Deputy Danny Healy-Rae was in possession, but as neither he nor Deputy Michael Collins is here, I call Deputy Catherine Murphy.
Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Bill 2019: Second Stage (Resumed)
This is a technical Bill but nonetheless an important one. It has been a long time coming, but there are aspects to it that need clarification or amendment on Committee Stage.
Housing associations play an important role and could play an even more important on in the future. At a recent meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts they stated this legislation was needed to assist them in the delivery of more housing, in the main because it would enable them to access significant additional funding. I accept that they have been around for a long time. Most of them, in particular the Iveagh Trust, predate the former Dublin Corporation in local authority housing provision. Much of the first clearance work occurred in and around the Grey Street-Brabazon Square area of the south inner city and is still evident today.
Housing associations are not new, but there is a variation between local authorities and housing associations where they exist on the same site. In that situation people on the same waiting list are allocated housing but in a different way. It might be possible to address this issue by way of regulations. As the housing associations and local authorities are not regulated by the same entity, it is not difficult to see how that can happen. I know of situations where people who did not make it through the selection process for approved housing body housing were allocated a house in the same area based on their place on the housing waiting list, which is questionable. Also, where courses for new tenants are provided by housing associations but not the local authorities, despite both having housing on the same site, this causes confusion about rights and responsibilities. This matter requires further consideration. My concern is there could be cherry picking.
In 2009-10, given a shortage of funding, there was a shift in how housing bodies were funded. I am concerned about costs in the context of market rents which, as we know, are unacceptably high in parts of the country. Approximately 80% of the market rent is allowable in approved projects involving private leasing. From that point of view, the value for money aspect may well need to be revisited. Whatever funding we have available must be used to the maximum in producing additional housing. At the meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts with the Irish Council for Social Housing we discussed the interim regulator. There is additional oversight in this area in the form of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB; the Charities Regulator; the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, in respect of people with care needs, and the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement.
Of particular concern is local authority funding for the maintenance of housing association properties. I have come across more than a couple of situations where there was a sizeable amount of money in their bank accounts. There may be a requirement for a sinking fund for the maintenance of, say, a lift or a combined roof over a number of properties in an apartment block, but the need for maintenance of a relatively new house will be low in the first ten years. The scheme may well need to be examined in the context of the achievement of value for money. I am in favour of ongoing maintenance to ensure the housing stock remains in good condition, but this issue requires consideration.
It will be for the regulator to do more than regulate governance. If we are to dramatically increase the number of tier three housing associations, in particular, we should do so in a way that will enable us to achieve a cost rental model for a mixed community. That would be a very good outcome.
As I said, the Bill was a long time coming. The interim arrangements introduced by the former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, need to be put on a statutory footing. I recall that when they were being introduced, we had a robust exchange on the need to put them on a statutory basis and the reason it was necessary to do so. The Bill makes provision in that regard. This is not legislation about which people will be excited, but it is important nonetheless. As I said, there are aspects to it that will need to be clarified or amended on Committee Stage.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Like every other Member, as a local public representative, I am keenly aware of the housing difficulties in every constituency. It differs depending on whether one is in an urban or rural area but there are problems everywhere. I have a particular interest in this legislation because up to early last year, the Minister and I had extensive discussions on housing at the Committee of Public Accounts, of which I am Chairman. We had three or four public meetings regarding the funding of housing and part of that work focused on AHBs. Departmental officials appeared before the committee on a number of occasions along with people from social housing agencies as well as some city and county managers so we had a broad discussion to get a full picture regarding expenditure by the State in this area, which was useful and helpful. We came up with specific recommendations regarding AHBs and the need for statutory regulation, which was being carried out on a non-statutory basis. I am, therefore, keen to endorse the legislation. The principle underpinning it is good. Members on all sides of the House have called for it. Nobody should question the principle of the legislation, although, obviously, there are matters of detail.
I will not stray too much into the overall local authority housing issue but it is linked to AHBs. I do not have the exact figures and I do not know if they are even available. Some useful information has been produced by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service along with the work done by the Committee of Public Accounts. I also have knowledge of the area. AHBs are independent not-for-profit housing bodies with a housing stock of approximately 300,000 units, which is a fabulous number of houses throughout the country. I do not know the gross value of the total assets owned and controlled by AHBs. Perhaps the figure is available but if we take the average value of a house to be €250,000, their value is at least €8 billion. Over the next two years, in its drive to deliver 47,000 new social housing units targeted up to 2021, the Department hopes that one third of these, which is approximately 15,000 units, will be delivered by AHBs. It is only an estimate but is as good an estimate as any of which I am aware but based on the average value of those houses being €250,000, they would be worth €4 billion. We are talking about organisations that control housing assets worth well over €10 billion. That is an important issue. Wearing my Committee of Public Accounts hat, I know people will appreciate that it is important that we have proper regulation, processes, controls and governance to ensure this money is invested wisely for the purpose for which it is voted from this House. I have no issue with that.
It is a big change and some might say that it might not be the intention of the draft legislation but if we are going to regulate the organisations that will own and control 30% of the new social houses to be built in the next three years - organisations that already own 30,000 houses - we must regulate the local authorities that own the remaining houses. A local authority might have built a number of houses on a new estate while the houses on the opposite side or next door have been provided by an AHB. Some houses will be regulated while others will not. There is no logic to this. Perhaps officials in the Department were afraid that the local authorities would unhappy with being regulated but if we are going to regulate AHBs, which will, hopefully, have good governance procedures, there is nothing wrong with having the same control over senior unelected council officials throughout the country who are making equivalent decisions on spending money on houses, deciding where they will be located, who will be allocated houses, maintenance and dealing with tenants thereafter along with other people in the area. It is not right to hive this off on its own. What is here is good but it is only a fraction of what needs to be dealt with. The Minister could say that people can go to the Ombudsman, which they do but there should be a better system in place so that this is not always the default. Local authorities do not always like being brought to the Ombudsman and regularly try to deal with issues before they get an unfavourable decision from him or her.
There has been a move in recent years away from the State providing what it should provide, namely, housing in favour of asking somebody else to do it. I know it was bit of a trick. The Government probably thought it would be regarded as off-balance sheet funding. That was what we heard here for years but EUROSTAT has called our bluff on that and said that all these tier 3 agencies must be on the State's balance sheet. Their borrowings will be rightly on the State's balance sheet. Anybody in Ireland who tried to argue against that was not arguing from a logical position. A third of these funds are directly provided by the local authorities. Most of the balance of the funding is obtained from the Housing Agency and sometimes it can borrow on the private market but the bulk of these houses and the income received by AHBs comes through local authorities through the payment and availability scheme. All in all, what is good for one is good for the other and if it is important to regulate AHBs, we should also regulate the same activity when it is carried out by local authorities.
Local authorities have done a good job over the decades. Many local authorities will feel that AHBs are effectively surrogates for them to do the job they have always done. I am pleased the Minister is present because he will enjoy this story. He visited Portlaoise last year to open a lovely housing development in the town. It was probably one of the few that was in train at the time and was well worth a ministerial visit. We were delighted that he visited that development of 33 houses that day. It was a local authority scheme. It was pointed out to him that Laois County Council does not have one acre of ground in Portlaoise town on which to build another scheme because it has been starved of money. However, AHBs can come in from anywhere; I do not mind where they come from. If they are not based in Laois, they could be from Dublin or Carlow. These AHBs can come in with a scheme, find a development with planning permission that is not selling in the private sector because the private sector has no money and be allowed to build that scheme with a builder. Why can a local authority not do the same? We should not just facilitate AHBs. Local authorities also have a track record. The Minister will recall that trip during which he made a brief visit to a neighbouring farm and saw a number of cows. I enjoyed the joke but many people did not see the joke. He saw all these wonderful cows in the field just over the wall from where this housing development was located. I hope his shoes did not get too dirty in the farmyard. He took a picture and posted it on Twitter with a caption stating that he had now found out where the latte for a coffee came from. Many people thought this was dreadful and that it was a city Minister making a joke of people in the country but I saw the humour in it. If somebody is giving out about it-----
It referred to soya lattes. I was making a joke against myself.
So it was about soya lattes - very good. Was that not an excellent housing scheme and a perfect development strategically located at the centre of Portlaoise delivered by the local authority?
We should continue to support local authorities. They feel as if they have been sidestepped. When I visit my local authority, as every Member can do, I find that all housing is being delivered by AHBs. That is just how things are. I agree that there should be regulation, but I must make the case for local authorities to be allowed to continue their work. If they are doing it, they should be regulated, just like AHBs. That is the main point I wish to make, although I have many others to raise.
A lot of the funding comes through the capital allowance loan facility and the Housing Finance Agency. There is one important point around which people cannot get their heads. The Committee of Public Accounts was informed that the local authority allocated a property to a household the rent contribution of which was determined in using the preferred differential rent method. The local authority contributes to the approved housing body the difference between the household's contribution and the agreed rent, as agreed between the local authority and the approved housing body under the payment and availability scheme. The Department then reimburses the local authority. As such, the funding is still going through the local authority which has a key role to play. Deputy Catherine Murphy mentioned that some of them were cash-rich organisations. That issue needs to be looked at. If they are doing exceptionally well, this has to be taken into account when they are being funded. We know that substantial maintenance payments of €480 per annum are made. Things would be a lot better if local authorities could be given a budget to spend €450 in the maintenance of their housing stock. Perhaps then people would not be as quick to criticise them for not looking after the developments they have built. Part of the problem is that they are being starved of funding for maintenance, although it seems to be easily available to AHBs. I understand there is a need for it, but it seems that a lot of money is available.
We must recognise that the current non-statutory regulation has improved the situation in the last couple of years and been very important. We all know that a large number of AHBs have registered with the Housing Agency. We were informed that 260 AHBs were registered out of a total of 547. The recent briefing note states this figure has increased to 273. That means that some 245 bodies have not singed up to the voluntary code. They have assets of approximately €570 million, but only represent about 5% of the housing stock. That gives an indication of what is available. There is a certain undercurrent. There are a lot of small housing agencies. Some were founded for a specific purpose many years ago and are functioning well. They might provide housing for elderly or disabled persons in a town centre to prevent them from becoming isolated. These bodies are very good and run by volunteers. Some of the organisations do not have professional staff, but they will have to meet all of the regulations if they register. The implication is that they may be forced to merge. We have seen this happen in other walks of life. We are going to say to the people who did this wonderful job in their own area, whether it is an urban area or a small city, that owing to the requirements of the new regulations, they are not fit to continue and that the only option is for five or six bodies in a given area to merge. Perhaps there would be some benefit in that, but there would be a definite downside. I would not like to see organisations forced to amalgamate, unless they were satisfied that it would be in the interest of the people living in their houses.
The Minister might be a little surprised to hear me call for the regulation of local authorities. The regulation would not be too onerous because they have systems in place and should be able to handle it. We are, however, getting into an unusual situation where AHBs are concerned. There will be five statutory agencies with oversight of various aspects. The first is the local authority. Local authorities provide funding for AHBs to ensure they meet the criteria to receive State funds. Cearly, they have an oversight role in that respect. Second, AHBs are registered with the RTB and their tenants have rights which are overseen by that body. They are all charities. As such, they are regulated by the Charities Regulator which ensures they meet the criteria and have the correct memoranda in place to provide social housing, including a clause to prevent them from selling a property on. Furthermore, some of the AHBs are regulated by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, insofar as their tenants have specific medical or disability needs. AHBs will now have a new regulator overseeing their activities, as well as the local authorities, the RTB and, in some cases, HIQA. I hope when all five state bodies charged with ensuring oversight are paid for, there will be some money left for social housing provision. This is something of which we want to be mindful whenever we add an extra layer. All of the bodies are probably useful in their own right. That said, it would be great if the new regulator could assume some of their functions, rather than telling a tenant who comes to us with a problem to go to the approved housing body; then, if they are not happy with it, the Residential Tenancies Board; and if they come back again, the Charities Regulator. If they do not get satisfaction there, we can tell him or her to go to HIQA, on top of which there will be the new regulator. I pity the tenants who will have to go through all of these bodies if they have a problem. I wonder if we ever think things through when we start to deal with these issues.
They are the main points I want to make. I say all of it constructively. I support the Bill which is long overdue. It has been mooted for six years. The Committee of Public Accounts was very strict and black and white in calling for this legislation to be implemented as urgently as possible. Some €10 billion worth of assets will be available shortly, most of which have been financed by the State. I really believe that when push comes to shove, the State should own those houses, not AHBs that are not accountable to the Oireachtas, a point to which I did not even get. The bodies will only be governed by a regulator that will be required to come before the committee. They will receive billions of euro of State funds between them. They will not be answerable in a council chamber and certainly will not be answerable to the Dáil because they are private charities. There is a major gap. I will address this issue in Private Members' legislation in due course. We are handing out billions of euro of taxpayers' money to build social housing. This should have been and was traditionally done by local authorities, but it is now done on a surrogate basis by AHBs. However, there is no Oireachtas oversight or accountability, which is a particular problem.
I will have to confirm this on Committee Stage, but I assume that every one of the bodies that receives funding will have to provide in its memoranda that its properties will always be used as social housing. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where some of them will fold up and something else will suddenly happen when they are in administration. An administrator or a liquidator might come in as things go wrong and we might find that insolvency rules supersede the memoranda and that the properties would no longer be used as social housing. Some of the housing bodies have other properties. There are community and semi-commercial facilities in some of their developments. Since they have been financed so much by the taxpayer, I think the taxpayer is entitled to own them, notwithstanding the good work done by the AHBs. It would be better if the bodies which will receive the majority of their funds from the taxpayer through voted expenditure were answerable in some way, whether through the Committee of Public Accounts or the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. They cannot receive all of this money from the taxpayer every year without there being any accountability to the House.
I hope the House will not mind if I share my time with Deputy Connolly.
I am delighted to contribute briefly to the debate. I agree very strongly with the comments made by the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts to the effect that State-funded properties should ultimately be owned by the State.
That should apply to all voluntary projects, which many Members have been involved in over the years. It has to be ensured, however, that either the memorandum and articles or the granting of moneys ensures that the State, and the people of Ireland, are the owners of the properties. I echo that point because people have often been fearful in community projects, such as housing co-operative developments, that somehow or other the co-operative could be alienated into the private sector, with the State and community losing out.
I commend the general work of AHBs and voluntary housing organisations. I want to highlight their estate management in particular. Our experience over the past quarter of a century in Dublin Bay North and my old Dublin North East constituency has been that AHBs have an outstanding record in estate management. That can be compared with the record of Dublin City Council. The Minister will be aware, as he represents a Dublin constituency, that its record has generally been poor. It has not been up to standard and that has allowed the development of anti-social behaviour in districts where that should never have started. It would not have happened if a proper estate management and maintenance system had been implemented by the council. That is a large housing authority, of course, with about 28,000 properties, nearly as many properties as all of the voluntary housing bodies put together.
Dublin Bay North has an impressive history in this area. We have had housing co-operatives all over the country, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will know. I remember an important co-operative in Kilbarrack going back many years. The past 25 years saw the arrival of the National Association of Building Co-operatives, NABCo, and the Housing Association for Integrated Living, HAIL. They were followed by other similar organisations. The then Minister for the Environment, Michael Smith, went to the UK in the mid-1990s. He asked some of the voluntary housing bodies there to visit Ireland. St. Pancras arrived here at that stage. That organisation was set up after the First World War to provide housing for soldiers returning from the horrors of the Western Front. St. Pancras later became Clúid, a body with which we are now very familiar in Dublin. We also have other outstanding bodies such as Respond, which was originally set up by the Capuchin religious order. We also have the Tuath Housing organisation and Fold Ireland, which the Minister and I were happy to inspect just a few weeks ago in my constituency. That body provides wonderful accommodation for senior citizens in Dublin Bay North on the Tonlegee Road. There is a long history and many other housing bodies have done very well over the years. Many of those are not in Dublin Bay North.
I have always been impressed with the management of those estates, which has generally been far superior to the similar services of Dublin City Council. Deputy Ó Broin outlined a key housing policy in his recent book and I share his view that we should return to properly funding and resourcing local authorities. They could be directed by a national housing executive to embark on a major plan to build local authority housing. Deputies will agree that there is no other way to address the horrendous housing crisis. Week in, week out and day in, day out, that crisis impacts badly on many people. Some 551 bodies are listed on the register of housing bodies with approved status. It is disappointing that only 273 of them signed up to the VRC. Those that did sign up, however, oversee some 95% of the total housing stock. According to the Housing Agency regulation office report of 2017, some 18 tier 3 housing bodies share 23,517 units of the total number of AHB homes. The Minister stated in his opening contribution last night that there were 552 AHBs, of which 274 were on the register. That again means, however, that just under 50% have registered.
This Bill provides for the establishment of the approved housing bodies regulatory authority. This is long overdue. We have been requesting this for many years. I recall asking the Governments of former taoisigh, Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny, to do something like this for many years. We thought it was necessary because of the significant expenditure. I, like the Minister, am a former member of the Committee of Public Accounts, in two previous Dáileanna. We felt there had to be serious regulation of the sector. I am delighted that the regulator will be placed on a statutory footing and that a full legal regulatory regime will be put in place. There were various moves in this direction in recent years. These include the VRC, the regulation office in 2014, the financial standard and objectives in 2015, the governance standard in 2017 and the performance standard in December 2018. We still needed this legislation, however.
The Minister has given the AHBs ambitious targets as part of Rebuilding Ireland. Those bodies are expected to access finance and provide at least one third of the 50,000 homes targeted by 2021. Statutory regulation is important as well in the context of these bodies being the employers of many housing aid agency staff, as well as being landlords. This statutory regulation is, therefore, important and long overdue. That is the case not just for the tenants but also for the organisations themselves. Since 2011, as another colleague mentioned, the CALF has been providing 30% of funding to AHBs. Other reported funding streams include the HSE, at 40%, the Dublin Regional Housing Executive, DRHE, Tusla, and the Departments of Justice and Equality and Employment Affairs and Social Protection. That underlines the point being made by the Chairperson of the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy Fleming. There is a necessity for regulation and to ensure that this great tranche of State property remains in public ownership. Section 9 in Part 2 of the Bill sets out the functions of the regulator, which will include preparing draft standards, monitoring and assessing compliance and collecting and publishing information concerning AHBs. The regulator will appear before the Committee of Public Accounts. That is valuable.
At the end of February this year, Dr. Donal McManus, CEO of the Irish Council for Social Housing, ICSH, presented to the Committee of Public Accounts regarding AHBs and social housing provision. As part of that submission, the council stated that there were approximately 33,000 AHB homes across the country. It is a huge estate, bigger than the holdings of Dublin City Council. The Minister will be aware of the size of some individual housing estates owned by the housing bodies. I recall when Clúid had just slightly more than 5,000 units. That is a larger number than many county councils. It is a major responsibility for the regulator to manage and maintain those properties all around the country.
The submission I referred to included a summary of the results of the 2017 housing association performance management, HAPM, survey. That gave us some valuable information. It is impressive to note that less than 5% of rent receivable was outstanding as rent arrears. Only 33 of the 69 bodies reported having rent arrears. As former city councillors, we are familiar with the issues regarding rent arrears on the Dublin City Council and Fingal estates over the years. There were also impressive findings under the heading of "repairs completed or responded to within target timescales". It compares favourably with the performance of Dublin City Council under its present management structure. There is also very good estate management. The average time for voids was 8.3 weeks in 2017. I recall when a large voluntary housing body contacted me last year. It asked me if I could pursue the local authority because it was so slow in making nominations to a newly-built apartment complex. More than 50 apartments were available, which was a precious resource for people desperate for rehousing. Those apartments were lying idle for approximately four months.
The housing body turned to me to ask the local authority to get a move on. That should not happen. It should be progressed very quickly.
Housing associations have an impressive history in many countries. In the UK, the National Housing Federation has 2.5 million homes. The UK went through a similar experience when Mrs. Thatcher tried to get rid of the national housing stock. She refused to allow local authorities to build estates. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, we copied the UK and embarked down the same road, and the Minister is now wrestling with 140,000 people on housing lists and in receipt of HAP while and 10,000 citizens are homeless tonight.
We should embark on a new local authority national housing programme. It should be the key priority of the next Government. I welcome the belated appointment of a regulator for this territory. It is amazing there has been a build-up of such a large number of homes and that we have not had a formal regulation system. Although it is late. I welcome the fact the Minister has introduced the Bill.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I welcome the regulation, even though it has taken quite some time. My colleagues on the Committee of Public Accounts have pointed out this was raised at a number of meetings. We recognised the absence of regulation. We received a good presentation from the interim chair of the regulatory committee on this matter. What caught my attention was the extraordinarily high number of voluntary bodies. I will come back to this in a general way with regard to housing policy.
Various figures are being used with regard to the Government plan. Are there 47,000 or 50,000 social housing units?
That is good. Unless they have been updated, according to my figures, there are 547 voluntary housing associations of which 273 have signed up. My thought when I saw that was that we are reliant on 547 voluntary housing bodies to provide housing but they are completely unregulated. It was an extraordinary moment on the road to Damascus, as I said at a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts.
I am very familiar with voluntary housing bodies having spent 17 years on a local authority but I did not realise the number was 547 and that they were completely unregulated. I did not realise that they fell between two stools as even though they receive 100% public funding, they did not come under the European Convention on Human Rights or the RTB. This has been rectified since then to a certain extent with regard to the RTB. Are they public bodies in the same way as a local authority for the purposes of the European convention?
I cannot believe so few have signed up, although I acknowledge the interim regulator said those who did sign up account for a substantial number of the houses. I do not see why the others did not sign up. Of those that did, 83% demonstrated substantial compliance but 9% required further written clarification. I welcome that we are doing this but I have concerns that it is creating another layer of bureaucracy. I realise we need to regulate it but at more than €800,000 per year, do we need it? I agree with the legislation but did the Minister examine whether we could regulate this in another way without adding this extra expense?
I have great concern about the Government's aim to provide 50,000 new houses with one third of them to be provided by the voluntary sector. The aim is to allow people to purchase houses, with which I have no problem if they are in the name of the person. People will also be allowed to lease houses. My understanding is that at one time tenants of AHBs had the exact same rights to lifelong tenancy and controlled rent as local authority tenants and that the only distinction related to the ability to buy the house. This is what I was told repeatedly and what I believed. This has become more complicated because different durations are involved. Some of the voluntary bodies have five-year and ten-year contracts and others have longer contracts. They have bought or acquired houses and clients do not have tenancy for life. I ask for this to be clarified.
The amount of loans taken out by AHBs is €1.683 billion. There has been a significant increase since 2016. I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for its digest, which points out that the increase since then is 469%.
I welcome the Bill and I look forward to it being teased out on Committee Stage. I am not a member of the committee. Matters regarding the independence of the regulator, reporting back to the Minister, fees and so on need to be teased out.
I am using this opportunity to highlight what has happened in housing policy in this country. Significant money has gone into this sector over the years but I sat on the city council in Galway and there has not been a single euro to build a house since 2009. A housing crisis has been deliberately created in Galway. It is a consequence of repeated Government policies. If a local authority house has not been built since 2009, it stands to reason that there will be a crisis. What decisions were made to channel money to voluntary housing bodies that were unregulated? The local authority was starved of funds, leading to an essential part of the crisis. A number of games were being played. One was accountancy, of course, to take the AHB money off the books and state it was not Government debt. Another was the complete outsourcing of housing provision to voluntary bodies.
We have to accept that voluntary bodies are an essential part of the solution and regulation is appropriate but I will not accept going down the road of the Government abdicating its responsibility and putting an onus on these bodies. They have been unregulated until now and have not even seen fit to join up to the voluntary code in 273 cases. Putting this forward as Government policy is unacceptable.
I welcome the Bill but I am putting on record my most serious concerns about Government housing policy despite the Minister's rhetoric. Galway has a serious housing crisis. It has no master plan. I have said repeatedly that we have public land but it is being developed in an ad hoc manner. Ceannt Station, the docks and the Dyke Road all have separate plans, with some of them being led by private developers. Imagine that in a city that has a housing crisis, with people on a waiting list since 2002. It is not clear how the voluntary bodies take applicants. I understood they all came from the housing waiting list but that does not seem to be the case.
There is a role for AHBs in a regulated and controlled environment and as an add-on to a housing policy where the State is the main player in the provision of social housing.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille seo. Tá sé riachtanach ach cuireann sé faitíos orm freisin mar, go minic, bunaítear rialaitheoirí agus bíonn rudaí réasúnta ag an dtús agus ansin tosaíonn na riachtanais páipéir ag méadú agus ní dhéantar aon idirdhealú idir bheag agus mhór.
I welcome the Bill, but I have a concern about regulators. Unlike many Members, I do not think that everything that is independent is necessarily good. When something is independent, whom is it independent of? What we mean to say is that it is independent of this House. I have no problem with that for individual cases. However, I have problems when the House stands back and the regulator of an entire sector starts acting in a way that is not in the public interest. We have seen this with the water regulator where Irish Water is now charging €20,000 for 100 m of pipe to one house, which is unreasonable. Of course, nobody will pull the regulator up because we will be told that the regulator is independent.
Independence in dealing with individual cases is no problem. On big policy issues regulators should not run the State; we are elected to do that, and we should never cede that power. Ultimately in terms of the overall policy and how it is working and reporting, it is important that it is answerable to the Minister. If it is answerable to the Minister, it is answerable to us because otherwise we cannot get at what is happening.
There are some large multinational AHBs and some small local housing bodies in a small parish fulfilling a local need. I live in such a parish where we have a cluster of eight houses under the auspices of a local AHB and there is never any big issue. It is a voluntary committee in the truest sense of volunteerism. None of the people running the little scheme gets any payment. One of the great mistakes regulators make is that they regulate those small entities with the same level of bureaucracy and red tape that they regulate a multimillion euro business. I hope that point is taken on board and nailed down.
It was a major consideration and concern of mine when we were introducing the charities regulator that a small charity would not be regulated like a big charity. I do not know if that has fully worked but it is a concern I have generally with regulation. We seem to have lost a sense of proportionality. Any damage a one-off AHB with eight, ten or 15 houses might do if it ran amok is quite different from a multimillion euro professional organisation with professional management. The capacity of smaller bodies to comply with unnecessary paper regulation might not be great, but their ability to deal with the needs of people is first class.
There is very interesting recent phenomenon in this country from which many legal people and accountants are making a fortune. I can never understand it. The European Union and EUROSTAT make regulations and then all the people in the EU try to find out how to get around these regulations. A massive industry has built up around making the regulation and then getting around the regulation. In this case, it is time we got around the EUROSTAT regulation and got it off-balance sheet. However, is there something wrong with the world that all the countries in Europe have to unwind a European regulation. Why was it put in place in the first place if we all spend money paying experts to unwind it again by getting it off-balance sheet? Obviously if we get it off-balance sheet, it allows us to build more houses. With that caveat and that nonsense of the modern world I will move on.
We have a housing crisis the likes of which I have never seen in my life in politics. Every week I have the finest of decent people coming to my office to discuss housing, particularly in the city. The term "homelessness" is unfortunate. Most people associate homelessness with somebody sleeping on the streets. It seems that the wealthier a society is, the more people seem to sleep on the streets. That is something we need to examine because it seems that in wealthy societies, we also have great poverty living cheek-by-jowl. One of the problems of the modern so-called great economy is that the gap between rich and poor is widening, and it is everybody for themselves.
There are also what I call the hidden homeless. The people who are technically homeless may be in bed and breakfasts. They may be staying with a family in an overcrowded situation. They are in all sorts of unstable and uncertain circumstances, which do not provide the most important thing, particularly where families are involved - a family home. Why do I say they are invisible? It is not what most people imagine when we talk about homelessness. It is totally tragic. These are people who do not need significant social supports; all they need is permanent accommodation.
I might be old-fashioned because I still believe that the stability of a society if we are looking to the future is measured by family stability and what creates family stability is permanent tenancy or ownership. The model where the vast majority of families and people own their houses is far superior to any renting or letting system. We will see the fallout of the move away from that concept in the future.
One of my concerns about AHBs is that they are not allowed to sell the houses to the tenants. I know economists will argue about this, but it is fine for economists to argue because they own their own houses. The reality is that most people aspire to own their houses. When they get to own their houses, they tend to look after them very well. Any of us who ever went into the housing estates where houses have been purchased, we will always have a good idea which houses were purchased. I believe it is a social value in society that is well worth the price to allow for ownership of houses. I do not agree with the modern trend that suggests that is old hat because it is done differently somewhere else.
I have tabled one parliamentary question at regular intervals. I do not know if the Minister of State ever has an opportunity to read the replies given to me. I keep asking when the review of the 2016 tenant incremental purchase scheme will be published and when the Department will revise the scheme. It was designed to fail and the small numbers attracted to the scheme indicate it has failed. Someone may be living in a local authority house with a net valuation of €80,000 after a reduction. Even if they can put the €80,000 on the table in cash, under the rules of scheme they cannot buy the house.
The argument I would make to whoever dreamt of that one is that these people have been paying rent every week and would be able to maintain their house, keep it painted and mend a leaky roof. I have seen cases where the people could have paid to buy the house but were not allowed to do it. The reasons given often stretch credulity. I do not believe that people should be borrowing money beyond their capacity. Therefore if the Government said, irrespective of the source of the funding as long as the person is satisfied it will last into the future, they could borrow up to a certain amount, depending on the price of the house, otherwise they would have to prove they had the resources to pay the balance, that would be very rational. That is the same for anybody who borrows money to buy a house. If they have 100% of the cash they just buy it, no question, no problem. If they have only 30% of the net price they have to prove how they will pay the 70% but in all cases, if they borrowed the money at 3% the repayment would be less than the rent they were paying yet still they cannot buy. There is a great value in ownership. It is time a decision was made on that and that this Dáil was informed of the decision. I hope there will be a radical reform of that scheme to make it work because it has not worked.
Housing is an utter nightmare. I cannot believe the bureaucracy involved in dealing with local authorities or approved housing bodies. To extend a house worth over €100,000 or €125,000 a person has to go back to the Department to get permission. Why would the Department officials think that engineers and administrators, who went to the same colleges as they did, are so incompetent while they are so competent? If a person wants to do anything with an approved housing body they must go back I think four times, as must local authorities doing big schemes. That was the way for years when a county council wanted to do something about water and sewerage it had to keep going back to the Department for permission. Can the Minister of State remember those days? No doubt he was on the local authority and tearing his hair out, asking why the officials were not given the money at the beginning of the year and let get on with the job because they would be audited at the end of the year and have to account to the Government for the gross spend. Instead, the local authority has to go back to the Department at every step. Suddenly Irish Water was set up, is given all the money on 1 January and is told to spend it and does not have to go back at all. Why does the Government now trust officials, many of whom came from the local authorities, in Irish Water but did not trust them when they were working for the local authority? If the local authority staff are so untrustworthy they should be abolished and somebody trustworthy put in their place. I do not believe they are untrustworthy. I think it is just a part of the control freak syndrome that Governments have always been party to in respect of local authorities but never with the semi-State bodies they have set up.
To use the old saying, some people see things and say why and others see things that never were and say why not. I am saying to the Minister of State why not say we will give you the money at the beginning of the year. It is up to the councillors to make sure that it is well looked after and it is up to the officials to make sure the spend is in accordance with the guidelines and answerable to the auditor, just as for any other body. If the Government did that and let them get on, it would immediately speed up the building of houses in this country because much of the time it is not a lack of money that is holding us up, it is incessant bureaucracy.
We have an unprecedented housing crisis. In Galway city it is getting worse by the day because people are moving in and there is more home formation in all the guises, from singles to families, but this particularly weighs heavily on families. Private and public houses are being built in the city. There are no affordable houses. It is short of private houses. A person cannot get anything through the housing assistance payment, HAP, and even those who want to buy a house are paying escalating prices. The local authority is building very few houses. It is way behind the increase that has occurred in the past ten years. The national figures paint a very sad picture. Between 2004 and 2010, 33,705 local authority houses were built but between 2011 and 2017, 7,421 were built. The Minister of State might say that approved housing body houses are being built, but 10,542 were built between 2004 and 2010 and 4,809 between 2011 and 2017. I find it impossible to understand why it is so hard in this country to respond to crises and to do anything anymore. We need to consider the logjams because in many cases money is not the problem. The Government has often assured us that the money is available. If it is we have to consider what processes we have in place, including referral to the Department and planning processes that are failing to deliver.
Perfection is a very fine thing in life but it is also the enemy of getting anything done in the real, human world. I guarantee the Minister of State that the people I meet every week, one after another, those who ring me all the time - it would break your heart - families where there is someone with a disability who need a house rapidly with downstairs facilities, would settle for the job being done rather than eternal perfection such that nothing would ever go wrong. If the Minister of State was living in a hostel or a bed and breakfast he would be saying get on and give me a house or an apartment or a place that I could permanently could call home.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this motion. Housing issues are nearing crisis point. The proposal in this legislation will not improve that. As a country we are over-regulated to the extent it is crippling business people, contractors and entrepreneurs. The proposal to create an approved housing body regulator, although well-intentioned, would mean further hindering progress and would introduce an extra layer of bureaucracy. The Government should put its efforts into building houses for the homeless people around the country as it set down in its rebuilding Ireland programme and the programme for Government.
There have been many discussions on housing in the Chamber since I was elected. It is a significant issue that affects every constituency and I do not have all the solutions by any manner or means. When the programme for Government was being created, we had many discussions with those who would form the Government. One of the ideas we put forward that the then incoming Government seemed to show an interest in, although it has never acted on it, was a rural resettlement scheme. It would not resolve the issue and is not the be-all and end-all, but it would tackle the issue if a rural resettlement scheme was available throughout the country.
Rural towns and villages throughout west County Cork have lost people for whatever reasons. The more rural one lives within rural Ireland, the more difficult it is to gain employment. Most people have moved either abroad or to other cities, which has caused closures of shops, pubs, banks and credit unions in many towns and villages. Throughout the country there have been numerous closures but it has been particularly bad in west County Cork. In the space of two months, approximately eight or ten businesses and post offices closed in rural parts of my constituency of Cork South-West. If there was a proper rural resettlement programme, it could have helped tackle the issue of homelessness in the country. While it would not have resolved all the issues, it would have gone some way in that regard and certainly warranted further consideration, although that did not happen. It happened in County Clare many years ago, when a proper rural resettlement programme was attempted. Homeless people were moved to County Clare and it worked. I spoke to a person earlier who told me it did not work perfectly but was quite effective.
The Government has set its eyes on continual proposals for new buildings throughout the country but I do not believe that is the correct approach. It is one approach but it is not the correct one. The purchase of houses has been considered but in many cases people have been evicted as a result. Constituents of mine have competed with the council to buy houses but were unable to buy because they were unable to compete. Approximately two weeks ago, I received a call in that regard from a lady whose son was trying his best to start off in life. I can only assume that what she told me is true. She stated the council outbid her son, although it is an open market and anybody is entitled to buy a house. In many cases, people who live in such houses contact me because they have received a letter to the effect that the council has bought their house and they will become homeless.
That is not the case.
It happens, although it does not happen in every case.
There is not one such case. Let us call a spade a spade. If the Deputy has a letter to prove his assertion, he should bring it to the House.
I would be delighted to do so. I have heard of more than one such case. There have been quite a lot of them.
There have not. That is a serious accusation.
The Deputy has the floor. The Minister of State will have an opportunity to respond.
I ask that the Minister of State comment on the matter in his response. If a council intends to purchase a house where people live, I assume they are not allowed to stay in the house. Where do they go? They receive a letter to tell them they must leave. It has happened numerous times in my constituency. I will search the archives for letters related to the matter. I am not raising something that is not a fact on the ground in my area. It makes common sense to me that if a house with someone living in it is purchased, he or she can be either left to remain or evicted.
I return to the issue of rural resettlement programmes. Whether it is in Rosscarbery, Goleen, Allihies, Ballinspittle, it does not matter. The bottom line is there are many vacant properties in towns and many vacant rooms above shops. There should be an incentive for the owners of such properties to make them available. It does not matter what country the people are from, whether they are Irish or some other nationality, but if there is a potential home for them, it should be explored. It could remove many of the thousands of homeless people from the crisis they face. They would be able to live in a local rural community where there are plenty of spaces in the schools, and fabulous playgrounds and community spaces, instead of sleeping rough or being piled into a hotel room in difficult circumstances that should not be accepted. It is just one measure that should be more seriously examined. It was discussed at great length when creating the programme for Government but it has not been worked on since the formation of the Government. The Government showed interest in it but did not follow through on it.
Another difficulty is that people who want a loan to start off their life with their own home cannot secure one. They are in a trap. Banks will not give them a loan because their earnings might not be the best and many of them pay rent in any event. Unfortunately, not all the schemes the Government has introduced to enable people to secure loans have been very successful. Some of the schemes have been successful but more have not. It is very difficult for many families and puts them into the social housing bracket. Many such families do not want to be in that position but are forced into a corner and cannot secure a loan from the banks. The banks have been tough. They have evicted people and have been tough on them at the most difficult time in their lives. Every day I speak to people who face losing their home. Nothing could be worse than to think that after one has set up one's home with one's partner or children, one is undergoing difficult circumstances but is being played. Circumstances are being made very difficult for people. They are being brought close to the edge, perhaps over the edge in many cases. The Government needs to have a stronger voice against the banks and stand up to them. It needs to tell them that what they are doing is not acceptable. There are ways and means of stopping such tactics being used against ordinary people.
While we often speak about social housing, nobody is ever worried about social housing on the islands, where there is often little or none. Island life is dying. There are eight islands off the coast of west County Cork but I do not know when funding was last made available for social housing on them, whether on Bere Island, Whiddy Island, Long Island, Cape Clear Island, Sherkin Island or any of the others. People are crying out for social housing on the islands but cannot get it and are being forced to the mainland for housing. Residents have a vision of a future in rural Ireland and want to live there, including on the islands, because there is a great way of life there but the supports to allow them to live there are not provided. It would be another way to take the pressure off the cities and larger towns, which are under great pressure.
We must also examine county development plans which, in my constituency, allow ten additional houses in a rural town and village. That is perfectly natural and in some cases, the allowance might be for 50 or even 100 houses. Let us take Ballinspittle in my constituency as an example. A number of additional houses will be allowed in the lifetime of the plan, which is approximately five years. It is good because Ballinspittle is close to Cork and has great potential. There is an issue with the sewerage facilities, however, and the houses cannot be built. A does not talk to B, from what I can gather. There is no point in having someone drawing up a plan and spending all those hours. Another is probably being drawn up but it is fantasy land.
It is wasting the time of councillors and officials. In a town like Ballinspittle, a very simple solution has been proposed and it could resolve the issue but it has not even been examined. The proposed solution would not cost an arm and a leg and it could be replicated throughout west Cork. There are small towns and villages that want to grow and bring people back to the town in order to save the existing facilities but there is no aid from the Government to do it.
We really are lacking the vision to go forward. We are contemplating the purchase of more land and houses, as well as building more houses, but there will never be an end to this. The people who want planning permission to build in their home areas cannot get the loans to allow them to get their lives together. We have been aiding and abetting this process instead of tackling the problem. There is crisis in rural planning permission applications. Young people are finding it increasingly difficult to get approval for planning permission and if people get a job in a small town or village and want to build, they are told they need to be there for seven years before doing so. They cannot establish themselves in the area. It is the same story for people who have spent all their lives in an area; if the authorities can find any excuse to prevent planning permission, they will do everything in their power to bring that about. These couples or individuals are being forced towards social housing.
What else can they do? The list of 10,000 people will stay at 10,000 next year and in the years that follow. The figure will probably grow; it certainly will not decrease. We will not be able to sustain the building of houses. We must look at what is there already. I stated earlier that there is ample housing in rural towns and villages and that is what we must look to in order to resolve the problem. I accept that this approach will not solve the problem completely. I am not as foolish as to say that. It will certainly knock many people of the list that the Government has been trying to defend over a number of years. I saw a school shutting in Goleen and post offices closing in Ballineen and Allihies recently. I could speak about them all night. A credit union in Drimoleague and a butcher shop in Ballinspittle have also closed, along with a shop in Kilbrittain. There are plenty of examples in the bigger towns as well. Those towns are not avoiding the chop either. There is no vision to repopulate these places.
This vision could have been developed during the discussions that led up to the formation of the Government if Fine Gael had worked with people who have done this already in County Clare and other places. They were hungry to make a success of this. Mistakes might have been made along the way and we might not have housed 10,000 people; we might have housed 3,000 or 4,000. We could have given people back their lives, their dignity and respect. We have little or no respect for the people on the street. I will meet them when I walk along the street tonight in Rathmines. They want €5 for food or €9 for the Internet café. It is the same story in my county of Cork. They will come from everywhere to my constituency clinics in Cork South-West. They will come from the more populated areas of Clonakilty, Bandon, Skibbereen and Castletownbere in particular. It is the same story of people sleeping in a camper van or car because they cannot get on a social housing list, or if they can, they have been on it for years. There is a plethora of issues and we are inundated with them.
We are trying our best to resolve this issue. We work very closely with the council and to the best of our ability so people can be rehoused. I do not like naming people but there is a Mr. Healy in west Cork who has done tremendous work to help those who are homeless. He is a saint in his own right. Although I should not name individuals, he works very hard and he has been so good to people in dreadful circumstances. I pity those people because I am human. I assume the Minister of State is the same. We would like to resolve these problems.
The Government has not tackled this issue properly. It should approach it from several angles rather than just one, which the Government is doing in planning for and building houses while nothing is really happening on the ground. The Minister of State might indicate that will happen next year and he should please tell me if it will. The Government should have looked at rural resettlement, as those towns and villages would have taken thousands of people right through the country. It was an awful mistake not to do this. There was an interest in this while the programme for Government was being negotiated but I did not join the Government because I did not think Fine Gael was genuine. I was right. This is one of my highest priorities and while one Minister may have shown interest, others were not. I am not pointing a finger at the Minister of State but the reason for this lack of interest was that there was not much rural blood in the Government. That is still the case. The Government still has an opportunity to act, although we are in the dying hours of its time in office. Most people accept that. There is still a chance to turn this around. I would like the Minister of State to be around the Cabinet table looking at the opportunity and seeing if rural resettlement is an option. It is certainly a way of helping to alleviate the current crisis.
There must be close examination of legislation to help young people looking for planning permission to build. Why is the Government making it so difficult? People cannot get loans and they are on bended knee because they do not want to look for social housing. I accept not everybody is like that. They are getting no assistance from banks and the planning decisions in this country are questionable. A couple came to me recently in my constituency office who put their financial position before me. They had no alternative only to go on the social housing list despite not wanting a council house. They wanted to see if it was possible for them to get a loan from the bank to buy a house. I am no expert but I knew they could not do it. They wanted to see if they could buy a site and build but because of the current position with banks, they were unable to do so and sort out their future. This is what we should have been doing from the word "go" and not just in the years since I was elected. This is something that should have been seen coming down the line. We should have known we would be in a position where hundreds or thousands of people face homelessness.
The Government has left this unfortunate situation spiral out of control. Unfortunately, we are where we are. Nothing the Government has tried to date has worked as the numbers have stayed the same. The difficulty I have is to try to help people in my constituency. I have no problem with anybody following me on Friday when I will have ten clinics from Kinsale to Castletownbere, taking in Clonakilty, Bandon, Skibbereen, Bantry and Schull. It does not matter where it because I am guaranteed that 50% of my time will be spent on housing, trying to see if I can resolve people's problems. These people are eight or ten years on housing lists and at the end of their tether.
In the eight years that Fine Gael has been in government, the housing crisis and homelessness has reaching an alarming level. Little to nothing has been done in real terms to improve this position.
I have the opportunity to conclude the debate and I will try to deal with some of the questions raised as well. There were wide and varied matters raised and although they may not all relate to the Bill, I will try to address some of them.
I thank all Deputies for their contributions to the debate, particularly those who put the work in to see what is in the legislation and what we are trying to do. We are not seeking to add red tape, rather we want to reinforce the voluntary code that already exists, improve the housing body sector and make it easier for these to do business and raise finance. It is about having trust in the system and protect these organisations, as well as taxpayers' money. Most people understand what we are trying to achieve and accept it. I hope the Bill will get through the House quite quickly in order that we can get on with other debates and business.
I welcome and am encouraged by the level of support for the Bill and the recognition of the important work done by the interim regulator, the regulatory committee and approved housing bodies in advance of statutory regulation.
I also recognise the voluntary code that they all accepted and worked with over the past couple of years.
I am confident that, working with Deputies, this important legislation can be progressed quickly to build on the momentum of the approved housing bodies, AHBs, and work in the social housing sector. Some Deputies expressed a fear last night that the housing bodies are the only option and are taking over. I often hear that concern at council level too. That is not the case. Housing bodies work in tandem with local authorities and, very often, under the direction and guidance of local authorities, along with our Department, on many sites. They are an addition to the system and have proved effective in many cases, certainly when it comes to managing their housing stock and tenants. We can work with them and learn from them but they are not a threat to local authorities. I know that some councillors feel they have less power in this area. I have asked the approved housing bodies to engage more with councillors, through council meetings and so forth, to build that relationship. I have also stressed to councillors that they need to develop relationships with approved housing bodies, get to know them and work with them closely. I sometimes think it is a throwback to previous times when councillors felt that they owned council houses and could dish them out to their people. It is hard for them to understand that proper housing legislation and methods for dealing with the allocation of housing mean decisions on housing allocation are not for individual councillors or politicians to take. The system must be fair to everybody. It is important we recognise that. Housing bodies, working with local authorities, help us to increase the delivery of houses on and off balance sheet, which is what we are trying to do. It increases the supply of social housing and that is what we are trying to achieve.
I will address some of the important issues raised during the debate last night and tonight. A number of Deputies last night raised the important issue of the classification of approved housing bodies following the EUROSTAT decision. This Bill will not be an impediment to reclassification. It was being designed long before the reclassification issue arose. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I have been clear that the classification treatment of AHBs will not affect ambitious plans under Rebuilding Ireland as AHBs are earmarked to play a critical role in contributing one third of the 50,000 social homes due to be delivered under the plan, and more thereafter. It is important to examine what measures could be taken in the medium to long term to develop the AHB sector which could lead to reclassification. My Department has been engaging with the sector and the Department of Finance on this important issue for the past 12 weeks or more. It must be accepted, however, that this will most likely be a longer-term objective. It is not the most urgent issue in the Department, although we recognise that it must be addressed. Many issues remain to be teased out. Some of the proposals extend beyond housing policy and will require in-depth analysis. I compliment the Irish Council for Social Housing, ICSH, which is doing a large amount of work in this area, including with Department officials as they try to progress the issue.
The issue of credit unions was raised last night. Deputies Cassells and Jan O'Sullivan referred to credit union involvement in funding special purpose vehicles. The House has discussed this matter on a number of occasions. I would very much welcome the involvement of credit unions and their funds in social housing. There are other projects where there is scope for credit union involvement. As I have stated numerous times, there is a great match between the provision of housing for older people and credit union funds. I hope we will be able to match up these two areas much better. The credit unions have been pushing to do that.
The Department, aware of Central Bank changes, has supported this initiative in conjunction with the ICSH and encouraged engagement between the sector and the credit unions. The framework is in place and it is primarily a matter for the credit unions to progress. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan indicated that the Government needed to do more to bring these two sides together but we are not allowed to do that as this is private money that is separate from the Government. We cannot put the two sides together or make this happen. The Government must stand back slightly. We designed the framework and funded the ICSH to design different solutions and research different models. We worked with the sector. The Central Bank can make changes but the Government cannot force this to happen. It must happen naturally because it involves access to finance that is not taxpayers' money.
I want to be clear on this issue because people are probably beginning to doubt me. I have met representatives of the Credit Union Development Association, CUDA, numerous times and they have indicated that they have completed all of the work necessary to underpin an investor special purpose vehicle, SPV, but have not yet formally established it as a corporate entity as the cost involved would not be justified until such a time as a clear investment opportunity is available. The SPV is ready and can be switched on in a matter of days. It is not a complicated business and the work on it has been done. I have said this for months and I have encouraged some of the players and stakeholders to engage with them and try to draw down that money. It is not that the case that the credit union movement is not ready. There is a model in place if some of the AHBs are of a mind to avail of it. I cannot be any clearer on that. It is important to note that the reclassification decision does not prevent AHBs from accessing private finance and I want to be very clear on that. Three AHBs have been successful in securing private finance. Oaklee Housing has done so through a German bank and two others have done so through Allied Irish Banks. We are not impeding the AHBs in that regard.
I will revert to Deputy Ó Broin if I do not cover all the points he raised last night. He noted that local authorities are not included in the Bill. As statutory bodies in their own right, local authorities should not be covered by this Bill and it would not be appropriate to include them. The focus of the Bill is the regulation of the AHB sector. AHBs are not statutory bodies.
The established practice in appointing board members to the regulator is to use the Public Appointments Service process and that is the clear intention here. We can clarify that matter further should the Deputy require but that is the plan.
The Deputy's point on regulatory co-operation was well made. Our view was probably that this issue had been covered under the memorandum of understanding between the regulators. We tried to avoid complication, conflict and duplication but I will be happy to discuss with the Deputy whether we need to strengthen the wording or revisit the issue.
On tenancy management, the regulator will look at the policies of AHBs in respect of their tenancies, whereas the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, will continue to deal with the relationship between AHBs, landlords and tenants. The RTB was empowered to initiate investigations of its own volition and, as such, restricting the regulator in this area would not make sense. If I misunderstood Deputy Ó Broin, I would be happy to tease out the issue with him. The Deputy and other speakers referred to bringing the whole regulatory system together, including social housing and the general housing stock. The local authorities do a good job in this area, which is well managed. If there are issues the Deputy wants to tease out, we can look at them, although not in this Bill. I understand the point he makes.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan raised the important issue of the merging of AHBs. While the Department acknowledges that the merger process has been slow and few mergers have taken place, we support and encourage mergers. We will be happy to discuss suggestions as to how to do encourage it further. Mergers would make sense in some cases. We are happy to allow for that over a period of time.
Fees were also mentioned by a few Deputies, including Deputy O'Sullivan. While the Bill does include provision for the charging of fees by the regulator, it is not intended to charge fees in the initial stages of the operation on the grounds that this would be a further regulatory burden. However, fees will be discussed with the regulator at some stage. I do not believe it is intended to apply excessive fees, which will probably just cover costs. Deputy O'Sullivan asked last night what kinds of figures were being bandied about. I have heard large sums mentioned by others but the Department has not discussed the matter. Charges will be discussed at the appropriate time but we do not believe it is necessary to charge fees now.
Deputy Pringle raised the issue of duplication of regulators and Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and others raised a similar issue when they stated there were too many regulators. I assure the Deputies that there will be no duplication. A system is already in place under the voluntary code through the agency and we do not seek to add more red tape. This is a transition from voluntary to statutory regulation which will build on existing infrastructure in the housing agency. Provision is made for the transfer of staff from the housing agency to the regulator. There have been excellent examples, and we all know them, of housing associations and housing bodies up and down the country doing great work. They also need to be protected and there have been odd cases where these bodies have not had best practice in operation. We are trying to encourage best practice. The sector wants this regulation and it is not a case of introducing more red tape that it does not want. Housing bodies want to be protected in a system that everybody trusts and has faith in and helps them to raise money and carry out their business.
Deputy Mattie McGrath, as usual, made a very passionate contribution about an AHB in his locality. I am familiar with the AHB in question and the work it does and there are many other AHBs in Tipperary and around the country that have done good work. I assure the Deputy that the Bill respects the size of AHBs and the compliance requirements will be proportionate to the size and scale of the AHB sector. Section 38 of the Bill provides for this and it was raised again by Deputy Ó Cuív tonight. It is recognised that a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation is not suitable for the AHB sector as there is a wide diversity of organisations in terms of aims, objectives and ambitions. While a minimum level of regulation will apply to all AHBs, more intensive regulation will apply to the larger housing bodies, which is common sense. This will depend on the size, scale and level of financial risk associated with the development plans of the individual AHB. Some of the AHBs are large and we encourage that. Some of the major players intend to do much more in conjunction with local authorities, councillors, public representatives and public bodies. We will facilitate that but it also highlights the need for proper regulation. Those were some of the issues that were raised last night.
On the issues raised this evening, I will try to deal as many as I can. Deputy Michael Collins is still in the Chamber and I will answer his points. The issue of islands was raised. We support social housing if the local authority wants to do that. We, as a Department, do not lecture local authorities or tell them where to put each individual house or what scheme to bring forward. We work with them on that, but they bring forward suggestions to us about where the need is and who needs the homes. We are happy to work with them on that. There have been schemes on one island that Deputy Ó Cuív represents where an approved housing body wished to remove itself from the provision of housing because there was not a demand for its housing. There are different situations on different islands, but it is something we would support when needs be. It is, however, a local authority decision by councillors. I am sure Members have councillors working with them on that. If there is need for housing on a certain island, the case should be brought forward. The funding is there to roll out social housing. That is what we are trying to do. We have encouraged local authorities everywhere to increase their pipelines of projects and bring forward more projects. If there is a specific area that Members wish to mention, they should bring it through their local authority and bring it to our desk or consult an AHB which might be glad to work with them on such a project. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, recently established an interdepartmental group to consider island issues in general. One issue raised was social housing, so the issue has been flagged and we are happy to respond to that, if there is a proven need. There is money there for it.
On islands and their needs, something that Deputy Danny Healy-Rae often raises, and he raised it last night again, is that there is no rural social one-off housing. There can be but that is a request of a local authority. Officials in my Department cannot work out where an individual one-off rural house is needed, but the schemes are there. Some local authorities choose not to bring them forward, or rather they concentrate their efforts on larger-scale developments of ten or 20 units. They can bring them forward if they want, and the various schemes exist under which one-off rural social houses can be built, if need be, whether on an island or anywhere else. Last night Deputy Danny Healy-Rae said there were only 12 in the whole of Kerry in recent years. That is a Kerry decision, not a Department decision, and I want to be very clear about that. If people have issues, they should engage with the local authorities to see what the real issues are behind that. The Department does try to facilitate things where there is a need for housing in a certain area.
In fairness, Deputy Michael Collins did mention the rural resettlement scheme, and I totally agree with him on that. There is scope there. We did engage with one of his colleagues and other, but I have not heard him mention it before. Maybe he did and I missed it, but if it such a big issue for him, I am happy to work with him on it. There is a scheme in place. It was mentioned during the Government formation talks - I was not there - and some of the Deputies who mentioned it no longer form part of the Government, but some of them did pursue it afterwards, kept in touch with us, and we have worked with them on it. We looked at the Clare model and who was engaged there. About 800 households would have been facilitated over a long number of years through the rural resettlement scheme. It might not be the thousands the Deputy said but maybe it could be. It is something we would like to put on a more formal footing.
Resettlement is catered and allowed for under the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, where it is possible to transfer. If someone is in Dublin and wants to live in Mayo or Cork, for example, he or she can use the HAP scheme to do so. The limit is slightly different between counties but movement is facilitated. If it is not working, then we would be happy to engage with the Deputy on it. We want to make it more formal because there is a lot of potential there. If families do not have a home in Dublin, Meath or Cork and want to move to a different county, we are very happy for them to engage with us and express an interest. We will work with them to do that. I want to be clear on that. It is not just a housing matter. Other services need to be put in to make it a viable option for people, but it is something that we should do and encourage. We are looking to develop the passport model whereby people would be able to be on waiting lists in a number of different local authorities and they would be notified if something that suited came up in a different area.
The Deputy made the point that there are vacant houses in some counties and areas. We now have vacant homes officers in every county and there is a target in the vacant housing plan. There are a range of schemes that the local authorities can avail of or use if there are vacant properties. These properties are generally owned by people privately. If the Deputy wishes to spend his time finding 20 or 30 vacant properties and encouraging the owners to come forward to avail of our schemes, we are very happy to do that. I keep telling everybody - councillors, Deputies and so on - that if they are aware of vacant properties in their areas, they know who owns them, the history behind them, and the complications that go with that, the Department is happy to work on solutions if they want to bring them forward to our vacant homes officers.
There are a range of schemes in place that are being underutilised. I scratch my head sometimes why this is so when I see vacant properties, because there are some very attractive schemes in place. The repair and lease back is one of them that is very attractive. If a person has a vacant home, and it could one of those over the shop premises on a street that could need €30,000 or €40,000 to bring it up to standard, we can provide that with a grant and the owner can repay that over the years with the rental income. It is a very attractive scheme, and yet there is a very small uptake of it. We may change it to make it more attractive. The Deputy may or may not have heard of the scheme, but perhaps he could encourage the people he knows who have these vacant properties to take up the scheme. Likewise, local authorities can become involved in the purchase and renew scheme. Whether on a high street or rural area, if there is a need for social housing and there is a house that is dilapidated or in poor condition, resources are provided for the local authority to buy the house and draw down resources to bring it back up to a high standard to make it a home. Absolutely we would like to see vacant properties back in use. It is total common sense, and we are all for it. None of us likes walking down any street or driving through any town, village or rural area and seeing vacant properties. We are very much engaged in that space. We do not have the resources to go chasing after every property - I wish we did - so we need people like the Deputy to bring the properties forward. We have asked local authorities that if they have someone who needs a house on the one hand and someone on the other who has a house, they should bring them together. That can be looked at as well. The Deputy should get involved in that if he wants to raise it as well.
I took issue with the Deputy earlier and do so again. I do not believe that any local authority has evicted anyone from a private house that it has bought. If the Deputy has proof of that or has a letter saying that, I want to see it and he should bring it in. I ask him please, not to come in here and tell me that local authorities are buying houses and evicting people to put someone else in. I do not think that is true. If it is true, I want to know about it and I am sure the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, would also like to know about it. Local authorities are encouraged and facilitated, and money is provided, to buy vacant properties and places. They generally do not compete with the private sector. I certainly would not believe that they are buying up houses with people in them and putting them out. The Deputy has a chance to take it back if it is not true or he does not have proof. If he has the proof, he should bring it in, but it is unfair to say it if it is not true. It would be wrong and a very wrong statement to make. In many places where a house can be bought cheaper than it would cost to build or replace and no one else is chasing it or wants it, we encourage local authorities to buy it. It makes common sense. In other cases they are involved in turnkey properties or in purchase and renew, but we ask them to focus their efforts mainly on building new houses, which is what they are doing. Naturally, if there are good deals for taxpayers and there are vacant properties or houses lying empty, it makes sense to acquire them. Not everyone agrees with that policy. I agree with it because to me it makes total sense. It makes sense in many areas where it would cost more to build a house than buy one. It should not be at the expense of someone else, and they always try not to compete. They would be very slow to buy a house in most cases and would hang back to see if anyone else wanted to buy it first. If the Deputy has different information on that, it is something we will look at again. Certainly with vacant properties, funding will be provided if local authorities want to buy the houses and renovate them.
The Deputy referred to planning permission. There are guidelines. I am often in rural Cork where there are many houses built. I keep hearing people say in the House that there are no one-off houses or that planning has been stopped. An average of 5,000 one-off houses have been built every year in recent years. It is not true to say that there are none, that we are against it, or that Fine Gael wants to stop it. Yes, it has got more complicated because there are many more houses being built in rural areas. It is harder environmentally to pass every field. There have been changes on the social and economic need to live in a rural house. There is an encouragement and the planners' philosophy is to group houses together. Tipperary brought forward a lovely scheme recently to encourage a rural housing scheme as a solution to building one-off houses. There is a high cost to individuals of one-off houses to provide water, sewerage and everything else to the site, so sometimes the Government has a duty to provide other options. We look at all options, but it is not true to say that there are no one-off houses. I was in the Deputy's area recently and I know that is not true because I saw many one-off houses being built, some of them fine houses.
There are issues of the public accessing finance and so on, which we are trying to work on, but it is untrue that the loan scheme we brought forward has been unsuccessful. It has been more than successful and has been too successful in the drawdown. It does not suit everyone - I accept that - and I know the point the Deputy was making. In some cases people argue that the banks are not making money available. The Central Bank rules are independent of the Government but they are there to protect people against overborrowing. All of us here know far too many people who overborrowed. I certainly know people of my generation, left, right and centre, who were lured into overborrowing and into paying far too much for a house. We are trying to avoid that, which is why the bank rules are there. That is not to stop someone with a viable proposal to build a house. We have affordable housing schemes. Cork brought forward a lot, not to mention Kinsale, where there are great developments with affordable housing. We want to do more of that.
Naturally, when we can use State-owned land to build affordable housing, we should do so and we will. We will do more on that issue.
Deputy Ó Cuív made a point earlier, and he was nearly boasting at one stage which I was surprised by, when he quoted the figures from 2004 to 2011. I would be embarrassed if I was in the Government from 2004 to 2011 because it only built 33,000 social houses in boom years of high level activity. In one year alone some 90,000 houses were built and the Deputy could stand there and nearly say it was a great achievement to have built 33,000 social houses. It is because there were so few social houses built in those years that we have a problem today. Social housing should have been kept at a high level of activity all the way through those years. Policies were changed to stop more or less local authorities building social houses in many cases. When we got the finance together - Deputy Jan O'Sullivan started this when she was in that Department along with Deputies Penrose and Kelly and ourselves when we got a hold of that brief - we tried to turn that around to put local authorities back in the space of building social houses.
A commitment was made, in conjunction with this House, to build a minimum of 10,000 social houses. I accept some Members want to build more and that is fine but we made a commitment to build a minimum of 10,000. That meant going from practically zero up to 10,000. That is what the level was at in some of those boom years. In the year that 90,000 houses were built in this country, less than 5,000 of them were for social housing. That is not something to be proud of. It is something the Government tried to fix and I hope future Governments, be they Fine Gael-led or not, will also make sure we stick to a certain level of social housing builds every year. We have a plan to deliver 10,000 social houses a year. That is this year. I know they are not all brand new builds. Over 6,000 will be brand new builds and some will be acquired or leased but there will be 10,000 additional social houses available this year. Next year, it will be up on 11,000 and under Project Ireland 2040, with the ten-year capital money set aside, it goes to 12,000 social houses a year. That is our commitment and I ask everybody else to match or go beyond it because nobody else has matched it with commitments. We are trying to make it happen but for Deputy Ó Cuív to come in here and try to compare 2004 to 2011 with 2011 to 2016, when the country was broke and when he handed us over an overdraft of €20 billion per year in spend and to try to claim that from 2011 to 2014 the Government did not build enough houses is not being realistic.
We started building houses again the first chance we got when there was money available, and rightly so, and we are still playing catch-up. That is why tonight there are still far too many families who do not have a house. It did not happen overnight. It happened because of housing failures for many years in this country. Land was managed in the wrong way and the wrong approach to building social housing was taken. It will take time to correct that fully but we are going in the right direction. We need to keep doing this and keep adding 10,000 to 12,000 social houses a year every year. That is how the housing shortage will be addressed. That is only social housing. State-owned land and State resources also need to be used to finance and make affordable housing available. When we do that, we must also try to activate private land with resources. We have to do that for a long number of years with long-term plans. To build 33,000 social houses in seven or eight of the busiest years for housing construction is an embarrassment and we would not have 1,700 families without a house today if that was not the case in those years. They were wasted years when it comes to housing and at the same time people were paying €0.5 million for houses that were not worth that money and being choked with mortgages for 30 or 40 years. I am surprised that Deputy Ó Cuív made that point. I might agree with other parts of what he said but not on that point.
The discussion was also about approved housing bodies and their roles, the housing supply in general and homelessness versus rough sleepers. I am glad Deputy Ó Cuív tried to make the distinction there and I agree with him on that because those matters are often confused. Again, I see that some of our non-governmental organisations, NGOs, when they discuss homeless families, produce pictures of someone living on the street. There are not families living on the street. Sadly, there are far too many people sleeping rough who are on the streets. They are individuals in different situations with different stories and we have the housing first approach which is a great help to try to encourage those people to come in off the streets, avail of the services and eventually live in a house. There is no reason for anyone to be living on the street or for anyone to be living in a van. I am not saying we have a house for everybody but there are a lot of other supports that are a lot better than living on the street and if we keep intervening enough, there is no reason for anyone to be living on the street. It happens for different reasons but it does not happen to families. There are far too many families in family-hubs or hotels. I know that and I am not trying to deny that. We try to find them a family home but there is no reason for someone to be living in a van as Deputy Michael Collins has said, or for someone to be living on the street. If the Deputy knows someone living on the street, he should ask him or her to engage with our services. There are an extra 20 care workers on the streets on a nightly basis trying to ask people to come in to avail of our services. Wherever we think there is a need we provide more emergency beds. That is not the end solution, it is just the start of getting someone back into a house. Naturally, while we build more houses and increase the supply of housing, we can provide even more solutions.
Other issues were mentioned around water, sewerage and investment, which were also mentioned last night. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, has raised the issue with Irish Water and Deputy Brassil raised it last night as well. There are complications there and we have seen that on a lot of social housing sites. Again, Deputy Michael Collins might have said nothing is happening but there are about 300 social housing sites open today with over 6,000 social houses under construction. People can see that. They are not fools and they know things are happening. It might not be quick enough but it is certainly a lot more than nothing. We have got reports of delays with Irish Water from a lot of those sites. We have got reports of delays or complications at private sites and in some cases we have tried to service these sites as well. We acknowledge there is a lot of progress to be made there. Irish Water has a capital budget and it is spending it but we need to do things more quickly in some cases and we need to change it and catch up. Irish Water is catching up and we can do that.
On the control issue that Deputy Michael Collins raised, it is not that we mistrust local authorities. There was a scheme in place to allow local authorities do housing schemes of up to €2 million, without having to go through all the stages in the Department. They chose not to use that in most cases. That was their choice. There was a discussion last year to bring it up to €6 million but that has not happened yet and it is still being discussed. We are not convinced it is the right way. Everyone keeps telling me the four stage process is causing all the delays in social housing but it is not because we have changed that process to a possible 59 weeks. The majority, about 80% of proposals, are coming in a little bit over that at about 60 weeks but it is not taking years as it did years ago. We have changed that process. I have seen schemes that took four to ten years in the past. I believe those days are gone and they should be gone because we track every scheme now. Local authorities are not telling me the four stage process or the rules therein is causing the delays. If all those stages were taken out, six weeks might be saved in some cases. There might be genuine disputes and disagreements between our officials and local authority officials in some cases and there might be toing and froing on that. I often say we should forget the emails and phonecalls and meet in the middle to sort it out and they generally do so. That might cause delays but on the majority of sites there is no reason why it cannot go through quite quickly. Even if the control mechanism was changed and the four stage process was moved away from, it would not give us houses any more quickly. We can have all these discussions but I am not sure it would achieve anything. We have reformed the system, which is making changes and allows for change.
I have only touched on some of the issues that were raised and there are probably others as well. I know Deputy Ó Broin had more questions and I had a note on them but I do not know where I left it so if I have missed anything I ask that he let me know. The last thing I will mention is the tenant purchase scheme, which was raised by a few Members. It has been dragging on far too long. Deputy Ó Cuív and a few others raised that as well as some of the Members speaking last night. It is proposed to bring that forward in the coming weeks around the social housing package. I strongly believe there should be a tenant purchase scheme, and a tenant purchase option for people to buy a house. The current scheme says that one has to prove an income of over €15,000 to qualify. It is a generous scheme in terms of the discount one gets on the house but the €15,000 is a block to some people who might have the money from winning the lotto or who might have otherwise found the money to buy the house. We are trying to find a way for that to be encouraged. The science behind the €15,000 requirement and the reason it is there is because generally, to be able to maintain a house after buying it, one would need to have an income of some sort over €15,000 in most cases and that is well proven. We are trying to see how we can facilitate that and if we can find a way that if a family or an individual can prove they can finance the purchase of a house and maintain it thereafter, we want to find the space to do that because we want to encourage tenant purchases where it is at all possible.
There were probably more matters raised but I will leave it at that because my time is probably nearly up at this stage.