Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

At the weekend, the Taoiseach stated that housing is the number one crisis facing young people. This morning, a report published by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, has highlighted again the crushing cost of housing, including extortionate rents, which far exceed their pre-crash heights, as well as a collapse in homeownership amongst this generation of young adults.

It is not lost on these young people, their parents or their grandparents that the housing crisis was created by Fianna Fáil, which left the housing market in hock to developers and deepened by Fine Gael, which could not wait to let the vulture funds loose. The result of all of this is that those looking to put a secure and affordable roof over their heads do not stand a chance.

At a time when the Government should be moving heaven and earth to do everything possible to make housing affordable again, what is the Government doing? It is still enabling and encouraging wealthy investment funds to buy up family homes with cushy tax deals. The Government claims that this is a new phenomenon or an unintended consequence but that is not true. In 2019, six out of ten new homes in Dublin were taken off the market and the vast majority were sold to the investment funds. In the past four weeks, 400 houses have been snapped up by these funds.

Moreover, they are not stopping with Dublin; their plan is now to spread their wings across the State. These investment funds are now moving to Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Galway, with leading developers saying that they will be selling more than 40% of their new homes to these funds in the years ahead. It is a very daunting prospect for young people who scrimp and save and make enormous sacrifices to put themselves in the position, if they are lucky, to have a deposit to buy a home. Yet, these investment funds not only rob people of the chance to buy their own homes but also push up house prices, in some cases by as much as €80,000.

All of this happens against the backdrop of the publication of the utterly discredited Affordable Housing Bill 2021 by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the provision of an affordable housing plan that can make houses even more expensive. Even by the Government's standards, that is some achievement. Is it any wonder then, that the mood of a generation is one of exasperation? The Government's sweetheart tax arrangements allow these investors to lock people out of homeownership and force them into the private rental market, where these same funds then charge extortionate levels of rent. Heads, they win; tails, they win; it is a win-win for the investment funds.

There are things the Government could do right now to make housing more affordable. It could double the State's capital investment in affordable and social housing. We in Sinn Féin have called for that action to be taken and the ESRI has echoed that call. The Government could cut the legs from the vulture funds by doing that. It could cut rents and put a month's rent back into the pocket of every renter through a tax refund.

It could legislate to prevent any further rent increases. Above all, what it could do is legislate to end the sweetheart tax deals and remove the financial incentive and advantage accruing to these investment funds. However, it has done none of those things. The Cabinet met today. People are waiting to hear from the Government about its plan is to stop these vulture funds.

First, I have to say that the Government is ten months in office. During those ten months, we have been dealing with an unprecedented global pandemic which has had a huge impact on the people and, indeed, on sectors of our economy. It has also had an impact on the construction industry. Notwithstanding that, the Government has committed to, and provided the funding for, the largest multi-annual social housing programme in the history of the State. That is the core of the Government's policy programme. A total of €3.3 billion is allocated this year to new house construction. We want to build 9,500 new social homes. The State and Government are also getting involved in building, and supporting the building of, affordable homes through a variety of schemes. The Government has initiated the first national cost-rental scheme, which will provide houses at rents 25% below the market price.

I have said, and I have made it clear to my Government colleagues - along with the leaders of the other parties in government - that we are committed to ensuring that housing is our number one, collective responsibility as we emerge from Covid-19 in order to give young people an opportunity for home ownership. That is something I am passionately committed to and that we provide enough social housing for those who need it. In addition to the allocation and funding we are putting in for housing, we are making sure that unprecedented amounts of funding are going to infrastructure to make sure the houses can happen, in terms of the allocation of money to Irish Water to make sure we can get water services in place for these housing developments, and also wider infrastructural developments such as the docklands in Cork or the development in Galway and Limerick that will facilitate more residential units being built and more housing being built.

That is the story of this Government's programme for housing and no amount of distortion will change those facts. We remain committed to that but we have to do more. Development finance for builders is problematic in this country. It has been problematic for quite a number of years in terms of the cost of funding for builders to get going and build housing estates. We need builders to build large housing estates and also to build smaller housing estates and smaller housing units. The fundamental issue at stake in housing is supply, supply, supply. That is it. That is why there is an onus and responsibility on all politicians of all parties to do everything we possibly can to support the supply of housing. That is why Deputy McDonald's party also has questions to answer in terms of the serial objections to quite substantial housing programmes and projects that have been voted down on too many occasions, whether it be in Tallaght, where her party voted down 500 houses that could have been built, or in Clondalkin, where 800 to 900 houses, again, were opposed. That cannot go on. Maybe it is in the Deputy's interest to frustrate the attempts to get housing built or to impede progress. The biggest actor in housing right now, the biggest player, is this Government, through a whole range of vehicles and schemes.

In respect of the investment funds that came into the country more than eight or nine years ago, we are very clear that we are opposed to investment funds taking over or buying estates that have already been built. The original purpose and objective of them was to add to supply, not to take over existing supply and compete with first-time buyers or, indeed, approved housing bodies or councils for that matter. Our priority remains the first-time buyer. We want home ownership to increase.

The Taoiseach's time is up.

Sinn Féin has opposed every single measure that this Government has taken to provide affordable housing to people and it did likewise in previous years.

The welcome mat was laid out for these investment funds long before Covid-19 was ever heard of. The Taoiseach should not try to hide behind the pandemic as an excuse for his evident failures. The evidence of the Government's failures are everywhere to be seen. The Taoiseach recognises that we are in a crisis and it is about supply. Supply needs to be met by building public housing on public lands. The day and time of the developer, the vulture fund and the private investment fund being king must end. That is a journey the Taoiseach has yet to walk.

I have asked the Taoiseach what he intends to do now about these investment funds. These funds are, as we speak, snapping up family homes under the noses of first-time buyers and other buyers seeking a secure, affordable roof over their heads. They are driving up the cost of housing by as much as €80,000 in some instances. I have asked the Taoiseach a direct question, which I will put again. The Government has sweetheart tax arrangements with these investment funds in respect of corporation tax, capital gains tax and stamp duty. When will that end? Where is the Government's plan to rein in these funds? When will we see it?

The Government has this year committed to 12,750 new social homes, 9,500 of which will be direct builds. That is a commitment that the Deputy continues to ignore. That is at maximum and it was before the three months of Covid-19 restrictions on the construction industry came in. That is the point.

I note the Deputy's reply. Is she saying that private builders have no role at all?

I did not say that.

The Deputy seemed to be saying that. I have no idea what her view is of private house building.

What is the Taoiseach doing about investment funds?

I do not know whether the Deputy thinks small builders should be facilitated to build homes.

What is the Taoiseach doing about investment funds?

Allow the Taoiseach without interruption.

Sinn Féin seems to be objecting to housing project after housing project for a variety of reasons, perhaps just to mess up the whole thing and prevent success. In terms of the investment funds-----

Let me assure the Taoiseach, the Government is messing it up without any assistance from me.

The Taoiseach without interruption, please.

-----the Ministers for Finance and Housing, Local Government and Heritage are going to deal with the issue and will be bringing proposals to the Government in respect of the situation.

We do not want investment funds competing with first-time buyers and certainly not buying up housing estates. We oppose that.

He does not oppose that; he enables it.

As I have said, in previous eras the banks provided finance to the construction industry. The Government is now providing the bulk of housing activity through its funding mechanisms, be they direct build, affordable housing schemes, cost rental or other mechanisms such as the housing assistance payment, HAP, and so on. That is the reality of the situation.

I have a specific housing issue to raise with the Taoiseach. The High Court yesterday quashed a decision of An Bord Pleanála yet again. The board had granted permission for 123 apartments at a site on the Old Fort Road in Ballincollig. That is place I know well and I am sure the Taoiseach also knows it well. This is not an isolated judgment. Month after month, the courts are striking down decisions of An Bord Pleanála, particularly planning decisions taken under strategic housing provisions of the 2016 Act brought in by the Taoiseach's constituency colleague, the Minister, Deputy Coveney. Last December, the High Court quashed a permission that An Bord Pleanála had granted for more than 660 homes in Rathmullan in Donegal. In other cases, An Bord Pleanála is simply holding up its hands. In March of this year, it consented to a High Court order quashing its permission for 614 residential units on RTÉ lands at Donnybrook. In July 2019, permission for 221 housing units at Cross Avenue in Blackrock, County Dublin, was dismissed because An Bord Pleanála had not gone through enough public participation, a basic requirement of planning law.

To be clear, the Labour Party is very supportive of An Bord Pleanála, its structure and use, and the need for it. I do not think any party in this State has a stronger history than the Labour Party when it comes to having independent planning regulatory processes in place. We have paid the price and taken lawsuits for that down the years.

There is an issue here, however. In its annual report for 2019, An Bord Pleanála refers to 17 judgments in the courts. The board was only successful in having its decisions upheld in nine cases. Its decisions were overturned in eight cases, and in seven other cases, it accepted there was a legal deficit in its decision process. That means 15 out of 24 cases were, therefore, lost. How many units are lost because of that? Given the crisis we are in, it is not good enough.

In 2015, I established a review group, chaired by Mr. Gregory Jones QC, to undertake an independent organisational review of An Bord Pleanála, which produced an excellent report comprising 101 recommendations over 257 pages.

Does the Taoiseach accept that the frequency and regularity of successful court challenges to strategic housing developments demonstrate a fundamental problem with either the proper functioning of An Bord Pleanála or a serious deficit in the 2016 legislation or both and-or a lack of resources in the board, which the board stated is the case in its recent national development plan, NDP, submission? Will the Taoiseach ensure that the implementation of all the recommendations of the An Bord Pleanála review group is prioritised, given that it is now five years since the report, which I dare say he supported, came in?

The Deputy has raised a very important issue. I take on board the points he has made. It is a cause for concern that quite a high number of those judgments were overturned or that seven were voluntarily owned up to and deficits were acknowledged in terms of the decisions. In the first instance, this means An Bord Pleanála must reflect on its process and due diligence regarding decisions that are taken, which subsequently do not stand up in the courts process.

It also speaks to a wider issue in respect of the planning process more generally and whether we need to reform that process. The idea of a planning court has been mooted with a view to making sure we can get decisions that give greater certainty to all concerned, both those who appeal and those who are appealed against. That could mean a more streamlined, efficient and effective planning system. These are projects that are being held back and houses or apartment blocks that could be built. That is not optimal or acceptable either. Many investment decisions have been held back for far too long now in the system. Our system is not optimal in terms of the future of our economy and in facilitating good investment. In some instances, it takes far too long and then, as the Deputy noted, deficiencies arise at the eleventh hour, which perhaps should have been spotted much earlier and should never have got to the stage of a High Court or Supreme Court case before they were highlighted.

I have discussed this with the Attorney General and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and we are examining proposals. I will certainly revert to that review commissioned by the Deputy five years ago. I have no intention of hanging around on this, however. The Government must move on this within a reasonable timeframe to improve our system through a combination of legislative amendments and additional resources.

There is a fundamental issue here. The 2019 report by An Bord Pleanála outlined that eight cases were lost and that in seven cases, it owned up. The figures stand for themselves. We have a fundamental issue here and three things are happening. An Bord Pleanála does not have enough resources, which I have believe to be true. That is what the report stated and what the board has been saying in recent weeks with regard to the NDP.

Second, the legislation from 2016, which was brought in by the then Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy Coveney, actually has issues with it. Third, there is an issue in respect of the process by which it makes these decisions. As the Taoiseach said, deficiencies are highlighted at the final hour and then applications are dismissed. These three problems need to be dealt with.

Finally, the Taoiseach often asks for constructive suggestions from the Opposition.

We have legal advice that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage can direct local authorities to ensure that, with any granted permission, a large percentage of the housing must be given to owner-occupiers. Will the Taoiseach either instruct or ask his Minister to consider that because it is a valid suggestion?

I do not have to direct my Minister in that regard because he is actively considering it. That is one of the range of ideas he is considering in the context of dealing with the investment funds issue, particularly in how it impacts on first-time buyers and suburban estates.

I do not disagree with the Deputy's analysis in respect of the deficiencies within the strategic development zone, SDZ, legislative framework or An Bord Pleanála's set of processes, along with the issue of resources. Suffice to say, we intend to tackle those issues. The SDZ legislation is due to expire-----

There are going to be a lot more applications before it does.

There have been many applications that have never been followed through on as well. That is another issue. I refer to the enormous volume of applications have not been followed through in terms of actual construction or development of sites. That is something that needs focus as well.

I previously articulated the serious difficulties and challenges faced by the community of Tipperary town. The area suffers from extremely high levels of long-term unemployment. In 2016, 40% of men and 26% of women in the Tipperary east urban are were unemployed. Some 40% of the households in the town are rented, half of which are socially rented from the local authority. This points to income levels and a lack of employment opportunities. Third level attainment is approximately half the national average, pointing to social deprivation issues in early childhood, 15% of the population identifies as non-Irish national and 36% of all families with children under the age of 15 are headed by lone parents. The social deprivation index for the town is quite stark. It is categorised as very disadvantaged.

In 2018, led by March4Tipp, 5,000 people took to the streets in a massive show of community resolve and determination. This was a cry for help which resonated nationally. I, along with community groups, called for the establishment of a multi-agency task force to address the massive problems facing the community. I am glad the task force is working diligently and effectively with the co-operation and support of multiple local organisations.

The most significant socioeconomic problem facing Tipperary town is the ever-increasing heavy traffic which travels through it on a daily basis. Each week, more than 85,000 traffic movements occur through the centre of the town, stifling retail and other economic activity and choking the very life out of the town. When one adds to the mix the massive post-Brexit increases in traffic in and out of Rosslare Europort, it is apparent that the town is at breaking point. Shops and other businesses struggle to keep their doors open in an environment where shoppers cannot park or move about safely. Many businesses have, unfortunately, succumbed to the pressure and closed their doors. The commercial vacancy rate in Tipperary town, at 31%, is higher than that for towns in most other counties. Traffic on the N24 is killing the town.

The whole community rejoiced when the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, agreed with my proposal that the planned Cahir to Limerick Junction N24 project needs to be prioritised, with the section that will bypass Tipperary town being commenced and completed as a priority. Prioritising the section around Tipperary town will deliver the best results for the long-suffering local community and in the context of the flow of goods throughout the wider region. The opportunity to make a profound and lasting difference to the future of Tipperary town is within our grasp. Will the Taoiseach deliver vital help to a very deserving town and community? It is time to give Tipperary town back to the people.

I thank Deputy Lowry for raising this important issue. All Oireachtas Members from Tipperary are united in revitalising Tipperary town and addressing social disadvantage and deprivation there. As the Deputy said, the entire community came together publicly to demonstrate its concerns but, above all, its objectives in terms of revitalising the town and its hinterland and providing for greater social inclusion.

The task force has been created. The recruitment of a dedicated project manager and the production of the collaborative town centre health check have taken place as part of the contributions by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I am interested in working with the task force and all involved in a multi-agency approach, which is key and essential.

Traffic congestion in Tipperary town is very severe. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, met all the local Deputies on 12 March. He agreed that there were congestion issues in the town and that there was broad support for a bypass. The Deputy is correct in identifying the Minister's preferences in terms of the review of the NDP. In that context, the Minister is keen on the option for smaller bypasses which address immediate congestion in town centres and can be delivered on a shorter timescale to support the town centres first strategy. It will need further development and consideration and it is under active consideration by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, in consultation with the Cabinet economic committee in respect of those issues.

As Deputy Lowry knows, the NDP includes the proposed N24 Cahir to Limerick Junction improvement scheme, which includes a bypass of Tipperary town. I am aware that opinions have been expressed in Tipperary County Council that a short-term relief road should be built to the south of the town in an effort to immediately relieve the congestion that exists there, rather than wait for the completion of the major scheme. These are issues we will actively consider. We understand the urgency and importance of it but also the broader picture that, where we have communities that need additional help and assistance, we should, across all Departments, go the extra mile in facilitating and doing things rather than putting them on the long finger. That is my approach to this. It is part of a wider Government initiative in which we are working on a new programme to try to help areas of significant disadvantage. This would involve all Government Departments and agencies doing extra to facilitate early alleviation of that disadvantage. The Minister for Education is also working on educational disadvantage as well.

I thank the Taoiseach and appreciate his support.

I raise also the omission of DEIS - Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools - status for schools in Tipperary town, which needs to be advanced and concluded. The omission of these schools, both primary and secondary, from the DEIS programme in 2017 was wrong and an injustice. This was acknowledged when the Department of Education yielded to pressure and reviewed the circumstances of these schools. As a result, an interim package of resources was implemented across all five primary schools. This package was, thankfully, renewed last week and will remain in place until the national review is completed. What is the current status of the national review and will the new DEIS programme be published and implemented for the September term?

I also ask the Taoiseach to use his office to clear the impediment to the granting of a school meal allowance for St. Anne's Secondary School. Funding has been granted by the Department of Social Protection but has not been sanctioned or implemented by the Department of Education. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach could assist me in resolving this issue for the school.

I will follow up on the school meals issue. I do not know how these issues keep on cropping up at the bureaucratic level. Significant funding has been provided by the Government in respect of school meals and our wish is that the money would get out there to schools.

An extensive body of work has been undertaken on the national review of the whole DEIS identification model, based on the latest school enrolment data and the data available from the 2016 census under the HP deprivation index. Quality analysis of this has been carried out by members of the DEIS team, which includes representatives of the Department of Education's statistics and social inclusion unit, the inspectorate and the Educational Research Centre. The consultation process with the stakeholders in education has commenced on the implementation of this model and work is now ongoing on the final elements of the model. That will provide the basis for the development of a DEIS resource allocation system to match resources and identified need. I have been speaking with the Minister in this regard, in terms of the broader programme, and obviously this is something we want to process as quickly as we possibly can.

Almost eight months ago now, during Leaders' Questions, I raised with the Taoiseach the concerns of, and the number of specific and critical threats facing, the agricultural merchant sector.

This sector employs more than 10,000 people across rural Ireland. In many villages and towns where in there are little or no employment opportunities, we are fortunate enough to have these agricultural merchants. In my constituency of Laois-Offaly, we have many agricultural merchants who provide an important source of employment for a large number of people. We are fortunate to have agricultural merchants such as John Grennan & Sons in Kilcormac and Rath and we have Midland Veterinary in areas like Tullamore, Edenderry and Portarlington. These are towns that are badly affected by unemployment. That has been the case for decades. It is very important that our agricultural merchants sector is protected and that we do everything possible for it.

Unfortunately, a number of threats are posed to the agricultural merchants sector. One of these is an EU requirement to come into force in January whereby all veterinary medicinal products, including antiparasitic drugs, will only be dispensed on foot of veterinary prescriptions. In addition, an EU directive which allowed for the exemption and maintenance of non-prescription status in respect of some products is to be scrapped. When I raised this matter eight months ago, the Taoiseach stated that he did not want a position to develop whereby people would be rendered unemployed as a result of the application of this EU requirement. Unfortunately, we are eight months on from that commitment and the likelihood of job losses has gathered momentum.

Agricultural merchants have engaged throughout the process constructively and in good faith by means of a multisectoral forum but they are increasingly of the view that the entire consultation process was never going to do anything but deliver a predetermined departmental outcome. This is despite the fact the veterinary director of the Health Products Regulatory Authority has clearly stated that when it comes to the prescribing of antiparasitic drugs, agricultural merchants are "not the root of the problem" and that licensed merchants have made and continue to make a valuable contribution in this area. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his Department have made it clear, however, that they have no intention of changing their interpretation of the regulations for prescribing antiparasitic medicines. This is despite widespread condemnation from farmers, farming organisations, horse owners, pharmacists, licensed merchants, co-operatives, MEPs and the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine.

The new regime, if allowed to be introduced, will effectively eliminate the category of "responsible person" from the list of those allowed to prescribe these medicines. This is completely unjustified. What is the Taoiseach going to do? This is going to have a serious impact on employment and on the 140,000 beef and sheep farmers who will be disproportionately affected.

As I have said, this relates matter to the transposition of an EU directive, which is an obligation on all member states of the Union. As the Deputy knows, a stakeholders' group has been established and the Minister is engaging with it with a view to dealing with the issue of antiparasitic and antimicrobial resistance while maintaining competition in the market and keeping costs down for all concerned. There are safety and animal health protection dimensions to this as well. For example, Ireland is still the only country in Europe that does not require prescriptions for antiparasitic treatments. That is the reality.

We want to get a solution that will enable the sector to continue to provide its valuable services to farmers the length and breadth of the country. This is a very important sector in the context of employment. Across regional or rural Ireland in particular, it provides valuable employment. We are very conscious of that. We will do what has to be done in order to ensure a level playing field across this country and put in place a framework that will fulfil our obligations under the directive without imposing additional undue burdens on the businesses concerned, the sector or the farming community. A balance must be struck between animal health and safety and the safety of food for human consumption.

These are important and serious issues that cannot simply be ignored. The transposition of a directive imposes obligations on a state and the Minister is working with the stakeholders' groups to try to get a resolution to this issue prior to the deadline, which, as the Deputy says, will commence next year.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response but I want to point out that responsible persons within agricultural merchants, of whom there are 1,600. are highly skilled and agricultural merchants have invested heavily in ensuring that they have training. They are skilled people with knowledge and expertise and they are also farmers. They know their livestock and animals better than we can and do give them credit for. I am saying that not to reach a fair compromise in a constructive manner would be ignoring the voices of farming organisations such as the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, and our farmers and agricultural merchants, which have all voiced their opposition to this measure. They are the experts and they know how rural Ireland and farming operate.

We need to engage constructively and to reach a fair agreement and constructive solution to ensure that no job is lost because, for instance, we cannot afford to lose any jobs in the midlands. There are no jobs being created under the just transition and I raise this matter for a second time because it is so important and we need to make sure there is a fair and workable solution and that the 10,000 jobs across this State are protected.

As I said, the Minister is committed to reaching a constructive and fair resolution of this issue that intends to try to maintain employment within the sector, as well as ensuring we can fulfil our obligations and keep costs down for all concerned, particularly those in farming who avail of such services. We understand that fully, we understand the issues and we are committed to doing that. As for the just transition, jobs are being created and will be created in the midlands from just transition in retrofitting, in the rewetting of bogs and in a number of other developments. We intend to put together a series of measures, which are already under way, to illustrate that point. It is extremely important under just transition that the funding that has been allocated is brought to fruition in the variety of projects that have received funding. Those projects must be brought to fruition quickly and create jobs on the ground.