Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Questions (31)

Barry Cowen


31. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the proposed powers and resources of the new national regeneration and development agency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9729/18]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Housing)

This time last week, the Government was talking about its commitments in Project Ireland 2040 to build 500,000 homes. Unfortunately, it rings hollow when we study the figures released today which again surpass previous records on homelessness. There are 9,104 people in homelessness, of which 3,267 are children. There are 1,517 families in emergency accommodation. Announcements, rhetoric and plans are not solving this crisis but putting them into action might help. One of the announcements contained in that document was the setting up of a new national regeneration and development agency. Will the Minister inform the Dáil what proposed powers and resources are available to the agency and when we will see it up and running? When will we see it making decisions that can help regenerate brownfield sites throughout the country and allow people to live in, regenerate and revitalise homes in town centres and brownfield sites throughout the country, as the repair and lease scheme has not?

I thank the Deputy for the question. Project Ireland 2040 signals a significant policy shift towards securing more compact and sustainable urban and rural development, which requires significantly more effective land management in key development areas. Against that background, it is proposed to establish a national regeneration and development agency to assist in ensuring a more effective approach to strategic land management, particularly in terms of publicly owned land. The agency will act as a national centre of expertise, working with and supporting local authorities, public bodies and other interests to harness public lands as catalysts to stimulate regeneration and wider investment and to achieve compact, sustainable growth with a particular emphasis on complex regeneration projects.

The detailed arrangements on the establishment, staffing and powers of the agency will be finalised as quickly as possible. At this point, however, I envisage that the agency will be tightly focused and will seek to work primarily through the statutory powers of the stakeholders it is being established to assist, such as the local authorities that already have extensive powers to acquire lands for development, compulsorily if necessary, and to deliver infrastructure. Whether the agency requires further powers will be considered by Government in the context of its consideration of the detailed arrangements for the agency's establishment.

I thank the Minister for his response.

The clock has frozen but I will trust my watch.

The clock is frozen. We might get the leader of the agency responding to the weather situation here to fix the clock.

They are like Batman and Robin going around the past few days.

Will the Minister elaborate further? I am sure a lot of preparation went into the decision to put this agency on such a footing. Various powers associated with it would have been agreed by Government for implementation as soon as is practically possible. The Minister said it may have powers in addition to those local authorities have for CPOs. There are a lot of problems associated with the CPO powers of local authorities because they do not have the funding available to them to force issues.

What is the timeframe for the roll-out of the agency? What pilot projects are in the offing? Surely some have been identified. What staffing levels will it have? Will the Minister be reviewing the incentives and penalties for agencies to use? They are a number of simple questions based on the huge preparation by the Minister and his Department to put this in place. Rather than just announce it and tell us what it could potentially do, will the Minister give us some specific details on what it will do to help to alleviate the figures we have seen today?

A lot of consideration has gone into this initiative by the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and me. One of the key principles in Project Ireland 2040 is compact growth, which means that 40% of the 1 million extra population will be in the cores of our villages, towns and city centres. With regard to strategic land banks in our main cities such as the north quays in Waterford, sites in Cork and Limerick and even sites in Dublin, particularly around the Naas Road, the agency will have a mandate to work across local authority boundaries to get strategic land banks into use.

I imagine the number of staff in the agency will be no more than 20. It is not about developing a new quango; it is about a group of experts who can help project manage certain strategic pieces of infrastructure. The legislation we will be using to set up the body will be the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971 under which bodies can be established by order to provide services to the Minister and local authorities. It is the same legislation that set up the Housing Agency. Under that legislation we will set up a new land management agency to work with local authorities and my Department to make sure we can bring the strategic land banks back into use.

The Deputy raised the matter of the numbers of families and individuals experiencing homelessness at the moment. While we have seen an increase in the numbers, it is important to note that since Rebuilding Ireland came into existence a huge amount of work has been done to help people who are experiencing homelessness. In the course of 2017, 4,000 people exited homelessness. If we look at the number of people and families who are homeless, in Dublin in particular, the rate of increase in 2015 was 106%. In 2016, it was 51%. In 2017, the rate of increase was only 9%. That tells us that Rebuilding Ireland is working. We are making significant progress. If we continue our efforts over the course of 2018, we will see a significant decline.

On 27 February 2018, there are record numbers of people in homelessness. It is almost two years since the Government took office and Rebuilding Ireland came into being. The public has not seen the return on that investment to date. I hope that changes quickly. An example of how it could be done would be a quicker turnaround between announcements and the putting into place of various actions. In the budget last October, we were told €750 million would be made available for competitive finance for the construction sector but five months later I do not know what mechanism is in place for that to come to fruition. The announcement last week presents a similar situation. I need to know that the roll-out of this agency will give it powers to provide for 40% of the population growth to be in town centres. How do I know it will happen more quickly than other announcements and plans that have not yielded results? We have been waiting five months for the competitive finance fund or the mechanism by which it can be allocated and applied for and I am no further on. I do not want the same to happen here. I recognise the potential contained within this initiative but it is about implementation. We do not want to be here again in five months' time saying there has not been a follow-up or the action has not matched.

Rebuilding Ireland has yielded results. The figures for 2017 show that the number of homes that came into the social housing stock was far greater than anticipated over the course of 2017. The figures also show a significant ramp up in the commencements of building homes and the applications for planning permissions. Each of those headline figures tells us that Rebuilding Ireland is working. I accept the Deputy's sincerity in hoping we can reverse and see significant improvements in the number of people who are experiencing homelessness. It is important to recognise that since Rebuilding Ireland came into action, the rate of increase has dramatically fallen which shows the plans that are being put in place and implemented are working with our partners in the voluntary sector. We have a record number of people experiencing homelessness when we look at the total number of adults and dependants in emergency accommodation services today. The rate of increase in the number of families is not back on the high of November. We will continue to work over the coming months to help get families into family hubs, which is the best first response. As I said in the statement I made earlier this afternoon, there is an ambitious rapid family hub programme to get additional family hub places in place as quickly as possible. The establishment of the agency will happen in the coming months. A huge amount of work has already been progressed. We have identified the legislation that we will set up under the body. We also have an idea of the sites we want to take into our strategic control with the local authorities and others.