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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 6

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Local Authorities

Steven Matthews


93. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he is satisfied with the current allocation of resources and staffing levels in planning departments at a local authority level; if his attention has been drawn to the extra demands that will be put on these departments with regard to the requirements under the large scale residential development Bill, the Maritime Area Planning Bill and the monitoring and reporting proposals in the draft development plan guidelines; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46310/21]

I want to ask the Minister of State about the current level of resources and staffing at local authority level in planning services, especially in light of the extra pressures that will be put on them by the planning and development (amendment) (LSRD) Bill, the Maritime Area Planning Bill and the new draft development plan guidelines, which call for extra monitoring and measuring on development plans. This is a good thing but I simply want to ensure we have good staff resources to carry out all those extra duties.

I thank Deputy Matthews. I am anxious to ensure that the planning authorities are appropriately resourced to meet the demands of Housing for All and the national development plan, NDP. I recognise that changing work demands are being placed on local authorities from the strong terrestrial and marine planning legislation and the monitoring required from development plans.

For that reason, Housing for All refers to the need in action 24.1 to ensure there is sufficient resourcing to meet the scale and ambition in the plan. In particular, reference is made to the need for planning resources to deliver an average of 33,000 units per annum as well as the skills and resources necessary to deliver on urban regeneration and the Town Centre First policy, which relate to both planning and economic departments within local authorities.

This requirement was highlighted at a recent meeting with chief executives of local authorities. I am committed to ensuring that the resourcing is made available through the workforce planning process. The issue goes beyond the funding of posts. It also addresses the need to deal with the building of new skills and increasing digitalisation of the planning service. We received a submission from the Irish Planning Institute on this wider skills and resourcing issue and expect that this will be an important issue to be considered in the context of the planning advisory forum, which I chair and which I expect will have its first meeting in October.

I put the question in the context of the huge amount of work that is done at local authority level, of which the Minister of State will be aware. Our planning services are very professional and offer very professional services to everybody who engages with them, whether that is through the development plan process or other areas.

Development plans are getting more and more complex and we need to incorporate a lot of environmental law and climate law. It has become a much more complex process. The consent process is becoming more complex for them as well, especially with the LSRD Bill. Whereas An Bord Pleanála would have led it under the strategic housing development process, it will now fall to local authorities to carry out those pre-planning consultations. We recently had a committee session on that issue, during which we heard concerns about the resources available to local authorities and the pressures they will be put under to meet the tight timelines in the LSRD Bill. I am, therefore, concerned about that, as well as the need to ensure that enforcement, which has always been the weakest part of planning, is well resourced.

I concur with the Deputy. It is a very important to ensure that we maximise our resources and skill set within the local authority sector. One thing I see as I go around the 31 local authority networks is how important it is to have the right skills in the right places.

In connection with the Deputy's issues on bringing the two-stage process back to the local authorities on the ground and ensuring that decisions are made locally, we will obviously consult with the local authority network to ensure the resources are there to manage that.

I also mention the huge issue of digitalisation of our planning system, which is to be finalised and finished by quarter 2 of 2022, with Tipperary County Council and Galway County Council in quarter 4 of this year. That will be a single process for submissions, applications, fee structure and appeals, which will obviously give strength to and simplify the planning process. It is very important to bring the citizen right to the heart of planning in his or her community. These measures will assist in doing that, and, obviously, the marine Bill will ensure, through the maritime area regulatory authority, MARA, a very strong and robust regulatory approach.

It is reassuring to hear that the e-planning system is progressing so well. That will bring many efficiencies to the entire planning system and cut down on those masses of paperwork that are involved in a planning application. That is, therefore, a positive move.

I agree with the Minister of State about the range of services that are required now in planning. I talk about things like county architects and biodiversity officers. We see in active travel how that will also tie into our Town Centre First policies. The compulsory purchase order scheme we are going to bring into Housing for All will put those continued pressures on our local authorities. It is where we see a lot of the action and interaction between communities arising from policy we create here. I am glad to hear the Minister of State has met the chief executives and is aware of and working on those resource issues.

Deputy Matthews makes a fair point. We also need to take into account, and we all accept the necessity of, the national broadband plan, NBP, roll-out. National Broadband Ireland, NBI, has stated that if this is to be accelerated, it will have an absolute requirement for resource allocation as regards planning permissions and road opening licences, particularly. NBI is referring to planners and engineers and said that it will need that sort of resource to be guaranteed. That is even with the streamlining that has occurred with the section 254 guidelines.

We also need to take into account that sometimes we have the local development plan, the tail-end of which we have going on in County Louth at the minute, and we have an element of separation between the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, the local authority planners and even the officials at Department level. That needs to be streamlined. We have to finally have a real conversation on what we can provide for rural communities to provide sustainable communities and housing for those who live in those areas.

In response to Deputy Matthews, absolutely; it is so important to see the value of the skill set of those people who are delivering services to the local authority. I recently visited Tipperary County Council, where the county architect, Mr. Liam Ryan, took me through a number of developments. I could see first-hand his input and imprint and how he changed developments to make them much more sustainable and a lot more suitable for the citizens in the area. It is absolutely important. We lost many skills from our local authorities through the post-recessionary period. We really have to drive those back. The Deputy also referenced the planning system. The Local Government Management Agency is overseeing that process.

As for our Towns Centre First initiative, there will be proposals before Cabinet in November and that is progressing well.

We are updating the rural planning guidelines and we have to have a robust mechanism to ensure that through our Town Centres First initiative, there will be strong options for people to reside in towns and villages throughout the country. The Deputy acknowledged and understands the demand for rural housing on the other side of the coin.

Vacant Properties

James O'Connor


94. Deputy James O'Connor asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the progress that has been made in bringing vacant homes back into use in Cork city and county; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46470/21]

I am delighted the Minister is in the Chamber to respond to a couple of questions on dereliction. In the context of the Government's plans to tackle dereliction and bring back vacant units into use as homes throughout Cork county and city, will the Minister update the House on some of the work he is doing in that areas? Given the crisis we are in, it would be prudent for the Department to give a particular focus to this issue.

I thank the Deputy for the question, which he has raised with me directly in the past, as have other Members. It is important we ensure that the existing housing stock is utilised to the full extent, including by providing a targeted, effective and co-ordinated approach to identifying and tackling vacancy throughout Ireland. That is why there are very strong actions in the Housing for All plan that the Government has adopted in that area, some of which I will now outline.

We are pursuing a wide range of measures to make more efficient use of our stock, including a new local authority-led programme to help local authorities buy or compulsory purchase order, CPO, 2,500 vacant homes in their areas that can then be sold on the open market to ensure homes do not lie vacant. This is on top of local authorities CPOing homes for their public housing stock. I want some of those vacant homes to be used for first-time buyers who want to get on the ladder in towns and villages throughout the country. We have reformed the fair deal scheme to remove disincentives to selling or renting unused homes, which affects 9,000 properties. We made the legislative change in July in respect of sales, while in this quarter, with the help of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, we are moving to deal with the issue with regard to rental.

The Croí Cónaithe fund, to be delivered by local authorities for the provision of serviced sites for housing to attract people to build their own homes and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties, will enable people to live within towns and villages in all counties, including Cork and the Deputy's constituency, in a sustainable way. There is also the Historic Towns initiative, which is a capital grant scheme operated in conjunction with the Heritage Council. This initiative will be adjusted in order that there will be a particular focus to encourage private owners and-or occupiers to bring vacant floor area in historic buildings back into use. Planning exemptions, an issue I might return to, will be made available for above-shop conversions. A number of measures in Housing for All will make a big difference in respect of vacancy.

It is important to put the matter into context. We are in one of the greatest housing crises the State has ever faced and we need to use every resource we have at our fingertips, including the bringing back into use of vacant units throughout many towns and communities in my constituency and Cork city and around the country. One issue that has not been mentioned much in this House relates to the fact we are facing an international commodity crisis. It is yet to be established what effect this may have on the international economy, not to mention domestically. It would be prudent for the Government to put further focus on using some of the existing housing stock, which may be able to be delivered rapidly through the renovation of many derelict sites throughout the country. No matter where one goes in Ireland, in the main street of almost every town, particularly in the rural towns of many Deputies, the issue of dereliction is a blight. Easy initiatives such as those that have been proposed by the Government, such as giving funding to this issue to work with local authorities, will be crucial to deliver the additional housing stock we desperately need.

The Deputy is correct and that is why this is such a focus of what we want to do in the housing plan. Utilising our existing stock makes sense in the context of climate action and carbon. We do not have to build all the new stock we need; rather, we must utilise what we have. Our Town Centres First approach is also crucial. I have been travelling throughout Ireland and I have seen the issue in my constituency, both urban and rural. The levels of vacancy in some places is shocking. People who want to get on the housing list will, with some help we will give them, be able to renovate a home and make it their own. Moreover, we will help our local authorities in a more efficient way, through the housing agencies, to CPO stock as well. I will move on planning exemptions for above-shop living, a nut that has not been cracked over recent years. The Ministers of State, Deputy Burke and Noonan, and I are working hard to do that, although it will require some tough decisions to enable more live people to live above shop in our towns and villages.

Many Deputies in constituency clinics and offices will have experienced the challenges constituents have in respect of securing one-bedroom accommodation. We know the pressures on social housing waiting lists throughout the country and my constituency is no different in that regard. Bringing vacant units back into use for housing could have an effect in this regard, particularly for people who want to downsize. Not everyone would like to sell their home and downsize to smaller units or to move from where they reside, but it is something I deal with regularly. Many people want to move into town centres where they have easy access to services on foot and to more socialising and other aspects of life that, perhaps, when people are living in less congregated settings, can be an issue for them as they grow older. It could make a remarkable difference to that problem if the Government were to give a further focus in this area.

Before the Minister responds, two other Deputies have indicated.

I commend Deputy O'Connor on submitting his question. It was specific to Cork city and county but it is an issue throughout the country, as he quite rightly pointed out. There is a great opportunity in the budget in two weeks' time to help address this issue and a number of measures could be implemented. One such measure I feel strongly about relates to the thousands of properties people are sitting on throughout the country. There is no incentive for them to go to market and the supply just is not there. The Government could give a generous window in respect of, for example, capital gains tax where someone sells to a first-time buyer, for a certain period, namely, a year and a half or two years, in order to get the properties on the market. It could also help that first-time buyer with schemes such as the home renovation incentive, HRI, scheme or help-to-buy in respect of such properties. That could get an awful lot of new units into the market very quickly and get very positive results. There are thousands these units throughout the country and it is an absolute shame, in the midst of a severe housing crisis, that this is happening.

I feel as though I am at born-again revival listening to Deputies from the Government parties talking about thousands of vacant and derelict properties. The official figure is more than 92,000. In Cork city and county - I thank Deputy O'Connor for raising the question - there are more than 9,000 vacant properties. The Minister indicated that he has been travelling throughout the State examining the vacancies and stated it is shocking. Did he just wake up this morning and realise that?

When the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, was the Minister with responsibility for housing - I want to educate people about this - he came to Cork City Council in that capacity five years ago and I told him to examine the fair deal scheme, which the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, just mentioned. I said the same to the Eoghan Murphy, who succeeded the Minister, Deputy Coveney, two years ago. They both said they would examine the issue and two years ago the then Minister talked about above-shop living as well. We discussed that in Cork City Council years ago.

The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, referred to CPOs. Parts of Cork city, on our main streets, that Cork City Council is finally CPOing were derelict and vacant for more than 20 years, in virtually every street in Cork. The Minister's party was in the confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael and allowed this to happen.

Where is the Deputy's solution?

I gave the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, the solutions five years ago.

I agree wholeheartedly with what Deputy Griffin said about second-hand properties. I have submitted other questions on the matter, which we will come to. We need to incentivise first-time purchasers of second-hand properties. We need to ensure the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme will be available in respect not only of the purchase price but also of the cost of the refurbishment of second-hand properties. If we do that and focus on the many empty houses that can be brought back into use, we will not have to build new houses only.

We can bring town living back by ensuring we give incentives to first-time buyers of second-hand houses. It could be, perhaps, an exemption from planning or ensuring they can retrofit with some type of grant aid. It is important to do that. I compliment Deputy Griffin, because this is something I have been speaking about for the last year.

Are you complimenting yourself?

I call on the Minister to reply.

I thank Deputy O'Connor and those Deputies who made constructive comments about what we have to do. We have outlined very clearly in Housing for All the measures we are going to take on vacancy. They are serious measures and they must be taken. I point out to Deputy Gould that I am acutely aware of that. I have not woken up just yesterday. I know it, and I know we have a responsibility to get them back into use. More important, for the Members who are genuinely interested in seeing solutions to it, there are things under the Croí Cónaithe fund whereby we will be able to provide grant aid to people who wish to buy those homes. We are going to do that to help first-time buyers. It will not be done through the help-to-buy scheme but through our Department. We will also be providing funding for serviced sites in towns and villages. We are very serious about making real progress in this area. It is not about soundbites, shouting at people or shouting people down, but providing real homes for real people while also putting life back into our towns, villages and cities. That is why the Croí Cónaithe cities fund and the towns fund are crucial. I ask Members to acquaint themselves with them.

Housing Provision

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor


95. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of the progression of social housing developments in County Carlow. [46445/21]

It is great to see three Ministers here tonight, which is very important. Affordable and social housing are more important now than ever. Can the Minister outline the status of the progression of social housing developments in County Carlow?

Deputy Murnane O'Connor joined the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and I at the opening of three wonderful housing projects in Castlecomer and Kilkenny city last week, which is always a positive day. It is so uplifting to hand keys over to families and new tenants for very high-quality, A2-rated, highly efficient and well-designed homes. That is what we are attempting to achieve, and will achieve, with Housing for All.

Increasing the supply of social and affordable homes is a priority for this Government, as shown clearly in the new Housing for All strategy.  Following the recent launch of the strategy, last week we issued social housing targets to all local authority chief executives for the five years 2022 to 2026.  Of the national target of over 50,000 new social homes, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is asking Carlow County Council to deliver 464 over those years, through its own projects and also working with the housing associations. I acknowledge that Carlow County Council, with good support from public representatives, has always delivered well on its social housing targets to date. It also has a solid pipeline of new projects in place and I am keen that it advances these as speedily as possible.

New social housing projects are already on-site in areas such as at Chapelstown in Carlow town and at Ballickmoyler in Graigcullen, while I hope to see others such as the 22 homes planned for Gleann na Bearú in Bagenalstown move through planning and procurement as soon as possible and start on-site.  Under Housing for All, the funding is in place to support Carlow County Council and all councils, and the housing associations to get these housing projects built.

I was delighted to meet the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in Castlecomer last week. I welcome the fact that Carlow local authority has been given the target of 464 homes. However, I have concerns. One relates to the HAP scheme to apply to go on the local authority housing list. As I said previously, Carlow's ceiling is too low. Second, the Simon Communities is saying that HAP is not the answer to our problems. I agree with that. While I welcome the AHBs and the fact that we are looking at affordable housing through all local authorities, because Carlow does not have any, we must address these issues as quickly as possible. There is one issue I wish to address, and I have three issues to put to the Minister of State tonight. Recently, I have been working with people who are on the Carlow County Council local authority list and who now might wish to move to Laois County Council or Kildare County Council. If they go onto another local authority list, they lose their years on the Carlow County Council housing list. That is unacceptable. These changes are easy enough to do. Can the Minister of State put something in Housing for All whereby if somebody wants to go from one local authority housing list to another, he or she does not lose his or her place on the housing list?

In terms of the social housing pipeline for Carlow, to respond to the Deputy's question, the construction status report for the first quarter of 2021 showed 13 projects, to deliver 229 social homes, were either at design or planning stage or on-site in Carlow. Details of these projects are available on the construction status report. In addition, there has been some impact from Covid-19 which resulted in some restrictions on construction activity from 8 January to 12 April this year. However, the restrictions allowed for designated social housing projects scheduled for completion by 30 April to continue. Ten projects, delivering 140 new social homes, continued construction under the designations in County Carlow.

We will take up the issue raised by the Deputy with regard to moving to different local authority housing lists.

Last week, I brought my first Bill to the Dáil. It provides that people who apply to go on the local authority housing list only have to wait for three weeks. There are 31 local authorities and we do not know how long it is going to be. There could be information sent and then coming and going. That is my Bill for the future and it has the support of the parliamentary party.

My other question relates to a huge issue. Every day I have people coming to my clinics who, through no fault of theirs, have separated. Once their name is on a mortgage or a house, they cannot qualify to go back on another housing list or qualify for supports. I ask the Minister of State to address this urgently.

On another matter, I wish to thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I have been working on a major project with Carlow town council relating to a big housing project in Carlow town. It is in an area where there is a lot of housing and many of the houses need support. They have never had services. This is a local community project that will serve thousands of houses and give them the services they need. I thank the Minister for sending officials from the Department next week. I just want to say that everyone is doing their best and I know we can deliver.

With regard to the community centre hub at Tullow Road in Carlow town, the Deputy made the valid point that the community hub could serve over 2,000 houses on the Tullow Road. It is a vital amenity for the community and will provide a lifeline for children and the community alike. The land is owned by Carlow County Council and, as such, the project is being led by Carlow County Council as there was a necessity for this project to service the community. The estimated cost of the hub is €2.5 million. Funding for such a hub would not be provided under the housing capital budget, especially when there is no new housing being developed in that area. However, given that the issue has been raised, we plan to visit Carlow town to look at the area and to consider any options with the local authority when we get an opportunity. With regard to Housing for All, a key component of the policy is creating sustainable communities, so a project like this is something that deserves worthy consideration.

Housing Policy

Alan Dillon


96. Deputy Alan Dillon asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of the development of serviced sites in towns and villages across the country for persons to build private homes, with particular interest in County Mayo; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46230/21]

Marc Ó Cathasaigh


110. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of the work being undertaken by his Department to develop a town centres first approach in an Irish context; the international models being considered; the stakeholders being consulted; when the work may be complete; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46332/21]

I am seeking an update on the new Croí Cónaithe fund to service sites in regional towns and villages, which is a key feature of the Housing for All strategy. It appears that it has enormous potential to service sites in regional towns and villages in Mayo and throughout the country. I would appreciate if the Minister could provide details about this policy and how it will, in practice, increase the provision of serviced sites over the coming years.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 96 and 110 together.

Housing for All recognises the challenges in facilitating owner-occupation in towns, where viable sites available for building of new homes are in short supply.  There is significant potential for local authorities to support home ownership in these areas by making available serviced sites at a reduced cost or providing support towards the refurbishment of vacant properties where the level of vacancy or dereliction is high.  A pathfinder programme will be initiated as part of a new Croí Cónaithe towns fund to facilitate the making available of some 2,000 sites for homes by 2025. My Department is currently working with the Housing Agency to develop an operational basis for this new fund.

Additionally, a town centre first interdepartmental group was established by my Department and the Department of Rural and Community Development in November 2020 to consider the regeneration of towns and villages nationally.

A Town Centre First advisory group has also been established, which I chair, to enable the experiences of a broader group of stakeholders to be brought to bear in informing the new policy. As part of this process, various examples and case studies are being considered with a view to aligning best practice within the national context.

The Town Centre First policy, details of which are expected to be finalised in quarter 4 this year, will align the activities of the Croí Cónaithe and other related funds in a coherent framework that will supply compact growth in vibrant, liveable cities and towns to deliver improved options for both owner-occupiers and renters at all income levels. A future call for proposals will be open to all counties and local authority areas, including Mayo shortly.

We are concluding our work on the Town Centre First initiative. I have been privileged to chair the advisory group which has a range of stakeholders across a broad area. We have seen other towns like Skibbereen and Westport develop in recent years. Towns like that were not an overnight success. Considerable work, planning and community engagement took place to bring them to where they are. With more strategic thinking along with better structuring and enhancing of current grants, in line with Croí Cónaithe, we can really unlock the potential in many of our towns and cities.

As Deputy Ó Cathasaigh will be aware, I was in Waterford and saw the work being done there through the repair and lease scheme, which is vital in bringing vacant properties back into use. It is incredible that more than half of such properties nationally have been in that county. Great work is being done there and improvements have been made in taking the most vulnerable of our society out of emergency accommodation in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. Great credit is due to Waterford for achieving that.

I was also privileged to be in Castlebar to see the work going on there, with €8.53 million allocated to the historical core and €2.5 million to the barracks. I know Deputy Dillon was centrally involved in delivering €11 million for Castlebar. The Imperial Hotel dates back to 1790 and the old post office dates back to 1904. Such major historical features will breathe life into Castlebar, supporting citizens and improving the liveability of the town which is so important in such counties.

A considerable amount of exciting work is coming through and hopefully the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, will be able to bring it to Cabinet by November. From then on, we will see a more coherent structured approach to unlocking the potential of all our towns and villages.

I thank the Minister of State for updating the House with that detailed response. Ideally Croí Cónaithe will be a key driver in providing and increasing the availability of developed lands as soon as possible. I thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for two great projects funded by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage through the urban regeneration development fund, URDF, for the Castlebar historical core and the old military barracks.

However, to maximise the impact of these regeneration projects, they also need to go hand in hand with an increased supply of housing to boost the population in towns and villages such as Castlebar. There is considerable demand throughout Mayo, in Ballina, Westport and Castlebar, for increasing the supply of housing. The rate of population growth in Mayo is 4.2%, one of the highest in the country. There is high demand and a major shift post the pandemic to move back home. We need to move past talking about providing new funds to serviced sites and open applications to local authorities so that they can apply.

I thank the Minister of State for his gracious words about the work that has been undertaken by Waterford County Council. Great praise is due in particular to our director of services for housing.

As the question was grouped with another, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak, but I am somewhat concerned that we are conflating serviced sites with Town Centre First. We are talking about two very different things. My central concern is that when we are talking about Town Centre First, I do not yet have a clear idea as to what Town Centre First means in an Irish context. I have a clear idea about the Scottish context. I have a clear idea about the collaborative town centre health check that the Heritage Council has but not yet about the Irish context. I ask the Minister of State to detail some of the models we are looking at and perhaps some of the stakeholder engagement for the town centre advisory group. That is very important because it is mentioned 20 times in the Housing for All document. It is essential to have a very clear understanding of what we are looking at.

I again thank both Deputies. In the first instance, it is very important that we get the schemes open for application and we will be doing that. We really need to back this up with money. We have a number of schemes now, including our rural regeneration and urban regeneration schemes and Croí Cónaithe, which are really unlocking the potential of our towns and villages.

In response to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, the serviced sites funds will be directly linked to Croí Cónaithe. We are breaking our Town Centre First policy into four areas: governance and enabling structures; economic and social purpose; a new living towns approach; and aligning investment and resources. We are talking about compact growth within our towns and villages, breathing new life into them, giving people an option to try to bring liveability back into those areas, reducing the carbon footprint by doing that and ensuring all the structures are there. The more people we have living in our towns and villages, the better the chance for the butcher to stay open, the better it is for the local GAA club and all the services that towns and villages provide. We had people on the advisory group from RGDATA and chambers of commerce along with local authority members, architects and those working in environmental areas. We had a very wide stakeholder group involving about 40 people.

As the Minister of State said previously, we now need as much detail as possible on the Croí Cónaithe funds. These need to be circulated to the local authorities. He might be aware that the draft Mayo county development plan is being finalised and it would be a shame not to have what sounds like a promising fund featuring heavily in increasingly important county development plans, which local authorities throughout the country are close to finalising. The draft county development plan in Mayo contains several references to the provision of serviced land. For a county like Mayo which is largely rural, this is a very important fund and we should be able to access it. That will support ramping up our construction sector to increase the supply of housing.

I thank the Minister of State for providing that extra detail which is very helpful. In particular, I am heartened to hear him talk about those four elements. We increasingly need to see housing set within a context, particularly when we are talking about Town Centre First. We are not just talking about individual units. It is a term often used on the floor of the Dáil which is not useful. These are homes but also homes set within a heritage context, and within an environmental and emissions context. What we are trying to do is build communities. The Minister of State referred to the butcher and the GAA club. It is also about access to schools and the walkability of our town centre. I am heartened by the response. Setting it explicitly within that context is very welcome. It is mission critical to what we do in revitalising our towns and villages. I look forward to seeing it when it makes it through Cabinet, hopefully in November.

That is exactly what we are aiming to do. If we look at the broader picture, we need to take advantage of the climate change adaptation opportunities in our towns and villages along with diverse living. We need to hive out opportunities from every crisis we have. Our Town Centre First initiative will give us a chance to do that. Regenerating our public realm and our streets in a post-pandemic environment is also important. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has responsibility for the heritage aspect. We need to go around and look at the existing heritage assets. The environmental and the cultural aspect of what has been built in Waterford is exceptional. I know that Waterford is really trying to become a decarbonised city. It has a perfect footprint around which to build and realise that ambition. The detail will be there. All the actions will be set out and then we will link it into Croí Cónaithe when that progresses towards the end of the year.

I reiterate to Deputy Dillon that we will see results on the ground. What Castlebar has is a treasure and the people there have done great work to realise that. What is in the centre of Castlebar will really support the citizens and make the town more attractive.

Question No. 97 replied to with Written Answers.

Housing Provision

Matt Carthy


98. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the number of affordable homes that will be delivered in County Monaghan in 2021 and in each of the years 2022 to 2025; and the definition of affordable in these instances. [46429/21]

According to its most recently published strategy, the Government intends to provide 54,000 affordable home interventions, which is an interesting term, between now and 2030. How many of those affordable homes will be delivered in County Monaghan between now and 2025? Will the Minister outline his definition of "affordable" in those instances?

As the Deputy stated, the Housing for All strategy delivers on a programme for Government commitment to step up housing supply and put affordability back at the heart of the housing system with an ambitious target of 300,000 homes over the next decade for social, affordable, cost-rental, private rental and private ownership housing. Measures to deliver this housing are supported by over €4 billion in funding annually, representing the highest ever level of Government investment in building social or affordable homes. Some 54,000 affordable homes will be delivered between now and 2030, to be facilitated by local authorities, approved housing bodies, the Land Development Agency and through a strategic partnership between the State and retail banks.

Delivery of affordable housing, in accordance with the schemes set out in the Affordable Housing Act 2021, which Sinn Féin supported, and the funding being made available, will be underpinned by the preparation by local authorities of housing delivery action plans, which they are currently preparing. Local authorities will be submitting their plans, to include measures relating to social and affordable housing, to me before the end of December 2021. This will allow each local authority, including Monaghan County Council, to determine any affordability constraints in their area based on the housing need and demand assessment and to plan provision accordingly. It is the first time local authorities have had this mechanism through the housing need and demand assessment. Furthermore, a new Croí Cónaithe fund will be supporting home ownership in towns throughout the country by making serviced sites available at a reduced cost or by providing support towards the refurbishment of vacant properties where the level of vacancy or dereliction is high. A pathfinder programme, as I mentioned to colleagues earlier, will be initiated later this year to facilitate making some 2,000 sites available for homes.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In order for a strategy to work, and we can leave aside the debate on the wider strategy itself, it is crucially important that we know the where and the when. It is hard for me to comprehend how we could say that the local authority will provide the Minister with a plan or vision by the end of this year and that, within that context, any affordable houses will be delivered in County Monaghan by 2025 considering that there are no proposals for that right now. The crucial difficulty is that in order for a family of two adults and four children in County Monaghan to even be considered eligible for the housing waiting list, their income needs to be below €28,750. If a couple with four children had twice that income, even allowing for house prices in Monaghan, they would probably not secure a mortgage. Those income limits must be increased but there must also be a middle route for those who cannot get a mortgage or avail of social housing.

This is kind of a different question but it is related. I agree with the Deputy on that. We have discussed this, and the review of the social housing limits is under way. We intend to publish that shortly. On affordable homes in Monaghan in particular, early delivery of affordable housing will arise from previously approved serviced sites funding of local authority schemes where construction has commenced. In the new year the first homes scheme, which will also be in place and which will apply to Monaghan, will begin to provide affordable homes in every county across the country. Under the serviced sites fund, which is being replaced by the affordable housing fund, Monaghan County Council submitted no schemes to the Department. That is a fact, not a criticism. Accordingly, there are no schemes in the pipeline in Monaghan. That is why we are asking it to bring forward any other measures it would envisage. We have to look at where we will be focusing affordability measures. In Clones, for example, the average house price is about €96,000 and the median price across the county is €161,500. Each local authority will have to identify areas where they believe they have affordability and viability constraints. Every local authority will have access to affordability measures, particularly under the shared equity scheme that would apply to all mortgage holders across the country.

Therein lies part of the problem. The Minister is correct that house prices in Monaghan are lower than in other parts of the State. My fear is that the local authority and the Department will consider that Monaghan is not a priority for affordable housing. The difficulty is that we see the pressures that are already building, even in a county like Monaghan. House prices in County Monaghan, according to the most recent report, have increased by 17.5% and the average house price is €204,000, which is way beyond the means of many people in terms of mortgage supports. Crucially, rents have increased by 13.8% over the past year and are now at just under €900. In the context of the position across the State, those might appear to be local issues that are of low priority. The problem is, however, that we know that when the prices across the State reflected this and when action was not taken, we ended up with the overall prices we have now. The solution is to start planning and to build and supply affordable houses now rather than when house prices are out of control.

I do not disagree with the Deputy on that. If we go back to social housing, our Housing for All plan will ensure that we have an average of over 10,000 new homes built across the country each year, including in Monaghan. It is important that we are tackling our social housing waiting list there.

On the provision of affordable homes, we passed the Affordable Housing Act 2021 before the summer recess. It was supported by Sinn Féin, and we are grateful for that. The Act is the most comprehensive affordable housing legislation ever passed by the Oireachtas. If the Deputy will excuse the pun, that puts in place the building blocks to be able to provide those affordable homes across the country. The latter will take a bit of time. We do not underestimate the challenge involved, but affordable homes will be delivered in Ireland next year and some will be delivered later this year. We already have the first tenants in cost rental homes from cost rental schemes that did not exist 12 months ago.

We are ambitious for our country. We are also ambitious in the context of ensuring that people can live in affordable homes across the 26 counties of this State. We are asking each local authority to point to areas where they believe they have affordability constraints. Monaghan County Council will submit that report to me by December.

Question No. 99 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Reviews

Violet-Anne Wynne


100. Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of the proposed review of the income thresholds for social housing. [45979/21]

My question is straightforward and asks the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for an update on the status of a review of the income thresholds for social housing, one that he referred to in this House on 5 May when he said it was under way. Previous to that, it was also described as being under way in November 2020.

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.

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 and provide a fair and equitable system for identifying those households facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources. A part of the broader social housing reform agenda, however, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports in each local authority area is under way. As set out in Housing for All, the efficiency of the banding model and its application to local authorities will be considered. Equivalisation as between singles and families will also be considered. The review will also have regard to new initiatives being brought forward in terms of affordability and cost rental housing and will be completed when the impacts of these parallel initiatives have been considered.

The Deputy missed a point in her contribution and, as the Minister said in this House previously, the review is being measured against new affordability mechanisms that we now have in place for first home schemes, direct build local authority affordable housing schemes and for the cost-rental model.

We are measuring them against those various initiatives. We will complete our review by the end of 2021, as is stated in Housing for All.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, although parts of it were regurgitated from the debates on 5 May this year and November 2020, bar the inclusion of the last bit of information he had. In my constituency of Clare, the band is set at 3, which at €25,000 is the lowest for a single person. The fact that each additional adult in the household is only afforded 5% of the threshold is completely and entirely nonsensical. This has been the case for ten years now.

I see the ill judgment and irrationality of these thresholds first-hand when families come to me. They may have more than four dependent children but have been found to be over the threshold by a mere €100. They are, therefore, deemed ineligible for housing support and are, in effect, left in limbo. The Government has washed its hands of any real sense of duty of care. That has now been the case for a period of ten years.

I thank the Deputy for her response. As I said during previous debates, as did the Minister, we are monitoring the situation in the context of the record-breaking monetary value of the new initiatives approved by this House. There is a recommendation in Housing for All to make a determination for quarter 4 this year. My county of Westmeath is on the same band as the Deputy's and I meet those vulnerable people at my clinic every single week. That is why we are working night and day in government, with a €4 billion multi-annual budget, to respond to that challenge and ensure people have the best possible chance of realising the ambition of home ownership in the first instance and, in the second, to protect the most vulnerable who need that housing support. We are doing that in significant proportions. As I said, we have matched the ESRI request with €4 billion a year to try to deliver 33,000 homes on average over the next number of years, which society really needs. That is the business we are in. We are listening to those vulnerable citizens.

The Minister of State knows the heartbreaking stories that are being relayed to us on a daily basis. The fact that he cannot do anything for these people is just so frustrating. I am confused because he said the review is under way and adjustments have been made thus far but, according to Clare County Council, there has been a decision to adjust the household means policy providing the preceding 12 months' income of a household is taken into account. I ask the Minister of State to address this judgment, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the major loss of income many have experienced in work and opportunities. If he is waiting for the review to be undertaken, why was this measure introduced at this point in time?

Everybody accepts the need to get to the end of this review and that income thresholds need to be looked at. Basically, they need to go up. We have major issues in relation to people who are caught in the poverty trap and cannot afford housing without housing assistance payments. This needs to be dealt with. I spoke to the Minister previously about the assessment situation. There are added difficulties with the new means by which local authorities are carrying out assessments. They have spoken to us about this and their fear that the means by which assessments are being done will create a larger number of people who will fail to meet the criteria. That is something that is being looked at. I have been promised a briefing from officials and I will definitely take this on.

I will also come back to the Minister and the Ministers of State regarding maintenance issues in Louth County Council and the requirement for a solution. The Minister said he is open to this. I will do so in the next couple of days.

Many people are surprised to learn that income thresholds are a relatively new phenomenon. It was a Labour Party Minister, to its shame, that introduced them in order, I contend, to simply reduce the housing lists. Rather than build houses, mechanisms were found to cut the lists. Prior to that, housing lists were determined on a raft of criteria, including income. It was taken into account and allowed local authorities to recognise the realities. It has already been said that in many counties, mine included, the income limit for two adults and four children is €28,750. That means anybody above that has been told for the last decade that they have to rent for the rest of their lives if they cannot qualify for a mortgage. The review has been ongoing for well over a year. It should not take that long for a review to be completed. I urge the Minister of State to tell his officials to get the finger out and get this resolved.

On Deputy Wynne's point, the reason for what she cited in her local authority area is that local authorities have discretion to take into account short-term income, or if there is a significant change in family income, while carrying out their assessment policy.

Regarding the review, we can also look at other areas in disregarding certain types of income. It is important to state that as we go through it and review the criteria. We know what the challenges are. As I said, I meet vulnerable people week in, week out, in my clinic. Since I came to the Department, we have all been trying to do our best. We have a record level of funding to try to ensure we are meeting the demands of the most vulnerable on the ground.

We really are building record levels of housing now. We are even surpassing what Sinn Féin had in its policy. We have reached 39,000 houses over the last five years; Sinn Féin stated it would barely get to 35,000 if it was in government. We have surpassed what Sinn Féin said it would do. That is an achievement.

The Government is still deluded.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.