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National Economic and Social Council

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 12 May 2021

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Questions (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

Mary Lou McDonald


3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [21616/21]

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Alan Kelly


4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [23208/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [24248/21]

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Bríd Smith


6. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [24251/21]

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Paul Murphy


7. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [24254/21]

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Mick Barry


8. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [24637/21]

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Oral answers (29 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 8, inclusive, together. The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, advises me on strategic policy issues concerning sustainable economic, social and environmental development in Ireland. In addition to a range of research and background papers, the council published three reports during 2020: Addressing Employment Vulnerability as Part of a Just Transition in Ireland, NESC report No. 149; Housing Policy: Actions to Deliver Change, NESC report No. 150; and The Future of the Irish Social Welfare System: Participation and Protection, NESC report No. 151. The NESC work programme for 2021 is focused on a shared island project, which is a programme of possible co-operation in research across several economic, social and environmental areas in Ireland, North and South, and a wellbeing framework, a programme NESC is developing for Ireland by consulting with stakeholders. That is important work to underpin a Government objective.

Research is also being undertaken by NESC on a climate and biodiversity and just transition programme and work is under way on advice and research in respect of a just transition to a low-carbon economy and society. In addition, NESC's work programme also focuses on digital inclusion and the preparation of a report which will identify actions which will help better prepare individuals, the economy, society and the public service for a more digitalised future. In the area of welfare reform, NESC is undertaking the preparation and publication of a comprehensive report on the future of the Irish social welfare system. The council has so far published two reports in 2021, namely, Grounding the Recovery in Sustainable Development: A Statement from the Council, NESC report No. 152, and Shared Island: Projects, Progress and Policy Scoping Paper, NESC report No. 153. As reports are finalised in the relevant areas, they are brought to Government for approval in advance of publication.

The National Economic and Social Council's view is that Ireland must evolve from a speculative and highly cyclical system to a permanently affordable, stable and more sustainable system of housing. The council’s recommended actions to deliver change in the area of housing are concerned with bridging the supply gap by actively managing land for the public good and the affordability gap by engineering in permanent affordability. This is important work and the Taoiseach’s Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, could do well to pay more attention to it.

Two things struck me in recent times as I listened to the Taoiseach and his colleagues attempt to defend their record on housing. The first thing is that the Taoiseach presents the housing crisis as though it was a relatively new phenomenon. Of course, this narrative suits him. He would like us to forget that he was a member of the Fianna Fáil Cabinet which squandered the economic boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which was funded largely at the time by European structural funds as the Taoiseach will recall. He would also like us to forget that it was Fianna Fáil that nurtured the speculative and highly cyclical system of housing supply in Ireland that concerns the NESC so much. It was Fine Gael, of course, that doubled down on that strategy.

The facts and evidence now speak for themselves. The cost of renting has now nearly doubled in Dublin over the last decade and home ownership at the age of 30 has halved in the space of a generation. As the lead author of a study from the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, stated this week, "each successive generation [is now] less likely" than the last one to own their own homes by that age. That is the record of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in government. Despite the Government's petty sound bites, the truth is that Sinn Féin's analysis and our solutions, be they in legislation or policy, reflect the fundamental and transformative change to Ireland's policy that NESC, the ESRI and so many others, but especially the young, are now crying out for.

Therefore, I urge the Taoiseach to study the deliberations from NESC, the ESRI and all the other experts in the field and to listen to the voices of the generation locked out of home ownership, many of whom are falling into homelessness and "Generation Rent", as they are called. I also urge the Taoiseach to replace the kind of sound bite hostility and the almost glib attitude that he adopts, and instead work for the kind of fundamental transformation we need. I am urging him to do this because in the absence of that transformation we will be in this housing crisis for a very long time and that is simply not tolerable.

Thousands of young people and their parents woke up to a notification on their phones yesterday morning that stated the ESRI had found that those aged under 30 are likely to be the first generation worse off than their parents due to stagnant wages and a collapse in home ownership rates. That was the message that people's phones alerted them to, but those young people did not need that message or proof. This is a generation of young people who work hard and who get up earlier than their parents in the morning, but who have been let down. It is simply not a country for young people. These young people are earning less than young people did in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on their careers, their incomes, their opportunities, their desires and their ambitions. Young people who are more likely to work in the retail, hospitality, arts or leisure sectors will have had even lower wages over the last year and a half. Couples having lower wages combined with higher and rising rents means it is not surprising that home ownership for these people is just a pipe dream. The report from the ESRI found that while Covid-19 hit older people's health, it has hit young people's prospects of employment and earnings severely. Some 112,000 fewer people aged between 15 years old and 34 years old were in paid work in the first quarter of 2020 compared to a year earlier. Moreover, this situation has impacted their mental health. Young people have been left without help or hope throughout this pandemic. They are spending up to 30% of their disposable income on housing and that is not sustainable. Will NESC be examining this issue and what solutions will it be pursuing?

An extensive report was published by NESC in April on housing and urban development policy priorities. It calls for a site value tax and also for the reform of compulsory purchase order, CPO, powers and sale orders for vacant land and property. Would the Taoiseach support a tax on vacant housing, for example? It is a tool we believe should be used.

The National Economic and Social Council has regularly referred to the issue of water quality and the need to address the very poor levels of water quality as a result of the discharge in multiple locations across this country of untreated sewage. In my area of Dún Laoghaire alone, untreated sewage goes into Dublin Bay at 11 points. I see the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, issuing figures suggesting things have slightly improved, but a large caveat must accompany those figures because testing only takes place during what is called the bathing season. My colleague, Councillor Melissa Halpin, moved a motion in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council seeking year-round testing. She was basically told the council did not have the resources to do that.

Ringsend treatment plant has an ultraviolet treatment machine that can reduce the bacterial load of sewage going into Dublin Bay, but it is only used for a few months of the year. I presume that is for cost reasons. The decrepit state of the water infrastructure means that when it rains we get big discharges of sewage into the sea, because the surface water mixes with sewage and then overflows. That happens because we have not rehabilitated the water infrastructure. This is a pretty poor show from the perspective of all the people swimming, more now than ever before, but equally in respect of the damage being done to biodiversity in Dublin Bay and other places in the country where we have similar situations, such as in Clifden and Galway, for example.

At the very moment all this is happening, workers in the local authorities are being transferred to Irish Water. They do not want to go, and their conditions of employment are threatened and undermined. That is occurring because Irish Water is failing in its duty to rehabilitate the infrastructure and to give us the water treatment required to prevent the pollution of our seawaters and rivers with sewage.

Therefore, it seems to me that the Government needs to start to listen to the NESC on this and recognise the urgent issue of addressing the decrepit nature of our foul water infrastructure and water quality.

There are just over four minutes remaining for this question and we have three other questioners. I do not know whether the Taoiseach will have time to reply. I call Deputy Bríd Smith.

For some time, the NESC has been calling for fundamental policy changes on urban development and housing provision . These are sentiments that are often endorsed by the Taoiseach and other Ministers. However, for the homeless, the renters and the first-time buyers, it feels like Groundhog Day.

It was reported in The Irish Times yesterday that on the question of introducing a stamp duty intervention in respect of the cuckoo and vulture funds, the Government stated it is hard to put a timeframe on action.

Why is there paralysis and lethargy in moving on this issue? I believe the Government is very worried about spooking the cuckoo. As it does not want to spook the international investors or the vulture funds, it claims we must move carefully and slowly. The last thing we need to do is to move carefully and slowly. We do need to spook and frighten them and to make sure that they know that the game is up and they can no longer suck the life and blood out of people in this country who are on waiting lists, young people who are trying to buy their own homes and people who cannot afford to rent. The Government's slowness to take action against the cuckoo funds and the introduction of measures to stop the wholesale purchase of estates and apartments is symptomatic of the paralysis of the Government now and for the past decade in dealing with the housing crisis.

Will the Government do as the NESC has advised, and actually begin to "bring about fundamental change in its system of urban development, land management and in housing provision" and start by using its authority to stop the immediate purchase of land by corporate investors in homes and the utilisation of public land by private developers? We need sustainable development, not the sort of development that we are seeing all over constituencies like mine that are expanding under the guise of strategic housing developments. We cannot sustain it. Communities cannot sustain thousands and thousands of apartments without schools, infrastructure and planning. They should come first - not the apartments. Otherwise, the Government will break the communities around this city.

Are Deputies amenable to taking some time from the third group of questions? Will ten minutes suffice? Is that agreed? Agreed. I call Deputy Paul Murphy.

I will be brief. The NESC has referred to the "considerable public governance challenges" in the transition to a low-carbon economy and society. One of those challenges was displayed by the Taoiseach's own intervention yesterday in relation to An Taisce. Does he not see how entirely inappropriate it is for him, as Taoiseach, to attempt to put pressure on a publicly-funded, independent body, like An Taisce, not to perform its legal role? When one combines his own statement as Taoiseach of the country with the statement of Fine Gael, the other leading party in Government, which has a press statement on its website with the headline: "An Taisce a leading threat to future of Rural Ireland", and which contains in it a threat to withdraw public funding from An Taisce, does he not see why that looks very Trumpian in nature?

Finally, on the substantive point, does he not see the contradiction between on the one hand being in favour of a climate change Bill which strives for, and has a target of, a 51% reduction in emissions by 2030, while at the same time supporting a proposed cheese plant, which according to the calculations of Dr. Hannah Daly of University College Cork, UCC, would use up 2% of our total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030?

Housing is a ticking time bomb. Is it a ticking time bomb that will blow up this Government? Daft has stated this morning that we have just witnessed the largest quarterly increases in rent since the middle of 2018. In Cork city, rents have increased by 6.3% in the first quarter of 2021 in comparison to the first quarter of last year. The average rent is €1,483. In County Cork there has been an incredible 8.7% increase, bringing average rents to €1,137. In the Munster area, there has been an 8.8% increase, with just 238 properties available to rent.

These rent increases have taken place at a time when there was meant to be a national rent freeze. The mind boggles as to what rent increases we might see now that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Government have decided to take the handbrake off and to end the blanket ban on rent increases, while ending the blanket ban on evictions while they are at it .

The figures detailing housing availability in the Munster area point to the need for a massive programme of social housing building. In the Dáil this week, the Government talked up its public housebuilding credentials somewhat, but it measured it against the very low figures of recent years, when it needs to be measured against the scale of the existing housing need. Those rent increases show that the Government is failing in that regard.

A number of interventions have been made so I will need some time to deal with them.

Deputy McDonald spoke first. Government policy is very much focused on the key issue of the supply gap. I kept saying this to the Deputy for the past number of days. It is about supply, supply, supply. It is the key to the housing issue. We simply need to build more houses and we need to do it in a variety of ways. We do not need to put all of our eggs into the one basket, which was suggested by a number of speakers today.

Yes, the Government is committed to a massive social housing programme in comparison to what went on before. However, to get 50,000 social houses built in the next five years will be challenging to the local authorities and the agencies. The fallback of Deputy Barry is that we should have a massive programme, whatever that means. I have not seen one concrete proposal from Deputy Barry or others as to how to increase supply now, in the next three months or the next six months. I acknowledge that it needs a radical, whole-of-government approach. That is what we are going to do. We have been in office for ten months. In response to Deputy McDonald, I have not been in government for ten years. I am interested in the future and the young people of today and that the Government and this House can make a difference now in order that the young people of today have a realistic chance of getting housing and of buying housing. That is where my focus is.

Deputy Barry has spoken about a ticking political bomb for the Government. It is not about Government or parties. It should not be. It should not be about political point-scoring or who will gain an electoral advantage out of the crisis, which is what I am hearing from my perspective. It is about concrete measures that can get houses built and can enable houses to be affordable for young people. That does mean dealing with the supply gap and getting to a situation where we can build far more houses than we are currently building.

Taking last year, for example, approximately 20,000 houses were built. Where are the thousands and thousands of apartments the Deputies are all talking about? Some 20,000 houses were built last year and approximately 7,000 to 8,000 of that were social houses. Many more single houses were built all over Ireland. There is not private sector activity to the level there should be, actually. We need both public and private sector housing programmes. The ESRI has indicated saying we need 30,000 houses. Given the shortfall in the last three years and the impact of Covid, in my view, we need to increase that to potentially 40,000. Let us put the ideology to one side and get houses built. On a number of fronts, that is what we need to do. The State land is important. There is disagreement in terms of the remit and role of the Land Development Agency. It has been talked about for years. This Government is determined to get the legislative template through, to get action going and to get State land used for housing. In our view, there is much State land that is close to and in cities and towns that could be used for housing. Housing is the number one crisis and we must prioritise it above all and everything else.

Deputy Barry has spoken of a ticking political timebomb for the Government. It is not about the Government or parties. It should not be. It should not be about political point-scoring or who will gain an electoral advantage out of the crisis, which is what I am hearing from my perspective. It is about concrete measures that can get houses built, enable houses to be affordable for young people. That does mean dealing with the supply gap and getting to the situation where we can build far more houses that we are currently building. Taking last year, for example, around 20,00

That means using State land for social housing, affordable housing and a variety of schemes. It frustrates me that something like the Oscar Traynor Road issue can go on for years. That is an inability of the political system to deliver 800 houses that people desperately need. There are people in Dublin City Council who are going to go on interrogating this issue and will probably come up with new schemes that will take another five or six years to develop. That is what is going on in regard to many of the projects I outlined this morning that are being objected to.

If we are all agreed that this is a crisis that needs more supply, then we should deal with it in a really forthright way. Affordability is at the core of the Government's policy. The affordability legislation the Minister has introduced is designed to deal with the affordability question. There is investment going into capital, particularly in cities, regional cities and towns, to underpin the need for more residential development and housing. A total of €1.4 billion is going into water and €1.2 billion into the urban regeneration and development fund. The Sinn Féin leader spoke about the European Union and about Fianna Fáil using Structural Funds. Sinn Féin opposed the European Union from the get-go.

The word I used was "squandering".

For 30-odd years, Sinn Féin opposed the European Union. One of the most progressive things we did in this country and Sinn Féin opposed it in referendum after referendum. When Brexit comes along, it does a massive U-turn and says it is all for the European Union. For 30-odd years, it railed against the European Union and it is still a reluctant participant, if the truth be told, in terms of the European Union agenda.

Deputy Kelly raised several issues. There has to be a focus on young people in terms of housing. The Deputy was a member of the Government that welcomed in the investment funds at the time.

Those were different times.

The Deputy welcomed them. I accept that they were different times.

I did not welcome them. I was a Minister of State at the time.

The Deputy said at the time:

In order to stimulate housing supply, the Minister, Deputy Noonan, is implementing a number of key policies and initiatives, such as the introduction of the real estate investment trust, REIT, tax regime encouraging large-scale investment in the commercial and residential property markets...

I was speaking in the context of the circumstances we were in.

You said at the time it was vital.

Because of your Government and Cabinet.

I will take the point that the context of the time was that investment was required to get supply going.

Because of your decisions at Cabinet for a decade.

I am just making the point.

Young people have suffered the most as a result of Covid in the context of education, employment and housing. We now have to deal with that. There is a requirement for a new deal for young people as we emerge from Covid. That is what we absolutely need to do. I believe in home ownership. I believe in supporting home ownership initiatives. I am not clear that Sinn Féin does, for example. I just do not get that sense at all from any of its commentary or policy plans.

In terms of Deputy Boyd Barrett's point in respect of water, the report out this morning shows that 96% of bathing waters were classified as meeting or exceeding the minimum standards. A total of 111 bathing waters were classified as excellent in 2020, which is up from 107 the previous year. The bathing waters expert group has been asked again to see what we can do to improve that even further. River water quality is a real problem for the country and the EPA has published a number of studies on that, which we need to be very attentive to and deal with. That is why I am very impatient that we get going on a number of measures that can reduce the pollution of water quality in rivers. We need to look at the bathing situation in Dublin, Dún Laoghaire and other areas, particularly after heavy rainfall. Again, the €1.4 billion investment in water infrastructure is designed to deal with that. I believe in treating raw sewage. It should not be going into the waterways. There is a very extensive plan to get more treatment plants in place to treat the water so that people can enjoy the amenity of water in urban environments as well as, of course, in rural environments.

The Taoiseach might look into the ultraviolet plant as well.

We want to get homelessness down to very low levels. There has been a reduction of 36% in family homelessness, with families emerging from the emergency centres. There has been a 19% reduction overall. The Minister has been active on the homeless question and is engaging on a constant basis with the NGOs. Personally and as leader of the Government, I want to do everything we possibly can to reduce homelessness. It reflects on us a society that it has grown dramatically over time. We need to deal with it. There have been welcome reductions over the past 12 months but there are still challenges ahead in that regard.

The relevant Ministers will deal with the issue relating to the investment funds. We are not worried about funds. I have no interest in defending funds, none whatsoever. My only interest is in getting houses built so that people can get access to housing. That is my only issue. I am not interested in sort of protecting anybody. I have had no engagement with any fund or talked to anybody. That is not my agenda or the Government's agenda. Our only agenda is to increase the supply of houses that we are currently making available to people.

When is the Government going to challenge the cuckoo funds?

Deputy Paul Murphy spoke about public governance challenges on climate. My language has always been temperate. The comments I made yesterday were in good faith in terms of a public debate. This Government has brought in a groundbreaking climate change Bill that sets very strong challenges. The context of my remarks is that we need to bring people with us. I have concerns about divisions arising around this. That is my main point. We cannot suppress political commentary on these matters either, because they are important. The overarching objective is to get that legislation not only passed but that it would be a catalyst for change within the different sectors of the economy that must change to ensure a sustainable future and that we meet very challenging climate change targets. I have concerns around that in terms of how matters are evolving and how the debate is evolving in that regard. My language has been far more temperate than the Deputy's. He needs to reflect on his own language and the name-calling he goes on with on an ongoing basis and attempting to pigeonhole people into particular corners. I have no intention of going down that particular route.

In response to Deputy Barry, €300 million has been made available in Cork city under the urban regeneration and development fund. It is designed to make sure the quays can be ready to take residential development so that we can have compact cities and bring life and residential life back into the cities. That funding is reflected across the country. That is what the Government is attempting to do.

The Deputy talked about a massive programme of social housing. The Government has announced, and committed to, a very significant programme of social housing. It will be challenging to get that done through local authorities, commission the builders and get the work done. I am not clear on the mechanisms the Deputy would suggest in terms of doubling or trebling that or the wherewithal with regard to doing so. It is grand to just shout it out in the Chamber but I have never seen anything from him or from anybody in terms of working it through as a detailed plan. It just does not exist.

There is a little over a minute remaining.