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Tuesday, 28 Apr 2009

2009 Annual Output Statement for Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

We are meeting to consider the 2009 Revised Estimate for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Vote 25, together with the annual output statement. On behalf of the select committee, I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. I extend a special welcome to the new Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady. I welcome the officials also. I propose that we start with opening statements from the Minister and the Ministers of State. We will then hear from the Fine Gael and Labour Party spokespersons, following which we will have a question and answer session.

I welcome the opportunity to present to the committee my Department's expenditure Estimate for 2009. I am aware that committee members are deeply interested in the range of activities pursued by my Department and I look forward to our discussion. I am accompanied by my ministerial colleagues, the Ministers of State, Deputies Finneran and Áine Brady who has just joined the Department. The Ministers of State will also make opening statements on the areas in the Department in which they are involved.

The recent supplementary budget introduced by the Minister for Finance is designed to bring fiscal order to the public finances in 2009 and succeeding years. We face challenging times, but let there be no doubt that the Government is determined to maintain vital and essential services across the public arena. The fact that we are here to discuss spending of some €2.6 billion in 2009 under the aegis of my Department clearly demonstrates that a very significant sum is being provided to implement a range of programmes involving my Department, local authorities and our partner agencies. I welcome these provisions and can tell the committee that we will spend these moneys wisely and efficiently to secure optimum value for money. There are many competing claims for scarce resources and we must be rigorous in establishing priority needs at both national and local level.

The spend by my Department and by local authorities reaches every corner of the country, whether it be in the building of houses, regenerating run-down housing estates, extending water services, providing a new fire station or improving our parks. The work we do is of great interest to local communities and at its heart is our ambition to develop sustainable communities and foster the return to economic prosperity across the country.

In 2008, my Department streamlined its reporting processes by producing one document containing the Department's annual report and annual output statement, AOS. The same approach has been adopted in 2009 with the production of one combined report. This features two principal parts. The first part is the narrative annual report on the implementation of the Department's Statement of Strategy 2008-2010 and part 2 is the annual output statement listing achievement against targets set in the 2008 AOS and outlining targets to be achieved in 2009. A copy of the combined document has been circulated to the committee in advance.

The annual output statement is a high level overview of key targets and objectives. Its publication with the annual report therefore provides a more comprehensive overview on departmental activity for the year. This approach is in line with the recommendations arising from the OECD review of the public service, which called for greater integration between the AOS approach and statements of strategy.

Climate change is no longer a problem just for environment Ministers to talk about with other environment Ministers or with environmental groups. It is about our health, our society, our economy, our security and our politics. The Kyoto Protocol fell far short of an effective solution to climate change. However, it represented an important first step in the international climate change agenda. Developing a successor to the Kyoto Protocol by the end of 2009 is among the most important international issues of our time. Solid progress has been made in the international negotiations so far and there is now important guidance on what a Copenhagen agreement must contain.

In the post-Kyoto agreement, we already know that Ireland will be required to reduce its emissions by 2020 to a level at least 20% below that of 2005, and probably by considerably more. As we stretch the time horizon towards 2050, the scientific consensus is that the cuts required of developed countries could be as much as 80% to 95% if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided.

In addition to a range of measures across key sectors, our national climate policy projected Government purchasing requirement to the equivalent of up to 3.607 million tonnes of carbon per year in order to meet our Kyoto Protocol target for 2008-2012. This was based on economic growth forecasts which are now clearly too high. New projections which take account of the economic downturn show us as being much closer to our Kyoto Protocol target. Carbon finance projections for 2009 also point to lower carbon prices. While I have made my position on carbon credits very clear on a number of occasions, I recognise that the flexible mechanisms are an integral part of the Kyoto Protocol and I also appreciate the value of promoting green investment, particularly in developing countries. However, under no circumstances will the availability of carbon credits be allowed to deflect us from taking the necessary actions to place us on a low-carbon trajectory in the longer term.

The Government is determined to guide our economic development and well-being onto a sustainable and low-carbon path. Our framework for economic renewal includes, as a key strategy, the implementation of a "new green deal" to move us away from fossil fuel-based energy production through investment in renewable energy, and to promote the green enterprise sector and the creation of green-collar jobs. By successfully developing a thriving green technology sector, we can also look forward to making a significant contribution to emission reductions.

Energy efficient measures such as retrofitting housing stock, smart metering and tax incentives for expenditure on energy-efficient equipment will help business and the householder reduce energy costs. This will enhance our overall competitiveness as well as reducing our carbon emissions, helping us to reach our climate change targets.

The new systems of charging motor tax and VRT on the basis of CO2 emissions came into force in July 2008. Since then just under half of new cars purchased are in the second lowest B band category, followed by 30% in C band. According to the national vehicle and driver file, the three lowest bands, A to C, contain 85% of the CO2 car fleet. These cars attract a lower average motor rate than the average car charged on the basis of engine size. Both the Minister for Finance and myself made clear, when announcing the chances to VRT and motor tax as part of budget 2008, that the measures were intended to assist the environment but on the basis that they were broadly revenue neutral. It is clear that the changes have been extremely successful in encouraging more environmentally-friendly purchasing decisions, but at some cost in terms of VRT and motor tax income.

There are significant financial challenges facing central and local government in the coming years resulting from the downturn in the economic cycle. Local authorities are acutely aware of the importance of mitigating both their own costs and the costs borne by businesses in the current climate. The local government sector alone is responsible for a total spend of some €12 billion this year, and with its democratic mandate and broad range of responsibilities, the sector is pivotal in promoting and facilitating economic development at local level.

The committee will be aware that the Government decided to broaden the revenue base of local authorities by introducing a charge on all non-principal private residences. It will be payable by the owners of private rented accommodation, holiday homes and other non-principal private residences but will not be applied to new dwellings as yet unsold. The charge will be levied and collected by local authorities and will be used to support the provision of local services. Legislation will be published shortly to give effect to the new charge that will come into effect for 2009, and we will have an opportunity of discussing this in more detail with this committee.

The local government fund is not immune to the downturn in the economy. The fund will receive an Exchequer contribution of €417 million in 2009 together with the proceeds of motor taxation of some €1,040 million. While the income from these sources is reduced on the 2008 outturns, it will be supplemented by the pension-related deduction estimated at €80 million which local authorities will retain. On the general purpose grants from the fund, the allocations to local authorities for 2009 are being reduced by €30 million or 3.22%. However, this will be offset by the proceeds from the new charge on non-principal private residences which is expected to provide some €40 million in additional income for local authorities this year.

In setting any increases in commercial rates in the 2009 budgets, I urged all local authorities to exercise restraint to support competitiveness in the economy, nationally and locally, and to protect the interests of local communities. I acknowledge the positive response to this request and note that the national average increase in annual rates on valuation is 1.15%. I have also written recently to local authority managers on the contribution that can be made by local authorities to the maximisation of economic activity and employment.

Local authorities are increasingly engaged in sharing services in areas such as regional waste management strategies, water services and the collection of rents, rates, fees and fines on behalf of town authorities. This is an area where we will have to examine more closely efficiencies that can be achieved in sharing services. The Government's transforming public service agenda is focusing on how we can gain from sharing services. Groups have been established at central government level to look quickly at the areas of payroll and financial services to see if economies can be achieved by sharing common types of operations. My Department is represented on these groups and we will embrace the local government sector in the examination of these matters.

In the housing area, we continue to have a substantial budget of €1.4 billion to spend on a range of housing measures. This reflects the high importance the Government attaches to the provision of social housing and the needs of homeless people and other vulnerable groups in need of housing supports. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, will outline for the committee the measures we are investing in for 2009.

In 2009, we have a capital provision of €500 million for investment in water services infrastructure. Up to €400 million is earmarked for local authority water and wastewater schemes under the water services investment programme. Up to €100 million is being allocated to the rural water programme, mainly to tackle water quality standards in private group water schemes. The provision of €500 million represents an increase of 1% on last year's record outturn for water services infrastructure.

In these adverse economic times, it reflects the Government's ongoing commitment to preserving and protecting our water resources, meeting EU standards for drinking water and wastewater treatment and putting critical infrastructure in place to support industrial, commercial and other development. Investment under the programme will also support over 4,000 jobs in the construction sector this year, as well as many additional jobs in manufacturing and the operation and maintenance of new infrastructure after completion.

Much has been achieved in recent years in this sector. Since 2000, our compliance with EU secondary wastewater treatment standards has risen from 25% to some 92%. The increase in wastewater treatment capacity since 2000 is equivalent to the needs of a population of 3.6 million people. The increase in drinking water treatment capacity over the same period is sufficient to serve a population of 855,000.

The Government is determined to build on these achievements. The smart economy strategy emphasises the need to prioritise projects and expenditure, such as those in the water services sector, with the most immediate impact on the economy and employment. This year's provision will see 40 schemes completed and continuing momentum being maintained on the programme with up to 160 schemes in progress at the end of the year. The tighter economic situation means that we must redouble our efforts to ensure delivery of key environmental and economic objectives and best value for money under the programme.

There is an ongoing need to expand and improve treatment capacity to ensure compliance with EU judgments and other required environmental standards, to anticipate future economic and social development needs, and to align investment decisions with other national priorities within the framework of the national spatial strategy. Accordingly, my Department is undertaking a review of priorities in the next several months as the basis for the next phase of the water services investment programme to be published later this year. In addition, a value for money study on the efficiency and effectiveness of programme delivery will begin in the coming weeks as part of the Government's value for money reviews for 2009-11.

Allocations amounting to €100 million have been notified to local authorities under the rural water programme for 2009. This substantial commitment will continue to underpin the completion of the action plan for rural water supplies. The action plan identifies a total of 728 privately sourced group water schemes requiring upgrading to bring them into compliance with the drinking water regulations. By the end of 2008, works had been completed on 78% of the schemes involved, serving 73,000 households. The ongoing work under the programme will see compliance with national drinking water standards in group water scheme households rise to 98% by the end of the year compared with 95% at the end of 2008.

The Government is determined to protect capital investment in the drinking water quality through stricter enforcement of environmental standards. Local authority drinking water supplies are subject to supervision by the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency's report for 2007-08, published last week, indicates an increased level of monitoring and enforcement activity clearly demonstrating that the enhanced arrangements under the 2007 drinking water regulations are working well. The report is based on the results of monitoring drinking water quality for 2007 and it also highlights the agency's enforcement activities from September 2007 to September 2008. In this period the agency received and assessed 283 notifications of failure to meet drinking water standards. The agency carried out 59 audits, issued 47 legally binding directions to 15 local authorities and prosecuted one local authority for failure to comply with a direction.

The agency's report has identified 341 public water supply schemes which require remedial action to address deficiencies in infrastructure or operational practice. Following on from last year's report which identified 339 schemes, the schemes were examined to identify the appropriate means of addressing the deficiencies using a multi-agency approach involving my Department, the agency, local authorities and the Health Service Executive. Of the 2008 list of schemes, 134 are included for major upgrading under the water services investment programme. In the case of the remaining schemes, the safety and security of supply issues are being immediately addressed through abandoning existing substandard sources, better operational procedures and relatively small-scale improvements to the treatment process.

While several schemes identified in 2008 have been removed from the list for remedial action, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified a further 53 supplies in need of remediation. We will examine these new additions to determine the appropriate solutions. As well as investment in major upgrading under the water services investment programme which will address the deficiencies in some areas, a special €16 million fund was established in 2008 to meet the costs of relatively small-scale improvements required in schemes. It is anticipated that €10 million of this fund will be expended in 2009.

In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, my Department has appointed consultants to undertake comprehensive research on the waste sector. They will also cover a wide range of issues to help identify how best to pursue greater reduction in waste levels, improve recycling rates and deliver equitable and cost-effective waste management solutions. I anticipate the study will be completed in late July and I will then bring forward any necessary legislative and policy responses.

Meeting our international targets to divert biodegradable municipal waste from landfill, as required under the landfill directive, is one of the most significant challenges we face in the coming years. This will help us avoid the risk of infringement proceedings before the European Court of Justice with the potential for substantial fines. The directive presents us with very challenging targets from now to 2016 and onwards. For example, we generated over 2.3 million tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste in 2007, of which 36.2%, or approximately 843,000 tonnes, were recovered. The balance went to landfill. To meet our targets, we need to double the amount diverted from landfill to 1.4 million tonnes by 2010 and increase it again to 1.7 million by 2013, and 1.8 million by 2016.

The bottom line is that we need to see similar levels of progress in diverting biodegradable municipal waste from landfill as we have seen in recent years with dry recyclables, packaging waste and waste electrical and electronic equipment. This will require a range of measures to secure improved waste prevention, the greater promotion of home composting as well as significantly increased source segregation, collections of organics, such as food and garden waste, in both the domestic and the commercial sectors for centralised composting facilities.

With this in mind, I propose to make new regulations this year requiring that food waste arising in the commercial sector be source separated and put to more environmentally sustainable uses such as compost or bio-gas production. These regulations will, in tandem with the extension of the brown bin to domestic households, contribute to the diversion of substantial volumes of organic waste from landfill.

Remarkable progress has been achieved in a relatively short period in national performance in the recovery and recycling of packaging waste. Packaging waste recycling is very much the leading Irish environmental success story. The most recent national waste report, published by the Environmental Protection Agency in January, in respect of 2007, shows we recovered over 63% of packaging waste in that year. This confirms that not only does Ireland continue to meet its existing 50% target but that it has now exceeded its 60% end 2011 target for the first time, a full four years ahead of schedule.

Since 2002, my Department has allocated over €106 million in capital grants to assist local authorities in the provision of recycling and recovery services. The projects assisted include bring banks, civic amenity sites, materials recovery, composting and biological treatment facilities. Between 2002 and 2007 the number of bring banks has risen from 1,636 to 1,960 while the number of civic amenity sites has increased from 49 to 90, an increase of over 75%.

Continued financial support is crucial to improve further the levels of recycling throughout the country and to ensure that the appropriate infrastructure is provided towards fully integrated waste management in line with international best practice. I, therefore, introduced a new grant scheme, the waste recycling capital grants scheme, in July 2008 to replace the previous grant scheme which was in place since 2002 to support the ongoing development of recycling facilities.

Turning to heritage and the national parks and wildlife service, the reduction in available resources will necessitate a sharp focus on the priority objectives we have set ourselves in nature conservation as well as meeting declared commitments. Priority will be given to ensuring our obligations under the EU birds and habitats directives are met. The national parks are a much valued and utilised resource both for the national population and for tourists. We want these facilities to continue to attract visitors and we will provide the highest level of visitor facilities possible.

The funding provided for the built heritage in 2009 is a significant commitment to the conservation and protection of that heritage. It represents an excellent investment by the State in terms of the number of projects assisted, the quality and labour intensity of conservation work and its contribution to sustainable development. Regeneration of our historic buildings often acts as a catalyst for further heritage projects in an area and makes our towns and villages more attractive to tourists and locals alike. The important work undertaken by my Department in the built heritage field will continue through, for example, the national inventory of architectural heritage, advice series booklets and the world heritage programme.

Turning to archaeological protection, while a modest reduction in funding of archaeological heritage costs has been necessary, the revised provision is adequate to secure existing commitments and to maintain the viability of existing grant schemes. It will also maintain momentum on related publications and excavation programmes. Provision is also included towards leasing costs for a new archaeological archive premises.

I will also continue to support the local authority conservation grants scheme. The local authorities are very efficient in delivering this scheme and I am satisfied they are well placed to act as guardians of the built heritage in their own areas.

The world heritage programme will continue to progress in 2009 with a review of Ireland's current world heritage tentative list being completed, development of a world heritage website and the making available of a draft management plan for Clonmacnoise in connection with its proposed nomination for inscription on the world heritage list for public consultation.

The Environmental Protection Agency received a significant increase of over 40% in funding from the Exchequer in 2008. The slight reduction in 2009 reflects the fact that work on the construction of its new headquarters building has advanced and will require less capital expenditure this year. Like all public bodies, the EPA will need to seek further efficiencies and reduce costs in the year ahead. I am satisfied the 2009 provision will enable the agency to continue to carry out its important environmental functions. A clean environment offers economic opportunities — green technologies, tourism and food production among them. Continued investment in our environment and its protection, and in environmental research and eco-innovation, is crucial at this time, particularly in the context of job creation in the green technology sector. The EPA has a very important role to play.

An Bord Pleanála has a key role in ensuring that our planning appeals system operates in a legally compliant, efficient, fair and transparent manner. The board's Exchequer grant for 2009 is €13.581 million and this will enable the board to undertake its obligations in the current year. The board has a statutory objective to determine normal appeals and referrals within 18 weeks. However, the board's ability to meet its compliance targets has been severely stretched in recent years by the increased intake of appeals, coupled with an additional workload in regard to the approval of strategic infrastructure projects. This resulted in a significant backlog of cases at the end of 2008. Accordingly, the board is focused over 2009 on dealing with this backlog and restoring compliance with its statutory objective. In the short term, the slowdown in incoming caseload due to the current economic climate should facilitate it in this regard.

To assist the board in its overall efforts, I recently initiated arrangements, through the offices of the County and City Managers Association, to secure agreement that senior planning staff from authorities in the greater Dublin area would accept and process cases for the board on an agency basis, and I expect these arrangements to come into effect shortly. I also intend, in the context of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, to provide for a reduction in the board's current quorum of three to two, for the purpose of determining certain classes of routine cases. This should enable the board to increase its overall output rate.

The planning tribunal effectively concluded its public hearings on 29 October 2008. Since its establishment in November 1997, it has held 916 days of public hearings. More than 400 witnesses have appeared before the tribunal since 2002. As of the end of 2008, the total cost of the planning tribunal amounted to some €84 million. The 2009 provision for the tribunal is €8.4 million and is adequate to meet normal operating costs and such third party costs as are likely to arise for payment during 2009. It compares with expenditure of some €11.2 million in 2008.

Arising from a review of the operation of the planning tribunal, post-public hearings, the Government had decided, and the tribunal has been advised, that there should be certain reductions in the legal and administrative staff employed while the members prepare their final report and recommendations. These should lead to useful reductions in the costs of the tribunal over 2009. The chairman of the tribunal has indicated that, following completion of public hearings and barring currently unforeseen circumstances, the preparation of a final report and recommendations will take nine to 12 months to complete. The final report is therefore anticipated in late 2009. Thereafter, the chairman will address the award of third party costs for the period from the end of 2002.

It is vital that we continue to monitor and assess the national spatial strategy, NSS, implementation to consider what aspects are going well and what needs to be strengthened and better aligned. Accordingly, the Department is undertaking a "refresh" of the NSS to take account of the changing demographic and economic environments, taking account of the outputs from the NSS monitoring framework. Essentially, it is an analysis of the implementation of the NSS, including key challenges remaining, to optimise its effectiveness.

This "refresh" coincides with a review of the Northern Ireland regional development strategy. We have offered our full support to this process and the finalisation of the collaborative spatial framework on the island of Ireland should also help to acknowledge and reflect the interdependencies of the two strategies. It is intended to have a report ready for the Government next month.

Before I leave the planning area, I want to highlight current important work under way in the area of statutory planning guidelines which will assist planning authorities in the delivery of service in key areas in the development, management and forward planning processes. In the coming year I intend to issue draft guidelines for public consultation on spatial planning and national roads as well as new retail planning guidelines. I will also issue final guidelines on the planning system and flood risk management, taking account of the detailed submissions received during the public consultation process.

All of these guidelines will provide a strong platform for ensuring continued sustainability of planning and development into the future by promoting and channelling development in a manner that is sustainable in economic, social and environmental terms. When finalised, the guidelines will be made under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 which requires planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to have regard to them in the performance of their functions.

I have spoken about several activities in my Department's brief with particular emphasis on those that are related to important financial provisions in the Estimates before the committee. I hope I have provided members with the necessary overview of the Estimates and my colleagues, the Ministers of State, will complement what I have said regarding their areas of responsibility.

At the outset I indicated I was pleased to have such a large sum of money to direct towards important social, economic and environmental investment objectives, and I look forward to using these funds efficiently to deliver on the wide range of programmes that support these objectives.

I will be happy to deal with matters that members of the committee may wish to raise with me.

We will continue with the opening statements with the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, followed by the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady.

We meet at what is obviously a very challenging time here and around the world. The changes we have gone through since this committee discussed the 2008 Estimates have been dramatic. The 2009 Estimates are framed to enable us to meet priority economic and vital social investment needs, and protect the environment in a context radically altered from that of recent years. Equally, they are framed to enable us to focus on what is most important to promote recovery and protect the vulnerable in society.

The housing market has been an important factor in Ireland's economic performance over the past decade and a half. Successive years of record housing output, strong demand for home ownership through record employment and strong demographic fundamentals supported by a steady availability of credit allowed many thousands of households to realise their home ownership ambitions. More than that, it also delivered wider benefits through the revenues it generated for investment in priority social, economic and environmental infrastructure across the country, modernising and transforming Ireland beyond recognition.

Notwithstanding these features, the signs of wider economic slowdown began to emerge in the housing market long before the onset of the global financial crisis in the second half of last year. At this point prices are now back to 2005 levels. Output last year matched the level of output in 2000 and the volume of new mortgage lending in 2008 barely reached half the levels seen in 2005 and 2006. The market correction has resulted, on the one hand, in improving affordability and sustainability for the housing market itself, as well as striking a better balance within the construction sector and across economic activity generally.

However, on the other hand, a correction of the pace and scale that we have seen in Ireland, which mirrors, and is in many cases dwarfed by housing market corrections elsewhere, has had major consequences for the public finances. The task of restoring balance to the public finances has presented difficult decisions to the Government necessitating expenditure savings across all areas of public policy and in every Department. As the Minister, Deputy Gormley, has outlined, the budget of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must play its part in this process and the housing area is taking on a significant share of the necessary savings. It is important to bear in mind that the returns we have secured from the funds invested in recent years enable us to face into the challenges of 2009 and beyond from a position of relative strength. Any consideration of the adjusted, but still very substantial housing Estimate for 2009, needs to be viewed in that light.

The annual output statement before the committee today sets out some of the detail on social and affordable housing performance in 2008 and the targets for 2009. Before going on to deal with the funding picture for 2009 it is worth reflecting on the performance in 2008 under the social and affordable housing programmes for which I have responsibility. The very strong response in recent years to the ambitious targets set out under the social partnership agreement continued in 2008. Total investment on social and affordable housing, and improvement and regeneration measures in 2008 amounted to €2.4 billion. This level of investment ensured that the needs of approximately 19,500 households were met in 2008 from the full range of social and affordable housing measures — an increase of 14% on 2007.

Under the Towards 2016 agreement, a target was set for the delivery of 27,000 social housing starts over the period 2007 to 2009, including 2,000 units in each of the three years from the voluntary and co-operative sector. The final data for the number of social housing starts in 2008 are expected to show a reduction on the record level achieved in 2007 — at more than 9,000 — but it is estimated, nevertheless, that more than 6,800 starts were achieved and that some 7,600 housing units were completed or acquired under the main local authority, and voluntary and co-operative housing programmes last year.

Under the rental accommodation scheme activity has been increasing steadily with 6,900 households transferred from rent supplement in 2008, significantly exceeding the 5,000 household target. More than 18,000 former rent supplement recipients had been accommodated through RAS since its commencement in 2005. It is estimated that local authorities will achieve another 7,000 transfers in 2009. There is a possibility of extending this further, given favourable market conditions and the potential for deploying unsold affordable housing units under RAS-type arrangements.

Supply of affordable homes continued to increase significantly in 2008 with output increased by 25% over 2007 levels, to 4,500 units compared with 3,539 in 2007. However, the market for affordable housing measures has now changed dramatically. Just a few years on from the Towards 2016 agreement, lowering prices in the wider market eating into the differential between discounted affordable and market prices mean that we find ourselves with a slower uptake of affordable housing and an increase in the stock of affordable housing units on the books of local authorities throughout the country. I have taken early action to respond to the new affordable housing context and recently communicated a comprehensive strategy to local authorities to assist them in ensuring that available affordable homes are brought into use as soon as possible in the most appropriate and effective way. My Department has already approved proposals which will see some unsold units brought into use for social housing purposes very shortly.

The Government has shown a clear commitment to learning from the legacies of past social housing policies, and the excessive concentration of poorly served, large mono-tenure developments in areas already suffering from disadvantage. Last year, almost €202 million was provided to local authorities for regeneration and social housing improvement measures across areas of social, physical and economic decline to end the cycles of disadvantage which have crippled these areas. This investment allowed the continuation of progress on the Ballymun regeneration programme and a number of other projects in Dublin, Cork and Waterford cities.

While physical work in Limerick city is at an early stage of development following the establishment of the Limerick northside and southside regeneration agencies in 2007, vision documents have been published and launched, and master plans are at an advanced stage of preparation. Most activity in 2008 focused therefore on the ownership transfer strategy by the city council, the production of an holistic physical, social and economic planning document by the Limerick regeneration agencies and enabling works for future investment, as well as supporting a number of important social inclusion initiatives.

Elsewhere, good progress was maintained on the Traveller accommodation programme with 195 new and refurbished Traveller-specific units provided. In addition, local authorities began preparing new statutory Traveller accommodation programmes for the next few years.

One of the key developments in the housing area last year was the launch of the new "homeless" strategy, The Way Home. The three underlying aims of the strategy — the elimination of long-term occupation of emergency accommodation, the elimination of the need to sleep rough and the minimisation of the occurrence of homelessness where possible — are achievable aims. The funding provided for local authorities last year for the provision of accommodation and related services for homeless people, at more than €53 million, underlines the priority we attach to meeting those aims.

Last year, 2008, was the first full year of operation of the new scheme of housing adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability. Reflecting the importance the Government attaches to supporting people in continuing to enjoy the independent occupancy of their own homes, some 12,000 disadvantaged households were supported through grant aid last year.

The publication of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 last summer marked a critical step in modernising the delivery and management of social housing. The Bill, currently on Second Stage in the Dáil and which I expect will be enacted during the current Dáil session, will give effect to the programme of social housing reform measures outlined in Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, taking account of the life cycle approach and the objective of delivering sustainable homes and communities.

Work is also continuing on a number of substantive amendments to the Bill which I hope to present to the committee for consideration on Committee Stage. I will, of course, circulate any proposed amendments in advance in the normal way. These will include provisions relating to the tenant purchase of apartments, amendments to provide a statutory basis for the making of homelessness action plans and provisions for the new affordable homes purchase scheme announced in last October's budget.

I turn now to the Estimates for 2009. As I mentioned, all areas of Government spending have, of necessity in these difficult times, been affected in one way or another by the deterioration in the public finances. As the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, has outlined, the budget of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has not been immune to that. The adjusted housing provision for 2009, at €1.412 billion, shows a reduction across current and capital funding, but in the circumstances in which we find ourselves it still represents a significant level of investment by the Government in the delivery of a diverse range of housing supports.

The way in which we will deploy these resources has been guided by a number of key strategic objectives. The priority will be to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society — the homeless, Travellers, the elderly and people with a disability. I have consistently cited this as the cornerstone of our housing policy, and it remains so. Funding for the provision of accommodation and related supports for homeless people is therefore being increased by over 5% above the 2008 figure. In the context of the wider budget, this is a significant achievement at a pivotal moment in the implementation of the Government strategy on homelessness — The Way Home. The year 2009 will be a critical year in working to attain the aims set out in the strategy. In that regard, the implementation plan, which I launched last week, provides a robust framework to guide the action required at national level to promote and support effective implementation locally.

The total provision for housing adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability will also be up on the 2008 provision by 15%, to over €60 million. I am pleased to inform the committee that the funding for Traveller accommodation in 2009 will match the total spend in 2008, at €35 million.

The scale of the adjustment required has, however, necessitated some paring back of the substantial level of investment provided for the capital assistance scheme. Funding this year, at €110 million, will be down by €20 million on the 2008 provision. However, the Exchequer provision under the capital loan and subsidy scheme will be up by almost €5 million to over €66 million. In addition, in considering the overall funding for the voluntary and co-operative sector for 2009, it must be borne in mind that the 2008 provision was boosted over the course of last year by the provision of an additional €80 million of investment beyond planned levels under the capital loan and subsidy scheme. In other words, the necessary consolidation for 2009 clearly comes in the wake of record levels of investment, securing record output from the sector in recent years.

I would like to clarify that the voluntary and co-operative sector remains a key partner for the Government and for local authorities and the funding being provided means that voluntary housing programmes will continue to form a major part of the overall social housing investment programme.

New opportunities in the housing market have also played a part in shaping the provision. The softening market means that our funding can go further. We are therefore making the most significant adjustments in areas where we feel that the changed environment favours new and flexible approaches to programme delivery. We will also need to take into account developments designed to restore order to the banking and financial sector, including the establishment of the national asset management agency.

Initiatives such as the long-term leasing of accommodation over a ten to 20-year period in the delivery of social housing will be of major significance in allowing us to lessen the impact of the reductions in overall resources to a greater extent than would otherwise be possible. The €20 million being made available for this in 2009 provides the capacity to secure in excess of 2,000 good quality homes to meet social housing needs. The scope for investment to go further through long-term lease arrangements has meant that the bulk of the overall reduction in the housing budget is being applied to the main local authority programme. This has now come back from a figure of €1,030 million in 2008 to €740 million, although part of the reduction can be attributed to the transfer from capital to current of the €20 million ring-fenced funding for long-term leasing to which I referred. We can still maintain strong momentum in delivering on our targets and a similar level of completions to 2008, at more than 7,000 units, will be achievable this year, including approximately 2,000 units delivered through the leasing arrangements.

The Government is also keenly aware of the significant labour intensity of the capital programmes. That recognition is a common thread across many of the decisions in the budget, including in the provision for regeneration and remedial works projects, towards which we are committing significant funding to further progress key regeneration projects in a range of locations, including Limerick, Ballymun, Waterford and Tralee. The provision for regeneration and remedial works projects will, therefore, match last year's initial provision of €190 million. This also includes a number of energy efficiency measures targeted towards improving performance in the social housing stock as part of the national home insulation programme.

I refer now to other aspects of the 2009 Estimate which fall within my brief as Minister of State with responsibility for housing and local services. The importance of a modern and efficient fire service to the community and economy is recognised by the Government. The fire services capital programme is designed to support the local fire authorities in the development of a quality fire-fighting and rescue service. I am delighted therefore that the high level of provision in fire services will be maintained this year. The provision of €20 million will provide for the completion of four fire station projects and facilitate the delivery of 20 fire appliances and emergency equipment. It will also permit three new station projects to commence construction — at Edgeworthstown, Castlecomer and Ballinasloe this year. The additional allocation of €1.5 million in current expenditure will maintain emphasis in 2009 on the importance of fire safety awareness, through television, radio, on-line and outdoor advertising and the promotion of national fire safety week in October, as well as training programmes run by the Fire Services Council.

With regard to libraries, my former ministerial colleague, Deputy Michael Kitt, recently announced details of a two-year capital programme for public libraries 2009-2010, amounting to €8.5 million in 2009. This programme will fund a range of public library projects throughout the country, allowing for the commencement of ten new projects and the completion of nine ongoing projects.

The scale of the financial adjustment required to restore balance to the public finances has meant that no area — housing included — can emerge unaffected from the budgetary process. Outlining the details of a reduced budgetary provision is not something in which any Minister anywhere takes pleasure. I am no different. I would, naturally, far rather be here presenting to the committee the details of an increased provision for housing for this year, but the reality of the budgetary situation makes this impossible.

The reduced housing Estimate for 2009 is the result of some very difficult decisions within the Department and across the whole of government. However, the adjustments made are fair and represent the optimum outcome in the circumstances for the households which deserve to be the primary focus of any Government in times of plenty or in straitened times such as these — the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged. Not only that, they come in the wake of a period of sustained record investment levels that have enabled us to meet the housing needs of a record numbers of households. I take heart from that and from the fact that we have at our disposal new and creative ways of responding to need that can help us do more with less.

I thank the Minister of State. We will now take the opening statement of the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady.

I welcome the opportunity to add briefly to what my ministerial colleagues have said and to make a few specific comments on issues pertaining to older people.

As Minister of State with responsibility for older people, I want to use the resources available to me in the office for older people, together with partner organisations, to create opportunities for older people to participate to the fullest extent possible in all aspects of economic and social activity. This is a prerequisite for active, rewarding and healthy aging and is good for older people and for society generally.

We need to challenge some of the myths and stereotypes with regard to older people. We need to remind ourselves that the overwhelming majority of older people live completely independent daily lives and that four out of five of them live in private households without the need for care. This is not to say that older people do not need a range of services and supports to ensure that they continue independent living for as long as possible, in their own communities and in their own homes.

Notwithstanding the difficult fiscal and economic climate in which we find ourselves, I am pleased to say protecting the elderly and other vulnerable groups against the impact of the current recession remains at the top of the Government's agenda. In 2008 the Government directed a record level of resources towards housing supports for those in need of housing, as well as the many individuals and families already living in social housing. Substantial outputs were recorded in the case of voluntary and co-operative housing which is primarily targeted at the elderly and vulnerable groups with special housing needs. In its first full year of operation in 2008 the revised suite of grants for people with a disability and older people proved popular with older private householders and there were record levels of improvement works and adaptations, with more than 12,000 individual grants being paid.

More than 750,000 people fall into the category that can loosely be described as elderly. Ireland's population will continue to age in the decades ahead. We need to respond effectively through flexible and imaginative approaches to the diverse housing needs and supports that older people require. I welcome the commitment by the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to review the operation of the housing grants for older people and people with a disability. We need to ensure these valuable grant schemes are targeted at those in greatest need and that we get the right outcome for grant applicants and the taxpayer. My office will assist in every possible way with this review.

Sheltered housing provision is one of the most significant developments in fostering continued independent living among frail or vulnerable older people. A cross-departmental team has been established to examine sheltered housing provision for older people and to agree, as a priority, local structures and protocols for integrated management and delivery of housing and related care services. The team is chaired by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and involves the Department of Health and Children, the Health Service Executive, the Office for Social Inclusion, local authorities and representatives from my office. Significant progress has been made by the team in developing a policy framework for sheltered housing for older people. In turn, this will feed into the new national positive ageing strategy which is being developed by my office. I look forward to working closely with the group in developing innovative housing solutions to enhance further the quality of life for older people.

I am aware of how important the home environment is for the long-term well-being of our older community, namely, the importance of not feeling isolated, being able to meet people on a daily basis, being close to facilities and taking part in the ordinary day-to-day life of the community. Through the years many initiatives and schemes have been successful in assisting older people with their housing needs. We must continue to strive towards the development of innovative housing solutions which will further enhance the quality of life for older people. I welcome the recent launch of the home solutions research study which will be undertaken by the HSE and funded by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It will consider the benefits of supportive technologies for older people choosing to remain at home. I have no doubt that the report's findings will be a useful tool in informing future policy development in this area.

We will continue to provide appropriate accommodation to meet a variety of special housing needs, including those in need of sheltered housing with low-level, on-site supports. As I have just taken up office as Minister of State, I look forward to working with the committee on the matters under discussion.

The Minister has shown enormous disrespect for the committee, given the manner in which he has speedily tabled the Revised Estimates, about which I only learned last Friday.

The Deputy cannot be serious.

I am. I am seeing documentation for the first time, yet the Minister expects Opposition parties to have all of the resources of the State at their disposal. He has them, but we do not. We cannot analyse the output statement, the annual report and the Revised Estimates. I only received notification on Friday. While it may have been sent to my office on Thursday evening, we have other things to do apart from reading Estimates from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is not appropriate. While I will not challenge anything today, we need more notice to get our thoughts together and offer valid scrutiny. Were the Minister on the Opposition's side, he would not accept this. He should think the same as a Minister.

There has been a 16% reduction in the net total funding for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This is significant in terms of the 2008 outcome. While I understand and am not ignoring these difficult economic and financial times, the Fine Gael Party has been constructive in tabling many proposals in the past six months on how to do things differently.

The funding for social and affordable housing will be cut by €300 million. What are the details of the new starts that local authorities will be permitted in 2009? In County Kilkenny, no new start will be approved. I presume the same obtains elsewhere. This cut comes at a time when local authority lists are escalating out of all proportion. More than 60,000 applicants are on our housing waiting lists. The committee was recently given a sober presentation on social and affordable housing by the officials of the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. We are far short of where we expected to be when the 2007 plan was set out.

The assessment of social housing need carried out in 2008 stated that 56,249 units would be required to meet current demand, an increase from 42,946 in 2005. We are not keeping pace. Local authorities have entered into Part V contractual obligations with developers, but they have been unable to get borrowing permission from the Department or are unable to acquire the resources necessary to meet the contracts. What will we do to ensure that contracts entered into in good faith are honoured in the interests of those on the social housing waiting list?

In November 2007, I welcomed the revamping of the disabled person's grants to provide housing aid for the elderly and those with disabilities, and housing adaptations for the housebound and disabled. It was an excellent scheme, but the amount of money allocated to it bears no resemblance to its generosity. Will the Minister of State make adjustments to it or to the money? Although 12,000 applications have been paid for, how many applications have been received in total under the scheme's three parts? It would be interesting to know the demand, but it may have been overly generous when introduced. Notwithstanding this, we want to know the situation. No allocation for 2009 has been received by any local authority, even though the Minister of State has indicated that he will hold the 2009 funding line over that of 2008.

The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, mentioned prospective sites for the national asset management agency. Will he elaborate? Is a significant number of sites to be taken into public ownership for the purpose of developing master plans for social and affordable housing as well as market demand? Are there master plans for various sites that are well known throughout this city and elsewhere?

Concerning regeneration and remedial works, the Revised Estimate for urban regeneration has decreased from €11.7 million to €900,000, a reduction of 92%. What impact will this have on particular areas? What will be the actual amount for regeneration in Limerick in 2009? What areas will be targeted? Obviously, everything cannot be addressed with this figure.

The Minister, Deputy Gormley, mentioned a significant investment in water services. I welcome the fact that the Minister has held the line well on water services, especially considering the financial state of the country. I agree with that.

There is no point in giving money to the European Commission in fines under the water framework directive regime and we are better off spending it between now and then. That is essential. Much money is required in order to meet the problems we have, as have been very well laid out by last week's EPA report, which showed a massive increase in the number of notices to boil water that is not up to appropriate standard. Approximately one third of our rural water supplies are not up to standard and there are approximately 21 municipal waste treatment plants throughout the country, especially in major urban areas, that are in need of remediation, improvement or new schemes.

I suggest to the Minister that he consider these as a single bundle and put them out under the national development plan as a single tender between now and 2015. These are massive projects and I am sure there would be substantial interest in them in the current climate. They could be rolled out under the national development plan and the job could be done with the 20 municipal sewage treatment plants that are not working and are instead contributing enormously to the problems we will have in meeting the targets under the water framework directive.

I ask that the septic tanks issue in rural and other areas be addressed. There are people in housing schemes using septic tanks near Dublin Airport, which many people might not realise. It is not just an issue for remote or rural areas, and septic tanks are contributing enormously to the damage to our groundwater. We must put in place a scheme that would help remediate some of those problems. Has the Minister a programme in mind to assist people in improving the percolation and septic tank conditions that they have or to facilitate entering into agreements with providers?

We have carried out a very good study in this committee on wastewater treatment for single dwellings and it would be very worthy reading for Department officials, and we could consider implementing its findings. That would help people to continue living in rural areas while taking account of the improvement in groundwater conditions required to meet obligations under the water framework directive.

I have heard much about schemes which are in progress but how many new schemes will commence in 2009? There have been many announcements about schemes which are likely to go ahead in 2009 but will the Minister be honest with the committee and indicate exactly which will start this year? The Minister should not wait until after 5 June to make those announcements.

What is the expected capacity of incineration with regard to waste management plans? There are a number of schemes which the Minister is more than familiar with that have been approved. Will the Minister be asking that regional plans should be reviewed to take account of incineration?

I see the Minister has put down a significant reduction in landfill remediation. Deputy Lynch, in particular, and I have been raising this issue in the context of Haulbowline. Since last July I have sought a list of landfill sites which require remediation. The Environmental Protection Agency promised such a list last July but there is no sign of it. Why is that? The landfill remediation programme has been reduced from €46.287 million to €5 million, an 89% reduction in the Revised Estimate for 2009. Where are the sites, what reports do we have and what impact will that reduction have in resolving many environmental issues that I am sure are close to the Minister's heart?

There is no sign of the White Paper on local government, although it was promised by the end of 2008. I thought it was to be a major plank of the local government manifesto for the Minister, although it might still be. The Minister will have five weeks to get it right but we would like to see it sooner rather than later. We have our views and will publish them.

Before or after.

The Minister promised them by the end of 2008. We will show them to the people before 5 June.

The allocation to the local government fund is reduced by 24% in the Revised Estimate. Does this reflect a reduction in the number of cars being purchased? If so, how many vehicles were registered in 2007, 2008 and 2009 to date? Anecdotally, there is little happening in local garages in terms of the purchase of new cars. I welcome the labelling regime introduced by the Minister and the fact that people are more in tune with emissions-based purchases. However, I am interested solely in purchases and do not have much evidence of purchases in the garages I frequent nor from those with whom I am in contact. Are figures available to demonstrate the impact of the slowdown on the motor trade and the corresponding impact on the local government fund? I am glad the Minister mentioned the phrase "revenue neutral" in the context of that matter. Nobody but the Minister for Finance and himself expected the scheme to be revenue neutral. We pointed this out at the time and now the chickens have come home to roost through the impact on the local government fund.

The Minister has imposed a €200 million borrowing limit on local authorities. Some have received permission from the Department in recent times to borrow money. How strictly is the limit being enforced? What impact will this have on the roll-out of infrastructural programmes?

With regard to planning, the Minister has stated a statutory limit of 18 weeks applies to An Bord Pleanála decisions. There is no such limit. It is an objective to adjudicate on cases within 18 weeks. Development is largely at a standstill because not only are banks failing to provide money but An Bord Pleanála is constantly deferring cases. The 18-week limit is a figment of the Minister's imagination and he should check this with the board. Major developments are being held up because of its failure to meet the guidelines set down. Will the Minister provide for a statutory objective of adjudicating on cases within 18 weeks, particularly as he believes it is already in place? Many public representatives are deeply frustrated by the inability of An Bord Pleanála, given its current resources, to speed up development to allow some activity to take place in our communities. It is understandable, where an oral hearing is involved, that the objective of adjudicating within 18 weeks will not be met. Perhaps an amendment could be made to the forthcoming planning Bill to impose a statutory obligation on the board to make decisions within 18 weeks. If a local authority can make a decision on a planning application in eight weeks, why can the board not do it in 18 weeks? That is a reasonable objective, but I do not include oral hearing requests in this.

The allocation for the carbon fund has increased from the 2008 outturn of €3.7 million to €50 million in the Revised Estimate. Will the Minister explain this massive increase?

I refer to the issue of green public procurement in the building industry which has been the subject of ongoing debate in the Department for many years. The Minister's predecessor found it difficult to deal with the matter. What progress is he making towards having green public procurement which would have a significant impact on emissions?

The nitrates regulations forwarded to members on 30 March are no longer valid. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food issued a statement recently highlighting that there would not be too many inspections and so on. In the light of his statement, will the Minister bring revised regulations before the committee? The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food rightly pointed out that only one official, not three, should enter a person's property to carry out inspections. Will the Minister explain why he thought it was more appropriate to send three rather than one? The environmental liability directive has been transposed and came into force on 1 April. What are the requirements on each local authority in terms of implementing the regulations? Perhaps the Minister will give us an indication of how he envisages this will work.

The Minister when speaking of the national spatial strategy used the word "refresh". The strategy needs much freshening up given the previous one was ignored. There was no gateway fund and no adherence to the national spatial strategy under the decentralisation programme. I am interested to hear what new thinking will come into play in respect of the national spatial strategy to ensure the objectives laid down are met rather than ignored as has happened in recent years since the previous strategy was published.

What is the status of the national climate change review and when can we expect to see the draft of same? The conclusion was recently reached that e-voting machines are not appropriate for the future. It took a while for the Minister to reach this conclusion, to which there was resistance within Cabinet. Nobody wants to be portrayed as a dunce in regard to the roll-out of these machines. However, the Minister was courageous and resisted some of the pressures brought to bear in this regard. What savings are envisaged this year or next year in respect of the disposal of the e-voting machines? Why is a high level commission required to decide what to do with the machines? I thought the Minister would have had strong views on that prior to making that announcement.

I note, as announced in today's media, that under the moratorium on recruitment, no lifeguards can be appointed. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position on this. Also on the moratorium, a number of people in local government, in particular those aged over 50 years, will be able to avail of a redundancy package, the details of which in terms of implementation will be decided in due course. Does the Minister envisage, that if directors of service and senior executive officers avail of this package, they will be replaced?

I now call on the Minister and Ministers of State to respond to the questions appropriate to them.

A number of questions has been asked. I will do my best to respond to them.

First, no discourtesy was intended to Deputies Hogan and Lynch. The Revised Estimate was published five days ago. I did not want Deputy Hogan to work over the weekend.

One can work without always having to work on this issue.

Deputy Hogan will be glad to hear I did a little work on this over the weekend and that I did not receive any State assistance but used the Internet. In doing so, I looked at the Fine Gael pre-budget proposals, which are very interesting. I do not know if the Deputy is familiar with them.

I am familiar with them.

Prior to the supplementary budget, the Deputy's colleague, Deputy Richard Bruton, put forward detailed proposals to, as he put it, stabilise the public finances. One such proposal was a major cut in capital spending on social housing, the first issue raised by Deputy Hogan. The proposals were interesting and included the emergency suspension of uncommitted non-priority capital projects in 2009, including social and affordable housing and local roads, all of which amounts to €500 million. While I note this was not highlighted in the press material, it was included in the spread sheet under the heading, "A Smarter way to Invest for Jobs and Regional Development." I suggest to Deputy Hogan that this proposed cut would have a much greater negative impact on the social housing programme than will the cuts introduced by Government in the supplementary budget.

The Minister is wrong. I would not expect him to say anything else.

I accept this is embarrassing for the Deputy and, perhaps, his putative Coalition partners. Perhaps Deputy Lynch will comment on that matter.

We are speaking of a reduction of €140 million across the housing sector. The Fine Gael proposals seek a €500 million reduction. I will put that in context.

The Government has introduced cuts of €300 million.

That is the reality. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, will respond to some of the questions raised. I have previously stated my intention to publish the White Paper, just as I said I would deal with the issue of e-voting. I thank Deputy Ciarán Lynch for going out to the plinth to welcome the latter announcement, as he said he would.

The Minister predicted that I would do so.

When will the White Paper be published?

I will pick the time and the date.

Good man. I suppose it will take time.

It is a comprehensive task.

I look forward to its comprehensiveness.

I previously informed the Deputy that it will be published in sections. Its most innovative aspect is the question of directly elected mayors, which represents a fundamental shift in the way we approach local government. I intend this to be a landmark document and I want people to consider all the proposals it will set out. This is why I would prefer to publish it in sections. I concur that it is an important issue in the context of the local elections. I hope the election debates will concentrate on local government reform. I do not intend springing the White Paper on Deputies and have no difficulty in giving notice of the publication date.

I expect the Minister to cut 16% from that.

In regard to my speech on An Bord Pleanála, I said it was a statutory objective.

There is nothing statutory about the matter. It is a guideline.

It depends how one defines the matter.

I support the Minister's objectives but I he is wrong on that one.

It is in the Act.

I will check that out.

In regard to water schemes, 150 are in progress, of which 40 will soon be completed. Up to 50 schemes will commence later in the year.

How late in the year?

I do not know exactly but 50 schemes fall into this category. I assume they will commence on different dates.

Can the Minister supply the list of schemes?

I will attempt to provide the Deputy with as comprehensive a list as possible.

On the issue of Haulbowline and landfill remediation, the Deputy is confusing two funds. Haulbowline's remediation was funded out of the environment fund, which comes from the plastic bag and landfill levies, rather than the landfill remediation fund. The substantial investment in that project has received more money during my time in Government than at any other stage. I visited Cobh recently as part of a tour of the area.

The clean-up of the site continues to be a priority for the Government. I have not yet brought proposals to the Cabinet on how we will approach the matter but, as I have previously stated to the committee, much depends on the end use to which the site is put. An intense level of remediation will be required if it is to be used for commercial developments or housing. Many of the residents in the area appear to prefer the alternative possibility of capping the site, which obviously would be less expensive. We will have to consider these issues.

The explanation for the carbon fund is simple. It has to go for the price paid by the NTMA last year. The Deputy spoke about a revision of the climate change strategy, but the measure is not so much that as the introduction of the adaptation strategy. I made it clear yesterday that we were looking at a new framework for adaptation because adaptation must be informed by the latest information. The committee might know that we received a further report yesterday which was funded by the EPA and compiled by John Sweeney of Maynooth. It considers the effects on Ireland such as increased precipitation in some areas, increased drought elsewhere and the need for more flood protection. I agree that we need to continue the investment to improve water quality, but we must also continue and increase the investment in flood defences because we know that flooding will continue to be a feature of modern Ireland. As we approach the end of the century, Ireland will experience increased floods but also increased droughts. The adaptation framework, as I call it, will be complete by the end of the year, but it is an evolving process because we must continue to get the best scientific data from the EPA and other bodies.

I was asked about e-voting. If I had sought expressions of interest or gone to the market looking for ways in which to deal with the problem, it would have become public knowledge; therefore, the only approach I could take was to make the announcement and subsequently find the best way to deal with the issue. That was the only logical approach and that is why I made the announcement in the way I did. I am not yet in a position to say what savings we can make, but I will do so. I am sure the Deputy will ask parliamentary questions about the matter as we progress. We will do the best we can to ensure we get some money back in relation to the machines.

How could anybody enter a 25-year storage contract?

That is one of the myths the Deputy put out. In fairness, the e-voting machines are only one small part of the leases that he mentioned.

That is what we were told in an answer to a parliamentary question.

The Deputy has to be careful——

No, the Minister should be careful about the answers he gives us.

It is a question of how the Deputy interprets those answers.

I see. I have to ask the right question.

The leases concern ordinary electrical equipment — the boxes, the whole lot. I think only one was for 25 years.

Therefore, there was one.

That is not a myth.

No, but it was just one. The Deputy must remember that a lot of them are for ordinary electrical equipment. They are not just for e-voting machines. They are for a range——

How in the name of God could anybody enter a storage agreement or lease for 25 years?

I assume it was thought that we would be around and that we would have elections in 25 years' time.

I see, and the technology will be the same.

The technology in use now is the pencil.

The Minister obviously did not make any inquiries.

I was also asked about the national spatial strategy. It is correct to say the gateway innovation fund is on hold. It would be costly in the current context. However, in the context of the new planning legislation, we must ensure adherence not just to the national spatial strategy but to the regional planning guidelines. The committee will find not just that the national spatial strategy is being refreshed but that we understand its relevance. As we publish the legislation its relevance will become even more apparent.

The point about lifeguards is a myth. That is not true. There might be a few outstanding questions but I suggest the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, will address some questions and then I will respond if any questions remain.

Deputy Hogan raised three or four issues. The overall figure for social housing is €750 million. Local authorities and voluntary housing associations together provided 9,000 housing units in 2007, a total of 7,000 units in 2008 and we estimate that a further 7,000 units will be provided in 2009. The reason is that social housing is no longer provided under the builder turnkey process, as there are a number of other processes by which local authorities provide housing units. I expect the new initiative of long-term leasing to provide a significant number of homes. There are other ways to provide social housing apart from that, which are successful to date, including the rental accommodation scheme. We set aside €20 million for the long-term leasing scheme for 2009. It is estimated that scheme will result in a minimum of 2,000 houses. If we were to construct or purchase a similar amount of houses we would be talking about €400 million. Local authorities will be in a position to meet our targets — I hope their targets also — in so far as that is possible.

Deputy Hogan inquired whether there is a danger that we would not be able to pay for all the Part V schemes around the country. I assure the Deputy that is not the case. The allocation is fully committed to the existing contractual commitments already entered into for delivery of Part V in 2009. That is what has been agreed. Our officials have met with all local authorities in that regard.

I am fully committed to the regeneration of areas such as Ballymun and Limerick. The Deputy will be aware that I have visited those places on a number of occasions. The total figure for regeneration and remedial works is €190 million. That is equal to the amount of money that was available in 2008. There is no reduction in that amount. We are committed to that. I met with the regeneration boards in many of those areas. The big projects such as Ballymun and Limerick get highlighted but many other areas around the country will benefit also.

Individual housing allocations to local authorities are being made this week. I hope we will be in a position next week to make allocations for housing grants. There is much interest in housing grants but a review is ongoing. I am pleased to say we are in a position to provide an increase of 15% in that area. What we are providing will not meet all the demand on the books of local authorities but that has never been the case. No matter what scheme is introduced one meets the demand as one can and one prioritises. It is important that local authorities prioritise emergency works and projects that need work done now. We are providing substantial funds to local authorities.

There is a three-year waiting list.

This grant is only in place a year. People cannot be on a three-year waiting list for that grant.

We are still committing approximately €25 million to the old schemes in this year's allocation.

Is an assessment being carried out on the number of applications?

How many are there?

I do not have the figures with me.

Will the Minister of State get them for me?

The total estimated demand from all local authorities is €147 million.

How much is being allocated?

This year we are allocating approximately €60 million. The figure of €147 million is an estimate. In many cases the applications have not been processed. It may be decided that people do not qualify. That is the situation. The allocation is a 15% increase on last year.

Reference was also made to NAMA and sites. We have to expect at some stage that NAMA will have one of the biggest land portfolios in the country. We are not sure of that yet, but we are at a very early stage. As somebody responsible for housing, I would be very keen that whatever the advantages that can be gained from that national portfolio, we should look at opportunities for social and affordable housing. It is too early at this stage to say how that will come about.

The Department still intends, through the voluntary and local authority systems, to support about 19,000 households, which is comparable with last year. In the times in which we find ourselves, that is reasonable.

I note that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has just excused himself. He may have gone into the Dáil Chamber. We do not see him there too often, so maybe he is just familiarising himself with the place once more. I welcome the new Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, and I wish her luck in her portfolio. I look forward to working with her in the future.

The Minister started his contribution by speaking about climate change. What specific measures is he taking that are not the result of EU directives? What particular measures will the Minister be putting in place that are not a result of what the EU is telling us to do and to which we must adhere anyway? One measure introduced last year is a great example of how timing in politics is everything. I am referring to the introduction of VRT rates on cars. The Minister made a bags of it, and that is a fact. He brought the motor industry to its knees by introducing a system in the middle of the year. The dogs in the street know that new cars are bought in the January to February period, yet the Minister changed the taxation regime on new cars in the middle of the summer. This meant that people put off buying cars in the 2008 period as a result.

The intent of what the Minister did at the time was a positive development, as it moved us away from engine size towards emissions rates. However, the handling of the issue was a disaster for the motor industry and was the beginning of the difficulties in which the motor industry now finds itself. A predicted outcome of this move was that people would switch over to diesel engines, which they did. The prediction now is that within a number of years, 60% of the domestic non-commercial fleet will be run on diesel engines. I reckon that many people who bought those diesel engines are quite disappointed to find that having moved to a low emissions system, they are now being hit with a 5 cent tax on the type of engine to which they have converted.

There is always a balance between introducing a tax to arrive at the outcome of an intention and the loss of revenue involved. I predicted at the time that the Minister would eventually chase the revenue, which is what happened in the budget when 5 cent was added to the cost of a litre of diesel. Timing is everything in politics and the timing of this matter was very wrong.

Can the Minister explain how the issue of the non-principal residence will be administered at a local level? How will local authorities retain this money? What sort of income does he see being generated by local authorities across the country?

I have asked some parliamentary questions about the proposal to introduce a parking levy, and it seems that people who park after 9 p.m. and before 7 a.m. are exempt from the levy. This means that if somebody is working on a shift basis for a quarter of the year, he or she will only have to pay three quarters of the levy over the 12-month period. I would imagine that there will be massive bureaucratic and administrative measures required to generate this. How will any kind of traceability be put on this? Will employers state they are providing parking spaces? Last Friday the Minister visited Mahon Point and Douglas in Cork where there are two significant shopping centres with large car parks. Many of the staff are provided with car park spaces by their employers. Many of them earn the minimum wage and are subject to a 1% levy on the first euro they earn, yet potentially they could lose two weeks wages annually by parking at their place of work. That is a significant loss for somebody on the minimum wage who works in a retail park because a parking space is provided by his or her employer. How will the scheme be administered? How much revenue will it generate? Will employees on the minimum wage in the retail sector be exempt from this tax?

Last week the EPA published another report on water quality throughout the State. I am encouraged by the Minister's comments in this regard but significant questions were raised. The development levy income stream has dried up for local authorities. How will they address the shortfall? A number of them put aside more than 95% of their levy income to undertake water improvement schemes. Cork County Council, for example, used 98% of development levies for water improvement programmes. How will the shortfall be addressed? A sum of €1.2 billion generated by such levies was retained on account by local authorities at the end of 2007. This was exposed in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. How much money is now being held back? I imagine the sum has reduced significantly but if the revenue stream of local authorities has reduced, this money should be freed up urgently, particularly if matching funding is needed. Local authorities should be provided with this funding because, ultimately, as the largest procurers of construction contracts, the notion that money that could be used to generate a local stimulus is being held on account is criminal when local developers and contractors are seeking work and trying to provide employment.

I agree with Deputy Hogan's comments on An Bord Pleanála. The 18-week adjudication period is nonsensical because it does not happen. It beggars belief, given that staff in many local authority planning departments are twiddling their thumbs because applications are not being made. Enforcement is the issue. The vast majority of planning issues about which I receive representations are the result of poor enforcement by local authorities. I could name a plethora of them off the top of my head. The Minister is a great man for issuing guidelines. Perhaps he could issue guidelines to local authorities to divert resources to enforcement, given that they have a poor record in this regard in some areas.

When local government reform was announced, it was expected to be cost neutral. Will the Minister give us an update, in addition to publication of the White Paper? Has he budgeted this year for savings as result of such reform? Does he view this as a way to save money or will additional expenditure be incurred this year? I, too, will be on the plinth welcoming it when it arrives. What will be the cost implications?

On the substantive issue, the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, has stated the housing market has been an important factor in Ireland's economic performance during the past decade and a half and that successive years of record housing output and strong demand for home ownership as a result of record employment and strong demographic fundamentals supported by the steady availability of credit about which we all know allowed many thousands of people to realise their home ownership ambitions. I imagine everyone sitting around this table accepts that people deserve the right to purchase a home and should be afforded such an opportunity. However, the Minister of State did not refer to the fundamentals which have changed during the past ten years. When I purchased at the beginning of the housing boom, the cost of a house was approximately three times my earning capacity. Before the market collapsed, it was ten to 12 times my earning capacity.

Massive planning deficiencies created during this period remain to be addressed. Development was driven by developers, not local authorities. What happened during this period is very much at the core of our current difficulties. I am seeking direction from the Minister which is not the same old story — Fianna Fáil and its relationship with others. An old Chinese proverb concerns the story of a scorpion and a frog at the side of a river in the middle of a flood. The scorpion who is drowning asks the frog to put him on his back and swim across the river in order that both of them can be saved. The frog refuses to do so stating that if he puts the scorpion on his back, it will bite him which will result in him being poisoned and drowned. The scorpion suggests he would not do so as they would both drown in the middle of the river. The frog sees the logic in this and puts the scorpion on his back and swims across the river. Half way across the scorpion bites the frog and when the frog asks why he did it, the scorpion replies, "Because that is what I am." Fianna Fáil is what it is. It continues to bail out developers and the banks.

That is absolute rubbish. The matter is not related to the Estimates.

We must deal only with the Estimates.

I will relate it to the Estimates.

One would think nobody but Fianna Fáil was ever responsible for the building of houses.

I did not interrupt the Minister of State. I would like to know how much this 20 year leasing programme will cost us? At the end of it, we will not own a single house. Rent paid during this period will be offset against the cost of maintenance and the capital realised will be zilch. We will be leasing property for 20 years and not putting up even one brick. I am interested to hear from the Minister of State where the properties will be located.

It is obvious the public has seen through the Minister of State's home choice idea. To date, only 18 applicants have taken up the scheme. The intent is that following refusal of two loan applications, a person may approach the local authority for a loan. To my mind, the reason a person is twice refused a loan is his or her income is insufficient to meet the mortgage repayments or the property is overvalued. These are two good reasons to refuse a loan. It is a practise to which the banks are returning in terms of their duty of care, something we have not seen in a while. The Minister of State is providing that following two refusals of a loan application, a person can seek a loan from a local authority and, possibly, be granted one. To my mind, this amounts to double jeopardy. On previous occasions I have raised with the Minister of State the possibility that there may be a third scenario in the sense that the bonus payments issued to local authority staff may no longer be payable, as many of the programmes under which they were rolled out are no longer in place. Is a bonus paid to local authority staff under the home choice programme? If there is such a payment, we are creating a third jeopardy for individuals who acquire loans on a high risk basis. While I think the entire home choice scheme should be scrapped, I call on the Minister at the very least to issue a directive to remove or prohibit bonus payments.

In regard to the disabled person's grant, the Minister will recall that last June I predicted the scheme's imminent collapse. I told him it was the height of nonsense to claim that no problems would arise or that some local authorities would be in surplus at the end of the year. I was proved correct in August, by which time every local authority scheme had dried up and could not deal with further applications. By November, the Minister had to inject cash into local authorities to allow them to deal with a limited number of priority cases. He has supplied the committee with figures on the scheme but everyone is aware of what happened last year. The amalgamation of housing aid for the elderly with the disabled person's grant scheme was good in principle but, rather than merging the budgets, the funds for the disabled person's grant now covers both schemes and a mess has ensued. Deputy Sherlock and I spelt this out to the Minister last June but he disagreed with our predictions.

Does the €60 million to which the Minister referred represent an increase on the moneys allocated at the beginning of last year or on the total allocation for 2008? Can he provide data on the number of applicants to the scheme, particularly those in the priority one category? Last year, I dealt with a case involving a gentleman who was kept in hospital for three months because no money was available to adapt his home. When the second tranche of top-up funding was issued, Cork city and county councils were ignored until I raised the issue. Will this be repeated or can the Minister guarantee that priority one cases will be dealt with in the 2009 allocation? A number of such cases remain outstanding from 2008.

It is predicted that in excess of 4,000 affordable homes will be vacant at the end of 2009. The Minister has sent guidelines to local authorities on doing everything with these homes except the obvious step of dropping the price. Affordable homes are a moveable feast given that they previously sold for more than €250,000. That is a significant amount to somebody earning the average industrial wage. Unlike those who bought houses ten years ago on 20-year terms, an affordable home will now probably require a 35-year mortgage. This is the crux of the problem. A couple is offered a house by a local authority. Let us say the local authority values the house at €220,000 or €230,000 after the discount and everything else. A lending institution gives the couple a mortgage in principle or a mortgage direction that they have a ceiling of €250,000. They go to the bank to draw down the money, but the bank sends out a valuer and values the house at less than €200,000. That is happening throughout the country. The price of the affordable house does not matter. If the bank's valuation is lower than the price at which the State is trying to sell it, the buyer cannot realise the mortgage. I return to the choice argument. It is good banking practice to ensure that someone can get a property only if its price reflects the market value. Affordable homes are not reflecting the market value.

In a recent interview with Matt Cooper — I also took part in the programme — the Minister suggested that he wants to move all these properties into social housing, but that would undermine the basic principle. We will not end up with an integrated housing programme if the properties are sent off for leasing as social housing. Will the Minister take the bull by the horns? The prices of these houses were agreed 18 months or two years ago in an entirely different property market where we had to drag developers over the coals to get 20% from them. They would now give 100% if they thought the houses would be taken off their hands. Maybe we should go back to them saying that things have changed in the past couple of months and that it is time for them to lower their profit margins. We agreed a price of €280,000 months ago, but that was then and this is now. Will the Minister consider that? He has considered every other option, but the obvious option is to change the price of the properties.

Has the Deputy finished?

I am about to conclude. On e-voting, I think the Minister predicted I would have a joke on the plinth or something, but I did not. I just went out and gave a smile and made a nice comment. However, I am still at a loss as to why it took the Minister two years to come to this conclusion. No information came to the fore in the past two years other than that the Dutch and German Governments made significant decisions in raising the issue following the Dutch decision and that maybe the game was up at our end as well. I ask the Minister to give us some information about the leases. What does he predict will be the residual cost of finally putting the e-voting issue to bed? He can state whatever he likes, but the answers to parliamentary questions make it clear that we are tied in to 25-year leases, 20-year leases, 15-year leases and one-year leases. One of the strange things about the leasing arrangements is that the short-term leases are cheaper than the long-term ones. People talk about the lack of businesspeople in the Cabinet. I am not a businessperson, but I know that if I take out a long-term lease it should be cheaper than a short-term lease. How in the name of goodness did we end up with 25-year leases that cost more than one-year leases? It will cost money to get out of these leases. Will the Minister tell us how much it will cost to close down the project?

Perhaps Deputy Gormley could respond briefly. A lot of the questions are for Deputy Finneran.

Sure. Deputy Lynch said that he is not a businessperson. In my former life, I ran a business, and the very basis of running a business is to cut expenditure and increase profit. It is as simple as that. In this case, I was faced with a difficulty. I said that I was going to reduce the storage costs for the machines and I did that significantly through the central storage system. I will clarify the lease situation because I want to ensure that both members who asked about it understand the position. Responsibility for the security and safe storage of manual voting electoral materials — I refer to ballot boxes, stamping instruments and stationery — has rested with returning officers who are statutorily responsible for conducting polls. That is the simple point that needs to be made. Accordingly, responsibility for the storage of the electronic voting machines and equipment rests with them.

The most widely publicised lease, the one to which both Deputies referred, concerns the storage facility in Cavan-Monaghan. It was arranged by the Monaghan county registrar. While the length of the lease — 25 years — has been the subject of much public comment, the arrangement was somewhat exceptional in comparison with the leases for other premises.

The man is just doing his job.

I assume he is. That is the position. I hope that has brought some clarity to the matter.

To return to Deputy Lynch's question. The fact is I had to act as prudently as I could in the matter. I looked at all the international evidence. I waited because I knew the Dutch were examining the matter. One has to remember also——

That was a year and a half ago.

I am well aware of that. They are the people who designed the NEDAP machine and have the most experience. I also knew there would be a case in Germany where the NEDAP machine was used also. That case did not come to light until March. There were other instances also. In Finland it was necessary to run part of the local elections again because there was a challenge and they had to revert back to the traditional way. Likewise, in New York they stopped using these electronic voting machines. I had to take all of this into account because there had been an initial investment. I examined the figures and received detailed costings for retrofitting which would have included the voter verifiable audit trail, VVAT, but the cost would have been in the region of €27 million which in current circumstances would not be justifiable. In any case it was unlikely that it would have gained voter confidence. The Opposition parties would not have expressed any confidence in it and if voters did not have confidence in the machines, clearly the game was up for them. That is when I came to the conclusion reached and the process was carried out carefully and properly. That is the history of the matter.

To come to Deputy Lynch's question on how we are to proceed from here, the task force will look at how we can get best value for money for the taxpayer in this regard. When it has completed its studies, I will be able to provide detailed answers for Members.

Deputy Lynch raised a number of other issues. When I was out of the room, he referred to climate change. I heard the contribution he made on cars. He might correct me if I am wrong but I think he was asking about the specific measures I was taking that had not been dictated by the European Union. All the European Union is doing is telling us what are our targets. We have the Kyoto Protocol period and know what the reductions are in that regard. As the Deputy is aware, the targets for the post-Kyoto Protocol period are much more onerous. If we secure global agreement in Copenhagen, the figure could be minus 30%. That has not yet been agreed but a figure of minus 20% presents a huge challenge for this country. The initiatives to combat climate change are ours; we have to step up to the plate. The Deputy indicated that the consequences would present a problem for the car industry. That is stretching it a little.

As the Minister was out of the room, I will clarify what I said. I simply asked what actions would be taken by the Department this year that were not the result of a European Union directive. The better energy rating scheme derives from an EU directive that should have been introduced years ago. It dates from the time of a previous Minister, Deputy Roche, but it was not introduced. What incentives or initiatives are being taken by the Department which are not tied to an EU directive?

The issue regarding VRT was that timing is everything for the directive, and the Minister got the timing wrong by bringing it in during the middle of the year.

There is never a correct time.

There is bad timing.

When a measure is being introduced, we cannot wait until next year or the year after. If I had not done this, the Deputy would ask why I had not done it yet and the usual Opposition game would go on.

With due respect, he introduced the legislation in the middle of the year.

The Deputy must let me speak. I know he does not like what I am saying, but I am responding to him. My response is not in the fashion he would like, but I am just giving him a straight answer. To attribute the downturn in the car market to initiatives taken here is wide of the mark.

The Minister was out of the room, so he should qualify his comments.

There has been a substantial downturn in the US, Germany and here. The first thing that happens in an economic downturn is that people feel they do not need to change their cars and will wait for another year or so. In some cases, people are getting good value for money. If they opted for the lower bands, they will get a very good deal.

An Bord Pleanála is dealing with a backlog. There is a lack of applications in certain local authorities, so these authorities have spare capacity. My feeling is that we should take those people out of the local authorities and putting them into An Bord Pleanála so that we can deal with the backlog. That is what we are trying to do right now and we are trying to do it as quickly as possible.

I would like the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to deal with some housing issues and I will come back to the other issues afterwards.

Deputies have also indicated that they want to speak.

It would be quite naive to suggest that the construction industry has not contributed positively to the Exchequer over the past ten or 12 years. All we have to do is look at the reduction of the national debt, the infrastructure development, the provision of extra schools and so on. Of course it has had a positive effect. At the moment, there is an overhang but there are opportunities for me, as Minister of State, and for the local authorities. Long-term leasing is one of the things I am tempted to use.

This claim that Fianna Fáil are bailing out the builders has been trotted out so many times that it has become monotonous. Is there anything in the budget that will bail out the builders?

There is nothing. The matter of the home choice loan has been debated left, right and centre and it is there without any incentive. It is there as a facility for those who cannot get a loan somewhere else. The fact that it is there at all has kick-started financial institutions into giving loans to people. Regarding the two refusals, these are applicable to all local authority loans since the 1990s. There is no difference between the home choice loan and the local authority loans that we have in existence.

I know the Deputy has raised this before. He has thrown it out and he hopes that somebody someday will bite and find that it will be a good story to run with. I make it clear that there are no bonus payments for any of the personnel in the four local authorities involved. I thank the local authorities involved, namely, Dublin City Council, Cork City Council, Kilkenny County Council and Galway County Council, for providing a facility for people to avail of the home choice loan if they so wish and if they cannot get a loan for a house somewhere else. It is for those people who have already decided to build a house, those who are in a position to make their mortgage repayments and those who cannot get a facility because the banks might not allow them. The banks may not have the money. It is not there for anything else. It is just there for people who are not able to get a loan somewhere else.

The new housing grant is in for the past 12 months, but I assure the Deputy that both budgets have been put together. We have left aside about €3 million in some health board areas. We do not know exactly how much is involved, but we have left it aside. If it is not used, it will be used in the housing grant area. We have approximately €80 million for adaptation grants for this year, which is made up of Government and local authority funds. That is an enormous amount of money. The total estimate from all local authorities is €147 million. Some of these estimates are just paper at this stage. They have not been investigated and there is no costings involved; it is just an estimate. However, the €80 million the Government and the local authorities are providing will make a fair attempt at addressing many of the issues.

With regard to prioritisation, the local authorities have a responsibility as well. It is a matter for them to manage their budgets. I have made it very clear that the authorities are to prioritise and that they must have sufficient money available throughout the year to deal with cases like that raised by the Deputy. Nobody should have to stay in a hospital because a shower or electric stairs is needed. If the local authority involved is managing its budget properly——

The authority had no money after August last year.

I do not accept that.

The Government had to give the local authorities a cash injection last October because their funds had run dry.

I dealt with local authorities that came to me late last year and had not managed their budget in some cases——

This happened in June.

We gave out extra money at that stage to deal with the local authorities. We told them this year that they are to manage their budgets and to prioritise. Those grants will be announced next week.

In the area of loan limits and affordable house, there are around 4,000 affordable houses on our books. There is some difficulty in selling them. We are engaging in discussions about them on an ongoing basis with local authorities. We have had feedback that approximately 50% of them can be sold under the affordable housing schemes. We have also outlined a number of measures that can be considered for the others, namely, the incremental loans scheme. Some of them can go into the social housing programme.

With regard to the matter raised by the Deputy about difficulties in getting an adequate loan, I increased the local authority loan from €185,000 to €220,000 to accommodate such people. These are the types of facilities that we are introducing. However, I state categorically that at no time did I or an official in my Department instruct local authorities to switch affordable homes, which are considered to be a national asset, to the social housing programme. That is not——

On a point of information, is the Minister of State saying he instructed local authorities to release money to buy houses above the value cap?

I deny categorically——

That is what you just said.

——that either I or an official in my Department instructed any local authority to change the affordable housing to the social side. If the Deputy has any evidence, he should come to me with it.

Excuse me Chairman, but you are in the same party. Can you clarify that point for me? You just said that——

Deputy Lynch, you will withdraw that comment about me being in the same party.

I withdraw that comment. I would like the Minister to clarify what he said.

In some areas——

Are local authorities now giving loans on properties that are in excess of the value the banks place on them?

I am not saying that at all. The Deputy is probably aware that the maximum loan given by the local authorities is currently €185,000. There are properties available under the affordable housing scheme that are of far higher value than that. I want people to be in a position to buy them, so I have increased the local authority loan for those areas. These areas may be in some important parts of this city, or even the Deputy's own city. I am sure this will not apply in many other counties, but I do not want to see people not taking up an affordable house because they cannot get a loan in some areas of our country. That is what is involved here. Neither I nor my officials have at any time instructed local authorities to change totally the affordable houses into the social housing programme. That is not to happen. I strongly support sustainable communities. By and large, I want local authorities to stick rigidly to that principle. I know the troubles that arose in the past from monotenure estates, and I am sure the Deputy knows of them from his own city as well. The social problems we have today have resulted from monotenure estates. The local authorities have come back to us and are in a position to sell off 50% of those houses.

I see an opportunity for some of the other houses under the incremental purchase scheme. It is a good way to allow somebody to start buying their house the first day. I have always believed that when a person goes into a council house, he or she should be given a loan to buy some of that house if he or she is in a position to do so. Why should a person wait for years before being given that chance? We are measuring the current situation. There are 4,000 houses and there may be 5,000 next year under this scheme. They are a national asset and I am delighted they are available. It is up to me and my officials to get them to the people who need houses.

I will call the three Deputies who have not had an opportunity to speak yet.

I thank the Minister for his presentation and I congratulate Deputy Áine Brady on her elevation to Minister of State.

Many things have been said about developers and builders. There is a big difference between builders and developers. I know quite a few builders in my area. I met four of them the other day and 18 months ago, they were employing 100 people in total. Unfortunately, those jobs are gone and the builders are trying to get jobseeker's allowance to survive and to feed their families. It is very wrong to suggest that they are in the pockets of Fianna Fáil or anybody else. These are decent, hard-working people who provided work for many people. There is no question that there are developers who got greedy and made a great deal of money. They are not suffering today, and we should distinguish between the hard working honest builders and those developers. If we had them out there tomorrow, we would be glad to have them and get the country back on its feet again.

I welcome what the Minister is trying to do regarding An Bord Pleanála. What is going on there is ridiculous. There is hope for decisions in 18 weeks, but it is more like 18 months in some cases. It is important that applications are dealt with. The delay is holding people back from getting jobs on whatever little work is out there. The quicker these things are dealt with, the better.

I have raised the issue of shared ownership schemes. Some people qualified for such schemes in the past, but because their financial situation has improved, they find themselves paying 50% in loans and 50% in rent. The rent is now more than they would pay for a normal straight loan. I do not know what can be done, but the local authorities should give those people the full loan and they will then pay less than what they pay at the moment.

A vote has been called in the Chamber. Do Deputies want to make a brief comment or do they want to conclude the discussion on the Estimates?

There are many issues we would like to raise with the Minister and the Ministers of State, but we can talk to them privately about such issues. We are agreeable to finishing up now.

We recognise the difficulties raised by Deputy Scanlon on the shared ownership scheme. There is an opportunity for refinancing under the new equity loan.

One issue I would like the Minister to consider, given that European and local elections will be taking place, is the possibility of asking local authority returning officers to employ third level students as polling clerks at a time when it is very difficult for them to find summer work to help finance their education.

I will make inquiries in that regard.

There was a reference to libraries. In Kildare we have a very good community library which is based in a primary school where the teachers, parents, board of management and children, all working together, provide an excellent service for the community. There is no problem regarding access and so on. It should be used——

I want to conclude.

I congratulate Deputy Áine Brady on her appointment as Minister of State.

I too congratulate her. I apologise. It was remiss of me not to congratulate her.