Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Environmental Policy

Steven Matthews

Question:

6. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage his views on the role that biodiversity officers play in local authorities; his views on a nationwide roll-out of these positions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53501/21]

In the week of COP26, when the nations of the world have come together to address the climate emergency, we should not forget the other emergency, the biodiversity emergency. I would like to ask the Minister about the role of biodiversity officers in local authorities and his view on having a biodiversity officer for every local authority across the country.

I thank the Deputy for his question. It is important, relevant and particularly timely. Under section 159 of the Local Government Act 2001, each local authority chief executive is responsible for the staffing and organisational arrangements necessary for carrying out the functions of the local authority for which he or she is responsible. The role and duties of biodiversity officers comprise a matter for local authorities within the context of their wider obligations under the relevant legislation. Importantly, however, the programme for Government outlines our ambition to tackle the biodiversity crisis and provides a framework for meeting the challenges that we face in doing so. Local authorities are uniquely positioned, within their own biodiversity plans and working with communities, to help to halt biodiversity loss in their areas. Biodiversity officers are a key part of this and are crucial to the implementation of the actions for biodiversity at local and regional levels.

My Department is committed to supporting each local authority in the important role it plays in the implementation of actions contained in the national biodiversity action plan. Right as we speak, my officials are working on establishing a programme to facilitate the roll-out of biodiversity officers within local authorities nationwide. That will be a step change in how we tackle biodiversity loss all around the country.

The investment of my Department in biodiversity officer programmes through support of local authorities will enhance the efforts to deliver benefits for biodiversity. In that context, I and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, have allocated €600,000 in 2022 towards this programme. We want to see a real change in 2022.

That is positive news. Like the Minister, I know the really good work that is done at local authority level. For example, the heritage officer of Wicklow County Council does a significant amount of work in this area. However, the roll-out of biodiversity officers to all local authorities would assist heritage officers, planning services and local and district engineers as they attempt to tackle some of the causes of biodiversity loss. We know the main factors are habitat fragmentation, loss of habitats, pesticides, pollution, invasive species and, of course, climate change. Wicklow County Council established a climate and biodiversity strategic policy committee. It was one of the first local authorities to do so. The addition of a biodiversity officer to Wicklow County Council, and the other councils across the country that are doing that good work would be a very positive move to address that issue. We are facing a real emergency and crisis in the context of biodiversity.

The Deputy is 100% correct that it is a real emergency and needs to be tackled. Right now, five local authorities - Fingal, which is my local authority, Wexford, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Dublin and Kerry - employ biodiversity officers, so there are 26 other local authorities where we have to get dedicated biodiversity officers in place. Neither I nor the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, want that role to be shared across other functions. It is crucial. There is a need to have a person at local authority level to bring communities and community activists, who are so prevalent on the ground, together. I refer to the work communities have done, such as in my area of Fingal, where rewetting programmes have been successfully completed. That work has been from the ground up and there is a need for a person at local authority level who is able to co-ordinate it. The allocation for 2022 is €600,000. I and the Ministers of State, Deputies Noonan and Burke, will be encouraging local government to fill those posts and get them up and running. We have a really good national biodiversity plan that needs implementation on the ground and we intend to do that.

I thank the Minister. I hope to see Wicklow County Council added to the list of local authorities with a dedicated biodiversity officer. I have spoken to the chief executive of the council on this issue and will be speaking to him later today to encourage him to engage on that role and apply to the €600,000 fund. I note the positive work being done by the Department in terms of the resourcing of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the funding allocation that has brought it back up to its previous levels. I refer to the work that has been done by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, on the river basin management plans and the work done on marine protected areas. It is a massive challenge in the context of the interconnection of the marine and terrestrial environments. I am encouraged by the work that is being done by the Department and the message sent today by the Minister in terms of his support for the roll-out of biodiversity officers across the country.

We support every local authority in any way we can. The Deputy, as Chairman of the joint Oireachtas committee, has an important role in encouraging local authorities to get up and running in this space. We have a lot of work to do. There is no question about that. As I stated, we have a robust plan to arrest the decline in biodiversity and it needs to be led at local level. The biodiversity grant scheme is still supporting actions around the country. Approximately €1.35 million was made available in 2021 and 119 projects were supported across the country. However, it could be even better if we have people leading that on the ground. We want this to happen. We have provided the finance for it. It is good that the Deputy has already spoken to the chief executive of Wicklow County Council. I encourage all Deputies representing local authority areas where there is no biodiversity officer to engage with their local authority and ensure those posts are filled. I have no doubt they will be well over-subscribed as there is such an interest in this issue and as we have great expertise in this country.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.

Housing Policy

Francis Noel Duffy

Question:

8. Deputy Francis Noel Duffy asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of the establishment of the commission on housing and its terms of reference; when the membership of the commission will be appointed; the sectors he will target; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [54956/21]

James Lawless

Question:

66. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of his work to establish a commission on housing. [55204/21]

In response to a parliamentary question I submitted in June, the Minister stated that he intended to establish the commission on housing formally by September and, once terms of reference were finalised, hold a process to invite expressions of interest for membership of the commission. In light of the urgency of the need for rental protections and regulation in the rental sector, I would be grateful if the Minister would update the House on the establishment of the commission and its terms of reference.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 66 together.

As the Deputy rightly stated, the programme for Government committed to establishing a commission on housing. The Deputy was central to those negotiations. It is in the programme for Government. The commission will examine issues such as tenure, standards, sustainability and quality-of-life issues in the provision of housing, which is really important, and will take a longer-term view on matters. The programme for Government also commits to holding a referendum on housing and we are going to do that.

Housing for All, which was agreed by the three Government parties and published in September 2021, commits to the establishment of a commission on housing, with the timeline being this quarter, that is, quarter 4 of 2021. It notes that the commission will work on the referendum on housing, which it will. The establishment of the commission presents an opportunity to build on the policies set out in Housing for All, taking a long-term strategic view on these aspects of housing over an extended time horizon, as well as the issues identified as being suitable for in-depth examination. I envisaged that the commission would bring together experts from various housing-related sectors and play a role in the State achieving good quality, affordable homes for all, which is what we want.

The chairman designate whom I have appointed to the commission is Mr. John O'Connor, an eminently qualified and well respected public servant with decades of experience in housing. I announced his appointment in May. The draft terms of reference have been prepared by me and the chairman. I have been directly involved in that regard. The necessary administrative arrangements for setting up the commission, which relate to the staff needed to support it, have also been progressed. A memorandum for Government seeking approval to establish the commission with the terms of reference has been circulated to other Departments to get observations and with the intention that I will bring the memorandum to Cabinet in the coming weeks, as I will do. I will then be in a position to publish the terms of reference and speak further about the intended process for appointing members.

The plan is for the commission to work to bring forward proposals on the referendum on housing that I mentioned. The commission will establish a sub-committee with appropriate expertise to examine the complex constitutional questions arising and examine the various proposals that have been made in respect of potential wording for an amendment to the Constitution. It will advise the Government in an independent and objective manner with regard to the critical factors for consideration and will make recommendations to me as appropriate on the wording. The commission will be established as planned in quarter 4, before the end of the year, once its terms of reference and membership have been finalised. It is a really important step forward for the country and the Government and we are seeing another commitment we made in the programme for Government being met.

We have received assurances from the Minister and the Department that one of the first priorities of the commission on housing will be to progress the referendum on the right to housing. In light of the delay in establishing the commission, will the Minister indicate when we will be at the ballot box to vote in a referendum on the right to housing? Furthermore, I understand the commission will examine issues such as tenure, rental protections and accommodation standards, as the Minister mentioned. As most of these issues are hashed out and discussed in detail with the relevant stakeholders and experts at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, will the commission have regular engagements with the committee? Will that be included in its terms of reference?

We are on track to get the commission up and running on time. There has been a lot of work in this. Obviously, we want to ensure the commission is populated with the right people with the right expertise and that we have a cross-section of knowledge and expertise feeding in. It will meet formally once a month, with 12 meetings each year. Work will also be done within the subgroups. I expect the Chairman of the joint Oireachtas committee, Deputy Matthews, has no question regarding the fact that if the committee wishes to engage with the commission, it will do so. My focus is getting the commission up and running. Its chairman is in place already.

Mr. O'Connor has done a lot of work with me on the terms of reference. We have circulated the memorandum for observations. The commission will meet before the end of the year, even if it is just an initial meeting. We want to set out its work programme. I cannot go into the detail of the terms of reference as they have not been published, but they will certainly be broad enough to give the commission the latitude to tackle issues the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage or I believe they should. The referendum on housing is a commitment that we made and it is one that I am committed to. The commission is the right place for that work to be finished off, and then we can move towards a referendum.

Will the commission consider how rental units are regulated, as they are in other jurisdictions, to ensure that if a landlord wants to sell a unit, the tenants can remain in situ? I know that with the build-to-rent legislation, which I do not necessarily agree with, the units remain rental units, so if a landlord sells the unit, the tenants can stay. Will the commission consider the issue of the regulation of rental units going forward?

Will the commission consider the capacity of local authorities to deliver? Waterford is the only local authority that delivers on the repair and leasing scheme. In respect of compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, only the Louth local authority delivers on that. Only one third of money due under the vacant site levy is collected by councils. They are slow to get projects on-site. That problem needs to be addressed. It may be about capacity or power. Will the commission examine the issue?

I thank the Deputies. The commission will be independent of my Department and independent of Government. I do not want to set its work programme. However, the terms of reference will be broad enough. The Deputies will see that. I expect that the commission will look at areas such as standards, delivery, cost and constitutional reform, where it is required. The terms of reference will be broad enough for the commission to set out its work programme.

On Deputy Bruton's point regarding delivery, I am acutely aware of the issue. We need to be across all streams, such as repair and leasing and CPOs, as referenced by the Deputy. We are going to co-ordinate CPOs through the Housing Agency, which will manage that for local authorities. There will be a new fund for CPOs of vacant properties. I do not want the commission to be a shadow Department. There is other work it can do and it can take a longer-term view. The delivery issues are real and the Ministers of State and I are acutely aware of them. We are focused on addressing them. We have given additional resources to the housing delivery co-ordination office. Experienced people are now co-ordinating with local authorities on the delivery not just of new builds, but also on refurbishments and repair and leasing.

Local Authorities

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

9. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if local authorities have discretion in their application of the recent changes to the household means policy issued in March 2021. [54983/21]

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

17. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if the amendments to the household means policy of March 2021 allows for recent changes in circumstance to be taken into account; his views on the fact that these amendments have meant that persons with significant time on the housing list are being struck off the list entirely; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [54982/21]

The recent change in the circulars regarding income thresholds has had a seriously adverse impact on many families. It has knocked people off the housing list who have been on it for eight, nine or ten years in a way that is arbitrary and wrong. I do not believe that there was any intention for that to happen. It is an unintentional consequence, but it is a problem that I would like to be addressed. I ask the Minister to give it his attention.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 17 together.

There are a few points I wish to raise. I will provide examples of what this policy change is doing. I will re-emphasise that I do not think there is any agenda here. These are unintended consequences, but they needs to be fixed. The Minister of State has emphasised the point regarding discretion. That is not the local authorities' understanding of it and it is not my experience of it in Cork. From listening to other Deputies, it is also an issue in other local authorities. It is not a case of one tor two local authorities misunderstanding the situation. Local authorities are reading it as being a case of them having less discretion. That is the reality. I would probably like the circular to be revised. here is a wider issue about how low the income thresholds are, but in the meantime, the level of discretion needs to be strongly emphasised to local authorities and made very clear to them. I have dealt with well over a dozen families who have lost places on the housing list. The Minister and the Minister of State know that that is money in the bank for people. The problem is that there is a rigidity to this and applicants cannot go back and get that once they come off the list. If they are on the list for six, seven or ten years and then come off the list, they are gone and the clock starts again. I know of one family who were on the list for seven years and had an offer of social housing taken from them on the basis of this new policy. They had to start again. I know of another family who were on the list for nine or ten years and were taken off it. They had to move in with parents.

Our ethos is to ensure that the most vulnerable families are protected and not taken off the list. That is why I have emphasised the point regarding discretion in my response to the Deputy. However, if he wants to get in touch with me and provide me with examples that he has raised in the House, we will try to clarify the situation. If that means sending out a clarification to the local authority network on the point of discretion, we will do that. We do not want to see vulnerable families losing their places on the social housing list. I have highlighted quite clearly in my response the discretionary aspect of the policy. As I have also stated, there is a review ongoing in that regard. We are trying to frame it in the context of the other affordable measures that are coming through under Housing for All, the Affordable Housing Act 2021, cost-rental schemes and other options available to individuals. We will clarify the point if there are concerns. I ask the Deputy to liaise with me and provide examples of that.

Both Ministers will receive examples today. We can be critical of local authorities at times, but my experience of the officials who are involved in these assessments is that they want to enable people who need housing to get it. They want to work with these families. It is more likely to be an issue in the large urban centres, where incomes and rent are probably that bit higher. I think €37,500 is the highest net income threshold for a couple with children. It does not take very much for a double income family to be above that threshold. Many families are skirting the edges of that threshold. A 12-month average applied too rigidly can mean that even though what someone was earning last month and what he or she is expecting to earn at the end of the year might be below the threshold, doing a few months of overtime or a new project in work can take him or her above the threshold. I imagine what the Minister is saying to the Minister of State is that the discretion is still there. That does not seem to be how it is working on the ground. The local authorities do not seem to be getting it.

Given that going over these thresholds takes someone from receiving 80% support with his or her rent to zero, when will the cost-rental thresholds and conditions be published?

This is what people will have to fall back on if they are not on the eligibility list.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire and I recently met officials from the Department on this. We had a detailed discussion and one of the key problems is that where somebody's employment circumstances have changed in the past 12 months and their income has fallen, local authorities rigidly state it is the 12-month average irrespective of a change. This is not the flexibility provided for in the circular. The circular provides for flexibility with respect to a one-off payment. This needs to be changed. I will also send details to the Minister of a family in exactly this case. Their income is now below the threshold but their previous income as calculated over the previous 12 months was not. They have been removed after nine years on the list. This is simply not acceptable.

I hear the views that have been expressed and we will clarify it on foot of the examples the Deputy will give. I have highlighted that as we see it, the discretion should be carried forward through the local authority network if someone's circumstances have changed. It is beyond their control. The last thing we as a Government want to see is the vulnerable people that I meet every week in my clinics being knocked off the list due to unintended consequences, as have been cited here.

With regard to Deputy Bruton's question on cost rental, we will publish the regulations and details before Christmas and they will be very clear for people. These will be on the new pathway of tenure that will be below market rent and will offer sustainable options for people. This is part of a suite of measures we are introducing in the affordable sector that were supported through the House.

Defective Building Materials

Joe Carey

Question:

10. Deputy Joe Carey asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he will report on the extension of the defective concrete block scheme to County Clare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55205/21]

I seek an update on the extension of the defective concrete block scheme to County Clare. Affected homeowners in the county deserve clarity. This question will give the Minister a good opportunity to provide much-needed clarity. I also expect him to give a date for when the vital scheme will be extended to the county.

I thank the Deputy for his question and for his engagement on behalf of his constituents in Clare over recent months on this issue. A lot of work is going on with regard to the defective block mica scheme that I hope to bring to a conclusion very shortly. This will impact on other counties in a positive way. I visited Clare over the summer and I met homeowners and visited their homes with the Deputy and colleagues. We received a submission from the local authority in July requesting an extension of the defective block grant scheme to County Clare. We issued a response on 3 August indicating we would review the submission and we did so. We saw details of a breakdown of costs associated with the report. That was received on 28 September.

A number of issues arose, none of them insurmountable. It is standard that clarification is needed. I have been directly involved with regard to the submission on Clare. In this regard, I asked my officials to deal with clarifications and outstanding matters. That meeting happened the day before yesterday on 9 November. We have been very clear on what further information is required. The director of services in Clare has been excellent as has the local authority. They have indicated they are confident they can address the issues raised. They will revert to me and the Department in a relatively short time. I am dependent on getting this information. Once I do, we will process it as a matter of priority. Any extension of a scheme to Clare or other local authority would be considered as part of the wider deliberations under way with regard to the scheme. I intend to bring a memorandum to the Government shortly on these changes. I am focused on Clare. I thank the Deputy for his engagement on it and his interest in the matter.

I recognise the hard work of Dr. Martina Cleary, the chairperson of the Clare Pyrite Action Group, along with the vice chair, Mary Hanley. It is a very dedicated voluntary group that has led from the front on this issue, raising awareness about pyrite in concrete blocks in houses in County Clare. I also recognise the director of services in Clare County Council, Anne Haugh, and the engineer, Tony Neville, for their work. The Minister visited the home of Mary Hanley in the county. Five houses were part of the core sampling. All of them have pyrite in the concrete blocks. They are at stage 4, which means demolition. People are extremely worried and they are suffering mental torture. They want to know when this vital scheme will be extended to County Clare. I recognise the Minister's work in driving this. He had a meeting with the officials on 9 November. I hope the engagement will push this matter on.

I thank the Deputy. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Cleary and Mary Hanley in Clare and the group of residents. We are not losing time. I want to say very clearly there is no objection to expanding the scheme. If the data stacks up, and I have no reason to think it will not, the scheme will be extended to take in the county. It is important to note that even if there was nothing outstanding in the current submission and it was fully in order, it would not be to the homeowners' advantage right now to access the current scheme. We are working through some of the changes. The changes and improvements that I will bring forward to the defective blocks scheme will apply to any new homes that come into the scheme. We will conclude this work very shortly. We will need legislation to underpin it. I expect, all data being equal, that it will be extended to Clare. With regard to the timeframe, we are working through some of the outstanding details with which Clare County Council needs to come back to us, which it will. Anne Haugh and the team have been excellent. There will not be any delay from the Government's perspective.

Will the Minister explain what are the issues the Department has with regard to the submission made in July? There was a meeting in recent days between the Department and the local authority. As he said, the issues are not insurmountable. Will the Minister provide clarity on this? It would be welcome. Once it is resubmitted, will he then be in a position to extend the scheme to County Clare?

If it is okay with the Deputy, I will not go into the specifics of the meeting that happened the day before yesterday. It was a positive meeting. The Department and the local authority are working together to deal with some clarifications. I say clarifications rather than issues. This is not unique. We have had submissions from counties Mayo, Clare and Limerick. They are detailed with a lot of information. There are costs, engineering reports and other matters that need to be looked at. There is nothing that I can see about which I would be overly concerned in this regard. It is simply additional information and clarification being worked through by the Department and the local authority. I expect it to be resolved shortly. I will keep the Deputy informed. I know he will keep residents informed. I have asked the local authority to keep engaged with Dr. Martina Cleary, Mary Hanley and the group in Clare so they know what is happening. We are not a million miles away at this stage.

Questions Nos. 11 and 12 replied to with Written Answers.

Water Services

Joe Carey

Question:

18. Deputy Joe Carey asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage his Department’s policy, in conjunction with Irish Water, on the taking in charge of developer-led sewage treatment plants; his views on the part such privately developed treatment plants can play in future county development plans to encourage development in small towns and villages in County Clare and throughout the country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55206/21]

I have been dealing with local councillors in County Clare who have come up with a proposal that I would like to be considered. This is whereby a developer could build a private sewerage treatment plant. These would be used for the further development of small towns and villages. It is a good proposal. The key issue is that Irish Water would have to take the unit in charge.

I thank the Deputy for his question. The Department builds in strategic water policy and infrastructural delivery programmes around the National Planning Framework 2018-2040 and the National Development Plan 2018-2027. Investment is primarily delivered through Irish Water while the Department operates the rural water programme directly.

The programme for Government supports the uptake of Irish Water’s Small Towns and Villages Growth Programme 2020 2024, which would provide water and wastewater growth capacity in smaller settlements that would not be otherwise provided in Irish Water's capital investment programme. Complementary to the programme, my Department is currently examining wastewater requirements in the context of villages and settlements that do not have public wastewater infrastructure. This process is at an advanced stage.

Housing estates that are not taken in charge by local authorities and do not have their wastewater services connected to the public network rely instead on infrastructure provided by the estate developers. My Department is currently operating a multi-annual resolution programme to provide funding for the progressive resolution of housing estates with legacy developer-provided water services infrastructure. Significant challenges exist, however, in realising solutions for all of those problem areas.

As to possible future reliance on developer-provided infrastructure, experience has shown that this infrastructure is often temporary and not properly maintained. This can lead to environmental and public health risk. Policy in the past had allowed for the developer to provide water and wastewater infrastructure as an interim solution, which would become redundant or partly redundant on the public scheme that would be constructed. However, in reality many of these estates that were constructed using developer-provided wastewater infrastructure were not of critical mass and size and were geographically remote from the Irish Water network. It is difficult to envisage a situation where reliance on developer-provided wastewater infrastructure could be supported more in the future.

Finally, the draft development plan guidelines for planning authorities published in August 2021 has a strong emphasis on proposals for new developments being clearly based on availability of new infrastructure, including wastewater infrastructure, to enable development to take place.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. This is an issue in rural Ireland and in County Clare in particular. Some 52 settlements in small towns and villages in the county just do not have the infrastructure. If the infrastructure is not there, it is not possible to develop a village further. This is an innovative idea. If the Department can work in conjunction with others and came up with a prototype or an agreed standard for a treatment plant, it could be provided in each of these smaller settlements and would provide for that type of development. Without this type of initiative, I am fearful that these towns and villages will go backwards, which we do not want.

I ask that the Minister of State and his officials engage with Clare County Council on this and come up with a prototype.

We will commit to doing that. We are establishing a programme early next year to support villages and towns that do not have public wastewater infrastructure to enable them to develop that through Irish Water. The senior Minister was down in Broadford and in a number of other parts of County Clare during the summer and I am very aware of the problem that if infrastructure is not there to support development in a small town or village, there is a very significant problem for the locality and society as a whole. The Department will try to implement a number of schemes in that context in small towns and villages in rural counties, which will provide the assurance and certainty for development to happen. The great aspect of that method is that it is through Irish Water, its future is guaranteed, as are the environmental considerations and operation of the infrastructure. In that context, we believe that Irish Water is the best mechanism through which this can be delivered.

To clarify then on the taking-in-charge process, if a system was built to a certain standard approved by the Department, surely Irish Water should be in a position to take over a plant such as that. Is that something that the Department will give consideration to? As I said, there are 52 settlements in County Clare alone, not to mention the rest of the country, which do not have these standard basic facilities. This is an interim solution where a private developer can be brought in to provide this basic infrastructure and Irish Water can then be allowed to take it in charge. It would facilitate the development of these key small settlements in County Clare and throughout the country.

We have a specific taking-in-charge initiative, underpinned by a budget, which has worked in taking 330 estates containing more than 14,900 homes in charge. As to what the Deputy has outlined in the context of the taking in charge by Irish Water of a treatment plant, that depends on the criteria and there should not be an issue with that. If he has an example of that he might revert to us with it and the Minister and myself will have a look at it. I assure him that in the context of the work that he has done in the summer in County Clare highlighting those settlements that do not have the infrastructure to develop, that we are acutely aware of these. We will respond with a scheme to hopefully facilitate towns and villages as referred to by the Deputy so that they have the certainty into the future and have first-class infrastructure to allow them to develop in a sustainable way. That is critical for all society.

Rachaidh mé ar ais mar tá Teachtaí Dála anseo. I will return now to the list of parliamentary questions again. I call now Deputy Boyd Barrett on Question No. 13..

Housing Provision

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he will work with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to ensure that the remaining tenants in a location (details supplied) who are all in receipt of social housing support are not made homeless; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55036/21]

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle very much and I appreciate this. I raise the issue of the residents of St. Helen’s Court in Dún Laoghaire, which is a multi-unit apartment complex directly across from my office, which was bought out by vulture funds a number of years ago. The first vulture fund made two attempts to mass evict on the grounds of sale, refurbishment or various other ruses. Because we fought them at the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, it then flipped the complex to another vulture fund, which has made two successful attempts to mass evict and has now succeeded. The tenants are now over-holding and are faced with homelessness unless there is an intervention. I just want to know what can be done here?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter again. It is a serious one and I am familiar with it because the Deputy has raised it a number of times.

To move away from the standard answer on this and give the Deputy the facts as they stand, I have engaged with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, as has my Department, to make every effort to ensure that those dwellings in St. Helen’s Court are referred to be secured for social housing. AHBs have engaged directly also on several occasions with the owners’ representatives with a view to buying and acquiring the dwellings at the location for social housing. The problem is that in both instances, through DL-RCC and AHBs, the owner is not willing to sell the units. I have said that I would provide the finance to do so. The council has also engaged with the owner with a view to leasing, even though some people want to cancel leasing tomorrow morning. We have a pipeline of leasing for 3,400 real families who are going to be housed. These are families comprising real people that the Deputy is advocating very strongly for. We have looked at that but again the owner has decided not to proceed.

On foot of this question I will personally engage again with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. We are doing as much as we can to try to secure this property but if the owner is not willing to sell, there may be other options that can be looked. I am happy to continue to work with the Deputy on this. Both the Department and I have engaged directly with the council on St. Helen’s Court. I am fully in favour of securing those properties as social housing on a permanent basis, that is, that we buy them, but we need the owner to be willing to engage to sell. Sin í an fhadhb.

I appreciate that the Minister has engaged and that efforts have been made. Here is the irony. This vulture fund went into the RTB and the tenants said they thought that the claim the fund was going to sell was a ruse because the fund owns 20 apartments and said that it was only going to sell the ones where there were tenants, and the ones that were sitting empty, where the fund had managed to drive the other tenants out, were not being sold. This was totally not plausible. The fund then evicted tenants on the grounds of sale but then told the council that it is not selling. It is a joke. We all know what they are up to. The fund just wants to drive up the value of the property and the rents it can charge. The council is then saying that it cannot buy the ones that are supposedly for sale because there are tenants in them and that it does not buy apartments with sitting tenants as it can only buy the empty ones.

That means they will be homeless unless we change that view.

I am aware of the history of this and a lot of this predates me, let us be straight about it.

For the record of the House, I want to be clear that I am speaking in general terms. Where it is found that anyone has misled the RTB in their intentions, the RTB has powers to investigate, move forward and prosecute.

I will personally engage with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown again following the question tabled by the Deputy. He tabled questions in May and we answered questions last December, to be fair. He continues to advocate on behalf of these tenants. Local authorities will, in extremis, purchase homes with tenants in situ. That is not done too often as there can be a moral hazard. It would not be the norm because people may move ahead of others on the list. I will personally engage with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown after this session and revert to the Deputy once I have a further update. We are doing our best to acquire them.

I remind the Minister that this is a precedent, a point I put to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. There have been comments that people are skipping the queue. They are HAP tenants. They are on the list. Some are quite elderly. Some have children and are very vulnerable. They are well up the list.

We have to remember that 13 empty apartments have been sitting there for two years while people are crying out for places. The whole thing is an utter scandal. Do not let bureaucratic box ticking stuff get in the way of preventing people from being made homeless. They are currently being threatened with court action and have been told that they will pay the costs if they do not get out. They have nowhere to go.

I am pleading with the Minister to get around this. These people cannot be allowed to evict these tenants. Even now, the tenants are paying their rent and have never missed a payment. They have done absolutely nothing wrong. The representatives of the vulture fund went to the RTB and said they know it is ugly, but they are maximising the value of their asset. It is disgusting.

I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett. To reiterate, I know this is a serious situation for the families who are worried about whether they will have a home in a number of months' time. At my direction, we sought to buy or lease those units. We will go back again following the Deputy's representation here today. Once I have an update, I will engage with the Deputy directly.

I am open to using innovative methods to house people. We have shown in the first 18 months what we intend to do. We are very serious about providing permanent homes for our people. That is what we are doing in this particular instance.

I know this is serious. We are doing our best. I will re-engage on this and revert to the Deputy will an update. If we need to meet, which I am sure we will do, we can do so in the coming weeks.

Question No. 14 replied to with Written Answers.

Wastewater Treatment

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

15. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the progress made on the delivery of a sewage scheme (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55080/21]

Residents in Crossbarry, including Cluain na Croise, Gleann Alainn, Cúl na Gréine and across the rest of the village, have endured a defective sewerage scheme over many years since the developer left the site. It is not working for them. It was part of a pilot scheme at an early stage, but did not advance. It is inevitable that, sooner or later, Irish Water or the State will have to step in and resolve the issue. I want to get an update on advancing the project.

I thank the Deputy for his ongoing representations on behalf of the community in Crossbarry. As he said, on 21 September last year I announced allocations under a new multi-annual capital investment programme which was developed to provide a water infrastructure resolution programme for 2019-2021. That will allow a progressive resolution of housing estates with developer-provided water infrastructure. It will enable us to take the infrastructure and estates into charge.

The focus of the first multi-annual programme is on the estates, towns and villages where the resolution involves connecting their water services to the public network. Over 1,000 homes will come in to the public network that heretofore would not have been. The programme will also support a number of pilot projects where connection is not feasible in the immediate future. These pilot projects, including Crossbarry, County Cork, which is the project to which the Deputy referred, together with a major study, are currently being undertaken by Irish Water and are due to be completed quarter 2 of 2022. That will inform the future policy consideration of resolving substandard developer-provided infrastructure with sustainable solutions.

On 22 October, Cork County Council submitted a report on the proposed pilot project at Crossbarry. The report is being considered by an expert panel, which will bring the recommendations forward to me. It has a central role in reviewing bid proposals and making recommendations for the funding of individual projects. I am awaiting the report. Following the Deputy's parliamentary question, I will make further inquiries to try to expedite that review and get it to me as soon as possible. I want to be able to improve the situation for people in areas like Crossbarry. I am awaiting the report and will chase it up following the Deputy's question.

I know the Minister is very aware of the situation. We have discussed the situation in Crossbarry. I want to acknowledge that the Minister has brought forward a scheme and has recognised the difficulties for people in Crossbarry. There has been considerable back-and-forth between the council and Irish Water and the Department. I want to try to understand whether any further outstanding information is required or if all of the details are available.

Crossbarry was part of an earlier pilot scheme which, it seems, focused only on smaller settlements. It is possible that Crossbarry can open up further development ground and deal with the wider village. I want to confirm that the scheme now being considered involves larger schemes and do not just smaller stand-alone schemes and could serve their wider village and open up the development ground beside it.

Following the Deputy's question, I will endeavour to expedite the review of the submission that we received on 22 October. I am expecting that in the coming weeks. As he knows, I will visit his constituency very shortly and will endeavour to have an update around that time.

A detailed review of a number of projects is being carried out, which includes how the pilot project worked and how it could potentially be extended. We need a more robust scheme, to be frank. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, alluded to that in a previous response. We are working on a scheme to partner with local authorities with regard to towns and villages that do not have any wastewater infrastructure. I know that is not specific to Crossbarry in this instance but there are other towns and villages across the country that need to be addressed, which will not be addressed solely through the Irish Water capital programme. We need to see how that can be speeded up. As I said, I will ask officials to expedite the review of this submission and revert to the Deputy.

I wish to acknowledge the progress that has been made and thank the Minister. As he can well imagine, it has been very difficult for residents over many years. They thought they were in a pilot scheme. They have experienced backups in the sewer, smells and nuisance. More recently, they have had to value their homes, which is being impeded by this issue.

This has been going on for a number of years. Some have sought to sell their homes and move out. It has been very difficult. We need a solution in a timely manner. I appreciate that the Minister is progressing this. Every effort should be made to ensure that the scheme is delivered in a timely manner. Whether it is Irish Water or Cork County Council, once there is a green light there should be every opportunity for the scheme to advance quickly and be brought to construction.

The Deputy can be assured that I am acutely aware of the issue in Crossbarry thanks to his representations to me. There are, unfortunately many towns and villages like Crossbarry across the country that need resolutions to this issue, including those that have deficient wastewater infrastructure or do not have any wastewater infrastructure at all. I can assure the Deputy that we will move as quickly as we can on this. The review is detailed and needs to be carried out. The submission involves a technical review and needs to provide clarity as to where we go next.

I would like to bring that to a conclusion very shortly. I will engage directly with the Deputy when I have that update. Again, I thank him for his continued representations on behalf of the community in Crossbarry.

Questions Nos. 16 replied to with Written Answers.