I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House.
Update on Rebuilding Ireland: Statements
I thank Seanad Éireann for the opportunity to update it on Rebuilding Ireland, the Government's Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. Today is a good opportunity to debate progress and to outline some future areas of priority action.
Rebuilding Ireland is a comprehensive delivery plan, which has been augmented and updated since its publication in mid-2016. It is not a quick fix; rather, it is a five-year plan, of which year two is close to expiry. The housing system was devastated during the downturn, with output falling by 90%. Last week, I made the point in the Dáil that people often forget what this Government inherited on taking up office in respect of housing. Rebuilding Ireland is about fixing the housing crisis at different levels and for people on different levels of income, be that in regard to social, affordable or private housing units. It also puts in place a sustainable housing construction sector. To address the decrease in housing output from 90,000 per year to 6,000 per year requires a steady supply of housing throughout the system. This gives people confidence that there will be housing available to them in whatever part of the country they wish to live. We also have to provide housing for an expected additional 1 million people coming to live here. People wanting to set up in the construction sector or existing businesses in this area that want to expand need to know there is a sustainable construction sector in place. The issue of skills shortages is regularly discussed. If construction sector workers cannot be confident that what happened in the past will not happen again, the result will be a loss of skills in this area. Rebuilding Ireland seeks to provide that confidence, which is often missed in many of debates.
There is no quick fix to a 90% decrease in housing output and a 300,000 decrease in the number employed in the sector. Dealing with this requires a series of targeted actions across the complex and interrelated parts of the housing system. To date, we have put in place a significant series of targeted responses that are designed to stabilise and provide the emergency response to homelessness; develop a major social housing programme; rebuild the house building industry and ensure there is a steady supply of affordable homes; reform and modernise the rental sector; and maximise the potential from vacant homes.
The issue of vacant homes is the subject of frequent discussion. I remind Members that the past three or four censuses indicate that there have been vacant homes in this country for many years. It is not a new phenomenon. We want to address it once and for all by establishing a system to deal with vacant homes on an ongoing basis.
I refer to the issue of developing a major social housing programme. During Dáil debates on the issue I often ask Members to be a little more honest and admit that we have started a social housing programme funded by approximately €6 billion of taxpayers' money rather than repeat that there is no social housing programme. I have no problem with people arguing that there should be more or less social housing, but they should acknowledge what has been started because taxpayers' money has been committed to it. Some €6 billion has been spent on it over the past couple of years through NGOs, local authorities and the Government. It cannot be denied that there is a social housing programme. It is a fact, but people still say there is no social housing programme. I have no problem with Members arguing that we are not doing enough and should do more because there is no doubt that we are not doing enough to solve the problem while thousands of people are still waiting for a home. I have no problem with Members being critical in that regard but they must acknowledge that taxpayers' money is being spent on housing and a social housing programme.
We are doing everything possible to provide ongoing support for our most vulnerable citizens while managing long-term programmes to create a sustainable pathway to a stable and consistent housing system. Most reasonable people recognise that the thousands of houses that are needed cannot be delivered in a couple of months or years and that it takes some time to put the system in place. However, while that is being done, one must provide accommodation for people in the best way one can, which may be through the housing assistance payment, HAP, system or family hubs. Ideally, such accommodation would be a house and a home but in some cases we must use emergency accommodation. We would rather we did not have to do so but in some cases it is necessary, which is when family hubs and hotels are used. Naturally, we would far prefer for people to have a permanent home in which to raise their family.
The Government commitment to this issue is clear. Next year we will invest more in housing than any previous Government has in a single year. Over €2.4 billion of taxpayers' money will be spent on the housing programme, which will deliver many new homes for families who are currently experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. The Government will oversee the building of tens of thousands of new homes. Building on the 20,000 homes that will be delivered this year, 25,000 new homes will be delivered next year throughout the country. Importantly, in the context of Rebuilding Ireland and the multi-annual response to housing, €6.6 billion will have been provided over four years to the end of 2019. That funding reflects our ongoing determination and commitment to deal comprehensively with the housing challenge. It will take time as well as money, but we are making progress.
It is not just about money. One must choose appropriate sites, obtain planning permission, go through all the procedures, put the housing in the right place and get the right mix and so on. When people tell me they want to double the number of houses we plan to build next year and build 20,000 houses, I ask them on what sites they would put those houses and whether they have done their homework on such plans. It is the job of the Department, working with our colleagues in Government and through the local authorities, to plan this out and put a pipeline of projects in place. There is a pipeline of over 1,000 projects which will deliver over 16,000 houses. We want to double that but it is not as simple as stating that we will build 20,000 houses next year. It does not work that way. One must make it happen on the ground, which is our job as a Department, working with our officials who are doing great work day and night and very often at weekends, local authorities and other stakeholders such as NGOs and many others who use taxpayers' money to progress their work.
Some 5,000 households have exited homelessness in the past 12 months. That is a fact. I am not trying to convince politicians that our approach is correct. However, those who are currently homeless must be able to believe that the system will eventually catch up and provide them a home. In the past 18 months, over 7,060 adults who were homeless are now in a home. That is steady progress. I accept it is not enough to help the thousands who are still homeless but one must give people hope that the system is catching up. Every day, many people get a house but the difficulty is that many others come looking for a home and it is difficult to get ahead of the demand. A significant number of people have been moved through the system and it is important that that is recognised because those living in a hotel or a family hub must know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. For most such people, there is light and that must also be recognised. We have listened to the very sad stories told by those affected by homelessness. Members encounter such people every week in their clinics. People need to believe that there will eventually be an answer to such problems. This year, over 3,600 households have been assisted under the homeless HAP programme. Over 200 Housing First tenancies have been established. Rough sleeping has been reduced by 40% and hubs have been put in place for 500 families. We are working on these issues day in and day out. We know that more needs to be done and it will be done.
This is a very complex issue with many contributory factors. Adequate supply of affordable homes to rent and buy, particularly in Dublin, is a key factor and forms a key part of our work. Much of the discussion of housing revolves around social housing and council houses but we must also bear in mind that we need housing for all the categories of people with varying abilities to rent or buy or otherwise and that is what we are trying to do. Much of the work in the first two years involved putting a building programme back in place for social housing, fixing that system, changing the processes and rules, getting it up and running and equipping local authorities with the staff and money they needed to be able to deliver social housing and did not have three, four or five years ago. Local authorities now have those resources and are back doing their work. Phase 2 of our work under Rebuilding Ireland is very much aimed at affordable housing and providing homes that people can afford to buy. That will be a key part of our work in the year ahead, as reflected in the budget allocations.
While we work to increase supply, we have a suite of immediate responses available for those people presenting as homeless. In reality, given the supply situation, this means continuing to provide accommodation in the best way we can. As all Members will agree, hotels are not ideal as anything other than a short-term emergency response. That is why the family hub programme is so critical. My Department is continuing to work with the relevant local authorities on the expansion of the hub programme. This will ensure that the short-term emergency accommodation that we provide is far better suited to the needs of families and individuals. Any wrap-around services which are required can also be provided through family hubs. I ask any Member who has not yet done so to visit a family hub and meet the families there. While the families always say they want a more permanent home, they accept that the family hubs are far better than being in a commercial hotel. Although all Members agree family hubs are not ideal, they are a temporary measure. The majority of people who enter a family hub move on to more suitable housing accommodation within six months either through HAP, a social housing programme or in some other way. It is important that that is recognised.
Funding to address homelessness and provide related services this year will rise to €146 million under budget 2019 and an additional €60 million in capital funding is being provided primarily for emergency accommodation, including family hubs. We hope to spend that money this year. Housing First will receive an additional €3 million in wrap-around supports on top of the funding that will support the delivery of single occupancy homes. Some 200 new emergency beds will be provided.
The national Housing First team and programme launched a few weeks ago is built on models that have worked very well in countries such as Finland and Canada. It is a new approach aimed at assisting rough sleepers rather than homeless families. Previously, the system spent a long time trying to work with rough sleepers, provide them with services and then find them a home. We are turning that on its head and are trying to find suitable accommodation for such people at the start and then provide wrap-around services, which will give them a much better chance of being able to make the house a sustainable tenancy. It is working quite well and has produced many good results over the past year. There is very strong commitment to the programme.
The family hub programme will expand to accommodate 950 more places, bringing the total to approximately 1,500 places, allowing us to accommodate families in hubs and not hotels, which is very important in the short term.
Accelerating supply, particularly of social housing, remains a priority. Working with delivery partners, we are achieving significant outcomes. Rebuilding Ireland has delivered over 57,000 housing solutions to the end of quarter 2 of 2018 across all delivery streams. I expect that number to increase to approximately 70,000 by the end of the year. We are working more effectively with local authorities through our regular housing summits. In September, the housing summit approach was extended to the approved housing body sector in light of its role in social housing delivery, tenancy management and the provision of services for the homeless and other vulnerable members of our communities. This strategic and operational partnership approach is working and will continue to deliver. We committed to supporting 137,000 households into appropriate accommodation under build, acquisition and leasing programmes, HAP and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, over a six-year period. By the end of year 3 we will have achieved over 50% of our target. We will deliver another 10,000 new council houses next year. The magic number for many of those involved in campaigns or debates on this issue over the past year and a half is 10,000 houses. That is everyone's ambition. We are making it happen because our job as the Government is to do it, not just talk about it. I am confident that thanks to the funding allocated in the budget 10,000 council houses will be delivered next year.
They are a combination of direct builds, acquisitions and some long-term leasing as well. That is permanent social housing, which was not there last year, going into the system. This year, just under 8,000 houses will be delivered before the end of the year. It was 7,000 last year. They are real homes that are helping us to provide homes for people from many different backgrounds who badly need them. That is what we are trying to do.
Others want commitments that go beyond that. I asked those people to show us the plans on where is the spending, how will it be done and so on. What we have committed to over the next ten years in this document, Rebuilding Ireland, but also in Project Ireland 2040, which people have missed, is delivering up to 12,000 social houses per year, every year. By 2030, that will bring us to a grand total of over 110,000 new social houses. I will be honest. I have read through the manifestos and campaigns of everybody else. Nobody is going beyond that or going to that number, even as an aspiration. We have a plan in place with money behind it to bring us to that level. The constant mantra every week that Fine Gael is not really into social housing is just not true.
We recognise as a Government that our first priority is to deliver a housing programme. Central to that is a commitment to a belief in social and council housing. We are doing that, putting money behind it and we are actually delivering that housing. That might not suit the mantra of some people but I am confident in saying that. I know it without any doubt. If we stick to this Rebuilding Ireland plan, which we are reviewing today, we will have solved the housing situation. I have no doubt about that. I worked through the Action Plan for Jobs, when Deputy Bruton was the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, during those five years. I recall that in year two and the early part of year three people were doubting whether the Action Plan for Jobs was going to work and if it would deliver jobs.
There were not saying that at the end of years three, four and five when the plan had doubled the output of jobs it was meant to achieve. Over 200,000 jobs were created by that Fine Gael and Labour Government. This is the same logic and the same approach. It is action by action, focussed delivery bringing all of the stakeholders together and making sure we spend taxpayers' money wisely. This is the same logical approach we are taking in this five-year plan. We are just at the end of year two now and it will solve the housing situation. I have no doubt about that. I say it with confidence, having been involved in both processes and the work that went on. The need to intensify and accelerate new building activity is to the fore of our strategic planning. Again, I hear people complaining week in and week out that the HAP system is not great and that it does not work.
Nobody has said that it is a perfect system but it is helping 40,000 people to have homes. In most of those cases it is working very well, but in some it is not. We will hear about those stories and we will deal with them. They often get related in debate as well. It is not true to say, however, that it is not working for 40,000 people. It is fair to say that it is not the permanent, long-term solution any of us want.
That is why we have a building programme. While we are building the houses, however, we have to make sure we have people in a house today as well. We will use the HAP programme and we have to rely on the private sector for that. It is not something we want to do forever but it is something we have to do because we have to have houses today while we build the new ones. We are doing that. The early years of Rebuilding Ireland were focussed on harnessing existing capacity and more immediate solutions, such as working with the private sector in some cases, while in parallel progressing local authority and approved housing body, AHB, capacity to build more and establish solid project pipelines. I referred to the pipelines earlier. There is now a pipeline of more than 1,000 projects with over 16,000 houses in the system. That is a major difference to where we were two years ago or even a year ago. The local authorities are now able to step up. They have been given the people and resources they need, as in taxpayers' money. The NGOs have got a spend of about €60 million that they use to provide services. The approved housing bodies are also back in the game.
Everyone is now in a better place to be able to provide services, short term and long term, than was the case two or three years ago. The money was not there in the past and we could not afford to have what we needed. People will give out about the local authorities and blame them but it was not their fault. They did not have the money or the resources. Now, they are in a strong position to do that. They have rebuilt their teams and are delivering the projects. All of us, including the local authorities, want to do it faster and we will keep finding ways to do that. The pressure is on all of us to drive this with more urgency. The local authorities are now able to do it. They will be able to build and do it at a faster pace in the years ahead.
Those pipelines are now in place and, if people want to track it, that is evidenced in the quarter 2 construction status report. That tracks activity on a quarterly basis to see what is happening. I keep making this point; we do not make this up. It is all there, it can all be tracked and it is all factual. It is not stuff we make up for speeches. We report on it on a monthly and a quarterly basis. It can tracked and watched. There is no point trying to kid anyone. We are the Department in charge of making this happen. We are not trying to cover this up or make it look better in any shape or form. We are very honest in everything we do. What goes on in Rebuilding Ireland - our Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness is a complete and open book. Any member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government will vouch for that because we go before it regularly and everything is on the table. Nothing is hidden away.
On affordable houses, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has been very clear that we need to address the issue of housing affordability. We must recognise the pressures that exist for low to middle-income households, particularly in Dublin and certain other of our main urban centres. An affordable housing programme is not needed in every county or town. It is needed in key areas. We are trying to make homes more affordable. In some cases it will be a subsidised affordable housing scheme and in others it will involve working with the private sector to make sure it is in a position to deliver homes at a more affordable price. It is a combination of different ways as well. There are different solutions for different towns throughout the country. Back in 2011, all affordable housing schemes were stood down given the prevailing economic position in the country at the time. I will remind Members that there were 3,000 unfinished estates at that time. It is not 3,000 now; it is less than 100 such estates. We have worked hard through the local authorities and all of the different stakeholders to bring those houses back into use. It was right that the affordable housing programme at that time was stood down given the situation we were in. It was not required and it was not needed because, given the collapse in house prices, there was an overhang of unsold affordable homes at that time.
This time around it is important we only target affordable housing interventions in areas, as I mentioned earlier, that require them based on a consistent approach to economic assessment. It is not for every town and village. It is not needed in all cases but in some cases, it is. All local authorities are now working on the economic assessments of the requirement for affordable housing in their areas. They will also assess the viability of delivering such housing from their sites. A dedicated workshop on affordable housing will be hosted by our Department for all local authorities on 8 November. In order to deliver affordable housing in the areas of the country most affected by a lack of affordable housing supply, a three-pronged, targeted approach is being pursued. The Government has trebled the funding to €310 million to support this programme of work, under the serviced sites fund, SSF, as part of budget 2019.
The funding is available for key facilitating infrastructure on local authority sites to support the provision of affordable homes to purchase or rent. A first call for proposals, under the fund, issued to local authorities in Dublin, the greater Dublin area, Cork and Galway in June 2018. The closing date for applications was August 2018 and 15 proposals were received from nine local authorities. These are currently being assessed and I expect this process to be finalised and an announcement of the first successful bids to be made in the coming weeks. Further calls for proposals will be made thereafter.
Once the funding is awarded and the infrastructure is provided, we expect delivery of affordable homes from 2019 onwards. Separately, once all local authorities have carried out the economic assessment of the requirement for affordable housing in their area, further local authorities may be considered for funding. It is important that they do that assessment to justify the use of taxpayer's money to provide these homes. Most of these cases will involve the use of State-owned land to help subsidise, through an equity scheme, the cost of those houses. We envisage a maximum amount of funding of about €50,000 per affordable home and on this basis, approximately 6,200 affordable homes could be facilitated. The ambition is for at least 10,000 affordable homes to be delivered under this programme and thereafter it will become a demand-led process. People refer to some of the affordable housing schemes that have worked in the last year. The Ó Cualann model used out in north Dublin is a good one. The approximate subsidy, through land and infrastructure, is about €70,000 per house. We are targeting this scheme at €50,000 per house. That will include the cost of the site, infrastructure, etc. It will make a major difference to the price of that house. It is important we do that.
The type of affordable housing that will be delivered on local authority sites may be affordable housing for purchase, under the recently commenced provisions of Part V of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009, or a cost rental approach. The cost rental model is being advanced on a number of pilot sites before being rolled out more generally. Under the 2009 Act, the maximum discount is 40% of the market value of the home and the local authority takes a charge, equivalent to the discount, against the property. The scheme applies to new homes, and is targeted at single applicants earning up to €50,000 per annum or €75,000 for dual applicants. At full discount, this equates to a home worth €350,000 being available today for €210,000 or an apartment worth €300,000 being available to buy for €180,000.
The local authority will retain a charge equivalent to the discount and the household must recoup the charge at resale or during the charge period. The State will have an equity stake in the house. That will roughly be over about 25 years. I want to be clear. I have given examples of some house prices but it will be different on every site and it will be site specific. Please do not throw back statistics that we are not going to pay €250,000 for a house in Leitrim. That is not what I am saying. I am just giving examples. Each decision will be made in combination with each local authority on a site-by-site basis. The funding repaid by the purchaser is paid into a new affordable dwellings fund which will then be used to fund more affordable housing and help more people. The applicants will be selected openly and transparently by the local authority providing the homes. This will be led by each local authority in its area.
Another mechanism to try to help people get the finance they need to buy a home is the Rebuilding Ireland affordable home loan which was launched on 1 February 2018. There has been great interest in the scheme to date and by the end of September the Housing Agency had assessed and recommended more than 1,100 loans for approval, totalling some €236 million. An assessment is under way which will consider some inconsistencies in decision making that have been identified, as this is local decision making by each local authority. The need to potentially broaden the application scheme will be looked at, as well as the possibility of extending the affordable loan to vacant homes requiring refurbishment. It has been suggested by the local authorities and the housing bodies at some of the housing summits we have had, as well as by Members in both Houses, that perhaps we should be able to use this affordable loan to be able to bring back some of the vacant properties. It is something we are looking at, and there is much merit in the proposal.
There is also the help-to-buy scheme, which received much criticism when we first brought it in as people said it would not work. Our intention was to encourage the market to provide housing to first-time buyers. At that stage, a year and a half ago, the market was not supplying those starter homes to first-time buyers. It was hard to get them because they were not in supply, partly because the market, that is, the people building houses, did not believe a first-time buyer would necessarily get a mortgage to be able to buy the house in the first place. We had to intervene, therefore, through the help-to-buy scheme, which gave people some of their tax back to help them put together a deposit to buy a house. More than 8,000 people have successfully availed of that scheme, and 8,000 more are in the system. They have all bought new build homes supplied by the market of first-time buyers. If one looks at the price people pay for houses, more than 70% of first-time buyers over the past year bought houses for a figure under €320,000, even when the greater Dublin region is included. Some 50% of them bought houses for less than €250,000. There are a range of houses out there because we have increased the supply of houses across many sites, which was important. Where it is viable for the private sector to build houses changes on a near-weekly basis, which is also important to bear in mind because we are seeing an increase in the private sector too.
On cost-rental, which I mentioned earlier, we are determined for it to become a major part of our rental landscape in the future. It is common in other European countries but it has not been here. It is clear there is a gap between social housing and the rental market that needs to be filled, making a sustainable impact on housing affordability, national competitiveness and the attractiveness of our main urban centres as places to live and work. If we are to try to accommodate people in our larger cities in order to fill all the jobs here, we must bring forward more innovative housing solutions, such as cost-rental and other proposals.
The Housing Agency, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and a number of approved housing bodies, AHBs, have signed the agreements on our first cost-rental project in Enniskerry Road and tenants have been issued. In parallel, Dublin City Council, DCC, my Department and the National Development Finance Agency undertook detailed modelling and financial appraisal on a major site at St. Michael's Estate, Inchicore, which DCC will develop as a major cost-rental project. The European Investment Bank also supports the development and implementation of this key project. We recently met with it and the other Departments, and it is interested in funding a programme of cost-rental throughout the parts of the country where it is needed. It is a concept that has worked well abroad. These two projects will prove the concept in an Irish context, after which we will be able to roll out more proposals because it is a logical approach to delivering houses for those who do not want to purchase the house but rather want confidence and security of renting at a reasonable price in order that they can predict and manage their finances.
On the Land Development Agency, LDA, one of the most significant actions taken recently was the decision to establish it. It will be a commercial, State-sponsored body acting within a clear Government policy framework in order that all public land disposals must deliver at least 40% of any housing potential on such lands in the form of social and affordable housing at 10% and 30%, respectively. The LDA will establish a national centre of expertise for State bodies and local authorities, using experienced staff with expertise in project management finance, planning, development and procurement. For the first time, the Government will create a State body to deliver on the key principles of the Kenny report of 1973 and the National Economic and Social Council's latest research, targeting land management and housing delivery that are intended to underpin the delivery of 150,000 new homes over a 20-year period, or approximately 25% of all housing needs envisaged by Project Ireland 2040.
What the LDA is doing here is making the State a major player in the management of land, guaranteeing the supply of land to be able to deliver housing at different price ranges over the years ahead. In the past, local authorities were involved in zoning, setting out and, in some cases, purchasing land, but in most cases the State does not have enough land in certain counties. It finds land expensive to buy because it buys zoned land and pays a high price for it. In other cases, the State owns lands but not through the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Rather, it could be the HSE, the Department of Justice and Equality or some other Department. The LDA will manage that State land on behalf of all the Departments and make the right commercial decisions about housing under Government direction. It will assess what is right for each site to bring forward housing at the different levels, whether it be affordable, social or private. The State will be a player.
I have always argued that local authorities are not really in control of their county or town unless they own some land and they have a say in what is happening around them. Zoning land is one thing, but being an active player, owning and developing the land is different, whether it is for housing, shops, retail, streetscapes or whatever, and a major part of this will be urban regeneration. If a local authority in conjunction with the LDA owns part of the land, it has a much bigger say in making it happen, which is what we are trying to do here.
Before the land is privatised.
It is not being privatised. It is a use of State-owned land. I accept that Sinn Féin believes that on any site all the housing should be built by the taxpayer, but that is not the best use of taxpayers' money and it will not give the best mix of housing that should be brought forward. We must make a decision about the best use of taxpayers' money, that is, about how taxpayers' money can be stretched to deliver all the houses we need. The State cannot build every house required by this country because there will not be enough tax to do that. Therefore, the asset, namely, land, must be used in the best way possible to deliver housing to all the different sectors, a big part of which is social and affordable housing, but which also includes private housing. The Senator might not like that but some day he will realise that one cannot keep asking the taxpayer to fund everything.
The Minister of State will continue without interruption. The Senator will have a chance to respond.
The taxpayer is committed to delivering 10,000 social houses a year and more. When we say we have to build approximately 33,000 houses per year, the taxpayer cannot and should not pay for all of them. It is a great deal of tax to collect and we need tax for everywhere else, such as schools, hospitals and many other areas. Choices must be made. How does one best deliver housing for everybody at the right price? We firmly believe that management of State-owned land is the key to doing that and the concept will be proven again as it has been in other countries where it has worked effectively to deliver thousands of homes. It will work here also if we get in behind it. Others can have different proposals, which is fine, but our job is to deliver housing for everybody and to put a plan in place to achieve that.
To further our ambition to maximise utilisation of housing stock my Department published the National Vacant Housing Reuse Strategy 2018-2021 in July this year, which builds on significant work begun in 2016 and 2017 by various stakeholders, including the Housing Agency, local authorities and AHBs in order to meet our pillar 5 goals. The strategy sets out a number of concrete actions such as the adoption of vacant homes action plans by all local authorities and the appointment of vacant homes officers, VHOs, funded by our Department, to co-ordinate local actions addressing vacancy. It also provides a clearly signposted source of information for owners of vacant homes, including the funding options that are available, to assist in bringing vacant
homes back into productive use.
All the VHOs visited our Department yesterday and I spent a few hours with them talking through all the different options and solutions. There is much we can do to tackle vacancy and vacant homes, but it is not straightforward or as simple as saying that there are 1,000 empty houses over there, there are 1,000 people who need them over here, and we will put them together. It does not work that way. Much work is required on a vacant house, such as finding out why it is vacant, who owns it, when it was last owned, where the owner is and so on. Much red tape is involved, but it is work worth doing. It does not provide a quick win in one week, but it will provide quick wins over time and it will bring vacant properties back into use.
The State has stepped up here. In the past two and a half years, more than 9,400 vacant State properties were brought back into the system. The work was started by Senator Coffey when he was Minister of State, and it targeted voids which are now back in the system. That is tackling vacancy. We all know there are many more vacant houses out there, although I do not believe the figures are as high as they were in the census because we have worked through the vacancies with our local authorities street by street and the percentages are much less than people say. They are significant, however, and there are still many vacant homes.
We will work with the sector to bring those homes forward but we must bear in mind that in most cases they are people's private properties, and the owners have rights under our Constitution. It is not a case, therefore, of just grabbing them. It is better to approach it through the legal system and also through the "carrot" approach in order that it is worthwhile for everyone, where houses can be brought back into use to provide homes for people. We are doing that with some great success in some areas through the repair and lease scheme and the purchase and renew scheme, which are schemes that could be scaled up. We have ambition for them and money is behind them, but for whatever reason they are not really reaching the big numbers yet. The schemes will improve when they are tweaked, however, and there has been much interest in the past year with approximately 1,000 applicants for the repair and lease scheme.
These schemes have great potential but they need to be worked on, which is the job of the vacant homes officer in each local authority. We are working on this. It is right for every community to deal with vacancies. It is right from a neighbour's point of view with regard utilising the stock and it will give us new homes. Members should not think it is easy to grab them and use them and away we go. It just does not work that way. It is like everything to do with housing. We have to think it through, put a plan in place to make it happen, fund it and then deliver it. It is not just writing about it. We have to go through the procedure. This is what the action plan for housing is about. That is what we are here to debate. It is a well thought out plan, which is structured and funded. I can confidently say it is a delivering plan. It might not answer everybody's problem but it is delivering on its targets are and on what it is trying to achieve. We will do more with it, which is what we are trying to do here.
I am conscious we are running out of time. No doubt there will be questions on the rental sector and I can discuss it afterwards. Another rental Bill is due in the House in the coming weeks that will deal with some of the concerns. We are conscious we must have a functioning rental sector and this is a big part of Rebuilding Ireland. It is an area in which we are constantly trying to intervene and manage. I must stress that we have to be careful when it comes to the rental market. We want to attract investment and encourage people to spend money on delivering housing for the rental sector because the taxpayer cannot do it all. With the best will in the world, it is just not possible in the real world. We must encourage investment. It is about getting the balance right between the rules and regulations, encouraging investment and giving protection, security and a top-class service to tenants. The Bill that is coming through is complex. It is with the Office of the Attorney General and it will be in the Houses very soon for debate. It will deal with anyone who tries to breach the rent caps; strengthen the powers of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB; further tighten the operation of any exemptions; enhance the rental data from RTB registrations to provide more transparency on rents being paid; double the lowest period for renters where notice to quit is served after six months; and seek to extend rent caps to student accommodation.
Student accommodation is another area we are targeting. There will always be debate on the cost of purpose-built student accommodation but its supply has greatly increased since we started Rebuilding Ireland. We set out a plan and we are working with the Department of Education and Skills to deal specifically with student accommodation. We recognised from the reports that there was a shortage of more than 20,000 student bed spaces in pressure areas such as Dublin. This meant students could not always have the accommodation they needed. Very often, family homes needed for families in emergency accommodation were being used by students. It was a clear target area. Thankfully, over the past year to 18 months, we have seen new purpose-built student beds with more than 7,500 delivered. Approximately 4,000 are being delivered on site and another 6,000 have come through the planning system. There is a lot of action in this area. We are building on this to do more because it is an important area to get right with regard to student accommodation and with regard to utilising existing housing stock built for families that should be used for the families who need it. Purpose-built student accommodation is more suitable for students.
I thank the Minister of State. Our housing crisis is escalating but we are here to make statements on Rebuilding Ireland. Before there is a stone cast and the usual arguments of who was running the country are thrown, let me draw a line. Do we condemn the son for the sins of the father, imprison the daughter for the mistakes of the mother or cast out the family for the actions of one brother or sister? We do not, so let us start from where we are and not where we began. Let us make this change now for the future.
Fine Gael has been in government for seven years and still it speaks about the decade it inherited. It is almost a decade later and although we hear how great the Government is, let us look at some of the promises. We need delivery on many promises, value for money, help where help is sought and action on the ground for people to see real change. I welcome movements announced in the budget on building houses but I would have preferred the houses promised by the Minister of State a long time ago. He has been in my area a few times where we have we relaunched houses twice or three times.
We delivered houses once with people in them.
We have been relaunching them.
As a nation we must do all we can to ensure a sufficient supply of homes accessible to all of us. We hear of the homeless and the homeowner but we cannot forget those in between, the low and middle income householders who do not qualify for social housing but who are priced out of the private market. These are the hidden numbers. We are surrounded in the housing crisis, with homelessness to the north, a lack of supply to the south, unaffordability to the east and social housing to west. We are at war with a housing crisis and Fine Gael's strategy will not win it.
Fianna Fail focused on practical steps to support home ownership in budget 2019. The overall capital budget for housing increased from €1.065 billion in 2018 to €1.34 billion in 2019, a 25% increase. This includes social housing and homeless capital funding. Since Fianna Fáil entered the confidence and supply agreement, we have forced the housing capital budget to increase from €430 million in budget 2016 to €1.34 billion today, which is a €900 million increase. Only €20 million was allocated to an affordable housing scheme in 2018 with no units delivered or regulations even signed off on. Fianna Fáil has established a revamped scheme worth more than €100 million per annum over the next three years. This will deliver approximately 7,500 units at an average price of €200,000 for ordinary income workers because right now they cannot afford a home of their own.
Local authority delays in procurement and the four-step approval process for social housing is crippling delivery. We tripled the discretion of local authorities to build homes without going through administrative hoops. Local authorities can now build to a cost of €6 million or 30 homes through a fast-track process. This is an issue I have raised on numerous occasions in the cross-party housing committee where we all work hard together to find solutions and to sort out these issues. Housing cannot become an issue on which we all blame each other.
Since coming to power, Fine Gael has launched Construction 2020, Social Housing Strategy 2020, Rebuilding Ireland 2016 and capital plans in 2012, 2015 and 2018. These six separate plans exclude the numerous relaunches involved. That is more launches than local authority homes built in several counties so far this year. Together let us find a way to get these houses built without talking about it so people can turn the keys in the door and call a house a home.
The most recent figures show a record total of 9,681 people homeless in Ireland. There are more than 85,000 people on the social housing waiting list with a further 37,000 on HAP leaving the number at 122,000 compared to 50,000 in 2005. There are countless more who do not make the statistics because they are living with family, stuck with nowhere to go despite working long days and trying to get by. We need to build more houses and increase the supply to stabilise rising rents and get people off lists and into homes. When we build these houses we need to focus these new units on wraparound services so that we do not lose people later.
I welcome what the Minister of State said. The housing committee meets regularly and we know the greatest issue is the lack of supply. In my area, organisations such as Clúid, Respond and Tinteán seem to play a major role in building and working with the local authority but the Department and the Government are not building. There is no question the Government is not building as much as it should. I can give the Minister of State examples, which I have outlined to him many times.
Mortgages are provided for under Rebuilding Ireland but applicants have to come up with 10% of the house price. The Minister of State said more than 1,000 cases have been assessed but how many people have received their money? I can give the Minister of State ten such cases. I have definitely applied for 50 and I am six months waiting. I compliment him because he is dedicated to working on trying to get this issue sorted because we have a crisis and there is no point in saying otherwise but there are issues about which he did not speak
We have our five pillars, about which we speak every week at housing committee meetings. I want to raise an issue that should have been dealt with two months ago. People do not qualify for local authority housing lists. This has not changed. We have people on the list and we have people falling through the net who do not qualify for the HAP or to get on the local authority housing list.
In my neighbouring county, 32,000 are eligible to go on the local authority housing list. In my area, the number is 27,500. It is so unfair that we are not getting an increase. I ask the Minister of State to consider the caps for all local authorities because rents have increased so much, as he can see.
The other issue the Minister of State did not consider or mention is rent pressure zones, RPZs, which I am always raising. It is so unfair that there are RPZs in certain areas when other areas just do not qualify. I said to the Minister that we need to consider the zones throughout the 31 local authority areas because the system is unfair on the local authorities that do not qualify. What is the position on staffing for local authorities? This is important.
Overall, we all have massive hurdles to cross. As a member of the housing committee, I acknowledge how hard the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, work. We have many mountains to climb, however, and need to build many more houses. We are working with the private housing agencies, including Clúid and Respond, but we need to build. That is the only way.
The Minister of State referred to HAP. I have significant reservations about it and how it is working because it is not working to its potential. We need to examine this. I thank the Minister of State.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute on this issue. It is important to recognise that housing and homelessness are more than just issues of bricks and mortar or of the millions or billions of euro that are, or are not, being invested to address the problem. At its heart, this is fundamentally an issue of human dignity. The dignity of every human being, including Irish citizens, demands that they be afforded an opportunity to have a roof over their heads and the heads of their families. This, in turn, allows them to build a stable family life for themselves and their children. They can build a better future for themselves, which, in turn, means a better future for our society.
Central to this notion of dignity, however, is the view that the State should be - to use a rather hackneyed phrase - helping people to help themselves. While the State has a duty to assist people to find housing in the first instance, it is important at all times to remember that, in most cases, that is where the State's involvement should end. From that point onwards, people should be expected to pay fair rents for a dwelling suited to their needs, to the greatest extent possible. That is why it is important that people in social housing pay fair rents and have a sense of pride in, and ownership of, their dwelling. While it is easy to criticise the Government on this issue, and rightly so in many cases, it is also easy to buy into much of the populist rhetoric that surrounds it. It is vital that, in our efforts to solve this problem, we do not foster any kind of dependency on the State among those who receive State assistance in respect of housing. It is important to mention, however, that many homeless people have greater problems, including issues with mental or physical health, addiction or family breakdown, for example, and they need and deserve more sustained intervention from the State.
The Government is coming in for a lot of criticism in its response to these issues but it sometimes gets something of a bad rap. We seem to forget that, in 2011, when Fine Gael arrived in office, one of the main problems was the considerable oversupply of housing and the issue of so-called ghost estates. No one could have imagined then that within five years there would be a major supply shortage in the market. That said, there is understandable frustration over the questions of why progress in dealing with the current housing problem is so slow and what exactly the problem is that is preventing us from making sufficient progress on it.
Let me focus on a couple of issues. The problem cannot be pinned solely on the fact that we had an economic crash. I understand the level of homelessness, in terms of both rough sleeping and the numbers on waiting lists, is roughly similar to that in 2000, when there was sustained economic growth. Clearly, therefore, there are other cyclical or systemic problems at play.
One issue that has stubbornly persisted during both boom and bust has been the number of vacant dwellings. According to the 2016 census, there were 245,000 vacant dwellings in the State that year. That amounts to approximately 12% of the total. Although some of these were holiday homes and derelict, 183,000 were habitable dwellings. At first glance, this figure seems extraordinarily high but it represents a 15% reduction on the number in the 2011 census. Many of the vacant properties are located in western counties, where perhaps the demand for housing is not as acute, but the census still showed a large number of vacant properties in Dublin. There are 33 empty houses per 1,000 people, which seems extraordinary given the rental climate in Dublin.
I am glad the Government is addressing this issue as part of the Rebuilding Ireland plan through the national vacant housing reuse strategy. Particularly important is that strategy's objective of minimising vacancy in our social housing stock, which is estimated to be 3.5% of the total. That amounts to approximately 4,000 units empty at any one time, which seems excessive even when one considers a property being vacant due to turnover, replacement of tenants, etc. By cutting this problem in half alone, we would and could put a significant hole in our homelessness problem.
Separately, I understand that the Government believes that up to one third of these vacant properties are owned by elderly people who have gone into care as part of the fair deal scheme. Some economists have been vocal that the scheme encourages people to leave properties vacant since they say there is little or no incentive for the houses to be sold or rented by those in the scheme or their next of kin. I agree this is an issue that could be considered but this is an area of particular sensitivity in respect of which we need to be careful. Often when we discuss this issue, it is raised in an almost pejorative way. An impression is given of elderly people living in large homes, somehow squatting at the expense of younger people and their families. This is unfair. It is vital, therefore, that measures taken in regard to a vacancy arising from the fair deal scheme, or incentives for people to trade down into smaller houses more suited to their needs, must be strictly focused and based on respect for those involved and their particular needs. Once again, it is important that human dignity be at the core of how we deal with this issue. This must apply as much to the elderly as to first-time buyers and young families who are homeless.
Much work has been done to improve and renovate derelict accommodation in recent years but many derelict properties remain. I read an interesting piece in The Irish Times a couple of months ago that mentioned a scheme in Liverpool under which derelict homes were sold at low prices to first-time buyers, often clustered in small urban areas. They then took ownership of renovation, etc. This had a positive impact in improving the area. It seems like a left-field idea but I wonder whether it could be operated here, or whether anything like it is happening.
Those are just some general thoughts on the issue. On the whole, the Government deserves some credit for trying to deal with what seems to have become an intractable problem. I certainly do not buy into the populist criticism of everything the Minister of State tries to do. I agree with others, however, that the time for excuses is running short. We need a substantial improvement in the coming months.
I acknowledge the comments of the previous speaker, who was objective and fair in acknowledging the current state of the housing market and the challenges that remain. In doing so, I acknowledge the commitment of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, the Minister of State, Deputy English, and the officials in the Department, all of whom are committed to delivering sustainable housing solutions across society while working with the various partners and agencies in doing so. We must recognise that.
While I listened carefully to Senator Murnane O'Connor, I will not get into a blame game or a tit-for-tat discussion. We must always remember, however, the context and reason we ended up where we are today. If we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, the solutions we bring forward will not be sustainable. The policies of the past brought about the boom–bust cycles. That is something that Fianna Fáil will not be allowed to forget. It will not be allowed to wash its hands of it because we must learn from the mistakes. That is being fair. I am only engaging in constructive criticism. We were left with a dysfunctional housing market, a broken housing supply, builders gone bust, no access to credit for builders to start building again, and a skills shortage because people emigrated owing to the bust. If we do not acknowledge that, we will certainly go down the wrong road again and repeat the mistakes.
What should we do differently this time? This time we have plans, which I acknowledge. I heard the criticism of the plans but without a strategic plan, we will not make the solid, consistent progress that is now being made despite that criticism. I have no issue with the Opposition criticism as long as it is constructive and we are all objective and fair in expressing our views. I acknowledge the determination of the Ministers in setting out the plan Rebuilding Ireland, securing substantial funding to put behind that plan, and working diligently with all the stakeholders to deliver on it. That is the only show in town.
If we can all work towards that, we can deliver more quickly and resolve the frustration regarding homelessness and the lack of access to sustainable affordable housing. This is something of which we, as former local authority members, have experience.
As a former Minister of State with responsibility for housing, I saw it first hand with my former Government colleague, Deputy Kelly. When we first entered the Department, there was no funding. The Minister of State alluded to this earlier. I am not blaming anybody for that; it was the reality. Local authorities did not have funding. We had to rebuild the infrastructure, staffing and resources of local authorities. Unfortunately, that took time. They are now back up and running, however, and we are beginning to see the gears click into action as funding trickles down. That is showing in the delivery of housing units, whether social or private, throughout the country. I agree that there is never enough housing but we certainly have to stick to the plan in order to achieve progress. I welcome that the Minister of State has made provision in the plan for measuring, monitoring and evaluating progress. This is critical if we are to achieve our target of 10,000 social housing solutions in 2019, a substantial increase on the number completed when there was no funding available.
I commend the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and the various spokespersons on identifying solutions and bringing them forward. It is important to do that. Nobody has a monopoly on solutions. The Minister recognises that as well. He has operated an open-door policy in terms of encouraging anyone with solutions to bring them forward. Those solutions will be analysed and if they are sustainable, they will be brought forward and supported. It is all about delivery now.
I worked in the construction sector for 20 years. I was on the front line in planning ESB networks. We were monitoring where new housing developments were happening. It takes times to deliver housing of scale. Planning and design need to happen and infrastructure and services have to be put in place. What we do not see, namely, underground drainage and water supply works, costs money and must also be put in place. That is what this Government is doing in pressure zones throughout the country. Then we have to build the developments. There are still pressures in the building sector whereby there is a shortage of apprentices. I welcome the additional funding in the budget for the education programme for enhanced apprenticeship schemes in order that young people leaving school or college will be confident of a viable and sustainable future in the construction sector, a matter to which the Minister of State referred. As a former apprentice, I have always believed that. If we are honest about it, when the bust happened, parents were frightened to allow their children to go into engineering, architecture, quantity surveying or anything of that nature. That was a big mistake because there are now skills deficits in all of those areas. We must learn from those mistakes. We must show that we have a sustainable construction sector in order that young people can enter that sphere of professional expertise confident that they will have careers at the end of their training.
To mention the partners, it is important that we engage consistently with local authorities, voluntary housing bodies, NGOs, builders, developers and communities. I was frustrated lately to see opposition to an ambitious housing project in Dublin at local authority level. We either want sustainable housing in our communities or we do not. Looking for vexatious or facetious reasons for opposing these developments is wrong. Some political parties are doing it for populist reasons. I do not know why. If we are serious about delivering housing, we need to get behind these projects and support them and get them built as soon as possible.
I acknowledge the progress that was made with unfinished estates. The Minister of State finished off some work I did previously in that area. We had over 3,000 unfinished estates around the country. People were calling them ghost estates. All of them have now been brought down to single figures. They were resolved and people were moved into those estates. A great deal of progress was made in that regard.
The HAP scheme receives a lot of criticism. If HAP were suddenly removed, how many more people would be homeless? The answer is thousands. As a result of the shortages of both skills and builders and in the absence of HAP, we would not be able to deliver the number of social housing solutions required. This is just one solution but it can deliver quickly for families that need homes. The latter are supported by the State and rightly so. They still have a long-term housing need and they remain on the housing list. HAP is an interim solution that must be supported. I encourage it while we get the building programmes up and running.
The Minister of State should stick to the plan. It is working. The commencements, planning applications and builds are showing strong progress. We will get there. I urge all stakeholders, including policymakers - I have no difficulty with objective criticism - to support the positive progress that is being made. In budget 2019, increased funding represented an increase of over €470 million or 26% on the 2018 figure. That is real commitment in terms of funding. We now need to see the delivery in terms of the projects and I want to work with the Minister of State to support him in doing that.
I will build on what Senator Mullen said about the Minister of State's comments on vacant housing. When I was mayor of South Dublin County Council, we had the fastest turnaround and the lowest numbers of vacant units in the State. It is estimated that, excluding holiday homes, there are 180,000 vacant units in the State. Perhaps that figure is contested by some but even 10% of it would be greater than the number of new builds that will come on stream next year. These are vacant homes that are well serviced, do not need new schools and have water. There is EU funding for energy upgrades and the turnaround would be a fraction of the cost of a new build. Why else would we do it? It has all of the benefits of urban regeneration and it is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. Dublin City Council figures from two years ago indicate that there are 4,000 vacant units between the city's two canals that could be used to accommodate 10,000 people. I urge the Minister of State to consider vacancy as a top priority.
There is good reason that last week's budget was dubbed a landlord's budget, with only a 6.5% increase in the capital budget for the Minister of State's Department. A much hoped for housing budget that would have provided for renters and first-time buyers failed to materialise. The total extra capital above existing Rebuilding Ireland commitments was only €80 million. This is despite the Dáil passing a cross-party motion the previous week calling for an extra €1 billion in capital expenditure for housing. Despite the motion having the support of Fianna Fáil, its influence on budget 2019 certainly did not pivot in providing this much required additional investment.
Creating a rainy day fund while 10,000 people, 4,000 of whom are children, are homeless, is a questionable exercise. It is not economically prudent to do so when the economy is failing to provide housing for so many. What is considered a rainy day? Budget 2019 could have been a game-changer for housing. Of the €1.5 billion of new budget measures set out by the Minister for Finance , Deputy Donohoe, that week, just 5% is directed towards delivering social and affordable homes by the Government, which hardly suggests that housing is a priority for the Government. This is highlighted by the figures. The total spend on private rental subsidies is €781.5 million while the total spend on local authority housing is €747 million, which is €34.5 million less. The net result of this will be a tiny increase in the number of social homes provided. The revised 2019 target is now 7,900 homes, up by 490 on the Rebuilding Ireland target, to be built and bought by local authorities.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, claimed in his post-budget press conference that he will deliver 10,000 council homes next year.
This seems to be at odds with what is clearly stated on page 114 of the budget expenditure report to the effect that social housing stock will increase by 7,900. Perhaps the Minister of State could clarify the position.
Next year, 19,430 so-called social housing solutions will be delivered by means of subsidised private rental tenancies. The vast majority of those will be expensive, short-term HAP leases. A reliance on HAP for social housing options is not prudent for social tenants or the taxpayer. The alternative is that we move towards a space where our public housing stock is much larger so that when the boom-and-bust cycle changes again, 30% of the system will be insulated from the bust.
While Fianna Fáil lauded its achievements in ensuring the inclusion of an affordable housing scheme in budget 2019, it must be realised that such a scheme, with funding of €75 million, was announced in the previous budget. That €75 million has yet to be spent, despite bids submitted by local authorities. Can we assume that the figure of €89 million outlined by the Minister for Finance last week includes the €75 million from the previous budget that was not spent? If the answer is "Yes", then the increase in the context of delivering affordable housing only amounts to €14 million.
I am particularly disappointed by the lack of any measures that would directly protect tenants and their rights. Proposals to introduce a rent freeze designed to provide relief for renters or a punitive vacant site levy were ignored and no strength was added to the rent pressure zones. Separate from the budget, there is still an absence of regulation in respect of short-term lettings, including in the context of Airbnb, despite the Minister giving a commitment to the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government to publish regulations in this regard three weeks ago. An update in this regard would be welcome. There have also been commitments to bring purpose-built student accommodation within the rent pressure zones and to introduce legislation to ban the advertisement of overcrowded and unsafe properties. Those commitments have not been fulfilled. I would be very grateful if the snail's pace at which some of these measures are proceeding could be addressed by the Minister of State.
I welcome the Minister of State. I agree with him on a few issues. He is quite correct that there is no silver bullet or quick fix. Our response must be planned and there needs to be attention to detail. I ask him to have a close look at one site in Sandymount and Ringsend. The site in question comprises 85 acres and could accommodate 3,500 units for 8,000 residents. However, there have been numerous delays to the proposed project. It is worth going through the dates relating to this matter because, as Senator Coffey stated, everybody wants houses but not in their back gardens. When the original proposal relating to the site was put forward, the residents of Ringsend and Sandymount stated that there had to be a proper mix on the site of social and affordable housing and affordable rental. They worked with the previous Minister on that. Residents met the latter on a number of occasions, including at the site, from March 2017. They tried to work in partnership in order that the project might proceed. They worked with councillors in the area, with me and with Deputies and developed a proposal for social and affordable housing on the site.
In May 2017, we had gone through the public consultation process and council meetings were taking place. The proposal was to increase the 10%, which was 350 units, up to 900 units. A commercial agreement was entered into at a particular council meeting at which I was in attendance. Phone calls were exchanged between officials in the Department and their counterparts in Dublin City Council. A deal was brokered with the councillors regarding the strategic development zone, SDZ, for Poolbeg West. Under the terms of the deal, there would, as part of a commercial agreement, be 350 social housing units and 550 social and affordable units. That was signed off on. The previous Minister spoke in the Dáil about how well this process worked and cited it as an example of how we could increase delivery outside Part V and use it as a template to deliver additional social and affordable housing units not only in this city but across the country. Attention to detail then went out the window. There was no engagement with the receiver regarding the 550 units and little or no contact. The receiver then stated publicly that he had no option but to appeal the SDZ because no agreement was reached in respect of the 550 additional units. All I can say is "Shame". It is shameful that the eye was taken off the ball. Delivery must be the gospel in the context of this matter. We all need to work together to ensure that we deliver what has been promised. What was promised consisted of 3,500 units, of which 350 would be social housing units and 550 social and affordable housing units. Unfortunately, however, the Department and Dublin City Council took their eye off the ball and the matter ended up before An Bord Pleanála. Lo and behold, on the day before An Bord Pleanála was due to sit, negotiations suddenly resumed. During that process, we were guaranteed that there would be attention to detail, that negotiations would take place and that a commercial agreement for the additional 550 units would be signed. This has not happened. There has been no word regarding the 550 units. All I can say to the Minister of State is "Shame".
In August of this year, An Bord Pleanála announced that it could not make a decision because of a backlog and lack of resources. That is attention to detail - ensuring that An Bord Pleanála has the proper resources and that there is no backlog. Only 35% of decisions determined by An Bord Pleanála are now done in the timeframe set out under legislation. All I can say about this is "Shame". At the beginning of September, we discovered that the detail relating to the application involving the SDZ was not properly covered by the city council. An Bord Pleanála said that insufficient detail was forthcoming with regard to design, parking, green spaces and community facilities. Was this because of lack of resources in Dublin City Council or the lack of attention to detail? All I can say to the Minister of State is "Shame". We must wait for the city council to send the application back to An Bord Pleanála by January 2019. This may mean that the oral hearing must be reopened resulting in further delay on top of more delay. All I can say in that regard is "Shame".
I want to see housing being delivered but that is just not happening. The broad brush strokes can be done but when we look at such an important site 25 minutes from O'Connell Street with the possibility of building 3,500 units, which would be enough accommodation for 8,000 residents, we can see that the eye was taken off the ball with a lack of attention to detail and delay after delay. I will give credit where credit is due. The previous Minister engaged fully at the early stages but once it passed the city council in May 2017, attention to detail disappeared, including with regard to the application to An Bord Pleanála, and there were no negotiations regarding social and affordable housing or with the receiver in any true sense. This is not a case where the community said "Not in my back garden".
The community was quite prepared to have that quantity of development, as long as it was a fair deal for the city, was sustainable and provided housing for the local community, which would have meant local children had the opportunity to live in affordable accommodation. However, attention to detail went out the window and that was a shame. We have seen such a lack of detail over and over again on numerous sites and the Minister of State has to take responsibility, as does the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, Owen Keegan and officials in the Department. They were all on the phone in May 2017 to make sure a deal was brokered but then we needed the attention to detail.
The Minister of State has failed this city and this country in the lack of attention to detail that was shown. We will not now see the 3,500 units delivered on time, nor sustainable development nor homes for local people. The Minister can give the big speeches and talk about big sums of money but he failed to pay attention to the details that would have ensured the delivery of 3,500 units and I say "Shame".
Being the last speaker, I assume the Acting Chairman will allow me some leeway. I know the Minister of State is very passionate about this and has a great understanding of it. Another County Meath man could well be partially responsible for the problem we have at the moment. He introduced Part V in 2000 and, as a result, local authorities opted out of building houses, leaving it up to the big developers while getting 10%, 15% or 20% themselves. When it collapsed in 2007 or 2008, there was no one left to build houses. By that stage, the local authorities had let go of a lot of staff, who went over to the commercial side, as a result of which we are in the situation we are in now.
Every one of us knew there was a need for 25,000 houses per annum to be built but we were building between 60,000 and 70,000 in 2006 and 2007, many in the wrong places as a result of section 23, such as along the banks of the Shannon, over in Leitrim, in Longford or in Roscommon. It was difficult to get people to move over there and many of those houses are still vacant. Perhaps some form of a scheme might encourage people to go over there, with some employment assistance. Could this be looked at?
Fine Gael came into government in 2011. We had a bust economy and it took us until 2014 or 2015 to get funds to start putting together a plan to house people in this country. My colleague from the Labour Party was part of that Government and knew the story of those days. It was not easy when people came into our offices looking for houses. There was the RAS scheme, which was dysfunctional. In Naas, which is my area, it could not cater for people because rents were going up. The Minister has put in place a plan and people have to stand over the actions contained in it. The Minister of State said he was with the Minister responsible at the time, the current Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, when the inaugural Action Plan for Jobs started. He was also Chairman of the committee at the time and we all saw the changes that came in as a result of that. There is now a plan and actions are being taken by people who are accountable and responsible.
We have a lot of rent pressure zones and I believe the 4% which is allowable for landlords on an annual basis is a bit high. The consumer price index is 0.9% at the moment and this includes rents so it could lead to inflation. Perhaps the Minister could reduce the allowable 4% increase to 2%, which would be slightly above the consumer price index. There were provisions in the budget for landlords to deduct improvements they want to make to their houses against tax. One house in my own village took seven months to get back into use. It was a perfectly good house when the tenant left it but it took seven months. Perhaps we could enact legislation to force local authorities to do these things within one month. In the commercial world, a landlord would bring it back into use within one month so why can local authorities not do it? The legislation, or regulations, might require a solid reason for a house not being put back into use within one month.
I am very excited about the LDA because I think it is the future and it is the strong point of our long-term housing policy. It will ensure houses are built, irrespective of whether we are in recession or a boom. It takes two years between the concept of building a house and when it is actually built. I would like the Minister to do something to reduce the time between a local authority acquiring a parcel of land and when it gets finance for it from the Housing Finance Agency, which funds a lot of local authority building. The delay is putting local authorities under a lot of pressure when bringing forward development.
Can the Minister of State pass on the regulations relating to legislation from 2009? He mentioned them in his statement. One of the blockages is the Minister's Department, in the form of the people involved in the spatial strategy or the regional planning guidelines. I will be parochial for a moment. In Naas, we have spent €283 million to upgrade the N7, put in a sewage treatment plant and build new schools but the Department is proposing to downgrade Naas from a regional growth centre to just a key growth centre, as a result of which we are downgrading the population projection for Naas from 50,000 to just below 30,000. We have 25,000 people in Naas at the moment and we have planning permissions and commencement notices for around 2,500 houses in the area. We will have stopped investing in infrastructure and we are now stopping developing.
I have been very generous, Senator.
The Acting Chairman was not so generous to me.
I just have one or two little points to make. On the construction side, one thing which worries me about local authorities, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Education and Skills is the fact that they give contracts to the tenders which have the lowest price. The lowest tender sometimes goes into receivership because they set their price so low they cannot make a profit. We should make sure what we are looking for is built and that the man who builds it survives.
Overall, the Rebuilding Ireland plan is very progressive and is what is needed.
How long do I have? Half an hour?
Five minutes but the Minister of State may take a few minutes extra.
I will try to do that and come back with updates on various projects. I will get a specific update for Senator Humphreys. I am aware that we are all frustrated with the timelines but the Senator will be aware that this is a major project, on which the Department has been proactive from the start in trying to make it happen, along with Dublin City Council and other players. There is a deal to be reached with receivers. It is not always straightforward, and it is complicated from our side as well. It has, however, gone on much longer than anyone would have liked. We will work on that and I will get the Senator a note on that. We can still claw back some of the time and deliver that housing project, but it is not straightforward. The Senator knows this also because he is very much involved in that area. I will get back to him on that.
Reference was made to awarding social housing contracts. We recognise that awarding just on price - which has probably happened in some cases in the past - does not always get the best result. We are trying to change that system. We are looking at trying to award contracts based on the awards programme as well as considering speed of delivery and quality. Price is not the only aspect but the weighting was probably skewed towards pricing over recent years and certainly when budgets were tight. It followed the national procurement policy. The Department is working on a new model that recognises an awards programme and delivery, a process which is common in other contracts. That will deal with some of those issues.
The Senator has not mentioned a specific site but when contracts are awarded to various successful applicants, they go through a rigorous financial assessment. We do not just hand out projects easily. There is, however, often a time delay between the social housing project contract being awarded and the work starting and completion. Much can change in those years. We are looking at changing that system to try to give local authorities more ownership of the contracts so that they can speed everything up a little. We will all agree that social housing projects in the past have taken too long in some cases, and we had to tighten up at every end. We have changed the system to get on-site; much work has happened on the system that used to take two, three or four years to get on-site to start construction. We now have an agreed system, which we worked on with local authorities, the managing bodies and the Department, with everybody recognising that in some cases there was a lot of room for failure and delays. We have changed that system and we now have a target of 59 weeks, which is in line with the commercial sector or the private sector. When one looks out a window and sees a field that is to be built on, from the start with all the processes and procedures, it will take 59 weeks. It is not true that the Department is delaying this process by months. Even a private project can take 14 months. We set a target that is faster than that and which can be achieved. In most cases, we will achieve it. Officials in the Department are working specifically on that. It is not true to constantly say it is red tape or that the Department is causing the delays. The system is there now. Most housing officers, off the record, will tell the Senator that it is not the case that the Department is delaying them. There is also the option to go for single-stage approval process on projects under €2 million, which will be increased to €6 million, and we will see what that measure delivers. It will not be the major success that people think it might be because it is not just about our Department; it is about having the system right to deliver housing projects. The combination of our Department and the local authorities is the best way to do that, and we have full view of those projects. The changes are paying off and we will stick to them as well as we can.
I do not want to delay Senators for too long, but I will go through some of the questions that were asked. Senator Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of AHBs versus local authorities. The only way of clearing this up is to realise that local authorities are central to the delivery of housing. They want to be there and local authority members want to be there. Councillors keep saying that. Local authorities are central to this plan. It is wrong to say they are not back building houses. This year, they will deliver more than 4,000 direct build houses. They are running the system when it comes to leasing, construction or acquisition; they are doing it on the front line. I have stressed on many occasions that we could not do it without them. Rebuilding Ireland is our Department working with local authorities on the front line. The AHBs are a part of that, and this year will contribute more than 1,200 houses. They will deliver approximately one third of the overall target, but they are not the number one player - the local authorities are. Carlow has been successful when it comes to percentages and is one of the highest in the State in the delivery of houses. I ask that the Senator does not tell me that the Government is reannouncing and reannouncing. I have been down there to open many housing projects, which are physically in place. Unlike in the past when people would say "They are not real jobs", these are real houses-----
How many times have I said that?
-----and one can touch and see them. I ask that the Senator please not come to me and tell me there are no houses.
We are becoming the best of friends in Carlow.
The Minister of State without interruption.
I have been on sites all over the State, and there are real houses. The Senator should try to push one over and she will find out how real they are. This mantra that no houses are being built is not true. It is not fair to all those people who are involved in delivering houses, and who will this year deliver more than 8,000 social houses.
The Minister of State will tell us there is no housing crisis.
Senator Warfield referred to the 7,900 houses, which is the figure for this year. There will be more than 7,900 houses provided this year. The Senator might be referring to next year, when the figure will be 10,000. The full 10,000 houses to be delivered next year is a combination of direct build, acquisition and leasing. That will be 10,000 new houses in the system, not all of which will be direct build. The figure of 7,900 is the total that we hope to have delivered for 2018. This is again a combination of build, acquisition and leasing. To be clear, when we say leasing, it is long-term housing and is not like the HAP or RAS.
Many home loans have been approved but have not been drawn down. There is an ongoing review of that scheme also and we are making changes to that. Reference was made to income cap limits. Research on this was conducted on our behalf with the Housing Agency and we will have this on our desks soon. We can then make changes based on recommendations. It is an issue that is raised a lot, and we are on top of it.
Reference was made to the 10% deposit rules but, with respect to the Senator, in the past, people were encouraged to borrow more than they could afford. They then used those borrowings to pay too much for houses. It was not their fault as they were encouraged to do it. I will not say by whom, when or why because the Senator knows that. It was wrong. Too many people from my generation have been left with mortgages that will take them 40 years to pay back at a hell of lot of interest on a monthly basis. It was wrong. The Central Bank has rules to limit what people can borrow and rightly so. In some cases, this is helping to keep the prices of houses down and more realistic. We will also use the same rules with our loan scheme regarding deposit requirements. This is to make sure that people do not over borrow at levels they cannot sustain. What happened in the past was wrong-----
Rents have gone up by more than 6%-----
-----and it should not, and cannot, happen again.
The Minister of State without interruption please.
On RPZs, I have often had colleagues of different parties in the Houses looking for their areas to be zoned. It should not be an ambition to have one's town or county in an RPZ. Such as zone means that people are paying too much rent. People should not campaign to be in an RPZ. I often get criticisms from colleagues in my own town that the area is not in a zone. There is a science behind which areas become RPZs. It is not a political decision; I do not decide, and nobody else decides. There is a logical system applied for an area to become an RPZ, which justifies or explains when an area should become a zone. It then kicks in. That system is working well in some areas. In some cases, there has been evidence of the rent limits or other criteria being abused. This is why the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is committed to bringing legislation to the Houses in a few week's time to deal with that and to change that. It is a good thing to not be in an RPZ; it is not a bad thing. People need to get that into their heads because the RPZs are dealing with high rents.
Rent for most houses have gone up from €800 to €1,200-----
On the staffing issue, local authorities have been given 700 additional staff over the past 18 months to work in this system. They need more staff in many areas and we have asked them to put together their applications for staff that are mission specific to housing and housing delivery. This is being responded to when they need that staff. We recognise that housing teams had to be strengthened, and we are trying to do that. I hope this answers most of the Senators' questions on that matter.
Senator Lawlor spoke about the HFA and the time span. This should not be an issue. The local authority borrows money through the agency but that should not explain any delays. There should be no reason for delays. In the 59-week proposal, we factored in all the different stages and that stage is in the process for a week or two, but it should not be months of delays. In some situations there are requirements asked of a contractor by the HFA, such as insurance proof and so on. This might cause difficulty for some people, but, in general, the relationship where the local authority is looking for a loan approval from the agency should not be the reason housing projects are delayed. If it is given as a reason then it is an excuse, and if there are any cases or examples such as this, I would be happy if the Senator brought them forward. He wanted a copy of the regulations relating to the affordable housing scheme and I will get that to him as quickly as possible.
Senator Warfield is right about the issue of vacancy. We all want this issue tackled. The CSO has a figure of either 180,000 or 183,000. The GeoDirectory suggests 94,000. We have five local authorities doing a pilot scheme to produce our own street-by-street calculation. They are taking areas and going after this. In an area where the local authority would perhaps have been told there were nearly 7,000 vacant houses, it is down to a couple of hundred. So the figures are not true, but I do not dispute that the Senator is right when he says there are vacant houses. We have to get them back into use, but it is not a massive number. The Senator is also correct that there is a lot of potential there and we will go after those vacant properties in combination with other schemes. The local authorities have been told to very much get involved in this space. We are funding local authority officers in this regard and they all have plans. Every local authority has come back to us with a vacant house reuse strategy. We will work through those targeted plans to make it happen.
We got some quick wins there, they are probably not in the massive volumes that the Senator mentioned but we do need quick wins. It is absolutely correct that these houses are already serviced by infrastructure so they are also a cheap win in some cases. That is something that we want to concentrate on. However, I stress that the pushing out of those schemes and solutions must be done by us all, local authority members of all parties, Members here and in the other House, and we must make people aware of the opportunities out there.
If one studies the repair and lease back scheme it is very attractive and benefits everyone. It recognises that in some cases the people who own these properties do not have any money or income so that they cannot borrow. The repair and lease back scheme steps in with the funds needed to repair the house. It can work very well but people have to know about it.
I have said before to people involved in some of the campaigns around vacancy that they should get involved with helping us solve the problems and take the schemes on board and go out and match them to the vacant houses. Our local authority teams are doing that. They are going door to door to see who owns the house, wherever that person is. We have advertised our schemes abroad in Australia, America, Canada, everywhere, to say if people own a house back in Ireland to please contact us. We are doing all that. However, those who want to campaign could help if they genuinely wanted to. I am clear on that. Solutions are there but the difficulty is getting them connected to the people who own the properties. If people today are homeless or on a local authority list and in need of a house, if they can find a vacant property and they find who owns it and want to come into the local authority with a suggestion to use one of the schemes, they are very welcome to do so. I met the local authorities yesterday and I told them to ensure that they respond to that scenario, namely, if a person who has no home comes to them having identified a vacant property and who owns it and the person who owns it is willing to enter into our schemes. Then we can join the dots. There are solutions there.
I do not buy into the idea that it was a landlords' budget. We made one specific change for landlords to the effect that where someone pays interest on a mortgage for a house that is rented out then that may be used as an allowable expense. That is just normal in any functioning business. The Senator might not like that, and I accept that, but we also want to keep some landlords in the business because if they all leave and sell their houses, it would be hard to provide a rental house for people who actually want it. It is a supply issue. It recognises that not every landlord is mortgage-free or making a fortune off rent. Some are trying to pay down a mortgage and have costs too. We want to make the landlord situation more of a business atmosphere, with professional people rather than ad hoc arrangements. That means that there must be allowable expenses. I know that Sinn Féin does not like recognising the importance of business and rewarding business but sometimes one has to because that is also how one creates jobs. It is about balance. The Senator should not tell me that out of a €2.4 billion spend on housing, it is a landlords' budget. It is not. It is a social housing and affordable housing budget. I will debate that any day of the week because it is skewing facts to suggest otherwise.
As I said that the outset, and Senator Warfield was in and out of the Chamber, there is a reliance on HAP in the short term. We wish that we did not have to do that but it is recognition of the situation where there is not enough social housing stock. We both said that. We have plans to increase the social housing stock and so does Sinn Féin. If the Senator ever takes the time to compare Sinn Féin's own plans with ours, the Government's are more ambitious. If we do not undertake our plan, there will continue to be a reliance on the private sector but by increasing the social housing stock in the way we are we will get away from that. It recognises that in the short term we must use properties that belong to someone else and that means paying money for them. We cannot just take them off people. It is the case that the HAP scheme ensures that about 40,000 people are in a home today who would not be in a home without it. I do not know what Senator Warfield wants, he might prefer that, but I would prefer that they are in a home. We will work to ensure that the homes become more permanent and that is what we are doing in the delivery of houses.
I missed the question about student accommodation because someone was in my ear at the time. I think it related to bringing it in under the legislation when it comes to tenancies.
Yes it was.
The legislation is also committed to doing that. Much of the purpose-built student accommodation is under a licensing arrangement which is why it does not fit in under the current situation regarding rent pressure zones and so on. It is a legal issue which is currently being dealt with and it will be in the Bill which will come forward in the coming weeks. We will have a chance to debate that here but we all want to achieve the same thing. I know that a Bill was put before the Dáil but it did not deal with the legalities of it because it is a very complex area. We are determined to crack that. I did mention the major increase in supply of student accommodation which is great but we need more. Our plans are kicking in. There are over 7,000 new purpose-built student accommodation units which have been built and opened in the last year. Over 4,000 are under construction and another 7,000 have gone through planning and will start construction soon.
Senator Mullen referred to a scheme for vacant properties that he has seen in Liverpool which works quite well. We have a version here called the purchase and renew, which is for public housing. The local authority can buy a vacant or derelict house which needs a lot of work. We provide the budget for that and the authority can buy the house and spend money on it. There has been great success with that scheme. I have seen some lovely projects throughout the country, but not enough. I wish there were thousands. There are not but there could be.
We told the local authorities very clearly yesterday that it is a demand-led scheme, millions of euro are set aside for it and they should make it happen. Senator Mullen said that in the Liverpool scheme, a private person could get a grant to buy a vacant house and bring it back up. That is something that we can examine. There is a public version of it and it might make sense to have a private one that encourages it in an affordable scheme. Yesterday I was asked by the vacant housing officers to look at an affordable element of that also. It is a good suggestion and something that we will do. We always want to see these vacant houses being brought back into use as quickly as possible.
The issue of helping people help themselves was raised. The idea of social housing is to provide people with a home. They are charged rent for it. I do not like the perception that it is free home because they do pay rent. I accept that in some cases people could probably pay more rent for them. That is something that could be looked at. In some cases people are able to do it but others are not and they pay what they can, however they do pay rent. There is also a high cost in managing and maintaining these properties so the rent situation over time must be examined. However, the number one priority is to have the houses in the first place.
I have dealt with vacancy. The fair deal scheme was raised and the matter of people who want to trade down. It is important that if people of a certain age are in a house they do not need in that it is too big for their needs, there must be a solution for them in their community. All the research that we have analysed tell us that people would be happy to move house but not move community or place. The onus on all of us here is to designate land and to bring forward more housing solutions for elderly people or those who are ageing in their own communities and give them the choice to move into that and free-up their house for another family. There are a couple of schemes in that area. A symposium is planned, I think it is in three weeks, with my Department and the Department of Health on this very issue. We have a draft proposal and plans which will be discussed there and hopefully then we can bring forward new proposals. There are many good schemes out there now, including one in St. Michael's in Inchicore, a €50 million project, delivering housing for ageing people. We want to be able to use that scheme as a pilot and roll it out in many other places. By tracking every move we make on that site, we will be able to have plan in place that people can copy and roll out in every part of the country. We have to have housing for older people too and we are committed to doing that.
Am I getting to the point where I must finish?
No, the Minister of State is doing well. He always obliges Members of this House with comprehensive replies and we appreciate that.
We try to if we can. Senator Warfield had another question but I cannot find it.
It related to advertising of overcrowded accommodation. I know that it is already prohibited to let overcrowded units but I refer to them being advertised. One sees it on websites constantly.
That is something that we can look at in the legislation. We have been involved in some of the Union of Students in Ireland campaigns such as the Home for Study campaign. We have seen cases of properties that are not suitable to be advertised that were taken down. The last time I checked there were a couple of hundred rooms or properties to rent. There are other solutions for students there but the Senator is correct about overcrowding and we can look at that specifically in the legislation that it is not advertised.
On checks, if people are renting a property, be they a student or otherwise, if they believe that it is not in satisfactory condition there are regulations. The local authorities do respond when they are asked to check out properties. The difficulty is that a tenant must name the landlord before the inspectors respond. Under the changes being brought forward, the Residential Tenancies Board will be able to inspect a property or a tenancy agreement without being notified by the tenant so that the Senator or I could report it and the inspectors can come in and do the work and the tenant is not in the firing line. That will be helpful in securing the information because we hear stories but cannot back them up because we have not had the evidence handed to us. The legislation will provide that there is a better way to do that.
I have answered the questions of most of Members who are here, others have come and gone, but I will also write to Members specifically regarding their questions. I thoroughly believe, as does the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, that we have a good plan which is delivering on housing. I know that some people want more, we all do, but we do not want thousands of people homeless today. However, we must increase the supply of housing literally week by week. It is the only way we will ever get on top of this. That is what this plan does. Week by week it brings in new housing.
It is social housing. It is affordable or subsidised housing but it is also private sector housing because we do want to see that. In addition, it is right to say that this year over 20,000 houses will be built and next year over 25,000 will be built. That is a long way away from where we were three years ago when the number was fewer than 7,000 units. We are on the right track and the trends are all right. However, we are the first to admit that that number is not enough when thousands of people need a house so we have to keep going and pushing on. That is why, even though we had a lot of money secured for our multi-annual housing budgets, we keep pushing for more every year and that is why we got more this year. The increase in the housing budget was over €500 million. That is an extra €60 million or €70 million before Christmas and €470 million or €480 million thereafter as well. That is an increase in money. We recognise that even with all that we are doing, we still have to do more to catch up and we will keep doing that as quickly as we possibly can.
I am conscious that some Senators wanted me to discuss pyrite but I will not do it now as they are not here. I will forward a specific note on the matter.
I thank the Minister of State for his comments. It was me that asked the Leader of the House to invite the Minister here to discuss this matter. I must say that I appreciate the Minister of State coming in here and giving us a comprehensive report and comprehensively answering all of our queries. I respect him for doing so and thank him again.
We all echo the sentiments expressed by Senator Lawlor. The Minister of State has been very generous with his time, given comprehensive replies and agreed to write to Senators who had further queries, which is appreciated in this House. That concludes today's debate on Rebuilding Ireland.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.
Is that agreed? Agreed.