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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Vol. 265 No. 13

Nithe i dtosach suíonna (Atógáil) - Commencement Matters (Resumed)

Local Government Reform

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Along with our spokesperson on housing and planning, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, our local government spokesperson, Deputy Shane Cassells, and my Seanad colleagues, I will ask to meet the Minister and the author of the report to put forward our case. As outlined, it is about terms and conditions, but the reform element is important because if we continue to take powers away from local authority members, the number of people who put themselves forward will diminish and this will affect local government.

It goes back to the original point that the terms and conditions are simply not adequate. The Minister of State pointed out that he was examining proposals other than those relating to terms and conditions to assist councillors in their duties and we look forward to hearing them. However, I believe they need to be more generous and they must not look at historical problems but at the future problems of getting people to run for local government.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing this debate. I know of his huge interest in it, having served on a local authority. It is important that we continue to raise this issue. I note the answer refers to the end of May. I assume the Minister of State will have 48 hours and, hopefully, a report should be published somewhere.

It is not about expenditure but about local government and assisting local authority members in performing their duties in the next five years and for decades to come.

I ask the Minister of State to be brief. We are already over time, partly due to my interventions.

I am not sure I mentioned the end of May, but I certainly said "very soon". To be very clear, I spoke about the reforms to remuneration, but there is absolutely no intention to take away powers councillors have.

The system of local democracy in Ireland is the worst in Europe.

I said no powers had been taken away. In fact, we are being very proactive in trying to give back powers. If the Senator had been here for most of the debate on the planning Bill last year, he would know that we gave back powers to councils. We have enhanced their powers because planning is a major function of councillors, among many others. I was first elected to sit on a council in 1999, 20 years ago, as a 21 year old. I watched councillors who did not always want to use powers they had, some of which have been eroded in the past 20 years. I am certainly a believer in giving councillors the powers they need to do their job. I ask all councillors, particularly new councillors, to use their powers and take them seriously and realise the opportunities they have. They are the directors of the companies that run their counties and have a lot of powers. I often hear councillors tell me that they do not have powers. I stress to the Senator that they have a lot of powers under legislation that they do not get to use very often, but they should use them. If they work collectively as a group, they will be able to do so. We will find ways to give them back more powers. Votes were held in three local authority areas on directly elected mayors to try to give back decision-making powers to local areas and drive that agenda. I think the Senator supported that process and we will continue with it. He can rest assured that we believe not only in councillors having powers but also in their using them responsibly.

Housing Policy

I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House. I think we can all agree that there is no one solution to fix the housing shortage problem, as everyone knows. We need a multifaceted approach and to think outside the box. Modular builds are part of the solution in the shorter term and, in some cases, the longer term, particularly from the point of view that they can be delivered more quickly than concrete houses - I understand it takes about 18 weeks to build a modular unit - and are substantially cheaper to deliver. As things stand, in terms of Government policy on housing and planning, we are behind the curve compared with our near neighbour, the United Kingdom, and the United States where modular units built to the highest standards form a significant part of the housing offering. I say this with particular knowledge of a company operating in my county, Mayo, Big Red Barn, which is going from strength to strength in manufacturing modular units. It is about to expand its factory in Swinford, in the process doubling its workforce to 65. It is inundated with demands for its product, modular builds and commercial premises, but its market is predominantly exports to the United Kingdom and the United States where it is enjoying great success and going from strength to strength.

When people here inquire about modular builds, they find that they run into issues with Government policy which is really geared towards bricks and mortar, not modular builds. For example - I noted this when I was canvassing with various candidates during the local elections - if one goes out to the countryside one will see substandard housing. It could be an elderly person or a family living in an overcrowded setting who need additional accommodation. The provision of a modular unit built to the highest standards in terms of energy efficiency and fire safety would be a very quick solution for them. When dealing with the local authority, however, it seems that what is obvious and makes common sense in other countries is not acceptable here. I refer to one-off builds in the countryside, but this could also be applied to town in certain circumstances.

Big Red Barn forwarded a proposal to Dublin City Council for a pilot project to deliver social housing. It was presented to Mr. Brendan Kenny.

Currently, there are no adequate regulations to incentivise accessory dwelling units. These would allow younger couples who cannot secure loans for the bricks and mortar, cannot get planning permission and are unsure about building regulations to get satisfactory modular builds. There seems to be a large gap that we need to fill. Will Government policy respond? I would like the pilot project to be brought forward as part of the housing solution and as an alternative to family hubs. We have sites but we need action on the issue.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and for giving me an opportunity to clarify the relevant regulations as well as the importance of having modular homes and the use of off-site construction, which is something that our Department is for. We would like to encourage as many local authorities as possible to use the option of off-site construction, modular housing, rapid build or whatever one would like to call it. It presents many opportunities and is commonly used in other countries.

"Modular housing", "rapid build" and "off-site construction" are terms used to describe modern methods of construction. They are recognised as having an important role to play in speedy delivery, alleviating skills constraints and increasing productivity. This support is reflected in the development of a number of procurement frameworks of design-build contractors using off-site construction for social housing delivery.

As part of my Department's social housing capital programme, more than 400 homes had been delivered under the rapid delivery programme to the end of 2018 and more than 200 more will be delivered across ten projects this year, with more to follow from next year onwards. I was on three sites in recent weeks that were being developed under the rapid build framework.

To support rapid delivery housing, the Office of Government Procurement, OGP, put in place a framework of rapid delivery contractors in 2017, which is available to all local authorities and approved housing bodies, AHBs. My Department has organised information seminars as well as visits to rapid delivery projects under construction in order to support the roll-out of the programme. Local authorities do not have to use this framework and can engage other providers of off-site construction. However, we are trying to encourage the use of this option. At the workshops, we sit down with the people involved in housing and planning and encourage them to consider this sector as an opportunity for building houses. We are open to that. It is not a case of us shutting out modular homes.

Many of the issues around delivery that standard social housing construction projects face are also faced by rapid build projects, for example, preparing sites, services, access, community consultation and planning. However, there are savings in terms of the design and construction and these advantages are growing as more use is made of the OGP framework. We have tried to intervene in planning timelines. We have cut down the time it takes a project to get from greenfield site to building stage. It used to take three, four or five years but that has been cut down to approximately 59 weeks. That is the target. In the majority of cases, the period is approximately 61 weeks. We are getting to site much quicker, and off-site construction can deliver housing more quickly from that point. A figure of eight weeks is often cited but that does not include all of the time needed to get a site valuation, planning permission, etc. Once a contract is up and running, a house can be built quite quickly using this system. I have been in the factories and have seen this.

In addition, Dublin City Council is developing a volumetric rapid delivery programme of apartment developments. A procurement framework of design-build contractors for the delivery of these units will be in place by the end of next month and will be available to all local authorities and AHBs to use. It is envisaged that over 1,000 fast-track homes will be built using this framework, the majority of which will be in Dublin, but there will also likely be schemes in other cities and towns.

It is important to bear in mind the related development of the energy performance of buildings directive, EPBD, which sets ambitious goals for energy efficiency and renewables in buildings by requiring nearly zero-energy building, NZEB, performance for new buildings from 31 December 2020. The NZEB process aligns closely with off-site construction, with scope for more robust quality-assurance processes to be developed in factory environments. Greater consistency can be achieved in the construction of individual elements and indoor fabrication is not affected by weather. Off-site manufacturing also has many benefits in reducing construction waste and the environmental impacts of construction.

Regarding building standards, as well as off-site construction providing many benefits in terms of delivery and affordability, we will also ensure that it continues to provide sustainable and durable housing. All new dwellings must comply with the building regulations and building control requirements and achieve 60-year durability for all key elements. They should be built with quality materials that are fit for the use for which they are intended and for the conditions in which they are to be used. In many cases, the conditions that must be met in Ireland differ from those in other countries but we have regulations. With my officials, I have met numerous producers of all different types of housing at the Department, in Leinster House and at many conferences.

I am familiar with the company mentioned by the Senator and I visited its stand at the ploughing championships. I believe the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, visited as well. We would be happy to engage with the company with respect to Irish regulations but I want to be very clear. We have strict regulations for housing in Ireland because we want high-quality social housing provision as well as private housing. The Senator is very familiar with the difficulties that have arisen in Mayo with poor quality in housing because of mica and pyrite. Part of my job is dealing with housing that was built poorly over the years. We cannot go back to that. We have regulations that are there for good reason, but when many of the providers engage with us, we find ways to explain where they might fail because of these regulations and how they may need to work on that. We are happy to engage in that respect.

The performance requirements of buildings and works are set out in the second schedule to the building regulations. They are written in broad terms and do not refer to materials or methodologies. Certain materials, methods of construction, standards and other specifications, including technical specifications, are referred to in the technical guidance documents that accompany the regulations, but the adoption of approaches other than those outlined in the guidance is not precluded provided that the relevant requirements of the regulations are complied with. We are not for or against any method of construction once it meets regulations and gives people a quality home that will stand the test of time and the conditions we have in this country as well. Where works involve products, materials, techniques or equipment for which published national standards do not yet exist, third-party certification can demonstrate compliance with Irish building regulations and durability requirements. Such certification may include, in part or in total, a European technical assessment or agrément certification or equivalent. This is key to ensuring minimum quality and durability standards are met and providing confidence to investors, construction industry professionals, builders and, importantly, the consumer, especially in the context of the building defects and building system failures that have arisen in the past. Local authorities rely on these certificates to give the guarantee that the quality product will provide a proper home for people who want to live there.

My Department will continue to work with local authorities, the construction industry and all other stakeholders to support the rolling out of modern methods of construction in a manner that delivers high-quality homes efficiently and at a good price for the taxpayer and consumer.

I agree with respect to standards and we know that sometimes the lack of standards, even in the private sector, can come back to bite the Government, because the person who buys a house or has it built may lose out. There are issues and they have been explained to me, even with respect to my own local authority. Notwithstanding the modular build not being precluded, there seems to be a lack of clarity around what is allowed. The Minister of State did not specifically address the issue of accessory dwellings, which could see an independent unit built on an existing site as a shorter-term solution. We are talking about 10,000 homeless people. The Minister of State mentioned the rapid delivery programme, but those are modest numbers in that context. Does the Minister of State envision more development of accessory dwelling units, both in country areas and in towns where there is a site big enough within the proper rules and health safety regulations? Could there be more incentives from the Government to deliver these types of units, which provide short to medium-term housing that is so badly needed?

I cannot be any clearer, and there is no confusion with the regulations. If a construction method meets our regulations, it can be sanctioned and planning permission can be granted. However, we are very strict as we have seen too many homes built at poor quality. We need an urgent supply of housing but that does not mean we should renege on quality. Any company producing housing is more than welcome to come into my office and meet officials to go through the product and what must be done to meet the standards. We are a very open book in that regard. We are also very clear that there is no confusion on the regulations. The Senator mentioned Dublin City Council's trial relating to family hubs, and we are open to such ideas once the housing has certain standards.

The Senator mentioned that 10,000 people are homeless and approximately 1,700 families do not have a home today. Our social housing construction programme will this year deliver 10,000 homes for 10,000 families. I can put my hand on my heart and say that more than 5,000 adults and their children will leave homelessness this year and move into a home as a supply of housing is finally coming on stream. Taxpayers' money has been set aside this year to deliver 10,000 new homes and there will be more than 10,000 new homes next year and the year after. We want to continue that supply of housing. We are very open to considering all solutions, so if anybody wants to meet to discuss that, I am happy to facilitate it.

Perhaps Senator Mulherin will take up the Minister of State's offer to meet the people from County Mayo to whom she referred.

Hospital Overcrowding

The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, who has been waiting for some time, will take the final Commencement matter. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter. As the Minister of State will be aware, University Hospital Limerick, UHL, is in the news every day of the week for many negative reasons. I pay tribute to the staff who work really hard at trying to make conditions perfect for the people who attend the hospital's accident and emergency unit. Recently, I wrote to the Minister for Health asking that he appoint an independent person to get an overview of the hospital, identify which areas are working properly and set out how to resolve the issues in the accident and emergency unit because that is the kernel of the problem. I ask the Minister of State to outline the process that will be used to resolve the issues in the accident and emergency unit of University Hospital Limerick as soon as possible.

I thank Senator Maria Byrne for raising this very important issue concerning University Hospital Limerick. I also welcome the opportunity to address the House on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris.

The Minister for Health and I fully acknowledge the distress overcrowded emergency departments, EDs, cause to patients, their families and front-line staff working in very challenging working conditions in hospitals throughout the country. The number of patients attending emergency departments continues to increase year on year. In the first quarter of 2019, the number of patients attending hospital emergency departments increased by 7.6% and the number of admissions to EDs increased by 4.7% compared with the same period last year. University Hospital Limerick is one of the busiest in the country and, as such, the hospital and community healthcare organisation, CHO, mid-west were identified as one of the nine focus sites requiring additional investment, focus and support this winter.

The problem of overcrowding in hospitals requires a full-system, patient-focused response. Recognising this, in the winter plan for 2018-19, the HSE sought to maximise the use of existing resources across hospital groups and CHOs to target additional investment at both hospital and community services supports. The approach adopted by the HSE over the winter period for 2018 and 2019, within the financial and capacity parameters and having taken into account the increased demand, supported an improvement in patient experience and a reduction in the number of patients waiting on trolleys. The health service capacity review published last year highlighted the need for investment in additional capacity. Progress has been made on increasing capacity in UHL. The average number of open inpatient beds increased by 4% between 2017 and March 2019. Since 2017, an additional 25 beds have opened in UHL, including eight as part of this year's winter plan. A capital budget of €19.5 million has been approved for the provision of a modular 60-bed inpatient ward block at UHL, with funding of €10 million allocated in 2019. Enabling works commenced in March and the HSE advises that the main works are expected to start in quarter 2. In addition, the national development plan includes a 96-bed replacement ward block in UHL and capital funding was provided in 2018 to progress the design phase of the project.

Planning for winter 2019-20 has already commenced. The HSE is undertaking a review of performance across all hospital groups and CHOs over the winter period to inform planning for next winter. This review will enable an assessment by the HSE of the overall performance from a planning, implementation and outcome perspective, year on year and against targets. In addition, it will encompass a review of the relative performance of the hospital group and the CHOs in comparison with other sites.

The HSE advises me that this process will include an independent expert review of clinical, analytical and management capability in UHL and CHO mid-west as well as the other eight focus sites and CHOs.

I thank the Minister of State. While I welcome the modular beds and the fact the enabling works have started, as well as the 98 beds that are due to follow, no short-term solution is being offered. People are still on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick, not just in the winter but all year round. There has to be a short-term solution to resolve the overcrowding and the conditions being endured by both the staff and the people attending the hospital. The solution the Minister of State has given is a long-term one. It will be another 12 to 18 months before these modular beds are built, but something is needed in the short term to respond to the plight of both the staff and the attendees at the hospital, especially in the emergency department.

Of course I accept the Senator's point about immediate short-term solutions. We need a process to resolve those issues. I will strongly convey that message to the Minister, Deputy Harris. It is widely accepted that additional beds are part of the solution for Limerick hospital. Over the past two winters, an additional 25 beds have opened in Limerick, including eight as part of this year's winter plan. The bottom line is that we need to move as quickly as possible. We must also examine the issues of staffing and productivity improvements, but additional capacity must be delivered in tandem if we are to have a realistic chance of meeting healthcare needs over the coming decades, particularly the needs of the people of Limerick.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.