Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Questions (55)

Thomas Byrne


55. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to bring forward proposals to improve student accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29604/18]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

What is the Minister doing about student accommodation, what proposals he is making and is there a plan? Can he tell students that their rent will be lower? Can he tell them they will have accommodation? Can he tell them what he is doing?

I believed the Minister of State was to answer this question.

The position on student accommodation is that we have developed a programme for the construction of purpose-built units. There is a pipeline of 7,000 student places in construction. Since the programme was started, 2,500 additional places have come on stream. The expectation is that we will match that figure in the coming year, with almost 3,000 in addition coming on stream. The question of the cost of these places has been assessed by the Minister of State along with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. They are determining the extent to which the rent pressure zones can be considered as a model for dealing with the pressure on student accommodation.

I am sure the Minister of State responsible for higher education has been unavoidably detained but, looking at the delegation order for her powers, I believe the Minister has retained most of the powers for himself. Therefore, I am quite satisfied he knows what is going on with third level accommodation.

The issue of rent pressure zones is one important aspect of the problem. My party and other Opposition parties published legislation in this regard. The solution is as simple as the Minister going to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and asking him to adopt our legislation. That addresses one part of the problem.

The rents are already very high. Rent pressure zones do not cover new accommodation, which is now being offered at very high prices. It will in the main be offered to very wealthy students coming from abroad. We welcome students coming from abroad — we need them and academics from abroad — but we have to make sure our students have somewhere to stay. Surely part of the university experience is moving away from home, engaging on campus, broadening one's mind and learning and studying while engaging in civic society on campus. Students do that in a variety of ways through organisations, whether related to sport, debating or another activity. They cannot do so if there is no accommodation. There are so many things the Minister could do. We could remove the bar on borrowing for institutes of technology. We could offer some incentives in respect of reducing the rents.

We could also have a capital plan for student accommodation.

The current provision of purpose-built student accommodation exceeds the target set in the plan published shortly after the housing plan. We are meeting and exceeding the targets. The application of the rent control regime to the student accommodation sector is a little more difficult than the Deputy suggests in that rent arrangements in student accommodation are by way of a licence, not a traditional tenancy. There is not the same tenancy security provided in student accommodation, which is part year and often involves fairly short tenancies and fresh lettings. The issue that needs to be examined is whether this alternative model, which is built around licences and short-term lettings, can be adapted with the same sort of evidence base to apply the rent pressure zones as has been the case in ordinary housing tenancies. This work is under way between the two Departments. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy English, will report progress in that regard soon.

The issue of licence distinction is one of the first things one learns when studying law in college and it is a red herring in regard to this particular issue. There is no reason that the rent pressure zone regime cannot be applied to this sector. It is simply a matter of drafting the provision in the appropriate way. We can restrict price increases for licences. We have done so in respect of leases even though we were told there were legal difficulties with doing so. We were told that could not be done and it would be unconstitutional but it was done. There was a messy compromise involved but it was done. It has not been perfect and it needed to be stronger. There was massive resistance to it from Government. We were told at the time that if we did not accept what was on offer we would be throwing tenants to the wolves and so on. Some progress has been made, but much more is needed. Let us not get bogged down in the issue of legal distinctions. Let us instead put a proper plan together because the targets set are not sufficient and students on the ground cannot access accommodation. We need a much wider take-up of the ability to provide student accommodation, particularly by institutes of technology and the technological universities that are soon to be established.

I accept the Deputy's point that we need to look at introducing a scheme of a similar nature, but the nature of the student market is different. We have all learned about the law of unintended consequences. It is important that we allow the work being done between the two Departments to continue rather than try to cobble together something that would not work. There is a degree of focus on this matter which matches the level of concern expressed by the Deputy.