At the outset, I would like to thank all the Senators who participated in this very interesting debate. Housing is, of course, a matter of great interest to all public representatives. I have listened attentively to the various issues which were raised during the course of the debate and I will attempt to address these as positively and constructively as possible during the course of my reply.
A number of Senators — including, I am glad to say, Senator Brendan Ryan — have welcomed the broad thrust of the new measures in thePlan for Social Housing and the Bill. I must say I agree with the sentiment that if we had these measures in effect some 20 or 30 years ago we would not be faced with many of the social problems which are of great concern to us all in the 1990s. The day of the large scale local authority housing estates is gone — for good social and economic reasons — and it is obvious that most Senators agree that we need new more sensitive approaches to meeting social housing needs. We need a multifaceted response to the housing needs of those who cannot afford to house themselves by conventional means instead of the one track policy of the past.
It is depressing to hear Senator Naughten harking back to the old ways. Shovel the money out to local authorities and they will do the job as they have done for decades — that was his message. However, it is a message that ignores fundamental changes — changes in social patterns, changes in the nature of the housing problem, changes in the economic context in which we must operate. It ignores the lessons of past experience and what is happening in other countries. On reflection, and having listened to this debate, I would hope that Senator Naughten would agree that the problems of the present and the future need something more than the outdated solutions of the past.
Contrary to what was suggested by a number of Senators, the extent of real housing needs is not being underestimated by the Government; nor am I going to deny that needs have been increasing over the past couple of years. The latest statutory assessments carried out by local authorities in March 1991 indicate that some 23,200 households have been approved for local authority housing. Even though this represents an increase of approximately 20 per cent over the 19,400 households recorded in 1989, it is still substantially lower than the 30,000 households which were on the housing waiting lists in the early 1980s. It is worth noting that of the total need of 23,200, 6,700 are one person households and another 2,800 are couples without children. A full analysis of needs has been published in my Department's 1991 annual housing bulletin — indeed Senator Brendan Ryan quoted directly from this bulletin.
I think public representatives should resist the political temptation to exaggerate the extent of real housing needs. It is not responsible to paint an unjustifiably black picture of housing prospects. Indeed, it is a disservice to those in genuine need. I believe that they would be better served acknowledging the opportunities presented by the new measures under thePlan for Social Housing and encouraging people to make maximum use of them.
There was criticism from some Senators over the lack of resources to implement thePlan for Social Housing, stating that there was inadequate funding which will result in the non-achievement of its objectives. Such criticism is not accurate. The true position is that substantially increased funding has been made available in the plan. The overall 1992 capital provision for housing, including Exchequer and non-Exchequer resources will be some £158 million in 1992, an increase of one-third on last year's expenditure. The Exchequer's contribution to this will be some £78 million compared with £51 million in 1990. This substantial increase on the 1991 provision is mainly attributable to the increased take-up of the various new housing measures and especially the shared ownership scheme.
A provision of £35 million has been made to cover the capital funding requirements of this scheme in 1992. The allocation for the provision of local authority housing is £41 million in 1992 compared with £33 million in 1990, while that for the remedial work scheme, including the provision of bathrooms, has increased from £15 million to £18 million during the same period. In addition, the provision for voluntary housing has increased from £9 million to £11 million with a further £5 million being made available for the rental subsidy scheme with allocations in 1992 for the improvement works-in-lieu scheme. The provision of sites scheme and the mortgage allowance scheme totalling £4.4 million did not exist in 1990. That these allocations have been made available during a very difficult period for Government finances is a clear demonstration of our commitment to the social housing needs of the people.
Senator Naughten was critical of the shared ownership system and suggested that people would never own their own houses under the system. The shared ownership system is designed to enable low income households to get into the first rung of the house ownership ladder. It does not purport to be a solution to all housing needs. It is one element — albeit an important element — in the full range of measures contained in the Social Housing Plan, and in this Bill, which are designed to meet all categories of housing need from the very lowest income groups to those on the margins of home ownership.
It is wrong, therefore, to criticise the shared ownership system on the basis that it will not meet all housing needs. It was never claimed that it would. However, shared ownership is, I believe, a welcome addition to the range of housing options available to low income households and should be welcomed as such. Indeed, I suggest that if we had not introduced a shared ownership system we would be criticised for failing to introduce a scheme which has worked elsewhere by the same Senators who now criticise us for introducing this measure.
Senator Naughten is of the view that shared ownership had little or no application in his area, being a rural one. Yet, Senator Ó Cuív said that the scheme was particularly effective in rural situations where, for example, the applicant would have a site available. I believe Senator Ó Cuív is right and perhaps Senator Naughten might benefit from taking a look at how the scheme is operating in the neighbouring county.
Senator Ó Cuív was concerned that the indexation of the unpurchased equity by reference to consumer price indexation would be a disincentive to persons availing of the shared ownership system. It must not be overlooked, however, that the authority must borrow the money to buy the house in the first instance and must pay interest on their outstanding borrowings until they clear their debt when the buy-out of the lease is completed by the shared owner. Therefore, the buy-out cost of any equity during the lease period could be frozen at its initial value only if the shared-owner's rent payments were high enough to cover the housing authority's borrowing costs in full. This would increase the outgoings on the house to an extent that would make shared ownership no longer viable.
Indexation does not mean that the buy-out cost remains the same in real terms or in terms of value of money. On the other hand, a person who cannot start to purchase, is entirely at the mercy of the property market which can prove much more volatile than general inflation.
Senator Ó Cuív raised the question of the £10,000 cost limit for improvement works-in-lieu of rehousing in so far as it applies to islands. Of course, I acknowledge that building costs are higher on the islands, and indeed this fact has been recognised in loan and grant limits over the years. I will, therefore, look at what can be done to provide a more appropriate cost guideline for this scheme in the case of works that are being carried out on the offshore islands.
Senators Ó Cuív and Naughten also referred to difficulties associated with the need to have fully registered ownership for the purposes of the improvement works-in-lieu scheme. To address this problem, section 5 has now been amended to remove the statutory requirement for a housing authority to take a mortgage in every case and to provide that such a mortgage may be registered without the need for the putative owner to be registered as the owner. I hope this amendment meets the concerns expressed by the Senators and that it will remove an obstacle to making full use of this widely welcomed scheme.
I will look into Senators Neville's and Foley's contention that this scheme is proving impractical because of insistence on overly demanding standards in relation to houses. While, obviously, household's requirements cannot be regarded as being met unless the accommodation provided is of a decent standard, I would not like to see an excessively fussy approach inhibiting the sensible operation of the scheme.
I was somewhat perplexed with Senator Naughten decrying a greater role for voluntary housing organisations and then he going on to praise the very good work achieved by the rural housing organisation in providing good quality accommodation in co-operation with the local authorities. In fact, the essence of this Bill and of thePlan for Social Housing is to secure greater co-operation between local authorities and voluntary housing organisations, indeed the very type of policy that is well exemplified by the RHO in the early 1980s and more recently by organisations such as Respond, which is based in Waterford but is now carrying out new housing developments throughout the country including, I am glad to say, in Cork, where Respond have plans for a 38-house project in Douglas.
The new rental subsidy scheme will increase the provision of accommodation by the voluntary sector this year and I am satisfied that the enhanced role for voluntary bodies envisaged in thePlan for Social Housing is appropriate. The involvement of the voluntary sector is essential if we are going to deliver a balanced and flexible response to housing needs and to benefit all the resources, both human and financial, that are available to help meet this objective.
Senators McGowan and Hussey also referred to the high cost of maintenance and management of local authority housing and suggested that tenants might be made fully responsible for the maintenancy of their dwellings. It would represent a fundamental departure from the norms of landlord-tenant relationships to make tenants fully responsible for maintenance. I doubt if it is a practical proposition while the local authority remains the owner and the the tenant just that — a tenant. Look, for example, at the difficulties that would arise in the case of flats. If the tenant fails to maintain, is a publicly funded asset to be allowed to depreciate rapidly? Is the tenant who maintains to be charged a different rent to the tenant who does not? I am glad to say section 9 of the Bill recognises the potential for group tenant participation in the running of their estates, by enabling local authorities to delegate responsibility for maintenance and management to properly constituted tenant groups. I believe the direct involvement of tenants in this way will bring about an improvement in the maintenance and management of local authority housing.
Senator Naughten professes not to see the difference between the rental subsidy scheme and the direct provision of local authority housing. There are, however, a number of significant differences. First, the voluntary movement have a record of providing housing at very competitive prices. Secondly, it is providing a means for people to help themselves, rather than waiting for others to do it for them. Thirdly, it will promote greater tenant involvement and a more positive attitude by tenants to the maintenance of their housing.
The accommodation of travelling people was raised by a number of Senators. It is important that I should again outline the reasons for the inclusion of section 10 in the Bill. Section 10 is a measure designed to help solve the accommodation problem of travellers, not to penalise them. I would ask Senator Naughten to note that it is not the policy of the Department, or of myself, to force travellers into permanent housing. We respect the preference of most travellers for a mobile way of life. That is why the major policy emphasis has, for some years, been on the provision of accommodation for caravans, to ensure that travellers do not have to suffer the deprivations of life on the roadside. An annual capital allocation of £3 million has been made for the purpose in recent years.
Although funding has not been, or will not, be a problem progress on the provision of halting sites has not been as good as I or my predecessors would have liked; the main reason is the opposition of the settled community to the location of new sites. Some of this opposition has come about because some travellers are inclined to remain parked on the roadside in the vicinity of serviced sites that have been provided for them. Section 10 of the Bill gives local authorities power to deal with these cases in order to reduce the potential of the sort of local opposition to which I have already referred; it is not designed to penalise travellers. It is there to help travellers in general by allowing local authorities to take action to resolve a problem that creates unnecessary conflict, hindering the authorities settlement programme and ultimately reduces the prospect of all travellers getting adequate and satisfactory accommodation.
There has also to be a balance between the needs and wishes of travellers and the interests of the rest of the community. It is not unreasonable to expect travellers to make use of halting sites that have been provided to a very high standard with good amenities at considerable expense to the taxpayer and effort of the local authority. Parking instead on public roads or other public areas causes dangers to traffic, damage to amenities and other problems, especially when large numbers congregate.
Finally, I again want to emphasise that this scheme only gives the local authority power to act where there is a vacant berth on an official halting site in which the temporary dwelling concerned could be accommodated. It is by no means a draconian power: it can only be used in very well defined circumstances.
Senator Brendan Ryan referred to the travellers' situation in Cork. In my opinion, the people who have caused problems recently in the Cork area could not be regarded as ordinary travelling families. It is obvious to any observer that these are substantial traders with considerable resources. Local communities should not have to tolerate the destruction caused by the arrival of convoys of large caravans and vehicles parked indiscriminately without regard to the safety of the general public.