Response to Covid-19 (Housing, Local Government and Heritage): Statements

I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank him for coming and taking this important debate on this very important topic.

Go raibh maith agaibh, a Chathaoirligh agus Sheanadóirí.

Since the country's first recorded case of Covid-19 last February, our public services have been tested as never before. In this the worst of times for so many, the best of public service and community spirit have come to the fore. As I said in the Dáil last week, the concept embodied in the Irish word "meitheal", daoine ag teacht le chéile chun obair a dhéanamh agus a gcuid fadhbanna a shárú or community co-operation in a time of social need, has been visibly lived across this country.

I have seen this public service in the sustained efforts and commitment shown by the staff of my Department. From the first day, the rapid redeployment of staff and ICT equipment has ensured that we have kept essential services going. In addition, my Department has assimilated just short of 500 new staff following the transfer of heritage functions to it in September. This has led to an almost 50% increase in the size of the Department. Most of the staff of the Department, like all Departments, are working from home, which reflects public advice, with a small minority of staff attending physically to deliver key supports in areas such as ICT and in Met Éireann to provide weather and flood forecasts. The park rangers and the staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service are ensuring that people are safe and secure in exploring their local parks, restrictions permitting. All State bodies have taken large leaps in providing services in virtual, online ways, and this will be one of the long-term positive legacies of the entire Covid-19 experience.

In particular, I pay tribute to the members of the fire service throughout the country. As emergency responders, they are on the front line every day of the week. I wish to again mention the Dublin Fire Brigade paramedics who are at the coalface of this pandemic.

As Senators are aware, the shutdown of construction has been extended to 5 March. This nine-week shutdown will undoubtedly have an impact on housing delivery. I am working with my Department to assess this impact but we will not be found wanting in exploring all options to make up any shortfall in 2021. I am pleased that the limited exemption of social housing construction has been extended in order that social housing construction which is due to be completed by 30 April can continue. This exemption will go some way to alleviating the massive pressure on social housing lists.

Protecting the most vulnerable, particularly those who are homeless, is the key priority for all of us here, for the Government and, indeed, for my Department.

The rapid and joined-up response by our homeless services and their extraordinary commitment resulted in an unprecedented scaling-up of services to keep our users safe. To meet the challenges of social distancing new facilities were rapidly opened. Shielding is being provided for those most at risk of getting seriously ill from Covid and additional accommodation has been put in place to allow for self-isolation. My Department has provided just over €12.5 million per quarter in additional funding to support these efforts and, thankfully, outbreaks of Covid-19 are relatively low among the homeless community. The response of service users to the supports provided has been broadly positive.

During this period, we have made significant progress in tackling homelessness, although the situation is undoubtedly still challenging and we still have a lot more to do. The most recent figures, which are for December and which were published last Friday, show a reduction of 1,531, or just short of a 16%, year on year in the number of homeless individuals. Thankfully, and significantly, there has been a near 38% reduction in the number of families in emergency accommodation and a really welcome 72% reduction in the number of families accommodated in commercial hotels in the past year. We want to see that reduce further and be eliminated completely and that is my clear focus and the focus of my Department and of this Government.

The quarterly report on homelessness, which was also published last Friday, indicates that 5,886 adults and their dependants exited from emergency accommodation or were prevented from entering emergency accommodation in 2020. In Dublin, the report also showed that 53% of families who presented to homeless services in 2020 were prevented from having to enter emergency accommodation through a new tenancy being created. In the budget just passed, we put aside €218 million for spending on homelessness this year, an increase of over 30% on budget 2020. With numbers falling, we are moving in the right direction.

Rough sleepers are at the sharp end of homelessness and are among the most vulnerable people in our society. Rough sleeping is a persistent issue. I provided the resources to ensure that there is a bed available for anyone who needs one and that there is capacity in every major city every single night. In addition, I have instructed all housing authorities that local connection criteria are not and should not be a barrier to accessing services. I am keeping this under review on a regular basis to ensure that there is full adherence.

Enhanced outreach teams operate 18 hours per day, interacting with people on the street and encouraging them to take up offers of a bed or to return to accommodation that they may indeed already have. I would like to thank these teams most sincerely for their efforts, not just during Covid but at all times. They really are right at the coalface in dealing with and helping our homeless community. I have been out with them on the street and have seen the work they have done and the impact they are having across this city. I have visited homeless services in Waterford, Limerick and Cork as well.

While Covid-19 has posed huge challenges, there have also been opportunities. My Department, local authorities, the Department of Health, the HSE and NGO service providers have all worked together and existing relationships have strengthened over the period. There is now very strong collaboration between my Department and the Department of Health. Earlier today, I chaired a meeting our homeless task force group, which the Minister of State, Deputy Frank Feighan, also attended along with senior officials from that Department. What we are actually seeing now is that for people who have been shielding or in these services, the health outcomes have been far greater. Through that task force, we are going to continue that collaboration with the Department of Health, particularly for those users who needs the assistance most.

In the context of Housing First, we have now reached over 500 tenancies, which is a very significant milestone. We will have over 660 Housing First tenancies by the end of this year. On rental measures and supports, obviously we are operating under the moratorium, namely, the blanket eviction ban that was supported in this House. Any time we move into a 5 km restriction, that automatically kicks back in. That is welcome, it is working and we have the other rental supports which, again, were debated in this House, including those available under the Residential Tenancies Act 2020, which will run until April.

I will keep that under review and if I need to do more in that area, I will. The Government and I have shown our bona fides in that regard in the face of some criticism from those opposite, though not specifically in this House, and we have done what we said we would. It is something that we need to watch.

Part the Department's Covid response involves bringing vacant housing stock across the 31 local authority areas into use. I set aside €40 million in the July stimulus. We set targets for each local authority. I commend the local authorities, all of which engaged with that. We exceeded that target and in the six months to the end of December, more than 2,565 properties were brought back into use. They had not been in use but they have been allocated and many have been occupied. Much of that focused on our homeless communities, including both individuals and families. In total last year, we brought more than 3,600 social homes back into use. I will look at a revised programme for this year. There will be some pressure on delivering new construction because we have lost nine weeks so far this year. We need to look at how we can use our existing stock. I commend all those involved in that, which has had a real, positive impact. I have met people who are now in those properties. I will look again at some regeneration projects, particularly in regional cities, to see how we might be able to fast-track that even further.

I thank Senators for their interest and for giving me an opportunity to outline some areas which my Department has been dealing with through his pandemic. I commend the staff. They have been doing incredible work, both in administration and on the front line. We will make further progress this year. We have seen that in some initiatives that we have already brought forward, which are thankfully working. We are in a position now where we have real momentum in reducing family and child homelessness. We need to focus on single people, which is an issue and is still stubbornly high. That is why, when addressing voids, we are looking at delivering one-bedroom apartments in particular.

I thank Senators for the opportunity to address them. I look forward to their contributions and to dealing with any questions or comments in my closing remarks.

I welcome the Minister. I apologise for not sitting beside him but for talking to the back of his head instead. As we have Covid restrictions in place here, I do not expect him to turn around. Like the Minister, I thank all of the front-line workers in local authorities, housing charities, trusts and emergency accommodation, in Threshold, the Residential Tenancies Board and Intreo offices. They have been working night and day through the pandemic to support people living on their own, renters, people looking for housing and people at risk of homelessness. The Department has been supportive of the community call initiative, working with members of the Garda, local authorities and GAA clubs, including St. Oliver Plunkett Eoghan Ruadh, Na Fianna and Naomh Fionnbarra in my constituency, and right around the country. That community call has been a lifeline to people living on their own. It has been championed and supported by the Minister's Department and by all the volunteers who have so generously given their time. Their work is mammoth. It is truly valued. I want to start by expressing my appreciation for their efforts.

Since the Minister took over, he and his Department have demonstrated a keen desire to support renters, the homeless, small businesses and local public services. That is noticed and appreciated. Homelessness is still a stubbornly intractable problem. There are more than 8,000 homeless people in the country. I was delighted to see the quarterly report published on Friday showing a significant reduction throughout last year, especially in the last quarter, with a 75% reduction in the number of families accommodated in commercial settings, which is welcome.

I appreciate the Minister's commitment to keep driving that to a point where all families live in a place that they can call home.

There is a problem with single homelessness. The Minister knows this. I have heard him speak about it. I know that he is determined to address it. In my own constituency of Dublin Central, and indeed within the north east of Dublin Central, the HSE estimates that there are 1,500 homeless people. That is the equivalent of a small village. I appreciate that the Minister recognises that challenge. I welcome the €220 million that his Department has allocated to support homelessness, which amounts to around €12 million per quarter. In addition, the fact that the Minister himself chairs a task force on the issue gives reassurance. The €40 million that the Minister provided to the local authority for the voids brought 2,500 vacant, boarded up local authority units back into use. I encourage the Minister to keep pushing with that programme. I note the initiative that he took in respect of the call for housing and the permission that he has given to local authorities to actually acquire housing and to invest, as they have done in Dublin, in the prevention of homelessness. I encourage the Minister to extend that model outside Dublin. At the joint Oireachtas committee on Friday, we heard from homeless service providers in the Munster region. They cited that as an initiative that they would like to see being extended, and also the housing assistance payment, HAP. What the Minister has done in respect of the homeless HAP in Dublin has had an effect and has helped secure housing for people who are on the homeless list. I ask the Minister to look at the provision of the homeless HAP outside of the city in respect of renters. The Minister took action to prevent evictions and rent increases, and to provide renters with supports through the Residential Tenancies Board and the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS. All of that is welcome and has helped avoid people becoming homeless. I also welcome the fact that the Minister extended mortgage relief and the break for local authority mortgage holders. However, I ask the Minister to speak to the Minister for Finance and ask him to bring in the commercial banks, and support mortgage holders who have commercial bank loans.

In my last couple of minutes, I wish to talk about how we can fix this problem from a systemic perspective. The Minister inherited a Department and a crisis around housing supply and affordability. That crisis was not created over the last ten weeks or ten months, but over a period of ten years. I know that the Minister recognises that and is bringing forward an affordable housing plan, but it is critical that that plan deals with affordable purchase as well as affordable rent. I am greatly encouraged by the Minister's proposals to make the Land Development Agency a non-profit authority that is going to be dedicated to using public lands to deliver social, affordable and public homes for people on modest incomes. His cost rental proposal, that will see a situation in which tenants will only pay rent to cover the cost of the building, maintenance and management of their homes, is fair. It gives young people the hope of being able to rent an affordable home.

The Opposition has spoken much about the shared equity scheme. I do not know where it is getting its information. It seems to be talking about a scheme from the UK. It is very quick to rubbish it. I understand the scheme to be one that recognises the unaffordability of rental for young workers and workers on modest incomes, particularly in Dublin. The Minister knows this. In case anybody needs convincing, the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, issued a report last week which documented the unaffordability of the construction of new apartments in the capital city. The shared equity scheme is designed to help renters escape the unaffordability trap. It must be made available to help renters. The Minister and I both know that affordable housing was abolished back in 2011. There have been no new affordable homes built in the city in the last ten years. Anybody who is renting today, or has been renting over the last five years, and who is in a position, with their deposit together, but is unable to get a full mortgage, wants that shared equity scheme. They want to be able to buy a house next month or in six months' time. They do not want to have to wait the three years that it is going to take for the construction of new homes. I encourage the Minister to bring forward the affordable housing and Land Development Agency Bills.

For those who are opposed to helping renters escape the trap of unaffordable rent, I would ask them to listen to the Minister and to examine his proposal. His bona fides and my party's bona fides and commitment to ensuring that working people on modest incomes will have access to affordable homes to both purchase and rent are unquestionable. I ask them to support the Minister.

I welcome the Minister. This is the first time I have addressed him as Minister. Congratulations to him. He is a hard-working man and I am delighted to see him in the position. I also think he is ideally suited to the Department to which he has been appointed.

I am always unhappy about statements. I believe they are a waste of parliamentary time and it is a waste of the Minister's time to have happy-clappy statements about how well the Government is doing. The people on the ground know how well a particular Department is or is not doing. Leaving that aside, I want to place on record my gratitude and, I believe, that of everybody who is watching what is going on in the country, for the officials who work not just in this Department but in all Departments. They have been forced to move their work to their homes, they are trying to run their job and their families, and all of these things are going on together. I have to say that our public servants are wonderful people and we owe them an awful lot.

Covid-19 has delivered a number of home truths very quickly to all of us. The one thing that has come out for me is the old adage that the only certainty in this world is death and taxes; they are the only two things we can be certain of and everything else is uncertain. We are now living in a very uncertain time. It is important to point out today, for anybody who cares to tune in, that this too will pass. It will leave or we will get control over it. I applaud the Government's work and what it is doing with respect to the roll-out of the vaccine. I cannot imagine the amount of pressure that my colleagues are under to move vaccine into this section or that section of society, but what is being done is the ideal way forward.

Homelessness has been a plague on our society. I hate to say this but, for the last 20 years, I have been hearing Dáil and Seanad speeches claiming that we are going to make housing affordable for the ordinary individual. I got married in the 1970s and I bought my first house as a corporal in the Army who was married to a nurse. My salary was not high and anybody who has been watching my speeches over the last number of years on the Defence Forces knows its members are not particularly well paid. However, I could get a mortgage and I could buy a house, and that is the important thing.

I am very pleased at the success the Minister has had in reducing homelessness and moving people from the hotels into, shall we say, a more permanent type of setting. However, I wonder, when I see the numbers, is it just the animal instincts of capitalism that have kicked in and that the Airbnb people have nowhere else to go with their accommodation other than to start renting it out. In The Irish Times, Fiona Reddan makes the point that, notwithstanding regulations that have been put in place with respect to Airbnb, there are loopholes like, for example, the 14-day let, the summer let or letting to corporate entities. She has also pointed out that if a person is operating on Airbnb for more than seven years, the chances of anyone being able to retrospectively stop that person, or to stop them going forward, are probably very slim. The Minister has an ideal opportunity, while Airbnb is on its knees, to bring in more stringent regulations to ensure that the housing stock in the country is there for the people of the country, and the animal instincts of capitalism can step back just a little bit and allow the ordinary Joe to be homed.

We all watched the RTÉ programme on homelessness a couple of days ago, particularly with regard to rough sleepers. Fair play to the Minister. He came out on that programme and he took responsibility for the issues that we saw, specifically with respect to a number of individuals who were not from Dublin but who had come to Dublin and could not get accommodation. He issued a directive and, for the most part, it is working.

When I spoke to Fr. Peter McVerry this afternoon, he told me that things were working well. As soon as we had finished the conversation, however, he phoned me back to tell me about a young woman with a child less than one year old who had contacted homeless services in Dublin to say that she needed a home but to whom the response was given that they could not do anything for her because she was not on the housing list. Fr. McVerry is taking care of that case and I presume it will be resolved. I assume it has to do with an official somewhere to whom the word has not come down that the Minister said that anyone who needed a home would get one.

There is significant evidence to show that people end up sleeping rough because their first experience of a homeless shelter or homeless hostel was one of observing violence, drug use and fear. They feel safer on the street than they do in the hostels. We have learned from Covid-19 that rough sleepers need to be able to get single bedrooms in hostels or shelters, lock their doors, and know that they will sleep safely for the night and the property they brought with them will still be safe when they wake up in the morning and leave. That is something we need to ensure.

Not all sheltered accommodation and hostels are up to the standard I know the Minister would like, given that I heard him speak in the House on this matter many years ago and have since heard him speak on it in the Dáil. Single-room accommodation is the only way forward, but there must be independent inspections. A body such as HIQA needs to inspect hostels, not just during the day, but at night as well.

I wish to take a second to compliment Councillor Anthony Flynn who is constantly on the ground working on homeless issues and bringing issues for the vulnerable to our attention.

In the short time left to me, I wish to discuss affordable housing. We hear about it constantly. There is no affordable housing in Dublin if apartments cost approximately €430,000 and a couple must find a deposit of approximately €112,000 before they can even enter the market. I have a daughter who is renting accommodation. Young couples are paying between €1,800 and €2,000 per month. Some pay as much as €2,600. They are on combined salaries of between €70,000 and €100,000. They will never buy a house or get a mortgage. They will never ever get into the housing market. We must find a way of offsetting the rent they have paid as a recognition of their ability to pay a mortgage. I have spoken to the Minister about this suggestion previously. He is into the idea.

I implore the Minister to consider how to get people back buying their own houses in the private sector. We could get county councils to start building housing like they did in the 1950s and 1960s. That is something Fianna Fáil always did. When I was a young fellow, I watched some of that work being done in Galway down through the years. I would like to see us going back to those days. There are too many housing agencies in the country, all with chief executives and financial officers. Some of them do a fantastic job, but we need to rationalise the agencies and reduce them to a much smaller number.

I have gone over time. I thank the Minister for his time and wish him the best of luck as he proceeds.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement on his Department's response to the unique challenges presented by Covid-19. I acknowledge the 100% commercial waiver he provided to local authorities across the country. The sum of €1 billion is unprecedented, but it is an acknowledgement of the challenges that businesses the length and breadth of the country are facing. The Minister has extended the waiver for quarter 1 of this year, but in light of the current circumstances and the likelihood that normal trade will not resume until the second half of the year, I ask that he consider extending it to quarter 2 so as to give certainty to businesses and local authorities.

On the construction sector and the impact it will have on output this year, which the Minister touched on, I argue, as I did on the Order of Business last week, that a discussion is needed on exactly what is essential construction. As the Minister knows well, any housing unit that is delivered in this State, whether social, private or affordable, has an impact on supply. Even housing units provided in the private rental or purchase markets free stock for others. We need to look at prioritising residential construction in a phased reopening of the construction sector. It may not be popular to say it but the commercial element can wait but the residential sector cannot.

There are more issues connected to this. There are people waiting to draw down mortgages who are on tight timelines and people have contracts for residential accommodation that are coming to an end. These people may be waiting to move into a new property that might be two or three weeks away from completion but it is not being completed because of the construction shutdown. I ask that the Minister take urgent action in that regard.

The Minister is correct to highlight the progress being made on the homelessness numbers. It is a very emotive matter, as he knows, but significant progress has been made in my county of Waterford in the past number of years, as we have seen a reduction in family homelessness of 93%. Figures for individual homelessness are down by 55% at a time when presentations to homelessness services have effectively doubled. Why was that achieved in Waterford? As I stated at an Oireachtas committee meeting last week, it was due to the establishment of an integrated homelessness hub that the Minister saw in action before Christmas. The local authority, non-government organisations, the approved housing bodies and the HSE are all in one building, working hand in glove. If anything positive comes from this Covid-19 crisis, it is that we are seeing a more collaborative approach and less of a silo effect in dealing with the homelessness crisis.

A major contributing factor to reducing those numbers in Waterford has been use of the repair and lease scheme. I am like a broken record saying it but 44% of all one-bedroom and two-bedroom units provided in recent years in Waterford have been via the repair and lease scheme. Waterford has essentially been the sole local authority that has driven the repair and lease scheme, which has had a positive impact in reducing dereliction on our high street while providing much-needed housing units. We have had time for local authorities to take up or use the scheme but they have not done so, despite the fact that it has proven to be successful in places like Waterford. I ask the Minister to impose targets on local authorities across the country for the delivery of units. They respond to targets and they are required.

In that context, will the Minister address the exemption for converting commercial property to residential property? I raised this before and it does not make sense that a shop on one corner of the street can essentially be exempt but a former public house on another corner has to go through a full planning process, including development contributions. This is a way of providing much-needed housing units and it is causing the process to slow. I know I have raised the question before and I appreciate the Department is very busy but I ask that action be taken in this respect.

On the provision of cost rental, which has been discussed - the Minister touched on it and Senator Craughwell mentioned affordable housing - I welcome the fact that we will have 400 units delivered this year. I am aware that the Housing Finance Agency had first call in that regard. I ask that prioritisation be given to a second call of that and that it would happen quickly to ensure the delivery of further cost rental units at the start of 2022 rather than putting out the call later in the year and for those cost rental units to come on stream only in the latter part of 2022. There are projects in my county of Waterford, as there are in other local authority and city areas in particular, that really need to be prioritised for cost rental.

I have about a minute left and I have probably missed a few issues but I want to acknowledge the work of the Minister and his predecessor with regard to the North Quays and the provision of money for the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF. Like everything to do with housing, many foundations need to be put in. Addressing homelessness and housing supply does not happen overnight, as the Minister well knows. The Opposition might like to magic houses out of thin air, but it takes years of planning for them to come to fruition.

With regard to the URDF, and Waterford was successful in terms of the North Quays, there is a further round due very soon. I ask that the decision in that regard is prioritised as soon as possible so that when construction gets going again, those projects throughout our country can take off. To be parochial for a moment, there is a very good project in for my county of Waterford, which I am sure the Minister will prioritise.

After that fine address, a little parochialism is allowed.

I thank the Minister for coming into the House. It is good to get a viewpoint of everything that is happening in his Department in the course of the pandemic. When we focus on this issue, we all appreciate the severity of the housing crisis, but local authorities and people go out and make this country tick over even in the midst of a pandemic.

I pay tribute to homeless services, which the Minister rightly identified as doing an incredible job over the course of the pandemic. In March, they launched a great effort to ensure that people had access to beds but also kept infections down within the homeless community which, particularly when it comes to underlying health conditions, was very important.

I want to ask the Minister about an issue I am concerned about. We heard in the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage the other day that homeless workers are being treated the same as other front-line health workers but there is no confirmation of how and when they will get access to the vaccine. It is important that they know the levels they are on in that regard. One person in the homeless services told me that their big concern is that with the virus being in the community at large to the extent that it is, it is homeless workers who are bringing it into the sector.

I note also that the Minister was very badly treated on the front page of the Irish Daily Mail with regard to advocating for the fire service workers to get the vaccine. The idea that he was trying to get people to jump queues as opposed to advocating for a group of front-line workers who are keeping us safe was a poor reflection on the debate at large.

I heard what the Minister said in terms of people not being turned away for beds, but that message needs to be made clearer because we saw from the “RTÉ Investigates” programme that that was not necessarily the case in terms of how it is being acted upon on the ground. I believe the Minister has been very clear on the direction he is giving to homeless services now, but from a departmental level point of view I ask that he would check and ensure that that is not happening and that we do not have a couple of those cases coming through the system. It appeared to me from the “RTÉ Investigates” programme that we cannot help everybody from everywhere and people are not meant to be travelling anyway. We need to ensure that that attitude does not permeate through homeless services.

I want to raise the issue of the doubling of the number of private operators which, since Covid, have taken over homeless services. This was done for good reasons. We needed to expand our bed capacity and ensure social distancing was in place. However, there is certainly anecdotal evidence that many people in need of homeless services do not feel safe going into those operators. We learned from the Oireachtas housing committee meeting on Friday that there have been no inspections of these private operators and they are not subject to the same standards as local authority or charity operators. As a matter of priority, will the Minister draw up those standards for private operators and make sure each of them is inspected?

I also want to raise the issue of planning appeals during Covid-19. I note it is considered to be an essential service and that forms are put online. In my constituency, however, I was waiting over a month for documents to go online. Once they did go online, I was able to print them out and send them to an elderly constituent who was cocooning. There was no other way that he could go to Dublin City Council offices to go through those planning documents. It is simply unacceptable that we are waiting that long for documentation to be put online.

For strategic housing developments, An Bord Pleanála has made access for online payments available but there has been no communication on this to local councillors. At the very least, will An Bord Pleanála send out an update to local councillors to let them know that they can avail of this service? I had to inform several local councillors that it was available. It was a great leap forward but many people do not know that.

While I welcome the eviction ban when people’s movement is restricted to 5 km from their home, we need to look again, as this pandemic rolls out, to see if we can do it for longer. A report in The Irish Times last week stated more than 360 people were served eviction notices in the two months after the ban was lifted between August and the return to level 5, and 787 tenants were served eviction notices during the Covid pandemic. This is really worrying because of the crisis in rental property. We also know that these are the people who are most at risk of going into homeless services.

Like Senator Fitzpatrick, I want to address the wider issues around help-to-buy, shared equity and moving people out. I have not commented on the heads of the affordable housing Bill because I want to hold my judgment on it until we see what is finally presented. I note that in the press release the Minister stated he will put in place a number of control measures to ensure that it does not contribute to the growth in house prices and will simply not act as a bridging loan for developers. As I do not know what these controls will be, I do not want to condemn it outright at this stage.

However, I want to address the issue that Senator Fitzpatrick highlighted about the UK's evaluation of its shared equity scheme. The reason people are referring to that is because the Minister referred to the 1% figure in contributing to house prices in his own press release on the UK evaluation from the auditors' report. That 1% involved people in the same month availing of the shared equity scheme in the same area. The argument is that this contributes to house prices over time, not that snapshot in time which was the 1%. That same report also showed that 20% of people who availed of the scheme already own their own house, while 80% used it to buy a bigger house.

The criticism of the help-to-buy again comes from our own Parliamentary Budget Office which stated that people availing of the build-to-rent scheme already had access to a mortgage and they were first-time buyers who were availing of it at the higher end of the first-time buyer's allowance.

When the Minister was in opposition, he brought forward a good Bill that would allow local authorities to earmark a certain percentage of zoned land, up to 30%, at the discretion of the planning authority to first-time buyers.

I welcome his commitment to supporting first-time buyers because home ownership is a legitimate expectation for people. However, what we are seeing, certainly in my area, are build-to-rent units. Many people would say if one is opposed to them, one is opposed to housing but that is not the case. There are over 1,088 build-to-rent units and another 320 co-living units got in just before the conditional co-living ban came in. We still have a build-to-rent provider who, three weeks ago, The Sunday Business Post identified as having 300 vacant units in the city because it does do not want to rent them out. Some four-fifths of Clancy Quay and half of Capital Dock are empty. That is a disgrace in the middle of a housing crisis and a pandemic. We need to seriously look at the issue. If we are supporting build to rent, we need to ensure that these large organisations are not able to control supply into the housing market by leaving units empty.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Renting continues to be an unpredictable nightmare for many people. The irony is that we are working harder and saving more money, yet renting in Dublin is still prohibitively expensive. Dublin city rents now average over €2,000 per month. Last year, State-wide, rents increased by 1.2%. If ever there was a time to give renters a break, it is now. We would like to see one month's rent put back into the pockets of people who are renting through a refundable tax credit given to all renters. I call on the Minister to introduce this measure.

I welcome the fact the Minister has now accepted that rent pressure zones were not the solution to tackling rising rents. The 4% annual increase permitted was seen as a target by many landlords as opposed to a limit. It is deeply depressing that for so many years this policy was pursued as protection for renters when the only certainty was the 4% increase in tenants' rents. That is why we also need action on a three-year rent freeze. That must happen immediately.

There has been talk about those looking to buy a home. For those considering buying a property, the situation is pretty grim. We have seen in the news that the price of the cheapest apartment in Dublin is €395,000. That would require a €36,000 deposit and a combined gross salary of €90,000. Apartment prices are high because of Government policies. The tax measures promoted by this Government make it easy and attractive for cuckoo funds, real estate investment trusts and speculators to come in and leverage their advantage over the chronic shortage of housing. What does the Minister consider the price of an affordable house to be? The help-to-buy scheme has been criticised by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, which stated it would only push up prices and that is exactly what it seems to be doing. The most senior civil servant at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said the shared equity scheme is about lining the pockets of developers.

Co-living is a bizarre policy in a time of Covid and another sop to developers in terms of the loosening of standards in apartment construction. It is a policy the Minister described as "bonkers". He announced in November, thankfully, that he was introducing a ban on co-living. He went on Twitter to tell us the ban was permanent but nothing seemed to happen until a month later, when a statutory instrument was signed in the Custom House on 23 December. In that period of inaction, many applications for such developments were made and many developers changed their previous applications that were for apartments and turned instead to co-living. The development of the Phibsborough shopping centre was one example of a proposal changing from apartments to co-living units in the time between the Minister's announcement of the ban and when it was officially signed.

Why was there such a delay? I submitted to Hendrons an objection to the co-living development close to the Broadstone-DIT Luas stop. In Kilmainham, there are applications for two large co-living developments. None of these projects will help people in Dublin South-Central and the south inner city to find appropriate affordable rental properties in their city or in their areas.

Homelessness has been mentioned. Over Christmas and during the period of cold weather, there were deaths on our streets. We will all agree that every death is a tragedy that should never take place. I express my sympathies, as others will, to those whose loved ones died unnecessarily. The problems facing rough sleepers were highlighted on "RTE Investigates" and we saw the farcical situation of people being told they would have to go to their home counties. The Minister addressed this and said he would watch it like a hawk, as will we. There needs to be an increase in the budget for housing. Truly social homes need to come online, as well as 4,000 affordable rental and 4,000 affordable purchase houses. It is only through the rapid building of houses within reach of workers and renters that the dysfunctional housing and rental market can be reformed. I would like the Minister to restate for the record what he considers to be an affordable purchase price for a house and what he considers affordable in the context of rent.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I will begin by welcoming what I believe has been done right in housing since the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. I welcome the fact that, finally, the Department and the Minister moved to introduce an eviction ban, despite many years of claiming that such a ban would be unconstitutional. I reject the notion that such a ban must be tied to the existence of level 5 restrictions. No person should be evicted from his or her while this pandemic is ongoing, whether at level 5 or level 1. When people are so heavily reliant on the physical structure of their houses or other accommodation for protection against a highly infectious disease, no one should be forced onto the streets.

I urge the Minister to reconsider this policy and to extend the ban until the public health situation stabilises, even after it is downgraded from level 5. After the blanket ban was lifted in August, more than 360 people were served with eviction notices. The fact that notices were served immediately after the end of the moratorium demonstrates precisely why we need a long-term eviction ban while we are in this crisis and during our emergence from it. I have written previously to the Minister on issues relating to the stop-start nature of the ban, such as estate agents forcing tenants to allow viewings of small living spaces without social distancing. Strong direction needs to come from the Department to the effect that such practices are inexcusable and must end for the duration of the pandemic.

Furthermore, when the now Residential Tenancies Act 2020 was going through the House, concerns were raised about 28-day window that applies to rent arrears. Such a period in which a tenant may pay rent arrears is simply not long enough. An amendment seeking to increase this period to 60 days was tabled in the House, as it was highlighted that people may easily build up 28 days of arrears, especially in the current Covid-19 context. I urge the Minister to reconsider this measure.

In recent years, there has been a pressing concern about the use of strategic housing development, SHD, permissions. Given that it has emerged that only 30% of those developments have gone ahead since SHD was introduced in 2017, use-it-or-lose-it legislation is essential to stopping this practice, which is tantamount to land hoarding. While it is welcome that the Minister has amended planning guidelines to restrict co-living developments, does he intend to take action on co-living developments that were granted planning permission before his direction? The prospect of co-living developments being constructed while a virus that thrives on poor ventilation and close quarters is in such wide circulation is horrifying. What actions does the Minister plan for those developments currently under construction?

Throughout 2020, when our homes were the first line of defence against Covid-19, investment funds spent €1.75 billion buying up residential properties throughout Ireland, according to CBRE Ireland, with properties in Dublin accounting for 97% of properties bought by these funds. In 2017, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, identified approximately 30,000 vacant properties across Dublin's four local authority areas. To prevent land hoarding, would the Minister consider the introduction of a proper vacant site tax to disincentivise such practices by multinational corporations? At this point, such a tax is a public health priority and must be considered as a matter of urgency.

The current position on homelessness in Dublin is quite dire. I understand that over half of our beds are privately run, with little oversight, and the general quality standards do not apply. I understand the Minister's Department finally conceded this fact in recent weeks. What plans has the Minister to remedy this? After so many years of crisis, how is it that so many people are still dying on our streets?

I am also concerned about the standard of financial governance in the privately-run homeless accommodation. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is not publishing its accounts on homelessness expenditure in full on its website. Where it is, the accounts do not appear to be audited and they are often confusing or misleading to read, without a clear breakdown of expenditure on private services with no oversight and on public services subject to national standards of homelessness care.

Staff in private emergency accommodation do not seem to be adequately trained to meet the complex needs and social care demands of such a role. Many homeless people do not seem to have a key worker assigned to them or care plans in place. Most concerningly, the local connection rule, of which the Minister is aware, is being used as a way for local authorities to absolve themselves of responsibility for providing homeless services. Can the Minister please commit to issuing a statutory instrument to the effect that such a policy would be prohibited? It is my understanding that the policy still applies, unfortunately. Local authorities need to be instructed, with no room for equivocation on how unacceptable these policies are.

As the Minister will be aware, our capacity to respond to how Covid-19 affects the housing and homelessness crises is constrained by the structural problems caused by those crises before Covid arrived. The high costs of construction, the shortage of public and social housing and the lack of security of tenure in the private and rental market also continue to be major contributory factors.

While I welcome that public housing construction rates seem to be increasing, I am deeply concerned by the Minister's new flagship policy, the affordable purchase share equity scheme, whereby the State would take equity with first-time buyers in a house. This has all the hallmarks of poorly thought-out Fianna Fáil housing policy and it is in the same vein as the former Government's help-to-buy scheme, which has been proven to have contributed to house price inflation. When the Minister's own civil servants are advising so heavily against such a scheme, I urge him to reconsider a move that will only reduce affordability even more. These issues do not exist in a vacuum. As long as the Government pursues policies that make housing less affordable and less accessible, our ability to respond to Covid-19 robustly is challenged even further.

I join colleagues in acknowledging the work of front-line homelessness services over the past year. During the first lockdown, I returned to working in the homeless sector, which I had done for a long time before I became a politician. During the current lockdown, I have continued to work as many shifts as possible with Safetynet Primary Care. I have seen at first hand the commitment of Safetynet and the likes of Ana Liffey, which taxi people from the homeless community back and forth into Safetynet. They ensure people get a Covid swab and go into isolation where required. The service runs so smoothly because of the dedication, fast action and decision-making of the CEO of Safetynet, Dr. Fiona O'Reilly. The staff are working on a shoestring budget to provide their service. I would love to see better resources put into Safetynet, especially during the implementation of the Covid-19 vaccination programme. The Minister's Department and the Department of Health should work together on how Safetynet could be used as part of the vaccination programme in terms of reaching into communities that are vulnerable and that might be more susceptible to misinformation on vaccines. There might be some vaccine hesitation in those communities.

In the past few weeks, when I was with staff members of Safetynet at a number of halting sites doing sweeps and taking swabs, I saw the benefit of the hepatitis A vaccination programme being rolled out by the organisation. Let me outline what was most concerning while I was on site.

I have the videos on my phone and I am happy to show them to the Minister. The person who allowed me to take the videos, however, does not want me to share them publicly. They are absolutely ashamed and scared that people will see how they have been living, through no fault of their own. Faeces is coming up through their sink and showers and their toilets do not flush. Now, in Dublin in 2021, there is an outbreak of hepatitis A due to poor sanitation and substandard accommodation. This needs to be acted on as a matter or urgency. I do not know how anyone is supposed to protect themselves against Covid-19 when they cannot even protect themselves against what would usually be a disease common in a developing country due to sanitation.

I thank the Senator and salute her personal voluntary work. The next set of speakers all have five minutes each. It will be difficult to get everybody in before the Minister so I ask that Senators please be disciplined for the sake of colleagues. I may have to interrupt speakers to try to get everyone in. Senator Cassells is next to speak. He has five minutes.

I thank the Minister very much for his presentation. I join him in thanking all those on the front line in this particular sphere of housing and local government who have done so much since March of last year to assist those most in need during this crisis, particularly those dealing with homeless people. I also join the Leas-Chathaoirleach in praising Senator Ruane for the work she has done in her capacity. I commend the people who volunteered for the Community Call initiative, which was vital in providing home supports. The volunteers of this country deserve great praise, as do all our public servants and those in our local authorities who are keeping essential services going. I know they are not at home watching Netflix but are doing a damn good job supporting us and everyone else in the provision of public services.

When this Government came into office, a mammoth task faced us in the area of housing and, of course, that was only exacerbated by the onset of the pandemic. I have seen up close, however, the hands-on approach the Minister has taken in the Department. I worked with him in the previous Dáil. He has hit the ground running, meeting every chief executive officer of every local authority in the last couple of months and resourcing them to do the job we expect of them and know they can do. Perhaps, however, they have not been empowered to do so over the past decade and maybe have fallen out of sync with what they used to do so well. That has changed now. Equally, it is right to call out that some counties were not performing to the levels we expected of them in terms of the delivery of homes. This is a new ball game, however. I mention even the simple act of the €40 million and bringing voids back in, as outlined by the Minister in the July stimulus.

I spent a long number of years in a local authority and something that galled me every year was the number of voids that were on the books. The fact is that some 3,500 were brought back into play before Christmas. That is 3,500 families with a roof over their heads because we brought not new but existing stock, which was on the books of country councils, back into public supply and provided homes.

The delivery of homes is a collaborative effort. Government approved housing bodies, councils and building firms are poised to deliver the homes where they are needed. Looking at the development plan process across a number of counties, we can see that there is an appetite for delivering what is required. My county council is meeting today on working with the National Transport Authority on the issue of the Navan rail line. Providing homes where they are needed and where there are facilities and jobs is key, not in the middle of nowhere, like we had before, but in the correct places. I believe the processes under way will help do that.

I welcome the affordable housing Bill as a game-changer in providing equity to get people on the housing ladder, not in their 40s but in their 20s. When I was able to buy my first home 16 years ago, I was in my 20s. That is the age people should be aspiring to get on the housing ladder. Over the past 20 years, we have seen that number rise into people’s late 30s and 40s. It is not acceptable. I believe this Bill will be a game-changer in that respect and make homeownership an attainable goal for people. Some parties believe homeownership is a dirty word; it is not. We believe in homeownership and in making sure people have that attainable goal of owning their own homes.

I have a couple of questions.

In respect of councils, what is the anticipated impact of the construction lockdown on their indicative targets? I note that the Minister stated in his speech that he was working on the matter. As for the land banks on the councils' books that were acquired through the land aggregation, LAG, scheme, many were not in desirable areas. What are the councils doing to work through that?

Finally, the pandemic has had a huge impact on town centres, about which I feel passionate. Many town centres were under pressure pre-pandemic because of a change in shopping patterns caused by online sales. The plight of town centres has only been exacerbated because of pandemic because an increasing number of people are buying online, including people who never used online services before, such as elderly people. It is incumbent on local government to help town cores. I suggest that we fund councils to not just have schemes that improve streetscapes but to make town centres attractive, thus encouraging people back to shop in them. Last December, when restrictions were lifted people were only too anxious to get back into town cores for social interaction. The public realm offers people something different that an online shopping experience cannot. We need to make sure that councils are to the fore in promoting town cores and centres as places to visit and do business, to trade and to buy. I ask that plans are put in place now ahead of restrictions lifting.

I thank Senator Cassells for setting an excellent example for everyone to follow.

We will get everyone in if everyone follows his example.

I thank the Minister for being here today and taking the time with us. I echo the thanks expressed by my fellow Senators today for all of the front-line workers, particularly in this area.

Last Friday, Mr. Brendan Kenny made a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. He showed that figures for homelessness are, hearteningly, going in the right direction. He attributed that to the strategy for prevention homelessness set in motion by the previous Government and the Minister's predecessor in office, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. It was also due to the interventions taken during Covid and to the incredible enhancements and initiatives taken by the present Minister. For families in temporary emergency accommodation, the December figure was at its lowest since December 2015. For families in hotels, the figure has been at its lowest since September 2014. The number of people exiting emergency accommodation is going in the right direction and we have seen a steady rise in this regard. However, there are still very definite worries when it comes to people who are single and their progress in coming out of emergency accommodation. I am and always have been firmly of the belief that we should aspire to having zero people in emergency accommodation because behind all of these figures is a real family or individual person experiencing intolerable circumstances.

There is a girl with whom I am familiar and who I support on regular occasions who lives in a lovely property for a single person at the moment. That property in the normal environment would only be available to the tourism sector and is out of circulation for that because of Covid. She is delighted and thrilled with the permanence having come from emergency accommodation but is naturally concerned about what will happen when Covid is over. Last August, Daft.ie published figures for the number of properties. While sales were down, rental properties were at an extraordinary high with 41% more across the nation and 92% more rental properties in Dublin alone. That situation is attributable to the fact that Airbnb was not a viable opportunity for earning money for property holders, particularly in Dublin, and so that supply was released into the rental market. While we saw the implementation of planning restrictions in respect of Airbnb under the Minister's predecessor, we need to put in place a robust incentive to keep these properties within the rental market and thereby enhance supply or else create a disincentive for putting them back into Airbnb. I ask the Minister to consider strengthening the planning permission and creating tax disincentives of some sort.

I wish to raise with the Minister the issue of the enforcement of the current Covid restrictions on the construction industry. I fully support all of the restrictions because, naturally, public health comes ahead of everything else. However, in my home constituency of Dublin South-Central, there is a crèche for 140 children that caters for children aged zero to five years that was due to be finished and ready to open in April. The crèche would enable people to return to the workplace but the project cannot be finished now so the place will not open on time.

I am dealing with a family who have a child with special needs. They need to convert an office in the attic of their home. The conversion was about ten days from completion when building had to be stopped. However, while out on my morning walk, I see other properties that are being done up. It seems that there is either a little discretion in the application and enforcement of the rules or a loose understanding of the rules. I believe the Minister is preparing to introduce another set of statutory instruments on this, so I ask that he review this matter. Perhaps a tightening up of the rules or some restraint on the discretion being shown by the Garda or whomever else is interpreting them may be in order.

The last area I will raise is residential construction. We are hearing reports that we are only at 10% of where we should be in construction. That is naturally setting back the hopes and urgency of providing homes and the aspiration for security of tenure. That will ultimately be secured a greater level of supply. I urge the Minister to consider that work is continuing on the National Children's Hospital site because antigen testing is in place. Perhaps it is in order to look at mandatory antigen testing across the construction industry to ensure residential construction is prioritised and opened up as soon as possible.

I welcome the Minister and wish him well in his work. I am conscious he was invited to the House today to talk about the Department's response to Covid. There is always a temptation to drift into the Minister's wider portfolio, which includes housing, local government, planning and heritage. I will try to avoid doing that because it is clear from today's contributions that we would need a whole session on housing and another whole session on local government. They are two really important issues. I thank the Minister and his officials who we sometimes forget. As those of us who are on the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage will know, much of our business is done directly with the departmental officials. That is unknown to many. We can pick up the phone to them and they can do likewise to us. Many people do not have that facility and I thank the Minister for providing it. That is a really important relationship. We also have a very successful committee and there are a few of its members here who are always examining, teasing out and prioritising these particular issues.

I will pick up on a few points. What Senator Cassells related about voids was scary and disappointing. I contacted the local authority in my area of Dún Laoghaire. Five beautiful old red-brick cottages are empty this week. That is unbelievable when we have a housing crisis. Dún Laoghaire is one of the most beautiful villages in Ireland. We really have a problem and we must have a monthly review and publication of voids data because we must keep the pressure on. Having said that, I acknowledge the work of the chief executives of local authorities who have worked exceedingly hard and well. I also thank our city and county councillors. Need I remind Members how exceptionally hard they work for so little? They responded amazingly but also went far beyond their work in local communities as the public face of many councils. I salute them for the work they have done.

I wish the Minister well with his affordable housing Bill, which is exceptionally promising. The committee will meet for pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill on Tuesday week and hopefully we will get through it quickly. I suggest the Minister commit to initiating that legislation in the Seanad. Covid and all the restrictions impact not only on business and communities but also on Members and how we in the Houses of the Oireachtas do our work. We must get these Bills moving. I suggest the Land Development Agency Bill, which has great potential to deliver affordable homes and affordable rental properties, and the affordable housing Bill be initiated through this House. I know the Minister is committed to that process.

I want to address one final matter, namely, An Bord Pleanála. There is an unbelievable situation where we have talked for three or four years about Rebuilding Ireland and e-planning. We have no comprehensive e-planning process. I picked up the phone to An Bord Pleanála on Friday and again today. I was told that I could not make a submission to the board and leave it in the letterbox after 5.30 p.m. because it would be invalidated even though it was in order and had a cheque. An Bord Pleanála told me that I could not pay online. I did not even have an objection but I knew someone who wanted to submit one and set it up. That is madness.

Some local authorities have no colour scanners or no proper IT systems. We have been promised an e-planning system for years and it simply does not exist. The board also told me last week that it was waiting for legislation and that it has trialled an e-planning system, which has been going on for two or three years. It says there is a legislative impediment to rolling it out. The Minister clearly has to tease it out with the board. We need to prioritise an e-planning system. We talked before about consultation and engagement with the planning process.

I conclude with a call from city and county councillors. Their major concern is about public engagement in county and city development plans. We now have a situation where local authorities, including the one I live in in Dún Laoghaire, cannot even see the plans. They have to make appointments. The place is shut. They are planning to do a public consultation in the terminal building. I do not want to be too specific to that council since, all over the country, local authorities are not open to allow this, which is understandable because of Covid. That highlights the importance of e-planning and technology in the planning sector. I ask the Minister to prioritise this and give his attention to it.

I welcome the Minister to the House. It is one of many appearances he has made in his short tenure at the Department. I acknowledge his willingness and ability to engage with us as parliamentarians and to listen to the issues of the day. The results and output from the Department in the Minister's short tenure augur well. I listened to Senator Boyhan address difficulties with voids in his constituency. My local authority, Donegal County Council, is one of the most proactive in the country when it comes to housing initiatives. Much of that has been made possible because of initiatives put in place by the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke.

While there have been many problems in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage over the years, the reason for much of that turnaround and change is the willingness and ability to adapt to the evolving situation. Some of the initiatives brought in over the last months are welcome, including the blanket eviction ban with level 5 restrictions and the assurances given to those who need a bed, including rough sleepers, that one is available. One crucial element that has been addressed during lockdown is the commercial rates waiver. The knock-on effect from that in each Member's area has been significant and has not been talked about much. That has given security to businesses across the country, securing jobs and keeping businesses afloat, although some will find it difficult.

That assurance to business is critical. Moreover, from the perspective of our local authorities, if that was not in place, many people would be losing their jobs. The security it has given to local authority workers and the services they provide is phenomenal. We often talk about people who are on the front line. There are many people working in local authorities who, perhaps, are not considered to be front-line workers, when many of them really are. They are doing it day in, day out, without thought or consideration. Believe it or not, the people that run our sewage services right across the country are putting their necks on the line, day in, day out. They are probably taking more risks than healthcare workers, because they are in an environment that is very dangerous. They are there day in, day out, to ensure the services that we have come to expect are there. Those unsung local authority workers across the board deserve as much applause as many others do, and have received over the last number of months.

I look forward to witnessing the ability of the Minister's Department to evolve in respect of what is a difficult housing situation. The many initiatives that the Minister has brought in have been welcome. They are taking effect. I have no doubt, over the next number of years, with the results that have been coming in, in respect of housing in particular, that there will be good times ahead for all those affected. As they say, "Rome wasn't built in a day", but things are going in the right direction. I commend the Minister for that.

I would like to talk briefly about voids in the Louth County Council area. Some 97 voids have been brought back into stock in the last year and families are now living in them. Louth County Council has been one of the most ambitious local authorities in terms of taking voids back into use since 2016, when we were using compulsory purchase orders to take vacant houses. It is not all doom and gloom with other local authorities. In places like Donegal, as Senator Blaney said, and in my county of Louth, our local authorities and our directors of services are absolutely flying. In my last minute, I would like to pay tribute to the housing staff in Louth County Council. They have done tremendous work throughout Covid, whether it is people processing HAP over the phone, or maintenance guys like Gerard Savage going into homes to fix serious issues.

I want to raise one concern about maintenance. There is a serious issue with funding for housing maintenance in Louth County Council where, on average, it is costing about €350 per unit. It is much more expensive because there is more funding in other local authorities per unit. The problem with that is that the engineers end up looking at their budgets every week, and end up doing more on managing budgets, rather than getting the work done in the first instance. That leads to my final point. It will be brilliant once the national retrofitting scheme comes into play, because it will fix many of the issues in the first place. Local authorities will not have to spend money on fixing houses and doors, etc. I ask the Minister to provide an indication of when that scheme is due to be implemented.

I will be brief. I had a number of things to say, so I will shorten the first part. I wish to congratulate the Minister on the work he is doing. He is doing immense work. It seems to me that those who criticise him do not have any interest in actually solving the problems that the Minister is trying to address. I wish to compliment him on that.

We need to get residential construction up and running as quickly as possible. I am hearing from people who are experiencing problems in respect of mortgages running out, and who are then applying for mortgages again on the back of that. I have also heard from people who are in rented accommodation and had agreed to move into housing that was about to be built or was almost built, and which has been slowed down.

I will be parochial on one issue. I want to thank the Minister and his officials for agreeing to give an extra €1 million to Clonmel in European Regional Development Fund funding for the first phase of the redevelopment of Kickham Barracks. That means that the project will be ready to go once construction gets up and going again. It is hugely important to the town. I ask the Minister for his support in the announcement in a couple of weeks' time - or whenever it is made - for Clonmel.

It is a huge investment of possibly €58 million coming from the Department for phase 2 of Kickham Barracks and the town centre at Dowd's Lane and Bulmers.

On a point the Minister might be able to touch on, a White Paper is to be published soon on Irish Water. When will it be published? There is a real opportunity to have a better interaction between the councils and Irish water. As the Minister knows, councillors now find it very difficult to have interaction with Irish Water. We need to realign Irish Water and county councils with the development plans so that those plans align with each other, and not just have one on growth and one on environmental issues. They need to be aligned as we move forward.

I call Senator Sharon Keogan, to whom I apologise as she has been waiting. She was not on my list. On a personal level, I want to offer my sympathies to Senator Keogan, who lost her dear mother, Teresa Keogan, last week. Teresa, in her own right, apart from being Sharon's mum, is from a family that has given years of very distinguished public service in County Cavan and very distinguished service to the GAA. I want to acknowledge that.

As I call him to conclude, I want to thank the Minister for his kind remarks about the people who work with the homeless. I am very proud to say my son, Eoghan, is one of those. He works with the Peter McVerry Trust and I think he has met the Minister in that setting.

I call the Minister. He has ten minutes.

I am happy to yield one minute of my time to Senator Keogan.

I welcome the Minister. I have every confidence in him to deliver for the homeless in this country and I believe he is going to do a great job as Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

I draw to his attention an issue that has been overlooked by his Department. The issue arises where a tenant of a county council house may wish to buy. I understand all of the local authority housing departments are currently using a circular that was issued in 2019 to evaluate the price of local authority homes, yet the Department website has updated figures available. No circular has been issued to the local authorities regarding the most up-to-date pricing criteria to be used in making housing evaluations. Will the Minister move to update the local councils immediately as there is a huge difference in pricing outside Dublin? I thank Councillor Donal Barry in Waterford for drawing this matter to our attention.

As the House must be cleaned, we will have to conclude shortly. I call the Minister to conclude.

I understand. I want to pass on my deepest sympathies to Senator Keogan on the passing of her mother as I know that is not easy.

I will get back to the Senator on her specific query. We have done a review of the tenant purchase scheme and it is due to be published quite soon, in the coming weeks, although we are looking at some anomalies around that. I am conscious as well that as we are trying to build up our public housing stock, we want to make sure we are building it up, not selling it out the other side, so there is a balance and a bit of fairness needed.

I thank all Senators for their contributions, from Senator Fitzpatrick right the way through every side of the House. I have taken notes and I will try to deal with some of the questions now, and for those I do not get to, I will respond to the Senators in writing.

I want to make a couple of general points on affordability. As Senator Boyhan mentioned, the affordable housing Bill is going to the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for pre-legislative scrutiny in the next couple of weeks. I have been interested to note the response in some quarters. I respect Senator Moynihan reserving judgment on it until she sees it, and people are fully entitled to their views. I have been an absolute advocate of home ownership. I believe in it. I believe that if renters are surveyed, the preferred form of tenure for the vast majority of people who are renting at the moment is home ownership, if we can do it on an affordable basis, which we can, and also provide affordable rental, which we are going to do this year as part of the Bill. That Bill deals with three issues, namely, affordable purchase, affordable homes on State-owned land and affordable rental. It will also deal with how we can change the serviced sites fund to make that work better, and with shared equity.

Shared equity has worked. Some are vociferously opposing it already, and nearly foaming at the mouth in their opposition to it, and maybe it is the case that they do not want it to work. They should wait until they see the scheme before they decide to shoot it down in flames. Maybe they should just have a look at it, like, in fairness, Senator Moynihan has said she will do. People do not have to agree with everything, and not everyone has all the solutions, but they should have a look at it first and they can talk to their colleagues in the Dáil about it as well.

A couple of very important matters have been raised today. Tenancy protections are crucially important. I will do more if we need to do more. We have the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 in place, so protections are in place right the way through to April.

We introduced strong anti-eviction measures in respect of rent arrears by means of the Act. The RTB has been properly resourced through the budget with additional inspectors to carry out investigations as necessary.

People have stated that a number of eviction notices or notices to quit were sent post the first blanket ban. However, those were eviction notices and nothing was mentioned about their execution. I read the article, into which we actually fed. Many of the people who were issued eviction notices sought protection under the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020. In fact, the number was nearly identical. We cannot stop a landlord issuing a notice. Some notices could be spurious. Where they are, I have asked people to bring them to my attention. We received notification of some illegal attempts, but we stamped that out. It cannot happen. Thankfully, only 2% of tenancies end in dispute. Let us remember that when we discuss this matter. That 2% is 2% too many, but it means that 98% of tenancies are operating fine and the system works well. Still, we need to provide protections. If I need to introduce further protections, including through this House, I will do so.

Regarding Safetynet, I know Dr. Fiona O'Reilly and engage with her regularly. Like many other bodies, Safetynet provides a brilliant service in difficult times and I am doing what I can to assist it. Many Senators have mentioned the local connection issue. I have made it abundantly clear that local connection is no barrier to accessing emergency accommodation. When the "RTÉ Investigates" programme came out, I was clear in apologising for what happened to the two gentlemen. To be fair, though, it occurred on two days, with one occurring one day after the new process came into effect. We have managed the process since. Where anomalies or something else arises, I will deal with it. I am generally contacted directly. I ask Senators to do that. Last week, a Deputy told the Dáil that these issues were happening wholesale. I asked whether the Deputy had provided us any detail or contacted the Department and how many cases were involved, but there had been no contact. If there are issues, let us work with one another and address them. We must ensure that is done. Driving down homelessness needs to be the priority across the board.

I will back in the Seanad to discuss homeless services provision, including emergency homeless services, again. That will be useful. We have covered a great deal in this debate, including affordability and homelessness. My Department and the Department of Health are working together now. That is a part of the programme for Government. For example, I chaired the homelessness task force this morning, which the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, attended. I had a bilateral meeting with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, recently. All of this is being done to ensure that health supports are in place, particularly in terms of addiction and mental health, and our teams are working together. I saw how well a multi-agency approach worked in Waterford. It works. I also chair a regional drugs and alcohol task force, and I have seen from my area how that approach can work well. This is a Covid development that we will not lose, given the health benefits to people. It is nearly ironic in one respect that, with homeless people having to be shielded through the Covid pandemic, they are coming out of homeless services in better nick than when they went in. That is because all of these health supports are available to them.

I intend to put together another voids programme this year, given that the impact of the construction sector's closure is approximately 800 homes per week, public and private. That is the best estimate we have. We are effectively talking about 6,500 to 7,000 homes this year.

I will use this opportunity to comment on the construction sector. It has proven itself safe in its operation, including on residential sites. The Government's decision to shut it down was not taken easily and was not a reflection on the sector's work. Speaking as the Minister with responsibility for housing, the provision of homes, both public and private, is an essential service. Indeed, it is deemed essential under level 5 restrictions.

I hope, and am confident, that the sector will be fully open again on 5 March because it has been able to manage safety with new processes and procedures. One of the jobs in construction is managing risk and those involved manage it very well. An unprecedented decision was taken to reduce the movement of people. That is what it was for. Will it have an impact on our delivery? Yes, unfortunately it will. Will we endeavour to make up that time? Yes, we will do that also, by looking at other measures and elements that we can move forward with. The Government has given specific exemptions around social housing. There are issues with people with mortgage approvals on which I am engaging with the Minister for Finance as well, and some people who were very close to moving in to their own homes, literally within a matter of a few days. A practical approach is being taken to some people with health exemptions as well.

A Senator referred to an individual case where housing adaptations were being made for a child with special needs. That should be covered under the exemptions. Certain jobs, including utility works, can also continue. My goal is to get the sector back open on 5 March. We are working through this to see what we can do to refocus the work we are doing directly on homelessness.

I will make a couple of quick points on the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF, announcements within the next four or five weeks. That is important by way of urban regeneration across this country. It can be a significant boost for the country when we need it and will focus on some important projects.

The national retrofit scheme was raised. This is relevant to the maintenance of social housing stock. I have a submission to look at it. I am also considering the failure of a number of local authorities to use previous grants for the past two or three years. That bothered me a lot. Taxpayers have provided significant funds to retrofit and renovate homes and local authorities applied for money but did not draw any of it down. Basically, they did not do the work. I am reworking the scheme slightly to make sure that nobody is going to be penalised for that, but in future if local authorities get money to maintain and improve homes, they will have to use it. I was not prepared to sign off the scheme and move it on until some of those issues were addressed.

With your indulgence, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, a number of Senators have been good enough to stay for the duration of the debate to ask very good questions and make valid and appropriate points. I have taken notes and my team will have been looking in on the debate. We will respond as best we can to any of the queries or questions that I have not reached.

One final point is that the Land Development Agency Bill should be published either on Friday this week or potentially next Monday, as there was an issue with drafting. It is nearly there. The affordable housing Bill will be going for pre-legislative scrutiny. I am always very happy to initiate legislation in the Seanad, where I can. I have done so already and I will continue to do so.

I thank the Minister.

What about the human rights issue I raised?

As the Minister said, the Senator will get a written response. I thank all Senators for their co-operation. That concludes statements.

Sitting suspended at 5.05 p.m. and resumed at 5.15 p.m.