Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Questions (7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

Joan Burton

Question:

7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the economy will next meet. [44456/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the economy will next meet. [45285/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of times the Cabinet committee on the economy has met to date in 2019. [46415/19]

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Michael Moynihan

Question:

10. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet committee on the economy met recently; and the number of times it has met to date in 2019. [46420/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the economy will next meet. [46489/19]

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Brendan Howlin

Question:

12. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the economy will next meet. [46452/19]

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Oral answers (15 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 12, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on the economy most recently met on Wednesday, 4 September. It had been scheduled to have its first meeting of 2019 on Monday, 1 July, which was postponed due to the extended European Council meetings. The next meeting of the committee will be on 16 December. The Cabinet committee on the economy is responsible for issues relating to the economy, including one of the Government's flagship strategies, Future Jobs Ireland, which was officially launched this year. The Future Jobs programme sets out a forward-looking policy agenda to ensure Ireland responds to the many challenges we face in a fast-changing global economy. Implementation of Future Jobs Ireland 2019 is well under way and the first six-monthly report was published in July.

The focus is also on development of Future Jobs Ireland 2020, which will include a further set of specific actions across all relevant Departments and Government agencies for next year. To inform this process, the Government organised a Future Jobs Ireland summit last week. Issues relating to the economy are also regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made.

I wanted to ask the Taoiseach about the national development plan, which is a critical part of the national economy. The Taoiseach brought up the issue of schools. In Dublin West, Dublin North and Dublin Fingal, there have been disasters in schools in which serious flaws have been discovered. There has been a significant amount of rebuilding. The Taoiseach visited some of the schools himself. It seems, along with other issues, to have put the capital budget of the Department of Education and Skills seriously out of kilter. I will give some examples. Parents with children attending Edmund Rice College, which is due to have a new school built on the Phoenix Park racecourse site, have been told that it has been delayed by a full year. The Taoiseach is familiar with Pelletstown. The Educate Together national school there has been in temporary accommodation for a time and it has been told again that its project is being delayed. Parents are anxious about when their children will see the new schools that have been promised and provided it for, since it appears that there are constant delays. In the case of Pelletstown, the Minister for Education and Skills negotiated an extra period in the temporary accommodation but that will run out at the end of this academic year at the end of June 2020. Will the Taoiseach get in touch with the developers of this large site in Pelletstown who are making millions from building accommodation there over the past ten to 15 years? Will the Minister for Education and Skills ask the developers to extend the use of the temporary site until such time as the Department of Education and Skills and the economy sub-committee can get school planning back on the tracks again so that parents, teachers and school boards can have dates and times?

I think the Taoiseach said that the sub-committees on economy and social policy have been combined. I have a different issue to Deputy Burton's, relating to housing. Does housing development come under this particular sub-committee?

Yesterday, we saw recent figures from daft.ie on the increasing rents across the State, especially in constituencies that I represent. We are now looking at average rents just in excess of €1,300. That is if one is lucky enough to find a place to rent. Rent caps, their oversight and implementation were a significant part of Government policy. They are failing. There are too many loopholes for landlords to be able to get out of them. We have seen situations where landlords evict people into homelessness on the basis that their properties have been sold, and six months later, they are back on daft.ie, with substantial rental increases. There seems to be no comeback apart from a complaint to the Residential Tenancies Board. How much oversight is happening at these sub-committees, particularly with regard to housing and the increasing rents? What does the Government propose to do? I know that yesterday, the Government refused to take on board the Opposition proposals for a rent freeze, which Fianna Fáil now also supports. If a Bill came before this House on rent freezes, I presume that it would pass this time, now that Fianna Fáil has decided to support it.

When the revised withdrawal agreement was published, we asked the Government to provide an economic assessment of the agreement. The Taoiseach did not answer the question at the time but the Minister for Finance has informed us that something is being prepared but that it will not be ready for a while. This is striking. Is it credible that the Taoiseach did not have available to him a specific analysis of the impact of the differences between the previous deal with Theresa May and this new deal? The Taoiseach has already accepted in this House that the Johnson deal represents a harder and harsher Brexit for Great Britain and for the Republic and that this has implications for east-west trade. During the election campaign, the Tories indicated their intention of seeking to use regulatory de-alignment as a competitive tool against Europe. The Singapore-on-Thames argument is being made every day. In fact, they understand well that the only way that they might have a chance to limit some of the damage of Brexit is to seek competitive advantages through looser regulation.

This is a view shared by the Commissioners, many of whom are predicting that will be the objective. There is the added issue of dealing with the economic fallout from Northern Ireland. The fact that Britain will leave the Single Market and customs union has serious implications for Northern Ireland, even if it continues to have open access from most areas to both Europe and Britain. This access has potentially important opportunities but they cannot be grasped without a strategy to invest in key areas. What measures have been taken to define the economic costs and opportunities of the deal for Northern Ireland?

Earlier this week, Owen Keegan raised the spectre of increased parking charges, increased rates and increased tolls in Dublin City Council, as he saw it, because of the under-funding of local government. In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown this week, the new Fianna Fáil, Green Party, Labour Party and Social Democrats controlled council increased rates by 3.5%, increased parking charges and, interestingly, given the Green Party involvement, cut entirely the home retrofit budget, cut the environmental awareness budget and cut the community grants budget. This is fairly astonishing, frankly. Naturally, People Before Profit opposed such a shocking budget and proposed an alternative, which is that the refund scheme for vacant properties should be limited to one year so people do not get a break for leaving a property empty, which would put pressure on the owners of property to open up the empty premises that blight Dún Laoghaire and many other town and village centres across the country.

While I do not always agree with Owen Keegan, has he got a point? Local government is chronically under-funded. The property tax has not resolved or, indeed, assisted in any way in giving increased funding to local government. The consequences of that are going to be very damaging economically for Dublin city centre and for town and village centres throughout the country, such as Dún Laoghaire, where SMEs are struggling. This is not the way forward. We need additional funding from central Government to go into local government to secure local services and the future of town and village centres.

Last year, at the heart of a housing and rental crisis, local authorities built only 2,022 homes. A report entitled, Construction Sector Performance and Prospects 2019, illustrates that there is poor productivity in that sector. It contains an analysis of recovery of other sectors in the domestic economy and showed how far behind the construction sector is in terms of productivity and recovery. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, in its analysis earlier this year, stated that there is a widespread discrepancy in regard to subcontractors and agency workers, with multiple parties working to different schedules and budgets, fragmented decision-making and often incompatible work processes, and ill-defined risk transfer mechanisms. There seems to be a dysfunction in construction, although that has nothing to do with the hard work being done by workers. Nonetheless, we need better models. I have two direct questions for the Taoiseach. Will he and his Government continue to depend on ad hoc workers and subcontractors to build at a time of national crisis or will he ask local authorities to build directly? When does the Government intend to restore the capacity to local government to undertake direct build, which used to be a feature of local authority housebuilding for decades?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. In regard to the school programmes, the budget for school building increased by 25% this year and will be roughly the same next year. The schools programme has involved the overall construction activity during 2018 and 2019 of 139 projects ranging in value from €1 million to in excess of €20 million. There are also 327 projects with a project value of less than €1 million at construction during this time. The completion of 466 projects is expected to deliver more than 40,000 permanent additional and replacement school places and replace approximately 600 prefabs. Progress of projects in 2020 is expected to involve 60 new school building projects of a value in excess of €1 million going to construction next year and delivering 30,000 additional replacement school places next year. There will, therefore, be 60 new projects next year worth more than €1 million and many more worth less than €1 million, so the schools programme is powering ahead.

In regard to Pelletstown Educate Together national school, the new school is anticipated to be built and opened for occupation and use in September 2021. The school is currently in temporary accommodation in the former marketing suite. I have spoken to the developers and the owners of that site to ask them to allow Pelletstown Educate Together national school to stay there for another year because I know parents are concerned about the possibility that children might have to be bussed to Broombridge again, which they would not like, and I support them in that. I am awaiting a reply from the landowner but, ideally, we would like the school to be able to stay where it is until the new school is ready to be opened in September 2021.

In regard to the Edmund Rice school in Castleknock, the site was only acquired recently. There were delays in the transfer of the land, there are issues with road access and planning permission has yet to be sought and secured. Money is not a problem for that project - far from it - and the delays are for other reasons.

On rent controls, as I have said previously, rent pressure zones, RPZs, and rent controls work for the people to whom they apply - the hundred of thousands of people who are renting and who are staying in the house or apartment they are renting. They now have a guarantee that their rent increase each year will be somewhere between 0% and 4%. Where rent controls and rent freezes tend not to work is for properties that are new on the market to rent, mainly affecting people who have to rent for the first time, in particular young people and migrants coming into the country. That is why we always need to bear in mind the impact that rent freezes and rent controls have. They tend to work very well for people who are renting and who have a tenancy, but they tend not to work and can even disadvantage people seeking to rent for the first time. That is why we need to get that balance right.

On the comments made by the CEO of Dublin City Council, I point out what everybody in this House knows, namely, local authorities have many sources of income, such as Government grants, the local property tax, commercial rates, development levies, rents and other charges that they impose, so they have a lot of flexibility around the money they raise and the money they spend. The revaluation of Irish Water has had a negative impact on the Dublin local authorities and on Waterford, but the vast majority of local authorities in the country, perhaps 25 of them, have benefited from the revaluation. Revaluations happen all the time, and some people gain and some people lose out. However, local authorities have a responsibility to come in on budget. They make decisions and they have to prioritise. Just like anyone who does a budget, they have to decide how much they are going to spend and how they are going to raise money. That is what being in charge and being in government is all about.

Deputy Boyd Barrett is correct that the decision made by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council was to increase business rates and to cut the budget for parks and climate action. It is interesting to see that no sooner are Fianna Fáil and the Green Party back in power than they are doing exactly what they did when they were in government nationally, that is, raising taxes, harming business and not doing much for the environment - in fact, they are cutting funding for climate action and parks in Dun Laoghaire. In my view, that was the wrong decision. They could have made other decisions on revenue which they did not make.

In terms of building social housing, approximately 10,000 houses will be added to the social housing stock this year. A few years ago, we were criticised for leasing and buying a lot of those from private developers, and I understand the reasons for that criticism. The reason that happened was councils and affordable housing bodies just had not built up the capacity to build. That is now changing.

Between two thirds and three quarters of social housing being provided this year will be new builds, with the companies contracted by the council or by affordable housing bodies.

How many last year?

Some 2,000 local authority houses were built last year and 1,500 social and affordable houses.

It is not just local authorities; it is also affordable housing bodies like the Iveagh Trust and the Peter McVerry Trust, which are funded directly by Government.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.