Adjournment Matters

Local Authority Housing

Several people in my area are in local authority accommodation but paying significantly high fuel bills. As such, there is an onus on the Government to ensure these bills are reduced. While I appreciate significant work has been done in making local authority houses more energy efficient, there are still many housing schemes badly in need of retrofitting. Funding should be made available to local authorities to embark on such renovation works. If there was an estate in a local authority area with 40 or 50 houses, it would do a full job in terms of retrofitting and bringing them up to standard. Effectively, that is the nature of this Adjournment matter.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It affords me the opportunity to confirm the Government's commitment to the important issue of improving the standard and overall level of energy efficiency of local authority housing stock and, at the same time, addressing energy affordability for tenants.

Despite the challenging financial climate, the Government is committed to the delivery of high quality social housing to those most in need. A key element of our approach to meeting this objective is to ensure that the stock of 130,000 local authority owned housing is of the highest standard possible and, perhaps more importantly, that the energy efficiency of these homes is improved. In line with overall national policy, the enhancement of energy efficiency standards remains a priority within my Department's overall strategy for the improvement of local authority housing. Improving the energy efficiency of homes offers significant advantages to households, both in terms of thermal comfort and savings on energy costs.

My Department has, for a number of years , supported an ambitious retrofitting programme that has already seen the energy efficiency of some 3,000 houses improved over the past three years. This year, my Department allocated a further €31 million across all local authorities to undertake the necessary works aimed at improving the energy efficiency of older apartments and houses by reducing heat loss through the fabric of the building and the installation of high-efficiency condensing boilers. Simple measures such as insulating walls and ceilings as well as draught-proofing windows and doors can achieve significant energy savings, not to mention the improvement in comfort levels.

However, it is a matter for local authorities to select the properties to be upgraded and to determine the nature and the scale of the works to be undertaken in each case. That said, I would expect that older properties which were built before minimum energy standards were prescribed in the regulations would be a primary target.

The social housing retrofitting programme offers housing authorities a practical means of improving the quality of their housing stock. The programme brings immediate as well as long-term benefits for the broader community in terms of improved living conditions, job creation and delivering a greener Ireland for the future.

I share the Senator's concerns. I recognise the difficulty caused by the rising cost of fuel. My Department is working closely with colleagues in other Departments and agencies to develop a whole-of-government approach to addressing the real issue of energy affordability. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, recently published a comprehensive energy affordability strategy entitled, Warmer Homes: A Strategy for Affordable Energy in Ireland. This strategy sets out a vision for improving the affordability of energy for low-income households, ensuring that people can live in a warm and comfortable home that enhances the quality of their lives. My Department will assist to the fullest possible extent in extending the benefits of the strategy to all local authorities.

My Department will continue to support local authority programmes for improving the social housing stock. We will continue the focus on improving the energy efficiency of older stock under the 2012 social housing improvement works programme.

A brief question, Senator.

The Cathaoirleach need not worry, I will not delay him.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit for a comprehensive reply. I suppose €31 million is a significant sum, but what I would be looking for is merely a once-off much more significant sum to deal with the amount of people who are in local authority housing for a long time. I understand that most of the €31 million is channelled into houses that become vacant as a result of tenants either dying or moving on. In the case of those in houses who are suffering from significantly high heating bills, the quadrupling of the figure for one year would not only reduce energy use and meet the State's carbon commitments, but would also ensure a certain level of job creation. It would be a win, win all round. Times are tight and budgets are difficult. However, of that type of investment, a significant amount of it would come back in terms of job creation, taxes, etc.

I agree with the sentiment the Senator expressed and I will bring his comments to the attention of the Minister. Given the budgetary position, that is a key issue, but the principles the Senator enunciates are important.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 9 December 2011.