This Bill is the most important revision to date of the modern housing code which was set out in the Housing Act, 1966. While it takes in a wide range of measures including an important amendment of conveyancing law, provision for the payment of new house grants to previous owner occupiers following marital breakdown and other housing grants and subsidies, the main thrust of the Bill is directed towards providing adequate and appropriate accommodation for persons unable to provide such accommodation from their own resources. The Bill provides a new legal framework for the development over the coming years of social housing in its broadest sense, that is, including both local authority housing and voluntary housing.
The objectives of the Bill are, in summary: to revise and update the legal basis for the provision, improvement, management and letting of local authority housing, and to address particular housing needs such as those of the homeless, the aged, the disabled and travellers; to provide new powers to housing authorities in regard to the accommodation of homeless persons; to provide arrangements to facilitate the sale of local authority houses to tenants at prices which reflect the present condition and market value of the houses; to provide backing for a number of schemes of grants, subsidies, loan guarantees and assistance for housing introduced in recent years; to provide a simplified procedure for discharging mortgages in certain cases; to amend the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955, in relation to the provision of emergency accommodation and, in particular, in response to the accommodation needs of travellers; and to repeal the offence of "wandering abroad" which is contained in the Vagrancy Act of 1824.
A number of amendments were made to the Bill by the other House and it may be helpful to draw the attention of Senators to these amendments at this stage. Section 5 has been amended to provide that the granting of assistance by a housing authority to another housing authority or to an approved voluntary body shall be a reserved function. This amendment will, in fact, continue the existing arrangements for the granting of assistance to voluntary housing projects under section 12 of the Housing Act, 1966. I am hopeful that housing authorities will take every step to ensure that the processing of applications for assistance under the voluntary housing scheme is not delayed unnecessarily under the reserved function procedure which I understand has led to some delays in the past.
Section 8 deals with the estimates of overall housing requirements to be carried out by housing authorities. The assessment of existing and prospective housing requirements is, of course, a major undertaking for which substantial preparatory work must be done in order that there is reasonable consistency between housing authorities, both in the methods used and in the judgments made, of what constitutes unfitness for example. Section 8 was amended to provide that this major national estimate of housing requirements must be carried out within one year of the commencement of the section. In addition, the report on housing requirements must now be adopted by the elected members of the authority.
Section 9 of the Bill deals specifically with local authority housing needs and provided that an assessment of the need for the provision of accommodation would be carried out within one year and that subsequent assessment would be at the direction of the Minister. The section has now been amended to provide that, after the first assessment, subsequent assessments must be carried out no less frequently than every three years. Section 9(2) has also been amended to specifically refer to "young persons leaving institutional care or without family accommodation" as a particular category of housing need. Finally in regard to section 9, the organisations to which housing authorities are required to give notice of the making of an assessment of local authority housing needs now specifically include voluntary and nonprofit housing organisations.
I think it would be reasonable to anticipate that much of the debate on this Bill will relate to homelessness. I would, therefore, like to emphasise that the Government are serious in their approach to seeking a solution to the problem of homelessness. I ask Senators to consider which is more likely to benefit the homeless — a Bill which contains far-reaching but largely unworkable provisions, or a reasonable measure that becomes the law of the land as the Government intend this Bill will do. I would also point out that, even before the enactment of this Bill, the Government have fundamentally recast the voluntary housing scheme to enable, effectively, 95 per cent grants to be made available for modern accommodation for the homeless. The Government have provided £1 million for this extension of the voluntary housing scheme in 1988 and have also given a commitment to provide a further £1 million next year and again the following year. This will allow voluntary housing organisations to plan projects to benefit the homeless with reasonable confidence that up to 95 per cent of the capital cost will be provided by my Department through the local housing authority.
The problem of homelessness is a complex one, as complex as the reasons people become homeless in the first place. The problem must be tackled with a variety of responses involving local authorities, health boards and voluntary agencies. The suggestion that one type of agency, whether it be local authorities, health boards or voluntary bodies, has, or should have, all the answers cannot be supported.
Some of those involved in the debate on the question of homelessness seem to argue that only the State or its agencies can solve the problem. I do not accept this. We must look at the problem of homelessness, as indeed all social or economic issues, in terms of what is to be achieved, not in terms of whether it should be achieved by the State, or by private enterprise, or by voluntary bodies. Senators are well aware of both the powers and the limitations of legislation as a response to any problem. In framing the homelessness provisions of this Bill, my objective has been to secure a real improvement in access by homeless persons to housing. Clearly, this required different legislative proposals to those contained in the 1985 Bill, but it also required extra resources.
I consider that it is critical to develop further the voluntary housing response to the problem of homelessness. The voluntary housing scheme, which provided 80 per cent assistance for the provision of accommodation for a number of categories of housing need, through reasonably successful otherwise, achieved little for the homeless since its introduction in 1984. The special £3 million allocation over the next three years and the increase in the rate of assistance available under the scheme in respect of accommodation for the homeless to which I have referred are positive steps in encouraging and developing the provision by voluntary bodies of modern, purpose built accommodation for homeless persons.
The basic response by local authorities to the needs of the homeless is, and will remain, the direct provision of local authority rented accommodation. There will always be limits to what a local authority can do in this way and the speed with which the authority can respond. How, for example, could an authority with no vacant dwellings respond to the urgent needs of a homeless person? I consider that the powers of local authorities need to be expanded so that they will have new options to help them meet the needs of the homeless. These new options are provided for in section 10 of the Bill. They include a new power for housing authorities to secure accommodation for a homeless person with a voluntary housing organisation and to pay that organisation in respect of the accommodation so provided. In addition, housing authorities will be able to provide assistance, including financial assistance, to a homeless person in order that that person may secure accommodation and, finally, a housing authority will be able to rent accommodation or lodgings for a homeless person.
The housing needs of some homeless persons may be best met by some form of supportive accommodation which offers a considerable degree of privacy, particularly in regard to sleeping accommodation, storage for personal belongings etc., but which also provides communal facilities such as shared dining and recreational areas. This type of accommodation would seem suitable, for example, as interim accommodation for individuals with an institutional background, prior to their obtaining fully self-contained accommodation. No doubt, there are others who would be suited by, and would wish to remain in, this type of shared accommodation on a long term basis.
It may also, indeed, be a suitable form of accommodation for young single people who are now a significant component of overall housing requirements. There is, I believe, an important role for this type of accommodation and new standards and guidelines for the development of this type of accommodation were circulated recently by my Department to housing authorities in the context of the voluntary housing scheme. These standards will, of course, also be of assistance to those housing authorities who consider that there is a need to provide directly some supportive accommodation primarily for homeless persons.
Homelessness is a very complex problem. For some homeless persons their homelessness is merely a symptom of other problems. Clearly, the simple availability of a dwelling is not the solution in these cases and a response in terms of obligations in legislation is not the right way to tackle the problem. Again I emphasise that a combined approach by local authorities, voluntary bodies and indeed health boards is required. I believe that it is necessary both to extend the powers of local authorities in this area and at the same time to increase the capacity of the voluntary housing movement to respond to the problems of the homeless.
Section 2 defines a homeless person for the purposes of the Bill. Persons who have no accommodation and persons living in hospitals, county homes or night shelters solely because they have no other accommodation and are unable to provide accommodation from their own resources are regarded as homeless. The latter stipulation has always been a requirement for eligibility for local authority housing. That part of section 2 of the 1985 Bill which referred to deliberate homelessness has been omitted from the 1988 Bill as an unsatisfactory legislative provision but one that was a necessary consequence of the proposed statutory obligation contained in the 1985 Bill.
In addition to their new powers under section 10, housing authorities will be obliged for the first time to integrate fully the needs of the homeless into the planning and provision of local authority housing. Homeless persons have not previously been identified in housing legislation. The provisions of this Bill will, however, ensure that housing authorities will, in future, be required to take into account the needs of the homeless at every stage of the planning, provision and allocation of local authority housing. Under section 9 of the Bill, housing authorities, prior to carrying out their assessments of the need for local authority housing, will also be required to notify other adjoining housing authorities, health boards and relevant voluntary organisations who will be able to bring the needs of any homeless person to the attention of the authority. Under section 11, housing authorities will be able to set aside a specific number or proportion of houses specifically to meet the needs of the homeless or other categories.
It has been suggested that housing authorities are unsympathetic to the needs of the homeless and will not operate the new powers they are being given. I would again point to the fact that housing authorities, even without these powers, provided accommodation for over 1,800 homeless persons in the past two years. I have no doubt that they will act responsibly in discharging their new powers and will seriously address the problem of the homeless in their areas both directly and in co-operation with the voluntary housing organisation and the health boards.
Finally on the question of homelessness, I believe that a board approach involving the many agencies which can help homeless persons is the correct response to this complex problem. The role of the voluntary housing organisations is especially important because of the experience and commitment they have brought and continue to bring to the care of the homeless. In the past, these organisations have been unable, due to lack of resources, to provide modern suitable accommodation and I am hopeful that the availability of up to 95 per cent capital funding will encourage voluntary housing organisations to expand and develop the range and standard of accommodation which they provide for the homeless.
A number of sections of the Bill relate specifically to the voluntary housing sector which will be of growing importance in meeting social housing needs in the coming years. Section 5 in particular provides an updated statutory basis for the development of voluntary and nonprofit housing. Voluntary housing organisations, in fact, predate local housing authorities as an organised response to the unacceptable housing conditions of the ordinary people and in the provision of decent housing at affordable rents. The quality of these dwellings was extremely high by the standards of their time and the fact that many people still live in dwellings provided by these bodies in the last century and earlier this century is testimony to their extraordinary lasting contribution.
However, the scale of the housing problem facing this country in its early years was such that the State through the local housing authorities began to play the predominant role in meeting social housing needs. For many years, the potential and indeed need for an additional arm of social housing provision was lost sight of in the mistaken belief that the State could solve all housing problems. In recent years, however, the Government have again been encouraging the provision of voluntary housing for specific categories of housing need. In March 1984, the existing scheme of assistance for voluntary housing accommodation was extended to include accommodation provided for homeless persons. However, between March 1984 and the end of 1987, only six units of accommodation had been provided specifically for the homeless.
I considered that it was necessary to encourage greater take-up of this scheme by organisations working on behalf of the homeless and, with this clear objective, I sought and obtained Government approval to modify the scheme so that accommodation for the homeless would attract in effect 95 per cent grant assistance rather than the 80 per cent that is available for the other eligible categories of housing need. The technical standards and guidelines for accommodation under this scheme have also been revised to take account of the particular needs of homeless persons.
Some £4 million has been provided this year for assisting voluntary organisations in the provision of housing accommodation including the additional £1 million for accommodation for homeless persons. This allocation compares to expenditure of just £248,000 under this scheme in 1984. There has been a great response to the special provision of £1 million for accommodation for the homeless in 1988 and already one project which will provide accommodation for over 50 homeless persons has been approved in principle.
In recent years, local authority housing has been available more or less on demand to families in bad housing conditions and new categories of housing need such as single parent families and single persons now dominate the waiting lists. In the seventies and indeed in the early eighties, single persons, unless they were elderly, had little real prospect of local authority housing. Recently there has been a dramatic change. For example, two-thirds of lettings by Dublin Corporation last year were to one and two person households and 39 per cent of lettings went to one person households.
I think it is widely acknowledged that great progress has been made on what is often referred to as the "housing problem". Nevertheless, I do not claim that the housing problem has been entirely solved. Such a claim can never realistically be sustained because housing is a dynamic and constantly evolving area of social policy. As one category of housing need is addressed, new categories emerge. At the individual level, as one household is provided with housing, new households emerge to take its place in the queue. However, an important indicator of change in the degree of housing need is the number of households on local authority waiting lists who now feel they can refuse reasonable offers of accommodation from the authority and wait for a house in a location of their choice. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the choice available to, and expected by, many applicants for local authority housing.
While the total number of approved applicants for local authority housing has fallen by one-third in recent years, this does not fully reflect the real decline in housing need which has shown itself more clearly in a situation where reasonable accommodation has to be offered to a number of applicants before it is accepted. A further consequence of the current supply position on local authority housing is the emergence of significant problems of vacant dwellings. While some vacant dwelling are, of course, inevitable and indeed necessary, particularly in the case of a larger local authority, an excessive number of vacant dwellings is a serious waste of resources and presents a serious and expensive management problem for the local authorities. It is a problem that is not addressed by simply boarding up houses and this is an area where a more positive and creative approach by local authorities could yield significant benefits.
Section 9 of the Bill provides a new procedure which is designed to ensure that the provision of local authority housing is in future more sensitively matched to the real needs of persons seeking accommodation. There is little doubt that the emergence of smaller households as the dominent element in social and indeed overall housing needs was not adequately reflected in the local authority house-building programme, either in the type of housing unit provided or in the choice of location. A local authority housing programme on a much smaller scale than that of the early eighties is now justified.
However, this programme must be targeted at the needs now dominating the waiting lists and not directed at family type dwellings. A one person household does not require a three bedroomed house or flat. When almost 60 per cent of applicants for local authority housing consist of one and two person households, this must be reflected in the type of accommodation being provided. All the demographic evidence is that average household size will continue to fall and this point must be clearly understood and addressed by housing authorities in presenting proposals for new local authority housing. Section 20 of the Bill will oblige local authorities, in providing accommodation, to take into account the range of housing needs as revealed in their assessments under section 9 and, moreover, to maintain a reasonable balance as between the different categories of need.
The new tenant purchase scheme for local authority dwellings is now in operation and is attracting a very high level of response. The major feature of the scheme is the use of market value with a flat rate discount of 40 per cent for all eligible tenants irrespective of the length of their tenancy. Tenants of dwellings which were first occupied prior to 1 January 1960 receive an additional 10 per cent discount and, furthermore, a discount of £2,000 in lieu of the first time purchasers grant in respect of new houses is also allowable in virtually all cases.
Under this scheme, the gross price of the house to the tenant is calculated in relation to market value and having regard to the structural condition of the house. I regard market value as the fairest system of assessing the real value of a house. It was introduced as an option into the tenant purchase scheme in 1986 and resulted in substantial reductions in prices particularly for recently built houses whose formula based prices could far exceed their market value. Market value also reflects accurately factors such as the age, condition and location of houses.
The continued operation of the requirement for pre-sale repairs contained in section 13 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1979, would be wrong in circumstances where house prices are being assessed on market value which takes the condition of the house into account. Moreover, the procedure can be very costly to local authorities, can result in long delays in transferring houses and can be a serious impediment to attempts to speed up the sale process. Section 23 of the Bill accordingly provides for the repeal of section 13 of the 1979 Act and also for necessary transitional arrangements to ensure that the section 13 arrangements will continue to apply as necessary to houses currently being sold to tenants under earlier schemes. Housing authorities should, of course, continue to process all applications under pre-1988 schemes, where tenants are continuing with those applications. Any necessary structural works should be carried out as a matter of priority. To do otherwise would be completely unfair to those tenants who are awaiting repairs to purchase their houses.
Section 12 of the Bill provides for the scheme of remedial works to designated local authority housing estates. For many years, the local housing programme has concentrated on the provision of new accommodation, with little if any attention being given to the need to modernise and improve the existing rented stock. In recent years, however, the easing of the pressure of demand for new construction has allowed additional resources to be released to secure necessary improvements to the existing stock. In this way, much-needed improvements to the living conditions of many tenants can be achieved, the State's investment in local authority housing can be protected and the premature loss of dwellings to the rented housing stock can be prevented.
In 1988, the allocation for this scheme has again been increased and is now £10 million compared to expenditure of £7 million in 1987 and only £1.5 million in 1986. While town commissioners legally remain housing authorities for the purposes of managing and maintaining their own housing, they do not have either the technical or financial resources to carry out necessary improvement works to their housing stock. Section 20 of the Bill provides specifically for agreements between town commissioners and the relevant county council so that the council may undertake the management, maintenance and improvement of houses owned by the commissioners.
The benefits which accrue from the injection of capital funds into the local authority housing stock through the remedial works scheme could be lost unless accompanied by improved estate management by local authorities. In this regard, the role which the tenants themselves can play is of vital importance and authorities must now make every effort to foster and develop tenant interest and participation in the running of their estates. The consultation process under the remedial works scheme should prove to be an important headline in this regard. There is already considerable evidence of a renewed vitality and pride in local authority estates which are being upgraded under the scheme.
There are a number of sections in the Bill which relate to the provision of housing, halting sites and other services for the travelling community. Section 6 provides statutory authority for the recoupment by the Minister of the salaries and expenses incurred by local authorities and certain approved bodies in the employment of social workers in connection with the accommodation of travellers. Section 13 deals with the provision of residential caravan sites and facilities. Section 9 requires housing authorities to have regard to the needs of travellers in their assessments of housing needs.
Section 27 amends section 2 of the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955, to enable a local authority manager to undertake works which he regards as urgent and necessary to provide a reasonable standard of accommodation for any person. This measure is designed to facilitate the provision by local authorities of accommodation for travellers.
Section 24 of the Bill clarifies and consolidates the power of the Minister to make grant assistance available towards the administrative and general expenses of a small number of representative, advisory or research organisations working in the housing area. My Department have provided annual grant assistance to the National Association of Building Cooperatives, the Housing Centre and Threshold for a number of years now. In addition, a grant of £45,000 has recently been made available towards the administrative and general expenses of Focus Point in 1988. This grant is, of course, additional to the grant of £50,000 to Focus Point towards the cost of a project for the accommodation of homeless persons which was announced by the Minister for Finance in his Budget Statement. It is also quite separate from any assistance that may be given to Focus Point for the provision of additional accommodation for the homeless under the terms of the voluntary housing scheme.
While the main thrust of this Housing Bill is in the area of social housing and meeting social housing needs, there are a number of important measures related to the private housing sector. Section 14 provides a more up-to-date basis for subsidising the site costs incurred by certain persons of modest means in providing or acquiring housing for their own occupation, for example, through a housing co-operative, the Rural Resource Organisation, or joint venture housing. Under the provisions of the 1966 Act, a grant could not be made available to assist potential house purchasers in acquiring these sites but a loan charge subsidy could be given.
This method of assistance, however, was found to be unsuited to the encouragement of joint venture housing particularly where undeveloped sites were made available to a builder by a housing authority. If the authority had not incurred any borrowings on the land, which was often the situation in the case of unserviced sites, no subsidy could be paid by my Department to reduce the site cost and, ultimately, the house price to the purchaser. It was necessary, therefore, to provide for a grant system rather than a loan charge subsidy system to encourage joint venture housing and a grant of £1,000 per site is currently available from my Department in respect of local authority sites made available for this purpose. The benefit of this grant is passed on to the house purchaser.
The Rural Resource Organisation is an approved body for the purposes of section 45 of the Housing Act, 1966, and was, therefore, eligible to secure the loan charge subsidy directly from my Department. The provisions of section 14 will mean that the Rural Resource Organisation will no longer have to incur borrowings in order to be eligible for assistance with site costs and may now be provided with a straight grant of £1,000 per site.
It is an over-riding concern of housing policy to ensure an adequate supply of mortgage finance for house purchase. For many years, this objective has involved the Government in providing substantial mortgage finance through local authorities for persons of modest means. However, the development of the housing finance system in recent years, particularly the emergence of the commercial banks as major providers of mortgage finance and the availability to the building societies of significant capital repayments from loans advanced in the seventies and earlier years, has meant that house purchase finance is now readily available from commercial lending agencies. This development presented the opportunity of transferring from public to private funding a significant proportion of demand for local authority house purchase loans. Following discussions between my Department and the main commercial lending agencies, the associated banks and the building societies agreed to make £70 million available in 1988 to provide mortgage finance to persons who would otherwise require loans from the local authorities. Local authority house purchase loans continue to be made available as heretofore to applicants who are unable to secure a loan from a bank or building society.
As part of the arrangements to encourage commercial lending agencies to provide this additional mortgage finance for lower income groups, a partial guarantee may be given by a housing authority to cover, in the case of default, payment of the amount by which the loan advanced exceeded 75 per cent of the value of the house. Section 16 of the Bill provides the statutory basis for this new loan guarantee scheme and also provides for recoupment by the Minister of all or part of any expenditure incurred by a housing authority on foot of any guarantee given. In effect, my Department will recoup all expenditure incurred by a housing authority under section 16. However, experience in the operation of the scheme to date suggests that it is only in relatively few cases that the commercial lending agencies are seeking these guarantees as additional security.
Although now terminated, significant expenditure continues to arise under both the mortgage subsidy and the £5,000 surrender grant schemes. The 1988 provision for the payment of mortgage subsidy is £23.3 million and the provision for the £5,000 grant scheme is £3.5 million. Significant expenditure under the latter scheme should not arise beyond this year; however, payments under the mortgage subsidy scheme will continue up to 1992. These schemes are being given statutory backing by sections 3 and 4 of the Bill.
Section 25 provides that a new house grant may be paid in cases where a previous owner-occupier is providing a new house following marital breakdown if the person is in need of housing and refusal to pay the grant would cause hardship. This is a new statutory exception to the normal requirement that only a first time owner-occupier may be paid a new house grant. Section 4 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1979, already provides for the payment of a new house grant to a previous owner-occupier providing a new house where the applicants's previous accommodation was destroyed by fire, explosion or act of God and where refusal to pay the grant would cause hardship.
The offence of "wandering abroad" is contained in the Vagrancy Act of 1824. A number of groups have sought the repeal of this offence. In addition, its repeal was recommended by the Law Reform Commission in their report on Vagrancy and Related Offences which was published in 1985. While the Minister for Justice is primarily responsible for the Vagrancy Acts, I have taken the opportunity to include the repeal of this offence in this Housing Bill as an element in the Government's overall response to the problem of homelessness.
Most of the remaining sections of the Bill are largely technical in their nature and do not involve significant policy considerations. Some of the more important of these are: Section 7 validates certain payments made before the enactment of this Bill to the extent that these payments would have been valid after its enactment; section 8 extends to all mortgages the simplified system for the discharge of fully paid mortgages which has heretofore applied only to Building Society mortgages; section 29 deals with offences under the Act and provides for fines not exceeding £500 for knowingly furnishing false or misleading information or withholding material information in connection with obtaining accommodation or assistance from a housing authority. In concluding, I would like to make a few brief comments regarding the overall thrust of housing policy and legislation as indicated in the Housing Bill, 1988.
Since the foundation of the State, the over-riding concern of housing policy has been directed at providing new accommodation to meet a persistent and often chronic housing shortage. We can look with satisfaction at what has been achieved — over 40 per cent of the housing stock, or more than 400,000 new houses, have been built since 1971. However, as I have already indicated, as one problem in the housing area appears to have been overcome, new problems emerge. Problems such as homelessness and other special housing needs require more complex responses than merely setting a target for annual housing completions. Large scale local authority housing estates present difficult management problems for local authorities and offer little satisfaction to tenants.
The 1988 tenant purchase scheme is, I believe, an important response to the alienation of local authority tenants in that it offers them the real prospect of becoming house owners. We are all aware of the beneficial results that sales of houses to tenants can bring to the appearance, environment and, indeed, physical fabric of local authority housing estates. However, other responses, too, are required to the vandalism and antisocial behaviour which plague some local authority estates.
We require an enlightened approach by local authority housing managers to consultation with tenants and participation and involvement by tenants in the management of their estates. I will be encouraging the larger housing authorities in this direction, as the problem is clearly related to scale, with the larger local authorities having the greater problems.
The question of how many houses need to be provided annually and subsequent issues such as how many of these houses should be provided by the public, private and voluntary sectors are of fundamental importance in avoiding any recurrence of a housing shortage. Current levels of housing output, though much reduced on the levels of the early eighties are, nonetheless, very much in line with the real level of demand. If demand should rise significantly in the coming years, we will have to respond accordingly. Sections 8 and 9 of the Bill will be particularly important in helping to set base line data on overall housing requirements and on local authority housing needs.
Apart from numbers, the range, type and location of new housing are important and should be particularly targeted to meet deficiencies in the existing housing stock. Greater emphasis must be given in the coming years to the accommodation needs of particular categories such as the homeless, frail elderly persons and young persons. This Bill provides the framework for these developments. I commend the Bill to the House.