Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Local Authorities

Joe Carey

Question:

6. Deputy Joe Carey asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he will urgently review and increase the table of maximum net income limits in social housing assessments regulations applicable for County Clare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33433/21]

Maurice Quinlivan

Question:

20. Deputy Maurice Quinlivan asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he will report on the discussions that have been held within his Department regarding increasing the income threshold for those wishing to apply for social housing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33512/21]

Will the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage urgently review and increase the table of maximum net income limits in social housing assessments regulations applicable to County Clare?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 20 together.

Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority, in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, as amended. The 2011 regulations prescribe maximum net income limits for each local authority, in different bands according to the area concerned, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy.

Under the household means policy, which applies in all local authority areas, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI, universal social charge and additional superannuation contribution. The policy provides for a range of income disregards and local authorities also have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short-term or once-off in nature.

The income bands are expressed in terms of a maximum net income threshold for a single-person household, with an allowance of 5% for each additional adult household member, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%, and a separate 2.5% allowance for each child.

The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band were based on an assessment of the income needed to provide for a household's basic needs in addition to a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation across the country. It is important to note that the limits introduced in 2011 also reflected a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn, both promoting sustainable communities and providing a degree of future-proofing.

Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. The current income eligibility requirements generally achieve this, providing for a fair and equitable system of identifying those households facing the greatest challenge. However, as part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports in each local authority area is currently under way within the Department.

I thank the Minister of State very much for his reply. This is an ongoing issue, particularly in County Clare. People contact me every day of the week who are just over that maximum threshold, which is set at €25,000.

There is a question of equity. There is a much higher threshold in Limerick than in Clare. This needs to be reviewed urgently. I welcome the Minister of State's confirmation that the process is ongoing. When does he expect that the review will be concluded? Is it on an individual basis? Can County Clare be brought in line with County Limerick, our closest neighbour?

I acknowledge that Deputy Carey has consistently raised this issue over the past number of months. It is important and, like him, I can see vulnerable people coming into clinics who need support and assistance with social housing. The review is ongoing. The review will be done in the context of the Affordable Housing Bill and its impact. Current schemes include the direct build scheme, the shared equity scheme, and increasing Part V numbers to 20% for social and affordable housing. The Land Development Agency will deliver social, affordable and cost-rental housing at scale. We will hopefully complete this review to assess the impact of those when the legislation passes the Oireachtas. I can see that issues with different local authority bands raise a significant issue with Clare and Limerick, as Deputy Carey rightly acknowledged. We are working hard on this and we will hopefully complete the review later this year.

This issue has a negative impact on people and families. A constituent was in touch with me this week. Unfortunately this lady is over the income threshold. She is in receipt of the family income supplement. It is hard to understand why she would not be eligible for consideration for social housing. This has a negative impact on people's lives and ability to qualify for housing. This is urgent and I ask the Minister of State to ensure that this is brought to a conclusion at the earliest opportunity. County Clare, with the maximum threshold, should have more people who actually need housing become eligible.

I echo that call. I grew up in Clare. There were many county council estates and they were mixed. We all thought they were good and Government policy still promotes that. If the threshold is set where it is in Clare, if two people in a household are working or even if just one person is working and is just a little over the minimum wage, those people are not entitled to go on the social housing list. Effectively, only people in receipt of social welfare can get social housing in Clare because of where the limits are set. I have no problem with people in receipt of social welfare getting social housing but it should not be limited to that because it will cause ghettoisation of social housing, which nobody thinks is a good thing, and there is a disincentive to work, especially when it is low-paid work. We need to look at those income thresholds for the sake of society and housing in Clare, to even get back to where we were in the 1980s.

I acknowledge what Deputy Carey said. He is right that a key to unlocking this issue is income disregards. He pointed out the case of a family that he has been dealing with. Local authorities have discretion regarding payments that are one-off or temporary in nature and can disregard them. There is potentially more space for such discretion because vulnerable people in receipt of income supports such as the working family payment currently exceed the amounts in the housing means test. We will look at that. It should be seen in the context of the Affordable Housing Bill. We need mixed tenure developments. In some quarters in the House, we hear people call for that and yet they consistently vote against it. It is interesting to hear the debate about the Oscar Traynor site and other big sites in Dublin that are still lying idle and derelict.

Will the Minister of State address my question? He addressed Deputy Carey. I appreciate that I am not in Fine Gael and have no intention of joining Fine Gael but I should not have to join Fine Gael to have my questions answered.

I am moving on to the next question. The Deputy did not table a written question. I allowed him in, which is the discretion of the Chair. The Minister of State has answered and I am moving on.

Housing Provision

Cathal Crowe

Question:

7. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of the progression of social housing developments in County Clare. [33609/21]

I ask the Minister how social housing schemes are progressing in County Clare. Some 18 months ago, as mayor of Clare County Council, I signed a number of contracts in conjunction with the then Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, to deliver social housing. I want to know how that is progressing. Has the Minister any other good news this morning?

There is lots of good news. To answer the Deputy's question, there is also good news for County Clare because we have a housing plan backed with real resources and the largest housing budget in the history of the State, which the Deputy supported, underpinned by investment of €3.3 billion in housing programmes in budget 2021. We have a national target of 12,750 social homes, 9,500 of which are new builds. There will be an impact due to Covid but we are doing our best to make up as much lost ground as we can. In County Clare, the council set a target for this year to deliver 227 new social homes, with 195 new builds. That shows the emphasis that the Government has and that Deputy Crowe had as mayor in pushing towards new builds and increasing our housing stock.

The social housing construction status report is published each quarter and provides scheme-level data on newly built social housing in every local authority area, including Clare. Details about the stage of each project can be found in the status report. The most recent report covered the period until the end of the first quarter of 2020 and provides details of 47 separate social housing schemes across Clare. Since 2016, 245 homes have been completed in 29 schemes. The report also shows that 177 homes are in progress across nine schemes right now, with a further 128 in Clare at various stages of the design and pre-tender process. It is a significant pipeline of homes that we will increase further in the housing for all plan which the Government will publish in the coming weeks.

It is good to see progress. I thank the Minister. I am sure that we would all agree that this cannot happen quickly enough. I pay tribute to Anne Haugh, the director of service for housing, and her team. It is a tricky area to work in. We, as Deputies, bombard them with representations from people who need and are desperate to get housing. A few things need to be looked at urgently, including social housing income bands. Eligibility limits need to be urgently reviewed because Clare is currently in the lowest band, which is band 3. A review of housing assistance payment, HAP, maximum rent payments is needed. Housing assistance payments in Clare were the third lowest in the country, at €550, with two parents and three children. In Ennis, the average private rental cost is €1,000. In the south of the county, in places such as Westbury, a three-bed semi-detached house, which is a modest house, has a rental cost of €1,400. HAP does not correlate to the market values for renting.

I thank Deputy Crowe. There is a committed and dedicated housing team in Clare County Council. I intend to visit in July to look at some of the schemes myself. I look forward to meeting the Deputy there. We need to increase new stock. We have outlined that and will be ambitious. We also need to look at existing stock. Clare County Council, through the work of its housing director, chief executive, and teams on the ground, was successful last year and brought 77 vacant homes back into use with funding of €1.5 million that I provided. Those are 77 homes that were not in use and are now back in use. This year, Clare County Council is targeting 119 vacant homes to bring back into use for people on the social housing list, with funding of €1.7 million which the Government provided for Clare. We need to and will build more homes but we need to better use the existing stock. In less than two years, we will have brought back nearly 200 vacant homes in Clare for the use of our citizens and that is good.

I thank the Minister. Returning the voids to use and getting people into those homes is important. It is awful to see a house boarded up or lying idle. On the theme of housing in Clare, I raise the issue of Traveller accommodation.

The issue of Traveller accommodation has received a great deal of coverage in recent months. At times, the media and many people round on the local authorities and criticise them in that regard. I want to put that in context in County Clare. Fifty per cent of the homeless people in Clare are Traveller families. This area is hugely resource-intensive and the council has been seeking the assistance of the Department by way of submissions for funding, in particular for a housing welfare manager to oversee the homeless action team. I hope the Minister will consider that. He knows this sector well. It is resource-intensive and without the right supports it flounders. Building houses is one response. Addressing the plethora of issues in terms of sifting through applicants and drilling down into their familial issues requires resourcing. I hope the Minister will make some positive announcements in that regard very shortly.

Deputy Cathal Crowe referred to the contract that he signed as mayor of Clare. I recall thinking at the time that the houses were among the most expensive social houses ever built in Clare, but he explained that was because of the increase in build standards required - be that as it may. My question to the Minister relates to how much more expensive the building of these houses has become as a result of materials inflation, which is an issue I raised earlier. This affects one-off builds, but it also affects the capacity of local authorities to deliver houses. There is huge material inflation, especially, but not just, in timber. The Minister may not have this answer off the top of his head, but how much more will the houses for which Deputy Crowe signed the contract when he was mayor of Clare cost because of inflation, because of Covid or for any other reason? We all know that house building is becoming increasingly expensive.

I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank the director of services at Clare County Council, Anne Haugh, and all of the team in the housing section who do Trojan work for the people of County Clare. I welcome that the Minister will visit County Clare in July. There is a particular need for an affordable housing scheme to be rolled out throughout the county. I ask the Minister to reference that in his remarks.

We have very strong representation from the banner county this morning. It is good to see the Deputies working together to deliver homes for our people.

My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, is doing Trojan work in the area of Traveller accommodation, with a budget of €15.5 million that will be and is being spent, all of it being used on the capital side. We want to see our local authorities using the funds that are being provided by the Government to deliver Traveller-specific accommodation. The Minister of State is dealing with that matter on a daily basis across all local authorities, including Clare County Council.

On the question posed by Deputy McNamara, there have been material increases in timber, plastics and metals, some of it Covid-related and some of it Suez- and supply chain-related. This is being monitored by the Department's market surveillance unit. The increases we are seeing could be temporary, but we are monitoring the situation. The Deputy asked if this has an effect on delivery. There is no question that it does.

Deputy Carey raised the issue of affordable housing. The Deputy will know, because he has been an ardent supporter of the Affordable Housing Bill 2021, that the Bill comes before the Dáil today. It is the most significant affordable housing Bill in the history of the State and will impact positively on County Clare.

Referendum Campaigns

Steven Matthews

Question:

8. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the position regarding the referendum on the right to housing as set out in the programme for Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33361/21]

The programme for Government commits to a referendum on the right to housing. When I raised the issue in the House with the Tánaiste two or three months ago, he indicated that a commission on housing will be tasked with dealing with that process. What is the position on the commission on housing, will the referendum be a priority for that commission and when can we expect to see a possible wording for that constitutional change?

The Deputy is correct that the programme for Government contains a commitment to provide for the holding of a referendum on housing. It also commits to establishing a commission on housing to examine issues such as tenure, standards, sustainability and quality-of-life issues in the provision of housing. It is planned that the commission on housing will review the commitment to hold a referendum on housing once it has been formally established in September of this year. The chair designate for the commission was announced in May and work is advancing on the finalisation of the terms of reference and membership of the commission, and associated reporting requirements.

There are a number of scheduled referendums in the programme for Government. In terms of my remit in electoral reform, it is the case that the Taoiseach will be considering all of these in sequence. The Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality has proposed another referendum. There is a schedule. My preference is that such referendums should be stand-alone referendums on specific days. Getting through the schedule of referendums is going to be a challenge.

I thank the Minister of State for the positive news that progress is being made on the matter and that the commission will be active in September. A couple of months ago the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage had a good engagement with Home for Good. We fully understand the complexity of changing the Constitution. Later today, we will debate the Affordable Housing Bill 2021. I hope that it will be passed and that we will also soon pass the Land Development Agency Bill, which will see a large-scale roll-out of affordable housing, social housing and, importantly, cost-rental housing. I welcome the Minister's comments this morning on the housing for all strategy and the targets and objectives to be set in that regard, as well as the record budget that this Government has set aside for the delivery of that much-needed affordable housing. The referendum on the right to housing would add to the suite of measures that the Government is introducing to provide housing and it makes sense that it would be enshrined in the Constitution by way of legislation as soon as possible.

Again, the Deputy is correct. The work of the Government is underpinning a right to housing. Housing is being delivered at a scale of pace. As my colleagues have said, there is a record capital budget for this year and that will continue into the future until we make serious inroads into the housing crisis. It is important to note that the right to housing in recognised in Europe in the constitutions of Belgium, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden and in legislation in Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the UK. Around the world, the right to housing is included in 81 constitutions. There is good precedence for the commission on housing to look to other jurisdictions in getting the wording correct on a right to housing. The proposal has to be delivered in the correct way and, as has been said, in a way that does not deliver any unforeseen consequences. The Government's approach to housing is on a rights base. We are keen to deliver over the term of this Government.

I welcome the Minister of State's comments, which are very positive. I assure him that the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage is available and willing to engage on this matter when progress is made on it. I understand that the Department is under a great deal of pressure as it develops legislation on marine planning, housing and many other issues. I hope there will be no delay in relation to the referendum. As I said, the committee is willing to engage on and support it.

We will move on to Questions Nos. 10 and 50.

Is Deputy Ó Broin not here to take Question No. 9?

I ask the Deputy to proceed with Question No. 10.

Sinn Féin is still on a break, perhaps.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Vacant Properties

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Question:

10. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of his engagement with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council with regard to vacant homes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33882/21]

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

50. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the details of his Department's most recent interactions, meetings and briefings with the vacant homes officers assigned to each local authority; the details of key targets to bring public and private vacant homes back into use; if specific targets have been issued to local authorities in respect of the targets for 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33864/21]

My question is about the Minister's engagement with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in respect of vacant homes. Only 29 vacant properties have been brought back into use in the area through the various schemes introduced over the last three or four years. Is there a particular difficulty in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area in comparison with comparable councils such as Fingal County Council, Galway City Council and so on? I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Deputy for the question. I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 50 together.

I have had no direct interaction with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council recently in respect of specific issues related to vacant housing. Officials of my Department are, however, in ongoing contact with local authorities on issues related to vacant housing, providing advice and guidance where appropriate. A series of briefing sessions for vacant home officers was organised between March and June 2020 and there is ongoing engagement with those officers as issues arise.

The national vacant housing reuse strategy, which was published by my Department in 2018, provides a targeted, effective and co-ordinated approach to identifying and tackling vacancy across the country.

The range of objectives and actions it specifies have been pursued in partnership with stakeholders and agencies across the housing sector to address vacancy in our housing stock. In that context, all 31 local authorities have prepared a vacant homes action plan for their respective administrative areas. These plans identify the scale of vacant homes in their jurisdiction and set ambitious but realistic targets for the number of vacant homes that can ultimately be brought back into use. In that regard, my Department and the local authorities are being proactive in dealing with vacant properties and there are a number of schemes available to incentivise reactivating suitable dwellings into liveable housing stock.

My Department continues to keep vacant homes schemes and the various functions of the vacant homes officers under review, with ongoing feedback from those officers. I am anxious to ensure that best practice is implemented more consistently across local government and intend to address this by way of a circular following on from the new housing strategy, Housing for All, which will be published in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister of State. That is encouraging news at a national level. I am concerned about the Dún Laoghaire area because there is a finite amount of space for new builds. The area is bordered by the sea and is already densely populated. We have a challenge, with a sports-mad population, to find green space for children to play. In that context, we really depend on using existing stock efficiently and well. The very helpful vacant homes website that Mayo County Council set up identifies that in May of this year there were 130 vacant homes but I know that is not the universe of vacancy in my area. I refer in particular to over-the-shop units on George's Street in Dún Laoghaire. There are 264 shops on the street, which is 1.2 km long. Dún Laoghaire is an old Victorian town and it has proved very difficult to convert over-the-shop space into residential property for a whole range of reasons, including the need for fire escapes and insurance difficulties. These are opportunities and I know that this is an area in which the Minister of State has a keen interest.

I thank Deputy Carroll MacNeill for her contribution. A vacant homes pilot project took place involving six local authority areas, with two visual inspections six months apart. In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, 1,177 properties were inspected and 21 were deemed to be in long-term dereliction in that functional area following the second inspection. We need to review our plans on vacant properties and are doing so in the context of Housing for All. The Deputy is right to point to the potential to unlock property along a 1.2 km street in her area. Brownfield sites and units above shops may provide suitable accommodation. We really need to ensure that schemes are targeted to unlock the potential that exists and that is one of the key issues I am exploring in the context of the towns first proposal, to give people the opportunity to live over shops which will assist in meeting the demand for housing. We will do our very best to deliver on those policies.

I really appreciate that. As the Minister of State said, this is important on a number of fronts. First, it helps to meet a housing need for different types of family units who need different types of space. Second, it helps to revitalise our towns and increase footfall on the streets. This is not just relevant in the Dún Laoghaire, George's Street area but is such an obvious area to try to target. Third, from a climate perspective it is far more beneficial to intelligently and efficiently use existing stock rather than building new housing, although that is also necessary. It is just inconceivable that as a State we would have vacant and redundant space. I spoke with the architects in Dún Laoghaire about this and about the challenges they face. Clearly the fire escape issue is a difficult one but there are ways of getting around it. The bigger issue is insurance. I urge the Minister of State to have a conversation with the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Fleming, about this because the insurance differential for having commercial space on the ground floor and residential space above seems to be an almost insurmountable difficulty. I would ask that the Minister and the Ministers of State have a discussion with their colleagues in the Department of Finance about this.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill raises a very good point in relation to insurance. This is an issue that we have been looking at in Cork city for the past ten or 12 years. I discussed with the Minister a number of weeks ago the fact that there are 92,000 vacant homes in this State but we have only three full-time vacant home officers. The Minister of State said that a grant of €50,000 is available to local authorities but that is only a drop in the ocean. There are vacant properties in areas where there is insufficient land available to provide housing for people. I accept that the Minister of State is genuine with regard to this issue. I urge him to speak to the Minister and officials in the Department about the possibility of providing more resources in this area. This is a quick way to get housing onto the market and to provide accommodation for people.

This is a very important issue, as the Deputies have just highlighted. In terms of towns first, towards the end of the year we will have firm Government proposals for unlocking some of those sites that are targeted in the national planning framework and bringing them back into use. We must also consider sites, houses and shops on main streets that can be converted through the various schemes which are currently being reviewed by the Minister in the context of Housing for All. It is also important to acknowledge that local authorities have resources available to them, with a grant of €50,000 for vacant homes officers. In many local authorities vacant homes officers are working on numerous other tasks including broadband, for example, but they need to be focused on getting properties back into use. In Cork city, an inspection showed that only 16 properties were vacant over the course of six months. This is something we will have to closely examine but maybe there is not as much low-hanging fruit as some would suggest.

National Parks and Wildlife Service

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

11. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the breakdown of conservation ranger vacancies nationwide over the past two years by region; the length of time the positions have remained unfilled; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33646/21]

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

46. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of plans for the recruitment of new National Parks and Wildlife Service conservation rangers as part of the expansion of the service, in particular in relation to the filling of roles in the Waterford area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33645/21]

These questions are two sides of the same coin and deal with conservation ranger vacancies in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS. The first deals with historical vacancies, the ones that have not been filled for quite some time and asks why that is the case. The second deals with future opportunities and asks what posts will be created and how we plan to recruit for them. I am particularly interested in the area of west Waterford which has been lacking a ranger for a long period.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 46 together.

Given the enforcement role of certain staff in the NPWS and for reasons of operational security, the Department cannot provide details of staffing in the manner requested and I hope the Deputy will appreciate that.

My Department's workforce planning process does not identify vacancies per se across different work sectors, whether arising from retirement or other factors but seeks to identify gaps in service delivery that can be addressed on a priority basis in light of available resources. Staffing levels across the Department, including conservation rangers, are kept under regular review in line with emerging business needs and Government policy on public sector pay and staffing, as advised by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

I have previously confirmed that the filling of up to 60 conservation ranger posts, announced by the Minister in Killarney National Park a number of weeks ago, is a priority for the Department within the requirements of the policy on public sector pay and staffing. A national recruitment process for conservation rangers was advertised late last year and is being managed by the Public Appointments Service, PAS. The process is at an advanced stage, with a panel of successful candidates now in place and the first 20 currently being assigned to locations around Ireland, including Waterford.

Front-line conservation rangers are deployed through a regional structure and assignments are determined in light of departmental business needs and priorities. A calibrated proportion of the expansion of the ranger cohort will be assigned to the Waterford area and similarly across the country. While it is too early to be specific as to the exact number of additional rangers to be assigned to the Waterford area, the proportion of rangers will be pitched at a level to meet local conservation needs and will be based on the outcome of the recruitment process.

I want to use this opportunity to say that we were delighted with the additional intake of rangers this year. We had initially proposed an intake of 20 rangers and there was an initial ten in that. Thanks to the work of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, we were able to up that figure to 60, which is badly needed. Boots on the ground are what we need across the country if we are to tackle the biodiversity crisis.
From visiting our national parks in recent weeks, I want to pay tribute to our conservation rangers and staff in the NPWS across the country. They have done an incredible job throughout the Covid pandemic. Our national parks and nature reserves were open in order to provide refuge and solace to people throughout what has been an incredibly difficult 15 or 16 months. They had to reconfigure our spaces and introduce different systems to manage social distancing. The huge numbers who attended and visited our parks are testament to the great work that has been done by our staff. I was in Connemara last week to see the fantastic work that was done there and the Minister and I were in Killarney National Park following the fires. I pay tribute to our staff on the ground there who managed that difficult situation so well.
We know we are in a biodiversity emergency and that the additional rangers we will take on in the coming months will provide a valuable service, including in the area of west Waterford, which Deputy Ó Cathasaigh has raised. We have a major job of work to do and I am confident that with the additional resources provided through budget 2021 for the NPWS; we will be in a better place where we can meet those demands and manage our national parks in a way that is a safe and happy experience for visitors but that is also good for nature and biodiversity. We are grateful to the organisations throughout the country that partner with our national parks to make them as good an experience for people as possible and to make them safe refuges for nature as well.

I thank the Minister of State for that response. As he will know, Green Party representatives are often the first port of call if something is happening that people identify within their environment that they have a problem with. The speed of reaction is so important because once the tree is cut down, the nest is lost or the hedge is grubbed out - that is it. It is a damage that cannot be undone. That speed and those boots on the ground that the Minister of State talks about are vitally important. I would have come across a number of particularly egregious acts in west Waterford but because there was an absence of a conservation ranger and because the county council is overstretched in this department, by the time there was an official State reaction the damage was done and it could not be undone or unpicked. I welcome this announcement of 60 rangers but I want clear details and timelines on when those posts will be filled.

As I stated, the first intake of 20 rangers will be deployed in the coming weeks. On the specific issue of responding to particular incidents, yesterday the Minister and I were able to sign off on a memorandum of understanding with An Garda Síochána on tackling wildlife crime. This will bring a more strategic approach to the work we are doing. Later this year we will establish a dedicated wildlife crime unit within the NPWS, which is a first for this country. That will add additional resources and bring a much more strategic approach to tackling wildlife crime in the preservation of crime scenes and in preparing books of evidence. We have had a number of high profile prosecutions in wildlife crime in the last year and that is down to the dedication and hard work of our NPWS staff throughout the country. I assure the Deputy that we will meet that staffing requirement in the coming months and it will have a significant impact in collaboration and in working with agencies on the ground.

That is welcome and the wildlife crime unit in particular is a very welcome move from this Government which shows that we are beginning to take this biodiversity crisis seriously. I know there was a historical issue that made it difficult to fill vacancies and that is why that issue in west Waterford existed according to my information.

In recruiting these rangers, the other thing I would like to impress on the Minister of State is that we have to make these sustainable and good jobs. We are talking about highly qualified people who are often very motivated and who are drawn into the field because of a particular love of biodiversity or our natural world. We also have to make sure that this is a proper and sustainable career choice. We have to make sure that the terms and conditions are such that we are paying qualified people at a rate that it will make sense for them to continue that on and to take the conservation of our wildlife and natural world very seriously as a career choice into the future.

I acknowledge Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for tabling this question and I also want to acknowledge the work of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, on this. It is a very important development that additional boots on the ground, as the Minister of State put it, will be in place. I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for coming to Killarney so swiftly recently in the aftermath of the devastating fires there. I want to emphasise how important it is that those personnel would be put in place without delay. There has been historical underinvestment in front-line personnel going back quite some while. The posts that have been announced are welcome but I suspect that we will probably need to increase the numbers of personnel on the front line over the coming years. I acknowledge again the fine work that is taking place. I understand that the Minister of State has been to Killarney National Park twice already. It is clear to see his enthusiasm and natural interest in the area and I thank him for all the work he is doing.

I have been there three times and will hopefully be back there again to see the natterjack toads in a few weeks time. To respond to Deputies Griffin and Ó Cathasaigh on the sustainability of the jobs, as the Deputies will be aware we are in a process of reviewing the NPWS. Hopefully the outcome of that review will look at the sustainability of career paths within the NPWS. In Connemara last week, we met some of our staff who are retiring after 30 or 40 years of service, some of whom would have come in at an operational grade and moved their way up. The opportunity is there for people to have sustainable and viable careers in the NPWS and we are very grateful to our staff and to our partners on the ground, including the chambers of commerce in Connemara and Killarney. This is a partnership approach and that collaboration will be required to tackle this crisis. I am also conscious, as Deputy Griffin said, that this will require resources, not just this year but next year and into the next decade, which is the decade of ecosystem restoration. That is critically important for biodiversity in this country.

Questions Nos. 12 and 13 replied to with Written Answers.

Homeless Accommodation

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

14. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the number of homeless services that are operating to the national quality standards framework; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33464/21]

This question is about quality standards for homeless accommodation. It is important that national quality standards are applied by all providers of accommodation for people experiencing homelessness. How many providers are applying these standards? Why are the private for-profit providers not applying these standards? When will they be applying them?

I thank the Deputy for the question for his interest in this matter. As the Deputy will know, statutory responsibility for the provision of homeless services rests with each individual housing authority. My Department's role in homelessness involves the provision of a national framework of policy, legislation and, importantly, the funding to underpin the role of the housing authorities in addressing homelessness at a local level. Thankfully, as I said earlier, we are seeing significant improvements in that area year on year, with a significant reduction in homelessness. It is still a high rate but the trend is good in that regard.

All emergency accommodation, whether provided by local authorities, NGOs, voluntary bodies or privately, are required to comply with standards and these standards are monitored. The national quality standards framework for homeless services is in place nationally for local authority and NGO-delivered services. Local authorities also carry out inspections on facilities that are not covered under the framework. This regime operates in parallel with, and is based on, the national quality standards framework.

The standards and facilities teams in the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, oversee all emergency accommodation in the region and seek to ensure that all relevant guidelines, policies and procedures are complied with in order to deliver a safe and comfortable place for people to stay. The DRHE has an inspection regime in place to deal with complaints and to ensure accommodation is appropriate and safe.

I ask any Deputy who knows of specific instances of breaches or who has concerns to raise them directly with me or the DRHE. Separate to the service standards expected of providers according to service level agreements, all homeless service providers must meet the requirements of statutory codes, in particular the requirements of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and, indeed, the Fire Services Acts.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Much work and consultation went into the creation of these standards and they are good. It is an issue that they are not being applied to the private providers. These services are funded by the local authorities and are in receipt of funding through the Minister's Department to provide accommodation. We have some serious issues. Hostels that were shut down by non-governmental organisations, NGOs, because of poor standards have been reopened by private, for-profit sector providers. People who are experiencing homelessness are being put into rooms without windows. Hostels have been shut down because they were not meeting minimum fire safety standards. I have met, as I am sure the Minister has, people experiencing homelessness who tell me they feel safer sleeping on the street than going to some of these providers because standards are so low. Why are some of the providers not applying these standards? What specifically is the Minister going to do about it?

These standards were drawn up to apply to all providers of services, be they funded by the local authorities or private, for-profit or not-for-profit entities. The standards are not being applied to the private providers. There is talk of parallel standards but when it comes to the inspection forms, the NQSF is a detailed inspection form of 12 pages that touches on many issues and contains many good standards whereas the forms for inspections of private accommodations reflect a bare, minimal process. Much of the good stuff that is being applied to not-for-profit accommodation is not applied to the private providers. I am bringing to the Minister's attention the fact that all the private, for-profit providers are not being inspected to the national quality standard as was the intention. When is he going to sort this out? It is not good enough that people experiencing homelessness are living in substandard accommodation, at times, and that those accommodations are not being inspected to the national minimum quality standard.

I reiterate that the responsibility for the provision of homeless services is with the housing authority in each of the local authorities. We provide the policy framework and funding for them to do it. That is important because each local authority and its staff know an area better than a central authority would. The issue is acute in Dublin because that is where the majority of homeless people present. Dublin also contains the majority of homeless services.

I regularly meet with representatives of the DRHE, Dublin City Council and others on this matter. Standards are applied to private emergency accommodation. They are parallel standards to the NQSF. I have discussed with the DRHE the benefit that would potentially accrue from applying those standards across the board. We need to get there. It is a detailed and complex process. We have improved the services in PEAs. I believe that the standards and services anyone in emergency accommodation receives should be the same regardless of which type of accommodation a person is in. It is something at which I am actively looking. The Deputy has showed a particular interest in this area and has regularly questioned me about it. I have taken those matters up with the DRHE and I will report progress to him.

Questions Nos. 15 to 17, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Derelict Sites

Brendan Griffin

Question:

18. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he will engage with the Minister for Finance to consider a comprehensive package for first-time buyers to incentivise the purchase and renovation of properties that are currently derelict or uninhabitable; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33919/21]

My question relates to the considerable number of properties around the country that are currently uninhabitable and have, in some cases, been abandoned for a long time. It is not viable for first-time buyers to purchase and do them up. It is a crying shame that we have so many vacant properties all over Ireland, yet it is too expensive to get them up to the proper standards. We need to be more imaginative and that is why I am asking the Minister to engage with the Department of Finance to see what can be done to assist such purchasers.

I thank the Deputy for the question. The Government set out its housing priorities in the programme for Government across numerous areas, including homelessness, affordable home ownership, private and social housing delivery, rent reform and planning. My Department is focusing on moving those priorities forward. To deliver on these commitments, I will publish a new housing policy and action plan, housing for all, in July. It will provide a whole-of-Government approach to housing policy and is at an advanced stage of development at present. The plan will factor in existing demand together with future projected demand and put in place the steps needed to deliver an average of 33,000 new homes per annum during the period 2020 to 2031.

In addition, we are advancing work on the town centres first initiative which is specifically considering the actions required to address vacancy and dereliction in town centres while supporting more opportunities for living in towns. The project is being led by colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. My Department and local authorities are being proactive in dealing with vacant properties and there are currently a number of schemes available to incentivise suitable dwellings into liveable housing stock. I am also advised by the Minister for Finance that the help-to-buy initiative, a scheme to assist first-time purchasers with the deposit they need to buy or build a new house or apartment, may apply in certain circumstances relating to the conversion of non-residential buildings to residences. Similarly, the living city initiative may also be of relevance in certain locations. It may require some tweaking, which could be addressed in the town centres first initiative.

I thank the Minister of State. It is welcome that the help-to-buy scheme would be expanded because it is a good scheme. It would make sense to do that where properties have been vacant for, for example, two years. I also feel that an expansion of what worked under the home renovation incentive, HRI, scheme, that is, tax relief on the VAT on materials and labour, in respect of such properties for first-time buyers would be very welcome. A long number of years ago, I helped to draw up what became the repair and leasing scheme. I was not happy with the amount of investment from the State that went into that. We need to give people support because we have seen that where grants are available, people use them.

I feel first-time buyers should be given exemptions to VAT charges, as I have mentioned. They should also be exempt from reconnection fees. Such fees are expensive and we could look at that with the utility companies, whether we are talking about the reconnection of water or electricity. Can we look at giving a capital gains tax break to a person selling a property to a first-time buyer? That might get properties onto the market and give the first-time buyer a more competitive place in that market. Those things could help to free up properties and put more money in the pockets of the people who are trying to purchase them to do them up. Those people are trying to compete with investors right now and they cannot do that.

The Deputy has made excellent suggestions that should be given consideration. The Government and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, are considering, as a part of the town centres first initiative, a suite of measures that will support and unlock much of that potential. Deputies across the House have spoken about the need to unlock the potential in our smaller town centres and on our high streets. The option of living above shops should be available. Shops should be brought back down into full occupancy, given the scale of the challenges in retail. The town centres first interdepartmental group, established by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, in November 2020, will consider many of these fiscal measures, as well as other potential measures relating to the conservation of historic buildings and grant schemes that are much more targeted at bringing many properties back into productive use and providing a high level of thermal and acoustic comfort that makes it possible for people to live comfortably in town centres while a night-time economy is still being managed.

A wide suite of measures, therefore, will be brought forward under the town centres first policy, which will help unlock this potential we all want to see happen.

Town centres are very important but there are also huge numbers of properties scattered all over the countryside. Such a scheme could very well apply to those properties. I will also add another suggestion. Right now, under planning laws, a person can extend at the rear of a building without planning. I believe the dimensions are approximately 400 square feet. It might make sense to double that exemption in rural areas, and perhaps within a 50 km zone, and increase the dimensions by 50% to 800 square feet in a rural area and 600 square feet in an urban area. Many of those properties were quite small compared to modern standards. Again, there would be less red tape for someone who is seeking to convert the property and, in some cases, build on such basic things as a kitchen or bathroom. A person should be able to do so without having to go through the whole planning process. Speed up the process, bring more of these properties into circulation and get people into homes. As I said, there are thousands of them out there. It is a crying shame in a housing crisis that we have so many vacant units all over the country. We need to be imaginative in how we solve this.

The Deputy is correct. I see many of these properties as I travel across the country, not just in the west but all over. As I said, it is important that we use every mechanism possible to unlock the potential and get them back into productive use.

Specifically, around the town centres, we are looking at four specific areas around governance, enabling economic and social purpose, a new living towns approach and aligning investment and resources. That will, therefore, address those specific issues in urban clusters and smaller urban centres.

As Deputy Griffin said, however, this perhaps needs to be broadened out and looked at in consideration of rural houses and cottages, which are beautiful in their own right and have a heritage aspect, which could be brought back into use. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, is certainly giving consideration to that but these are all very worthwhile suggestions. As I said, every opportunity we can get to try to unlock that potential should be explored and considered.

That concludes questions to the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.