Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Employment Support Services

The reason I raise this issue is that the workers in placement and the staff in this very successful service located in my neighbourhood of Bluebell, but covering all of Dublin west, have been told that the service is to close at the end of the year. Those who have a physical or mental disability and who were returning to the workplace or beginning work for the first time have been able to engage with EmployAbility in west Dublin and be supported in advance of a job being found for them. The supporting specialists involved, seven in total, I believe, worked with up to 130 people annually and supported them and the employers to ensure they could overcome any challenges that may arise in their first 18 months of employment.

I am aware from local people who have come through the services of the great scheme that exists and the work that is involved. It would be a tragedy if the service were to disappear. Some of those who are currently in this supported employment environment would overnight, on 31 December, lose their job coaches. They might not rely on them each day, but they know they are there in the event of a problem arising. I am told that EmployAbility has 70 workers on its books at present and, of them, 30 will still be in supported employment when the closure happens. The only reason for the low numbers at present, as 130 people are normally in the service, is that EmployAbility has not been taking Department of Social Protection referrals since the summer in preparation for the closure. The Department should be well aware of the imminent closure at this stage and should have taken steps to address the issues I will outline.

There are another 23 EmployAbility services across the country. I believe they are independent of each other and I am not sure if other services are contemplating closure due to either inadequate Department of Social Protection funding, the predicted privatisation of services that is happening with the tender which is undermining the local employment service, LES, and jobs clubs or otherwise. However, there is an imperative here. The Department must step in and ensure a seamless transfer of the services to another service provider and the continued employment of the seven or eight support specialists, who have years of experience between them. Failing this, all those in supported employment must be engaged with in advance of the closure date and reassured by the Department that the Department will take care of their needs. The Department of Social Protection must also take it upon itself to reassign others who were due to be placed with EmployAbility in west Dublin to other appropriate services, given the already identified needs they have, and to ensure that they can continue to engage with the workplace.

There is also a need for the Department of Social Protection or the St. John of God organisation, which is also involved in this project, to resolve who is going to pay for the redundancy of the workers, who between them have from 20 to five years service. Both organisations will continue to exist after the closure date, but EmployAbility in west Dublin appears to be closing on 31 December so the workers will have to fight to get their redundancy packages. It is only the statutory amount of two weeks per year of loyal work, whereas they deserve a great deal more. They also deserve to have their redundancy package resolved in advance of them being made redundant at the end of December.

I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, who could not be present. I thank Deputy Ó Snodaigh for raising this issue. He is correct that the work that is carried on through the 24 providers of the EmployAbility service is essential and successful. The job coaching has been a great support for many over the years.

The Department of Social Protection contracts with 24 providers to deliver employability services. These services supplement the Department’s internal Intreo service through the provision of targeted supports for jobseekers with a disability. I can confirm that the Department recently offered a contract to the board of EmployAbility in west Dublin to provide services for a further year in 2022. The board has formally declined this offer and, regrettably, the Department must respect the decision of the board. I wish to be clear that it is the decision of the board, not forced on it by the Department. It would be inappropriate for me to comment in detail on matters particular to a third-party contractor. However, it is my understanding from the intensive engagement the Department has had with this contractor over the recent period that the decision not to recontract is entirely an internal matter, unrelated to the terms and conditions of the contract for service with the Department. It is not the case, as the Deputy said, that it is to do with inadequate funding or with predicted or assumed changes coming down the track. They are not the reasons.

As the Deputy is aware, the Department of Social Protection is reviewing the structure and procurement of all its externally contracted employment support services. The provision of the EmployAbility service, its procurement and its structure will form part of this review. Over the course of next year, the Department will be examining options regarding the design of the EmployAbility model, and the provision of services in the former area of operations of EmployAbility in west Dublin will form part of these design considerations. That work has not happened yet, so what is going to happen there cannot be assumed or predicted. As part of this process the Department will engage with all relevant stakeholders.

As always, the first option for any person seeking assistance in returning to or improving their prospects in the workforce, whether in receipt of a jobseeker’s payment or not, is to contact the Department’s Intreo service. Intreo case officers will be able provide the necessary professional support and assistance and, if appropriate, identify any further service that the person may benefit from accessing. I therefore encourage anyone in the area who is seeking employment advice and support to contact his or her local Intreo office, which will provide the person with the necessary supports and advice. That is what the offices do daily. In many areas they engage extra help and assistance through external providers. If that is not available, the Intreo office will do the work itself. I should be clear about that. In all cases, a case worker would be employed to guide somebody through the system. The Deputy has engaged as a member and chair of the committee quite a lot over the years so he knows the value of the work that is carried out through the Intreo offices, along with many of their external service providers as well.

I am glad to receive some clarification. I was not sure what the reason was for it, which is why I referred to another reason. If there is a State contract there and it was offered, has it been offered to any other service provider? The nearby EmployAbility in south Dublin or in north Dublin might be able, if resourced properly, to take up the services and perhaps employ some of the people who are working directly with these people, or take on the employers who place people who have availed of the EmployAbility service. Yes, I recognise the great work that Intreo case officers do, but this is a specialist line of work that requires specialist care.

That is why these contracts have been offered over the years to the EmployAbility West service. It is vital especially given that there are people who are in supported employment at the moment and need the services. What steps are being taken to prevent the service collapsing altogether with the loss of the expertise and the loss of support for those workers and the employers who have helped in ensuring that those who have a disability or those who suffer with mental health issues can be supported in returning to the workplace or starting in the workplace in the first instance?

Do the various sections in the Department of Social Protection talk to each other? This is a Department of Social Protection contract. It needs to ensure that the workers who are expecting to be made redundant on 31 December do not need to go to the Labour Court to get the redundancy to which they are entitled given their service and given that it will come from the Department. One section needs to talk to the other.

I had meant to address the redundancy part in the opening statement. I will deal with some of the Deputy's questions. Those who are assisted by this service will receive letters between now and December explaining the pathway for them and how they can engage with Intreo offices in future. The service will be reviewed. The Deputy asked if the contract could be secured by another party. I am sure that option is open. I will also raise that with the Department. Generally, these contracts are agreed for a year at a time and they would normally be up for renewal during the months of August and September. There might be an opportunity to do that. I can guarantee that a service will be provided to these people. They certainly will not be left without a service.

Regarding the number of people employed, I think the Deputy mentioned seven or nine. There were 7.4 whole-time equivalent job coaches and 9.5 whole-time equivalent staff. It might be possible for those staff to re-engage with another service provider in the area. As he knows, there are three covering Dublin.

Regarding redundancy, I want to be clear that there is no reason for them to go to the Labour Court. Statutory redundancy is available to anyone in this country without needing to go anywhere near the Labour Court. In this case it is the employer's responsibility by law to pay statutory redundancy to eligible employees. An eligible employee is entitled to two weeks' remuneration for every year of service plus a bonus week. Normal weekly remuneration is subject to a ceiling of €600 per week. If an employer cannot pay statutory redundancy to eligible employees due to financial difficulties or insolvency, the State will always ensure that employees receive their statutory entitlements by making the statutory redundancy payments on behalf of the employer from the Social Insurance Fund.

There is no need to involve the Labour Court whatsoever. That is set out in law and is always paid out. In such situations a debt is raised against the employer. The Department of Social Protection applies a flexible and discretionary approach to the recovery of the debt because some employers cannot pay this due to insufficient funds. Generally, the Social Insurance Fund pays it out and the employer, in most cases a business, can be pursued. The situation would probably be a bit different here but the Department can pursue the money at a later stage. The former employees will not be left waiting for their money in those situations.

Aviation Industry

I thank the Minister of State for agreeing to take this Topical Issue matter tonight. Two weeks ago, I spoke at an aviation conference held in County Clare. On the Wednesday evening we had what is called a fireside chat. An expert panel on the future of aviation, aviation recovery, etc., was assembled. A very interesting discussion evolved with Patrick Blaney, John McMahon and Joe Gill on that panel. Anybody who follows aviation will know that they have been three of the kingpins of Irish aviation over many years in terms of policy, leading the industry and thinking of its future.

We went off on a tangent talking about the vision of sustainable aviation in the future. The current young generation are a mixture of some anomalies and contradictions. They will gladly order four pairs of jeans to be delivered by Next or Amazon via a courier. They will keep one and send back three. Yet many of the same generation believe in flight shaming and that people should not be travelling all around the world because of their carbon footprint. Therein is a contradiction. There is a major move rightly and, in some places, misguided to quickly get to a sustainable form of aviation which we need to embrace, as many European governments are. There is a European-wide multibillion euro stimulus package to get the airlines and all those who work in the aviation sector to a net carbon neutral position, as we and many other countries aspire to, by 2050.

Since we discussed sustainable aviation at that meeting, I have been looking at hydrogen. Hydrogen is now seen as a more sustainable fuel for powering aircraft. At the start of the summer, we saw the first commercial hydrogen-powered flight take off in Britain. It very successfully carried passengers and this is seen as the way forward. Airbus is already developing a number of concept aircraft which it hopes to have in the skies by 2035. While this may seem a little way off, I do not believe we in Ireland have fully grasped the real opportunities that this presents over the next decade or so in terms of testing out, seedbed activity and seeing how all this develops.

Political leadership has been shown in the mid west, Clare and Shannon over many years. Even before Shannon Airport existed, setting up Foynes as an international destination for flying boats coming in was one opportunity. We have had the Shannon stopover. There have been many opportunities successfully seized by those in the mid west.

I have mentioned Airbus and how the European Union is getting involved. The British Government is also throwing significant money behind this, but we in Ireland seem to be lagging behind. That brings me to County Clare. Hydrogen can be produced from water through the process of electrolysis using renewable power. Offshore in county Clare we have major plans to develop 1.4 GW offshore wind farm - the Green Atlantic project. While it creates jobs and will bring €2 billion worth of investment into the county, what happens on shore is most exciting. It will convert much of this electricity generated at these enormous turbines offshore into hydrogen. We have Shannon Airport just up the road and we have this knowledge corridor involving LIT, now a technological university, UL, NUI Galway. We have a motorway and the airport. With so much going on there, it is the ideal part of the country to have a test bed for sustainable aviation and to look at hydrogen fuel, as I have mentioned, and to seize the opportunity that could present. I would like to hear the Minister of State's thoughts.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important and pertinent issue. I am sorry that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, cannot be here to take part in this discussion which I am taking on her behalf. It is a topic that I am very interested in. I am sorry I missed that fireside chat which I am sure was very useful with the three people the Deputy mentioned involved in the conversation. It is important that we have these conversations and that we tease out all these options.

I chair the regional enterprise strategy for Clare, Limerick and Tipperary. We have discussed the potential of the Green Atlantic project. I would be very supportive of that and of assisting with working through the action plan. There is a major opportunity from a green energy production point of view off the west coast and into those counties as well which will have a major benefit for Shannon Airport and all in the area. That is something that will cross many Departments.

As a small open economy on the edge of Europe, the aviation sector is critical for the movement of our goods and people. It has provided a key underpinning to our economic development generally, the expansion of our tourism sector and in particular our success in attracting foreign direct investment.

Nevertheless, as the Deputy recognised, the contribution of aviation to climate change is undeniable and the need to move quickly towards a more sustainable model is now fully accepted across the mainstream of the aviation industry. I believe that everyone is willing to play their part. This is clear in the public statements made by the major industry representative bodies - the International Air Transport Association, representing the airlines worldwide, and the airports body, Airports Council International.

Regarding the development of a hub as referenced by the Deputy, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is aware of recent announcements by an aerospace consultancy company of a study funded by Aviation Skillnet Ireland to develop a roadmap to a green aviation ecosystem.

She has been informed that one of the key pillars of the roadmap includes exploiting the available infrastructure at Shannon Airport to develop a regional airport pilot, Smart Green Aviation Ecosystem.

We look forward to the report being published. We are, of course, in principle, positively disposed towards initiatives that will enable progress towards decarbonisation in aviation.

Shannon Airport has already shown its commitment to playing its part in addressing climate change and decarbonisation and I welcome its endeavours in this regard. This is seen in its recent biodiversity projects, installation of electric vehicle charging points and LED lighting upgrades. Further, an application for the Airport Carbon Accreditation, ACI, programme was recently submitted. The ACI programme is a global carbon management certification programme for airports.

I also understand that Shannon Group intends to carry out a feasibility study of the airport terminal building. The results of this study will inform Shannon Group’s plans to achieve its carbon-reduction goals.

The Government has put in place a range of funding measures to assist our airports with climate resilience. Specifically with Shannon Airport, over €6.3 million was allocated under the Covid-19 regional State airports programme 2021. Many of the projects supported through this funding incorporate measures to support sustainability.

More generally, the Climate Action Fund was established on a statutory basis in 2020. At least €500 million will be available from this fund over the period to 2027 to support projects, initiatives and research across the economy that contribute to the achievement of Ireland’s climate and energy targets and goals. To date, just over €140 million has been committed from the Climate Action Fund for a range of projects. Opportunities to secure support from the Climate Action Fund will also be available during 2022 and beyond, particularly relating to projects and initiatives that are aligned with the recently published Climate Action Plan.

On the question of other possible funding opportunities, the European Union's Connecting Europe Facility, CEF, supports the development of Europe's transport, energy and digital services networks. Funding is awarded on a competitive basis and information on open calls under this programme and others is available on the EU's funding and tenders portal. For the aviation sector the major driving force towards carbon reduction will be the measures that are adopted through the European Union’s Fit for 55 package of proposals. This package consists of a set of interconnected proposals that all drive towards the same goal of ensuring a green transition by 2030 and beyond.

I am delighted to hear of the development of a smart green aviation ecosystem. We must be with the trends and ahead of other countries in trying to capture some of the money that will follow this trail. There have been many new points coming from COP26 but one of the take-home points is that money will follow the greening of industry, aviation and pretty much all sectors in society.

We can consider the carbon dioxide outputs of aviation. Overall, commercial aviation accounts for 2.5% of global carbon outputs. We might think it is a small figure but it is a lot higher than the amount emitted from Germany, Europe's most industrialised country. Covid-19 has probably given aviation a bit of a "get out of jail" card because, unfortunately, the aeroplanes have been largely grounded for the past 18 months, although we all wanted them back in the sky. This sector will very much come into focus again.

County Clare is uniquely positioned to offer sustainable aviation a future and in the curtilage of Shannon Airport we have the amazing Future Mobility hub, which is a testing bed for automated vehicles. Land Rover and Jaguar are there and one can see little vehicles powering around with no driver at the wheel. If we are able to do that and be a leader in Europe in that regard, we could certainly be a leader when it comes to aviation. We have all been on Ryanair and Aer Lingus flights to sun holidays but aviation is changing by the month. In the past month we have seen personalised drones being tested in China and they will go commercial in the next two years in bringing individuals around.

Aviation is changing, including its fuel types, types of aircraft and the efficiency of aircraft engines. We have been able to attract the giants of aviation, such as Lufthansa, into Shannon over the years but we are now entering a new greening era of sustainable aviation. Rather than being outside the tent we must be leading, taking every opportunity, including money available from Europe and the home shores of Ireland. Leadership was demonstrated in developing Foynes, Shannon Airport and Ireland's aviation industry over many decades so we should once again take leadership in developing a sustainable future in aviation.

I thank Deputy Crowe and we are very much committed to leading that sustainable future. It is in the climate plan announced last week and we can see the direction of travel for Ireland. I have been involved with the research agenda for a number of years in this country and I know the potential in our research community to drive successful projects and research while tunnelling into options that can help us create jobs and reduce our carbon emissions.

The Deputy mentioned a fund and I mentioned the regional enterprise plans earlier. The Deputy mentioned the Future Mobility hub, which is a very exciting project. I visited it quite recently, meeting the team involved, and I am glad one of them is a Meath man. He is Mr. Russell Vickers, who was in school with me. I assure the Deputy that even when he was four or five, he was destined to provide solutions on an engineering and science front. It is very exciting work that puts Ireland at the cutting edge of technology. We want to be part of that. I was in the Land Rover and understand what it can do. I saw the technology in the boot and much work went into that. The centre will attract investment, stakeholders and significant players from all over the world to come to Shannon and carry out work and research on that testbed. We are leading that work and I am glad the regional enterprise fund has assisted through the work of Enterprise Ireland. It has assisted many others as well, and it is something we must do.

I mentioned the Fit for 55 package earlier, which consists of a set of interconnected proposals that all drive to the same goal of ensuring a green transition by 2030. The elements of this package that impact aviation are as follows: a tax on aviation kerosene to be implemented incrementally over a ten-year period from 2023 to 2033 to match the equivalent minimum rate for motor fuel; blending mandates for sustainable aviation fuel starting at 2% by volume from 2025, increasing to 20% by 2035 and 63% by 2050, with a sub-mandate for synthetic fuels from 2030; a change to the emission trading scheme to phase out the free allowances afforded to aviation by 2027 and to reduce the overall scheme cap on a linear basis by 4.2% per annum; and targets for supply of fixed electrical ground power at aircraft stands for stationary aircraft.

It is important to emphasise that these are proposed measures and it remains to be seen what political agreement will ultimately emerge. The potential for agreement is there and by working together, all of us can drive forward this change.

Vacant Properties

My Fine Gael colleagues and I from around the country want to raise this very important matter of vacant and derelict houses that could and should be converted to homes for people. In 2015, I proposed to the relevant Department what later became the repair and leasing scheme. The financial supports I proposed at the time were never implemented and the scheme has not been a widespread success, with the exception of Waterford. The success of Waterford should be learned from.

I reiterate the calls I have been making over a number of years for a plan for derelict properties. This can be addressed by getting properties on the market by providing a tax break window for owners to sell them to first-time buyers. The help-to-buy scheme should be extended to such houses without the requirement for total demolition. Generous renovation grants should be provided to first-time buyers and planning-exempt extension dimensions should be increased for the properties. We should also waive or rebate water and electricity reconnection fees for the houses, subject to an occupancy clause. The cities, towns, villages and countryside of the nation are dotted with such properties and we need to get them back into use.

I have been banging the drum about dereliction since I was elected and it could make a real difference in bringing people back to our streets outside normal business hours. In Mayo we have seen much-needed funding coming on stream, such as the urban and rural regeneration funding in Castlebar and Westport. It would also be very useful to see such funding have a greater emphasis on putting vacant units back into residential use.

Dereliction is a scourge on the areas it infests. Considering our efforts to boost housing supply, we really need to put in place solutions to this matter. I have heard all the excuses surrounding cost concerns, fire escape concerns and noise but I have seen very little in developing solutions for these problems. We really need to equip our local authorities to tackle this matter and lead the way in bringing vacant units back into use.

Since 2018, €7.75 million has been made available to local authorities to pay for vacant housing officers. Most of these officers have other jobs as well and recently I believe only five were full time. Those officers had other roles too. How can they do the work if they are not doing it full time? When will these officers be full time and why are they not full time already? Cork County Council, for example, should have three full-time officers for each of the divisions in the county to do this work. They should be identifying homes, which can be seen on anyway. They should be talking to owners, tapping them on the shoulder and seeing what is available. They should be putting in the requisition to purchase these houses and derelict sites so as to bring them back into use. Many small towns and villages are full of empty houses that could be made available if the will is there. These officers must be made full time straight away. We need more of them and they must deliver.

It is very clear we need a more comprehensive strategy to assist the redevelopment of derelict and vacant properties. If properly implemented, such a strategy could play an important role in helping to address the housing crisis while also helping to rejuvenate our towns and villages.

A number of welcome measures have been introduced over the past number of years, such as a repair and leasing scheme and the buy and renew scheme, aimed at turning these dwellings into social homes.

Some local authorities are better at implementing these schemes than others. We desperately need our local authorities to step up in their efforts and use the powers available to them, such as a compulsory purchase order and the derelict sites levy. Many local authorities shy away from using these tools. We need quicker results in turning these derelict eyesores into social houses. We also need schemes to provide opportunities for affordable and private homes. The approach taken to date is piecemeal and requires a far more robust response.

I thank Deputies Griffin, Dillon, Carey and Stanton for raising this issue today. It brings me back to my previous role and part of the job I liked but did not make as much progress on as I would have liked to, because tackling vacancy and dereliction are essential parts of our work. Tonight, I will take this debate on behalf of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and specifically the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke.

We all know the importance of this issue. It is important that we use the new housing for all strategy as a way to focus our minds on this to get delivery, and to build on the work started in Rebuilding Ireland, which was far from being completed. I will tease through the issues raised by each Deputy. I wish to flag on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, that he will, very soon, publish the town-centre first framework, which will respond to the programme for Government aim to develop our town centres and build outwards. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, has chaired this across three Departments, including the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Rural and Community Development, and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. That should help us with a comprehensive strategy. Deputy Carey referred to the need to join all the dots and bring all Departments around the table, and our agencies, in order that we can drive on to address the issue of vacancies in our towns, villages and even parts of our cities as well. Vacant properties are misused assets. All the resources are generally there when it comes to water, sewage and so on. We need to find ways to make that happen.

Local authorities need to drive on with this and make it happen, as was touched on by Deputy Carey. Deputy Stanton is right in that we need to put them in a position to be able to do that. We have had this conversation before over many years. We need to put more money into the vacant housing teams and for officers in each county, and certainly in the larger counties, where there is more opportunity. I was in Cork recently, where one can drive around and see all the vacant properties. They are in every county as well. There are probably not as many as the census stated but there is a large number. If we can get this right, there are possibly 50,000 or 60,000 potential homes in the country. It is, therefore, important that we put the pressure on.

I will raise this directly with the Ministers and Ministers of State involved the need, under the Housing for All strategy, to allocate more money to the vacancy officers. There is a unit in the Department responsible for co-ordinating this work. It has put a lot of effort into that and has designed manuals. The importance of an easy manual in order that a house can be repaired was also referred to. Deputy Dillon raised the point about making it easy to take on an empty property or derelict house. One can use the manual published by the Department. It gives a step-by-step approach on how to cut through some of the perceived red tape to bring a house into use.

Deputy Griffin raised a number of issues. He probably speaks faster than do I, so I will try to deal with all four or five of them during this debate. On the planning exemptions, the intention is to extend them to make it easier to tackle these vacant properties or previous commercial properties to bring them into use as a house. All of us recognise the benefits of having families and people back living in our towns. It provides them with homes and breathes life back into our towns and villages from a job creation point of view as well. The Deputy is right about the repair and leasing scheme. It was something he brought forward in recognition at the time that people who own these properties do not necessarily have the cash to do them up, and are in need of a grant or an incentive of some sort. To be fair, that could have worked but it did not. It probably focused too much on social housing and a positive change to that would be to include housing for anybody. We get a return on that money and it is money well spent. It is something the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is clearly considering, but I will certainly raise it with him too. Having tax breaks to encourage this is the same thing, in that it provides some sort of assistance because it is costly in some cases. While it is value for money in the long run, someone needs to provide the money upfront to make it happen and that is where assistance is needed.

The help to buy scheme was originally introduced to bring in new supply, but at this stage we should accept that an empty house, vacant for many years, is as good as new supply if it can be brought back into use. I will raise that and some way to extend that scheme with the Minister as well. Planning fees and exemptions can be worked on. Local authorities could take the lead on that. I understand that they have the scope, when it comes to planning contributions, to make changes in recognition that the infrastructure is there, and likewise, with reconnection fees. Generally, those agencies will work with people as well. There is a lot of potential here and I thank Deputies Griffin, Dillon, Carey and Stanton for raising this issue and I will certainly bring their concerns back to the Minister and Minister of State.

In relation to Waterford, the local authority carried out 118 repair and lease schemes out of 267 nationwide. Based on those figures - that is not enough by the way - there could have been about 3,000 additional units around the country, had the other local authorities pulled their weight. There needs to be more money put into the repair and lease scheme and its remit needs to be expanded to open the scheme to everybody. The amount of dereliction in the country is an absolute sin at this time. We need urgent action from the Department. Not in six months' time or next year; we need it now.

While I welcome some features within the housing for all plan, including the planning exemption for above-shop conversions and streamlining the protective structures system, as well as the new Croí Cónaithe fund to promote development within our regional towns and villages, we need to be more proactive on this issue and make use of vacant properties and convert them back into residential usage. One need only walk along Main Street, Castlebar, Pearse Street, Ballina, or Bridge Street, Westport to recognise the vast amount of space above the shops and on ground level that is going to waste. Certainly, we need to prioritise this within government. Processes such as the repair and renew scheme and compulsory purchase orders are tools we should utilise.

I do not blame the vacant housing officers who are already in position. They are doing their best but they have about ten other jobs and this is probably the lowest one on the list. They should be freed up to do this exclusively because it is a hugely important job and it is a win-win. There are people all over the country now screaming for houses. There are vacant properties that could be turned around very quickly into usage. They do not need planning permissions very often; they just need to be made available. The owners need to be tapped on the shoulder by somebody, and those people need to have the time to do it. We also need a senior official at assistant secretary level in the Department to whom they will respond. Will the Minister of State come back to us to inform us of who that is?

The number of vacant and derelict buildings dotted throughout our towns and villages needs a much more comprehensive response. The schemes currently available are insufficient and must be opened up to allow the further development of affordable and, indeed, private homes. I welcome the initiative by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, in bringing all the Departments together. I also believe the Minister of State needs the backing of the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for taking this debate tonight.

I agree with all four Deputies. We need to add more schemes to the pot. There are also schemes that are available that could be utilised more. I accept Deputy Stanton's point that the vacancy officer cannot perform miracles out of fishes and loaves. We need to strengthen their teams. I have addressed this in many councils of all parties and I have listened to many in the Opposition over the years criticise vacancy. There is a role here for every elected representative on a councillor level to help join the dots when it comes to vacancy, to knock on the doors and tap on the shoulders to let people know about the schemes and options that are available, to make it easy and to work with the vacancy officers. Local councillors who take on that responsibility would be of major assistance.

In addition, a lot of our housing bodies and associations could also take a proactive role to pursue these vacant properties. The Peter McVerry Trust is an example of an organisation that has done that and has successfully brought back many houses into use throughout our counties by targeting vacant properties. The onus is on everyone's shoulders to play their part here and not just the Government schemes, while we certainly can and should adjust them as well.

The purchase and renew scheme, a successful scheme, worked well in Waterford along with the repair and lease scheme. There is no reason why it cannot work everywhere else. It is about the focus and commitment of all involved at local council level. Deputy Stanton is correct in that we should have somebody at a national level. There is a team in place, but perhaps it needs someone at assistant secretary level to really drive it home. There is a massive opportunity for win-win on that as well.

Deputy Dillon mentioned the proactive approach and the Croí Cónaithe fund. That is there to enable and help local authorities complete these projects and deal with these vacant sites and properties through a range of ways including to buy them, sell them on, make them available or work with the owners. In many cases, there is a massive story behind every vacant property. This needs the work of everybody involved and the local authorities to make it happen. We have made changes to the fair deal scheme which makes it easier for these properties to be rented out. It has to be worth people's while to do up the property, to make it available, either by selling it or renting it, for it to become a family home. There must be a recognition on all sides that this takes effort and schemes. Sometimes that involves giving people a grant to make it work. Everybody wins if we do that right.

Housing Provision

I note that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is in the Seanad at present. That is probably why he is not here in the Chamber. I am aware the Minister of State played a role in the Rebuilding Ireland scheme and he was the Minister of State in the then Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in the last Dáil, so he would be fairly clued in to this issue.

The cost-rental housing plan for the site at Emmet Road, formerly St. Michael's Estate, is due to go for planning in the first quarter of next year, so it is fairly imminent. This is a pivotal project in setting the terms and conditions for other such projects in the future given its scale and scope. Clarification and reiteration of previous commitments from Ministers and Dublin City Council that rents for housing in this project will be related to income rather than to the market rate are urgently needed. In early 2019 the campaign for housing on St. Michael's Estate organised a meeting with Vincent Browne, to which Deputies were invited, and put forward the cost-rental model. It explained what it is based on. It is for people whose income exceeds the limit to be eligible for council housing but who do not have enough income to build a nest egg to get a mortgage. This is really pivotal for the community. As has been mentioned before, it will be a game-changer if it works.

The residents and activists in the area have been going to the design meetings in respect of the size of the apartments and the storage and balconies they will have. The architects do not seem to know how much money they will have to build the units and so cannot design around those funds. The activists had a meeting with all four Dublin South-Central Deputies last Thursday and asked us to put down a question to find out exactly what is going on. The other Deputies did not get their questions in on time this morning but do support the residents in looking for this information.

It is really important that the Government is clear with the community as to what we are talking about. Rents of €1,300, or €1,500 for two-bedroom units, are not affordable for people on incomes of €35,000, €45,000 or €50,000. It is just not possible to pay such rents on those incomes. Under its Housing for All plan, the cost-rental model was recognised as a form of housing. What regulations are now being brought in to deliver cost-rental housing? The European Investment Bank committed to €100 million back in 2018. What is the figure now?

We know from the report issued today that housing costs are increasing. In Dublin, the average cost to buy a house is now over €430,000. We saw the Daft report last week which showed that rents have gone up all over the country again. They increased by 2.7% year-on-year in Dublin, by 6.9% in Cork, by 8.9% in Limerick and by 10% in Waterford. There is also a lack of rental property. It is really important that the cost-rental model begin to play a key and game-changing role in cities and the country with regard to affordable rents based on income rather than market rent.

I thank Deputy Joan Collins for bringing up this issue in respect of Emmet Road, previously St. Michael's Estate. It is a project I am very familiar with and which I had hoped would be further along at this stage. Covid and other issues have caused delays but this project should have started by now and I am glad we are nearly at the stage of getting planning permission because I had hoped we would be providing homes before now. At least the project is still intact and we are making progress. It is being developed on a cost-rental model, as the Deputy has said. It will be cost-rental housing. We are very much committed to that. The rents reflect the costs of developing it. The Deputy spoke about engagement with the design team. It is important that nobody gets carried away and spends unnecessary money on this. It has to be top-class, A-rated housing and that is what I expect it to be but it must be borne in mind that costs should be kept reasonable. I know the Deputy is not advocating otherwise but I remind the House that this is not-for-profit housing and we must keep costs at a level that will allow us to deliver rents at the right price.

All of us in the Government understand the importance of affordable housing. It was always going to be the second phase as we came out of Rebuilding Ireland and moved onto Housing for All. It is right that we focus on affordable housing. I believe the process for social housing has been fixed. We need to keep that process going and keep putting more money behind it. We now have to concentrate on affordable housing models. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is bringing focus to this issue with the legislation he brought through and with the publication of Housing for All. This project will happen and it will work. The Deputy asked me whether it will work. It will. I have no doubt that it will deliver housing at the right price.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who is stuck in the Seanad, I formally thank the Deputy and clarify that the site at Emmet Road - not Emmet Terrace like we have in Navan - plans for which are currently being brought forward for development by Dublin City Council, is significant for the development of cost rental in Ireland given its scale and city centre location. We recently had a meeting with the European Investment Bank which reaffirmed its desire to assist with projects like this, for which it has funding available. This is something it wants to do. It is part of projects all over Europe. There are great models all over Europe, involving a myriad of funding streams. We need to tap into all such streams to make things happen.

While the design of the Emmet Road development has not been finalised by the council, current plans propose 484 homes in total, of which approximately 375 will be designated cost-rental homes. The remainder will be provided as social housing. I believe the Deputy will agree with that proposal. I am advised that the council is currently preparing a Part 10 planning application, to include an environmental impact assessment report, for the Emmet Road development with the intent to lodge an application with An Bord Pleanála in the second quarter of next year. I am thankful that we are near the end of the process and ready to put in the planning application.

Any rent levels for the cost-rental homes to be delivered at Emmet Road will not be directly related to either tenant income or the market rent for the area. It will be related to the cost. It is cost rental. That is generally reflective of the needs of the tenants the Deputy is aiming for because, in many cases, rents may be delivered at half the market rate, which is what the Deputy is trying to achieve. As is the central principle of cost rental, the rent for the homes will be a function of the costs incurred in financing, building, managing and maintaining them. That is why it is so important to keep costs low and not unnecessarily high. This is consistent with the provisions of the Affordable Housing Act 2021 approved by the Oireachtas with its full support earlier this year.

Our cost-rental model follows European examples to ensure that a financially self-sustaining sector is developed that delivers more affordable homes for people to rent on a long-term basis, with the homes being retained to become even more affordable over time. This explicit link between the rent and the cost of delivery of the homes means that the homes at Emmet Road will, by necessity, be affordable, efficiently designed and easy to maintain. Dublin City Council is committed to the idea that the design should reflect this with regard to the site layout, unit design, building materials and landscape finishes. Project capital and operating and maintenance costs will be carefully monitored and all decisions will be reviewed throughout each stage of the project to ensure affordability is maintained, which is only right.

Cost rental is not social housing as we know it. It is targeted at those individuals and families on moderate incomes who are above the eligibility threshold for social housing. I believe the Deputy agrees with that idea. An upper limit of €53,000 in respect of annual household income, after income taxes, has been applied to the first cost-rental projects, thereby giving an indicator of the cohort at whom this sector is aimed.

I thank the Minister of State. I note that no copy of his speech was given out. Perhaps one could be sent over to me. The suggested rent of €1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment and €1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment, which is the concept in some areas in Dublin, is affordable only to the top 30% of households. That is not what we are looking for or what we need in respect of cost rental. For 40% of households, their income means that rent must be €800 a month or less to be affordable. The Minister of State has said that rents have to be based on the cost but is the Government looking at introducing differential rent with, for example, tenants paying 15% and the difference being paid through a housing assistance payment, HAP, type scheme? We pay HAP to landlords. Are we looking at that type of thing in respect of people on incomes which are low but above the eligibility threshold? We have to think outside the box if we are to ensure that people on such incomes can get this housing. I would like to hear the Minister of State's position on that. Is he saying that rents will be in and around €1,300 for a one-bedroom unit and €1,500 for a two-bedroom unit? If that is the case, this housing is not affordable nor is it based on people's incomes.

I want to be clear. I am not saying those numbers; the Deputy is. I want to be clear on that.

Those figures are out there.

I do not know anything about them because we never put out any figures in respect of this scheme. I am not saying anything. I want to be very clear on that. The rents will be reflective of the cost. I did not think I would ever hear the Deputy advocating the use of the HAP scheme. I say that in jest.

I do not agree with the HAP scheme in general.

I know the Deputy does not and she is not advocating its use as it is. The HAP scheme was only ever meant to be a short-term housing solution for people as they moved to more permanent housing.

Without the HAP scheme, 60,000 families would not have houses. I acknowledge that the Deputy and I will never agree on that, but it is the reality. There should only ever be a short-term need for HAP as the recipient moves on to a permanent home, which can be delivered on the Emmet Road site through a cost-rental project and through social housing. It is always the intention that HAP is not a long-term solution and that is as it should be.

These cost-rental model houses are not aimed at the top 30% of households. They are aimed at those who are just above the threshold for social housing and who cannot qualify for it. They might be in a job that pays them the average wage or thereabouts, resulting in a take-home income of €53,000. We are aiming at that cohort of people, and if the project is developed correctly, we can do that.

It is about keeping down costs. One of the methods to ensure cost-rental homes are affordable to this moderate income cohort relates to the use of direct State support. We can subsidise and reduce these costs in the home's construction. This can include the provision of public land at no or low-cost, upfront capital grants from the Executive and State assistance with loan financing, as well as the European Investment Bank reducing the cost of borrowing. All three of these methods have been made available by the Department to support this project, with the provision of land by Dublin City Council, the approval of a serviced sites fund grant from the Department of €18.7 million, the full funding of the social housing homes within the development and the potential assistance of the European Investment Bank and the Housing Finance Agency in helping to facilitate a long-term low-interest loan to fund the remainder of the development costs. Already, therefore, many of the costs have been reduced. It is important that from here on we keep those costs to a minimum in order that we can deliver this project for the cohort in question and ensure it will be affordable to them. I reiterate that they are not aimed at the top 30%, as I am sure the Deputy will appreciate.