I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English.
Rebuilding Ireland: Statements
I am pleased to have this opportunity to update the House on the second quarterly progress report on the Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. The report we are discussing was published on 7 February last. The Rebuilding Ireland document is over six months old at this stage, having been published in late July 2016. We received valuable input from Oireachtas colleagues during the development of the action plan and the fleshing out of the legislative and policy provisions arising from its commitments. The Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government in particular has dedicated much of its time and focus to housing and planning matters. This House has debated these issues at length including, for example, before Christmas in the context of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016.
The cross-party collaboration and support for addressing this most challenging issue demonstrates the collective desire to deliver on the core objectives of Rebuilding Ireland and secure real outcomes in areas like increased supply, enhanced supports and more innovative approaches. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I appreciate the assistance and efforts of Members of the Oireachtas and members of local authorities. The Minister and I are in the process of visiting all the local authorities. I think this is the main priority for all parties and individuals across the board. Directly elected councillors, Deputies and Senators are trying to focus on housing and to address this overall problem. I will briefly outline on a pillar-by-pillar basis the key elements of the progress that was made during the final quarter of 2016.
The overriding objectives for the Government under Pillar 1, which deals with addressing homelessness, are to stem the flow of people into homelessness, to ensure sufficient quality emergency accommodation is available and to work to secure long-term sustainable homes for families and individuals experiencing homelessness. The new national mortgage arrears resolution service, Abhaile, and the associated scheme of aid and advice for borrowers in mortgage arrears were launched by the Tánaiste, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, in the autumn to assist those at risk of homelessness through mortgage arrears. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, announced significant changes to the mortgage to rent scheme that are designed to lead to a major increase in the number of households benefitting from the scheme. The changes will make the scheme quicker, more transparent, easier to navigate for borrowers and, ultimately, more accessible to more households in mortgage distress.
During the last quarter of 2016, significant emphasis was placed on delivering additional emergency accommodation for homeless people who sleep rough. Over 200 additional beds were provided across a number of facilities in Dublin. Enhanced targeted supports were made available in response to the specific needs of people in emergency accommodation, particularly families. Some 2,700 sustainable exits from homelessness were achieved nationally during 2016. This represented an increase of 16% on the 2015 figure. A significant contributor to this, and to preventing individuals and families from entering homelessness in the first place, was the housing assistance payment homeless pilot scheme in Dublin. Under this scheme, 810 stable housing tenancies were put in place in 2016, exceeding the target by nearly 50%. Homelessness, particularly the number of homeless families and children in emergency accommodation, remains a significant challenge to be addressed. The increased funding provided for homeless services this year, and the range of homelessness measures to be delivered under Rebuilding Ireland, will ensure that securing further substantial progress in this area remains a top priority in 2017.
The key focus under Pillar 2, which deals with accelerating social housing, is on the delivery of an additional 47,000 social homes by local authorities and approved housing bodies through construction, refurbishment, acquisition and leasing. The national roll-out of the housing assistance payment scheme will see it providing an important social housing solution for significant numbers of households, including those currently in receipt of long-term rent supplement. The second quarterly report, which provides details of the social housing output in 2016, shows that almost 18,400 social housing supports were provided from a full housing budget spend of €935 million. This exceeded our ambitious target of providing 17,240 such supports. Nearly 5,300 homes were built, refurbished or acquired, approximately 12,000 housing assistance payment tenancies were facilitated and over 1,000 rental accommodation scheme placements were made. We are seeing real progress in the social housing construction programme. A full schedule of the pipeline of social housing projects, accompanied by a report setting out the position at the end of 2016, was published by the Department last month. It showed that 504 projects, involving the construction of over 8,400 units, were at various stages in the process at that time.
This report will be updated on a quarterly basis in tandem with future quarterly progress reports under Rebuilding Ireland. This will enable all Members of the Oireachtas and members of local authorities to track the progress of social housing projects in various counties and to keep the pressure on at both a national and local level. We are endeavouring to ensure that we all play our part in terms of increasing activity levels across all sectors.
In terms of the approval process for social housing construction projects, the main objective within the Department is to get good projects that represent value for money and deliver quality homes approved and built as quickly as possible. We are building on the efficiencies gained from previous worthwhile reforms to the approval process in which my party colleague, Senator Paudie Coffey, played a major role, and adding to them. In that context, the Department has recently published a report setting out a number of additional steps that will further streamline and enhance the approval process. A timeline for the implementation of these additional actions has also been set out and the Department is actively engaging with the local government sector on this issue.
Accelerating social housing under Pillar 2 is also crucial to delivering some of the key objectives in addressing homelessness under Pillar 1. Following the establishment of the rapid build procurement framework by the Office of Government Procurement, OGP, the Department has brought together all of the local authorities and the main approved housing bodies for a workshop on how the framework can help them in accelerating delivery. The Housing Agency has been active in utilising its €70 million rolling fund to purchase vacant properties from banks and investment companies, signing contracts for 238 houses and apartments, with the sale of 82 of these now closed. Bids have been made on a further 98 properties. In addition, the transfer of the acquired units to the approved housing bodies is being progressed which is crucial in terms of replenishing the revolving fund, thereby facilitating further purchases.
The roll-out of the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme to additional local authorities continued during quarter 4, with the scheme being activated successfully in nine additional local authority areas. Subsequently, in the current quarter, the nationwide roll-out of HAP has been completed, with its introduction last week to the administrative areas of Dublin City Council, Fingal County Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. A full update on this will be included in the next quarterly report. Eligible households in all 31 local authority areas can now avail of the scheme, with €153 million being made available for its operation in 2017. Progress to date this year under the scheme indicates that it is well on track to achieve its 15,000 household target for the year.
Pillar 3 is focused on accelerating the delivery of housing in the wider housing market and provides for a suite of actions dealing with funding and financing infrastructural provision, active land management, planning reforms and construction and design innovation. A key area of work over the last few months has been the assessment of the more than 70 proposals submitted under the local infrastructure housing activation fund which is now almost complete. I expect that this will allow an announcement to be made by the end of this month on the successful infrastructural projects which will open up land capable of delivering many thousands of new homes.
In terms of State land management, the survey of State lands with housing development potential, focusing on Dublin and the main cities and urban areas, is progressing well. The first phase of the mapping will be completed and published online in the coming weeks. This phase will also include mapped details of residential land zonings across the country, as well as local authority owned lands available for housing. We will be adding further layers of land mapping information to the system over the course of the second quarter. As with many policy issues, information is key and this integration of different databases will enable us to assess and prioritise the release of centrally and strategically located lands that can deliver housing quickly.
As committed to under Rebuilding Ireland, we have developed a monthly housing activity report, the second edition of which was published last week. Planning permission was granted for a total of over 16,300 new homes in 2016, an increase of 26% on 2015. Commencement notices for 13,334 new homes were submitted in the 12-month period to the end of January 2017, which is an increase of over 44%, year-on-year. Completions for the 12-month period to end of January 2017 reached 15,256 homes, a year-on-year increase of 18%. At a broad level, the indicators confirm that housing construction activity is continuing to strengthen. Having regard to wider economic growth projections and the increasing levels of planning permissions and commencements, in particular, there is a growing level of optimism that higher levels of output will be achieved in 2017 and beyond.
Under Pillar 4, which deals primarily with the rental sector, the key action during the period covered by the quarter 4 implementation report was the publication of the strategy for the rental sector in December 2016. Among the main measures arising from the strategy was the introduction of rent pressure zones, initially in the four Dublin local authority areas and Cork city, with a further 12 areas designated subsequently, on foot of a more granular analysis of rents data.
This means that rent increases are capped at 4% per annum for approximately 55% of tenancies nationally. Other legislative provisions that were introduced addressed issues of security of tenure and standards, and they were well debated in this House.
While building new homes is a key element of Rebuilding Ireland, we also have too many empty homes and buildings across the country that must be brought back into use. Preliminary results from the census in 2016 indicate there are just under 200,000 vacant dwellings nationwide, representing between 9% and 10% of the overall national housing stock. Under Pillar 5, tackling vacant dwellings will be the subject of a specific vacant housing re-use strategy which is being prepared at present by the Housing Agency, working with the Department and other stakeholders. Hopefully, that will be published in the second quarter of this year.
In the meantime, we have put in place a variety of schemes aimed at getting thousands of empty homes back into use. The repair and leasing scheme was launched with funding of €140 million over five years to allow local authorities and approved housing bodies to bring up to 3,500 vacant private houses into social housing use by 2021. An additional €26 million is being provided to fund the accelerated national roll-out of the scheme in 2017, which brings the total amount of investment available this year to €32 million. The pilot scheme in Carlow and Waterford was quite successful and I believe that scheme has great potential to reactivate houses that have been lying empty for over a year. This additional funding will mean that 800 vacant properties can be brought back into use as new homes for families on local authority waiting lists. A buy and renew scheme is also being introduced, with €25 million in funding for 2017, which will enable local authorities and approved housing bodies to purchase and remediate private housing units for social housing use. This is expected to enable 150 units to be secured for social housing purposes in 2017.
I have given a brief summary overview of progress under each of the pillars, with a particular focus on the fourth quarter of 2016, which is the period covered by the second progress report. Clearly, the two progress reports published to date and the other information we have published show that solid early progress on implementation was made during the first six months of the lifetime of the action plan. I am well aware that there is further significant work to be done in accordance with the timelines set out in Rebuilding Ireland and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the Department and I remain fully focused on that, as are the local authorities. The next update, which will set out progress made on the actions for the first quarter of 2017, will provide an update on the position relating to the delayed actions from the fourth quarter of last year and will look forward to the main issues for delivery in the second quarter of this year. It will be published in late April or early May.
I accept that it will take time for the action plan to be implemented and to prove a success. What we are examining here are the trends and data which show that activity has increased. The result of that will be people in homes and we will be judged on that. I accept that Senators will wish to raise many issues because it will take time for people to believe this is happening. We are happy that it is progressing but we will not be satisfied until everybody who needs and seeks a home has one. That is why work will continue. However, the financial and human resources are in place. Our teams have been strengthened, procedures have been changed and during 2017 we can crack on with this and implement all the changes we have introduced since last July. Hopefully, we will put a dent in the figures. Everybody agrees that the priority is to find a home for people who do not have one, be it through social or private housing. We must get them a place they can call home because we all agree it is unacceptable to have people living in hotels or other temporary accommodation. We have given a commitment that the use of commercial hotels will have ended by July 2017 and we are on track to achieve that. It will be difficult, but we are determined to do it. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has made it clear on numerous occasions that it will be achieved.
I thank the Minister for his address. As a rural Senator I have massive concerns about some of the pillars. They are all interlinked. We have a very dysfunctional housing market when one considers the long term. I have major concerns about some of the areas the Minister raised, even with regard to Pillar 1 and addressing homelessness. Building houses is the main issue that has not been addressed by this Government. The reason it has not been addressed, as I have said on several occasions, is that the Minister is still dezoning land in local authorities. This is local authority land where the Government could build local authority social housing for people on the housing list. That is a major factor.
In every local authority there are State-owned lands where building can take place. I accept that things got bad, lands went to the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, and that there were other issues, but every local authority in the country has land. I blame the Department for not playing its role and for a lack of information flowing between local authorities and the Minister. Every local authority is different. I accept that Dublin, Limerick and Cork have a crisis, but the Minister is concentrating on the main cities rather than rural Ireland.
That is not the case.
I firmly believe it, and I have said it to the Minister previously. The Minister can provide facts and figures but he must change the spatial strategy and not cap the population. If a builder in an area such as Carlow wishes to build social houses, the local authority must go to the Department and the first question the Department will ask is: "What is your cap on your population and what is your spatial strategy?". These are all the Minister's rules and regulations. The Minister will not solve the problems until he builds houses, and that is the area where the Minister is failing. The Department is not working with the local authorities. Every local authority is different and every local authority should be addressed on its own merits, but that is not happening.
Another pillar deals with HAP. The HAP has been introduced into the rental market and it is definitely making a difference. However, that difference is not balancing out the fact that there are no rental properties available. There is no building. I refer not only to my area but also other areas, because I have been dealing with other councils. People cannot find properties to rent due to the lack of houses. That is the biggest issue. Another problem with the HAP is that the Department is still using the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. As the Minister will be aware, if one is on a local authority housing list and the local authority has a RAS house, one is taken off the housing list and left homeless. If a person is on the RAS they do not qualify to go back on the local authority list. The Department is making people homeless.
I accept that the Minister has established the five pillars and that there have been small improvements, although I do not see many. The position is similar with the rent pressure zones. Again, they apply in the Dublin and Cork local authorities. I welcome that, but Carlow and neighbouring local authorities do not qualify. Who is setting the agenda for counties in rural Ireland to qualify for these rent pressure zones, because they are experiencing these pressures? I do not know where the facts and figures are coming from. This must be addressed. There is such a lack of information between the Department, local councils and councillors, and the councillors have no remit in much of this either, that there is a great deal of misinformation. I can outline a case involving the HAP. I was dealing with a person recently who is on a HAP scheme. Her landlord told her she had to leave because the property was being sold. Technically, however, the landlord has to give 18 weeks' notice in writing. It must be a legal letter. These letters are going from landlords to tenants but they are not legal. There is so much misinformation going back to tenants through local authorities and through the Department that the Minister must do something about it.
The five pillars are interlinked. However, putting so much money into the rental market when there is such a lack of supply of houses will not address the issue. Even with regard to homelessness, there are no refuges in most local authorities. A person who is homeless in Carlow tonight must go to Waterford because there is nothing in Carlow, yet there are so many empty houses. That must be addressed but it is not included in this pillar. For the long-term picture, when the Minister has so much money it must be invested in proper areas such as building, under a long-term plan through the local authorities. The main issue is that every local authority is different. The facts and figures coming back from the Department are totally wrong. I can give the Minister several figures and statistics based on my daily dealings with people. What the Minister is saying does not add up.
I ask the Minister to refer back to the Department and return to the House with proper figures. Let places such as Carlow and other areas in rural Ireland be included in the rent pressure zones and qualify for all the help that is available.
The Government is creating a two-tier recovery. The fast-track planning measures only affect the bigger cities like Dublin, Cork and Limerick and do not affect rural Ireland. In rural Ireland, people do not build 100 houses at a time, although they would be delighted to do so. The Government is only putting a plan in place for the bigger cities and is forgetting the smaller counties that need more help. Places like Dublin, Cork and Limerick will thrive but rural Ireland will fall apart.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English for coming to the House today. I will start on a positive note. It is important to acknowledge the huge amount of work that has been done. The Minister of State referred to the fact the Government is building on work done by Senator Paudie Coffey. I am delighted the Government has not forgotten all the effort the Senator put into this area. There are so many documents about housing at this point. I looked at a document yesterday that Senator Coffey had circulated previously. I thought that perhaps the Government had forgotten it so I am glad the Minister of State acknowledged the Senator's contribution.
I want to focus on some of the achievements to date. I have read the report and the Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. I am also a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. I wish to concentrate on Pillars 1, 2 and 3. We know that there have been approximately 2,700 sustainable exits from homelessness, up from 2,322 in 2015. A homeless fund of €98 million is in place for 2017. We know that 206 additional beds are now available in supported temporary accommodation across the four local authority areas in Dublin. While I do not want to be Dublin centric, I wanted to mention that issue because there was a particular crisis there. We also know that 810 tenancies have been created for homeless people under the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, with which many people will be familiar. At present, 22 rapid-build homes are under construction. I am not too sure if any have been occupied as yet. The figure for rapid-build homes varies every time I ask for information. There are plans to build up to 350 such homes at some stage, although some questions remain in that regard.
I also acknowledge that €1.2 billion in current and capital funding has been provided in 2017. We now have a housing delivery office, a housing procurement unit and other supports which were established under the Rebuilding Ireland plan. If I am wrong in anything I have said, the Minister of State can correct me, but these are the positives that I see happening. Regarding Pillar 3 - building more homes, we see that 23 major urban delivery sites have been identified, with the potential to deliver up to 30,000 new homes - a very significant number - in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Dublin.
The help-to-buy scheme for first-time buyers, involving refunds of income tax and DIRT paid over the previous four years, is also in place.
Having acknowledged that progress, I want to focus on what we are discussing today, namely, a report on progress made in the fourth quarter of 2016, from September to December. I note that under Pillar 1 - homelessness, the progress report provides updates on 15 action items. We see that two are incomplete, five are on schedule and eight are complete. However, we also know that there are a number of issues outstanding. Under Pillar 2 - accelerating social housing, the objective is to deliver an additional 47,000 social housing units up to 2020-2021. The progress report, which provides an update on 13 action items, shows that none are incomplete, which is positive, seven are on schedule and six are complete. They are the facts before us. Under Pillar 3 - building more homes, the progress report shows that four key objectives are incomplete, two are on schedule and five are complete.
I will now take a closer look at four items contained in the second quarterly progress report on Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness which was published in February 2017, namely, actions Nos. 1.1, 2.1, 3.1 and 3.9 on pages 18, 29, 37 and 41 respectively. Action No. 1.1 reads as follows: "We will accelerate and expand the Rapid-Build Housing Programme to provide, in the first instance and as a priority, more suitable accommodation for families". The report states that at the end of 2016, a total of 350 rapid-build homes were advancing and the status of the action is "incomplete". I ask the Minister of State to address that issue in his response later. Action No. 2.1, the status of which is "on schedule", is to "substantially increase the delivery of social housing" units. To be fair, in 2016, the target was 4,240 homes which was exceeded by approximately 1,000. I want to acknowledge that.
Action No. 3.1 is the establishment of a €200 million local infrastructure housing activation fund, the status of which is "incomplete" and progress here has been extremely disappointing. This was one of the key deliverables that the Department and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, set out to address the housing crisis. The Government has been in office for almost a year now. We need to know more about this. I understand that approximately 74 proposals were submitted and that around 22 city and county councils engaged but we need to see action in this area. By March, the Government was supposed to have announced its favoured options. I have a major concern about this matter. I have heard from several local authorities that lands in their ownership, that is, public lands, have no infrastructure or a shortage of appropriate infrastructure but they cannot get funds to provide that infrastructure and deliver social housing. I am talking here about State lands, property that is owned by the State. At the same time, the Department is considering advancing substantial public funds to private developers to develop private lands, but for whom? They will build developments of ten to 20 units which will be rented out for between €2,000 and €3,000 per month. There is a serious problem here. I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Department and analyse this more closely. We cannot have a situation where 31 local authorities have substantial landbanks, for which they have paid millions, which they cannot develop for social and affordable housing because of a lack of basic infrastructure. In many cases, the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government sanctioned the purchase of these sites which are now sitting on the books of the local authorities. The Minister of State will know the councils to which I am referring. How can the Department square ignoring them with giving private developers substantial sums of money in order that they can make money? That said, I have no difficulty with profits per se.
I will wrap up on action 3.9, which reads as follows: "We will support the development of on-line planning services for the local authority sector and An Bord Pleanála". This was another key tenet of the Government's housing policy. The Minister of State insisted previously in this House that this would be brought on stream very quickly but we will not see it being rolled out for many more months. The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill has not progressed through the Houses and it will be months before it is enacted. We were told that it was critical and that it would get through the various Stages in the Oireachtas before Christmas and that the Minister did not want it to be delayed. While I wish the Minister and the Minister of State well, I believe this is an issue that must be addressed now. I have two final points to make and appreciate-----
The Senator is over time.
I ask for an additional minute, given that there are only four Senators present.
I cannot give the Senator another minute. He is already over time.
I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Department and examine the issue of NAMA lands and whether we can use them for housing. The Department must also approach the Conference of Religious in Ireland, CORI, and ask it to cough up lands that it offered to give the State in an indemnity scheme which was nothing short of a disgrace. CORI has not delivered but has the potential to deliver lands for critical social and affordable housing for the people of this country.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue again. I also welcome the Minister of State to the House to report progress on the Rebuilding Ireland programme. As a former Minister of State with responsibility for housing, I know full well the commitment being given by the current Minister, Minister of State and staff in the Department to addressing what we all agree is a housing crisis. There must be a context for all debates and an explanation of how we arrived at this particular scenario. I was particularly worried to hear a Fianna Fáil Senator proposing zoning as the answer. I would argue that excessive zoning throughout this country is what got us into trouble in the first place.
That is local authority zoning. That is different.
I refer to excessive zoning in areas where there was no demand until the market was dysfunctional and ultimately went bankrupt. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past. That is why I welcome this action plan. I also welcome the fact that planning decisions, zoning, national and regional development plans are based on a factual analysis of the demographics, demand and type of housing needed for the next 30 years, carried out by the independent Housing Agency. Proper funds will be provided to meet that demand. However, we need more medium and short-term interventions which this action plan offers. The Minister of State has outlined some of the significant progress made on 56 specific actions to increase housing output and deal with homelessness. The social housing needs of in excess of 18,000 people and families were met in 2016, which is ahead of the target of 17,000. There is a long way to go and the Minister of State and Members on this side of the House acknowledge that. Solid progress is being made. The enhanced budgets provided in this action plan indicate the will of the Government. Only by having a strategic action plan supported by local authorities, which are key to this, will we deliver on the ambitious targets.
The Minister of State will agree that homeless families and children who urgently require roofs over their heads must take priority. The many initiatives being announced and acted on will go some way towards dealing with them. I welcome the plan because it contains determined public and transparent actions with timelines. That is the way to do business. The Minister and his officials come before both Houses and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, and publish the action plans and what has and has not been delivered. That is the type of transparency and accountability we need in the public system.
I welcome the performance indicators for turning over local authority voids because I worked on this area. We need to examine the cost per unit to have some consistency around the country and more importantly, the turnaround time for the delivery of the void so that it is not sitting vacant for months when there are people waiting on a housing list. We need to bring accountability to the local authorities which are being provided with funds to turn the voids around. This system will improve their performance.
Delivery is the key to resolving this housing crisis. As our statutory housing bodies, the local authorities are critical to this delivery. The approved housing bodies will be important to the delivery of many projects around the country and they are working on those already. It is important that they and the local authorities are adequately resourced with engineering, housing and architectural staff to deliver these projects because they were denuded of staff during the crisis. It is also important to have an efficient streamlined system. There was a lot of bureaucracy involved in getting approval from the Department. Local authorities blamed the Department, which blamed the local authorities. We need to stop the blame game, find the barriers and streamline the system to deliver more housing projects.
We also need to consider the role of the elected members. There are very proactive members in every local authority but yesterday it was brought to my attention that when a public private partnership was proposed to deliver 85 housing units in the Ardee area of Louth, Sinn Féin opposed it at council level. The party tried to defer delivery of the project but thankfully it was voted down. We need to leverage all resources, public and private, to deliver housing for people in need. Why would we, for ideological reasons, stop or defer 85 housing units in one local authority area? I often hear Sinn Féin pontificate here about the need for housing at national level but at local level it disrupts delivery. It is not good enough to put ideology before the delivery of housing.
It is critical that we use the Housing Agency analysis to inform local and national decisions to give us the right type of housing to meet people's needs. I am disappointed that Senator Murnane O'Connor, who is from Carlow, did not mention that Waterford and Carlow were used to pilot the repair and lease back scheme. More than €140 million is being provided over five years to assist private property owners, local authorities and approved housing bodies to renovate vacant houses and bring them back to beneficial use. I know the Minister intends to expand this scheme into other local authority areas. This type of initiative will put a dent in the housing need. We do need new buildings but that will take time because they have to get planning permission, go out to tender and be built. We need to prioritise the places where there are houses. That includes voids and the repair and lease back scheme. I welcome those initiatives.
Rebuilding Ireland is a very good tagline but it needs to go beyond the Pale, to provide for communities around the country. When I was Minister of State, I designated the north quays in Waterford a strategic development zone. That was only the second strategic development zone designated outside Dublin. There was good news this morning that serious investors are now engaged with the council to redevelop a 17-acre site in the heart of Waterford city on this strategic development zone to provide mixed use, commercial, retail, public realm and more important, quality housing. The Government has approved the strategic development zone and has committed in its 2016-21 infrastructure and capital investment programme to provide €40 million for enabling works to leverage these schemes. This type of scheme will rebuild Ireland and our regions. I wish the Minister of State and the Department well in developing further initiatives for more housing projects.
I am glad that Senator Coffey mentioned ideology because there is an ideological problem at the heart of the Government. In the worst of times in this country we built public housing, through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I do not often compliment Fianna Fáil but it was largely responsible for that public housing. Fine Gael has never been comfortable with the idea of providing homes for the people. The ideological problem at the heart of this action plan is that it hopes the market will ultimately solve the problem. I was very struck a few weeks ago when the Taoiseach said in the Dáil that there are 8,000 houses being built and mentioned chippies and brickies. However, later, on "Drivetime", Ronan Burtenshaw, a housing analyst, pointed out that only 1,800 houses actually are being built and the rest are in planning. That shows the gap between the reality of housing under this Government and its grand promises and plans.
This report is another indictment of the Government's inaction on key measures that it highlighted as solutions to the deepest housing crisis since the foundation of the State. It is a scandal that 198,000 homes lie vacant across the State. The Department's latest figures show a record number of people are dependent on emergency accommodation. The Dublin Regional Homeless Executive published figures recently which showed that 60% of homeless families in Dublin have been in emergency accommodation for more than six months; 40% of families have been in hotels, bed and breakfasts or hostels for more than one year and over 138 families have spent more than 18 months in emergency accommodation. The sad truth is that some of the 2,500 homeless children have spent more of their lives in emergency accommodation than in a stable home.
This comes from a Government that prioritised tax cuts for the wealthy in the previous budget rather than putting adequate resources into tackling the homelessness crisis.
Many of these families live in inappropriate, unsuitable and insecure accommodation. We have heard stories of families being forced to stay in damp rooms with blood-stained sheets, mice and cockroaches. There is an obvious solution to this problem. In Dublin alone, there are 40,000 empty homes, that is, almost 40 houses for every homeless family. The various schemes announced by the Government to target vacant homes are simply not enough. The three schemes currently in place will only deliver around 6,400 homes over six years, which is only 3% of the total vacant housing stock. Similarly, of the 1,100 on offer to Government by various banks, the Government has only committed to purchasing 200 of these. We recently learned of the allocation of a paltry additional €26 million that will bring only 0.4% of the vacant properties throughout the State back into use. Those are the facts beyond the promises of this Government.
The repair and leasing scheme is a good initiative and Sinn Féin has supported it from the beginning. My only criticism is that since the pilot seems to be working well in Waterford and Carlow, as Senator Coffey acknowledged, I cannot understand why the Minister is not more ambitious for the roll-out of the scheme.
There are more than 198,000 vacant properties throughout the State. In my own area of Limerick city there are 2,564 vacant units and the figure is 5,889 in Limerick county. This is more than enough homes to take people out of emergency accommodation and off waiting lists. Targeting only 800 vacant properties and providing only €26 million in additional funding demonstrates how this Fine Gael-led Government has not got its spending priorities right. Having an ambitious plan in place that can facilitate the quick turnaround of the maximum number of vacant properties is an obvious solution to the housing supply crisis in this State. The Minister says funding is not an issue. Therefore, he must demonstrate a clear sense of urgency regarding the State-wide roll-out of this scheme and adjust his target beyond an inadequate 800 homes.
Instead of taking responsibility for the housing crisis that his party has perpetuated, the Minister continues to hide behind statistics. If funding is not a problem, there is no reason the Government cannot ramp up its acquisitions target for vacant homes. If the Government is serious about tackling the housing and homelessness crisis, it needs to consider seriously some of the recommendations made by both the Simon Community last week and the Peter McVerry Trust today on returning vacant homes to use.
Sinn Féin is not here merely to criticise the Government’s inaction. In this House we put forward the Rent Certainty Bill, which was a genuine effort to provide solutions that would at least start to ease the pain and suffering that is homelessness and the threat of homelessness. This Bill sought to link rent increases to the consumer price index. In simple terms, this means that rents should not increase by more than the cost of living. While there was criticism from some quarters that the consumer price index was not the best indicator, no viable alternatives were offered.
I want to stress that this is not a panacea. Our private rental sector is deeply flawed and it will require multiple pieces of legislation as well as action by all stakeholders to reform it into a model that is sustainable. Rents in Limerick increased by 13.2% last year, which was even more than the increases in Dublin. However, if the Minister of State looks at the model in a city like Vienna, for example, he will find one third of houses are private, one third are public and one third are owned by housing co-operatives. That is the type of ideological model that works, as we see across western Europe. Unfortunately, however, it is one the Minister of State's party will never embrace. Indeed, the figures for co-operative housing units in Ireland are among the lowest in western Europe. Again, I do not see the action plans to address that issue.
I am interested in Senator Coffey's comments. I recall that when a housing co-operative wanted to establish units in Limerick, Fine Gael councillors came out in droves to oppose it, along with their Fianna Fáil colleagues, I am afraid to say. We can quote many examples. The problem is that the ideological heart of the Government is right wing. It believes in market solutions and, unfortunately, the market has failed and continues to fail. Supply will remain a constant problem as long as not enough units are being built, as long are there is a large number of tenants in private rental accommodation who should be elsewhere and as long as a huge number of vacant units remain. We need more progress, more ambition and fewer reports.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome the opportunity to respond to the progress report. A clear action plan, with published targets and progress reports, is a great way to govern, and I applaud the work that has gone into producing the report because it is significant. I have a range of questions for the Minister of State under four of the five pillars, and I will take them pillar by pillar.
Pillar 1 addresses homelessness. First, I would like more clarity about the position of rough sleepers. The progress report notes there were 142 people sleeping rough in Dublin in November, but what about other centres like Cork and Galway and how have the numbers changed since November? I welcome the fact that more than 200 emergency beds have come on stream over the winter, but rough sleeping happens in the summer also. Do we now have enough beds for all rough sleepers in all the places where rough sleeping happens? In Cork in 2011, we were able to say there were enough beds for rough sleepers in the city, so it is doable. I want to know the position, whether we are making progress to end rough sleeping and what else needs to be done.
Second, the very first action point of Rebuilding Ireland, action 1.1, promised to build 200 rapid-build homes by the end of 2016 but just 22, or 10% of the target, were delivered. That is a massive missed target. What are the delays? Rapid builds were presented as the solution for getting families out of bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels. What is the plan for homeless families after July 2017, when the practice of accommodating them in commercial hotels will have ended? Where will they be accommodated if the houses are not coming on stream? How different will the proposed family hubs be to hotels? I hope this is not just a rebranding exercise so that, instead of calling them hotels, we call them family hubs. Children and families need to be in permanent, long-term accommodation, not moved from pillar to post.
Third, action 1.13 promises 300 Housing First tenancies by quarter 4 of 2017. Is there a wider Housing First strategy for other urban centres outside Dublin and, if so, when will detailed targets be set and published in this regard? Consultation with regional and local stakeholders is essential to ensuring Housing First service provision is tailored to meet the specific needs of future tenants. What plans are in place for such consultations to take place throughout the country?
Fourth, action point 1.15 promised €6 million for homeless mental health services. From what I can see, only €3.5 million was delivered, despite overall increases in health spending. These are very vulnerable people and it is deeply disappointing to see this target missed. Will the Minister of State provide some clarity on these figures? I have heard first-hand from people working on the front line of the vast gaps in treatment and access to treatment. In 2016, the Dublin Simon Community counselling service, Sure Steps, worked with 460 individuals, a 56% increase on 2015. The service is not funded by the State and relies on the goodwill of 20 part-time volunteers and trained counsellors. Will the Minister of State provide clarity on why the promised funds never arrived for such services?
Fifth, I am told the National Homeless Consultative Committee has not met since the Government was formed. This cross-departmental and cross-sectoral committee is an important forum. When will it meet?
On a last point with regard to Pillar 1, the Minister of State will know I continue to work closely with the Simon Community. Again and again the issue of the habitual residence condition is used to block people’s access to services. How many people who are homeless are affected by this? What is the state of play of the habitual residence condition? In the context of Brexit and wider EU reforms, will the Government look again at the issue of habitual residence?
On Pillar 2, which deals with accelerating social housing, I congratulate the Government on exceeding its target. That said, the pace at which State lands are being made available for social housing is slower than expected. What will be done to speed this up? Housing associations require access to land already in State ownership to build more homes. Rebuilding Ireland commits to establishing a dedicated one-stop shop within the Housing Agency. Is this one-stop shop in place and fully operational?
Pillar 4 seeks to improve the rental sector. In 2000, just 10% of the population in Dublin lived in rented housing whereas that is now up to 25% in Dublin and 20% nationally, which is a large percentage of the population. While the rental strategy was a welcome step forward, like Senator Gavan, I would have liked to see it go further and faster. Last week Threshold, the national housing charity, called for the introduction of a deposit protection scheme to protect both tenants and landlords. What is happening in this regard? It also called for better minimum standards, including the issue of fuel poverty, and an NCT for private rental accommodation. What about licensees? What is happening in regard to people who are in rent-a-room schemes and what is their long-term security of tenure?
Threshold wanted legislation to be introduced so that both the receivers appointed to mortgaged properties and the lenders who have initiated repossession proceedings are regarded as the landlord in relation to existing tenancies. These are sensible proposals by Threshold and I want to know where they stand with the Minister.
I will now turn to the issue of housing stock. Every time I hear the statistic I am struck that we have 200,000 vacant properties, which are 28 empty houses for every homeless person. I note that 3,500 social houses will be created from the repair and lease scheme plan going national by 2021, and this is to be applauded, but that is 3,500 properties out of a potential 200,000. Given the scale of the problem would the Minister consider the use of compulsory purchase orders or compulsory leasing orders? I believe there would be significant public support for such a measure and it would speed up the end of homelessness. It is disappointing that there is no movement on action 5.9 to make it easier to change the use of vacant commercial units or the areas above commercial units. For decades people lived above their shops in town centres - I did so myself - and a move back in that direction will help bring more life into some hollowed out cities and towns.
My final point to the Minister of State is that the 62 page progress report has made no mention whatsoever of Travellers, halting sites or the de-institutionalisation of people from congregated settings. I am genuinely worried that the housing needs of these groups have been forgotten about. I would like a progress report on both. We need to move people out of institutions and back into communities. Housing associations support the Department of Health and the HSE in the programme of transitioning people from congregated settings to community-based accommodation, including supporting people with mental health services. The Irish Council for Social Housing continues to experience difficulties in getting approval for capital assistance scheme properties to facilitate moving people out of congregated settings. The capital assistance schemes focus on special needs groups such as the homeless, elderly and people with disabilities. Every effort needs to be made to ensure such obstacles are removed. My colleague Senator John Dolan will speak more on this subject but the housing options for people with disabilities and older people who require support are wholly inadequate and the strategies in these areas require prioritisation and greater commitment from Government. I thank the Minister of State again for the updated report and I look forward to hearing his response to these questions.
I will be sharing some of my time with Senator Murnane O’Connor.
Senator Davitt cannot do that because Senator Murnane O'Connor has already spoken.
Did Senator Murnane O’Connor speak already?
I wanted some clarification-----
I am sorry but under the rules-----
-----on a point of order.
I am sorry there will be no clarification and no point of order.
I did not realise that the Senator had already spoken.
I wanted clarification on the scheme. The reason I did not bring the matter up was because-----
Senator Murnane O’Connor, we cannot engage in this now.
We need to address this.
Order please. I have ruled on the matter. Senator Davitt without interruption, please.
I thank the Minister of State. It is nice to see him here today. I missed him. In last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade we were knocked down with TDs and Senators from Meath but with the redrawn boundaries there were not too many visitors in Castlepollard last time out. That is the way and that is politics.
On a more serious matter, Fine Gael has certainly brought in some good plans which we have welcomed here. We supported one of the most prudent plans, and certainly one that I appreciated most, which was the proposal to bring larger planning permissions directly to An Bord Pleanála. I welcome that. There are quite a lot of initiatives that one would have to welcome but there is one idea that could certainly be pushed out. As we know, the councils have a role to play but a lot of these guys are sitting on large land banks and they are very inactive in that regard. They have the manpower and the resources. They have the natural resource which is the land banks, they have zoned land in many places and they have the manpower to get the planning, get the development in order and to get things moving. Ireland has been noted for, and indeed I grew up in one, the 1970s and 1980s grand-sized bungalows as they were at the time. They filled the countryside. They are one of the greatest successes of all time in relation to housing, particularly in the countryside, to get people into better standards of housing and to move them out from cottages. We could give people the opportunity to build houses for themselves, particularly in rural areas. They are not looking for a big handout. They are looking for the opportunity to avail of a site. If they are given a site and given the opportunity they will build the houses. They have initiative and they have the skills, with themselves, their neighbours and their extended family and houses would be built, I have no doubt about that. I encourage the Minister of State to look to the councils and to go back to what councils did best; to provide serviced sites for these people and to let them build. What is the big deal?
People could be living in these houses instead of living in rented accommodation which are currently taken up with people on housing assistance payments and all the other different types of schemes. People do not qualify for some of the schemes because landlords can naturally veer towards tenants who are working, as the Minister of State is aware. This can cut out a lot of people who should be entitled to housing from a rental point of view. The Government’s position has been towards rental of houses for people who are on social welfare, housing benefit and who are in receipt of housing assistance payments and the other rental schemes. I would encourage the Minister of State to look at providing sites for these people even if there is a small cost involved. We have the land and we have the natural resource. NAMA has a lot of that resource as we have heard. Perhaps a pilot scheme could be tried. I believe it could be very fruitful and it could be the way forward in rural areas.
I compliment the Minister of State on his presentation, which I listened to in my rooms. The Pillar 5 sites have been very successful so far. Major progress has been made in a very short period of time. Realistically it is one of the key issues within the Government’s plank for us to ensure the housing market gets back onto an even keel and moves forward. The information today about the construction of homes being at a seven-year high is a very positive move. Having reached that point it is a great step forward from where we were.
In my own part of the world we have seen projects progress in the last three or four months at a rapid rate in Macroom, Skibbereen, two in Clonakilty, one in Kinsale and one in Carrigaline. This is positive because these are key towns that need social housing development. It is appropriate to have this kind of development in these key locations. Obviously there are going to be issues. The rent-capped zones are a key issue that must be dealt with; some places are in and some are out. In a town five miles from my home in a place called Carrigaline there are some 20,000 people, 14,000 of whom are in a rent-capped zone and 6,000 are not. One zone is in the Ballincollig-Carrigaline electoral area and one zone in the Kinsale-Bandon electoral area. As a result of geographical issues in the Bandon-Kinsale electoral area 6,000 people who live on the south side of Carrigaline are not in the rent-capped zone. These anomalies must be examined.
When we set up the zones we looked at electoral boundaries. These could change like the wind. I believe we are going to have a review of the general election boundaries followed by a review of the local election boundaries. In many ways we might look at the whole idea of electoral districts because they have not changed since 1891, and I do not believe they will change anywhere. Maybe we should be looking at more permanent boundaries. This would ensure we have security of rent and we could also look at a smaller demographic. At the moment we are looking at demographics that are quite large. Consider the Bandon-Kinsale district. It has 78,000 people in one electoral district. This is equivalent to the size of county such as Carlow. Maybe there needs to be a slight review of the actual strategy regarding the rent zones. It is a work in progress. In the short space of time that we have put this framework and body of work together there has been major progress. Now it is about building on that progress and going forward. Using voids and building of social housing will be key to delivering on that. With the progress we have seen in the past six months I am confident we can make more progress and see the delivery that is required. I hope that something will be done with the rent pressure zones in the key catchment areas affected. When we look at the smaller picture it might help us if we were to narrow the scope and to look at electoral districts rather than going forward with the large electoral areas we have now.
The Minister of State is very welcome. It is good to have him here presenting this progress report. I will obviously focus on the areas of disability and mental health. There is a strong commitment in the programme for Government to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In this regard, I wish to mention Article 19(a), which refers to ensuring persons with disabilities "have the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others and are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement". That is where I want to start with this. In the Rebuilding Ireland programme launched last July, I did not see any solid commitments to improving the chronic housing conditions of people with disabilities. It certainly mentioned programmes, strategies and this, that and the other and there was a lot of paper shifting from one desk to another, with people sitting down and talking, but I did not see many actions. Pillar 2 of Rebuilding Ireland pertains to accelerating the construction of social housing. Up to 4,000 people with disabilities have been on the social housing waiting list since 2013. They are not even mentioned in the document. I do not see this mentioned today either. Earlier, the Minister of State said,"the two progress reports published to date and the other information we have published show that solid early progress on implementation was made during the first six months of the lifetime of the action plan." Perhaps there was but it was not made for people with disabilities.
On page 33 of the second quarterly report, it is stated that the Government will work with the HSE and local authorities on all issues, including funding supports, for housing people who are transitioning from HSE accommodation and for clients of the mental health services. This is ongoing and there are no dates. There has been no product so far. On the next page it is stated that the Government will continue to support the Department of Health and the HSE in the programme of transitioning people from congregated settings. There are over 2,700 people in these circumstances at present. I calculate that there are approximately 200 plus people targeted to move out this year. There is another decade of work in that. Therefore, many people will be left in these circumstances for a decade. Individuals do not serve that much time for having killed people in this country sometimes.
The plan states, "We will extend the National Housing Strategy for People with Disabilities (2011-2016) beyond its timeframe of 2016 to continue delivery on its aims." That really means "beyond when it was supposed to be concluded". The timeline extends to 2020, which is just saying we have not done what we said we would do in recent years and that we will just keep it tipping along.
A motion was passed unanimously in this House last July. Senator Kelleher, other Senators and I were very happy to propose it. We were very delighted it had the support of the Government and others. It called on the Minister to:
- confirm that the Government's action plan for housing includes specific commitments on the delivery of housing in sufficient numbers and type to also meet the housing needs of persons with disabilities;
- ensure the provision of an annual update from local authorities of the number of social housing units allocated to people with disabilities on the housing waiting list;
- ensure that any housing project supported by public funding, including Part V housing, provide a percentage of pre-planned and reserved housing units to meet local needs for persons with disabilities;
- ensure that the social housing 2020 strategy is routinely disability proofed;
- provide funding in 2017 to increase housing supply and to make necessary and timely adaptations to current housing stock;
- requests that the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government draft a work programme which will routinely consider and review Government progress towards delivering adequate and sustainable housing for persons with disabilities.
This has not happened. It is not the end of the world but it is deeply disappointing. The crisis in housing for people with disabilities, which is also a crisis for their families, has existed since old God's time. There are 4,000 people on the social housing waiting list and 2,700 in congregated settings. We have 1,100 people under the age of 65 in nursing homes because housing and other supports have not been put in place for them. This reflects the daily life and experience of those affected.
My expectation is that there will be a comprehensive report by the middle of 2017 to show not only progress but also delivery across these areas. These are areas that were agreed by this House in a motion. I do not want the Minister of State to list more commitments. We have commitments and promises and it is now a matter of bricks, mortar, housing adaptation grants and real actions. People need to see real progress on these matters.
There was a document some years ago called "A lot done and more to do". Right now, there is no evidence of anything done. There is a lot to do and a lot to verify. The spirit of the motion passed this time last year by everyone in this House demands nothing less than verification of what has been done. I hope that will be more rather than less. Showing respect to this House and, more important, to people with disabilities and their families requires that there be verification of what has been done and what is in process.
Many of the points I wanted to make have been made already. I thank the Minister of State for attending and making his presentation. In fairness, a lot of work has been done by comparison with three or four years ago. It is important that we recognise not only the work of the Ministers and the Department but also the local authorities. One of the problems with local authorities over recent years concerns staffing levels and the expertise required. There was a feeling among staff that, no matter how hard they worked on preparing plans, there would not be money available. It was believed a real effort was not made to make progress on many things that should have been done at a time when we did not have money.
In my local authority area, that of Cork City Council, there are 19 individual sites identified. A number of them have been opened up and work on one has been completed already. Progress is being made on a number of others. I hope that, over the next 12 to 18 months, an additional 400 houses will be available in Cork city alone. Many other local authorities are following suit.
In addition to considering housing, we also need to examine the question of ensuring that there are adequate services available where we build houses, especially where they are built in considerable numbers. I am concerned because I have just seen a planning application being lodged for 230 apartments in an urban setting but with no plans at all for back-up amenities and sports and recreational facilities. We seem to be falling down in respect of joined-up thinking about having all the amenities available in an area, including schools.
A relative of mine working in Edinburgh had to refurbish 200 old army houses. At the same time as refurbishing, a plan had to be produced setting out how many new families would move into the area. Extensions to the schools had to be built at the same time as the housing was being made available. Here we talk about building schools and other amenities three, four, five and six years after building the houses. Sometimes the affected children are teenagers by the time we have any of this work done. Consequently, we need to have much more joined-up thinking.
A great deal of progress has been made on ensuring that local authorities are working effectively. My colleague referred to the disability sector. Let me refer to one area in Cork in respect of which I have worked very hard. I am glad to say €2.5 million has been allocated this year and that 42 houses which need to be adapted by the local authority will be adapted.
Previously, in any one year, on average, only six or seven adaptations were completed by Cork City Council and there was an eight-year waiting list for people who have a disability to get work done. I am delighted that money has been made available.
We need to look urgently at the long-term rental issue and the lack of security for those renting in the private sector. I know changes have been made but there is still a major concern for young families in private rented accommodation who are trying to save, pay rent and have their children going to a local school. They do not know when the letter will come in the door or the meeting will happen where they might be given six months' or even 12 months' notice that they have to move out of their accommodation. We need to move towards long-term letting because there is a whole cohort who will not get on the housing ladder and will not qualify for local authority loans or housing. That group has not been looked after and we need to do something on this issue soon. A significant number of people are caught in this trap. They have young families and want to stay in the area where their children are going to school. If they move out of their existing accommodation, they will not get a suitable alternative in the area which causes significant problems for them. We need to look at this issue urgently.
On the roll-out of private sector housing projects, we need to ensure all the boxes for the provision of services, such as roads, water or sewers, are ticked adequately and fast enough. Local authorities seem to be taking too long to react to putting in place services for developments to move on. We need to look at that. In one project in Cork, for instance, the local authority owns land on which 600 houses can be built. The provision of services for this site will cost €9.5 million. We should not have to wait until this time next year for that project to start. We need houses urgently. We should do everything possible to ensure funding is provided to local authorities to roll out these services to allow the private sector kick into place. We can then, if necessary, acquire some of those houses in those developments for local authority housing.
I thank the Minister of State for the work done. We need to do a lot more and a lot faster, however.
I thank Senators for their comments. Most were positive but some were negative. I will not thank Senators for the negative ones but we have to accept them and take them on the chin. Joking aside, everyone is committed to the process of delivering more housing. We also have to take criticism as well because we cannot get this done as quickly as we want.
I am not fully sure what Senator Murnane O'Connor was trying to get at. I am not familiar with councils dezoning lands they bought for social housing.
It was due to the spatial strategy.
Some councils have significant debts on land and have brought forward proposals to the Department to activate that. We will respond to that. I have met the Carlow housing team on two occasions at the various workshops we run in the Department but did not hear the issues the Senator raised. The Department has had numerous engagements will all local authorities, including Carlow, on all the proposals and actions. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I, have met all the local authorities, both councillors and officials, and answered all their questions, which have run to several hundred in some cases. There is no issue about information.
On a point of order-----
I would be concerned if there is an accusation of misinformation or a lack of information because everyone agrees there probably is too much information. We are certainly not hiding anything. That is not the game we are in. I am happy to sit down with the Senator and a delegation from Carlow County Council at any stage to go through any questions. I do not agree with what the Senator said earlier, as it does not match up with my experience of dealing with Carlow County Council officials. I have gone to Carlow to look at some of the housing projects there such as accommodation for elderly people and renting houses in rural areas. The repair and leasing initiative was started in Carlow and Waterford and has made great progress. Carlow County Council has led the way in finding vacant houses in town centres, spending money on them and bringing them back into social housing use. I am not fully sure what the Senator was getting at. Maybe she can clarify the issues later and we can deal with them.
I will come back in and clarify the issues.
This is not just a rebuilding strategy and action plan for cities such as Dublin and Cork. It is fair to say the media may concentrate on the emergency situation that is at its worst in Dublin, Cork and perhaps Galway. This is a national plan, however, which affects every county and all cities. We are engaging with everybody of all abilities and disabilities on this issue. It is not a Dublin or Cork plan. Every local authority has been asked to put in place pipeline projects for the next three or four years. The Taoiseach referred to 8,000 houses in different parts of development, not under construction. It was reported as construction and that is not the Taoiseach's fault. That is not near enough and that is what is in the pipeline. There are 504 various social housing projects of all around the country. We want a lot more than that and we have asked every local authority to find sites, projects and to become involved in joint ventures to bring forward new ideas. This includes Carlow. That message has been clear. If it needs to be repeated in Carlow, I will do that. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, is clear we want activity and we need it. It is as simple as that.
The housing assistance payment, HAP, is a success. It will be hit by a lack of supply of housing in some areas, certainly in the greater Dublin region, however. HAP was successful in the early years because there were vacant and available properties. Many of these properties are now drying up, making it hard to deliver on HAP. We have set high targets and we will keep pushing them.
HAP is an attractive offer for all involved. It is a solution and does not mean one is off the housing list. Taking up a HAP residency means one is on the transfer list, which means one is on the housing list. I do not know why the contrary has been put out. Most people will agree HAP is a solution. Most availing of the scheme do not want to come off it and many others request to be on it. I accept a lack of supply is an issue, however.
On the issue of tenancies being terminated early, I am not familiar with any such cases. If there are cases, will the Senator let me know? The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, is there to aid with that. People enter into rental agreements and it is not that simple any more to break them or put someone out. There are many protections available which have been enhanced.
On extending the rent pressure zones, there is a legal process in place which will stand up legally. We have to stick to this. It involves a local authority and the Housing Agency at the start flagging an electoral area in any county which they believe will qualify as a rent pressure zone. The Minister will instruct the RTB to carry out the research and gather the evidence that the area should qualify as a rent pressure zone. Already in January, rent pressure zones were extended to several towns. More will be looked at the next quarter. If there are places in Carlow which will qualify, they will come into that. However, we have to follow the logic set out. If we did not, it would not stand up to scrutiny or have a legal basis. The criteria are there for a reason.
It affects my area. Navan did not qualify even though one would imagine it would. Places like Maynooth and Drogheda did not qualify either but, in time, they will qualify when they tick the boxes. It is important the right process is applied. If not, it will not stand up legally and would not be worth having rent pressure zones in the first place. A process is in place and it is important the local authority engages with it because it has a leading role at the start.
We are currently mapping 700 different sites across the country. They are not all in Dublin. The Department, along with its housing delivery team, is assessing sites throughout the country. The work will start in the cities because that is where the major pressure is on. However, we will engage all local authorities to bring forward sites because we want more activity, despite what Senator Gavan thinks.
We agree on building a certain amount of social housing and as we are not near that number yet, we want to make that happen as best as we possibly can.
The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, was mentioned in terms of making people homeless. I am not sure what was meant by that. It certainly does not make people homeless. That is not what it was designed for. It is a homelessness solution.
Senator Boyhan raised a number of issues. I hope I do not miss the main points but we committed to making announcements on the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, and all going well, they will be announced before the end of March. The Senator is correct in that over 70 projects came in on that. Quite a few of them were over €5 million and needed more detail and more work, and any delay that has happened is due to the need for more detail. It is important that this is announced properly and that the correct funding is allocated to the projects which will deliver housing. This infrastructure has to activate and open up sites that can deliver housing. There is no point in us contributing towards a bridge or road if the site is left undeveloped for years afterwards. We have to apply a great deal of scrutiny here to make sure we make the right decisions on that. The proposals came forward from local authorities, including a combination of private land and their own land. In some cases it is a combination of both but certainly on the private lands the local authorities might help to open up, there will be a delivery of social housing expected from that. If the taxpayers are going to help activate these sites through this fund there has to be a payback to them through a reduced price on the end product - the house - as well as social housing. I can assure the Senator that the local authorities are driving that. They make the suggestions to us. We did not go out and pick the sites. We are following the suggestions and proposals of the local authorities, and we are working with the local authorities. To repeat the point I made to Senator Murnane O'Connor, we are asking local authorities to bring forward their proposals for their own sites and their own lands and we will work out a pipeline over the years ahead to develop that. There are some key sites that we know are in need of infrastructure. This is about trying to activate private and public sites and a combination of both. We also want to activate other sites in public ownership outside of the local authorities' ownership. We have asked all agencies that own land, including NAMA, to look at all their sites, site by site, to see how they can be developed for housing, as well as a combination of that mixed tenure to get the balance right on social and private housing.
There were a couple of specific questions on the actions that we missed. I thank the Senator for his compliments on the actions we achieved. I accept there were approximately nine incomplete actions for the relevant quarter. The Senator raised four or five of them specifically and the rapid building programme was also raised by others. This is an area where we would like to see increased activity. The commitment was that there would be 200 rapid housing units delivered by the end of 2016. That has not happened to our satisfaction. A total of 22 have been completed and have tenants in them while another 350 are at different stages of construction. Some are further along than others. Some are at the tendering stage but are actually in play now in that sites have been identified, planning has been secured and they are moving forward. The big delay was actually securing the sites, which is unbelievable. There was a bit of tit-for-tat here between two Senators about who was objecting to what but we have to get the message out to everybody that social housing has to be accepted in the communities and sites must be brought forward. I have been at council meetings where councillors have told me that this is a crisis that has to be solved only to discover that they are objecting to housing plans. I am not blaming any particular party. I simply state that individual councillors who claim that they want to solve an emergency on the one hand and block projects on the other need to look in the mirror. It makes it very hard for us to achieve anything. There are 350 rapid housing units in play. The issue is that the commitment for 2017 is that there will be 650 units in addition to that, so there should be 1,000 rapid-build houses constructed or certainly near to completion before the end of this year. Our target will be that we will have them completed. We will engage with local authorities and ask them to use this scheme and activate it. We have put in place measures which make it easier to use and the procurement measures are dealt with there as well. There is no reason for delays in this. Rapid construction allows for different types of construction. It is supposed to deliver housing much quicker and it has not done so in some cases, but we now have enough sites to make it happen and it should be on track before the end of the year. Again, it needs commitment from everybody.
I reiterate that, on the €200 million in LIHAF funding, we expect to be able to announce that by the end of March, all going well, and then we will get that money spent and get it activated. That is only one mechanism. Other access to finance for infrastructure is available. The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, is involved in trying to make funds available, as are other agencies. This is a contribution intended to help activate sites and to get sites moving. The bottom line is we must deliver housing.
Another issue raised was in respect of online planning. The enabling legislation was held back because of the debate here before Christmas on the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016. That took precedence for a while but, with those regulations, we are still progressing with the online planning and it is on target to be here before the summer. It will be accompanied by the regulations that support the online planning in place for this year as well. We know it is important and it was discussed on Committee Stage. While everyone thought it was important to bring forward the legislation we dealt with in this House in December as a priority, the commitment to online planning is there, albeit behind schedule.
NAMA lands were mentioned. We are fully engaged with NAMA on a regular basis and are trying to activate their sites. Indeed, we launched a report on unfinished housing developments today that reviewed 2016 and fewer than 15 unfinished sites remain on NAMA's books. There has been plenty of movement there. There are strong commitments from NAMA in terms of the delivery of housing over the years ahead. We in the Department have developed quite a good relationship with the agency over the last six or seven months in our attempts to progress sites. It is something on which we are very much in tune with it. The same applies to our housing agencies and the local authorities. There is delivery there. I hope I have answered most of Senator Boyhan's questions.
Senator Coffey welcomed the priority given to try to address this issue. It builds on the good work Senator Coffey and Deputy Kelly had done before that. We have managed to secure additional funding, which matches the number one priority given to this issue by the Government. Many of the actions have been enhanced and increased. The Senator specifically mentioned the action plan process and I agree with him. It is a process that Senator Coffey had started in the Department regarding social housing. I know that Mr. Barry Quinlan was involved in putting that together as well. I have said before in this House - I was involved in the Action Plan for Jobs process in another Department for four or five years - that it is a process that will deliver. This is the second progress report. We are six months into this. I cannot show or prove the solutions here. I can only say that the process has delivered in many other areas - jobs being one of them. I refer to the process of rolling out the actions, putting the names beside them and committing the money and the personnel that are now available. This process does deliver and this will happen. I have no doubt but that if we follow this plan action by action, we will end this crisis. I have no doubt about that because I was involved in a somewhat similar process before. It is a good way of doing business. It is a process which is now being used in other Departments as well and this way of doing business is often discussed at European level too. It is quite a simple approach, which is common in business but was not used in all Government circles for years. It will deliver and I have no doubt about that. The important thing about having an action plan for anything is one's business case to secure the funding required. If there is no business case or plan the money will not be available. That is why, with this plan being published in July, we were able to get the commitment, through the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance, of the €5.35 billion we need to spend on this area over the next couple of years. That is what we are trying to do and I have no doubt that we will do that.
Senator Coffey raised the issue of voids. There has been great progress in this matter. We discuss the issue of vacant properties regularly. People do not realise that more than 7,000 voids - long-term social housing that had not been used for many years - have been brought back into play over the last two or three years. Again, that was started by the previous Government and has been continued by this Government over the past year. Last year alone saw 2,600 voids being brought back into use, and rightly so. We should recognise that progress is being made here and, by the middle of this year, voids should not be a conversation that is required any more. There is no excuse for long-term voids any more. There are a couple to be fitted out this year. There are some short-term voids, in some cases six weeks, in other cases three months. We are trying to narrow that timeline. However, long-term voids will be a thing of the past before the end of this year. There are some cases where boarded-up houses will be seen. They are part of a different scheme concerning remedial works, which are not counted as voids. They are a different situation. On my route into work I pass one every day and it can cause people to scratch their heads. Those are not being dealt with under the voids programme. I want to be very clear on that.
Senator Coffey also properly raised the issue that delivery is key. I cannot stress enough that the reason we are visiting local authorities and have stakeholder events on a regular basis is to ensure buy-in from all the stakeholders, including the local authorities, NAMA, the housing agencies and approved housing bodies. It might be thought that it is for media purposes, but it is not.
All the different players, including all the parties, have a role in this. We might disagree on the overall targets in terms of the number of houses we are going to build, but I think we all agree that we must up our game when it comes to social housing. However, it can only happen if we all play our part at local and national level. This is what we are trying to do. If we do not deliver on this plan and drive it on, it cannot solve the problem. I accept that some want to do more. I have no problem with that but let us get this done for a start. With the best will in the world, building 47,000 extra houses over the next three or four years is an ambitious target. It is not enough for Senator Gavan's ideology and I am fine with that but there is no quicker way of doing it because we cannot build the houses quickly enough now. Even if our aspirations were twice this, it would not increase activity in the next week or two. We are trying to rebuild a system to be able to deliver the housing we require.
The Senator mentioned the repair and lease initiative. Again, it has worked in Carlow and Waterford with some success. I think more than 40 or 50 properties were dealt with in Waterford. There is endless potential with this scheme. If the money announced and secured for it gets spent, and I hope it does, we will find more because it is a good scheme that can work well and it does provide the quickest solution to bringing vacant properties back into use. The rebuilding is not just for Dublin or Cork. The Senator can see the benefits of it in Waterford, Limerick and many other areas. I hope that answers most of the Senator's questions on that.
In response to Senator Gavan, we cannot keep having this debate about ideology. We are not against social housing. I am certainly not against social housing and the more of it we can do, the better, but we are realistic about what we can achieve over the months and years ahead. It would be just as easy to say we would build 100,000 houses but it would not be believable or have helped us win the money we required from the various Departments because nobody would have believed us. What we have put in place is an ambitious but realistic plan that we want to and can achieve.
Even before the recession, this country had decided to stop building social housing for whatever reason. I will not even go there. The system of rebuilding social housing was wound down, which is why we have a problem today. I accept that. We are committed to rebuilding it and putting local authorities and approved housing bodies back in a position to deliver, construct, rent or buy social housing - whatever it takes. We are committed to that. The money has been put behind that. Most of the €5.5 billion is for social housing, so Senator Gavan should stop telling me it is not on our radar because it is not true. It is committed there.
The Senator's party has lovely ideas but I have never seen all the money to make them happen. We are spending what we can and what we could secure to deliver this. It will put us in a position where the system can deliver 10,000 social houses per year by the end of the strategy. Thereafter, whoever is in Government, be it Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the Green Party or the Labour Party, can make the next decision. If its wants to build 20,000 houses per year, that is grand. It is a lovely aspiration but we have to do what we can today. Trust me, if we could build them all tomorrow, we would do it. It cannot be done. We must rebuild the system and get sites activated, and that is what we are committed to doing and what we will achieve.
Senator Gavan again referred to the 8,000 properties. They are in the pipeline. We want to treble that. We accept that the number is not near enough what it should be but we are asking local authorities to bring forward more plans and to make it happen. It is not that we want to rely on or reward the private sector. We are conscious of this. We must find solutions today while we are building more social housing. That means leasing houses on a long and short-term basis, through the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme and buying properties. I am fine with all of this if it provides solutions for people who need a house today. We can choose not to spend any money on the private sector. That will not get people a home. We will use houses every which way we can - private or public sector - to make it happen. That is our job but the key is that we get value for the taxpayer in all we do. I believe we are getting it in some of the schemes we are implementing that work with the private sector to deliver or buy housing or use vacant properties. That is what it is about. It is not about ideology. It is practical. We have no choice but to work with the private sector today to deliver housing. If not, people will remain homeless, which is not something I, the Minister or our Department want to happen. I want to be clear about that.
The reality is not what Senator Gavan says it is. If he was right, we would not be spending or committing €5.5 billion over the years ahead, so he should just deal with the facts. I have no problem with him saying it is not enough for him. I can live with that but he should not tell me it is because of ideology or that we do not believe in building social housing, because that is not true. The proof is in what we are doing, the money is available to make that happen and that is what we are going to keep working on.
The problem is in the figures.
Exactly, and I wish we had the Sinn Féin magic pen but we do not. We must deal with reality and make it happen week by week and bit by bit.
We have costed proposals. The Minister of State has rejected them.
I have seen Sinn Féin's proposals, but when they are all put on the one page, they do not add up. The money is not there. We can only spend what we are earning and what we have. Again, because of solutions in the housing plan-----
What about the tax cuts for the rich? There is no problem there.
I will come to that because I will tell the Senator that the reason we were able to allocate an extra €2 billion on top of what the previous Minister of State had secured for housing in the previous budget was because of a jobs recovery. I will not claim credit for all that. The private sector created all the jobs but there are an extra 230,000 jobs, which is more than there were three or four years ago. How has that happened? It is because of a combination of reasons but a key part of that is that we have always identified in our budgets that every change we made to the tax system was done with an eye on job creation. It has worked well and I have no problems standing over the decisions we made in the budget over the past three or four years. They are not tax breaks for the rich. They are tax initiatives to create jobs and they have been proven to work.
That is the Minister of State's ideology.
It has worked, which means we now have the resources we need to spend on social housing. I do not know where Senator Gavan is going to get his money from.
They said we could not do it.
Exactly. Everyone said we could not do it.
I must ask the Minister of State not to be confrontational.
I am allowed to fight back. The funding for housing is available because of the jobs recovery and that is the way it works. The funding is available for other areas as well but it can only continue to fund them if we have people in jobs. The best way out of poverty for anybody is to have a job if at all possible and that is what we are trying to do. We are helping people to get a job. Senator Gavan should not tell me they are tax breaks for the rich because they are not. If he analysed the budget, he would see that it is jobs-focused and that is what budgets have been about for five or six years, which has worked quite well.
People keep referring to the number of vacant properties. There are more than 200,000 such properties in the preliminary census. If someone read the last three censuses before that, they would see that it was always the same. There have been more than 200,000 vacant properties in this country over the past ten or 15 years. We are now putting in place strategies to try to deal with and activate them. Even when these properties were worth a fortune and when there was a shortage of houses back in 2002, 2003 and 2004 and people were paying massive money for houses, they were still vacant so it is not as simple as saying that we will compulsorily purchase them. The reasons they are vacant are complicated in many cases. We have asked the Housing Agency to bring forward a national housing reuse strategy that will be available in quarter two of this year to see how we can tackle all these vacant properties bit by bit and through different schemes and initiatives. This will involve looking at taxing them and compulsory purchase and will look at what is happening in other countries because we are prepared to do whatever it takes.
In the meantime, we announced a few schemes to get a move on while we are awaiting that overall report. The repair and lease initiative and the purchasing initiative will help deliver a few thousand houses over the years ahead. If they work and we spend all the money, we will do more because that repair and lease initiative is one of the best schemes we have. Let us see whether we can spend what we have first. If it is utilised, we can reallocate money to different circles within our schemes. It is not for lack of ambition. Again, it is practical. We will see what comes in with an available scheme. We are asking local authorities to knock on doors and push this scheme. If there is a house in Carlow, Navan, Cork, Dublin or Limerick that is sitting empty - I am very conscious that fewer than 1,000 people live in Limerick city centre - it is a crazy situation. There is a scheme that can make it happen but let us see. If it works, people drive it and everybody here encourages it, we will find more money for it but we must open up the scheme and see what happens. I see endless potential in it because there is a lot of vacant property, which is crazy when people need homes. We will do all we can to bring the two together but it is a combination of carrot and stick.
I know people advocate levies on vacant properties. That is all very fine and we will probably end up looking at that but there is a lead-in time to that. It was the same with the vacant site levy. According to legal advice from the Attorney General, it could not be implemented until January 2019. Work has begun on it but it cannot kick in until 2019. We cannot sit back and wait that long. We must do other things to try to activate these sites and houses and that is what the carrot approach is about. When people tell me that they own a property on a high street that needs €30,000 or €40,000 to do it up but they cannot find that money, we now have a scheme that provides that funding. The State will invest in that person's property but it wants it back as social housing for ten years. It is a fair scheme and good value for taxpayers' money and I hope it works. I hope we are in here looking for more money for it. I expect we will be and rightly so because it is one of the initiatives that will help.
The Housing Agency is dealing with issues with purchasing vacant properties. It has looked at about 900 houses and about 330 houses have been priced. About 238 houses are sale agreed and these houses will be passed on to the approved housing bodies. The Housing Agency can then spend the money again so it is a revolving budget. The agency buys the houses, secures them, sells them on and can buy more. It has €70 million to work with and has the potential to deliver 1,600 plus units. Again, it can do a lot more. The agency is very conscious that it cannot compete with other first-time buyers so it is trying to find vacant properties or other properties that fit with what we need but not compete in the market. It is about finding houses that do not cause a problem.
The agency is dealing with the lending issues in order to try to buy in volume as well. If that works and if it gives good value for taxpayers' money, we will do more of it. We are trying these schemes to make it happen.
I have gone on too long. I hope that I have answered most of the questions. The Senator might not like all of the answers, but that is fine. If these schemes for vacant properties work, we will do more. The overall vacant houses strategy will be published, probably in the next six or seven weeks. That will give us more ideas and more initiatives to try to help.
Senator Kelleher asked a range of questions and if I miss any of them, I will come back with proper answers. My understanding is that the rough sleeper count is a national count and is not restricted to Dublin. It happens every six months, I think in November and July. Those responsible were very close to having accommodation for every rough sleeper. People do not have to sleep rough. That does not mean they have exactly what they want or that they can avail of it when it is needed. That is what we have to work on, to make it easier to access or to close that gap. Certainly, in Dublin city, we sat down in October with all the various NGO agencies, which do great work - Senator Kelleher is involved with some of them - and we asked them, from their figures, what additional accommodation they thought was needed. That would have been last September or October. At the time, they suggested that perhaps 140 or 160 additional bed spaces were required. The Minister and the Department decided to go beyond that and an additional 210 spaces were provided. A total of €6 million was spent in the months of October, November and December to bring forward that accommodation. Those beds have been provided. There is a commitment to do more again this spring and to go beyond what we think we need, just to be sure. We are doing that and whatever is needed we will do. There is money secured for that and it will be spent.
The Senator asked do we have enough? I have just seen the figures for a couple of weeks around December-January and there were some nights where there were 100 vacant beds in emergency accommodation. Some nights there were 20, some nights 30 or 40, but most nights, that I could see, there were vacant emergency beds. I want to stress again that this is only temporary - we want to get them homes - but the Senator asked specifically about rough sleepers. The beds are there. We are enhancing the quality of those beds. I visited a lot of them during the month of January. The newer ones are much better than the existing ones, there is no doubt about that. We are enhancing what we are doing and providing a better quality of accommodation to allow for couples and families as well. We are quite close to having enough but that does not mean that there will not be rough sleepers.
It is only the beginning.
It is only beginning. The key is that has to be only temporary. We have to get them into permanent homes and that is what we want to do. The HAP scheme allows for that and the Housing First approach is working quite well also. All the services are coming together. The Housing First approach is a great initiative. It worked very well in Finland and we are copying that model.
It needs to go national.
I agree it needs to go national and that is the plan. The commitment was to have 300 in Dublin in the first instance. We are well on target to go beyond that. Again, under the HAP scheme, specifically for homeless people, there have been over 800 housing solutions found and we are trying to work directly with homeless people to find them homes and then put the services around them. Some of those rough sleepers require a lot of additional services to ensure that Housing First works. I know Senator Kelleher understands this. That is what we are trying to work on. The commitment is there and we know it will work.
I answered a question about rapid-build accommodation earlier. It is not where we wanted it to be. We were hoping for 200 units; there are 22 secured with people in them. However, there are 350 up and running. We should have an additional 650 before the end of this year, so there should be 1,000 in total. That is our target and we will do more next year. That is only one scheme. It is another funding area and we want to deliver on that as well.
Senator Kelleher mentioned the €6 million commitment that is meant to come from the Department of Health. We have flagged this with them. There is €3.5 million ring-fenced. They have promised it for 2018 and we are still not giving up on it. We will look for more for 2017. We have flagged this as an issue and are seeking more funding. It is definitely committed for 2018. We will try to increase the €3.5 million for this year as well, because I think we will need that. We are still in the first half of the year. If we can show that we can spend it wisely and put it to good use, it strengthens the case to secure the rest of the money. The Senator is correct that it was committed; it is an action that was not fulfilled. We are saying it is not there and we are trying to work on that as well.
The Senator asked about the National Homeless Consultative Committee meeting. I must check the position on that. I would have assumed it was meeting but I am not sure. I will check. On the dual residency requirement, that should not be causing a problem but I will check the position and come back to the Senator.
On voluntary bodies, the one-stop shop is being implemented with them and new legislation to give them greater protection will be brought through the House during the month ahead. I will bring that legislation forward myself. We recognise that the voluntary bodies have a major contribution to make to address this homeless crisis. They have done great work. There are approximately 550 voluntary housing associations. The will not all be in a position to do the kind of projects we want. Some of them are just one-off projects, while others are for two or three units. There are probably 15 or 20 main players who want to up their game and do more and we want to facilitate that. By putting regulations and legislation around that, it protects them, and puts them in a stronger position to do partnerships and raise money. We are committed to doing that and people will see a lot more activity there.
In some cases, local authority members would rather that local authorities were doing more but we are saying that the reality is we need both. I would say to local authority members - and Senators will probably be in touch with them more than we are - that they should engage a lot more with the approved housing bodies because we want to see the relationships strengthened between the local authorities and those bodies. That is provided for there. Councillors can engage more and strengthen that relationship and conversation and feel more a part of the process.
On the rental strategy, I agree that it is a step forward. I accept it does not have everything that Senator Kelleher wanted. I have the document that Senator Kelleher gave me and we are constantly trying to enhance that. On the deposit protection scheme, security of tenants and receivers, the legislation is being worked on in the context of recognising receivers as landlords. In our view, and I would have argued it at the time, there is protection there but it needs to be clearer and strengthened again. We are committed to do that and we will work with Senator Kelleher to bring it forward in the months ahead. There are a couple of other key specific areas in respect of which I will sit down with Senator Kelleher to see what we can do.
I think I have answered the question on vacant properties quite well. Senator Kelleher mentioned a couple of issues, such as compulsory purchase orders and leasing orders. We are looking at those. The Housing Agency has taken all the suggestions on board and is compiling a report for us. It is the lead agency in bringing the report to us. We hope to have it in the next couple of weeks, when we can activate and build on what we are doing already. It would be a win-win situation for everybody if we could activate vacant properties. It would be the best use of taxpayers' money because they already have services and infrastructure, so we want to do that as best we can.
I am not happy with the spend on Traveller accommodation in recent years. It has not achieved what it ought to have achieved. I accept that the money was greatly reduced. The budget has increased by 70% for this year. My job, because it is mainly my area, is to ensure that the money is spent. I have sent a very clear message to all local authorities that we have to up our game in respect of Traveller-specific accommodation. I would not be happy that, in some cases, people are shirking their responsibilities. That is not going to continue.
It would be good to have a report on it.
I would have no problem having a report on that but I am giving my commitment that this money will be spent and that local authorities will have to honour their responsibilities here across the board because some are not. That is not acceptable. It is an issue that has to be dealt with across the board. Increasing the funding was a key step to be able to say that there is increased spending; now let us get it spent. It was an area where funding was cut, like every other Department. Money was cut there and we are trying to bring it back up.
I think I have answered most of the Senator's questions. If I have missed anything, it was not on purpose and I will come back to it.
Has Senator Davitt gone wandering?
I have to advise the Minister of State that he has five minutes before we must move to the next business.
I will go faster if I can. I am probably going too fast as it is.
Senator Davitt welcomed the panel commission changes. Again, these changes are designed to try to speed up activation of sites. It goes back to the carrot-and-stick approach. The vacant site levy will kick in in 2019. The work on the register for that will be done in 2017 and 2018, but the charge will only come into effect in January 2019. We are trying to encourage people to bring forward the sites by means of offering them the carrot of working with them, through the provision of infrastructure and other schemes, to make it easier to do joint ventures with local authorities and the private sector. Again, the intention is to encourage them to activate the sites now. That does not mean that we are giving people extra profits. If the State is working on infrastructure relating to sites, there has to be a payback for the State. That will happen.
Senator Davitt raised the provision of one-off sites to people. There is nothing preventing that from happening. We have been very clear to all local authorities and told them to bring forward their proposals, to show us the level of demand, to outline their ideas and to use their imaginations. We have a range of schemes here and ways of funding that. There was great success with site provision in some counties. In others there was not because houses were not finished-out or completed and that caused great difficulties. The scheme can work. If local authorities in specific areas, for example, Westmeath County Council, want to bring forward initiatives, we would be open to examining their proposals and working with them. This goes back to getting sites activated, getting the best use for taxpayers and getting people homes and houses as quickly as possible.
Senator Lombard referred to rent pressure zones. At present, these are dealt with on the basis of the local electoral areas. In some cases, this means that the population of a zone can be over 80,000 or 100,000. For now, the scheme is in place and we need to get on top of the major pressure zones. We are constantly taking the advice of the Residential Tenancies Board on that matter. We can use all of that advice and do more in respect of the issue.
The Senator is saying it is a good start and that we need to keep an eye on it in terms of rent pressure zones but above all that, when it comes to rent, the key is to increase supply and that is what we are trying to do. Most of the actions in this action plan are about increasing the supply of housing and trying to deal with that as best we can.
The issue of accommodation for people who are renting was raised. We are trying to encourage build to rent projects so that people purposely build rental properties and we are trying to deal with the rent security issue as best we can.
As for Senator Dolan's point, as I was not present in the Chamber for that motion last year, I am not familiar with it. There is a commitment, however, to provide accommodation for people with disabilities and it is an issue I would be happy to work on with the Senator. I will get the specific figures he seeks on the report. There is a commitment to produce a report by the middle of 2017 with real targets and results but again-----
The motion called for an up-to-date report after a year.
That is fine. I believe a report is due the middle of this year and I will get that for the Senator. If he reads the report he will see that it refers to a number of houses and developments. We purposely did not set out anyone's specific conditions throughout this action plan for housing. It just deals with the overall numbers, but we are clear in our engagement with local authorities that it should be accommodation across the board for people of all abilities, those with disabilities and all age groups. Accommodation for people of older years is also required. Each local authority completed its new assessments last autumn. They all have their new waiting lists and out of those they will bring forward their plans to us on what they need and that includes accommodation for people with disabilities. We are committed to that and to providing high-quality accommodation. We are running a competition on accommodation using technology for older people but also for people with disabilities. I refer to houses that are more easily adaptable and using updated technologies to make that happen. We are committed to having lifelong houses-----
The Minister has only three minutes left.
That is something on which I will work with the Senator before the report is due in the autumn. To be clear, it is not that we have not mentioned any category; it is about the overall housing plan. Each local authority will have to tell us what it needs in each category. While we want to make that happen, the local authorities are being told clearly to cater for everyone in that regard. We have been clear on the commitment to design, quality and funding because if we are to get acceptance of social housing where we cannot get it at the moment, we have to have quality build and design. While we are under pressure in terms of the numbers, I want to be clear that we will not renege on the spend or on meeting the needs of people of all abilities. We have asked local authorities to bring forward new designs and we will reward imagination as best we can in that regard.
On adaption of houses, there has been an increase in the funding for next year. In the past year, approximately 8,000 houses were adapted in the private sector. Enough funding has been secured to bring that up to approximately 10,000 for 2017, if need be, but approximately 9,000 houses should be adapted under that scheme. The funding is available. Extra money was given to local authorities. Most local authorities who could prove they needed more money got that. We are committed to doing more of that if it is needed because we recognise that people want to stay in their homes, which is the purpose of the scheme. Retrofitting work is ongoing on public housing and so on but privately, over 9,000 should be able to have their houses adapted in the year ahead, and if we need more money we will find it.
Senator Kelleher mentioned the transition of people out of the various homes. My understanding is that this is not a money issue. The finance should be available. The Health Service Executive provided €20 million and that has been matched by the Government so money should not be an issue. I will try to find out the main barriers in that regard.
I seek to find out what is happening in this regard.
I will come back to the Senator with proper answers. I accept it is not happening fast enough but I am not sure where the fault lies. Generally, it comes back to money but I know it is not a financial issue. I will get an update on that and sit down with the Senator to discuss it because we are all committed to making sure that happens.
The Minister of State has one minute remaining. It seems Senator Murnane O'Connor wants to make a point of order.
Senator Colm Burke raised a couple of issues as well.
Sorry, Minister. Senator Murnane O'Connor has a point of order.
I am so disappointed with some of the Minister's answers but on a point of order, with regard to zoned land, I was a member of a local authority in Carlow for 18 years. Every five or six years, the Department-----
That is not a point of order.
The Minister said to me he did not know about zoned lands. We were told in the last local area plans to dezone lands, which has happened.
That is not a point of order.
It is a point of order. The repair and lease scheme is a point of order. I was elected to promote the repair and lease scheme.
Senator Murnane O'Connor, you have made the point.
No, this is crucial.
The Senator thought zoning was a solution. She was wrong.
Twenty-one people applied for the repair and lease scheme in Carlow but only six qualified. I want to promote that initiative. I was here to be positive about it but the fact is that the uptake of this scheme is not good. It is a pilot scheme and the Minister needs to address it. It is the same with the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. People were taken off the housing list and put on the RAS. Half of the Minister's answers were off the mark-----
Senator, please resume your seat.
-----but, overall, I thank him for coming into the House today.
That is the strangest thing I have ever seen but to be clear on the point of order, the issue was put to me that we are telling local authorities to sell off zoned land for social housing. I said that is not the case. The Senator has changed that to say zoned land in general.
I said zoned land in general.
The record will speak for itself.
I am entitled to explain. What was said to me was that our Department has told local authorities to sell off zoned social housing land that they own. That is not true. I want to be clear that we have not done that.
The last set of questions were about State-owned lands and increased rental properties. Senator Colm Burke should know that this is exactly what we are trying to do. We are trying to bring in and encourage long-term rental schemes. We have issued new guidelines to local authorities on the build to rent initiative, which I believe will work.
On the issue of staffing levels, there have been increased staffing levels-----
Sorry, Minister, we have another issue to deal with. You had 41 minutes to conclude. I thank the Minister of State. No doubt he will be brought back to the House again.