Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 4

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Inné, thug an Rialtas teachtaireacht shoiléir d’úinéirí tithe agus iad siúd atá ag iarraidh a bheith i mbun úinéireacht tithe. Sin é, nach bhfuil fáilte rompu anseo sa chathair ach go bhfuil fáilte mhór - céad míle fáilte - ón Rialtas roimh na creach-chistí a bheidh ag ceannach árasán i ndiaidh árasán sa chathair seo, agus níos faide ar shiúl, agus ag fágáil teaghlach agus daoine óga ar an trá fholamh.

The Minister led the Green Party into government saying that things would be different on housing, but, instead of changing things, he is helping to deliver more of the same. We certainly did not need a leak from Cabinet to tell us that Fine Gael objected to housing being a priority for this Government. We have known for many years that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were on the side of the vulture funds and the big developers.

Where is the Green Party in all this, however? There is no point voicing concerns at the Cabinet table and then waltzing in here and voting for the same bad policies about which the party is giving out. Last week, the party voted against cutting rents and banning increases for three years. Last night, it voted against stopping cuckoo funds from buying up apartments and squeezing families out of home ownership. The party has surrendered this city to international investors and consigned a generation, many of whom are young people voted for its Deputies, to extortionate rents well into the future.

I want to share with the Minister some personal stories that have been sent to me by people caught up in this nightmare. Sarah wrote:

My daughter is paying enormous rent. She is still trying to save what she and her partner can pay for a down payment, both working, but the banks won't give them a big enough mortgage to buy anything decent. When they go after a house, it jumps up thousands in price. I feel so sorry for them. It seems hopeless.

Greg said:

My fiance is still at home in a house of ten and I live with my Mam who has a severe disability who has lost all of her benefits since I turned 23. We can't move out because of the crisis!

Anne said:

My son and his friends are all going to be 30 years of age this year and saving so hard to buy their own homes but every time they reach an amount in savings the price goes up again or again the houses are been bought by these vulture funds.

Stephen wrote:

I am on the housing list for ten years. Paying rent and have paid for 16 years sick. Im sick of it. I couldn't get a mortgage and yet have paid €97,000 in rent.

Finally, Amy summed up the feelings of an entire generation when she wrote:

There is no future for us young people. Trying to rent a house at a somewhat reasonable price is near impossible. Right now there are only 9 - bedroom houses in the whole of Cork priced at €1,000 per month or just under. I have been actively applying for somewhere to live with my boyfriend for the last 2 years and in total we have been given 4 viewings ... in 2 years?? How are we supposed to rent a place that's €1,400/€1,500 a month and try to save for a mortgage? It is impossible to look forward to having a future and raising our families here.

There we have it. I ask on behalf of those people why the Minister is accepting this. Why is he part of a Government that is shattering the hopes and ambitions of an entire generation with bad housing policies, which he knows damn well have put developers and investors first?

The Green Party is now up to its neck in this housing crisis. The Minister does not have to respond me. Will he please respond to these people whose stories I shared with him, however, and tell them why he has adopted this position?

As a Member for Dublin Bay South, I know exactly what the Deputy is saying about the scale and depth of this crisis. It is without doubt an issue all over the country. It is at its most acute in the centre of Dublin, however.

I can see the dilemma in my own constituency, particularly for a new younger generation. We will not leave them behind, we will not leave them out, and we will do everything in our power to make sure they have the ability, as my own and previous generations did, including those in Dublin Bay South, to be able to afford a home.

We need to look after people of all means, incomes and needs, particularly those in inner cities. The current model is broken. The market is not working and it will not fix this. There has to be a radical change and we will help steer that change from within government.

We started by increasing this year's budget by 25% up to €3.3 billion, which I believe is a quarter of the entire capital budget. We will not stop there. We will need approximately €120 billion over the next ten years. That will not all come from the State but a large part of it will.

In the remaining time of this Government, I intend and expect to put this centre stage within government, as both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have said, and apply the exact same rigour, urgency and flexibility that has been applied to the Covid-19 crisis to both the climate and housing crises. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 will be able to help us on climate. We need to put housing at centre stage and we need all Departments to act.

We increased this year's capital budget, which is the key and real measure of what we can build and do. We brought in a second measure, however. I recall in the previous Dáil, we were the first Opposition party that stood up and got cross-party agreement that we needed to switch to cost-rental housing as one of the ways to address this crisis.

In this year's budget, we acted and worked with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to say let us make it happen and start straightaway with eight projects we can start building, which are not just theoretical or abstract, and where we are calling from the sidelines, but actually start delivering. That is only the start. The reason cost rental is such a part of the solution is that it is social and public housing. Rather than leased assets that go back to the private sector, the assets stay with our own public assets, on which we can build a long-term, sustainable financing model. It takes time.

We must be honest with our younger people that they and this housing issue are the first priority. The benefit of cost rental is that it is in the market. We can use public lands. We can actually bring down the rental price. That combined with affordable housing options, including the use of the serviced sites fund so that we actually reduce the cost, will be critical, particularly for urban areas.

This is not one versus the other. We particularly need to deliver on our national planning framework, which provides for high-quality homes and housing in urban areas, where people are there for life and have security of tenure. It is not that the rental sector does not count; it does. That applies to apartment ownership as well as renting. We need a variety of different solutions.

The key measures in the coming two months are the development of a new housing for all strategy that delivers on this, within which the Affordable Housing Bill 2021 will be key. We agreed with our Government colleagues the other day at Cabinet meetings that we would further look at amendments within the Bill to give us a range of options and flexibility and the ability to really create high-quality urban living.

Has the Minister not listened to the testimonies from those people that I read into the record? They are desperately looking for action and hope, and the action the Minister delivered in the past seven days, along with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, was to come in here and vote against banning rent increases and reducing rents. The action he delivered was voting against proposals Sinn Féin brought forward with regard to increasing the supply of social, affordable and cost-rental housing.

Last night, shamefully, the Green Party, which supposedly believes in urban living and apartment ownership, said to the vulture funds that it is a free-for-all and Dublin city is theirs. That is the effect of the Government's policies. Six out of every ten home completions last year were apartments and the Government has exempted the vulture funds from any minor increase in stamp duty.

How does the Minister put the Government's record over the past seven days with the statement that it will not leave people behind?

The Deputy is over time.

Perhaps the Minister does not realise it but he has abandoned this generation, just like Fianna Gael and Fianna Fáil have done for the past decade.

I listened to the Deputy. I hear those stories every day and they belong to every party, constituency and political viewpoint. They do not belong to any one person. These things are happening, in particular, in some of the areas where the prices are highest, including in my own constituency. I listen to what is happening and I heed it. It is our first priority to provide for our younger people every day.

I was about to mention, before the time was up to reply, some of the real and practical measures we need. We can all talk but what are we doing? The doing is about the State coming together to act. That sometimes involves difficult choices. I had to make a difficult decision a few weeks ago around the Digital Hub Development Agency. It is a huge agency with the most highly regarded and best people, with whom I have worked for 20 years. I have seen Thomas Street and James's Street not being developed in those decades. We looked at the situation and said it is time to act. It is time to set up the Land Development Agency. Let us work collectively on that. I think the Deputy and I would agree on the need for public action, public investment and development on public lands. We need more of all of those things and this can only be the start.

Thank you, Minister.

We will not give over this city. It does not belong to any investor or fund. It belongs to the people of this city and this country.

It is through our public land that we will deliver the housing we need.

I am moving on. I know it is difficult but I ask all Members for their co-operation and a little respect for all sides.

Can the Minister tell us what exactly is the Government's policy for apartment living? We know what the Green Party policy is supposed to be. It says it wants sustainable, high-quality developments that are located a 15-minute walk or cycle from a city centre. However, does it only want people to be able to rent this kind of housing, and rent in insecure tenancies? That is all that is available to people at the moment.

The Minister for Finance tells us apartments must be omitted from the meagre measures announced this week that purport to stop the bulk purchase of homes by cuckoo funds because they will not otherwise be built. Fine Gael has said something similar before. Back in 2017, when Eoghan Murphy was Minister, he said he had to reduce design standards because apartments were too high-spec and were costing too much to build. He slashed standards for every kind of apartment project but the changes he made for build-to-rent apartments were particularly damaging. There is no restriction on dwelling mix. The apartments are smaller and poorly ventilated at a time of a pandemic. There is a complete lack of storage space, no private outdoor space and they are not at all suited to working from home.

Mr. Murphy was pleased with himself when those changes were made. He claimed at the time he had single-handedly reduced the cost of delivering apartments by 15%. He should perhaps have been concerned that developers and cuckoo funds were also very pleased with themselves. Planning permissions in Dublin for apartments now vastly outstrip permissions for houses, and build-to-rent apartments comprise more than 70% of the permissions. These apartments are cheaper to build, more expensive to rent and impossible to buy, a description that summarises the Government's housing policy very well. Where are people who live in Dublin supposed to buy homes? They cannot buy the apartments that are currently under construction because practically every one of them is being purchased by funds. Eoghan Murphy's bright idea to slash costs for developers and cuckoo funds delivered for neither home buyers nor renters. All it did was boost developers' profits.

The Minister's party, we were told, entered Government to have a positive impact on environmental issues. I have some questions for him. Why are he and his party facilitating this planning bonanza for cuckoo funds? Does he accept that the Government is declaring Dublin city centre a no-go area for first-time buyers? Is it not the case that young people who want to live in a city centre cannot aspire to home ownership?

We have to make housing affordable. That is agreed and it is achieved by doing. There is a variety of different investments we have to make. We need to make significant investment in social housing at volume and at scale. That involves large numbers and huge amounts of money. The constraints in that regard are often not necessarily about the financing but getting the building workers with the training and skills, the blocklayers and so on. We need to avoid the costs going up so much that it is expensive for everyone to build. We need to do that so that we can build more. It is about what we agreed the other night in terms of changing the Part V rules to say it is not just 10% social housing but we also want affordable purchase and cost rental. That is significant. We need the affordable purchase provision and the likes of the serviced sites fund to help bring down the cost, working with the local authorities. The local authorities have a central role and we need to work with them on that.

The coming months will be critical because the strategy and the plan have to be changed. We need to change tack and do better. The funding has to go in that direction and we will use our influence in government in that regard. It is difficult because there are loads of funding requirements. We are going to have to fund health, including Sláintecare, education, climate and housing. It is a challenge to get the balance right but we will fund affordable purchase housing as well as social housing. I believe cost rental is critical because it fundamentally changes things. The two tiers we have in Irish housing are around whether it is social or private. The brilliant thing about cost rental is that it is between the two. It is in the market but it is public. I keep coming back to the Land Development Agency and the use of public land because I believe that is the key to help to unlock supply at scale. I am talking about real ambition. We are looking to influence, within the Government and with a cross-party approach, access to public lands.

Critical to this, and I have to mention it at every stage because it is crucial it is recognised, is that housing and public transport go together. To answer the Deputy's question about my vision for Dublin city, it is that we have a 15-minute city. It will be an accessible city with everything close by and high-quality cycling and walking facilities as well as public transport infrastructure. That needs to be funded. There is a huge funding requirement if we are to build the likes of the metro, BusConnects and DART+ for Cork, Galway and Limerick as well as Dublin. We need balanced regional development to make this work. It has to include our other cities. In the development of town centres, village centres and cities we need to go for compact development. Housing, transport and local environment are key.

We have a real role to offer and provide in terms of getting access to the land and getting an intervention on the sorts of measures I have mentioned. There will also be private developments and there will be build-to-rent provision. The €120 billion we need to spend on housing in the next ten years will not all be from the Government. If it were, we would not have the funding for transport, health and education.

Thank you, Minister.

We need that balance and mix. We will bring the mix towards affordable purchase and rental in particular because that is what we have been focused on in recent years.

There is very little reality in what the Minister is saying. It does not bear any relationship to the existing situation. He had an opportunity this week to do something about that and ensure there were controls introduced for all homes. The question is whether he regards apartments as homes. Is it his view that first-time buyers have a right to purchase apartments? At the moment, they cannot do so. There are no apartments at all in Dublin city centre available for first-time buyers. The Minister talks about incentives and subsidies for young people. That means nothing to young people living in Dublin because they cannot buy an apartment at the moment. They are all controlled by funds. The Minister and his party had an opportunity this week to do something about that and they failed to do so. They failed the young people of Dublin city in terms of their aspiration to purchase a home.

Thank you, Deputy.

Does the Minister accept that the aspiration of purchasing a home in Dublin city centre does not exist for young people?

We 100% stand up for the aspiration of purchasing apartments in our cities and right across the country. Apartments are part of city living and urban compact living. We 100% stand up for and support that and we did so in government this week. We got agreement with our colleagues that we will come back to this issue in the affordable housing Bill and look at further measures, as the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has said, to deliver on that. It will be part of a mix because this needs a multifaceted response.

Absolutely central to that must be us having apartments as homes. We cannot have a system whereby a person rents and then when he or she grows up, as it were, he or she goes out and buys a house. We must create high-quality urban environments. That requires good planning and local council involvement. It is at local council level across the country that Green Party members are working with colleagues to deliver the planning we need to provide that high-quality local environment.

What of long-term leasing?

It is not just about the housing but also all the other services that come with that at the same time. That is what we as a party are good at.

He and his party are not doing it.

I raise an issue which is very important not just for my constituency but for many constituencies across the country, namely, public transport. The provision of public transport is something that has been highlighted in my constituency, where in the recent past Bus Éireann decided to cut back on some of the services it provides between Galway and Limerick. That service is route 51. It brings into focus the whole concept of providing public transport and how the National Transport Authority, NTA, which has the vested power to decide on these things, takes decisions to reduce services at a time when we are talking about climate action, bringing in a carbon tax and penalising people who have cars because they must pay more for fuel. At the same time we are now taking away services from people who would otherwise go to work on these buses, either to Galway or Limerick. If one takes Gort, Labane or Ardrahan, all of these areas are now affected by in that they do not have the same services they had. Thus services are not available in the evening for people who want to come from work in Galway or Limerick back to south County Galway. Likewise, Bus Éireann removed bus stops in Kilreekil for no apparent reason, other than it said people were not using them, but we must incentivise people to use public transport. We must also make it accessible to people with disabilities. How is this to be changed?

I have spent much time working with Local Link in County Galway, trying to create routes to feed into bus and train services, yet every proposal we put in is turned down by the NTA. I had very good proposals from the Caherlistrane-Headford area, and from Corrandulla to feed into this, to take cars off the road and get people to go to work on buses. The public transport is not there; it is not being provided. People are scratching there heads and thinking that they still need the car and that it is essential. The message coming from Bus Éireann to people in my constituency is that they must continue to use the car even more because the public transport will not be provided.

It is important we look at this when we are talking about climate action. I know well the Minister wants to deliver on public transport but we must see a plan on how that is going to be done so that in our constituencies we can tell people that this is the service they are going to get. Public transport is going to take cars off the road. If we are going to work with that, we need to start now and reverse the decision made by Bus Éireann.

Following on from the previous question, there is a lot of emphasis on urban Ireland because of the issue of apartment living. We must be very clear that in the changes we need to make, it is about rural and urban. It is about towns and villages, country and city. This is particularly the case with meeting the climate change challenges we face where we need a switch to public transport and to reduce the demand to travel by creating services in our towns, so everything is close by and people do not have to travel all the time. However, as well as the commitment to housing mentioned earlier, this requires a commitment to public transport. Again, in the context of the Covid crisis, we should look at the figures. The spending is mainly because of the crisis but it is still an indication this is important. In 2019, €300 million was spent on subventing public transport. That increased to €610 million last year and €650 million this year. The rural bus services are particularly important because as the Deputy said, there are many people who do not have access a car and who have just as much of a right and entitlement to be able to move around, get to the hospital, to other appointments or to wherever they need to go to.

One good bit of news is that I met the commercial bus operators. Bus Éireann also runs these kind of commercial operations with specific supports to keep them going. I refer not just to the public service obligation, PSO, services but also commercial operators because they were in real difficulty during the Covid crisis. I met them in recent months. The support was due to come to an end and they asked that I keep it going for another few months because we are coming to the end of this, lockdown is starting to ease and we do not want to fall at the last hurdle and lose services at the last minute. I talked to the NTA, as did the industry groups. I was very glad to commit to extending that into the summer months, so we do not have a cliff edge in support for public bus services.

Bus Éireann has a key role. It is true the company is changing the routes, adding some new routes and taking some services from others; it must manage that as it sees fit. It is also operating these services, the likes of route 51, in a commercial market where there are a lot of private operators as well. Bus Éireann must allocate on the basis of where it sees it can best meet customer demand. We have given a clear commitment that a reduction in services cannot be done where it leaves people without a commensurate service, be that private or otherwise, so we will not leave people without.

I have another bit of news, which is a positive development. To take up what Deputy Canney said about Local Link and the need for additional services, recognising that and that we need to change and be more efficient is important, the NTA has been working with Leitrim County Council on a pilot scheme I hope to announce shortly. It would be for three years and would look at a really innovative way of combining our HSE public transport services with Local Link and bus services so we start developing new rural bus transport services. Let us not do it the way we always did but look to innovate and try to create new services. It has not been announced yet but I hope it will be really significant for the people of County Leitrim. There is potential if the pilot works for it to be spread elsewhere, whereby we increase, enhance and allow the people of rural Ireland make the switch to a better system using public transport in a low-emissions world.

I thank the Minister and welcome his announcement about the pilot scheme for County Leitrim. I agree we cannot have more of the same, where there is a mismatch. We must start with the very basics, look at where the rural populations are, where they are migrating to work, how they are going to work and how they come back home in the evenings. If Members listen to the AA Ireland traffic reports, they will hear about Claregalway. Every evening we hear about Bothar na dTreabh in Galway. The people who are causing the congestion, if I can put it that way, are the workers from the east of the county who are trying to access the city. We must provide the services so they can access the city in a different way. Some of the finest private bus operators are operating from east County Galway to bring people into the city. However, we cannot get a bus lane built from Claregalway into Galway. It has been planned for maybe the last ten years and still is not done. It is a very simple process as there is no land acquisition required; it is just a question of getting it done. Therefore, it is important we change the headwreck, as I might say, and get on with the job.

I met some of those County Galway private bus operators last summer and the Deputy is absolutely right that they run a first-class service. The really annoying thing is that just before Covid struck they were actually seeing a massive expansion in their services. They were looking at new routes like east-west, north-south and a whole range of different ones. They were finding that as soon as they put new routes on, customer demand was rising to meet them; they were on a big expansion plan. I hope we can get back to that.

A connected issue with respect to what we must do in transport to have a low-emissions future is in our roads programme, which will still be significant. Our public transport programme will be bigger and be enhanced but it is also important we maintain roads and build new roads to get over where we have pinch points and problems. As we look at this climate plan, I have been saying that within the roads programme, we must really focus on bypasses of towns, and a large number of them. They do not have to be big motorways or huge expensive projects. We can spend our money wisely and have it go further and be spent more widely by doing a whole series of small bypasses. These will often be single carriageway but they will get traffic out of the bottleneck. If buses must go into town to pick up passengers that is fine but if they do not, they will not be stuck in traffic. That is also going to be important for the bus system. We need to go with lots of bypasses.

I raise the legacy of strategic housing developments, SHDs. These were a policy of the previous Fine Gael-led Government, which was backed by Fianna Fáil. SHDs bypassed local area development plans and were fast-tracked by the Government to facilitate the vulture and cuckoo funds, something we have seen over the last couple of weeks.

I want to bring a bit of reality into this. Drimnagh in my constituency has a very strong community, which has campaigned relentlessly on behalf of residents seeking sports facilities, extra medical services, community hubs and everything that voluntary groups do right throughout the city. In many ways, the neglect over time by local authorities after the crash and everything else is less obvious due to the tremendous work done by these volunteers.

With the policies of SHDs and rezoning brownfield sites to residential zone 1 sites, this community is facing a build in progress on the Dulux site with 265 apartments in eight-storey blocks, all built to rent and all with one or two bedrooms. On the Heidelberg-Miller site on the Davitt Road, there will be 188 apartments in a nine-storey block, again built to rent with one or two bedrooms. There is no dual aspect for the properties and little communal space or storage. There is a pre-consultation process ongoing for Brickfield Drive, which will have 282 apartments in four-storey to ten-storey blocks, built for purchase, with 10% of the properties under Part V and 90% to be sold to a cuckoo fund or investment. There is also the G4S site on Herberton Road, with 170 apartments, and that is a pre-consultation phase so we do not know exactly what is going on there.

With those SHDs, we are talking about 2,000 extra people in the community so what is the Government going to do about the legacy of these projects in the community? Will it fund local authorities so they in turn can fund communities to get in more medical and educational services or more green spaces and community hubs? These communities will need those because of this extra development in the area.

These communities may see an extra 5,000 people in the area with other developments, which is the size of a small town. What analysis has been made and how will these communities be supported in building sustainable neighbourhoods?

I agree with pretty much every one of the Deputy's comments about getting the balance right. We need to provide housing for young people and it must be close to the city centre, of high quality and in large numbers. The strategic housing development approach will not continue after early next year. It will be wound down and it will mean we will, correctly, have to rely on our councils to get much of this right. The council must deliver a range of other services, as well as housing, to get the balance right for good quality living. This means there should be local green space, good bus services, local shops and community centres, as well as work near by. It is balanced development, which means it is not all housing in one place and work somewhere else. We want mixed development and we can get it right.

Height is probably the most contentious issue right across the city, particularly now. We cannot keep going up. I rely a lot in this regard on the likes of Ciaran Cuffe MEP whom the Deputy will know from the council and who has real planning expertise. He makes the point that the sense of community weakens slightly when buildings go over a certain height. This is site-specific and it depends on neighbours, for example. Costs also go up when heights increase. There is a balance to be struck. This might be four, five or six storeys. Other cities do it, and the likes of Paris and Barcelona, which are historically famous, get the balance right between density and quality. There is a sense of connection or community that may be lost when we go with some of the really high developments that have been suggested.

We need density, though, and this sometimes requires difficult decisions. We also need other services that require difficult decisions. The BusConnects project is on my desk and I hope that can go to planning very shortly. That will be key in bringing down cost. For example, we do not need car parking for everyone. If we thought about this and designed projects well, we could reduce cost of apartments by not having to build expensive and extensive car parking but rather having other solutions to give people a really high quality of life. We must get that mix or balance right.

This is not easy and no one idea for what we need to do might have more virtue than another idea. I agree with the Deputy's basic premise. We need to go back, in a sense, to relying on local democratic systems in some of this planning. We should not allow a free-for-all with height. That would not work.

I thank the Minister for the reply but what will the Government do about the legacy of these projects? It is okay to say Drimnagh is close to the city and it is on the Luas line but what will the Government do for these communities? Has it done an analysis of the impact of these high-rise developments?

Section QH18 of the Dublin City Development Plan 2016-2022 indicates the aim "to promote the provision of high-quality apartments within sustainable neighbourhoods by achieving suitable levels of amenity within individual apartments, and within each apartment development, and ensuring that suitable social infrastructure and other support facilities are available in the neighbourhood, in accordance with the standards for residential accommodation." These strategic housing developments have totally bypassed the local area plans and local democracy in the city, and the Government allowed that to happen. How will it respond to the communities to support them financially with community centres, hubs, villages, education, medical and primary care units? They will need all of these for the extra people in the community. The Government cannot just leave them behind and say a mistake was made.

All of the SHDs may not go ahead. There are legal challenges and questions about some of them, and I understand many of those challenges have been successful. Within the provisions there is a "use it or lose it" clause for them to be built by a certain time. There is an underlying problem in our city with the cost of construction and the viability of it and the ability an affordable option for purchase or sale. One of the key solutions is for us to build ourselves, particularly on public land.

We are agreed that we must go back to stronger local democratic involvement in development, so the key issue for the coming six or nine months is the local development plans throughout the country. The Deputy mentions details about mixed development and the zoning we do, and that is a function of local councils and in the power of councillors at a local level.

If the Government can introduce a policy to bypass the councils, what is the point in having them?

That is where we must work as well as here. The practical measures must include what the councils can do through local development plans. We will back this up and support the process as best we can with the likes of investment in public transport and other measures.