Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I ask Members for their co-operation with regard to the time limits.

This week's Central Statistics Office, CSO, pulse survey makes for grim reading. Some 76% of people sharing rented accommodation do not believe they will ever own their own home. Tens of thousands of people are locked out of home ownership, trapped in over-priced rental accommodation or forced to move back home with their parents, who are beside themselves with worry that their children will ever own their own home. Young couples are unable to save for a deposit because of sky-high rents, and single people are priced out of a market that only caters for two-income households. Separated and divorced people are paying maintenance and rent while trying to save a deposit of 20% for a new home. Families who lost their home after the crash are desperately trying to put an affordable roof over their heads. Every day, I and, I am sure, the Tánaiste and his Government colleagues receive calls and emails from people in these situations. These are the casualties of ten years of Fine Gael housing policy.

The Tánaiste has sat at the Cabinet table for those ten years. These stories and the hardship endured by the people I am discussing are his legacy. In 2011, when he joined the Cabinet, the average price of a new home in Dublin was €318,000. Today, it is €503,000. During Fine Gael's time in office, house prices have increased by 88% across the State and by 99% in Dublin. That is the Tánaiste's legacy. In 2011, the average cost of renting across the State was €781 per month; today, it is €1,256. That is an extra €6,000 per year on rent. In Dublin, the position is even worse. Average rents have increased from €960 per month to €1,745. That is almost €10,000 extra per year for rent for average renters. The Tánaiste's legacy is spiralling house prices and sky-high rents.

When the Tánaiste was elected leader of Fine Gael, he said he wanted to represent those who get up early in the morning to go to work. The only people I see his Government representing are big developers and big landlords, throwing around sweetheart tax deals and land deals like confetti. It has become increasingly clear that Fine Gael is not the party of hard-working people. It is a party of privilege, a party of the very well-off and a party of ever-rising housing costs. In fact, when asked about rising house prices last week, the Tánaiste suggested that things were really not as bad as the Opposition is saying and that the solution was to saddle working people with increasing levels of mortgage debt. Is he that out of touch? Does he not understand the depth of the crisis that he has created?

It is time for the Tánaiste to accept that his housing record is one of failure, that ten years of Fine Gael housing policy has made the housing crisis worse and that if he continues to repeat the mistakes of the past, things will only get harder. It is time to give renters and those seeking to own their own home a break. Will the Tánaiste now accept that the only way to deliver genuinely affordable homes for working people is to follow the advice of Sinn Féin, the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and to double direct State capital investment in public housing, to deliver 20,000 social and affordable homes annually until this crisis is over?

The fact that the Deputy has to go out of his way to misrepresent what I say and to misquote me is emblematic of how dishonest and two-faced he and his party are when it comes to the issue of housing. What I said was a statement of fact, but I did not say under any circumstances that I thought it was desirable that we should see house prices rise further or get back to the level they were at 14 years ago. What the Deputy misquoted me as saying was absolutely incorrect and he should withdraw it from the record. It is not the first time his party has deliberately twisted, misrepresented and deceived regarding comments made by Ministers in respect of housing, because that is the only way it can gain traction, particularly online. It is a real shame that this is the way the Deputy behaves. Quite frankly, it is beneath him to misrepresent things that Members say in the House for political purposes.

I believe in home ownership and, thankfully, 65% of people in Ireland own their own home. That has nothing to do with Sinn Féin. It is due to policies and decisions made by my party, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the Green Party and others in bygone years. However, it is not a reality for hundreds of thousands of people in the State. For them, home ownership is a dream or a distant possibility. That has to change, and I get that. The Government gets that too and that is why we have taken actions to help people to buy their first home. For example, the help-to-buy scheme has helped tens of thousands of people to secure a deposit to buy a home. That was opposed by Sinn Féin. The Rebuilding Ireland home loan helps people to get an affordable mortgage. This is something we must build on and make more available to more people. The rent pressure zones limit rent increases to no more than 4% in areas where rents are high and rising. As the Deputy knows, that is currently under review to see if we can do more in that regard. In contrast, Sinn Féin's local authorities and councillors in Northern Ireland voted to increase rents. That is the type of hypocrisy we see from the Deputy and his party.

Of course, the main part of the solution, and it is not the sole solution, is more supply of housing of all forms. Social housing to help people get off the housing list does not just benefit people getting off the housing list but society as a whole because it frees up rental properties for others, reduces competition for private housing in the general housing market and helps first-time buyers. That is why between 2016 and 2019, when my party held the housing brief, we increased the supply of social housing tenfold, from approximately 600 per year to 6,000 per year. We are aiming to go higher under this Government and to reach more than 10,000 per year, if possible. However, there are constraints, and the Deputy knows that better than most. Cost rental has been initiated by my party. On Enniskerry Road, we will see the first people occupying cost rental properties very soon. That has nothing to do with Sinn Féin. The Government is going to build on that and there will be far more cost-rental housing as well. The shared ownership scheme, which Sinn Féin opposes here but promotes in the North, is helping people to buy affordable housing.

There is also support for private investment in housing. That is necessary because most people want to own their own home. That means private housing, private enterprise and private developers, all of which Sinn Féin opposes and which it would essentially drive out of the housing market, thus resulting in less housing supply. What was emblematic of Sinn Féin's approach was what it did in Donabate in Dublin Fingal, the county in which I live and not too far from my constituency.

Sinn Féin, for ideological reasons, voted against more than 200 social houses because 600 private houses were going to be built on the same site. The party was so ideologically opposed to private housing and homeownership that it was willing to vote against social housing as well. Does the Deputy believe homeownership should be higher? It is now roughly 65%. Does Sinn Féin think that percentage should be higher, or does it secretly believe in less homeownership? Does the party want a higher percentage of housing in public ownership and a lower percentage in private ownership? I would like to know that, because there has never been an answer to the question of whether Sinn Féin believes in increasing the percentage of homeownership and in more people owning their own homes. I would love to hear the Deputy's answer in that regard.

I thank the Tánaiste. I call Deputy Ó Broin.

Regarding the Deputy’s specific question-----

No, we are over time.

-----on the housing budget and the budget for social housing, that is under consideration at the moment.

I thank the Tánaiste.

The Deputy knows it is. The national development plan, NDP, review and the Housing for All document are all being considered now. Of course we want to increase social housing provision and the social housing budget-----

There are four minutes to answer, and I thank the Tánaiste.

-----as much as we can. However, there are also other demands, and the Deputy is aware of this. Health, education and welfare all have to be catered for.

There are four minutes for the Tánaiste to reply. I call Deputy Ó Broin, who has one minute.

If ever there was a lesson in Orwellian doublespeak and dishonesty, we have just heard it from the Tánaiste. The key problem is that almost every single policy this Government has introduced has pushed up house prices and rents. The help to buy scheme pushed up house prices. Rent pressure zones, RPZs, pushed up rental costs. The shared equity loan scheme, which we will debate later today, has been criticised by everybody, including councillors in the Tánaiste's own party. Sinn Féin is the only large party on the floor of the Dáil that year after year has said that 8,000 affordable homes should be built annually. To answer the Tánaiste's question directly, half of those, 4,000 homes, would be affordable purchase for aspiring homeowners. How many affordable homes has this Government delivered for renters and purchasers in ten years? Not a single one through any Government scheme. It is time, therefore, for the Tánaiste to wake up and realise the extent of the Government’s failures. It is time to own up to the misery and heartache being caused for tens of thousands of families, correct the error of these ways and invest in the homes that working people desperately need and rightly deserve.

I call the Tánaiste to reply.

I note that I answered the Deputy’s question regarding the budget for social housing. I note, however, that he did not answer my question-----

I did not ask about social housing. I asked about public housing, and surely the Tánaiste understands the difference between the two.

I ask the Deputy to please let the Tánaiste reply.

I do understand the difference between the two and I answered the Deputy’s question, and the same thing applies. Social housing is an element of the public housing budget, which has a wider definition. I did answer the Deputy’s question on that matter. It is under consideration in respect of the national development review and the Housing for All document. We want to increase that budget by as much as possible, but there are also other demands which we must take into account in health, education, welfare, other infrastructure and climate action. We will do as much as we can in all those areas, but it is dishonest to think we can do the maximum in all areas, because that simply does not add up. The Deputy, however, did not answer my question regarding whether his party supports trying to achieve 70% home ownership, and that is because he does not. He pretends and masquerades around the place pretending to be somebody-----

We deliver 4,000 affordable purchase homes per year. How many has the Tánaiste delivered?

The Deputy interrupts me. His party has delivered zero.

How many has the Tánaiste delivered?

In Northern Ireland, his party's shared ownership scheme is not dissimilar to ours

We deliver 4,000 affordable purchase homes annually.

Again, however, the Deputy interrupts and barracks me. He will not answer the fundamental question that Sinn Féin refuses to answer. Does the party actually agree with an increase in home ownership?

I thank the Tánaiste. He has benefited from the clock.

Does Sinn Féin want to see 70% of people owning their own homes in Ireland?

No, it does not.

Please, Tánaiste.

Looking at the party's affordable housing policy, particularly when it comes to affordable homes-----

We want affordable homes for working people, and not tax breaks for big landlords and sweetheart land deals for developers.

----it's policy for affordable homes is leasehold and not freehold-----

There is no point, Tánaiste, in-----

People who buy affordable homes from the Government scheme will own them, while those who go for the Sinn Féin scheme will not own them. Sinn Féin wants to be those people’s landlord.

The Tánaiste is being disrespectful.

There is no point in having time limits and in having a Chairperson here, Tánaiste, if we are not going to comply with them please. I call Deputy Róisín Shortall.

When precisely did the Tánaiste become seriously concerned about the proposed new national maternity hospital deal? Last week, the Tánaiste told this House that there were fundamental problems with two aspects of the deal, namely, ownership and governance. Given that I have been telling the Tánaiste exactly that for the past four years, I am quite curious as to when he finally saw the light. His comments in the House last week were surprising in several respects. First, it had been pointed out to him for years by myself and others that this deal is manifestly bad for the public. Yet the Tánaiste blithely ignored all those warnings. Whenever I have raised concerns about ownership, governance and ethos, I have been fobbed off with assurances that a legal framework was all that was outstanding. Work started on that legal framework in 2017. Four years later, however, there is still no sign of it.

There is a second reason the Tánaiste's comments were unexpected. He complained bitterly about the proposed 99-year lease, saying it was not satisfactory and that we should own the site. It was his Government, however, that proposed a lease in the first place. Back in 2017, officials in the Department of Health had to twist the arms of the members of the board of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group to get them to even consider a lease. That is all laid out in the correspondence released by St Vincent’s Healthcare Group this week. In July 2019, however, the Tánaiste referred to the proposed lease himself in this House. He said that St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group had agreed in principle to provide the State with a 99-year lease of the land upon which the new maternity hospital will be built. The Tánaiste framed it as a win for the State that St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group had agreed to provide a lease. The St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group has been criticised for the curt letter it released this week, and certainly much of it does not stand up to scrutiny. However, I can only imagine the shock and amazement of the St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group at the latest comments from the Tánaiste.

This mess has the fingerprints of the Tánaiste's party’s fingerpri all over it. The former Deputy and Minister for Health, James Reilly, announced the project in 2013, the next Minister in the Department of Health was the now Tánaiste and he was followed as Minister by Deputy Simon Harris. Finally, last year, the current Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was given what can only be described as the poisoned chalice. I am curious, therefore, given the longevity of this crisis, about what prompted the Tánaiste to get to his feet in this House last week and express serious concern. Was there something significant about the timing? This is an issue that voters in Dublin Bay South care deeply about, and perhaps their concern has been a catalyst for some long overdue action. In light of yesterday’s debate, what steps does the Tánaiste's Government now intend to take to ensure the new publicly-funded national maternity hospital is constructed on land owned by the State? Will it now be guaranteed that the new facility will be fully owned and governed by the State?

I am sorry Deputy, but we are over time.

Is serious consideration being given to Tallaght Hospital, St James’s Hospital or anywhere else?

I thank the Deputy. Like her, I have been always interested in this project and I have always had concerns about it. What prompted me, quite frankly, was a straight question from Deputy Bríd Smith. I would not have answered that question had I not been asked it. As the Deputy pointed out in her remarks, it might have been two or three years since I was last asked publicly or in this House to give my views on the new national maternity hospital project. I am conscious that negotiations have been under way during that period, and I have been restrained in what I have said.

Regarding the position of the Government, this Government and, indeed, the previous Government which I led, it has always been one that has favoured co-location over integration, that has insisted that the new hospital, like the existing one, must be clinically and operationally independent and that any gynaecological or obstetrical procedure which is lawful in this State must be provided for in this hospital. We want to own the hospital and, ideally, to own the land as well. We also want proper representation on the board, and the governance aspect is as important as the ownership of the land, if not more so. That is my position and it has not changed.

For the record, in 2017 and 2018, two memos for information were brought to Government. I checked this with the Cabinet secretariat. No memo for decision was brought to Government, and no memo decision has yet been brought to Government. Therefore, a Government decision on the lease and on the governance aspect has yet to be made. It was not made by the previous Government and it has not yet been made by this Government. Had it been made back in 2017 or 2018, I assume the project would have gone to tender by now. However, it did not. I reiterate that two memos for information went to Government and no memo for decision, and that still has not happened. We are where we are in that regard.

The Government is committed to the development of this hospital. It is planned for the St. Vincent’s University Hospital campus at Elm Park, and that is set out in the programme for Government. We have not given examination to alternative sites. What we must do now is to conclude the governance arrangements necessary to ensure protection of this public investment for the public good and, in particular, to ensure there is an absolute, legally binding assurance that all legally permissible obstetrical and gynaecological services will be provided in the new hospital as they are currently in Holles Street.

There is universal agreement in this House that this must be done.

The project is unprecedented and inherently complex because it involves relocating one voluntary hospital onto the campus of another, neither of which hospital the State owns or controls at present. What is different now is that the State is going to invest hundreds of millions of euro in a new building on that campus, which changes things in my view and in the view of the Government. We have clear legal advice that the draft legal framework ensures that all legally permissible medical services will be provided in the new hospital and we are having that double checked at present.

On the 99 year lease, the Government was not satisfied with that which is why negotiations continued and why the idea of a further 50-year extension was proposed. That matter is far from concluded.

It is really a bit rich for the Tánaiste to say he expressed serious concerns just because he happened to be asked a question here. The mantra from the Government has been that the Mulvey deal is the solution. Does the Tánaiste now accept that the Mulvey deal is the problem? Apart from the issue of the lease of the site, what the Mulvey deal sets out is a corporate structure which entails St. Vincent's owning the full operation of the new national maternity hospital. Under that deal, the national maternity hospital company is to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of St. Vincent's. Is that not the nub of the problem?

In my mind, we departed from the Mulvey agreement some time ago. Mr. Mulvey was appointed by the former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to-----


If possible, I would like to answer the question. As I was about to say, the Mulvey agreement has, in my mind at least, already been departed from by the Government in certain aspects. Initially, the building was not to be owned by the State. It is my understanding that this has now been resolved and the State will own the building. That was not originally the case in the Mulvey agreement. Discussions are ongoing around the composition of the board of the national maternity hospital. Initially there was to be no representation. Now there is one public interest director but we are not satisfied with that.

The Mulvey agreement is an agreement between St. Vincent's and the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street. The Government is aware of that but has never said that was the end of it-----

The Government has continued with it-----

We have not. We have changed it on the lease and on the ownership of the hospital, for example, since then.

I am not going to play the blame game. I want to help by coming up with solutions to help young families to get homes. Today I want to raise the very important issue of mortgage affordability, particularly for first-time buyers. As we all know, this country is in the middle of a housing crisis and while it is true that the main issue is the supply of affordable housing, another issue that can be addressed immediately is the very restrictive lending rules imposed by the Central Bank.

In my home town of Dundalk the rental price for a three-bedroom family home ranges from €1,300 to €1,800 per month. When for sale, those same houses are generally on the market for between €200,000 to €270,000. A quick calculation indicates that the average monthly mortgage repayment for these homes would be between €900 and €1,200. Under the current Central Bank rules, a young family is expected to save approximately €2,000 per month towards a deposit as well as pay rent of up to €1,800 per month. The Tánaiste will agree that this is not realistic. If a young family can afford to and can demonstrate that they are paying rent at a higher level than a comparable mortgage, it is clear that they can afford such a mortgage. A simple solution is to amend the rules to allow first-time buyers to include the rent paid for a period of three years as a virtual deposit on their mortgage application. This would clearly demonstrate their ability to repay a mortgage and remove the draconian rules which mean they have to save for a deposit while also paying ridiculously high rents. It does not add up and it does not make sense.

The figures for my home town of Dundalk show that a young family hoping to purchase their first home would have to save an average of €2,000 per month while paying rent of approximately €1,500 per month, a total of €3,500 per month. This means that the family would need a gross income of approximately €5,500 per month, or a gross annual salary of €66,000, just to pay their monthly rent and save for a deposit. This does not take account of other outgoings like food, utility and medical bills. It is clear that this is not a realistic situation for young first-time buyers in Ireland. At this rate they will be condemned to a lifetime of paying high rents, most likely to vulture funds. The Government must act now to deal with this very serious issue. People should be able to buy their first home but to earn €66,000 means, in many cases, two people working.

The Government is looking for solutions to the housing crisis and I am not here to play a blame game. Will the Government consider my suggestion regarding a virtual deposit?

The Deputy made some very good points in his remarks. As the House will be aware, the objective of the Central Bank macro prudential mortgage lending rules is to mitigate systemic risk and promote financial stability, to increase the resilience of the banking sector and households to the property market and to reduce the risk of credit spirals from developing in future. They are there to avoid a boom and bust in home values, people ending up in negative equity and a future banking crisis. They are there to prevent the mistakes of the past being repeated.

However, we must make sure that we are not fighting the last war when it comes to mortgages. The mortgage rules have very much helped to keep a lid on house price inflation, which is a good thing but they have also driven up rents, which is not a good thing. Like Deputy Fitzpatrick, I would know and would have been contacted by many people who are paying very high rents of between €1,600 and €1,800 per month. They are struggling but are managing to pay them and yet they cannot get a mortgage of €1,500 per month. They cannot get a mortgage for a lower amount than they are currently spending on rent and they find that difficult to accept and so do I. With this in mind, the Central Bank has indicated that it will carry out an in-depth review of lending rules over the course of this year and into next year. I would encourage the bank to expedite that review and the public consultation that it intends to carry out, through which it will hear the voices of people who are caught in the rent trap in this way, paying higher rents than they would pay if they were able to get a mortgage they could afford.

In assessing a borrower's ability to repay a mortgage, lenders can and do take account of applicants' existing financial commitments, including their rental payments. However, there is a significant difference between a rental contract and a mortgage contract to purchase a home and this must be borne in mind. A house purchase and associated mortgage contract usually has a more long-term character than a rental contract which leaves the house purchaser or mortgage borrower more exposed if there is a future shock to his or her income, house prices or interest rate, for a longer period.

The Central Bank mortgage macro prudential measures apply certain loan to value and loan to income restrictions to residential mortgage lending by financial institutions. In general, the maximum mortgage limits are 3.5 times the borrower's income and for first-time buyers, 90% of the value of the residential property. For second and subsequent buyers, the maximum mortgage limits are 3.5 times the borrower's income and 80% of the value of the home. However, banks have some flexibility at their discretion to provide mortgage loans in excess of the specified regulatory limits but it is a commercial matter for lenders as to whether they avail of this discretion. For example, up to 5% of lending to first-time buyers can be above the 90% threshold and up to 20% of lending to second-time borrowers can exceed the 80% threshold. Furthermore, up to 20% of lending to first-time buyers can exceed the 3.5 times income limit.

All we will be doing this year and next is passing the buck. These young people need hope. There are houses for sale in my home town of Dundalk for between €200,000 and €270,000. These people are working hard and are putting their whole lives on hold to try to get a family home. I am not going to be like Sinn Féin and engage in a blame game over this. The Government has asked for solutions and I am suggesting one. I want this Government to commit to helping these families to get a home. These young families are coming to my constituency office on a regular basis. They are working morning, noon and night and doing shift work. These are working class people who get up early in the morning to go to work and they need help. What am I to say to them? Am I to tell them "No"? They can afford to pay their rent but they cannot afford to also gather the money for a deposit. They can show that they could pay back a mortgage. I am seeking a commitment from this Government.

I ask it to sit down with the Central Bank and put a bit of pressure on it. These people are stuck in the middle. They cannot get on the council list because they earn too much. Realistically, they are going for houses that a lot of work has to be done on. It is their families, friends and relations who will give them a hand with that work. They want something to start with. I ask the Tánaiste not to tell me that something will happen next year or the year after. I am looking for a commitment that the Government will consider this virtual deposit to help these families get the deposit and get on the ladder for the first time.

I hear the Deputy and I am sympathetic with what he has to say. As I said earlier, many people are paying €1,800 or €2,000 in rent per month. They could afford a mortgage of €1,500 and would be better off if they could get that mortgage but they cannot do so. I hear what the Deputy is saying and I hear that from people all of the time but I am not passing the buck in saying that the Central Bank is independent. It is independent and for good reasons. It sets interest rates independently of the political process and it puts macroprudential rules in place to avoid a repeat of the mistakes of the past, including the creation of a housing bubble, which all of us in this House want to avoid.

The Central Bank has regular engagement with the Minister for Finance and the Government. I met the Governor of the Central Bank about this matter some years ago in my previous role as Taoiseach. It is now carrying out a review of the mortgage rules. I am asking it to do that expeditiously, properly and well, but also to do so as quickly as possible. It is welcome that the Central Bank is having a public consultation. I hope that people who are trapped in this situation will take part in the public consultation and that the Central Bank will hear the voice of people in that regard. It has a major role to play in ensuring financial stability and in making sure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. However, it cannot be blind either to the unintended consequences, which may be rents going as high they have gone and people feeling that they will never be able to buy a home of their own.

I worked in the construction sector for many years, be it in housing, pipework or whatever. Last Saturday night, I watched the news and the headline from the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis was the Tánaiste announcing that Fine Gael was committing to building 40,000 houses every year. That is great if the Tánaiste knows of a way to do this, but as someone who has worked in the sector for many years, I asked myself what cunning plan our Tánaiste has come up with.

Besides the point of having even half of it as affordable or social housing, about €10 billion would be needed with another €10 billion needed from the private sector. Can the Tánaiste tell me how we will get over the obstacle that there are 200 quarries in a planning quagmire? Can he tell me how the 14,000 or 15,000 houses that are on judicial review are going to get sorted? Unfortunately, things are being challenged day in, day out. Can the Tánaiste tell me why the forward planning of Irish Water is not funded for the next four to five years? I talk to Irish Water on a regular basis. If that funding is not put in place, there will be a problem.

The Tánaiste might not know about a thing called DoneDeal. If one looks around Dublin or in any other city, one will see that there are no lorry drivers available to take muck away from sites. One cannot get a theory test or even apply for a driving licence if one wants to go down that road. Blocklaying in a rural house in a rural area is gone from €6,000 to €16,000. The price of timber is gone up by 46%. I have spoken to the Tánaiste personally about the saga in Ireland but it is not only in Ireland. Timber is brought in as well and it is a bidding market. It is not about getting materials or the price of same but it is a question of whether the materials can be got because America and other countries are giving better prices when the boats are on the high seas.

I know the Tánaiste has spoken about apprenticeships before. We seem to put people who are accountants or whatever on a pedestal, and rightly so, but we do not seem to put the person who is the blocklayer, who is in what I call the wet trades or any apprentice on the same pedestal of people who go down a different road. Whether we like it or not, if we do not have the people who can drive the digger, lay the pipe, put down the tar, lay the blocks or do the steel structure, we will not have someone doing it with a computer. I am asking the Tánaiste if he can shed light on this for me because it is like Christy Moore's song; I thought about it for a while and "The dream turned into a nightmare" for me when I started asking myself how we will get around all of these obstacles.

The other part of this is that we had the climate action Bill last week. The Greens, who are delusional in my world, believe we will reduce emissions when we need to build 40,000 houses per year. I do not disagree with the Tánaiste on that, but I ask him to tell me how we can square the circle.

I know there are few people in this House, including me, who spend much time reading the manifestos of political parties but the commitment to increase housing supply to 35,000 to 40,000 new homes was contained in the Fine Gael manifesto for the last general election. I restated that ambition at the weekend and I stand over the fact that I did so. Back in 2016, we were only building 5,000 to 6,000 homes per year. We are now up to around 20,000 homes per year, notwithstanding the fact that construction was blighted by the pandemic. We used to build 80,000 homes per year and I believe that setting the ambition of getting to 40,000 per year is ambitious but realistic. It is double where we are now and half where we were during the housing boom some time ago. I am not saying we can do it next year - do not get me wrong on that. That is certainly not what I said, but I think we can scale up to that target. We think there will be about 20,000 public and private builds this year and perhaps we can go to 25,000, 30,000, 35,000 and 40,000 or perhaps we can go a bit faster to 27,000, 34,000 and 41,000. That is the kind of thing we are talking about in the Government as we put together the "Housing for All" policy, which is the Government's new housing policy, replacing Rebuilding Ireland.

I see Davy Group suggested in its report today that this is not enough. It said that we need to build 200,000 new homes in three years. Unfortunately, I do not believe it is possible to scale up to 60,000 or 70,000 homes per year in such a timeframe. I take the Deputy's point that if it was easy to do, it would have been done by now. It is not easy. We have issues around access to capital, both for the Government and private builders. We also have issues around a shortage of skilled labour and the availability of serviced land by Irish Water and by local authorities. We also have issues around the planning process, which takes a long time in this State and often ends up stuck in judicial reviews. We also have issues around the availability of materials. Steel is becoming more expensive and less available because of this central bank-fuelled boom around the world. Central banks have printed €9 trillion and that has driven up the cost of commodities, with a boom happening in China for example.

While they might not say it publicly, everyone in this House privately understands that there is nobody in this House who would not like to see more houses built as quickly as possible but there are lots of constraints that are not always under our control. We will do our best to deal with them as best we can, however. That involves increasing Government investment in public housing, of which social housing will be the major part. It also involves the Government investing in apprenticeships and the Deputy will know what the Minister, Deputy Harris, is doing in that regard. That is having some real success in getting more people into apprenticeships in line with the target of 10,000 apprenticeships per year. It will mean the Government trying to make sure that more sites are serviced through programmes such as the local infrastructure housing activation fund and the capital budget of Irish Water. Beyond that, there will be things outside of our control, such as the availability of materials, one of which the Deputy mentioned.

I thank the Tánaiste for his answer. The first thing that needs to be realised is that we need to get away the cycle of boom and bang. That is why people are reluctant to go into apprenticeships. While the Minister, Deputy Harris, is bringing stuff forward, and I welcome that, there does not seem to be a lot of movement in the wet trades.

The other side of it is that there seems to be a ferocious focus on cities. If one were to look at the price of land in the smaller towns or villages, one would get better value for money. We also need to be sure about the likes of procurement. What seems to happen in this country is that one big guy applies for permission for 500 or 600 houses. Many smaller builders would not have the capital to be in that league but would be well capable of building four or five houses. Much makes more and the Government should give those small builders the opportunity to do that, as well as trying to bring older houses in rural areas back into use and giving incentives for same.

If the Tánaiste does not knuckle down over the next six months to tackle the different problems I have highlighted, having looked at the industry, they will never be solved and we will never get to our target of 40,000 houses. We must sort out the planning issues and all the other issues I have highlighted because they are causing problems and logjams in the housing industry.

I thank the Deputy and do not disagree with what he is saying. There are many different bottlenecks and points where one can run into trouble in terms of housing construction. All of those bottlenecks must be dealt with to allow for a clear and flowing pipeline of houses, which is what we want. I agree with the Deputy that every town and village in Ireland should be able to expand. I do not mean a return to sprawl or to development distant from the major cities, but any town in Ireland should be able to expand and we need to ensure that is reflected in our planning laws. Smaller builders who can build houses in fours and fives, relatively inexpensively and on relatively small sites, can make a big difference for people. That is a part of what Home Building Finance Ireland, HBFI, is supposed to be doing in lending to those small builders. It is doing that, although perhaps not to the extent it should be.

The Deputy is also right when he says that meeting the target of 40,000 houses per year as soon as possible, although we have not yet decided what year that will happen, is not just about building new houses from scratch. It must also be about bringing derelict houses back into use. Although I would not count such projects in the 40,000, we also need to ensure that vacant properties are brought back into use.