When I last had the opportunity to speak on this Bill I spoke about the shared ownership scheme and voluntary and co-operative housing. I said all these schemes were necessary in the broad spectrum of housing. However this Bill makes no provision for those on the margins of society. We now have an unemployment rate of approximately 300,000 and most of those people are not in a position to purchase their own homes not even when they can avail of a shared ownership scheme. Those on the housing list have very little hope of being rehoused, because of the Government's disgraceful record. The Government have made no effort, good bad or indifferent to build or provide homes for those who need them and this Government's record is the worst since the foundation of the State.
The introduction of this Bill is a flam job to try to cover up the cracks. It is full of woolly and wishful thinking.
Dublin Corporation, the largest local authority in the country, have received 435 applications for participation in the shared ownership scheme since the beginning of the year. They have given 60 approvals, but only 19 of those 60 have paid deposits. If that is the extent of the progress we have made into the middle of May, God help those who are in a hurry. The length of time it is taking to process the application and make inspections has been brought to my notice. People have found that somebody who was able to get a building society or bank loan was able to purchase the house they liked before they had even got half way through the process of getting a loan under the shared ownership scheme. It is not very encouraging that only 19 people availing of the shared ownership scheme have put deposits on their houses. I hope this is not an indication of the energy being put into this scheme.
If the local authorities are dragging their feet on the shared ownership scheme the Department should tell them they expect immediate action. I would like to see the local authorities acting more swiftly when it is indicated to them which house a couple availing of a loan under the shared ownership scheme wish to purchase.
Section 5 deals with the question of somebody applying for a house because their own is either inadequate or in bad repair. The local authority can build extensions or carry out necessary repairs This is a good idea because it preserves the existing housing stock, but it comes ill from a Government that abolished housing grants particularly for old houses. I have always argued that it is cost effective to maintain old housing stock in as good repair as possible, but that was cast to one side. Now the Government come in with this idea.
In my experience when people already in a house applied to the local authority to be rehoused the local authority would not entertain the application because they had a house, unless there was an order that the house was unfit for human habitation in which case something would be done. That brings me to the question of bathrooms. A bathroom is not a luxury today but a necessity, and the performance of local authorities in this area has been poor. They have been taking some action but it is slow. Section 5 refers to carrying out repairs and building extensions, but God help those who have to wait. I am in favour of it if it can be done quickly so that if an unmarried mother, for example, requires to stay at home additional accommodation could be provided quickly. If this cannot be done quickly, the unmarried mother may, because of tensions in the home, have to find alternative accommodation. The idea is good in that it helps people in bad housing but it does not help those with no housing.
The same thing applies to existing local authority flats. Not enough resources are being provided for the refurbishing programme. Some of the work that is being done is very good and should be speeded up. There are people in local authority areas in Dublin living in a very substandard accommodation particularly in local authority apartments. In addition the general environment in which these apartments are located is very poor. The necessity to plant trees and provide a softer environment is not taken into account. One larger block in my constituency just has one entrance and there are nearly 400 apartments in it. We all know what that sort of thing breeds. It is simply wrong. When refurbishing we should, if we are serious about it, try to break these blocks up and provide various entrances, change the names and give them a whole new look, because many of the problems in the inner city start in these large apartment blocks.
In regard to one particular block of flats I asked the Corporation, when I was in the Department, if they would not take it out of the system because there were too many blocks in the one area and people were not being given a chance. In such circumstances they are totally ghettoised; they are all of the same socio-economic group and can see no way out. This policy has ruined good housing stock in the area I speak of. Many years ago if one lived in that area one was pretty well off but now one could not give those houses away because of poor housing planning.
In refrubishing houses and flats we must think of the whole environment. When I speak of taking apartments out of the system I do not mean knocking good housing stock down but selling it into private ownership. I have seen this done in London where run-down housing was sold off to the private sector, a policy that resulted in a better social mix in the area. The whole tenor of this Bill is to try to bring about a similar situation here so that I do not argue with that. I would advocate this type of mixed housing and a getting away from the greenfield ideas.
This Bill is not about new investment or new development, and that worries me. For those who need housing the idea of shared ownership is not necessarily the panacea. They will require more assistance than that. What is required is a programme. It is time we looked at the question of involving private investment in this area of housing. I refer to the financial institutions. The alteration of the DIRT threshold to £100,000 for a married couple will bring a flood of money to these financial institutions. It is about time some of these financial institutions took their public duty seriously. Why should building societies not get involved in the development of housing with the local authorities? It need not necessarily be a financial partnership. The local authority could be involved by providing sites and whatever help was necessary and the housing allocated to people in need of local authority housing.
Subject to an income limit, a subsidy could be paid by the local authority to ensure that a project is viable but, in the first instance, the money should be put up by the building societies to develop the scheme and lend on. If we want to get away from large public housing schemes on big green field sites, there could be development in a more controlled way in smaller areas with the building societies having a vested interest. As they are in the business of lending why should they not be, for the first time, in the business of providing? This would give the building industry a much needed boost.
I have often heard the cry, "when you fellows get into Government the building industry collapses". However, that industry has never been in a worse state; it has literally been closed down during the term of office of its great advocates, and this Bill does not provide it with any incentives. I accept that where local authorities and the State step in and provide a large sum of money there have to be some controls and restrictions to ensure that the State does not have to pay out constantly. However, the financial institutions, in particular the building societies and the banks, have been well treated by successive Governments — I hope they will not invest in schemes other than housing — and it is time they lived up to their obligations and gave something back. They must realise that there has to be some give and take. I would therefore like to see local authorities, the Department and the financial institutions work out a scheme which I hope will come to fruition. I have no doubt this could be done.
We introduced the £5,000 grant which I thought was a good idea but it was derided. It was claimed that we were denuding local authority housing estates. This grant was payable to those who wished to vacate their local authority house and buy their own home. It was a worthwhile scheme. Indeed, many of those who condemned it were off the mark. We should consider reintroducing it. If people want to buy a house, depending on their income and the cost of the house, why not give them a £5,000 grant? After all, we are paying rent subsidies. We should consider all aspects of the housing programme. I am not saying "the local authority must do this" or "someone else must do that" but we should consider all aspects and use as many of the financial institutions as possible.
The shared ownership system and co-operative housing are good ideas and we should introduce an income ceiling to ensure we do not hand out £5,000 grants willy nilly but only to those who want to buy their own homes. That is what I am advocating. I want to see more people own their own homes and have a stake in society and this works well in Ireland. In any local authority housing estate one can pick out the houses that have been bought. All of a sudden the owners have a sense of pride and since it is their own they make sure it is protected and well looked after. We should encourage people to have some spirit.
With regard to private investment it is time we talked to the building societies, the banks and other financial institutions and asked them to come up with proposals. Why not put the gun to their heads, so to speak, and say to them that they are getting enough, that we are making it easy for them to raise money and that they should give something in return. All of us have our obligations and they are making plenty of money.
Reference is made in the Bill to the management of local authority housing estates. Indeed, local authorities are being given 12 months to come up with ideas to involve tenants in the management of these estates. That is a good idea and it has been in operation in some areas. Local authorities, in particular the authority in my area, are the worst landlords one could come across. They are a disgrace. Sometimes a guy who is moved into a local authority housing estate can cause havoc but he is left there while decent people are run out of it. The problem started the day caretakers were taken out, in particular from the large flat complexes in Dublin. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows what I am talking about as he served on the same local authority. While Dublin Corporation have many good points, like other local authorities, they refuse to move such people arguing that they would have to house them somewhere else. If someone wants to wreck a house and cause havoc I would let somebody else worry about him because he is not too worried about other people.
We should consider privatising the management of local authority housing estates. Private apartments, in vogue in recent years, are managed by private companies who arrange to have the grass cut and the property maintained. We should consider putting this service out to tender. If that was done right our complexes would be far batter managed at a lower cost.
With regard to minor repairs, people will have to realise that they will have to pay for them. If a tap washer goes they ring up to get someone to replace it. People have to accept responsibility for minor repairs and only call someone out to carry out major repairs. My colleagues of the Left would disagree with me but this does not worry me unduly. The estates were well managed when there were caretakers. If anybody stepped out of line they were reported and dealt with but within a short time the position went from bad to worse. We reached the stage where nobody wanted to live in those estates. That matter has to be looked at. However, asking the local authorities to come up with ideas is not the answer. They might leave the plans as they are or decrease the numbers. A special group should examine the matter to decide the most feasible project. After all, it is tax-payers' money and it must be used wisely.
While families are smaller, the same family may now be divided between two houses or apartments because of marriage breakdown. Ironically, when people had families of ten to 12 children we were building two-bedroomed houses but we are now building three and four bedroomed houses for families of two or three children. Single parent families must also be accommodated. Because of our social welfare system young people who remain at home and who are unemployed receive very little as the means of parents will be taken into consideration. If the young person moves into an apartment he or she will receive social welfare payments and will probably also receive a rent subsidy. This did not happen 15 or 20 years ago and I do not know whether the Bill will solve many of these problems. Social housing is very important and we must keep it constantly under review. At least the Bill contains some new ideas, although it does not offer hope to all.
Section 8 refers to shared ownership. In that case, stamp duty is not levied but if someone buys a house independently of shared ownership they have to pay stamp duty, which is unfair. We must look at the question of stamp duty in relation to older houses; stamp duty is not levied on a new house but that does not apply to an old house. I am referring particularly to first time buyers, not to those who are buying bigger houses. At the lower end of the market no one should have to pay stamp duty and we must make it as easy as possible for people to purchase a house. I indicated that a grant of £5,000 — or a figure to be determined — should be introduced for low income families because they cannot raise the necessary capital to enable them to buy a house. When people were eligible for the £5,000 grant it enabled them to pay the solicitor's bill and stamp duty which gave them a good start. This is important. If we do not allocate a grant of this kind we will have to help them by other means.
We must ask whether we are getting value for money. A grant of this kind might be better than shared ownership because one of the difficulties in that regard is that you take a 50 per cent equity and the local authority take the other 50 per cent. A rent subsidy is paid, depending on the person's income. There is a period within which the person must take up the option of buying the other half of the ownership. The House could have cost £24,000 which means that the person's share was a payment of £12,000. The price of the house is probably index-linked and at any rate will appreciate, which means that the person might have to pay £24,000 for the other half of the house. Perhaps I have the wrong end of the stick but that is my understanding. As I said, a grant in the initial stages of buying a house might be a better option for many people.
I accept that the question of stamp duty is not really a matter for this Bill and I know that the Department of Finance have the last say. We all want the same thing although we may be coming at the problem from different directions. We must examine all the ideas put forward.
Section 10 refers to halting sites and states that if caravans are parked within two miles of one they will be moved. I am not opposed to that but we have fallen down in relation to halting sites, particularly in the Dublin area. When I was in the Department we had prepared a plan which was just about up and running and the county council decided to make radical changes. They dispersed halting sites all over Dublin which caused many people to be up in arms; nobody wanted a site to be built in their area. We had got agreement in this regard before the plan was changed and we must pursue a policy of developing halting sites, particularly in the city, because some travelling people want to settle. They are part of our community and must be provided for.
Of course, we must also recognise that most travellers do not wish to settle; that is their culture and their right. We must provide high quality halting sites, and I compliment the Department on doing just that although they were very expensive. I have the impression — maybe I am wrong — that sites are not now being provided, especially in the Dublin area. I know sometimes problems can be caused by the provision of halting sites but we have an obligation to house these people.
Section 16 refers to notices to quit and the private housing sector. We should always try to ensure that equity, fair play and decent standards are maintained in the private housing sector. Private rented accommodation can be scarce and there is an argument that if landlords or potential landlords face too many impedients they will not want to invest in the rental sector. That should not be a reason for not making sure that there are reasonable standards.
I do not know whether it will make any great difference to provide that a notice to quit should be issued a month before it is to take effect rather than a week before taking effect, but the provision of a month's notice does appear to be an improvement. This measure will also be of benefit for landlords in that it is not unknown for tenants to pack their bags and depart overnight.
When landlords take in tenants and charge high rents they must accept certain responsibilities. After all, no matter what business you are in, if you do not look after your customer you are finished — and rightly so. In this area because of supply and demand, there seems to be an indifference towards the customer — in this case the tenant. Having rent books is a good idea because it gives tenants the feeling that they have a stake in their dwelling, which is important.
The concept of registration and inspections of rented dwellings is also a good one, but we have to lay down minimum standards. I am not pushing for luxurious conditions but I consider setting down minimum standards to be vital. It is important that rented dwellings be safe. They should not be fire hazards and there must be proper sanitation, adequate water pressure and so on. To be sure that the fabric of the roof and the materials used in construction of the dwelling itself do not allow dampness is basic. When people are paying high rents they are entitled to those safeguards.
We all know that married couples with children looking for rented accommodation will have to pay a fairly high price, and that often they do not even get that opportunity because once a child appears, easy access to rented accommodation disappears. Often couples with a child are told that a flat or a house has been taken or is not vacant. I am pleased that something is being done in this area but I hope it will be followed up.
Several years ago registrations had to be lodged with local authorities. I do not know whether that ever meant anything; it seems that people do not register. It is fine for the House to pass legislation but unless it is enforced there is not much point in it. I hope that the Bill will encourage higher standards in the private rental market.
Section 26 concerns the disposal of houses, tenant purchasing and so on. In the local authority about which I have knowledge when a corporation dwelling becomes vacant or is "detenanted" it goes back into the housing stock for reletting. It is important to retain as much housing stock as possible. I am in favour of sales to tenants but there is a need to retain a level of rented housing stock. Perhaps I am reading this provision wrong, although I do not think so, but it appears that authorities will now be able to sell houses to anybody. It is my contention that when a house in the rented sector becomes vacant it should go back into the rental market. There are people on waiting lists for a house in a particular area; perhaps a family living in Tallaght want to move to Drimnagh. Section 26 would rule out that possibility for many people on the housing lists, if my interpretation of this section is right; that is not a good move and should be reconsidered. It is possible that local authorities could use the provision as a way to get in extra money and that someone who has waited for years for a house in a particular area could be denied it. I ask the Minister to examine this section again.
While there are certain welcome measures in the Bill, the legislation will not improve the position of those on the margins unless there is an increase in the number of houses in the private rental market.
We should move from the green field developments of the past because we were creating ghettoes. The finishing of many of those schemes was atrocious, with no attention given to landscaping. Some of those developments were cold and soulless. If they had been dealt with properly from day one, perhaps they would have had a better tenancy rate and would not have suffered such disregard by tenants. That is why I am in favour of any future developments, whether carried out by local authorities, a combination of local authorities and private owners or the private sector.
There is very little talk of the National Building Agency. The agency, with some of the local authority housing and construction departments, must be redundant. The staff must spend all day looking at each other, because there does not seem to be very much building going on. They must find it a rather boring occupation to sit around recalling the great days when a particular number of houses was built each year.
With all of the expertise available, and with the building societies and all the other financial agencies gathering money, there must be some way we can come up with fresh ideas. A new approach should be taken so that prospective tenants will not feel they are part of a big local authority ghetto but that they have their own private housing area or they are buying their own homes with help from the local authority. Such a move would change the landscape of our outer city areas where mistakes were made in the past.
I accept that in the past we were in a hurry to get things done and to have houses built, but in our rush we made the wrong moves; we did not think out the developments properly. Now that we have had time to think about housing development, let us not run away from building. The building industry is on the floor and we should try to give it hope. Everybody should encourage the people in this industry because an increase in construction would be a change for the better.
We should also look at estates on the outskirts of our cities; we should employ planners and landscape gardeners to see if we can make those estates more attractive. We will always have social problems and we should work on them, but we should at least build homes in which people can take some degree of pride, not homes in soulless streets which do not provide any hope for people, streets where there is high unemployment and all the things that make places into undesirable areas. Local authorities should live up to their responsibilities in this respect. They have not done so properly in the past. I enjoyed my time as a local authority member and one thing that always annoyed me was the way in which they managed their housing stock.
This Bill covers things that were promised by the social partnership, so I am surprised that the social partners have bought this package. There are a few ideas in the Bill, but it is only tinkering with the real problem. The figure I was given was that there are 5,000 people on the Dublin Corporation list. That was some time ago, so there are probably more now. The same sort of thing applies in other local authorities. We should not go back to the stage we were at, 15 or 20 years ago, where we could offer people no hope unless they had a gang of children and they were living in atrocious conditions. I do not say that the Bill will bring us back to that but we must look seriously at the building programme. This Bill does not do that. I appeal to the Minister to come up with some proposals for a realistic ongoing building programme if we are to avoid chaos.
Rising unemployment is creating major problems. We must face those problems and give people some hope. We should include everyone in this debate in order to get the will, the finance and the ideas to provide a new system whereby people can afford to buy their own homes. This would eliminate maintenance problems and be a better way of dealing with this problem.