I thank the Chairman for her good wishes and I thank the committee for the opportunity to appear here on one of the first sessions since my appointment as Minister. I see today’s meeting as a chance to hear at first hand the committee's views on how we can build on the significant progress being made to implement the Government’s Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, as well as discussing the third quarterly progress report. I would also like to take this opportunity to briefly outline what I see as my own priorities for action on housing over the coming months and how I envisage the undertaking of the targeted review of Rebuilding Ireland, as signalled by the Taoiseach last week. I am joined today by a number of officials from my Department, as already welcomed by the Chairman.
The first quarter report focuses primarily on actions identified for delivery during the first three months of the year, detailing progress under 47 actions across the five pillars of the action plan. In addition, an updated social housing construction status report has been published, setting out the position at the end of the first quarter of 2017. Before I run through the highlighted actions in the first few months of this year, however, I will briefly set out some of my own priorities over the coming weeks and months.
As we approach the first 12-month milestone for Rebuilding Ireland next month, it is timely and appropriate that we take stock of how implementation is progressing, assess the impact of the new investments, policies and initiatives, and consider where we need to focus and redouble our efforts to address the remaining supply and affordability issues. In this regard, it is important to bear in mind that some of these actions, for example, the infrastructure investment of €226 million, will take some time to make an impact on the building of new homes. What is most important is that the appropriate environment be created to ensure that the housing output that we need comes on stream. As the Taoiseach outlined in the Dáil last week, the Government's commitment and mandate to create and foster a republic of opportunity is also an opportunity to reflect on the substantial progress already made in delivering more homes to buy or rent, in opening up lands for housing development, in making better use of the empty homes we have, and in supporting those most in need of accommodation.
In acknowledging the progress that has been made, I in no way underestimate the challenges remaining. Resolving these challenges remains a top priority for the Government and we must continue to push the boundaries of ambition in what we are doing, whether that is in accelerating and expanding our social housing targets, encouraging and facilitating landlords to offer more and more affordable homes for rent, or maximising the potential re-use of vacant homes in our cities and towns. I am undertaking a prompt, overall review of the Rebuilding Ireland action plan, focusing on where we can strengthen the measures already in place and identify new initiatives that would add value. I want to be clear that this is not a question of starting again from scratch. The Government clearly signalled back in July 2016 that Rebuilding Ireland had to be a living and evolving plan and that it would be important to refine and review the overall objectives and measures in place as we progress along the implementation journey. This is exactly what we are now doing.
All of the evidence and trends point to the fact that the number of new homes being planned, constructed and finished is increasing. Our focus must, therefore, be on maintaining this momentum and on accelerating delivery of more homes to meet current and future demand. I do not want to pre-empt what new or enhanced measures might come out of the review, but I would welcome the views of members here to inform the work that we will be doing over the coming weeks. As members will have already received the latest quarterly update reports, I will give just a brief overview of some of the key areas of progress across the five pillars of the action plan during the first quarter of 2017.
As the committee knows, a key priority of Rebuilding Ireland is to address and prevent homelessness. A range of initiatives is contributing to the work in this area. While the overall ramp-up in social housing delivery is playing an important part, progress is significantly underpinned by a number of specific initiatives, particularly the housing assistance payment targeted at homeless households. I had an opportunity over the past few days to see some of the homeless services in Dublin at first hand, visiting a Dublin Simon Community medical detox and recovery unit, supported emergency accommodation in Carmen's Hall, and a new project delivering long-term accommodation for homeless individuals and families being provided by the Peter McVerry Trust. This morning, I opened 28 new social housing units which Focus Ireland has built on Harold's Cross Road, targeted at homeless individuals with long-term needs, including older people and people with mental health issues.
Just over 3,000 sustainable exits from homelessness were achieved last year, an increase of 31% on 2015. Over 200 additional emergency beds were provided. Significant additional resources are in place under budget 2017, which will enable the achievement of a further increase this year of sustainable exits from homelessness. In Dublin, the homeless HAP scheme saw more than 400 tenancies created in the first three months of the year, assisting both in preventing homelessness and in providing a pathway out of homelessness for individuals and families already in emergency accommodation.
Rebuilding Ireland recognises that accommodating families in hotel arrangements is inappropriate for anything other than a short period of time. The target set to limit the use of such accommodation to exceptional circumstances by mid-2017 is a challenging one. This is particularly the case as the numbers presenting as homeless between March and May of this year was three times the normal rate of new presentations. While it is a challenging objective, progress is being made. At the end of April the number of families in hotels and bed and breakfasts in Dublin had reduced from 871 to 695. This number will continue to reduce. I expect that the data from the end of May will show a further reduction in this number as additional substantial progress continues to be made week by week.
As well as addressing the long-term housing needs of homeless families, housing authorities are also pursuing the delivery of additional and enhanced supported temporary accommodation that is more suitable for the short-term accommodation needs of such households than commercial hotel arrangements. These custom-developed facilities will offer family living arrangements with a greater level of stability than is possible in hotel accommodation while move-on options to long-term independent living are identified and secured. Such arrangements will also facilitate more co-ordinated needs assessment and support planning, including on-site access to required services such as welfare, health, housing services, cooking and laundry facilities, and appropriate family supports.
I had the opportunity to visit one of these new family centres this week, the new Mater Dei facility. It is nearing completion and will provide much improved short-term accommodation for 50 families.
The second pillar is focused on securing a significant increase and acceleration in the delivery of social housing. Over 19,000 households had their needs met across the range of programmes in 2016, exceeding the target of a little over 17,000. The construction programme of local authorities and approved housing bodies continued to be the focus of concerted action in the first quarter of this year. The updated social housing construction programme status report, which has been published as a companion document to the overall first quarter progress report, shows strong progress in the first quarter of the year with some 1,600 new housing units added to the programme. The overall programme at the end of the first quarter stood at over 10,000 houses in over 600 developments across the country. Only yesterday, I saw some of the finished product that is now coming on-stream with the opening of a project providing 70 new social housing units by the Iveagh Trust in Ballyfermot in partnership with Dublin City Council.
The Housing Agency acquisition programme also got under way in earnest in the first quarter, utilising a €70 million rolling fund to purchase vacant properties from institutional investors. By the end of the quarter the agency had made successful bids on 330 housing units and had closed over 130 contracts. In addition, the first quarter saw a significant milestone under the housing assistance payment scheme with the nationwide roll-out of the scheme being completed following its introduction on 1 March 2017 in the Dublin City, Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown local authority areas. Eligible households in all 31 local authority areas can now avail of the scheme and €153 million has been made available for its operation in 2017. The scheme is on track to achieve its target of supporting 15,000 households during 2017.
Current and capital funding of €1.3 billion is in place for housing in 2017 with the aim of meeting the housing needs of some 21,000 households. The significant increase in momentum in programme implementation is evident in the pace of spend across the housing budget this year. In the period to the end of the first week of June 2017, spending was running at €0.5 billion, which is close to three times the spend in the corresponding period in 2016.
The third pillar addresses activity levels in the wider housing market. There is strong evidence that the measures outlined in Rebuilding Ireland are beginning to have the desired impact on increasing and accelerating housing supply albeit from a historically low base. Monthly housing activity reports prepared by the Department consistently show that planning permissions, commencement notices and residential connections to the ESB grid are rising steadily month-on-month. The Ulster Bank purchasing managers index points to a strong increase in house-building activity. The house builders elements of the index for May 2017 reached the highest point for over a year and registered the second fastest rate of expansion in residential construction during the 17 year history of the survey. In March, approvals were announced for 34 projects across 15 local authorities under the local infrastructure housing activation fund, paving the way for investment of €226 million in critical enabling infrastructure works between now and 2019. In turn, this will facilitate the delivery of 23,000 new homes by 2021.
Another recent achievement involved the publication of the Rebuilding Ireland housing land map, a comprehensive online mapping database of publicly owned lands in key areas that identifies potential additional land suitable for housing. The database includes details of over 700 local authority and Housing Agency owned sites, totalling some 1,700 hectares, as well as 30 sites with a combined area of 200 hectares in key urban areas owned by State and semi-State bodies. The map also shows the location of 144 active residential construction sites in the Dublin region, encompassing the construction of some 5,200 new dwellings. The land map will inform the approach to strategic State land management in the new national planning framework and will provide an evidence basis for a more proactive approach to strategic land management. The imperative now is to ensure that the State, in particular housing authorities, does everything in its power to deliver quality homes from these sites in the shortest possible timeframe. The Housing Agency has prepared a strategic management and development plan for the 73 land aggregation scheme sites. My Department will shortly be engaging with local authorities seeking similar plans for the delivery of housing from their sites.
The recent announcements from two local authorities, Dublin City Council and South Dublin County Council, that they are bringing forward four key sites capable of delivering 3,000 social and affordable homes are an early indication of the potential opportunities presented by publicly owned lands. These sites are at Emmet Road, Infirmary Road and Oscar Traynor Road in Dublin city and at Kilcarbery in south Dublin.
The fourth pillar is focused on improving the rental sector. During the first quarter, ministerial orders were made designating a further 14 local electoral areas in parts of counties Cork, Galway, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow as rent pressure zones. These further designations mean that 57% of tenancies nationally, that is, some 186,000 rental households, now benefit from the rent predictability measures provided for in the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016. The recently published Residential Tenancies Board rent index for the first quarter of the year shows a significant moderation in the rate of rent increases with rents virtually flat during the quarter. This is a welcome early sign of the impact of the Government rent stability measures, but we will be continuing to keep developments in the rental market under close scrutiny.
In February, major infrastructure works were launched at Cherrywood in Dublin as a first step in the delivery of over 1,300 new build-to-rent homes within an overall development of 8,000 homes within the strategic development zone site. All in all, this initiative represents one of the biggest urban development projects seen in Ireland in recent times. The aim is to start the construction of new homes this autumn. Easier, cheaper and more efficient means of enforcing Residential Tenancies Board determination orders will become available after new District Court rules are finalised next month. The new rules will allow such orders to be enforced through the District Court rather than at Circuit Court level. In addition, following its establishment in the first quarter, the working group on the tax treatment of landlords is continuing its work. Following the completion of a public consultation process the group will report to the tax strategy group and to Ministers in the third quarter in the context of budgetary preparations.
Under the fifth pillar, the Housing Agency has completed its preparatory work on a vacant housing re-use strategy. This is now being considered within the Department. We are engaging with other Departments, as appropriate, with the aim of bringing proposals to Government for consideration in the coming weeks. In the meantime, significant measures are in place to address vacant housing, including the roll-out of the repair and leasing scheme and the buy and renew scheme as well as the Housing Agency acquisition fund, which I have already mentioned. Local authorities are using the detailed census data to identify and follow up on vacant properties in key areas. They are actively engaging with property owners to support such properties being brought back into use, either for private or social housing purposes.
The report of the latest survey of unfinished housing developments was also published during the first quarter, confirming that a further 248 developments have now been fully resolved in the 12-month period since the previous survey. The latest survey has identified vacant and near complete units that have potential for social housing purposes. Local authorities will now be actively engaging with developers and receivers with a view to realising that potential. In overall terms, since the first survey in 2010 the number of unfinished developments has fallen from 3,000 to 420.
That is a quick summary or overview of progress on some key areas under each of the pillars, with a particular focus on key developments during the first quarter of 2017, the period covered by the third progress report. The three progress reports published to date and the additional comprehensive information we have published on the dedicated Rebuilding Ireland website as well as my Department's website show that relevant Departments, agencies, local authorities, approved housing bodies and other stakeholders have collectively made significant progress within the first nine months of what is a six-year housing and homelessness action plan. We are fully aware that further significant and challenging work remains to be done in accordance with the objectives and timelines set out in Rebuilding Ireland. Ongoing implementation, therefore, continues to be a top priority for the Government and will be evaluated in detail as part of the targeted review of Rebuilding Ireland that is now getting under way.
The next update on implementation will set out progress made in the second quarter of this year and will be finalised in late July or early August. I am happy to respond to any questions that members may have.
I have been requested to address a topical issue at 5 p.m. on the issue of a hotel being used for homeless accommodation for families as well as some concerns around fire safety. If the committee is willing, we might be able to suspend at that time to allow me to take that topical issue in the Chamber. I am happy to take any questions now.