Ceisteanna - Questions

Census of Population

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on discussions with the Central Statistics Office, CSO, with regard to the 2022 census. [60670/21]

The CSO's official interactions with the Department of the Taoiseach concerning the census relate to the formal preparation of Government decisions. With the current census, this relates to the decision to approve the holding of a census in 2021, the decision on the census 2021 form content and the deferment of the census for a year due to Covid-19. The CSO, as an independent office, acts on the Government decisions and puts plans and processes in place to undertake the census.

The original Government decision provided for the census to be delivered on 18 April 2021 but due to Covid-19 a decision was taken in September 2020 to postpone the census by a year to 3 April 2022. The intervening period has been used to redesign the census processes to take account of the changed environment. The senior field managers are now in situ, the census field supervisors will start in January and the enumerator application process closed last week. The live census field operation will begin in March 2022.

Do I have a bit longer than a minute and a half?

We have 15 minutes for the question but the Deputy does not have to use them all, unless he feels the need.

I am not planning to use them all. Do not worry. I just wanted to clarify we have 15 minutes.

Something interesting has come to my attention about the census. Given the scale of the housing crisis in this country, there has quite correctly been a focus for quite some time, extending to years, on the question of vacant and derelict properties in the country. Many people, including me, have for some time been asking that as part of trying to address that crisis we identify the number of vacant and derelict properties. Many Deputies have time and again cited the number of such properties in their own areas, towns and villages, along with their frustration and that of the people that these properties are not being used to house people affected by the housing crisis.

I have learned something because a person has been communicating with my office and the CSO. In the previous census, in 2016, the CSO did not do any count of derelict properties. It did a count of vacant properties and the figures were fairly eye-watering, identifying 183,312 such properties. It is a pretty staggering number and if even a reasonable portion of them could be quickly turned around, refurbished and made available to people affected by the housing crisis, it would have a very significant impact on it. What is apparent from the correspondence I have received from this person, who is communicating with me and the CSO, is that eye-watering figure of vacant properties did not include derelict properties. That means there is a very significant number beyond that of derelict properties that could also potentially be used for housing.

A note from the CSO indicates dwellings under construction and derelict properties were not included in the count of vacant dwellings, and as a result empty housing units were classed as a vacant house, vacant apartment or holiday home only if the dwelling was considered fit for habitation by the enumerator. In the case of newly constructed buildings, this meant the roof, doors, windows and walls had to be completely built or installed and for older dwellings that were unoccupied, the roof, doors and windows had to be fully intact.

We can think about this even with the most cursory walk down the streets of Dublin or anybody's town or village. We can imagine many of the older buildings with a broken window or a door or window boarded up that were not counted in the 2016 census, despite that census identifying an absolutely staggering 183,000 vacant units. It was apparent in yesterday's Oireachtas committee meeting when Dublin City Council officials were questioned on the matter that they did not have a clue. The biggest local authority in the country has no clue about derelict properties in Dublin city. It has done one walk-around survey of approximately 45 properties in 2015 and that was it. There is no working definition of derelict properties.

I ask the Minister of State to take this very seriously. It is a matter of urgency for us to identify the housing stock that could potentially be useful for addressing the incredibly severe housing crisis we are now facing. We need a working definition and absolute certainty that derelict properties will be included in the census to be conducted in 2022. Frankly, local authorities should be instructed before that to have an operating definition of derelictions and should have a systematic and scientific approach to identifying them even before that because it is an absolute scandal there are so many vacant and derelict buildings. We cannot even begin that work unless we have a clear definition of what a derelict site is and the properties are being counted.

I thank the Deputy and acknowledge the points he raises. There was a consultation process and pilot survey and the Government decided on new questions and structure for the census that was meant to run this year. The questions have already been set, as agreed by the Government in 2019, and the process is being operationalised. Much of the material being used by the enumerators has already been printed and the structure of the process has been formalised.

I take the Deputy's point on the distinction between vacant and derelict properties. He is correct in saying we need greater detail. I did not see yesterday's contribution from Dublin City Council but I know from my experience as a member of the local authority in Fingal a number of years ago that there must be an updated register of what is a derelict property. I will certainly bring the Deputy's feedback to the CSO but there is an obligation on local authorities to work through what is derelict in their area. I do not have the detail on what definition is being used around vacant properties for the census that is taking place next year but I will ask for it to be sent to the Deputy. The Deputy mentioned the proceedings of yesterday's Oireachtas committee meeting and it will be important for local authorities to follow through on their obligations around the Housing for All plan and the importance of utilising both vacant, stocked and derelict properties to ameliorate the ongoing housing shortage.

The Government approval on content was granted in July 2019 and it set out the layout, design and structure of questions, as well as guidelines for enumerators. Printing has taken place and we are now about operationalising the census and there will not be a reopening of what has already been decided for the census due to take place next year. As the Deputy knows, it is an enormous operation. I will ask the CSO to engage with the Deputy nonetheless and I will try to get further detail on the current definition of a vacant property and the broader issue around assessment of derelict properties. The census is one element but the CSO has a broader remit around data collection so I will ask for further detail on that.

Sitting suspended at 1.28 p.m. and resumed at 2.28 p.m.