National Housing Development Survey Report: Statements

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran.

The publication of the national housing development surveymarks a crucial first stage in tackling the problems associated with unfinished developments. It should also serve to draw a line under much of the speculation in recent months about the extent of the overhang of unsold properties and of incomplete developments. The problems and difficulties faced by people living day to day in unfinished estates must be addressed but by undertaking this evidence-based survey of activity and conditions on the ground, the Government has taken prompt action to come to grips with an unprecedented set of circumstances.

In excess of 2,800 housing developments were identified where construction had commenced but had not been completed, and these developments translate into more than 180,000 housing units for which planning permission has been granted. Of those, more than 120,000 dwellings have commenced construction and 77,000 are completed and occupied. A further 33,000 homes are either completed and vacant or nearly complete, requiring, for example, final fit-out and connection to services. This equates to the total amount of real overhang of unoccupied houses — 33,000 unoccupied, nearly finished houses. A remaining 10,000 dwellings are at various stages of construction, from preliminary site clearance to foundations to wall plate level. While the results of this survey will not immediately change the reality for those living in half-finished developments without roads or street lights, the survey gives some significant comfort at an aggregate level. At that level, the problem is nowhere near as great as some have suggested.

Undoubtedly, the timing mismatch between the collapse in demand for housing and the less rapid growth of construction output has led to a position in which there is now a significant overhang of unsold property, but previous estimates of the overhang have been largely desk-top exercises. This survey is more refined. The figures have been arrived at using a robust methodology based on on-site inspection by my Department's regionally based national housing inspectorate. A point that was lost in previous discussions on the extent of the overhang is that every housing market in the world, regardless of at what point of the market cycle it is, whether booming or falling, will have a certain level of vacancy in its stock. The Irish housing market is no different.

These survey results provide an important snapshot of the housing market in Ireland. The market remains weak and is likely to be so for some time to come. Now that we have identified the extent and scale of the problem and differentiated between the various types of incomplete estate, from finished but unsold units to abandoned and half-finished developments with no occupants, we can assess how best to manage the problems that have arisen. It is inaccurate to lump all the 2,846 estates inspected by my Department into the same category. As the detail of the survey shows, some of the estates were completed and fully occupied, some were completed and almost completely occupied, and some were completed and not occupied. It is worth noting that in terms of the scale of the estates surveyed, half had fewer than 30 dwellings and almost a quarter had fewer than ten. Of the 2,846 estates surveyed, 1,050 had some occupancy and were still under construction, whether that construction was ongoing or not. This represents roughly one third of the estates surveyed that are of the most serious concern.

From here we can move to the active stage, working with key stakeholders to develop appropriate interventions across a number of disciplines: public safety, the provision of bonds and securities, environmental protection, building control and estate management. The expert group I announced last week will be asked to develop practical and policy solutions to ensure satisfactory completion or resolution of unfinished housing developments. Its first job will be to complete work on the best practice guidance manual for managing and resolving unfinished housing developments. This will be a practical guidance document for people on the ground setting out the range of statutory powers currently at the disposal of local authorities to resolve urgent matters, and it will be delivered promptly. I have asked John O'Connor, chief executive of the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency, to chair this group, and I am confident he will elicit the necessary engagement and co-ordination from stakeholders' representatives to deliver a succinct and coherent set of actions, recommendations and best practice guidelines.

From my perspective as Minister of State with responsibility for housing, there is an important distinction between incomplete developments and those that are not selling. The results provide a key strategic input not just to the evolution of the housing market generally but also to the delivery of social housing in the coming years. From the point of view of social housing, more important than the precise number of unoccupied units is what we propose to do with those that are vacant and available for use. For some time now, I have been pursuing a multi-stranded approach to obtain vacant unsold stock for use as social housing through a long-term leasing initiative. What this involves is a fairly straightforward matching up of oversupply with rising demand. This will be the central plank of social housing supply in the coming years.

Landlords, builders, developers and banks are all sitting on properties they cannot sell and either cannot or do not want to rent out privately. Some of these properties will end up with NAMA, and my Department is already engaging extensively with NAMA to ensure that wherever its aim to secure a sound return can be aligned with our need to provide accommodation for disadvantaged households, this will be achieved. The initiative is bearing real fruit. More than 2,500 units have been sourced and approved for use under long-term lease arrangements, and I expect that this initiative, with the rental accommodation scheme, will account for around two thirds of total social housing delivery this year and more again next year. One of the main messages I want to get across to those retaining unsold vacant units is that my Department and every local authority in this country is open for business under the leasing initiative.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this debate and thank him for his words which will give us some small solace in the property and housing market crisis. I acknowledge that a start has been made by the Government, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the local authorities to establish the exact number of unfinished estates and vacant units in the country. I will say more about that later because I have some questions about it. We must acknowledge in this debate how we got here so that we can learn from past mistakes and the legacy that has now been passed on to the next generation — a poor legacy, unfortunately, as a result of the property bubble we have experienced over recent years and the lack of regulation by the Government of the various players in the property market and across the banking sector. One example of this is that between 2004 and 2008, more than €870 million in tax breaks was claimed by developers. That equates to almost €1 billion over a four-year period.

That was not all in residential property.

That will tell one about the policies of the Government and how they led to the property crash we are now experiencing.

We are talking about residential property in this debate.

We have also heard members of the Green Party, in particular, engaging in the blame game and trying to blame councillors for excessive residential zoning. This is possibly the case, as there was a lot of zoning. I must state publicly, however, that zoning a patch of land or a field for residential use does not necessarily mean that that land will be given planning permission for building by the local authority. This has been seen in many instances in which planning permission has been refused, for technical reasons or otherwise, for zoned residential land. Thus, it is not true that only councillors were to blame for the property bubble and the building boom. Developers, banks, the Government and the local authorities themselves played a large role. Now that the bubble has burst and we are in a crisis, we need to learn from what happened, move on and find solutions. For that reason I am happy this survey was done.

The survey probably does not take account of finished estates that have experienced problems owing to a lack of adequate infrastructure and poor building standards. As recently as last winter, when we had a freeze over a period of weeks, we saw the problems experienced by many local authorities and private estates throughout the country due to incorrect placement of water pipes and other infrastructure. The residents of these estates — these are occupied houses — are still experiencing problems that have not been addressed. Many of these estates were certified by professional engineers, architects and quantity surveyors and were declared by local authorities to have been completed to the proper standard. Why has none of the persons who signed off on these estates been challenged in the courts? Why has their insurance cover not been claimed against by developers or local authorities to ensure inadequate infrastructure is put right? That is something that must be dealt with.

The Minister of State mentioned bonds from builders. These, unfortunately, are just too small to meet the need for major infrastructural correction. Such bonds were intended to be used to reinstate footpaths, install lighting and so on — simple, small jobs. They certainly were not intended to provide moneys to address major deficiencies in the infrastructure of unfinished estates. Unfortunately, we have missed the boat in that regard. Much work is to be done in terms of recouping money to correct sub-standard infrastructure in such estates.

The National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at NUI Maynooth released figures for unoccupied units in July of this year. The Minister of State mentioned that many of those figures may have been incorrect, but I would be interested to hear his views on them. Has anyone in the Department compared the results of this analysis against the survey that has just been completed by the Department? There are serious differences in the two sets of figures. A further debate will be required another day to ensure we have the correct figures as a national baseline. Whatever measures we come up with, it is essential that the baseline figures are correct and factual.

The Minister of State mentioned that more than 33,000 vacant units are either complete or almost complete. More than 100,000 households are on local authority waiting lists for social housing. Some of those people may already be in rent allowance schemes or other such initiatives.

There are no such figures.

The Minister of State will get an opportunity to respond later, but those are the figures we are being given for those on the social housing lists, and if they are accurate, we need to address them. According to the Minister of State's figures, more than 58,000 units have planning permission but have not yet commenced. If those units commence, it will obviously affect the matching of population projections with vacant houses and will need to be taken into account.

The Minister of State also mentioned NAMA. The agency is only taking account of the properties and developments valued at more than €5 million. There has been little debate about the smaller developers who may have built ten or 20 units in many towns and villages. They are not and will not be in NAMA because the agency is not designed to deal with those people. Many of those developers are in trouble. They have their small estates started but will not get them finished because those developers are either in financial trouble or bankrupt. There is a significant group unaffected by the NAMA or banking debates. Many of these small developers are in hock to the bankers and are not being taken into account in the discussions of the billions of euro worth of developer assets being taken over by NAMA. There is a raft of smaller housing estates and units that will need to be addressed in the future but have not been mentioned in debate up to now.

The main problem with unfinished estates relates to the issue of health and safety. There are open manholes, ducting, broken footpaths, uneven surfaces and access to houses with no roofs, floors or stairs. They are of major concern to the residents living adjacent to them or in the local communities. That is the real challenge facing us. Last week I saw one of these unfinished estates in Waterford city on which I compliment the local authority and the developer. They tidied up the estate and screened off the area making access to unfinished areas impossible to the people living adjacent to it. The area was landscaped and it was quite a good job. Driving past it, while one would know it was an unfinished estate, it was safe and did not allow access to the public, especially children. I hope the developer and the local authority will at a future date get to develop it. It is a pity that model is not used in other estates. Even if money is not available for the major works, at the very least the area should be screened off, landscaped and made safe until the money is available and the solutions found. The Minister of State should issue a directive or guideline to all local authorities to ensure that is done. This may be the vehicle that might be used, as the Minister of State proposes.

We need to find solutions and I do not want to be totally negative. It behoves Members of all parties to find solutions to the crisis in which we find ourselves. I read the national housing development survey which seems to have engaged most of the stakeholders who should be involved. The employment agencies, including FÁS and the colleges, should be engaged because they deal every day with thousands of unemployed construction workers. Small estates of approximately ten houses could be ring-fenced in a local authority area and a team of unemployed construction workers could be put together under a proper system of health and safety. With a proper foreman and the appropriate number of craftsmen, apprentices could be put into a ring-fenced site to finish those houses. There is considerable potential if we think outside the box and not simply put the work out to public tender to the large construction firms. In the small communities we can put construction teams of various abilities in the trades together to finish these houses and then, one would hope, sub-let them to tenants. Even with vacant local authority houses one will often hear housing officers saying they do not have the staff or resources to refurbish such existing stock to re-let them. Perhaps the Minister of State would draw attention to that area. On the one hand there are people on the housing list and, on the other, there are vacant local authority housing units which, we are told, local authorities do not have the manpower to renovate, refurbish and re-let. Surely we should engage with the employment agencies to get people off the dole to refurbish those houses.

I have some concerns about the re-letting of some of these unfinished estates, which might have never been fit for habitation in the first place given that they are in remote areas that are not near services and schools. We need to be careful not to ask local authorities to house people in such areas without services and schools. The principle of Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 was to integrate social housing into mainstream private housing close to services. We could be at a critical juncture in trying to house people in remote estates with few if any services. These are people who are already socially disadvantaged. We need be very cautious not to put social housing projects in remote areas, which would be a retrograde step. We all acknowledge that we have an overhang in the housing market. Many of us know how we got here and the blame game goes on. We should have an independent inquiry across the areas of governance, regulation and planning to allow us once and for all to draw a line under the property bubble which we hope will not happen again. We have many lessons to learn.

We on this side of the House are certainly interested in working to find solutions. We have representatives on local authorities who are screaming out for solutions and we should engage on that basis.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. He is very welcome back to Seanad where he spent many years. These statements afford us an opportunity as Members of the Oireachtas to welcome the initiative the Minister of State has taken in having the survey completed. The in-depth survey provides the diagnosis and the prescription and it is important to know the problem. The report was prepared by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government working with key stakeholders and involved a survey conducted by the Department's housing inspectors of all housing developments of two or more dwellings built or granted planning permission in recent years that had commenced by the time of the survey. It was initiated in May, completed in September and is the first independent field-based analysis of housing developments throughout the State.

In 2,846 developments construction had commenced but had not been completed. These developments translate into 179,273 housing units for which planning permission was granted. Of the 2,846 developments inspected, only 429, 15%, are active. While it is difficult to be precise about the exact number of housing units approved in total on all these developments, estimates suggest it is 179,273 dwellings. Some 78,195 dwellings in the developments surveyed are completed and occupied. Some 23,250 dwellings are completed and vacant, 9,976 are not complete and 9,854 are at various earlier stages of construction, from site clearance to foundations up to wall plate level. Planning permission has been granted for a further 58,025 dwellings that have not commenced and therefore do not pose immediate construction or site difficulties.

With regard to the estates that have been completed, for my 31 years in public life I have always complained about snagging in estates. There have been serial offenders in this regard. Certain developers move into an area, construct an estate and then leave the estate with, perhaps, broken footpaths, flooding on roads and a myriad of problems, especially in public areas such as the play areas for children. Most new estates will have a young population. I commend the planning enforcement departments of all the local authorities for getting to grips with these problems and tracking down the developers. Some of them are very good at disappearing. Planning enforcement is now, quite correctly, a very relevant and active part of every local authority. There might be a legislative void to cater for those serial offenders who have not completed estates but they should be denied further planning permission for developments. If they have not completed a previous development to an acceptable standard as laid down by the planning authority, they should get no further planning permission.

There is a good aspect to the issue of all these houses that are finished and unoccupied and even the ones that have not been completed. Housing is a very valuable asset. This situation affords local authorities an opportunity to cater for the unacceptable numbers on housing waiting lists. The housing lists are too long. I strongly support the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and the movement away from rent subsidies. While rent supplement might have had a role in the past, it has outlived its usefulness. The RAS is a more positive development.

Cork was found to be the worst county for ghost estates, with 2,681 complete and vacant properties. Dublin city was close behind, with 2,536, while Waterford city was least affected with only 53 complete and vacant properties. Counties in the midlands such as Westmeath, Laois, Longford and Roscommon are also badly affected. One reason given for this was the introduction of property tax incentives in these counties. According to the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, however, fewer than 10% of the unfinished estates were built with tax breaks. That explodes the myth put forward by certain people.

The comprehensive survey of more than 2,800 multi-unit housing development sites in every city and county provides a clear picture of the extent and scale of unfinished housing developments, the issues arising and the basis on which a clear package of actions to address and resolve both systemic and individual issues can be developed. Armed with this evidence, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is initiating an action plan which will address planning, housing, building control and other matters relating to unfinished housing estates.

Existing legislation such as the Derelict Sites Act 1990 and the litter legislation of 1997 and 2003, with planning legislation, can be used to ensure developers and the owners of sites engage with local authorities in addressing specific difficulties. There was a debate some time ago in the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about the Derelict Sites Act. The legislation is under-used, as is the dangerous buildings legislation. Local authorities should be mercenary, if I may use that word, in getting rid of these eyesores. There was an example of what can happen in Mullingar town where there was a long-standing vacant site. When the local authority applied pressure, the owner applied for planning permission. The planning permission was not acted upon, however, and lapsed, whereupon the process was repeated. If there is a void in the legislation, we must fill it.

The recent Planning and Development (Amendment) Act contains an important amendment providing for the extension of planning permission for a period of up to five years in circumstances where substantial works have not been carried out but where there were commercial, economic or technical considerations beyond the control of the applicant which substantially mitigated against either the commencement of development or the carrying out of substantial works. This was an important improvement in planning legislation. I was personally supportive of the measure and a number of my constituents have sought to avail of that provision.

It has been a key priority of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for some time to move people away from the rent supplement scheme to the rental accommodation scheme. As I said earlier, this is an important policy. The number of unsold houses lying idle which will come under the auspices of the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, offers enormous opportunities in terms of leasing unsold stock by local authorities for social housing purposes. I hope local authorities will step up to the plate and make use of this bonanza. I accept that local authorities are strapped for money but this is an opportunity that is too good to pass up. I have referred to the unacceptable numbers on the housing waiting lists.

The new planning and development legislation will put an end to the bad planning that has resulted in a deterioration of the quality of life for those living in housing estates without any facilities, schools or proper public transport. Planning applications which have no regard for infrastructure are brought before local authorities. Councillor Ken Glynn and others on Westmeath County Council have regularly asked questions about schools and the number of school places available to accommodate a development if it proceeds, much to the discomfort of some developers. I am not anti-developer. I believe developers are important people, especially when they behave in an appropriate way.

There is no doubt that planning has at times been inconsistent with national, regional and local authority planning guidelines. The Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 has put an end to this and will ensure greater coherence between national, regional and local guidelines. That Act is part of the Government's commitment to build in Ireland's smart economy a framework for sustainable rural development.

I welcome what the Minister of State has done in his capacity of responsibility for housing. It is an important step in the right direction. We have a long way to go but there is a window of opportunity now and I am confident he will encourage local authorities to step into the breach. They have a significant role to play on this issue. I thank the Minister of State for his comments on this important matter.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Ní aontaím leis an cainteoir deireanach mar ní inniu ná inné atá an fhadhb seo againn, ach le tamall maith anuas. Caithfimid bheith dáiríre i dtaobh seo agus cad atá déanta ag an Rialtas. Tá coiste curtha ar bun le scrúdú a dhéanamh ar cad é a dhéanfar leis na tithe seo sa todhchaí agus tá suirbhé déanta a deireann nach bhfuil rudaí chomh holc agus a bhí daoine eile ag rá. Do na daoine atá ina gcónaí sna heastáit seo, cuid acu nach bhfuil aon scéim séarachais ag feidhmiú mar is ceart nó nach bhfuil soilse ná tada ar an mbealach mór, níl sin maith go leor dóibh. Níl go leor déanta faoi seo, ach tá am maith ag an Rialtas le go leor a bheith déanta faoi. Ní fheicim aon phráinn ón Rialtas ná ón Aire Stáit ar chor ar bith sa cheist seo. We have discussed the issue of empty housing estates before. Such a debate must include the planning process and the role of local authority members in rezoning lands, introducing county development plans and throwing the advice of county planners — public sector employees — to the wind.

The national housing development survey deals with the phenomenon of ghost estates. Unlike the famous ghost ship, theMary Celeste, however, there is no mystery concerning how they came about. Neither is there a need to speculate about extraterrestrials arriving from distant planets to build empty housing developments before heading home to the Orion constellation. The explanation can be found much closer to home.

Last week in the courts we saw evidence of how the property market operated during the Celtic tiger years. Some of the developments included in this report are a result of corrupt practices by politicians and former Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, is a senior member of the Fianna Fáil Party. That party needs to acknowledge the responsibility and flaws of its party members' activities in bringing about this situation. Many of the housing estates that are unfinished are built on unsuitable lands, many of which are liable to flooding. They are the fruits of rezoning deals done by politicians, some corrupt, some misguided and some too cosy with developers and speculators. The speculators continued to build such estates in the same way a compulsive gambler continues to back horse after horse no matter how much he loses. The difference between the two, however, is that the gambler cannot turn to the State for a bailout. The same should have happened to these developers and speculators.

The Minister of State earlier stated, "One of the main messages I want to get across to those retaining unsold vacant units is that my Department and every local authority in this country is open for business under the leasing initiative." To me this reads as: "The message I have for the developers and speculators who gambled on the property boom and lost out is for them to come to Government Buildings because we will bail them out."

The leasing initiative is a bailout for speculators and developers.

That is absolute rubbish.

It is not rubbish.

The Minister of State will have an opportunity to reply later.

The Senator should give the facts. NAMA comprises only 13% of residential properties.

Senator Doherty, to continue without interruption.

When NAMA was introduced, the Government claimed it would make a profit. Why? NAMA and the Government believe property prices will return to their peak in ten years. The Minister of State is telling those who own 30,000 unsold properties that he will rent them while putting taxpayers' money into their pockets. Then after bailing them out, ten years later they can have their properties back. There is a report from NAMA and expert consultants that shows property prices will reach a new level in ten years. The Minister of State is telling his developer friends from the Galway races tent that they can sell their properties after ten years after getting rent from the local authority. Meanwhile, what will happen to the Marys and the Johns who are social housing tenants in these properties? In ten years' time they will be turfed out on the road while the modifications they made to the property will be worthless. They will not even have the option of buying the property off the local authority.

The Minister of State can call my arguments rubbish all he wants. The leasing initiative is nothing but a dressed-up bailout for developers. Everyone, even those with an economics education, knows that in the long term it is cheaper to buy one's house than it is to rent. The Minister of State, however, now directs the local authorities to rent. This is throwing money after money which goes straight to the speculators and property developers who got us into this mess in the first place. That is not rubbish.

I am providing houses for those on the housing lists.

Instead of bailing out the developers, the Minister of State should be purchasing these properties.

I am not bailing out anyone.

The developers took a risk.

I will buy the houses if the Senator can give me €5 billion.

There are 47 apartments on Navenny Street in Ballybofey beside the town's Supervalu. The Minister of State could direct Donegal County Council to purchase all these apartments for €500,000.

The Senator should talk to his local authority about these apartments.

Then again, the Government does not agree with buying these properties because its message to the developers is that it will rent them off them and pay their mortgages in the next ten years. Then, they can sell them off when times get good again for a higher price.

The nonsense of knocking down houses is another attempt to restart the property boom which fed the Minister of State's party's coffers. When I was on Donegal County Council, I watched Fianna Fáil members, including a Senator who was later appointed by the Taoiseach, rezone land willy-nilly. They were putting points here and there on maps to indicate multiple developments. When Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill was the chairperson of the strategic policy and economic development committee for Donegal County Council, he argued for a tax incentive scheme for Donegal county in order that more properties could be built. This was at a time when Donegal County Council received in excess of 8,000 planning applications every year. Fianna Fáil was arguing for a tax relief scheme in order that more properties could be built to fuel the housing market and keep the boys coming to the Galway tent. It is shameful the Minister of State sits there saying it is great we have this housing report that shows it is not as bad as some suggest.

That is not what I said.

The people in the unfinished housing estates do not have the luxury Ministers have of a chauffeur-driven car, a €200,000 pay cheque every year and a sizeable pension. Instead, they must put up with overflowing sewage, untarred roads, out-of-order street lights and estates falling apart. The Minister of State should not be condescending in claiming this report shows matters are not as bad as others claim. It is a disgrace he can make such a claim, especially when he knows that if has a quick look out the window of his chauffeur-driven Merc some time, he will see many half-finished estates.

I do not have a ministerial Mercedes. I drive my own car.

For the Minister of State to claim the situation with unfinished estates is not as bad as suggested and that a committee will sort it out is not good enough.

I thank and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. He has done very good work in various areas as the Minister with responsibility for housing but I will not go into that. This is a very useful exercise and these figures give some idea of the problems that exist. According to the report, in the area covered by Dublin City Council more than 6,000 houses are unoccupied. We received word from the city council recently that there are 4,600 applicants waiting on the housing list in the same area. In Fingal approximately the same number are waiting. Overall in Dublin, more than 8,000 people are waiting. At the same time we are giving several of these people rental subsidies from the HSE. This is ridiculous and people are beginning to question why we are doing this when there are so many empty houses. We can all go back over history and discuss how this came about and so on and I will refer to that but I do not believe it will achieve anything. Senator Doherty referred to this matter in what was probably his pre-election speech. However, it does not achieve anything to knock something that happened in the past because there is nothing we can do about it now. We must take now as a starting point and move on. Many mistakes have been made, there is no doubt about that.

I could go through many of these in my area but it would serve only to illustrate that we will not make the same mistakes again. For example, local authorities introduced certain changes willy-nilly and I am unsure whether they were sanctioned by the Department. Since they did not have sufficient planners to inspect sites, they introduced self-certification. This meant one simply sent in drawings and the planners in the local authority would approve them although they were never on-site. The repercussions of this have been great indeed.

In the area I represent, Donaghmede, a development consisting of 76 apartments was built. The city council bought 16 of the apartments and the remainder were rented. After one year, it was discovered that these apartments were unsafe to live in. There were fire hazards and the apartments were unsafe structurally and so on. Everyone there had to be evacuated. Although the council purchased some of these apartments, it was not compliant.

In another unfortunate bone of contention in the area I represent there are 167 houses with a pyrite problem. Although it has not yet begun, a court case is likely in which the builder is blaming the quarry, claiming he received inferior materials for building. However, the quarry is blaming the builder for bad workmanship. This has been going on for the past four years. People have had to move out of their houses and be accommodated elsewhere while paying the mortgage. Some of these people had let rooms in the houses and they no longer have the income that generated. I met with HomeBond. It claimed it was not responsible for what took place in a quarry and that we must wait until the court case finishes. The builders maintain they do not have sufficient money to continue and they need money from HomeBond. They maintain the bottom line is that if they are pressed too hard they will simply go bankrupt and no one will get anything. I will hold a private discussion with the Minister of State about this matter at some stage.

I am simply illustrating some of the things that took place. No one cared and everyone did whatever they wanted to so long as the money came in and the kids were mentally conditioned to queue up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning. It was suggested that if they did not do so, they would never get a house because they would all be sold. That is exactly what happened. I do not like the phrase, "We are where we are", but we must deal with what is in front of us.

I am unsure whether it is factual but an official in the city council pointed out to me that the local authorities are still buying private houses in estates. This should be examined because it is pointless when there are so many vacant houses according to the figures in this report. Why is the city council still buying houses in housing estates when so many are empty? We have not come to grips with this problem.

Many people complain that local authority tenants are not as good as themselves. I do not buy that and I do not see any difference in where one comes from or what one does but the matter must be checked out. Allegations have been made concerning the manner in which subsidies are being paid out. They do not go to directly to landlords any more. There are allegations that the HSE disperses money to some tenants but that the tenants are in arrears. In other words, the money they receive from the HSE is spent on other things and the landlord is not paid. In other cases, tenants have informed the HSE they pay €600 but in fact they only pay the landlord €500; some people are making money in this way. I have investigated some cases and found this to be factual. We should move away from subsidised rental schemes and handouts from the HSE and the Department of Social Protection. The Minister of State is going in the right direction.

Senator Coffey referred to unfinished estates. I know of many such estates and some weeks ago I visited one in particular. It was not in my constituency; it was in the countryside but I know a person living there. In that estate, the manhole covers were up, which is verydangerous. Some children tripped on them and an elderly person was injured. The builder has simply walked away but is still operating in a small way. He maintains he does not have the money to complete the works but the council maintains the money in the bond is not sufficient to complete the works either. The end result is that no one cares. In the cases I have outlined, which are factual, no one cares anymore about those involved. The perception is that the builders and the Government did as they pleased. I do not hold that this is true but I am pleased the Minister of State is making a genuine effort to improve this situation and I thank him. Earlier, I referred to speeches about who was bad in the past and so on but we must deal with the position now from here on in. Again I thank the Minister of State for his input into the report.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe. I have not had the opportunity to face him across the floor before in the Chamber. We go back a long way and I am very pleased he is in his current role and I wish him all the best in it. I welcome the publication of the national housing development survey and I am pleased we are spending some time on it. The report is very important and has considerable implications for the planning system and for economic and social policy.

Vacant, incomplete and unfinished housing is one of the most visible legacies of the boom and bust economic development we have witnessed. Some 13 years of mismanagement has left the State, local authorities and the next Government with the difficult problem of how to address and manage 2,800 estates and developments which are incomplete or in some cases substandard. The report has found there are some 43,000 houses and apartments which are completed but vacant and not signed off because some work remains to be done either on the apartments or houses or in the estates generally.

The recent "Prime Time" programme on RTE showed how this problem has implications for those living in the estates and others beyond. The consequences may include anti-social behaviour within the estates and in neighbouring areas. In some estates the conditions are unsafe for the families living nearby. Last weekend, I visited one unfinished estate in which the previous week a child had fallen. Luckily, the accident was not serious but it happened because developers left behind a development which was incomplete or dangerous.

The report shows that in County Meath, my county, of the 85 housing estates examined, almost one half do not have the final top coat on the roads. The report also shows that one half of these estates have incomplete play areas in which children would typically kick ball. However, they are unable to do so in some cases because the landscaping has not been put in place or rubble has been left in the common areas. This is a serious issue with implications for the lives of those in the estates.

Developers have been allowed to move on from unfinished estates to the next place for which they received planning permission. In many cases bonds put in place for the first estate were then rolled over such that the same money and bond was used in the next estate, often with the tacit agreement of the local authority. In 2005 I brought our then spokesperson on the environment, Deputy Gilmore, to visit unfinished estates in Duleek, County Meath. As a consequence, he tabled a Bill in the Lower House to address the issue. I read the proceedings of that debate earlier and noted that Deputy Cuffe, as he was then, had contributed to the debate and called for action to be taken to tackle the problem. The Minister of State at the time was Deputy Batt O'Keeffe who stated on 9 March 2005 that we did not need to introduce legislation dealing with unfinished estates because "there are significant measures in the 2000 Act to specifically address the issue of completion of housing estates." Rather than deal with the issue, he threw out the Bill. The public was told by Mr. Charlie McCreevy and Deputies Cowen and Bertie Ahern that the economy was different from any other, that we did not have a bubble, that the position was sustainable, that this was an economic outlier and that there would not be a bust in the housing market. We now see that they were completely wrong. The constituency in which I live has suffered enormously because they told the people the market was safe. We have seen rezoning on a level that is completely unacceptable and construction quality and standards are not up to the mark.

It was reported during the summer in our local newspaper that, for planning purposes, in County Meath 61 times the amount of land needed for residential housing had been rezoned. With that amount of land we could increase the population of the county by over 200,000 people. When we consider the national picture, the situation is even more stark. The Minister of State is well aware of these figures. We have enough land zoned to provide approximately 1.1 million housing units and between now and 2016 we will need one third or one quarter of that number. Too much land has been rezoned in the past 15 years.

I welcome the publication of the report and the survey could be useful in finding the mechanism we need in considering the potential use to which many of these properties could be put. The report shows that in the constituency in which I live, County Meath, 800 houses are complete but empty. With the turn of a key, they could become homes for many of those on the housing lists of the local authorities. I support the call made by Focus Ireland that both estates and empty properties be used to tackle the housing waiting lists and the problem of homelessness in counties such as Meath. Adopting such an approach would salvage an important social benefit from the situation in which we find ourselves. Some 100,000 applicants are on local authority housing waiting lists, some of whom should be catered for by using the excess supply. I welcome recent comments by various Ministers suggesting they are open to considering such an approach. If it is done in the correct manner, it will be supported by my party.

The report marks the first step in addressing the issue of ghost estates. The next step is an assessment of bonds and how much they come to. We should also have an estimation of the work needed to put these housing estates right in order that we are aware of the size of the gap to determine the cost will need to be funded from central or local government. The end result of the report will be the delivery of quality homes and neighbourhoods into which people thought they were buying.

I wish to pick up on some of the themes addressed by Senator Hannigan. I welcome his support and that of his party for this document which establishes baselines. With the problems we encountered associated with the financial crash, the property crash that followed and the legacy of ghost estates, the starting point is the question of how many and where? While the figures associated with the banking crisis are horrendous, perversely there is relief in knowing in order that we can estimate an annual cost. That is useful. In the case of this topic, we are out of the arena of anecdote and into the arena of researched facts and figures for over-lending for the housing market and the over-reliance on construction which accounted for 24% of economic activity at one point. The report does not make for comfortable reading and, as Senator Hannigan pointed out, the cost of remedying the problem and the range of remedies that must be applied on a case by case and county by county basis must be addressed. I hope the report will act as a platform for action. The expert group which will be drawn together gives grounds for some optimism in that regard. The issue is not being examined through the lens of finance or as an effort to redeem bad lending practices engaged in by the banks. It is not being viewed as an opportunity to provide social housing, although I welcome the fact that some properties will ultimately be used to provide such housing. It is being considered as an amalgam of all these aspects. The make-up of the expert group recommends itself to me and I look forward to its findings.

County councils need the findings made. From county managers down, they do not have a clue what to do with the unsightly and dangerous pre-developed sites, unfinished estates, unsold houses and, in some cases, vandalised houses used as a post-Celtic tiger playground by neighbourhood kids. I thought the scenes in "Pure Mule", the fantastic RTE drama series set in the early days following the bust, were a fantastic visual metaphor for where we found ourselves. The locations around Banagher were brilliantly chosen. Two years before we started talking about it, they visually represented what the boom had left us with. I am conscious of the wonderful libraries, the road network and the public transport infrastructure, but it has also left us with this problem.

The issue of bonds is important when we consider the question of costs and the ways in which the problem must be dealt with. There is anecdotal evidence that bonds were insufficient, that they were rolled over, that they were inaccessible and that the banks are arguing the toss on whether county councils and town councils should have access to them to remedy the problem of unfinished estates. We need a degree of honesty, not least on the part of the banks, the record of which in recent years in protecting themselves at the cost of the truth has been abysmal. We cannot let this continue. We need frankness in terms of what is available to local authorities. In many cases, they have entered into inadequate arrangements in respect of the size of the bond per house. The resource must be used when the recommendations of the expert group are presented.

I am painfully aware of where this prevails in Dundalk. It does not matter how typical the story is because if one lives in one of these unfinished estates, it is total misery. The lack of a top surface means drains protrude and one must drive around them every time one enters and leaves an estate. An abandoned playground was fenced off and surfaced, but no toys or slides were supplied. This is a poignant reminder of the dream many people were sold and bought into. In the case of one estate which I will not name, the marketing campaign was extremely seductive. The language of fashion was used to sell houses. Like the clothing industry, however, the fashion items were out of date in double-quick time. Now people are regretting the decision and they blame policy and themselves. I do not blame them. People were sold a pup in many cases.

The real blame lies with a planning law that was all about driving development. In so many ways it was a developer's charter. There was a lack of adherence to superior planning documentation and national strategic planning documentation. I find it difficult to believe that such legislation found its way onto the Statute Book, that one could have a statutory basis for the national spatial strategy but county development plans did not need to pay attention to it. That meant we had a situation where it was every county for itself. One can see that in particular when one looks at the interface between counties. Perhaps that is not the case in a large county such as Cork but it is true of some of the smaller counties where there was a need to sell off the family silver to provide local authority funding because there was no sustainable way of raising funds at local authority level. If nothing else, the second home tax shows the way forward in that regard. When revenues were needed and zoning could generate such revenue, the strategy of rezoning was adopted. It was tempting to give planning permission and get the levies to allow the local authority to keep going for another year. Where developers were playing local authorities off each other, as happened, the result was an appalling interface of shopping centres and houses along county boundaries that make no sense. They have nothing to do with the nearby town. That is something the future reform of local government must address, namely, the need for a town to be seen as part of a wider district, not as a competing entity with the next county.

I am ranging over a number of areas: local government finance, local government reform, inadequate planning legislation and the reckless way in which money was lent and in which people were encouraged to buy into an ephemeral dream. It all contributes to the need to make real the problem, as the document under discussion has done, and appoint the experts to make the recommendations to guide local authorities in dealing case by case basis with the problems they face. Such problems are acute in my county of Louth. No doubt they are similarly acute in other parts of the country. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, in this regard. I wish them well as they begin to address this dreadful legacy which we need to deal with in a foreshortened way.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Ciarán Cuffe. I welcome the publication of the report. The map on the newspaper I am displaying is the legacy of the failure of the Fianna Fáil-led Government and of successive Fianna Fáil Governments to plan properly for this country. The Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, is a Minister in the Government. I appreciate he was not involved when the majority of the failure occurred but he is with it now. The Green Party has hitched its wagon to the Fianna Fáil train.

I welcome the report. This should not be about blame. It is about a call to action. In our constituencies there are estates where people are as appalled as we are at the way in which they have been left. I refer to young couples, married people and single people who invested in the Celtic tiger dream. As Senator Hannigan rightly said, our unfinished estates are the most visible legacy we can see. We have the legacy of the bank bailout. From 7 December we will have the legacy of the pummelling of the people by the Government for bad governance, as Senator Dearey said, across a range of areas.

There is a set of core questions the people of this country and those in Cork South-Central who speak to me about their estates wish to get answered, namely, what, when and how it will be done. That is what we as politicians must try to sort out. Many estates are incomplete, substandard, vacant, unsafe and derelict. I will not name the estates in my constituency. Many of them are on the periphery of the city; some of them are in the city. The people affected are appalled at what has been left behind. We are all aware of the visual impact of unfinished estates. The Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, is a planner. We must examine the manner in which planning was allowed to run amok. I agree with Senator Dearey that there was no joined-up thinking between the national spatial strategy and county development plans.

We should never have taken away the powers of local councillors to give planning permission. When I was a councillor I took that power seriously. I fought many developers in my area not because I was against developers or speculators but because I did not see logic in some developments, for example, the imposition of high rise apartments in my area of Bishopstown. We are where we are today. Much of the development was driven by local authorities needing to raise development levies to fund their services. If the Green Party in government does nothing else, it should bring about real reform of local government. Let us devolve power in local authorities so that they can fund themselves and go forward. That might be considered too aspirational. Let us have a discussion at national level on the issue. We could set up a forum such as the New Ireland Forum. People are getting poor provision of service from local authorities not because councils will not do the work but because they cannot do it.

Bad government policy fuelled where we are today. The relationship between the Fianna Fáil Party and some developers was too cosy. Let us not tar all developers with the one brush. We need development such as housing of various types and commercial developments. Let us not put all developers in the same category. Developers responsible for any unfinished estate should not be given planning permission again. They should not be allowed to re-register the company or become part of a new company. We must become tough on people. We are all aware of young and middle aged people who bought into housing estates. As Senator Dearey said, the brochures were like a fashion parade. It was like "Sex and the City", but that is no longer the case.

Except it was sex in the open countryside.

Exactly, but with no transport, no amenities and unfinished estates in terms of roads, lighting, sewerage, rat infestation and dangerous and unhygienic housing conditions. We must address the issue in some way. We have an obligation to the people we represent to put in place a model that will allow estates to be finished.

I do not necessarily agree with Senator Doherty's remarks. We need a certain amount of speculation and activity in the building market but we have an obligation to look after those who need to be housed as well. The statistics on homeless people have gone through the roof, as have the numbers seeking social housing. We should look at ways in which we can allow people to live in the houses that have been built. Local authorities have an obligation to do that.

Equally, the Government must be creative in its solutions. Perhaps it is time we considered giving some kind of incentive to recently qualified FÁS apprentices or those who are unemployed to complete unfinished houses. Let us create a co-operative effort along the lines of the Niall Mellon fellowship trust where we can be creative in getting estates completed and give apprentices the opportunity to finish their apprenticeships or tradespeople the chance to work. We could even be creative with social welfare and take people off the live register and give them an opportunity to work. There are difficulties in this regard which we must address.

The Minister of State referred to desktop exercises. I hope this report will not be one of them or that it will not be left to gather dust because we do not have the money to finish it. We need to buy into the process.

The Minister of State remarked that there was an overhang. While there has always been an overhang, it was never of this scale. Look at the figures for the volume of houses and units unfinished. I hope we will have a site-specific plan for each estate. To be parochial, Cork city has 21 ghost estates, while there are 284 in Cork county. We must send a message to the many who did not buy because of greed or to have second homes but because they were buying their only home. We can argue about the overzoning of land, but that is not the entire issue. Many acres of zoned land have not been developed. The issue, therefore, is the number of unfinished estates.The Irish Times referred to it as being more of a haunted landscape, but I will remind the House of what the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, stated in this Chamber in his previous incarnation as Minister of State with responsibility for housing. He stated:

Some prophets of doom will claim, even if the housing market has not crashed, that it will do so in the future. There are no certainties. Economic performance will be the key determinant of the future development of the housing market and circumstances can change.

On 10 April 2008 the Leader stated: "Now is the right time to buy ... I will remind the House, perhaps in 12 or 18 months, when prices have again increased by 25% or 30%." He was some prophet in respect of the housing market. The then Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, was blind and showed a lack of leadership, but he was promoted to the Cabinet. These are the prophets who are leading the country. Senator Brady stated we should not get involved in a blame game, but disguising and hiding the narrative of where we are would be convenient for Fianna Fáil. We must remind the people of the policies that have led us to this point. In some cases, people were greedy, be they developers or individuals who bought second and third homes. My mother, God rest her, had a great saying: "One can only live in one room at a time." I never understood the need to rush to buy property other than my family home. We have been far too lenient when it comes to bonds. Developers were allowed to get away with it long before the crash. We will rise from the malaise and the economy will blossom again, but I hope people will be held to account and take responsibility for what they have done.

I welcome the report. It marks the first step and we have a long way to go. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, for attending the House to discuss it.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe. As I listened carefully to the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, I was reminded of how I had applied for planning permission in 1964 — none of the Members present was around at the time — to build a supermarket in Finglas. We were refused permission because, according to the planners, we had not allocated sufficient car parking spaces. The local Deputy complained in the Lower House and asked what sort of idiots were involved in the planning system, seeing as how they were looking for car parking spaces in Finglas and not what were really needed, namely, pram parking spaces. It shows how things can change, as the planners were right and we were wrong. We reapplied after we had provided for sufficient car parking spaces which we needed badly within ten years.

The obvious criticism of the report is that it only refers to post-April 2007 housing estates where there is a vacancy rate above 10%. Given this, we do not have a full and clear picture of the situation. The Minister of State may argue that certain buildings do not come within the scope of the report and perhaps the report gives the impression that there are fewer vacant homes than is actually the case. Why has it not been made available on-line and will the Minister of State do so? I could not find it on-line.

I understand an expert group is being established by the Government to advise on how best to deal with the problem of ghost estates, on which Senator Buttimer commented. Would it not make more sense to leave it to town councils which are aware of the extent of the problem first hand? This would save money being spent on employing so-called experts. I sometimes have a problem with involving experts when there is already the ability to do something. Senator Buttimer touched on this matter coherently.

The expert advisory group on unfinished housing developments to be established includes a wide variety of relevant representatives. A cynic might say the group includes many of those who played some part in fuelling the overheated property market. Would it make sense to include persons with real business experience or even an economist to examine the problem from a different perspective? I am unsure of the exact objective behind choosing the team.

Could the Seanad be utilised in some way in a debate on the best way to use the vacant properties? This is one such debate. We must allocate some properties to be used as social housing units, but what about other ideas in the context of NAMA? Could apartment blocks be adapted to be used as low security prisons? Based on the Scandinavian model, this would deal with the problem of overcrowded prisons. Could NAMA buildings be used as outpatient or storage facilities to free accommodation in overcrowded hospitals? There must be other uses to which they could be put, instead of leaving them vacant.

We must decide on whether knocking down developments would make sense. Would it benefit certain parties such as builders? Knocking them would mean house prices would rise and benefit those contractors involved in the demolition business. Would this stimulate the economy in some way or would it be madness to destroy wealth in the form of assets? We have discussed this question today and on a number of other occasions.

We must consider the fact that the ESRI has predicted that the population will increase by 500,000 by 2021. It is believed this will equate to a need for 185,000 additional homes. I hope there will be growth in demand in those 11 years. It also gives us the opportunity to consider the way in which houses were built during the boom. I dare not use the term "thrown up", although it would be more accurate. Many were not built with professional architectural expertise, are too small and need to be rebuilt because they do not conform to standards. This is not to mention the need to improve environmental and sustainability standards, as the Minister of State knows. Sustainability and environmental standards were not adhered to in recent years.

One of the problems always in the background is that of dispersal in rural areas, which results in increased costs in many areas, for example, postal service, energy and transportation costs, etc. I visited France last month. In some towns and villages the post is no longer delivered to one's door. Instead post boxes are located at the front of estates and so on. This idea must apply in so many other ways such that the concept of bungalow blight does not make sense. Should we be looking at refusing permission for one-off houses in rural areas if they are not sustainable? I accept this suggestion is not acceptable and that the decision would be a difficult one. If a farmer wants to build a house or his or her child wants to build a house on the farm, it is difficult to understand why an objection from someone living 20, 30, 40 or 100 kms away would be lodged, but there is a logical reason. There are no easy answers to these questions, but I look forward to getting a clear view in respect of so-called ghost estates in the coming months and brainstorming on how we can best address the associated problems.

This debate has been useful and the Seanad is a suitable place in which to hold such a debate. Let us be sure that we use the opportunity to take us further along the road towards a solution to the problem.

I enjoyed the debate which I found to be one of the most illuminating of those to which I have been party in the Seanad in recent months. The contributions of Senators Buttimer, Hannigan, Dearey and Quinn really added to the level of discussion we have had on this subject. I was not able to be present for the entire debate but my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran, was in the Chamber. I caught some of Senator Doherty's contribution on the monitors and was struck by what may have been an over-emphasis on home ownership. We must be very careful not to over-stress home ownership. I have always held the view people should have a menu of options as to the kind of tenure they have and the type of dwelling they live in. For far too long we almost dictated that one must own a home, offering a menu of three choices: a one-off house, a semi-detached house or a small apartment. We have not given people enough choices. Much of what my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, has tried to do in the past three years has been to give more choices to people as to the kind of tenure they have of their home and the kind of design it has. The focus on higher density, which has had many critics, has led to a focus on quality of design in new developments and a focus on terraced housing. There has been a greater understanding of the challenge posed by low density housing which generally gives rise to a great increase in car commuting and traffic. We witnessed that at the peak of the tiger years where, because of our low density suburbs, one found oneself stuck in a car all the time. We do not want to return to that but must give people more choices.

I am also conscious that for the best part of 20 years, property ownership was the gift that kept on giving. It was a sure bet, an Albanian pyramid scheme. One put money in and took money out. Suddenly, three years ago the whole thing fell apart. It was very difficult for those of us who questioned the wisdom of the pyramid scheme at the time. Some of us did so in terms of the policies we were putting forward and the concerns we had, but it was difficult to get attention in the media, the Oireachtas or the council chamber on such issues.

One thing we have now, however, is some clear figures. In the past there was much confusion, a lack of clarity and many headlines. The great thing about this survey is that the staff of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government visited every one of the 2,800 developments. I take Senator Quinn's point about criteria: how a definition was made of what constituted an unfinished development and why we drew a line in 2006-2007. In fairness to the officials involved with whom I had this discussion, they took a good definition that gives real clarity on the vast bulk of the problem. I am satisfied with the methodology they used and am satisfied to stand over the figures that came out. If one considers the 2 million residential units in Ireland, there is a fairly high vacancy rate. Clearly, there is high vacancy in holiday homes for the vast bulk of the year and a high vacancy rate in many of the single units which were developed over the years. If one goes to a place such as Ventry in County Kerry, one will find more than 50% vacancy in that village. We should be careful not to confuse a second or family holiday home that may be 50 years old with the very real, stark challenge presented by unfinished developments in the past three or four years.

Every estate was visited by our officials and there is a very robust survey in place at this stage. Some 180,000 dwellings were granted planning permission under our methodology, of which only 120,000 started construction. Of those, 77,000 were completed and are occupied. That leaves 33,000 homes which are complete and weathertight but vacant, or almost complete with perhaps a final fix of wiring required. That 33,000 is the total number of the real surplus of houses. It is a large number; let us be clear on that. Another 10,000 units have started construction. These could be anything from a hole in the ground to gable walls or a half-finished roof. Adding 33,000 and 10,000 gives 43,000, which captures the real numbers involved in all of this. I do not wish to belittle the seriousness of the problem but this factual count of vacant new houses and apartments can help to calm some of the concerns about how and when these problems will be dealt with. It gives us a clear framework towards resolving the matter.

At the height of the boom we were building up to 90,000 new homes per year. That figure has come right down and approximately 25,000 new homes were built last year. The figure is probably somewhat lower this year. If one compares that number with the 43,000 units, at peak it was only six months' supply. At this very low level of construction the number is still less than two years' supply, which puts it in context. That is no consolation if one is living in the middle of an unfinished development but it gives clarity to the scale of the problem.

The housing units which are close to major towns and cities will be occupied sooner than other developments. Only last week, in Booterstown in Dún Laoghaire, empty apartments were snapped up at bargain prices, albeit at a massive discount. The units furthest away from where new jobs will be located will be more difficult to sell. The blanket use of tax designations in entire counties was very flawed. I said it at the time and I say it now. It was naive at best to assume property-based tax incentives could lift all boats in economically depressed areas. I wish to put that very firmly on the record.

The publication of this survey is just the beginning of the process. Using this hard evidence we are marshalling the key stakeholders. These are central and local government, the banking and construction sectors, NAMA and members of the professional communities, such as planning, engineering and architecture, who will provide advice and agree on how we may best address these issues, collaboratively and quickly. The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, and I have established a high level expert group with stakeholder representatives on unfinished housing developments. They will advise us on practical and policy solutions to ensure satisfactory completion or resolution of unfinished housing developments. We will get a report from them soon. It is not a talking shop but is focused on outcomes and actions. We are expediting the formation of that expert group and the first meeting will take place in a matter of weeks.

We have a draft of a best practice guidance manual for managing and resolving the unfinished housing developments but, in fairness to the new group we are setting up, we do not wish to give it the solutions upon which it can deliver. It is very important these experts do what they will with that draft. I heard people suggest that other groups, bodies or professions should be represented. Someone mentioned economists and another spoke of people with a legal background. I am happy to take those views on board and we will see what we can do. The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, the officials and I have tried to put together a list of the key stakeholders who should complete and sign off on a manual but if that needs to change, so be it.

The focus is on action taking place quickly. The best practice manual will outline guidance on a range of statutory powers local authorities have to resolve urgent matters, for example, public safety, environmental protection, building control and making best use of bonds and securities to cover the costs associated with completion of the unfinished housing developments. The draft manual will also stimulate a discussion that will influence the finalisation of the document into a comprehensive code of practice for developers, financial institutions and local authorities in managing and resolving unfinished housing developments. There is also a focus on site resolution plans in each of the uncompleted developments. This is not to ask what can be done only for us to throw our hands up and run around like headless chickens. It is about coming up with direct and solid advice on what action must be taken immediately on, for example, the health and safety issues in units which are open to the four winds. That must be done first. They have more powers under the Planning Act 2010 and can take much more action under that legislation. This work will give us the evidence and use it in the most effective manner towards putting solutions in place, in particular for those residents faced with the immediate problems caused by unfinished developments. Thereafter, it is a matter of rebuilding confidence in the wider housing market.

There are all sorts of ideas on offer and more will come in. I have certainly had correspondence as regards what these units might be used for. There is a silver lining amid some of the black cloud. If Enterprise Ireland or the IDA could tell an employer, for instance, that they had 4,500 housing units, with the keys ready to be turned in them, if he or she wished to provide employment in a particular county, it would be enormously valuable if it could take place here and now. We are making this information available to the IDA.

The same is true in education. If a third level institution can be told there are 723 units within four miles of its campus if it is interested in developing housing accommodation, what a boon that would be. In almost any of the 15 Departments there are possible bonuses in being able to say there is something that can be done with this. I do not wish to overstate the situation, but at least some of the discussion taking place is pointing towards the fact these housing units are a resource. At a time when we have housing lists, we also have surplus housing units.

We must be careful, however, that we do not just bang these together. Particularly when it comes to housing lists there is a very vulnerable group of clients and we must learn from the mistakes of the past that created sick housing estates in our towns, cities and other areas. We have to be quite careful that we do not simply match those two lists.

I had a great conversation with Fr. Pat Coogan from Respond a few weeks ago. I asked him what he would do if he was given 100 empty houses. He said he would take 20, and convert two into community facilities, because vulnerable housing clients need communal areas, whether for child-minding, teenage activities or whatever. He said he would then sell the other 18 houses at a knock-down price. I thought it quite interesting that he would only take 20 out of 100. That depth of thought is necessary as regards how we engage in this discussion. In other words, we have got to be very careful we do not simply allocate housing units that were not designed for vulnerable people, and try to produce a matched fit. Ultimately, particularly vulnerable home owners want to be close to where there might be possible employment. I am not convinced that much of the overspill is right beside where the jobs are located. Those are my thoughts.

From the Green Party's perspective much of our work in Government has involved reforming the planning system to ensure past mistakes are not repeated. In the last year we have put in place a refreshed national spatial strategy, new regional planning guidelines and a new planning Act. We have also put measures in place to protect habitats and water supplies. In addition, we have witnessed a halt to decentralisation and a windfall tax on land that is rezoned. The recession has given us an unprecedented opportunity to learn from past mistakes and put in place policies that concentrate the right type of development in the right locations.

An 80% windfall tax on up-zoned land forms part of the NAMA legislation and dramatically reduces the incentive for landowners to seek the rezoning of their lands. This is as close as we have been able to get to implementation of the 1973 Kenny report on housing land, without a constitutional referendum.

Joined up planning policies have also been a focus of the reforms. The Minister, Deputy John Gormley, and I have put in place closer links between the national development plan and the national spatial strategy, regional planning guidelines at the inter-county level, and city and county developments and local area plans at a local level. That has meant joined up thinking from top to bottom.

This may not sound ground breaking, but one might scratch one's head sometimes in wonder at how some local area plans reflect national policies. Most of the provisions of the Planning Act 2010 passed into law a couple of weeks ago. The new law puts an onus on councils to review their plans within a two-year period and ensure the plan has an evidence based core strategy. This will lead to a change from thelaissez-faire plans of the past, which failed to deliver on their stated goals.

Of course, a process of education is also needed to upskill both elected representatives and officials. The Irish Planning Institute ran a well-attended seminar a fortnight ago and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has plans for regional information sessions around the country in the months ahead. In the UK, the Royal Town Planning Institute runs a school for councillors back-to-back with its professional conference, and I am hoping to do something similar here.

I had a good meeting with the three representative organisations for local councillors a month or two ago, and we all agree the new legislation is complex. It has very simple goals, but it is complex. I believe councillors would benefit from information seminars on the new legislation. We are already doing this for the various officials, and hopefully we can expand on that.

The Scottish educationist, Sir Patrick Geddes, summed it up many years ago in three words, "survey, analysis, plan". For far too long we built without connecting these three essential elements. Now is the time to get things right.

Sitting suspended at 3 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.