Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Alan Kelly

Question:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [33500/21]

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Mick Barry

Question:

2. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34652/21]

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Peadar Tóibín

Question:

3. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met. [34693/21]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34760/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34840/21]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34843/21]

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Bríd Smith

Question:

7. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34845/21]

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Paul McAuliffe

Question:

8. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing is next due to meet. [34994/21]

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Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Question:

9. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will meet next. [36392/21]

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Mick Barry

Question:

10. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [36567/21]

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Oral answers (53 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 10 together.

The Cabinet committee on housing last met on Monday, 5 July. The next meeting of the committee is yet to be scheduled. This committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of programme for Government commitments regarding housing and related matters. There is significant work under way on these commitments across Departments and agencies, and the committee's current focus is on the preparation of the new multi-annual housing for all strategy.

Progress is also being made on legislation to increase the availability and supply of affordable, quality homes, including the Land Development Agency Bill and the Affordable Housing Bill. This is supported by the provision of over €3 billion for housing initiatives this year, which will fund the delivery of 12,750 social homes, the new cost rental equity loan scheme and the expansion of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, in addition to the serviced sites and the local infrastructure housing activation funds.

To help those in rented accommodation, the Government is introducing reforms to rent pressure zones, by linking the cap on rent price increases to the harmonised index of consumer prices. The reforms will also include an extension of rent pressure zones to the end of 2024.

While Covid-19 has badly disrupted the delivery of new housing, the new housing for all strategy will set out how we will achieve the target of an average of 33,000 new houses per annum over the decade, with a particular focus on affordable home ownership, in addition to tackling some of the challenges to the delivery of new housing supply.

I am aware this matter has been raised with the Taoiseach. The Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is being dealt with tonight and the Government is proposing an amendment to exempt funds from stamp duty on homes they lease to local authorities and approved housing bodies. The Government is providing an incentive for funds to bulk-buy homes and apartments for social leasing that we know is poor value. It is not good enough that the legislation is being rammed through in the way it will be later.

Second, on strategic housing developments, SHDs, the entire mess in this regard was created by the previous Fine Gael-led Government in 2017 but, dare I say it, Fianna Fáil did not oppose it. The termination is a welcome U-turn. There were clear warnings at the time about the problems SHDs would create. There will now be a time limit of 32 weeks for making decisions under the new proposal, not far off what it was meant to be in the first place before the SHD system was introduced. An Bord Pleanála will now have 16 weeks to hear and decide on an appeal. I have raised the matters of An Bord Pleanála and its resources continually in the Dáil. It does not have enough resources. It is making mistakes and losing court cases hand over fist. Will the Taoiseach ensure it has enough resources?

The issues relating to supply are so great that, coming up to the budget, I have to ask the Taoiseach quite directly whether he will introduce a vacant house tax for those buildings and homes that are being left vacant. I am not aware of how much he has been out during the by-election campaign but I have been out campaigning a lot and I have noted that the volume of houses and apartments that are vacant in the constituency that is going to the polls tomorrow is incredible.

Is the Taoiseach's climbdown on the vulture funds the most spectacular in the lifetime of this Dáil? If climbdowns and U-turns comprised an Olympic sport, I suspect Paddy Power would have the Taoiseach at short odds for a medal at Tokyo. Just nine weeks ago, the Taoiseach voiced strong opposition to local authority leasebacks from vulture funds. He said the message should go out loud and clear from the Government, yet tonight his Government will vote to provide a new incentive to the very same vultures and cuckoos. The Government is proposing an amendment that will allow vulture funds bulk-buy without paying the 10% stamp duty where they lease back to local authorities. It is good news for the vultures and cuckoos but bad news for the taxpayer, who will end up paying over the odds for the provision of social housing.

The programme for Government commits to examining the issue of defective housing within the first 12 months of government, having regard to the housing committee's report Safe as Houses, authored by Deputy Ó Broin. The Government's 12-month deadline has now passed and the working group chair was not appointed until March, which means a final report is unlikely before the end of next year. The question now concerns the implications of the delay for families in terms of the budget. As with defects associated with mica and pyrite, latent defects are an outcome from the Celtic tiger era of poor building standards, ineffective building controls and non-existent consumer protection. My colleagues met homeowners in Dublin last month who have been left in limbo, and no tangible solutions have been offered to date by the Government. Families in my constituency, Dublin West, are in the same boat.

The programme for Government also commits to assisting owners of latent-defect properties by identifying low-cost, long-term finance options to enable them to undertake the significant structural and fire safety work needed to make their homes safe. The affected families bought their homes in good faith so they should have better options available other than accessing more debt.

In addition to authoring the report Safe as Houses, Deputy Ó Broin introduced legislation last year based on its recommendations so it is difficult to understand why so little progress has been made by the Minister. Will provision be made in October's budget and will there be a retrospective element to the measures to enable homeowners to proceed with urgent works?

Many in the Opposition have pointed out what a disgraceful move it is to push through this amendment which will incentivise vulture funds to buy up estates if they can lease them back to local authorities.

The Taoiseach asked a legitimate question but no one has really answered him. He asked whether we want to turn off the supply of social housing, as if it is a choice between having vulture funds and not getting social housing. What is the answer to that question? If we need to deliver social and affordable housing, and we do, we should not incentivise the vulture funds to purchase them and then lease them back to the local authorities. We should cut out the vulture middleman and get the local authorities to buy these properties directly. By the way, this is better value, will cost less over the long run and will mean that the State will actually have an asset which can be allocated for both social and affordable housing. Why is the Government not doing that? It is the obvious answer to the question posed by the Taoiseach. He was right to ask it and nobody else has answered it but that is the answer. That would be a long-term sustainable solution and would prevent the turning off of the tap for social and affordable housing until we can get the direct construction of social and affordable housing up to the level it should be at.

I also want to focus on the incredible U-turn in the direction of a big sign saying profits for cuckoo funds. For two days in the Dáil now, the Taoiseach has been seeking to avoid answering the question of what prompted this U-turn. Two months ago, he at last admitted that something had to be done to tackle the domination of Irish housing by vulture and cuckoo funds. He pledged that he would clip their wings. Then, the Taoiseach sneaked into an unrelated Bill an incentive to bulk-buy new housing. Two months ago, the Taoiseach said that councils should stop leasing from these vultures. Today he is proposing a tax break to encourage them to do so. This will not only further incentivise the funds, thereby squeezing out ordinary people trying to buy a home, but it will also see more and more public money that should be going into building public housing instead lining the pockets of these cuckoo funds. What prompted the Taoiseach’s U-turn? Was there lobbying by the cuckoo and vulture funds? Why is he taking a position that so clearly, blatantly and obviously places the Government on the side of the cuckoo funds, the vulture funds and the corporate landlords and not on the side of ordinary people trying to access housing?

Last night, I watched “Prime Time” while I suspect most people here and elsewhere were watching the football. It dealt with the question of strategic housing developments. It was very interesting to watch it because it showed that current policy is clearly a failure of enormous proportions. It is good to see that it is being scrapped in October. However, a plethora of developments have been allowed to go ahead under strategic housing development, including one the programme touched on, which is the Player Wills-Bailey Gibson site on the South Circular Road. All of the proposed apartments, in 19-storey, 13-storey and eight-storey blocks, are being built to rent. The same is true along the Grand Canal between Drimnagh and Bluebell where an extra 4,000 people will be added to the population, which already struggles to access schools, doctors and basic amenities, and where there are no libraries, swimming pools or basic amenities. It is crazy that we plan to add thousands of people into communities and then blame these communities for taking judicial reviews. They do not do this lightly because such reviews are hugely expensive. They do it because their voices have been squashed out. It is good to see that strategic housing developments are being ended but what about the ones that have already been granted? Does the Taoiseach not think it is time for the State to intervene to say we cannot have this? Such intervention should be made, in particular, in terms of the planning. If planning goes ahead without strategic infrastructure being in place, communities are squeezed out. That is why they protest and object. They are not stupid. They are doing it for the benefit of all.

We are ending the first year in government. On the housing issue, within 12 months we have unlocked public lands for 100% public housing in places where that is needed, we have a new affordable purchase scheme and a new affordable rental scheme, we have protected 50% of new estates for owner-occupiers, we have doubled the obligation on developers on private sites, we have capped rent increases, we have capped deposits and upfront rents to one month, we have supported students by limiting the notice period, we have an immediate 20% interest-free loan for five years with no obligation to pay down the principal in the meantime while affordable supply comes on stream, we have the highest social housing budget and we have ended the SHD process, but we need to keep going. We need to ensure every aspect of the State delivers on housing in the way that every aspect of the State responded to Covid-19. I ask the Taoiseach to work with everyone and with every part of the State to make sure young families, couples, single people and people on the social housing and affordable housing waiting lists get homes by the end of this term in government and to allow us to show people that there has been a change in housing policy and that we can deliver for the people who need us.

I am concerned about local authority housing, particularly in Carlow where there is a lack of local authority builds. I want to speak about affordable housing because the Affordable Housing Bill 2021 is one of the most critical pieces of legislation. I support it and want to work with it to ensure it is there for people, particularly in Carlow and other areas where we greatly need affordable housing. My biggest concern, and I have raised this with the Taoiseach on several occasions, is the threshold to qualify to go on the local authority housing list. Ten years have passed since a review was done.

The other issue I wish to raise with the Taoiseach, and about which I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and his Department, is the level of Government funding to Carlow County Council. We are €2.7 million short in Government funding every year. This has a significant effect on the people of Carlow. Carlow County Council needs between 50 and 70 staff but it cannot get them because it cannot afford to pay them. This means our services are lacking. The staff are excellent and are doing a great job - this is a point I wish to highlight strongly. If a local authority is not sufficiently staffed, it is very hard on the staff who are there. It also has a direct impact on the good people of Carlow for services and resources. I ask the Taoiseach to give Carlow County Council this extra funding because it is the people of Carlow who are really losing out here.

I know that housing is a significant issue for the Taoiseach. I know he is working very hard on this with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

A number of issues have been raised by Deputies, particularly with regard to stamp duty. This was signalled some time ago by the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Darragh O'Brien, in the context of the decision to increase to 10% the stamp duty on investment funds so that they could not compete with first-time buyers. This was allied with planning decisions made by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. Both measures combined to make it far more restrictive and, essentially, to allow first-time buyers to buy houses in estates and so. They have been given opportunity. Of course they could not compete with the funds prior to those decisions being made. At the time it was signalled that the Ministers would be making provision for leasing for social housing.

We need to move to a different model of leasing. First, the State should own in the local context. Second, I would like to tell Deputy Boyd Barrett that I do not believe the State should be competing with first-time buyers to buy houses.

It is better than letting the investment funds do it.

It is not better-----

Please allow the Taoiseach to speak without interruption.

-----because it is squeezing first-time buyers out of the market. The real issue is that we are in transition here. We are a year in government. The housing for all strategy will make this transition from the current leasing arrangements. Some of this is in the pipeline but there is an immediate issue of 2,400 social houses that can be provided through this leasing model.

Allow me to make the point, please. We want those 2,400 families housed. Local authorities in some instances need to develop capacity and land to get into direct building. The leasing we are talking about here is not the dominant form or model for the provision of social housing at all. That gets lost in the debate because one would imagine that every social house is going to be leased and that is not the case. Up to 80% of such houses right now will be delivered either through approved social housing bodies or local authorities.

That needs to increase. We need to go back to the days when local authorities built houses, including social houses. That is what we want. That will require capacity build-up in some of the local authorities, which the Deputies themselves acknowledged, to be fair, in their presentations. Some of the local authorities need to get back to that and need to get it into their heads that that is where social housing is going. The State is saying we have to get involved, through the Land Development Agency and through local authorities, to provide affordable housing also and to provide opportunities. At the moment we are at about 19,000 to 20,000 homes for 2021. The figure was 20,000 last year. That just is not enough.

It still does not justify-----

All I see, however, is sloganeering, having a cut and objecting to this, that and the other in the midst of a housing crisis.

I gave the Taoiseach a proposal.

Deputy Boyd Barrett, please.

Take Shanganagh. Does Deputy Boyd Barrett not accept any bona fides? The Government has just approved the Shanganagh proposal, which involved social, affordable and cost rental housing. This year we will have the first major cost rental initiatives and scheme. I want to expand that so people can rent quite significantly below the market rate, enhancing affordability in the rental market for people, workers in particular. We also-----

A Thaoisigh, if I may interrupt, we are way over time on this question, so if we could maybe just-----

There were a lot of questions, though. I want to try to do justice to-----

I know, but-----

May we have an extra five minutes?

Shall we take an extra five minutes?

We should, to get the answers.

We will take an extra five minutes. That is agreed. If people would stop interrupting the Taoiseach, we might be able to get more questions answered.

When I spoke in the Dáil I said - I still hold to this view - that a limited degree of leasing has some importance. That was the exact statement I made, which no one has quoted, for obvious reasons. In the long term it is not great value for money for us not to own the property at the end. That is my view. I have said that to the Minister. The Housing for All strategy will deal comprehensively with all these issues, but the key approach will be building for social housing, affordable housing, and cost rental and bringing back voids. Deputy Kelly made a fair point. We cannot have derelict and empty houses. A penalty for not building houses or bringing units back into play is on the agenda as well. We have to look at all measures to get supply up. We have to get to a minimum of 33,000 on average per year and more over the decade. There will be some years over this decade when we will have to get to 40,000 because we have now lost the guts of about 10,000 to the pandemic between last year and this year. My only objective is to get more houses built for people as fast as we possibly can using as many avenues as we possibly can that represent the best value for the taxpayer. That is what we will do under Housing for All.

In response to Deputy Paul Donnelly's point about the defects, the Government has a range of measures and schemes relating to defective products and so on but we need stronger mechanisms in place from the point of view of a regulatory framework, bonds, insurance and so on. The taxpayer cannot pay for everything forever in respect of the deficiencies of private sector operators. The taxpayer cannot be the last resort that just mops up everything. A lot of work is being done on the mica and pyrite schemes and other issues such as fire safety.

As for the strategic housing developments, I do not think the legal capacity is there to disapply retrospectively permissions that were granted, but the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has been committed for quite some time to ending those. They are now being ended. Again, what has been striking is how few of them have followed through in being developed in many cases. One of the issues that Housing for All will look at will be how we get projects back on track and developed. There are lots of permissions out there. I am not just talking about SDZs.

Those projects are a disaster.

Generally speaking, lots of projects have not been developed at all and at the moment show no signs of development.

They are an utter failure.

As for the entire environmental approach in respect of compact cities, for example, the agenda there would be to activate brownfield sites to create housing opportunities within cities. However, the costs are proving particularly difficult, and the constant refrain from the sector is that they are not viable from a cost perspective, yet from a public transport perspective and a services perspective it makes sense to try to revitalise inner-city brownfield sites. However, that is proving especially challenging, to be frank, in terms of getting a model in place that would release the potential for the development of large-scale apartments at affordable cost.

They are not for the local people. They are build to rent.

I am just saying what people who are in the field building are saying. They say they cannot do it. I do not know whether they are right or wrong. They say they cannot and those sites have not been built on. That is the reality of brownfield sites. We have not had the development recently that we would have wanted. We will look at how we can get a town centre first approach in towns, but in cities-----

It is the wrong type of development. The Taoiseach should watch the "Prime Time" programme.

The Deputies have to listen too to people who are out there in the field trying to get projects off the ground because all I hear is-----

Yes, people will build to make profit. We need a private sector as well.

That is the point. We do not need houses for profit.

We will not get to 30,000 or 40,000 houses a year if we do not have a balance between State-driven social housing, State-supported affordable housing and private sector development.

We are not going to get there.

It simply will not happen.

(Interruptions).

I have to interrupt now.

I think Deputy McAuliffe-----

No. Sorry, a Thaoisigh.

My apologies.

Members keep interrupting the Taoiseach, which has held up the whole process. We have reached the end of the additional allocated time for these questions. We need, in fairness to the other questioners, to move on to Question No. 11.

May I respectfully say just one thing? Deputy McAuliffe summed up eloquently, with precision and factually a lot of the progress that has been made over the past year, and that will stand on the record of the House.