I thank the Vice Chairman and members of the committee for the opportunity to appear again this morning and to give an update on the progress that we have made in terms of the implementation of Rebuilding Ireland to the end of March of this year. I am joined by Mr. John McCarthy, Secretary General, and assistant secretaries, Ms Maria Graham, Ms Mary Hurley and Mr. Paul Lemass.
As I have stated on many occasions, supporting families and individuals experiencing homelessness continues to be a priority for this Government and for me, as Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. That is why we are so focused on the accelerated delivery of social, affordable and private housing and the reform of our rental sector and planning system. This morning the Department is publishing the homelessness report for April. The report shows that in April there was an overall increase of 73 people in emergency accommodation. The report also shows that there was a reduction of four families and 27 dependants from March.
In Dublin, where the problem of family homelessness is most pronounced, we are seeing some positive results arising from the prevention work being carried out by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. In the first four months of the year, one in two families presenting to homeless services in the Dublin region were prevented from having to enter emergency accommodation. That is progress but is nowhere near enough. We are also seeing increased exits with 329 families exiting emergency accommodation to a home in the first four months of this year. There are some improvements and some progress but there is still a very big challenge ahead.
The monthly homeless report does not provide enough detail as to the different challenges we are facing and different reasons people enter emergency accommodation. My Department has been working to introduce a revised reporting system in order that we can publish more detailed reports on a quarterly basis. My Department will continue to publish the numbers in emergency accommodation each month but the publication of more detailed reports on a quarterly basis will allow for better analysis and actions on this subject.
My Department has commissioned the Housing Agency to undertake detailed research on homelessness. This research will examine in detail the reasons both families and individuals present to homeless services. The research will promote continued policy development to reduce the numbers of households presenting as homeless and will ensure that the correct supports are provided to support an exit from homelessness within the shortest possible timeframe. The research will also examine barriers being faced by single adults and families in moving from emergency accommodation.
While we seek to provide homes for households in emergency accommodation, we are working to ensure that we have sufficient and appropriate emergency accommodation in place. For families, we are continuing to deliver on a programme of family hubs to ensure we have increased accommodation available that is appropriate for families and their children. We now have 27 hubs in operation nationally, providing 650 units of accommodation with further hubs being developed. I recently met the Ombudsman for Children and we discussed a number of issues that he raised in his recent report. My Department will be working with the local authorities and the various service providers to ensure that we can address a number of the issues raised. However, it is important to recognise that hubs, while a better temporary response than hotels, are just that; they are temporary. Our ultimate priority is to ensure that families in hubs are supported to exit to a home in the shortest time possible.
One of the recommendations in the report that my Department has been progressing is the introduction of a national quality standards framework for homeless accommodation. The framework has been successfully introduced in the Dublin region and will be introduced nationally over a 12-month period from 1 July. The overarching aim of the framework is to ensure that the services we provide to individuals and families experiencing homelessness are well organised, co-ordinated, integrated and focused on moving people out of homelessness into sustainable homes as quickly as possible.
The standards will ensure greater consistency in the national response to homelessness and will also support service providers by providing a clear framework for the delivery of effective services.
In terms of social housing delivery, we are continuing to build on the significant progress that was made between 2016 and 2018 in supporting new households. My Department is validating returns from all 31 local authorities and will shortly be publishing the local authority breakdown of delivery against targets for the first quarter. Indicative delivery outputs reflect that more than 5,800 additional homes have been provided in the first three months of this year across all of the various social housing delivery programmes, for example, build, acquisition, leasing, the housing assistance payment, HAP, and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. This includes more than 1,200 additional social homes provided by local authorities and approved housing bodies, AHBs, under build, acquisition and leasing programmes.
As the committee will be aware, my Department publishes a quarterly construction status report. This report is a compendium of the 31 local authorities' new build social housing activity for the duration of Rebuilding Ireland. By the end of 2018, the number of new build social homes delivered or in the pipeline stood at over 19,000 of the overall build target of 33,600, with nearly 5,000 homes on site and under construction and a further 2,569 homes at the final pre-construction stage. The 2019 first quarter report will be finalised in the coming days. Given the rate of new projects being added to the programme, going on site and completing, I expect this to show a very good pipeline against the overall target.
We have also seen positive news from the CSO in the past month regarding the number of new homes built in the past year. Almost 19,000 new homes were built in the year to the end of the first quarter of 2019, representing an increase of 25% on the year to the end of the first quarter of 2018. In addition, more than 2,600 homes were brought out of long-term vacancy and almost 800 dwellings in unfinished housing developments were completed, meaning that more than 22,200 homes became available for use in the year to the end of March, which was up 19% on the previous period. This does not include the nearly 3,600 bed spaces completed in the student sector in the year to the end of the first quarter of 2019. We remain on course to meet our Rebuilding Ireland target of 25,000 new homes to live in by the end of this year.
Clearly, Rebuilding Ireland is substantially increasing the supply of new homes and we need to drive new builds higher again over the course of this year and on into 2020. We also know that this increase in supply is contributing to the moderation in the growth in house prices, which is important in terms of housing affordability, particularly in Dublin and certain other main urban centres.
In terms of our programme for affordable purchase, last June I commenced Part 5 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. This placed the new affordable purchase scheme on a statutory footing. In March of this year, I signed regulations under which local authorities made their schemes of priorities, providing the administrative framework through which homes will ultimately be made available under the scheme. To date, 26 of the 31 local authorities have submitted draft schemes to my Department. These are now being approved at local authority level. My Department is working in respect of the further regulations and guidance needed to put in place the administrative processes to complete the affordable purchase scheme. I anticipate that these will be in place in the autumn.
One of the mechanisms available to local authorities to help them deliver affordable housing options is the serviced sites fund. Some €310 million is available in grant funding out to 2021 for infrastructure, which will support the provision of up to 6,200 affordable homes. Last December, I approved funding of €43 million under the fund, which will enable the delivery of 1,400 affordable homes on local authority lands in Dublin and Cork. An example of the progress that can be supported through the serviced sites fund is apparent in Cork city, where planning permission was recently approved for 147 homes on Boherboy Road. This will see the delivery of social and affordable housing solutions along with a crèche and ancillary works, with work starting on the site in the coming weeks. A second call under the fund issued last month to 19 local authorities and 29 submissions from 15 of them have been received under it. These are being assessed and I intend to announce approvals under the second call before the end of June.
Serviced sites funding is also available to local authorities that wish to provide cost rental options. Acknowledging that renters in Dublin and other urban centres are also facing significant affordability challenges, I am committed to the introduction of a not-for-profit cost rental sector in Ireland. Ultimately, it is envisaged that cost rental options will be delivered as a national programme at scale and in areas of high demand. My Department has engaged the European Investment Bank on a research project to help us identify the optimum operational and financial model for cost rental in Ireland. Notwithstanding this, progress is being made in the shorter term through advancing pilot cost rental projects. This has involved many actors working together in partnership. I am glad to say that this work is now coming to fruition and we will see construction on our first cost rental development at the Enniskerry Road site beginning next month.
Regarding the rental sector, the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 was passed earlier this month. I expect to sign a commencement order later this week to bring the majority of provisions into operation. The Act provides a number of key measures and reforms designed to enhance enforcement powers for the Residential Tenancies Board provide greater security of tenure for tenants and further underpin the operation of the rent pressure zone arrangements until the end of 2021. The duration of tenancy termination notice periods is significantly extended under the Act. For example, a minimum of 180 days' notice must be provided by landlords who terminate a tenancy of between three and seven years' duration. The Residential Tenancies Acts will now apply to student-specific accommodation let under tenancy or licence by private providers and public educational institutions. My Department is working closely with the RTB to ensure that adequate resources are provided to facilitate a smooth introduction of the new sanctioning regime and annual registration of tenancies.
As members will be aware, Project Ireland 2040 signalled clearly the Government's intention to shift away from "business as usual" sprawl-based development patterns and adopt instead more compact, sustainable and community-centred development approaches. Project Ireland 2040, through the national planning framework and the national development plan, is being implemented so that we can continue to plan proactively and prudently for a population increase of 1 million, 600,000 new jobs and over 550,000 new homes. It is not just about national strategic planning, but also strengthening the regional and local level planning tiers.
The first of three regional spatial and economic strategies to give effect to the national planning framework has recently been approved. The other two regional strategies will be approved in the coming months. Approval of the regional strategy for the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly area, which includes Dublin, earlier this month means that all county development plans in the region must now commence either a variation or full review process before the end of the year. Local development plans in the other two regions will follow suit once their regional strategies are approved.
To support this, my Department is preparing updated guidance for local authorities on development plan preparation that will also include guidance on housing demand assessment. The purpose of this is to enable local planning authorities to better provide for and identify the location and type of housing that will be required in the future.
As part of this overall approach, the establishment of the Land Development Agency, LDA, last year means that there is now a delivery vehicle to work with public bodies and others in using public lands to provide housing and to act as a catalyst in stimulating regeneration and wider investment to achieve compact urban growth. We can expect to see the first homes delivered on the initial tranche of eight LDA sites by next year. The agency is actively identifying further lands and sites and is tasked with taking a long-term view on the sustainable development and management of the State landbank.
In terms of delivering more effective oversight of the planning system, Mr. Niall Cussen has been appointed as Ireland's first Planning Regulator, with an important role in ensuring that the planning process properly implements Project Ireland 2040. The Office of the Planning Regulator will independently assess statutory plans, conduct examinations and reviews of local authority and An Bord Pleanála planning functions, and drive a national programme of planning research, as well as information and education. This ongoing process of improvement, reform and institutional change signifies the critical need to respond to the challenges we face in order to make a key contribution to the delivery of housing and the shaping of our country over the next number of years.
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today and I look forward to working with members throughout 2019. I will of course answer whatever questions members might have.