I thank Mr. Joyce for his opening remarks. I warmly welcome the establishment of the expert group. This committee has had a lot of discussions on Traveller accommodation and the failure of local and central government to spend funds allocated and to provide the housing included in the local Traveller accommodation plans. There is an openness among many of us on the committee to see significant changes and to consider good proposals to allow us to tackle that, mindful that we are going to have local government elections next year with a fresh round of Traveller accommodation planned for the five years after that.
Part of the reason we asked the expert group in today was not so much for it to report on its work, because we know it is only starting its work, but for the group to hear the committee members' views and give it a sense as to where this committee is at.
We tracked very carefully, both before the report was published last year and since then, the chronic underspends, particularly in specific local authorities. There is a mixed picture out there, which we acknowledge.
We are also very aware from our own experience that often there is an unwillingness to provide land and there are politics around the approvals of the Part 8 planning process. There are complexities around consultation. There are local Traveller consultative committees that work well and there are others that hardly work at all or very poorly. These are some of the key matters the expert group will be looking at.
Many of us in the Oireachtas would like to see quite radical recommendations coming back from the group as to options for Government. If one looks at the figures, it is intolerable to think that in 2017, local authorities overspent their standard social housing budget by a factor of €100 million and had to come back to the Oireachtas and Government and seek approval for that extra €100 million while in that same year, the underspend in the Traveller accommodation programmes was the worst recorded at 45%, with a number of local authorities spending nothing at all. At a time when local authorities are clearly able to spend, even with social housing projects that can sometimes be politically controversial, they can get over those humps. Clearly, the problem is not the system of delivering housing, per se, but there are other factors at play.
I have no doubt, and I will say it publicly, that while there are many reasons individual projects are slower to deliver, prejudice operating at a community, political and management levels is one of the key factors. We have to be honest about that and where prejudice is clearly a barrier, we have to find mechanisms to take those decisions away from some of those people, or at least have the sanction of those decisions being taken away and handed for delivery somewhere else.
We had a lengthy discussion at the Committee on Housing and Homelessness on this matter and there was a proposal that where local authorities had a track record of not drawing down the money to spend in accordance with their Traveller accommodation programmes, that function would be taken away from them, even for a time-limited period. The idea was not that we wanted to take those powers away from local authorities but if that threat was hanging over them, it might add an additional incentive to draw down that money and spend it and if it was not spent, we wanted to make sure it was spent through some other mechanism. We could not get agreement at that committee, so this was not in its recommendations. The committee was split almost 50-50. Given that since then things have got worse, we have to revisit that, whether it is in terms of the section 183 land disposals, in the Part 8 planning proposals or otherwise.
We also need to look at the approvals and procurement process, and Professor Norris has considerable expertise in this. These are also factors in the delay in some of these things. Perhaps there are ways of speeding these up. The Government, for example, is about to increase the financial threshold for the one-stage approvals process up to €7 million, which would give a development of 20 units or so. There might be an argument for looking at having a specific one-stage approvals process for Traveller-specific accommodation if that €7 million figure is too low. That is something the expert group could look at and it could come back with some proposals.
Some other smaller things might be useful. We now get a very useful report, the social housing construction pipeline report, each quarter from the Department which gives us a project-by-project breakdown of where all the new build social housing construction by approved housing bodies and local authorities are at. We need something like that for Traveller-specific accommodation so this committee can track on a quarterly basis where the projects are at, which ones are being held up and why they are being held up, which would add that level of transparency.
Spend is not the only issue. As the Housing Agency report shows, while the overall underspend was 13%, the under-delivery of units was 31% so it relates to what it is spent on, whether that is new units, refurbishments and so on. We are keen to hear ideas around that.
Consultation on this is so important. There has been widespread misreporting and misinformed commentary on the situation regarding the housing units in Tipperary. It is clear from that that whatever about the detail, the consultative process failed. Had that been more effective, I do not believe that we would be in the situation that we are in. How do we make sure that at all stages, pre, during and post-Part 8, for example, or any other planning process, that the Travelling community, and especially the people who will be living in sites or units that are being developed, are centrally involved from the outset?
Should we consider sanctions for local authorities in other areas of their expenditure if they fail to spend Traveller accommodation budgets and meet their statutory requirements? I am just throwing this out there but if a local authority knew that its roads budget, for example, might be withheld if it did not spend its Traveller accommodation budget, it might focus the minds of elected representatives to do what they are legally required to do under the Traveller accommodation programmes. I am inviting the expert group to be as radical as possible and to put as many things on the table as possible, not because I want to see local authorities sanctioned or have powers removed but because at a time when Traveller accommodation budgets are finally beginning to increase, not a single euro of the post-recession increase in Traveller accommodation funds allocated to local authorities has been spent. If one looks at the last three years, as budget started to increase modestly, this has been completely underspent. I say modest, and we need much greater spending than that.
I appreciate that the expert group has a great deal of work to do. I am not telling it what its job should be because the three people here are far more expert on the issue than any member of this committee, however, we are about to enter into a local government cycle and getting legislation through the Oireachtas will become increasingly difficult the closer we get to that and we need to be honest about that. Therefore, the earlier that recommendations come back to Government, even if they are only initial headline recommendations around some of the legislative reform, the more conducive the political environment will be to consider them rationally and progress them through the Oireachtas. If we are looking at very significant proposals in changing things such as how section 183s or Part 8s operate within a couple of months of local elections, it will make it very difficult. If we do not get some of these changes in either just before or immediately after the local election, they will not inform the next five years of Traveller accommodation plans and budgets. I am not saying that the work should be done quickly at the expense of quality, but the working group should be mindful of the political timeframe under which we are operating. Many of us here would like to get good things through and the Minister has attended this committee, and I think that he also wants to get things through, but the space to do this is limited because of how the electoral cycle impinges on it, so it should be considered.