Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Motorised Transport Grant

This is the umpteenth time I have raised the issue of the motorised transport grant which was suspended in 2013 and due to be restored within a few months but which has not yet been replaced. There is an urgent need to assist families who are caring for loved ones at home, particularly in rural areas where public transport is not available.

A builder in my area was struck down with viral encephalitis in 1995. It has caused brain damage, epileptic seizures and aneurysms. His wife and family particularly his wife, have cared for him 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past 24 years. He wants to be cared for at home and his wife brings him to hospital appointments, stays at his bedside when he is admitted to hospital with serious illnesses and brings him out for a daily drive to a local café for a cup of tea, as therapy, as recommended by his consultants. Until 2013 when this scheme was suspended, she received a small grant of a few thousand euro to buy a second-hand car but this support was taken away in 2013. Now she is driving an old car which has broken down numerous times on motorways and elsewhere. There would be a public outcry if the man had suffered any serious setbacks on his way to a hospital appointment.

I have spoken to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, on this subject. The first time I raised this issue, I was in the Dáil and the present Taoiseach was the Minister for Health. There has been a big increase in funding for the health services. I appeal that some comfort be brought to this family and, I am sure, a small number of others. That would show the Government cares and appreciates money saved because if this man was not being cared for at home his care would have cost the State many thousands over the years. I am appealing for some human nature on this case.

I thank Senator O'Mahony for raising this matter, which I will be taking on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. I am pleased to provide an update to this House on progress on the health (transport support) Bill, since the closure of the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant schemes in 2013. Senators will be aware of the background to the closure of the schemes. In summary, the Government decided to close the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant schemes in February 2013, following reports of the Ombudsman in 2011 and 2012 which found that the schemes did not comply with the Equal Status Acts. A total of 300 people per annum were in receipt of the motorised transport grant when the Government closed the scheme. The Government has directed that the Health Service Executive, HSE, should continue to pay an equivalent monthly payment to the now 3,790 individuals who were in receipt of the mobility allowance, pending the establishment of a new transport support scheme.

In line with the Government decision of November 2013, the Department of Health has been working to develop legislative proposals for a new transport support scheme. The programme for a partnership Government acknowledges the ongoing drafting of primary legislation for a new transport support scheme to assist those with a disability to meet their mobility costs. A general scheme and heads of Bill were completed in draft form and have been subject to detailed legal examination, given the complex legal issues which arose in the operation of previous arrangements. The legislative proposals for the scheme sought to ensure that there is a firm statutory basis to the scheme's operation, there is transparency and equity in the eligibility criteria attaching to the scheme, that resources are targeted at those with the greatest needs and the scheme is capable of being costed and it is affordable on its introduction and on an ongoing basis.

In December 2016, this draft general scheme and heads of Bill were circulated to other Departments and were the subject of consultation between officials in the Departments of Health and Public Expenditure and Reform. The House will appreciate that it has been necessary to estimate both the numbers likely to qualify for payment and the likely overall cost of the proposals. In May 2018, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, brought a memorandum to Government on proposals for a new transport support payment scheme. Following consideration of the matter, it was decided to withdraw the memorandum from the Cabinet agenda at that time. The Ministers intend to revert to Government in due course with revised proposals. These proposals will reflect the discussions at Cabinet and further discussions between both Ministers on the best way to progress the transport scheme. It is important to note that the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concessions scheme operated by the Revenue Commissioners, remains in place. Specifically adapted vehicles driven by persons with a disability are also exempt from payment of tolls on national roads and toll bridges. Transport Infrastructure Ireland has responsibility for this scheme. Under the national disability inclusion strategy, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has responsibility for the continued development of accessibility and availability of public transport for people with disabilities.

I am very well aware of the circumstances but, without being personal, the sixth anniversary of the suspension of this scheme is coming up. It is not good enough. I am aware of the legal difficulties and all the rest but the legislative proposals the Minister of State mentioned sought to ensure that resources are targeted at those of the greatest need. There is no greater need and I would bet my life on this, than the case I have mentioned. I have come across others but I wanted to highlight this very difficult case.

What I read in the Minister of State's response is just kicking the can down the road again. This is not personal. It is an appeal. I know the Minister of State has a great personal sense of wanting to help people who are in real need. The example I have quoted this morning is of a person in real need who is driven to distraction. This person won the carer of the year award in Ireland some years ago. I do not mind what scheme it is but it would qualify under any scheme from the point of view of treating people with some equity. I appeal to the Minister of State to bring this to the Minister's door and to those of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and of the Taoiseach because I have been at all those doors too.

I acknowledge the importance of the point raised by Senator O'Mahony and the urgent need to reintroduce the scheme, particularly for people living in rural communities as he stated. I know many people who live in Dublin who have transport needs and are the lifeline for many with disabilities. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, have been in conversation on trying to resolve some of the issues.

I will, however, pass on the Senator's deep concerns and his compassion in dealing with people. There is a human cost when people look after people with disabilities and we should give them every possible support, both through home help and in respect of transport and other areas. Many people who live in rural areas and isolated communities have a great need because the local public transport system does not reach their doors. I will bring the Senator's concerns and frustration back to the Minister and the Minister of State and ask them to respond to him. I believe this is a human rights issue.

We need to accept that there are people who, on a daily basis, are caring for people with major disabilities in their homes. Without carers' help and support, many of the facilities in nursing homes, hospitals and other areas of community nursing would come under serious pressure. They are under pressure as it is, but the pressures would only be compounded. I will bring all the necessary and relevant issues raised back to both Ministers.

School Enrolments

For the sake of the Minister of State, I will set out a brief history of the matter I raise. When the greyhound track in Harold's Cross closed, Councillor Mary Freehill and I ran a campaign for the site to become an educational campus for primary and secondary schools. It was always our intention that local children would be able to attend the secondary school rather than have a system drawn up based on postal codes. Unfortunately, what we are starting to see is that local children from Dublin 8 and 12 will be excluded from the secondary school even though they will attend primary school and preschool with their neighbours and friends. On account of a mandatory line drawn on a road, they will be excluded from the secondary school.

In the case of children in Dublin 8, the alternative is an Educate Together school on Beach Road in Sandymount, which is approximately 5 km away. That may as well be 50 km given Dublin traffic. It is almost impossible to shift a child across the city against the natural flow of traffic. It is inhuman to put such pressure on parents and to forcibly break up long-term friendships that develop as children go through primary school by sending them in different directions.

An educational campus will be developed on the Harold's Cross site. Parents and children will be able to walk out their front doors and see this new campus but will be unable to send their children to its schools. That is entirely wrong. It was not the intention of Councillor Mary Freehill, Senator Ivana Bacik or I when we fought the campaign to get a school in the location. We now see parents whose children will go to secondary school in 2020 or 2025 in major distress. This issue affects substantial numbers of children. Up to 150 children leaving Educate Together schools will not have an opportunity to continue friendships and partnerships with children with whom they started in junior infants class. It is a disgrace.

I have been raising the matter in this House since 2017 and it needs to be addressed. It greatly affects the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Byrne, who was here just now. It is not a Dáil constituency issue. It is a human issue and we have to find a solution to it.

I call on the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy D'Arcy, to raise this matter with the Minister for Education and Skills. The Minister should sit down and talk because we need to find a solution now. The alternative for these parents is to send their children to fee-paying schools. There are no other schools in the area that provide co-educational multidenominational education at secondary level. In this day and age, we should not be trying to force parents to choose fee-paying schools. Parents will sacrifice everything they can for their children, but we should not ask them to make this particular sacrifice, especially when we are developing a 1,000 pupil campus in Harold's Cross. I appeal to the Minister of State to make the case strongly. We have to keep communities together. We have to give lifelong friendships that develop in schools a chance for the good of the children and the community. I am calling for this issue to be looked at closely.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It gives me the opportunity to set out to Seanad Éireann the position with regard to the new post-primary school to be established in 2020 to serve the Dublin 6, Clonskeagh and Dublin 6W school planning areas.

To plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data the Department of Education and Skills divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, which uses data from a range of sources to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. With this information, the Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary level. Where data indicate that additional provision is required, the delivery of such additional provision may be provided through one or a combination of the following measures: utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools; extending the capacity of a school or schools; or the provision of a new school or schools.

All new schools established since 2011 to meet demographic demand are required to prioritise pupil applications from within the designated school planning area that the school was established to serve. This does not preclude schools from enrolling pupils from outside the designated school planning area where they have sufficient places. Rather, it reflects the need to accommodate in the first instance the demographic for which the school was established. The Department's priority is ensuring all pupils have access to a school place although, unfortunately, this may not always result in a school place that is the first choice of a pupil.

As the Senator is aware, in April 2018 the Government announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools in the four years from 2019 to 2022, including a new 1,000 pupil post-primary school to be established in 2020 to serve the Dublin 6, Clonskeagh and Dublin 6W school planning areas as a regional solution. The announcement included a new 600 pupil post-primary school to be established in 2021 to serve the Dublin 2 and 4 school planning areas, which are adjacent to the Dublin 8 school planning area. In addition, the Senator is aware that in 2018 a new 1,000 pupil co-educational multidenominational school under the patronage of Educate Together was established to serve the Dublin 6 school planning area, along with the Dublin 2, 4, 6 and Clonskeagh school planning areas as a regional solution. These schools will further reduce pressure on schools in the adjacent school planning areas, including those in the Dublin 8 and 12 areas.

In addition to the new schools announced, a need for further school accommodation is addressed through either planned capacity increases in existing schools, additional accommodation or extensions to existing schools. Approximately 40% of school places are delivered by extending existing schools.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the position with regard to the new post-primary school to be established in 2020. I will put the matter more succinctly. While a school may be established on the basis of those demographics, there is nothing precluding someone from attending the school. That is the position nationally and it is the way it should be. Parents and pupils require choice. I am in agreement with Senator Humphreys that choice should not be excluded because of a line on a map that is imaginary. Perhaps it is not imaginary, but it has been drawn for a demographic reason.

I am very disappointed with the answer. For two years now, parliamentary questions have been asked about this matter and I have raised it in the House on many occasions, as has Senator Ivana Bacik. The system of postal codes is not the proper way to decide on demographics. It simply does not work in this case. The Minister of State referred to creating options for children in Dublin 8 and 12 and reducing demand. There is no option. There are private school options but if a person wants a particular type of education, for example, multidenominational and co-educational, then the only choices are private schools in those areas. That is not acceptable. It is not acceptable to break up lifelong friendships that children are developing in schools or to tell a child that he or she has to travel 5 km in heavily polluted traffic for over an hour to the Sandymount Educate Together school. Those are not real options.

What is very clear is that we are trying to get one size to fit all, but it does not work that way in Dublin. Some children who will be able to see the secondary school in Harold's Cross when they walk out their front door will be asked to travel for one hour to an alternative school. That is not an option.

We will not resolve this issue in a discussion in this House because I will get more angry by the minute and the Minister of State will not understand why this is such an emotional issue. I ask the Minister of State to request the Minister for Education and Skills to meet the Educate Together group in Harold's Cross and discuss this matter in a calm and rational manner. The facts stand up. There is a need for access to the second level school in Harold's Cross for students from Dublin 8 and 12 and the surrounding areas. Let us have a proper discussion. We had such a discussion when the Shellybanks Educate Together primary school was established. We were able to have such a discussion when we fought for an educational campus on the Harold's Cross greyhound site. Now is not the time to exclude children from a school that they can see practically from their front doors.

I reiterate my request to the Minister of State to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to meet the Educate Together group in Harold's Cross to see whether together they can resolve this matter in a practical manner that gives confidence to parents that there will be places in secondary schools for their children when they leave primary school. Parents make decisions now, not next week or next month. They have to make a decision on where they will send their child to school in September and how that child will progress through primary school and into secondary school. Parents are deciding that they want co-educational multidenominational schools and we have a responsibility, as legislators, to ensure that option is available to them.

I will ask the Minister to meet the group in question.

Army Barracks Closures

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, who is a good friend and colleague and no stranger to this Chamber. I understand he is taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, who is attending a number of funerals in Magheraroarty, County Donegal. I extend my sympathies to the families of the four young men who lost their lives. I know the area very well and I understand why the Minister is not present.

In 2011, the Government, in the face of major opposition both locally and nationally, decided to close Dún Uí Neill Army Barracks in Cavan town. There had been an Army barracks in Cavan since the 1700s. In 1990, soldiers moved from the oldest occupied barracks in the world to the most modern in Europe and the only purpose-built barracks in the history of the State. In 2012, the complex was purchased by the then County Cavan Vocational Education Committee, now known as the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board. Plans are in place to demolish part of the complex and construct a new building on the site to meet the needs of both Cavan Institute and the training service of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board. I take this opportunity to compliment everybody involved in the former vocational education committee and the current Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB. Since the foundation of the Cavan College of Further Education, as Cavan Institute was known then, spearheaded by the then chief executive officer, the late John J. McKay, and ably assisted by the then chairmen, the late Andy O'Brien, and Councillor Clifford Kelly, the institute has been a huge success. It has grown to have 1,200 full-time students and more than 500 students attending adult education classes. It is a major success.

With Brexit and the significant uncertainty we are facing, it is clearly necessary to make preparations for the United Kingdom crashing out of Europe without a deal. It is also important that we secure our State and to do so, it is my firm belief that we need to reopen the barracks. Today, we hear from various Ministers in the British Government that they may need an extension to Brexit. This uncertainty will continue for many years to come. Unfortunately, it will have negative consequences for our economy and the security of the State. I am aware that officials from the Department of Defence have been in County Cavan and is looking at accommodation in the event of a hard Brexit. I believed it visited warehouses in Cavan town and Ballyconnell. It is ludicrous, when we have a modern purpose-built Army barracks in Cavan town earmarked for demolition, that officials should be trying to secure accommodation for the Defence Forces in warehouses. This is not good enough.

I ask the Minister of State to request that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, give a commitment that the former barracks will not be interfered with until we have at least been given an indication as to what will be the outcome of Brexit. This would not hold up the plans of Cavan and Monaghan ETB. There are plenty of greenfield sites around the town that could be investigated and considered. It makes absolutely no sense to knock down a purpose-built Army barracks and then try to secure alternative accommodation that will cost hundred of thousands of euro.

I thank Senator Wilson for providing an opportunity to clarify the current position in respect of the former Dún Uí Neill Army barracks in Cavan town.

In March 2012, Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB, acquired the former Dún Uí Neill Army barracks with a view to refurbishment and adaptations of the site and buildings which would provide an opportunity for the CMETB to centralise their further education and training service provision and create opportunities for expansion. The barracks site was also earmarked as a permanent home for Cavan College of Further Education, a dedicated co-educational post-leaving certificate, PLC, college operating under the aegis of CMETB. The development of the Dún Uí Neill site will give CMETB an opportunity to centralise PLC and further education provision and eliminate the need for various rented temporary accommodation around Cavan town.

As the Senator is aware, a building project for Cavan College of Further Education is included in the Department's six-year construction programme and CMETB has recently submitted a schedule of accommodation in this regard. In the context of progressing this building project, officials from the Department’s planning and building unit will liaise with the ETB with a view to progressing the project as quickly as possible.

I appreciate that the Senator is clearly looking at the impact on the Border in the context of a "no deal" exit from the European Union by the United Kingdom. I take this opportunity to reiterate that the Government remains firmly of the view that the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is to ratify the withdrawal agreement endorsed by the European Council and agreed with the British Government.

The European Council has made it clear that it stands by the withdrawal agreement and that it is not up for renegotiation. The agreement, with its backstop provisions, is the only one on the table that provides the essential legal guarantee to avoid a hard border in any circumstance, as well as protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.

Naturally, we must monitor developments and recent events in the UK Parliament. The Government is not preparing for a hard border. There is no secret plan. Ireland and the European Union are at one on the issue. The Commission has clarified its statement, making it dear that the European Union is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a border and protect the peace process. The Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, repeated these reassurances in a telephone call to the Taoiseach last Thursday.

We will all have our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland. As a representative from the Border region, the Minister for Education and Skills is acutely aware of the many benefits which have been delivered by the Good Friday Agreement. He will ensure his Department will continue to build on the valuable and extraordinary level of co-operation between education institutions, North and South.

We will still have to work together to ensure we deliver on the shared goal of avoiding the return of a hard border, deal or no deal. We are committed to doing all in our power to ensure that goal is met. It is preferable for us all to resolve the issue now as set out in the withdrawal agreement.

I will have a discussion with the Minister about the building on the site and ask him to meet the Senator directly. I do not have the in-depth local knowledge he has. That would probably be the best option, rather than passing on information through me.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The reality is that the Government is preparing for a hard border. It is looking to rent warehouses in Cavan in which to accommodate soldiers in the event that there is a hard border, while there is a purpose-built Army barracks being used by Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board which is headed by Mr. John Kearney, chief executive officer, whom we are lucky to have and want to hold on to. The Government should be looking at maintaining the existing Army barracks in Cavan. There are only two other barracks along the Border, namely, those in counties Donegal and Louth. As Senator McFadden knows, the barracks in Mullingar was closed, while the nearest barracks to Cavan is in Athlone. Anyone with knowledge of the geography of the area in question will know that in an emergency it would take at least three hours to get to Cavan. Will the Minister of State seek an assurance from the Minister for Education and Skills that the barracks in Cavan will not be demolished until such time as we know the outcome of Brexit?

There is a great difference between planning for a hard border and a no-deal Brexit. Contingency planning has moved from contingency stage to implementation stage for a no-deal Brexit, but that is not the same as planning for a hard border.

Vacant Properties

I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy.

While most logical people understand the difficulty in reviving the building industry after the carnage wrought on it by the disastrous Fianna Fáil-led Governments, it is good to finally see real growth in the numbers of new houses being built. However, when many members of the public pass a vacant dwelling, they reasonably ask why it cannot be brought back into use to help those who are living in emergency accommodation or seeking to buy their own home. It is a question I often ask myself and I hope the Minister will provide some answers.

In preparing for the debate on this Commencement matter I started to look at housing statistics in County Westmeath. According to the 2016 census, the total housing stock in the county was just under 37,000 homes, of which 3,728 were classed as vacant. However, in 2017 GeoDirectory, compiled in conjunction with An Post, gave a figure of fewer than 1,500 that were vacant. Therefore, the vacancy level in County Westmeath might either be 10% or 4%. To compound the problem, Westmeath County Council estimated that two thirds of the homes listed by GeoDirectory as vacant were actually occupied. Of those that are left, half are either in probate or the owner is living in a nursing home. This suggests the real vacancy rate is less than 1%. What is the correct figure?

Answering this question is not just an academic exercise but has real-life implications. Could it be that there is a considerable under-response to the census? If that is the case, much of the social planning for housing, schools and health services could be based on flawed figures. Could it be that many of the policies put in place to bring vacant properties back into use are failing to deliver because they are based on notional vacant properties which do not exist? Is there a case to be made that local authorities are using different sets of definitions to minimise the extent of the problem and, therefore, their duty to respond? Does the Department have a current register indicating how many properties are vacant? If so, how is "vacancy" defined? What is the number and how has it been arrived at? Has the Department compiled an audit of the reasons for vacancies and the possibility of returning properties to use? How many properties fall into each category and what can be done to bring these homes back into use? Are there restrictions or impediments, the removal of which could be helpful? To what extent is Government funding, or the lack of it, a limiting factor? What best practice in better performing local authorities could be shared with others? Are there sanctions imposed on local authorities which are not fulfilling their responsibilities?

I keep coming back to the simple question that comes to my mind, as I am sure it comes to the minds of many others, when I see vacant properties. Why can we not use these properties to house people who do not have a home? Last year Westmeath County Council spent €660,000 in providing private emergency accommodation. That money, if used to find and upgrade existing properties, could have been used to provide permanent homes for a dozen families. What has been the uptake of schemes such as the repair and lease scheme? How can they be better promoted? Should we advertise them in local newspapers, as well as on local and community radio stations?

I know that the Minister is familiar with the west side of Athlone because he walked it with me last year when I was seeking funding for an urban regeneration project. He saw that as many as one in three properties was vacant or had vacant units overhead which could be used to house families. This area is no different from many others. The urban regeneration scheme would help areas such as this and I am grateful that the west side of Athlone was among those chosen to receive funding. However, it is a medium to long-term project. What can we do in the short term to put people into homes? How can we free up vacant properties to provide accommodation? If Government funding is not a mitigating factor, the delays and difficulties must be systems failures. I am keen to hear from the Minister on what we can do to alleviate them.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I was in the Chamber yesterday debating the issue of housing for two hours. I had to yield the floor to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, to begin a separate debate on housing for the elderly. Wth this Commencement matter, I appreciate the time Senators are giving to considering the challenges we face in housing provision. I thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to outline the work the Government is doing with local authorities to address the issue of vacancies.

Rebuilding Ireland sets out a range of measures to assist in meeting housing needs by ensuring the existing housing stock is used to the greatest extent possible.

One action within pillar 5 is a national vacant housing reuse strategy. This strategy, which I published last July, strives to provide a targeted, effective and co-ordinated approach to identifying and tackling vacancy across Ireland and draws together all of the strands of ongoing work into one document with a clear vision for moving forward in the next few years. It builds on the significant work already begun by the various stakeholders, including the Housing Agency, local authorities and approved housing bodies in 2016 and 2017 in order to meet our goals in respect of vacancy.

We have been very proactive in dealing with vacant properties and there are a number of schemes available to incentivise reactivating suitable dwellings into the liveable housing stock. This again relates to the frustration about which the Senator spoke. People see an empty home and want to know why it is empty and how it can brought back into use. That is what the strategy is about. Each local authority has prepared a vacant homes action plan and submitted that plan to my Department. They have also appointed vacant homes officers to co-ordinate local actions needed to look at the vacant residential stock in their areas. We are continually examining new ways of reducing the number of vacant homes.

The initial national roll-out of the innovative repair and lease scheme did not yield the results we had hoped for. We examined it and made improvements and we are now seeing more homes coming back into use through that scheme. Corresponding to that is the buy and renew scheme, which also has strong potential. We have seen a number of homes that might have been brought into the repair and lease scheme brought under the buy and renew scheme instead. Under this scheme the local authority buys the home outright, renews it, and puts it into use for social housing. The two schemes work very well together and we are now seeing greater interest in them. We have also advertised them and we can roll out further advertisements if that is seen to be necessary. As an alternative to these schemes, the long-term leasing initiative allows owners of vacant properties that are in good condition to lease their properties to local authorities. Leasing under this scheme takes the uncertainty out of being a landlord for as long as ten or 20 years. It gives certainty to the person who owns the property.

Aside from the wide range of incentives available, local authorities are also being encouraged to utilise their legislative compulsory purchase order, CPO, powers in order to bring vacant and derelict properties back into use. This approach can result in the delivery of housing more speedily and at much lower cost than new builds, often without having to go to the court. Simply invoking the CPO powers and giving notice that it is intended to use them can bring properties back into use. We have seen that happen very effectively in Dublin and Louth.

Away from the centrally funded schemes, my Department has made legislative amendments that will support the reactivation of vacant properties. For example, new exempted development regulations came into operation this time last year. These allow for a change of use of vacant properties above shops, below a certain amount of homes, without a requirement for planning permission in order to bring them back into use. We also introduced regulations on the application of disability access certificates to existing buildings when brought back into use and other such matters.

Work undertaken by local authorities, drilling into the available vacancy data, coupled with the initial results of the first wave of visual inspections by six local authorities are getting us closer to the actual number of vacancies in the country. Initially, when looking at the high numbers from the CSO, people thought that this was low-hanging fruit. It is not that the CSO data are incorrect, it is that when one looks at what is actually counted, which includes holiday homes, homes that are for sale, and homes that are between lettings, it is not vacancy as we would understand it. The work with the local authorities and their teams continues. It is starting to bear fruit. Whenever we talk about housing, we should talk about supply and the improvements we are seeing, but also about how we are using existing stock and getting it back into appropriate use.

I thank the Minister. I appreciate the fact that he is here again today. I know how hard he is working on housing and homelessness. There are a lot of things I would like to mention but I do not have time for everything. One of the things I always look at is houses that are in probate and sitting idle while the bereaved family goes through the necessary procedures. Could there not be an incentive for that family to lease the house to a family that is living in a hotel? Surely an incentive could be offered there. It would be a win-win situation for both the family dealing with the probate and the family that is in a hotel.

The Minister talked about advertising. We should be advertising those schemes all of the time. We have community radio in Athlone, which is part-funded by Pobal. Why is the Department not using that radio station to advertise the repair and lease scheme? I was reared on Connaught Street, to which I brought the Minister when we were looking for regeneration money. When I was a child there were 70 families living on that street. It did us no harm to live over a shop. It might have made me a little bit cheeky, but I do not think it did me any harm. Many of those premises are vacant. The county council should be out advertising this scheme and putting families into these premises.

I know we have a vacant homes action plan and vacant homes officers in the county councils, but one vacant homes officer is not enough for the whole of County Westmeath. It is not enough even for Athlone. These officers should be going from door to door finding out exactly why premises are empty and seeing what can be done to bring them back into use.

The other worry I have is that developers are buying properties and sitting on them. They are holding onto them until they can get enough adjacent properties to develop a site. Councils are doing that with CPO purchases as well. That needs to be looked at. There are several such situations in Connaught Street. There is a lot we can do. I know a lot has been done, but we are in a housing crisis and we need to take drastic measures immediately.

I thank the Senator for those follow-up questions. On the initial question about properties in probate, it is very difficult to enter into new legal agreements in respect of such properties because they are in probate.

Could we introduce legislation to allow for it?

On advertising, local authorities have budgets for advertising. If a particular local authority is having difficulty making money available to advertise available schemes, we can absolutely support it. To look at Westmeath County Council and its own vacancy statistics, as the Senator pointed out the CSO said that the vacancy rate in 2016 was 10%. In 2018 GeoDirectory showed us that it might have been closer to 3.6%. The information I have received from the local authority tells us that it is lower again. This brings us back to the point that this area is not the low-hanging fruit we thought it was. Nevertheless, we still have to pursue it because, while it might not yield as many homes as we thought it might, they are homes in the right areas. They are homes in the centre of our towns and villages. That is what we want to get after.

We have Westmeath County Council's vacant homes action plan and the council has mapped the potential vacant homes identified on GeoDirectory and, removing duplicate entries. It has also mapped the CSO vacant homes data and done colour-coding in that respect. I will show the Senator those maps if she would like to take a look at them. The vacant homes officer is in place and is using this mapped data systematically to identify potentially vacant homes. Once vacant homes are identified they are inspected and, where appropriate, the process of identifying ownership, engaging with the owner, and establishing the potential to reactivate and recover these vacant homes commences. Additional funding of €100,000 was provided to Westmeath over 2018 and 2019 for the vacant homes office.

To the end of last year, 176 homes were identified as vacant and inspected. Of these homes, 108 were confirmed as vacant while 68 were occupied. Again we are getting into the data and seeing the true level of vacancy. Details of ownership were identified for 13 of the vacant homes. It can be difficult to identify ownership. The council has had positive engagement with the owners of nine of these properties and the owners have indicated their potential willingness to consider either the repair and lease scheme or the buy and renew scheme. In addition, one further property has now been identified for a CPO. As part of the work it is doing, the council is in discussion with a number of local estate agents to identify properties that are vacant and that could be recovered as part of this scheme. The officer is in place and working. Funding has been made available to the officer. The mapping has been done and the officer's plan has been given to the Department. The officer is now pursuing those properties but, of the 176 that have been identified and inspected, 68 were occupied. The officer is pursuing the others and CPO processes are under way.

Sitting suspended at 11.29 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.