Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Questions (23)

Darragh O'Brien


23. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the steps he has taken to strengthen the use of compulsory purchase powers by local authorities to acquire units for social and affordable housing purposes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45193/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Housing)

The Minister will be aware that in September 2018 a report by Indecon for the Department of Finance recommended a major programme of compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, to tackle vacancy rates across the country and bring vacant homes into the public housing stock. With that in mind, what steps have the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his Department taken to strengthen and increase the use of compulsory purchase order powers by local authorities to acquire units for social and affordable housing purposes to rehouse families across the country?

I thank the Deputy for his question.

Local authorities have a range of existing legislative powers available to them to deal with derelict and underutilised properties in their functional areas, for example, through the compulsory purchase powers and under derelict sites and housing legislation. This legislation is kept under constant review.

There is a clear focus on increasing the supply of housing available in both the private context and the social context. To this end, looking at our existing housing stock and whether we are making efficient and effective use of it is a key element of Rebuilding Ireland.

The key in this regard is the implementation of the national vacant housing reuse strategy. Every local authority has now prepared a vacant homes action plan and has designated vacant home officers to co-ordinate local actions to address vacancy and to identify priority "vacancy hotspot areas" and properties that can be quickly brought back into residential use.

Since the launch of Rebuilding Ireland, just under 1,200 vacant homes have been reintroduced to the liveable social housing stock, primarily through a range of vacancy initiatives. Local authorities are also working to bring homes back into use by acquiring dwellings in unfinished estates. Overall, we have also seen an estimated 11,032 homes come out of long-term vacancy into the housing sector from the third quarter of 2016 to the second quarter of 2019, inclusive, of which 7,551 were units which were reconnected to the electricity grid after at least two years, while more than 3,000 related to units connected to the electricity grid which were in unfinished housing estates. A proportion of these may have led to compulsory purchase orders in some instances, but this was not necessary.

Based on the most recent survey of local authorities, the vacant site levy has moved at least 42 sites into development. The derelict site provisions have also been brought into line with the vacant site levy provisions. In 2018 An Bord Pleanála concluded nine compulsory acquisition cases taken by local authorities under the Derelict Sites Act and which were referred to the board for confirmation.

These recovered properties aid us in the ongoing effort to meet our commitments under Rebuilding Ireland to ensure that Ireland's existing housing stock is used to the greatest extent possible.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am talking specifically about the homes that have been brought in by the use of compulsory purchase orders. I am aware that CPOs are a good stick to have and that they do not always need to be used, but there is a great disparity in their use in some local authorities versus others. With that in mind, when was the most recent circular his Department issued, if it has issued one, to local authorities advising them, or advising them again, of the powers they have? Some seem quite reticent to use them. I have specific examples of this.

The Minister talked about bringing vacant housing stock back into use, but only about 102 homes have been brought back into use under the repair and leasing scheme. That is just 13% of the target that was set. It is in principle a very good scheme. It should be a lot more successful than that. I have noticed recent advertisements in the papers trying to push it. That is welcome.

Are some local authorities ignoring the fact that they have these additional powers? What is the Minister and his Department doing to ensure that local authorities use that stick when needed to bring long-term derelict and vacant homes back into the housing stock?

One of the complications we have to acknowledge with CPO is that it involves some 70 pieces of legislation, some of which have their roots in the 19th century. The Law Reform Commission is undertaking a piece of work to see how we can reform and streamline CPO powers so they can be clearer. We have held workshops in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in the Customs House as part of our housing summits. We have taken exemplary local authorities in this area, such as Louth County Council, and talked through the different things they have done regarding CPO and how successful those approaches have been.

The repair and lease scheme is a good and necessary one. Often with local authorities, however, it proved to be the case that when they have engaged with someone on the repair and lease scheme the home has come under the buy and renew scheme. The owners have not gone for a lease. Instead, they have sold the property to the council and the council has subsequently renewed the property. In those cases, under the repair and lease and buy and renew schemes together, we have achieved a return of more than 500 properties. That has proven, therefore, to be a successful approach.

A pilot study was also conducted across a number of local authorities. That was initially based on the CSO numbers for potential vacancies in the country. That was a high number, but it included homes for resale, reletting and holiday homes. We asked six local authorities to do a field study. Each was to investigate about 1,200 vacant homes within their local authority area. To date, those six local authorities have inspected more than 7,000 homes. Of the 7,157 homes which had been seen to be vacant, only 205 proved actually to be vacant on the second inspection, which I think happened some six months later. That brings us down to a truer level of vacancy of about 2.9%, which is a normal vacancy rate in a normally-functioning housing sector. I will return to the other points in my follow-on answer.

Chartered Surveyors Ireland has submitted a report to the Government with recommendations concerning CPO law in Ireland. It is complicated legislation and change is needed. If we consider local authorities, would a practical step be to incentivise them to acquire vacant homes by covering conveyancing costs, for argument's sake? I think we can do much better than we have been doing in this area. Many of the 205 properties, of the 7,000 vacant properties to which the Minister referred, down to 205, are vacant because elderly people may have problems with the fair deal scheme and how that is assessed. That is prevalent and changes need to be made on the health side of things regarding how assessments are made. Many properties are vacant because people may not be able to get out of nursing home care. The method of assessment by the HSE means that those homes cannot be rented out. Specifically regarding derelict and vacant homes, I would like to know about the recent interactions the Minister has had with local authorities. I believe some local authorities just do not want to go down this road. Has a recent circular been issued to local authorities? Would the Minister consider incentivising local authorities by covering the conveyancing costs for homes that they bring back into the housing stock?

Deputy Darragh O'Brien is absolutely correct concerning the fair deal scheme. It is one of the things I first suggested when I came into this role. There was a huge backlash publicly about forcing people in nursing homes to become landlords. That is not what we were talking about at all. We were talking about a situation where someone might want to get a property back into use and enabling them to do so in a way that would not penalise them. That is now being looked at by the Department of Health. Reforms concerning the fair deal scheme are coming forward in the legislative programme. My intention and hope, working with officials from the Department of Health, is to be able to put forward amendments at that stage to get those properties back into use. Those changes will require sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I think that many vacancies are coming from the fair deal scheme. Many vacancies also come about because of other reasons, such as probate, which can be difficult to disentangle.

Our ultimate aim, however, is not to use CPO. We want the threat of CPO to be strong enough to ensure that properties come back into use. An indicator of some progress in this area is the more than 7,000 homes reconnected to the electricity grid after more than two years of long-term vacancy because of engagements that have occurred. Between my Department and the local authorities, every area now has a vacancy plan and a vacancy officer. That is the result of the ongoing work we have with the local authorities on the important issue of vacancy. Schemes are in place to cover the costs that might be encountered where somebody might coming under the repair and lease scheme. In those situations, we will fund the work that needs to be done to get property back into use. It must then be used for social housing and that is an important caveat.