I thank the Chairman and members for inviting us to attend today in order to discuss issues relating to housing and homelessness and to answer any questions they may have about the Department's functions, operational plans or administrative procedures. I am the assistant secretary with responsibility for social housing policy. I am accompanied by Ms Sarah Neary, principal adviser in the architecture and building standards unit, Mr. Philip Nugent, principal officer with the rental and approved housing body regulation unit, and Mr. Colin Ryan, senior adviser in planning.
The committee will have heard from the Minister this morning about the Government’s intention, in line with the commitments in the programme for a partnership Government, to develop and publish an Action Plan for Housing, within its first 100 days in office. The level of ambition set for the Government's plan is high, rightly so, as we are now facing an acute crisis in housing in many parts of the country.
In recent weeks, the Taoiseach announced the establishment of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department has been re-organised to focus intensively on the challenge of tackling the housing crisis. We have recruited additional specialist and administrative staff to cater for the increased activity and we have assigned additional resources at senior management level specifically to housing. In recent months, the Department has engaged in an intensive process of information sharing and consultation with local authority staff and approved housing body staff across the country to jointly develop our skills and capacities so that we can work together more effectively to expedite the social housing programmes. We have also assigned resources to a special cross-divisional team on housing, combining specialist and administrative skills, to consider the current challenges from the perspective of planning, land management and the private housing market and to identify potential measures to stimulate increased activity in the housing sector generally.
Rather than cover the same ground as the Minister did this morning, I think it might be helpful to the committee if I were to provide it with information on some of the Department's administrative procedures and policies which have been the subject of debate and comment in recent weeks.
A recurring theme in the committee's discussions about social housing has been the question of the time involved in the Department's approval process. I would like to take the opportunity this afternoon to clarify, first, what these approval processes are and, second, to outline the measures we are taking to improve them to enable social housing construction projects to be accelerated, in as much we possibly can, consistent with our obligations under the public spending code.
Like all Government capital expenditure, social housing projects funded by the Department must comply with the Government's capital works management framework, CWMF, the strategic objectives of which are to ensure greater cost certainty, better value for money and financial accountability at all stages during project delivery. Working within the scope and objectives of the framework, and with a view to supporting the earliest possible delivery of targets under the social housing strategy, the Department has streamlined the nine approval stages of the CWMF to only four approval stages for capital-funded social housing construction projects, in consultation and agreement with the City and County Management Association, CCMA, which is also represented today. The process facilitates local authorities to forward design proposals and costings to the Department sequentially, as they are advanced through the authorities' planning work.
A summary of the four stages of the Department's approval process is as follows: Stage 1 is capital appraisal to establish the business case and suitability of the proposed location. Stage 2 is pre-planning outline design and cost check. Stage 3 is a pre-tender cost check and stage 4 is tender approval. Those stages are considered the minimum required for complex construction projects, in order to allow the Department's Accounting Officer to make the annual declaration as to the proper management of public funds to meet the requirements of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and to allow an efficient and proactive check on the achievement of quality housing, sustainable communities proofing and prudent cost control as each project progresses.
At the request of the CCMA, the Department also introduced a new procedure in January 2016 to facilitate a further streamlined mechanism of funding approvals on a pilot basis for social housing construction projects of up to 15 housing units with a maximum all-in budget of less than €2 million. This mechanism is most suited to one-off and small-scale housing developments where the cost can be reasonably accurately determined. Local authorities opting for this process provide a more in-depth capital appraisal proposal than is ordinarily provided to allow us issue an approved budget for the project.
As the Minister has mentioned on a number of occasions, we are currently reviewing our procedures in the Department to see whether the approval process can be further expedited in a manner consistent with the need to ensure quality and value for money in the delivery of social housing projects which are fully funded by the Exchequer. The Department recently put arrangements in place to send specialist teams to visit local authorities and engage intensively with them about their plans and projects. Such meetings can increase mutual understanding and dramatically reduce the potential for prolonged correspondence about technical details, which might have taken weeks or months in the past. Since January, teams from the Department have visited and met almost all of the local authorities, with dates already set for the next round of meetings to be held in June and July. Already, we have received positive feedback from local authority staff and management about this approach and, as a result, we expect to see a much smoother passage of projects through the stages of the approval process in the coming months.
Another theme which has been mentioned in the committee’s discussions on social housing is the Department’s requirements regarding sustainable communities. The policy of sustainable communities is in part a response to the evidence from a considerable body of international research into the social isolation, lack of educational achievement and financial progress experienced by families isolated on large mono-tenure social housing estates. In Ireland, remediation of such housing schemes has necessitated substantial investment of Exchequer funding in Dublin, Limerick, Cork and other urban centres. This work is ongoing and regeneration projects will continue to be a feature of our social housing programmes for some years to come.
To avoid repetition of this phenomenon, which some commentators have referred to as the "ghettoisation" of vulnerable families, consistency with the mixed tenure neighbourhoods promoted by sustainable communities requires us to limit the size of any social housing development to a number appropriate to the size of the town or city, as well as ensuring it is well connected to and integrated with the wider community. The Department’s guidelines are framed to provide prudent guidance, though they do allow for some element of flexibility. A number of local authority development plans have also incorporated the concept that the proper planning and sustainable development of a town requires promoting mixed tenure communities and thus would not support any further large mono-tenure developments.
In short, the idea behind sustainable communities is to create neighbourhoods in which people want to live, and which address the three pillars of sustainability - environmental, social and financial. In Ireland, this concept was incorporated as a fundamental element of housing policy in the 2007 policy document, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, and reaffirmed in the 2011 housing policy statement. The Social Housing Strategy 2020 states that the delivery of social housing under the strategy will be carried out in a way which is consistent with this key principle of developing sustainable communities. The Department’s guidance on sustainable communities finds its corollary in other measures, such as the Part V requirement under the Planning Act, which is also designed to promote socially integrated communities.
I am sure the members of this committee are very familiar at this stage with the objectives of the social housing strategy, that is, to provide 35,000 additional social housing units by 2020, with another 75,000 social housing clients provided for through the private rented sector. The three pillars of the strategy – the provision of additional units, the expansion of provision through the private rented sector and a progressive programme of social housing reform – are also well known. At the heart of this is the strategy’s vision, which is set out on its very first page, that every household in Ireland will have access to secure, good-quality housing suited to their needs at an affordable price in a sustainable community. We in the Department are absolutely committed to playing our part in bringing this vision to fruition. Together with my team, I look forward to discussing this and other matters further with the committee this afternoon. We will be happy to answer any questions members may wish to ask.