. The truth is that what I am referring to here has happened again since. Five instances have been reported to me of people who are homeless in Dublin being told that as they are not from the county and cannot not avail of the relevant services. The Minister stated earlier that it is up to particular Deputies to make this information known to him. However, the has responsibility in this area.

There is an organisation, Inner City Helping Homeless, which is on the front line night after night. It has made requests to appear before the committee in Leinster House. Opposition Deputies on that committee have requested that it be facilitated in this regard. I understand, however, that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party Deputies have refused to allow Inner City Helping Homeless to appear before the committee and bring to people's attention the information it possesses.

I also tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister on the number of people from the other 25 counties in the State who died in homelessness in the past year. In his reply, the Minister stated that he did not know and that figures in this regard do not exist. Pleading ignorance in respect of an issue of this importance is not a reasonable response. How can we tackle a situation if the Minister is unaware of the scale of it? What is the situation with regard to homeless deaths in Limerick and in the other 24 counties outside Dublin? Why is information in this regard not collected?

The other question I asked the Minister previously is when are we going to have the standardisation of services for homelessness within the State? There is a great variation as to the provision of services for homeless people. That is one of the reasons many people sleep in tents and on the streets, night after night. Can the Minister answer those two questions, please?

I will do my level best to try to do so. No one is operating with any degree of ignorance here. I assure the Deputy of that. I have already answered on the issue of homeless deaths.

On local connection, the Deputy did raise this issue in the Dáil previously. This process was changed and that did not just happen just on foot of what the Deputy had said. I announced the change on 7 December and issued an instruction to all local authorities, not just those in Dublin, in a letter dated 9 December. Local connection is not a barrier to anybody accessing emergency accommodation. I chair a homelessness task force with our homelessness partners and agencies, including Depaul, the Simon Communities of Ireland, Focus Ireland, the Dublin Regional Housing Executive and others. I recently visited homeless facilities in Limerick and Waterford where real progress is being made. Let us put this in context. I am saying that the local connection is not a barrier. I know the Deputy wants to come in but he might let me answer the question. If he just wants to speak, then I cannot answer.

On homeless services, let us recognise the fact that the homelessness rate is down nearly 19% year on year, which is welcome. Child and family homelessness is down nearly 40% year on year. We will publish our quarterly report tomorrow and it will show that there has been a further reduction, which is to be welcomed. We commend those who are working in the sector and assisting us in finding permanent solutions for people and getting them out of homelessness.

People listening to this debate will think that it is absolutely scandalous and flabbergasting that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage does not know the number of people who die in homelessness in 25 of the 26 counties which this State, that there is no process to collect information in this regard or collate it centrally and that such information is not at his fingertips. If he cannot analyse or measure a critical problem of lives being lost, how in God’s name is he supposed to be able to fix it?

On the "RTÉ Investigates" programme to which I refer, statistics were provided which showed that a large number of people who are homeless become drug addicts after they become homeless. Sometimes we hear a debate to the effect that people are responsible for their own misfortunes. They certainly are not. People have been failed by the system in this country. The only safety nets that are being provided to many are those offered by the charities and the individuals who are out, night after night. In the context of the debate on this matter, we need to pay attention to the work they are doing and commend them on it. Will the Minister meet representatives from Inner City Helping Homeless and get from them some of the details they possess regarding the reality on the streets?

I ask that perhaps the Minister might correspond with Deputy Tóibín on that question because we are out of time. We move next to the Government slot. Deputy Flaherty is sharing with Deputies O'Dowd and Hourigan.

I acknowledge the major strides the Minister has made to date in the provision of housing. It remains the biggest challenge facing the country. Now more than ever, I am reassured and convinced that we will finally get to grips with this crisis with this Minister at the helm. I raise the issue of index-shared ownership loans. In the pre-2003 version of the shared ownership scheme, the equity component was linked with the consumer price index, CPI. Longford County Council has 21 of these pre-2003 shared ownership loans active. Unfortunately, the challenge and difficulty are that the bearer of each loan entered the agreement on the basis that it was a straight shared ownership mortgage and the expectation was that the repayments were paying down the mortgage costs in their entirety. For example, one couple who have worked assiduously throughout their working lives to pay off their mortgage were recently shocked to learn that they still owe €24,000 on the loan as a result of the equity component. In a second case, an owner who has been in his property since 1992 is anxious to put his affairs in order as he nears retirement age. He, too, was shocked to learn that he still has to pay off as much as €96,000 on his property, especially as he was paying €90 a week in rent and what he assumed was his €264 mortgage every month. That rounds up to a total monthly payment of €654, a not insignificant sum. He has now learned he was not paying down the full mortgage amount.

All of the 21 householders in question went into this scheme in the earnest expectation that they would one day own their own homes outright. Many of them are now at an age where it will simply not be practical to seek a mortgage to address the equity component of the agreement. In most instances, banks will probably not consider them for funding as there is already a loan in place on the house. I ask the Minister to engage with the Department and undertake an earnest review of this matter. These are honest, decent and hard-working people who have paid their bills, rent and loans, all in the expectation of one day owning their own homes. It is hard not to argue with their contention that it seems that a sneaky little piece of small print now stands in the way of that dream coming true. That is simply not fair.

I ask the Deputy to refer the details to me and I will have someone look into the specific cases.

Most of the debate here has been about housing and that is also the issue which I want to raise, but in a different way. I represent the constituency of Louth and east Meath where large housing developments are proceeding apace, particularly around Drogheda. The whole town is chock-a-block with traffic and major development needs remain unmet in the context of its designation as a regional growth centre in the national development plan.

The biggest issue in Drogheda at the moment is what is called the port access northern cross route, PANCR, project. Planning permission has been granted for more than 5,000 homes but the required infrastructure is not in place to build them. The homes are a mix of private, social and affordable housing, and the project includes schools and sports developments, including Drogheda United's new pitch. This development is predicated on finance being provided to the local authority under the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF. What is the position regarding that funding? I know the Minister is familiar with the matter, having visited the town recently where he met a number of people. Will he provide an update?

Yes, I will gladly do so. I know the Deputy's constituency well and also the area to which he referred. It is a designated growth area providing much-needed homes. The assessment of URDF applications has concluded and the work of assessing applications is ongoing, with a view to making announcements in this regard in the first quarter, hopefully by the end of February. While that may not be possible, the timeframe is certainly February or March. I note and recognise the Deputy's full support for the project, and he has been in correspondence with me in support of it and on issues concerning the town as a whole. There will be an announcement in the coming weeks.

I also raise the national issue of housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancies and inspections being restricted because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the last year in Dublin, 10,500 homes were inspected for basic human needs, namely, adequate water, light, etc. Some 76% of these homes failed the inspections. I welcome the change the Minister made in the regulations requiring landlords to provide photographs of damage and the issues that have to be addressed before homes can be considered to meet the basic minimum living requirements.

These are appalling cases. This week, I was contacted by a woman with young children regarding accommodation where the roof was literally falling in. Nothing was being done by the landlord and the county council did not have the capacity to visit. It took me, as a Deputy, to contact the housing manager in the county council to get the matter resolved. I support the Minister's commitment to change in this area and the funding being provided to local authorities to fast-track the inspection of homes through the photographic method, and also making those homes safe and available with the basic minimum standards required.

The Deputy has made a good point. We have changed the regulations to permit that method of inspection and we encourage all local authorities to proceed on that basis. The pandemic poses difficulties for local authorities but there is no reason people should be living in substandard accommodation. In the budget, we also allocated significant additional funding for the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and inspectors in local authorities to ensure inspections take place and accommodation is at the required standard. If there are specific issues concerning accommodation in Louth, I am more than happy for Deputy O'Dowd to correspond with me directly. We will engage with the local authority to ensure that happens.

I return to the issues raised in the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on homeless services operating in Dublin. They will be of concern to the NGOs involved and to my colleagues on Dublin City Council, including Councillor Janet Horner and the Lord Mayor, Councillor Hazel Chu. I return to the issue of local connection, which was rightly raised by Deputy Toíbín. The letter to which the Minister referred outlines a response that will pertain only to the cold weather period, which obviously will not last.

We have also had assurances from local authorities that they will apply maximum discretion when enforcing the supposed local connection rule. We need more than this. I propose that an instruction in legislation or perhaps a circular be issued providing that this is not a matter of maximum discretion but an obligation on local authorities to provide emergency accommodation where the alternative is for someone to sleep rough on the streets. No one should be forced to forgo the safety and dignity of a bed and a roof over his or her head in a city where thousands of empty properties are available.

A key concern for service users is safety in emergency accommodation centres. We are awaiting a report from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, and the HSE regarding the standards in emergency accommodation centres in Dublin. I ask the Minister to give an undertaking that this report will be published promptly and in full. I also ask him to ensure that all staff in emergency accommodation facilities are Garda vetted and trained to deal in a sensitive way with people in a deeply vulnerable position. That is currently not the case, and many such workers are not vetted by the Garda.

From 2016 to 2020, the budget for homelessness services in Dublin has increased from €96 million to €200 million. This partly reflects the growing scale of the homelessness crisis in Dublin, but it also reflects the growing use of private emergency accommodation facilities. We see private emergency accommodation in the north inner city as returning a 100% annual profit on running costs under a ten-year contract with Dublin City Council. This is a significant profit for a service over which we have very little - I would say it is insufficient - oversight.

Contracts for providing emergency accommodation are not subject to the public procurement process that would be the norm for other services contracted in the State. We must procure services which are care-based and underpinned by respect for the dignity of the individuals using the service, not locking people into homelessness for profit. We need to eradicate rather than manage homelessness in the long term. With regard to the short and medium term, however, will the Minister outline details in respect of procurement and oversight of private providers in this sector, Garda vetting of staff in emergency accommodation, the status of the report on standards of accommodation in homelessness in Dublin and the status of guidance given to local authorities on maximum discretion, which he has touched on?

I thank Deputy Hourigan for her question and the points raised. I want to be clear, once more, that the issue of local connection is not a barrier to anyone accessing emergency accommodation.

I followed up that letter of the 9th, which the Deputy referred to, of an announcement I had made on the 7th, and have had a meeting since with the local authorities, with housing officer and with the DRHE. I have had a couple of meetings quite recently and we followed that up with an additional letter, which I am happy to share with the Deputy.

We have capacity in our cities. We have emergency capacity and it should be used. I agree with the Deputy that we must recognise and reduce the need to use emergency accommodation, which is happening. We are looking at the capacity within our hostels that is not being used because people are being moved into permanent accommodation. Up to 3,600 voids came back into the system in 2020, and many of those were focused on homeless individuals and families where we have been able to house them permanently. This is absolutely what we want to do.

I do not have time to respond to all of the items raised but I will respond to each item directly in writing.

With regard to private accommodation and procurement, many of those elements of private accommodation were procured quickly in times of emergency when accommodation was needed. Thankfully we are starting to move away from that emergency response. I will respond in more detail to the Deputy in writing.

I have two and a half minutes and I would like to get an answer on this if I can, please. With regard to the 2021 statutory regulation whereby "housing construction and completion works ongoing on the 8th day of January 2021, where such works are scheduled to be completed by 31st day of January 2021 and will render the home under construction capable of occupation by that date", we have big problems. The regulations provide that: "Essential works on vacant residential properties, owned or controlled by a local authority" can be carried out until "28th day of February 2021". I have people in rental accommodation who are two weeks away from finishing their houses. They are waiting on windows for places that are being renovated so they can finish their houses. The local authority can do it up until 28 February but anyone with a one-off house is paying rent and paying a mortgage, yet they cannot do it. We have been talking about social housing and yet we have people that want to get into their houses. We need this statutory regulation changed and to bring in guidelines for the local authorities as well.

Those are regulations from the first level 5 restrictions earlier this month. The regulations are being worked through right now and will be published later on this evening or tomorrow. Obviously, where people need certain works done so they can get into their house in the short term, we ask them to take a pragmatic and realistic approach on that and if someone is a week away from getting into a house that the work would continue in a safe manner to allow that family have a safe home. We are doing further work with regard to the social housing. Those discussions are still ongoing in government.

I expect the revised regulations referred to by the Deputy to be published later this evening, or at the latest in the morning, and they will be available to everyone. I will also ask local authorities directly to be pragmatic in their approach with people during these difficult times. The Deputy can come back to me with any specific queries he may have in that regard.

The latest figures from the Department show that 10,440 men, women and children were homeless in November, up 5% on the year before. More than a decade after Ireland experienced Europe's biggest property crash, the housing and property market remains in difficulty. The Central Bank of Ireland estimates that the State will need 34,000 new homes a year over the next decade to keep up with demand. Government policy on restricting planning permission for one-off rural housing due to the stringent measures in place within the national planning framework are having a major impact. Overall problems with Ireland's planning system are causing significant delays in the delivery of homes, especially one-off houses. Recent updated research from the Central Bank sets out how Irish banks under the watch of this Government are charging, on average, interest rates that are twice the EU average. This has the impact of a loan costing €60,000 more over the lifetime of a 30-year mortgage. Many mortgage holders are paying three times the EU average for the same loans. There is a lack of empathy from the Government for people who are trying to pay mortgages during this pandemic with no jobs, no way of getting a job and no moratorium. This is not good enough. At the end of this pandemic we will have a lot more people in our court system trying to hold on to their family homes. Yet again we will see the vulture funds fly in and swoop up these homes.

In the short time I have left I will discuss rural planning, which is becoming an absolute and utter nightmare for people. It is becoming more and more difficult. More fences must be jumped and people cannot get planning, including young people. The Minister will be aware, as I am, when we set up our homes people are delighted to get the planning permission and get the project off the ground. It is a nightmare now. In some localities, for example, the person must be living there for seven years. If someone comes to work in a community and wants to live in that community he or she cannot, unless he or she buys a house. He or she cannot build a house. There is also an issue with proximity. This week alone I have dealt with eight or ten planning issues. Every one of them has a little bit of a problem, perhaps a small or tedious thing, and they cannot get over that. The Minister must look at it. Some of these people are then going to need assistance with housing but if they have two jobs their income might be over the threshold and they cannot get HAP, and yet they cannot get a loan if their income is not enough. It is a complete farce and the Government is standing over it year in and year out. I ask the Minister to reply to me in writing on the matter because I am running out of time. I ask that he would look at this and allow people to at least make an application for planning permission and give them help with every effort they make to get their feet off the ground in their start in life.

As with Deputy Collins, I have huge issues with rural planning and with planning in general and how slow it is. There needs to be transparency around the Part V and the Part 8 process operated by the county councils. Some councils are very fluid, lax and bullish about it. There is a Part 8 process in Tipperary town currently for road works and 291 submissions went in. These were sought and are to be welcomed but then the officials fly in the face of submissions and refuse to listen to the 75% majority that is against the works. There is a bullish attitude by Tipperary County Council in this regard.

I wrote to the Minister, and spoke with him, about Cormack Drive in Nenagh and an old Part 8 process, going back maybe 20 years. When does a Part 8 process finish? The residents never got letters to say their submissions were dealt with and that it was finished. They are now forced to go into court.

When did the Deputy write to me?

I wrote to the Minister after a debate in October or November. The residents are being forced to take legal action. That is not right. The county council kept on building these houses. We are all for houses but in this area the only green area they had was taken up. There are heaps of other sites. There is one site down the road with 25 or 30 acres on it. They insisted in building on a green area and the residents have been forced to go to court. The county council kept building in spite of the fact that they were legally told to stop until the decision was made in the courts. That is very wrong and is no way democratic or fair.

I will respond to both Deputies in writing. Deputy Collins' figures on the homeless numbers are from 2019 . Thankfully, since then more than 2,000 people have exited homelessness. The 2020 November figures will show a great improvement, down nearly 19% overall and nearly 40% for child and family homelessness.

On the issues of rural planning, the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, and I will respond directly. We have answered other Deputies earlier and we will get a written response to both Deputies in the coming days.

I thank the Minister for his speech and for his efforts on homelessness and for taking a personal hands-on approach.

I will ask one very specific question and I would like a "Yes" or "No". Is the Minister aware of, the recent report from Simon called Locked Out of the Market X, from December 2020 or has it been brought to his attention? It was published in January 2021. A "Yes" or "No" will do.

It is good that the Minister is aware of it. Maybe he might tell me if he has read it.

To be helpful, Simon is part of my homeless task force delivery. I engage with them every week.

So will the Minister read that report?

That is great. It is an absolutely damning indictment of every Government's housing policy. Simon does not say that, of course; they simply give us a snapshot. This is the eighteenth snapshot. Let us consider Galway city and the suburbs, which are divided into two categories. There is not one property available under the HAP limits in Galway city. There are three in the suburbs. Simon has done a number of these reports and this is the eleventh time out of 16 reviews where no property is available. I ask the Minister to really look at that and perhaps come back to tell us we need a new approach to housing. I believe that he believes in public housing but I think he is a bit mixed up in his head in relation to some. I wish to put on the record that I believe in public housing on public land. It is a must. We must give a strong message to the market that we need public housing on public land. Let us listen to that word "public". It takes in quite a variation of types of houses and cost-rental.

My second question is, again, one to which I would like to get a "Yes" or "No" reply. Has the Minister ever received a report from the emergency housing task force that was set up in Galway? It was announced in February or March and is meeting since April almost two years ago. Has the Minister ever received a written report with recommendations?

Is the Deputy referring to a report from last year?

No. My question is whether the Minister has ever received a written-----

I receive many reports-----

No, it is from the housing task force. It was set up-----

I am asking so we can be clear about what we are discussing.

Is that a report from last year or is it a current report? I am not sure.

I am not sure, to be honest about it.

A housing task force was established because of the situation in Galway. I am very familiar with the situation, having spent a number of years of my life on the local authority. No house was built from 2009 because of what happened in the country. That is part of the problem. An emergency task force was finally established in recognition of the emergency in Galway, where people are waiting for 15 years and at least one person is waiting for 20 years. Has the Minister ever received a completed, final report from that emergency task force setting out an analysis of the problems and recommendations? The Minister can answer "Yes" or "No".

If it is a recent report, I have not received it. I am not trying to evasive in any shape or form. What was the date of the report?

I have seen no report. I am asking the Minister, who is in charge, if he has ever received a completed, written report from the emergency task force, almost two years later, that contains an analysis and recommendations.

I am a little over six months in the Department, as the Deputy knows-----

Has the Minister received a report, "Yes" or "No"?

I am not even sure what report the Deputy is referring to, because she is unable to tell me what the report is and the date of the report.

I am using my colleague's time-----

The Deputy has not done that.

This is my colleague's time.

I am happy to talk to the Deputy separately about it. She cannot give me the date or name of the report, so I cannot say whether I have received it. I do not want to give her incorrect information. That is the only reason.

We talk about building houses. There is currently a problem with flooding in Lough Funshinagh, County Roscommon. Will the Department and especially the NPWS help in every way and not obstruct solutions to that problem?

Second, people build one-off houses in rural Ireland. There might be one or two, at most, on site. At present, they are off-site due to the Covid regulations. Is that prudent if there are only one or two people in a one-off house in the middle of the countryside?

Third, there are 35,000 units of State land throughout the country. Is it prudent to have councils, housing agencies, private builders and vulture funds buying private lands outside those and considering houses? The fast-track planning system for developments of more than 100 houses is being challenged left, right and centre in the courts. Will anything be done about this? I have examined it in the past fortnight and it has stopped 1,400 or 1,500 houses.

Regarding horticultural peat, will the Minister introduce planning permission to resolve this issue across the country? With regard to legislation for natural heritage areas, NHAs, a solar farm in the Nore Valley in Tipperary cannot proceed because the NHAs that were to be de-designated have not been de-designated. The matter was due to come back before the Dáil because an amendment was made in the Seanad. Will that be brought back to the Dáil?

I will deal with some of the questions and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, will respond to the question about horticultural peat.

On housing, it is unfortunate that we have had to close the construction sector in the interests of public safety and to reduce the movement of people. There are some exemptions and those regulations will be updated and published later tonight. The Deputy will see the exemptions. I take his point as I am familiar with rural housing. My constituency has a large rural area in which one-off rural houses are also prevalent, but it is difficult to differentiate between one type of house and another. I am focused on getting the sector reopened fully on 5 March.

The Minister of State will answer the question about horticultural peat and the planning. I will respond to the Deputy in writing on the other items. I will also respond to Deputy Connolly once she clarifies the report to which she referred. I am happy to do so in the interest of answering the question that was put.

Regarding the limited circumstances of horticultural peat and the mushroom industry, planning is facilitated in the Department. We are hoping, further to discussion with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to make it exempt from planning and that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, would regulate it under the Environmental Protection Agency Act. There is an issue with legislating for retrospective environmental impact assessment, EIA, and we are in discussions about that.