We move on to a statement by the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on Covid-19, as it relates to local government, and to questions and answers on Covid-19, as they relate to local government. I call on the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy John Paul Phelan, to make the opening statement. He has ten minutes.
Covid-19 (Local Government): Statements
I thank the members of the Business Committee for agreeing to have this discussion today. As I have not had a chance to speak yet in this Dáil, I want to place on the record of the House my own sympathies for those who have been bereaved in the current crisis, as well as my appreciation for those on the front line both in the health service and right across society, not least in the local government sector, which we are going to spend the next two hours discussing.
Our local authorities have been part of the front line of Ireland's response to the Covid-19 crisis. They have provided local leadership and support to communities throughout the country. They have proved once more how responsive and agile they are in the face of the crisis. They have found new ways of maintaining services and indeed creative new ways of delivering new services. The provision of support and care to vulnerable sectors of society, whether those in emergency accommodation or those in our communities forced to remain at home in cocooned isolation, has been at the heart of the local authority response to Covid-19. Just as the virus has forced us all to find new ways of working, coping and communicating, so it also has demonstrated the reach and flexibility of our 31 local authorities. The local authority system has played a pivotal role in protecting the most vulnerable in communities, namely, those in emergency accommodation. It has worked closely with NGOs, the HSE, the Garda and other key stakeholders to put in place really strong supports for those in emergency accommodation. It has also moved quickly to secure additional accommodation, with more than 1,000 new spaces secured in Dublin and more than 400 secured outside Dublin. There is more capacity above and beyond that.
It has also planned and acted strategically in maintaining key essential services. These have often been delivered in different ways and from different locations throughout the crisis, while planning carefully for the phased resumption and ramping up of more activities in line with the timetable set out in the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, and consistent with the Return to Work Safely Protocol.
The urgent requirement to keep the planning process open is recognised by all. While the public participation process in planning had to be protected by extending statutory timelines for several weeks, the focus now is on a prudent reopening of planning offices to facilitate a steady return to this critical element of economic activity across the country. Since Monday, planning offices have been open right across the country to public inspection.
From the very beginning of the emergency, it was recognised that people who were cocooning would need extra help, particularly if their usual networks of support were not able to reach them at that particular time. For that reason, and to put in place a safety net for such people, national government came together with local government and the community and voluntary sector to launch the Community Call initiative. This initiative recognised that local authorities are at the heart of every community in the country and that they have a unique democratic mandate and capacity to bring people together, and all the principal response agencies in the public sector, as well as huge numbers in the community and voluntary sector locally.
On Friday, 27 March, immediately following the announcement by An Taoiseach of strict measures to control the spread of Covid-19, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, directed all local authority chief executives to establish a dedicated forum to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in their communities. Forums, dedicated help lines, and support systems were put in place in all 31 local authorities over that weekend. I want to take this opportunity to commend the local authorities, the staff, elected members and indeed other agencies on their leadership in responding so effectively and so rapidly to that call. I thank also the other bodies involved, including the HSE, the Garda, Civil Defence, the GAA and other sporting bodies, community and voluntary organisations, volunteers and everyone else who has come together with such commitment and generosity of spirit. The Community Call initiative has brought together key local bodies with national organisations such as ALONE and An Post, is helping to ensure that everyone who needs support is identified, that the support required is carefully assessed and the appropriate support is provided by a tried and trusted source. ALONE, the organisation supporting older people, is operating the national support line to provide emotional support and reassurance to vulnerable people and is cross-referencing callers through the appropriate local authority as required. Similarly, local authorities are referring appropriate calls to ALONE.
Special credit is due to An Post, whose staff have not only delivered critical Covid-19 informational material to households but are also checking in on vulnerable people and helping to ensure that they can stay connected. I thank my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, who has worked in close partnership on this initiative. I also wish to mention and support the work of the forums in support of which, through Deputy Ring's Department, the Government has launched a €2.5 million fund. These include the local authority Community Call forums and the community and voluntary groups they are working with, such as Meals on Wheels and other community and voluntary services throughout the country. Each Community Call forum is providing practical supports like collection and delivery of food, meals, fuel, medication, pensions and other essential items.
Since 31 March, the 31 Community Call forums around the country have met 310 times remotely and have handled over 41,000 calls, some 750 calls per day on average, with more at the start. A total of 24% of the calls related to the delivery of food; 20% concerned social isolation or engagement; 8% concerned the delivery of meals; 6% concerned medical matters; and 42% fell into the other category, such as volunteering and people who hoped to give support to their local Community Call forum.
Since its launch on 9 March, the ALONE national helpline has received 21,000 calls and has supported just under 15,000 older people. The service provided by the Community Call forums will continue to operate as long as needed. It is quite important. There is a lesson to be learned for local government in the future from the engagement of so many new people, particularly in the community and voluntary sector, during the Covid response. It is important that we build on that in the future in terms of developing our local government structure. Important links and working relationships have been built among service providers and users at local level. A key consideration of the review of the initiative, which will commence shortly, will be about sustaining those links.
Importantly, given the breadth and reach of the bodies involved, some vulnerable and isolated people in our communities have been identified as part of the work of the forums. They have now been brought under the wing of their local communities and support organisations, which should allow them to continue to live independently in their homes for longer.
The Community Call fora also play an important role in the In This Together initiative, which aims to help everyone in Ireland to stay connected, to stay active and to look after their mental well-being throughout the emergency. An important element of this will be the work of the network of local authority libraries, which have already seen an expansion in their digital and online services.
In terms of finance, the Department has worked closely with the local government sector, particularly with the County and City Management Association, CCMA, to deal with the very significant financial and funding challenges that Covid-19 has presented to the sector. Rates income, budgeted at €1.54 billion in 2019 and €1.66 billion this year, provides approximately 30% of the revenue across all local authorities and up to 50% in some cases.
Recognising the critical nature of rates to local authorities and local communities, I ensured that the Local Government Rates and Other Matters Act 2019 was enacted last year. The act modernises the rates system. Important elements have already been commenced and the commencement of the remaining elements is being progressed with a view to them becoming operational for the next budgeting period beginning in the fourth quarter of this year. Obviously, however, the impact of Covid-19 on business and ratepayers has been very significant and Government has responded by announcing on 2 May a waiving of rates for all businesses forced to close due to public health requirements from 27 March for a three-month period. This will come at a cost of €260 million to be met by the Exchequer. The Department is currently finalising further guidance for local authorities on that initiative and the Cabinet will be meeting to discuss this guidance further on Friday. The position will be reviewed as part of a wider review of supports to enterprise and employment and associated local authority funding.
We are also involved, as Members will be aware, in the restart fund for micro and small businesses, which was announced by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys.
There are a number of other issues on which I will answer questions from Members.
I am sharing time with Deputies MacSharry, Niall Collins, Cathal Crowe and Murnane O'Connor. I would like a response from the Minister of State during my time so I will be quick. The Minister of State referred to the micro and small business restart fund. Has the Department looked at other rateable organisations such as sports clubs and other community organisations, which are paying rates and have staff but cannot apply for that restart grant? It seems inequitable, given that they are ratepayers too and should be able to apply for those grants. To stay with local government matters, the Minister of State noted that rates have rightly been waived for this three-month period. I put it to him that we will have to do that for a longer period of time - potentially for the rest of this year - to give the SME sector, which is crucially important to this country, a chance to breathe. Have financial projections been carried out within the Department on potential lost revenue over those coming weeks? The Minister of State mentioned a figure of €260 million in that period. In that context, has the Minister or the Minister of State discussed a local authority recovery fund to compensate for that lost income? I want to record my sincere thanks to all local authority staff all over this country. I have had personal experience of them doing phenomenal work, from housing officers to biodiversity officers and those working in operations and sports. The whole lot of them have gone above and beyond. They have been part of our front-line response to this emergency and so we need to ensure they are funded.
To turn to housing, which is part of the Department's brief, 7,700 builds were targeted for this year between local authority and approved housing body, AHB, housing. Has the projected output within the social housing sector for the rest of this year been revised? The last time we had questions on housing, I mentioned that the construction industry was projecting that we would complete 18,000 units this year because of the Covid crisis and the slowdown. That has been further reduced to approximately 14,000, which is understandable but also shows the scale and challenge the next Government will face in ramping back up delivery of public, social and affordable homes. Has there been a revision in the projections on housing within the Department? What does the Minister of State believe will be delivered this year? As regards social housing sites that are back in action right now, what is in the pipeline for the rest of this year on the active sites that are up and running? Does the Minister of State think the capital envelope for local authority builds this year is secure enough to deliver the required housing for the rest of this year?
I raised the Rebuilding Ireland home loan a number of weeks ago. I am glad the Department is giving forbearance to mortgage holders who will not be charged interest in that intervening period. That is the right thing to do. I wish our financial institutions would do the same and I am ask them to do so. Does the Minister of State have an update on extending the forbearance measures for a further three months, should that be required?
I will have to forward the Deputy's questions on housing to the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. We had housing questions in the House recently but today's session is not specifically about housing. However, I will get the Minister to directly answer the questions Deputy O'Brien has raised.
The restart grant is being funded through the local authorities and local enterprise offices and is a rebate of rates. I have encountered some businesses that might have a very small rates bill or do not have much of a physical premises. The Deputy mentioned sporting and community organisations. The scheme is under constant review, with the aim of capturing the maximum number of businesses. I will bring the Deputy's specific concerns to the attention of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, which is the Department responsible for the grant.
The Deputy asked if the waiving of rates for three months is not enough. A figure of €90 million per month was worked out, in conjunction with the County and City Management Association, as the cost of Covid-19 to the local government sector. An amount of €260 million has been committed to but a commitment was also given that the period for which rates are waived will be extended if businesses continue to be forced to close or to be seriously affected by the Covid epidemic.
I am going to use my brief few minutes to make a couple of points and the Minister of State's officials might email his response to me at a later date.
Considerable sacrifices have been made by local authorities all over the country. I commend all the workers in local authorities who have helped in the front-line effort throughout the Covid crisis.
Recent grant schemes are very welcome but, sadly, we are doing little more for the SME sector than, effectively, subsidising next year's rates bill. Will the Minister of State's officials confirm to me in writing later today or tomorrow if it is envisaged that the rates holiday of three or four months will be extended? Much of the SME sector, particularly those in hospitality and tourism, could do with that being extended to 12 months.
Will the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government commit to replenishing whatever rates are forgone by local authorities? Smaller local authorities should be prioritised because, as we know, at any given time in a normal year, Fingal County Council might have €100 million on deposit whereas authorities in smaller counties, without the benefit of having Dublin Airport in their rates base, have limited resources. Such authorities do not have the benefit of many services that other local authorities have. For example, local authorities in Mayo and Kerry have four or five tourism officers whereas authorities in Sligo and Leitrim might be lucky to have one.
Those are my questions and they relate to grant aid for people and the business start-up grant, and whether the Minister of State will be in a position to replenish the amounts that are forgone in commercial rates income for local authorities nationally.
I raise the issue of finance for small builders and contractors. A number of small builders and contractors in my Limerick constituency have raised with me the issue that Home Building Finance Ireland will provide funding only for schemes of five houses or more. We know that small builders will be the engine for the delivery of value for money housing as we try and get more housing units, particularly social and affordable housing units, up and running. The financing scheme should be amended to allow building schemes of two, three and four units to be built and they should be financed accordingly.
I also raise the issue of homelessness in my constituency of County Limerick. Much of the debate and discussion about homelessness has focused on cities and urban-based homelessness but I have a particular issue in my constituency where I feel the Department and the local authority are not providing enough of a service and outreach in rural County Limerick. I am dealing with four cases where people are sleeping rough or in their cars. There is a need to better fund the homeless action team in Limerick City and County Council to deal with this issue.
Linked to the issue of homelessness, there is an acute shortage of one-bed, small type accommodation in Limerick, particularly for vulnerable men who have come from broken marriages or have other issues and find themselves on the local authority waiting list. We need a focus on that.
I also mention the issue of student accommodation at the University of Limerick. This issue also arises in other parts of the country, such as Tralee and other areas of student accommodation, but I am interested particularly in the University of Limerick. Yesterday, the governing authority recommended to itself, because it wholly owns a company that operates the student accommodation, that refunds should be given to students. They have a complex corporate web of ownership and it is laughable. I would like the Minister of State, his colleagues or the Government to take a position on this matter.
A housing scheme in Hospital in my constituency in Limerick got Part 8 planning for 26 houses.
A contract has been signed with a contractor. He is now only going to build nine houses because Irish Water has decided it cannot service the site. It has gone through the planning process and the procurement process. Irish Water is now coughing up problems and 16 families are going to lose out. I would like the Department to look into this. I ask the Minister of State get back to me in his own time in writing with replies to those issues.
I call Deputy Cathal Crowe.
On a point of order, there are many Deputies here belonging to different groups. I thought there was a maximum of two allowed per party. I see many Deputies who should not be in this Chamber. I ask the Acting Chairman to have a look. I am not trying to be smart on this. If people outside are obeying the rules, I do not see any reason we should not obey the rules in this House.
I will take that on board. I will come back to the Deputy. I will seek advice on it. I call Deputy Crowe.
I ask the Minister-----
Sorry, if the Acting Chairman does not do that, I will leave the Chamber. There are too many Members in this Chamber. Can the Acting Chairman please ask that Members who are not supposed to be in the Chamber to leave?
Okay. It is a fair point. If the social distancing-----
It has nothing to do with the social distancing.
There is a maximum number of TDs. At one stage, there were four from Fianna Fáil to speak.
There are six or seven vacant spaces.
It does not matter. Sinn Féin is one of the ones. The rules are the rules. They have three Members at present. Three Members are not allowed in here at present. There should be only two Members from Sinn Féin here.
We are allowed 20 Members. There are not 20 Members here.
It is the number of Members in total. This is a distraction. Please, Chair.
It is wrong.
The clock is stopped. Deputy Cathal Crowe had two and half minutes.
I have a few valuable seconds. One has to be like Usain Bolt to get points out in this Chamber.
The Minister of State might respond to my queries and questions since my time is limited. I want to get out of the Chamber to comply with the social distancing rules.
I quickly want to draw the Minister of State's attention to inconsistent planning decisions by An Bord Pleanála. It recently dealt with two almost identical planning files in County Clare relating to mobile phone masts - one in Quilty and the other in Doonbeg. Both communities are coastal and visually vulnerable, in beautiful scenic areas. In both instances, they were refused planning by Clare County Council but when it went to An Bord Pleanála, the Quilty decision was upheld but planning for the Doonbeg mast was granted. Locals are utterly perplexed and frustrated. We need consistency in that regard. The Department is the supreme custodian for planning policy. The Minister of State will probably tell me he cannot intervene. If nothing else, there needs to be consistency.
The second issue I wish to raise is that of local government funding. In a normal year, Clare County Council bills its ratepayers approximately €44.7 million in rates. However, following the closure of businesses due to the Covid pandemic, the council anticipates a loss of income in the region of €19.7 million. In Clare, there is high dependency on the hospitality sector, which will not reboot overnight, and Shannon Airport, which pays in the region of €2 million in rates per annum. The presence of Moneypoint power station in west Clare throws up another anomaly in funding in that it accounts for one quarter of all the rates based in the country. The Minister of State needs to look at this because Clare will be disproportionately hit by all of this. The recent Covid regional economic analysis report published by the three regional authorities has Clare in the highest exposure category with its businesses operating in the worst affected areas. Clare ranks fifth on that list. I would like to know whether the Department will intervene in this regard.
Finally, I refer to a topical issue and I do not expect the Minister of State to respond to it. In the past hour or so, Aer Lingus has announced a significant number of job losses directly impacting on my constituency. The company has done it unilaterally, without engagement with unions or workers. We need to set up a task force. We need to have a session here next week to deal with Aer Lingus job losses and the regional impact in Shannon and the Clare hinterland.
I also compliment all the local authorities on the great work they have done. During the lockdown, local authorities have parked commercial rates, they have suspended or removed parking charges, and there has been a reduction in some cases in rent and mortgage repayments for its customers. The Minister of State must look at extending that, now more than ever.
As we move through the phases, what will happen with local authorities? Will services have to be cut? We have discussed the great services that local authorities provide and we have praised them, particularly during the Covid pandemic. We cannot cut services, for example, to the elderly whom we deal with daily. I refer to the mobility grants and housing adaptation grants for windows and doors. I can speak for Carlow County Council, as the Minister of State will be well aware, in my constituency. We get one of the lowest capital funding allocations from central government. He needs to make sure that we deliver our services to the local authority and that no services are cut going forward. That is so important. I ask him to come back to me in writing with a commitment that no local authority, particularly Carlow and Kilkenny, will have services cut.
Regarding the amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, the measures in place were to ensure no terminations of tenancies and no rent increases for a three-month period. Are they to be extended on 27 June? Local authorities and homelessness charities are predicting a massive surge in homelessness applications once the measures are removed.
It is now over eight years since there has been a review of the income threshold to qualify to go on the local authority housing list. Carlow had one of the lowest levels. This matter is so important. People are not qualifying to go on the local authority housing list because there has not been a review in over eight years. This is unacceptable. I ask the Minister of State to guarantee a review as soon as possible because what is occurring is making people homeless. We have a homelessness crisis in addition to Covid. I am looking for a commitment from the Minister of State.
The Construction Industry Federation representatives were here last week and said there might be an increase of between 10% and 15% in the cost of home-build projects. I have major concerns about this. Several people have rung my constituency office about it. Can we have information on this? It is a worry and concern. I thank the Minister of State.
When the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was last in front of this House, he talked about a package worth about €0.5 billion to assist in dealing with the rates funding crisis. We have since learned that half of that money is not guaranteed to offset the rates cost because the local authority start-up grant will not be required to be used to offset rates, either through a waiver or a direct payment by the relevant businesses. This means there is already a shortfall from what we were originally told about. No member of the Government has talked to us about the non-rates revenue shortfall. Could the Minister of State speak about those two enormous concerns? Managers have to manage their budgets for the year prudently, but if they do not have funding certainty by July or August, they will have to consider cutting services so they will not have to front-load all the losses into 2021.
With respect to planning, it is very disappointing that no extension of the consultation period for live planning permissions has been announced. I acknowledge there have been some but there clearly needs to be a further extension in line with the Government's exit plan. Could the Minister of State give us an update on that?
Planning applications are still being received for co-living developments, a style of housing that was certainly not suitable before Covid-19 and is definitely not suitable now, with its 9 sq. m of personal living space and with 40 people sharing communal kitchens and other areas. Could the Minister of State give us an update on whether he is willing to review that?
I echo other Deputies' calls regarding renters. Perhaps this could be raised with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Renters urgently need clarity. They need to know whether the Government is going to extend the moratorium on evictions, notices to quit and rent increases. We also need to hear from the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Ms Regina Doherty, because the emergency rent supplement payment is due to expire at the end of this week, on Sunday. It also needs to be extended. We urgently need additional funding for homelessness day services. I am aware the Minister of State cannot answer those questions but I would appreciate it if he could communicate them to his senior Minister.
I will try to answer as many of the questions as I can. On the non-rates shortfall, one of the issues that is unique to the refund of the rates loss for every local authority is that there is no local authority in the country that collects rates at a level of 100%. The refund will be 100%. That is with the intention of offsetting some of the other costs. These will vary from local authority to local authority, including in regard to parking charges and planning fees. There are many smaller sources of income that have been curtailed because of Covid-19 but it is absolutely true that the highest collection rate of local authorities is 92%.
The Government's money will not fill that gap.
One hundred percent is greater than 92%.
But the Minister of State is not guaranteeing 100%.
What we are guaranteeing is what the CCMA, the representative group of the managers of each of the 31 local authorities, sought from us. As I said in response to Deputy Darragh O'Brien, the monthly shortfall in terms of commercial rates is about €85 million or €86 million. We should also bear in mind some of the other fees that councils are not gathering now because of decreases in the number of planning applications and reductions in car parking charges. Deputy Murnane O'Connor mentioned Carlow and other places where parking charges have been suspended for the duration in question.
I will bring the issues related to housing to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy.
The €250 million for the restart fund and the €260 million for the offset of commercial rates total more than the €500 million the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, mentioned here three weeks ago.
As I have said, the Minister of State does not understand the difficulty the local authorities are in or the position of the County and City Management Association, CCMA. The CCMA was of the understanding that there was a pot of approximately €500 million which would get them over the first three months - that is the €260 million - but also that they could plan for the future because they expected that the €250 million from the start-up grant would be used as either a direct rates waiver or a contribution towards rates. Managers are now trying to plan services for June, July, August and September but they have no certainty on funding. That affects every local authority in the State. Dublin City Council has a projected shortfall of €150 million. For Donegal County Council the figure is €4 million and for Wexford it is €4.5 million. I am naming those although they are not my own local authority because these figures show the scale of the problem. Managers need certainty and the sooner the Government can provide that, the better.
I would also appreciate if the Minister of State would come back to me very briefly, in the half a minute remaining before my colleagues come in with their allocated time, on the need to urgently review the progress of co-living planning applications, which in my view should be prohibited. In addition, is it intended to extend the deadline for submissions on planning applications? Many people are unable to travel to their local authorities or to An Bord Pleanála to view, for example, strategic housing development applications and do not have access to files online. This is a legal requirement for proper consultation. The Minister of State needs to guarantee that this will happen.
I will bring this specific issue to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, again. Many Members of the House are keen to reactivate the planning process with regard to exiting Covid-19 measures. The points the Deputy made are valid and I will certainly bring them to the Minister's attention.
With regard to co-living, any private operator or State agency may want to apply for planning permission. I cannot remember the word the Deputy used but I, as Minister of State, cannot determine the planning applications people can make, nor would I like that to be the case. It is up to the planning-----
I want the Minister to withdraw the mandatory ministerial planning guidelines that allow for co-living. That is something he can do.
He can but individual applications that are before the planning authorities at present-----
That is a separate matter.
-----will still be judged by each of the planning authorities and by An Bord Pleanála. An Bord Pleanála was mentioned earlier. It is the ultimate planning authority in the land. It will deal with any current applications or applications made in the near future with regard to co-living.
Roinnfidh mé m'am idir mé féin agus an tAire Stáit. Beidh thart ar trí nóiméad agam féin agus nóiméad amháin aige. I will share my time with the Minister of State. I will use approximately three minutes myself and give a minute to the Minister of State to respond.
Last week a report was published that revealed that only four councils in the State collected the vacant sites levy, which means that 27 did not collect these vital funds for the provision of much needed housing. This report shows that millions are owed to councils. We are speaking of a sum greater than €9 million. This is deeply concerning to me and is also of great concern to the people I represent. We need far greater clarity on the collection of both the vacant sites levy and the derelict sites levy.
Just down the road from where I live in Galway city, there is a dilapidated building on the site of the former Corrib Great Southern Hotel. This is one of the most prominent locations on the east side of the city and one of the first buildings one passes when entering Galway. Not only is it an eyesore, a waste of valuable space in Galway city and a fire hazard, but it has also been on the derelict sites register since January 2015, well over five years ago. Despite numerous requests and a freedom of information application from me, there is no clarity on the levies that have been paid to Galway City Council in this regard. That is simply not good enough. It is very clear that we need far greater transparency regarding what is owed and where.
In the middle of a housing crisis, we cannot afford to have land lying idle in our urban areas. In the middle of a global pandemic, we cannot afford to leave €9 million in uncollected levies. As we have heard today, local authorities are being squeezed for funding and, in light of the impact the coronavirus is having on local economies, we know that they will be squeezed even further. It therefore makes no sense not to collect these levies.
Tá géarchéim ann maidir le maoiniú do chomhairlí áitiúla. Ba chóir aon airgead atá dlite don rialtas áitiúil a bhailiú mar gheall go bhfuil sé ag teastáil go géar. While certain Deputies are getting hot under the collar claiming that €350 is an excessive weekly income, there is little mention of the €9 million in uncollected levies. That tells us a lot of where the political focus is and the understanding of what it is like to struggle to put food on the table and to keep a roof over one's head.
Mar sin, tá trí cheist agam for the Minister of State. One, why is this money not being collected? Two, do local authorities require greater powers to collect it? Three, can the amounts paid and owed for the derelict site levy be published? Public funds should be public knowledge.
I agree with virtually everything the Deputy said. The collection of these moneys is a matter for each local authority and it has not been brought to my attention that councils need any extra powers in this regard. At the time the vacant site levy was introduced, and in respect of the amending legislation which was brought in afterwards in relation to farm lands, the powers were put in place. I saw the report to which the Deputy referred and she is right to point out her concerns. I am not trying to underestimate anything Deputy Ó Broin said earlier regarding local authorities and the squeeze on funding. However, this is why we elect local councils and it is their responsibility to collect the levy.
I am talking about my own council here as well as Deputy Farrell's and every member of all local authorities. I am not trying to cast aspersions on all members but we have 31 local authorities. Being Minister of State in charge of local government is a misnomer because I actively want them all to be different and to do their own thing locally. In their Covid-19 response, local authorities have really shown how they can do that. It is because they have those local contacts and a local knowledge that they are able to do it. As I said, it certainly has not been brought to my attention that they need any additional powers. It is a matter for each local authority to collect that funding and the Deputy is right that they should be collecting it, particularly at this time but also outside of this crisis.
I will speak for three minutes and allow the Minister of State a minute to respond. He will know that there are many thousands of homeowner families across the State who have been devastated by a range of serious latent defects in their homes, from the pyrite crisis in Dublin and north Leinster to the scandal of Priory Hall and the mica and pyrite problems in Donegal and Mayo, as well as the fire safety and structural defects discovered in homes all across the State. We have resolution schemes for pyrite and for the Priory Hall residents. Today, I want to talk in detail about the mica and pyrite resolution schemes for Donegal and Mayo and call on the Minister of State to outline what he is doing for all the families in the State affected by latent defects. It is devastating for all of them and we need solutions in all cases.
In my county of Donegal, thousands of families have been absolutely devastated. I have been in homes where people have been in tears. They are destroyed because their family homes, their wee castles to which they look for security, are literally crumbling around them. People have had to move out of their homes and we are talking about thousands of homeowners. They have waited for years for a resolution and there has been a long campaign led by the Mica Action Group in Donegal. That campaign is related closely to the campaign in Mayo and the two schemes are linked.
As I said, I want the Minister of State to spell out clearly today what he is doing for all the families affected by latent defects. In the case of Donegal, we need to know when a scheme is going to start. When can people bring engineers from the engineers panel out to their homes to assess the damage and see what needs to be done to make their homes safe so they can start to plan for the future and start to breathe again? When will that commence and when will people be able to draw down the funds?
Finally, the scheme that has been announced will be 90% funded. If we are talking about a home that will cost €250 million to completely rebuild, refurbish, put in furnishings and so on, 10% is a lot of money for people to find. There is also the cost of accommodation rental and storage of household goods during the long period of construction and refurbishment. It is a huge amount of money for the families who have waited all these years. Will the Minister of State reconsider the 90% limit or, alternatively, will he engage robustly with the banks, which still own many of these properties and assets and will benefit hugely from the scheme, so that they step up and make up the 10%?
I await the Minister of State's responses with anticipation.
I am afraid the Deputy will have to wait a little longer. I am recording the questions and I will relay the ones that fall into the housing category to the Minister. Local government does not have a direct responsibility for the mica and pyrite issue. However, the Deputy is right. My wife is from north Leitrim so I know south Donegal. I have seen at first hand, as well as some of the images of, the houses that have been affected by mica, as well as the houses affected by pyrite in and around the greater Dublin area. It is very important. I was delighted a number of months ago when a scheme was finally announced. I will get the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to refer to the 90% and also to when full implementation of the scheme will happen.
The Minister of State is responsible for local government. The local authorities in Donegal and Mayo have hundreds of homes that will possibly have to be rebuilt. Will he ensure the Government directly supports those local authorities?
It is great to see the Minister of State here today. He spoke about his Leitrim connections. I believe the last time I met him was for breakfast in his adopted family home in Dromahair in north Leitrim. He is very aware of the issues in that county and, indeed, in all the counties throughout the country. I wish to discuss three issues. The first has been raised by other Deputies. Will he outline to the House how and when he expects to be able to reimburse smaller local authorities such as those in Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon and Donegal for the loss of their rates base in 2020? How are they expected to be able to continue to afford their services without Government assistance? Should larger county councils that currently sit on banks of capital be asked to assist?
It has been a very difficult year for those smaller counties. There was flooding in Leitrim and particularly Roscommon in the first few months of the year. The resources of the local authorities and all the stakeholders were just incredible. They were there every day keeping the flood water out and trying to protect businesses. Once we got over the flooding the Covid-19 crisis arose, which has been the same throughout the country. With regard to the front-line workers and all the workers in the local authorities, we should be very proud of their vocation, dedication and professionalism. The first six months of this year have certainly been very difficult. However, there is a very serious issue regarding smaller local authorities and, like other Deputies, I believe we must address it.
The second matter is social housing delivery targets under Rebuilding Ireland. The local authorities were quite successful when the downturn happened. There was a great deal of good quality and affordable accommodation and it was great to see that it was bought on the open market by the local authorities on behalf of the public. It certainly helped with the housing stock. However, they were competing with other people. The new directive is that more houses be built by the local authorities. The lengthy approval process of 18 months where one had to go through four stages has effectively been removed, but I am a little concerned about the one-off house. I am aware of one area where the council might not be in the best position to buy a one-off house. It is still on the market. What are the exact requirements for the local authority to buy the house? Is it as easy or as open as it was previously? I believe there is still an opportunity. Sometimes in areas such as north Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo or Donegal there are affordable houses for €60,000, €70,000 or €80,000. One just could not build them for that. It is a big opportunity. It is not always one size fits all.
Finally, I wish to raise an old chestnut. I am delighted the Minister of State is here as I did not realise he would be.
We have an issue with the spelling of Enniscrone, whether it is I-N-I-S-H-C-R-O-N-E or E-N-N-I-S-C-R-O-N-E. It has become a huge issue in towns and villages across the country. We did not think it was such an issue but everywhere we go we put our destination into Google maps and this issue is causing serious damage in terms of tourists, businesses and people going to the town. We have the Irish spelling, which 95% of the people do not recognise and want to change. We had a meeting attended by more than 700 or 800 people. We also had a very productive meeting with the Minister of State but the people want to have a plebiscite. I have said previously that there is a type of turf war going on between the Gaeltacht and the non-Gaeltacht Departments. We were very close to getting legislation in place until the Government fell. Can the Minister of State outline the position on that legislation? Will this issue get top priority if a new Government is formed? The issue with the placename is causing a great deal of confusion and people cannot understand why it cannot be changed and have the Departments come together to try to address this issue once and for all. It is not just an issue for Enniscrone. There are many towns and villages throughout this country dealing with a similar issue. We had it years ago with An Daingean-Dingle. People simply cannot understand that it takes so long and so much legislation to deal with it. I am aware it has to go through a plebiscite in terms of the local authority but can the Minister of State inform me of the current position on this very interesting situation?
I confirm to the House that, hopefully, following the Cabinet decision this Friday, it is the intention to reimburse local authorities, large and small, as soon as possible thereafter, certainly early in the month of June. There would have been extensive consultation between the Departments, both at official and political level, with local authorities across the country in regard to their financial position. All of them indicated that until the end of June, their financial position was okay but they do need a longer-term plan, as Deputy Ó Broin mentioned earlier. It is very much our intention that that money will be released as early as possible in June so that the first part of that long-term planning can happen.
To go back to one of the points Deputy Ó Broin and others made earlier about rolling over the three-month waiver, a commitment was given by the Minister, Deputy Murphy, when the final announcement was made that it would be rolled over for businesses that are still closed due to the effects of the virus. What will also be discussed at Government on Friday is businesses that have been severely impacted. There is no uniform solution to this. That is the reason we need to give local authorities the maximum flexibility. What do I mean by that? Some of the pharmacies in the middle of this city or in a big urban centre like Kilkenny, Carlow or Wexford would have been quite quiet, particularly during the height of the lockdown period. However, pharmacies in some of the smaller locations on the periphery or even in smaller villages and towns would have been very busy during the lockdown period because people were at home and not travelling, so it is very difficult. We are keen that, as part of the scheme, if it is approved by Government, there would be an appeals mechanism also to ensure that in terms of those specific discrepancies that may exist in one category of business throughout the local authority there would be flexibility to deal with each case.
Deputy Feighan is right about the one-off house. There are still many parts of the country where it is cheaper to buy a second-hand, one-off house than it would be for a local authority to construct a house. As I understand it, there is still flexibility for local authorities, in conjunction with the Department, to make those types of purchases but I will get the Minister, Deputy Murphy, to revert directly to the Deputy.
On the age-old issue of Inishcrone, as the Deputy will be aware, the Local Government Act which passed the Houses last year drew up the criteria under which a plebiscite could be held. We had plebiscites on the issue of directly-elected mayors in three local authority areas. That would also work in the case of a naming issue, such as Inishcrone. In this particular situation, there is a conflict between legislation, in that the official languages legislation falls under the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I will endeavour to get an update and response from it about where it stands with the review of that legislation and ensuring the plebiscite can be put to the people of Inishcrone about the spelling they wish for their town.
I have two sets of questions. I thank the Minister of State for his statement. Remote working will likely have a significant impact on the future of employment for most Irish businesses. We have an opportunity to encourage people to stay at home while working. This will help us to achieve the 2030 target of a 7% reduction in carbon emissions. The Civil Service and public service have taken leadership in this move and should be commended on doing so. With just civil servants working from home, we can achieve a significant reduction in our carbon emissions. The research by Trinity academic Dr. Brian Caulfield and his colleagues on emissions reductions from remote working shows it would also decrease congestion on our road networks and public transport, which in turn will make public transport more attractive and reliable. However, Fórsa has stated that the Government needs to deliver greater support for those who work from home. Health and safety concerns need to be taken into account in many areas. Will the Minister of State outline what actions local government is undertaking or will undertake to ensure remote working will be an option for as many civil and public servants as possible? Will the Minister of State confirm how the necessary health and safety regulations for their new working environments will be met, especially with regard to work-life balance and mental health?
Since the pandemic began and human activity reduced, wildlife has started to flourish again in many parts of Ireland, yet wildlife still faces plenty of issues. As nesting season started, hedgerows and other sanctuaries have been burning all over the country. While devastating to our struggling wildlife, it leaves us vulnerable to a worse problem. Last year, we saw illegal burning destroy a huge part of Killarney National Park. We lost hundreds of acres of our last remaining native oak forest and thousands of wild animals. Fires like these have devastated areas such as Australia and California. We are not immune to them. We need to ensure that, as our climate changes, we are ready for increased demands on our water supply. Drought hit farms in 2018 and we have had minimal rainfall in the past two months. Ireland was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the climate and biodiversity crisis. However, we need action, not words. We have already started to create local, community-led projects that encourage biodiversity. However, too often, grass and hedgerows are cut short as they start to improve things for our wildlife and pollinators. Will the Minister of State outline what resources are needed by local authorities to ensure the continued destruction of our hedgerows will cease and that our local, community-focused re-wilding efforts will be sufficiently monitored to maintain protected areas? Will the Minister of State outline what measures are being taken to reduce the risk of drought in Ireland and to ensure there are no water shortages for our homes and farms in the coming months?
The Deputy is right in his assessment that remote working and working from home are very much here to stay. One of the key proposals by the outgoing Government in that regard was the national broadband plan. In the current crisis, we have seen bottlenecks in people's connectivity in many rural areas in particular, but also in some urban areas.
The importance of the delivery of that plan has never been more apparent than it has been in recent weeks when so many people have been either in a position to work from home or needing a connection to be able to work from home. As part of the existing poor connection system that is available in many parts of the country, some private operators are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure people get a connection. Others with more fixed lines are actually proving very unhelpful in many cases in terms of delivering connections particularly to rural and smaller urban locations.
The points the Deputy made about meeting our emissions targets are absolutely valid. They are nearly more obvious than his second point about work-life balance. Before this crisis hit, people did not have enough time to have that proper work-life balance. Yesterday - perhaps it was this morning - the Taoiseach indicated in answer to questions that he believes incentives may be needed to ensure that people will be able to work more from home in the future.
Regarding local government, we need to look at streams of funding other than the traditional commercial rates that have existed heretofore.
During this crisis, I have taught my children how to cycle on roads and I have happily witnessed other families doing the same. However, the cars are coming back. Has the Department considered the extensive roll-out of temporary cycling infrastructure as has been done in other countries and cities, including Milan? Will this infrastructure be made permanent post the Covid pandemic, to allow children to cycle to school?
This Friday is the deadline for submissions to the urban regeneration development fund. This fund is vital to ensure that enough new houses will be constructed in the State. Considering the lockdown, housing delivery will stall in the coming months. Will this deadline be extended?
Throughout this pandemic, many local authorities have secured extra accommodation to house their homeless. We need to ensure the accommodation that has been secured will remain with the local authorities for as long as they are necessary. What measures have been taken to permanently secure those Airbnb short-term lettings that are currently being used to accommodate homeless people?
With the lack of almost all commercial activity in recent months, many businesses have been unable to pay business rates and many commercial tenants have been unable to pay their rents. In recent weeks, the Department has provided assurances that local authorities would be reimbursed to cover the shortfall in the receipt of rates on commercial premises. The payment of these funds after the date and the treatment of the rates waiver are still unclear for small and medium businesses. This uncertainty is putting both businesses and local authorities under duress in the planning of their recovery. I ask the Minister of State to outline the agreed plan and the advice to local authorities for businesses unable to pay their rates and tenants unable to pay their rent.
As we look around the Chamber, we are reminded of the Covid restrictions and how even the Dáil cannot meet in its full capacity. This is also the case in many regional council chambers. We need to ensure legislation is altered to allow council meetings to be held virtually. What provisions have been made to our local government officials to ensure they are able to carry out their roles in light of Covid-19 restrictions?
In previous Dáil sittings, I have mentioned that the rent freeze and eviction ban currently in place need to be extended by three months. The Department has alluded to reviewing this date. I ask the Minister of State to confirm that there will be an extension to the rent freeze and eviction ban?
Several people asked that question and I did not get to answer it. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has committed to the extension of the rent freeze and the eviction ban as part of a general check on where we are regarding the crisis. Once that time period elapses at the end of June, he has not given a commitment, but he has said it will be firmly looked at depending on where we are in terms of the point of reopening and recovery.
I acknowledge that it is unlikely that we will be much further advanced in three or four weeks than we are now in the reopening of the economy.
Earlier the Deputy asked about local authorities' role in meeting our targets around emissions, biodiversity and climate generally. One scheme introduced when I was a councillor 20 years ago was the heritage officer scheme. I think Kilkenny was one of the first local authorities to take it up. Green Party policy includes the introduction of biodiversity officers. I am always struck by the amount of land, whether it is in the hands of local authorities, the HSE, the Office of Public Works, Transport Infrastructure Ireland - the thousands of acres in each local authority area - which is not used as productively as it should in terms of biodiversity. I drive through it every time I come up from my constituency, with thousands of acres not used.
That is an area where local authorities could usefully change. I want to get the point across about council meetings.
Councils set their own standing orders. Many councils were very quick to write to the Department or to me about how they were to hold meetings. It is a matter for themselves. Most have now amended their standing orders to allow for meetings in lecture theatres and so on. All 31 councils now have facilities for their AGMs which fall next month. There is a place for virtual meetings in terms of briefings but when making statutory decisions, I still believe a physical meeting is necessary. Local authorities have it in their power and they have all adopted a situation where they can use theatres or lecture halls to ensure those meetings take place.
I am glad to have the opportunity, even if it is only ten minutes, to deal with the issue of local government. We are well into this crisis and we have not had any debate about local government until now. As others have said, local authorities have very much been a front-line service. In my county of Wexford and across the country they have been the first port of call for many and the anchor bringing together community organisations. The GAA and everyone else who all wanted to help rallied through the local authority and the local councillor who was on the ground, listening and feeding in centrally. Local radio has also been an extraordinary resource in this, as have local papers. We now need to sustain that. They have been critical and remain critical in dealing with the community response to this unprecedented crisis which the nation is facing. They will also be equally important in the next phase, the reopening and rebooting of the economy phase and they need to be prepared for that.
I will focus on the funding difficulties which they now face. I wish to hear clearly the Department's thinking on meeting the shortfall in funding that many Deputies have mentioned and the Minister of State has talked around, but I want to give the Minister of State time to answer on the specific issues.
The total estimate for local government income this year for all local authorities is €5.7 billion. That is the figure they expected to receive in normal times. Of that, €1.66 billion, or 33%, was coming from commercial rates and €1.3 billion, 26%, from goods and services which local government supplies and is paid for. I want to hear how the shortfall in those two areas will be met. First, commercial rates was expected to take in €1.66 billion or roughly €133 million a month. The Minister announced a waiver for three months and allocated €260 million to meet its cost. The expected income, if all the rates were paid, was €400 million.
That is for the three months. The Minister of State is saying he is going to pay €260 million or 65% of the expected sum. How has that been calculated? Obviously, not every business is going to be affected. There will be some which will be able to pay full rates, and that is fine, but this is not an absolutely accurate calculation. The Minister of State does not know. He instanced himself, for example, that some pharmacies might do very little and might not be in a position to pay but others might be doing normal business or even more. The Minister of State has an expectation that 35% of the estimated rates income will be paid. If it is not, how much of that will he meet? That is my first question.
To answer as briefly as possible, the figures that were calculated following a line-by-line analysis by the CCMA and presented to the local government section in the Department led us to arrive at the figure of €260 million.
It is a guesstimate.
Yes, it is a guesstimate.
If it is not right, will the Minister of State pony up the balance? That is my question.
It is difficult for me to say in advance, as I will not be the one sitting at the Cabinet table, but that is absolutely my intention. The 100% of what was sought by the CCMA is included in the €260 million figure. It is very much my intention that if the guesstimate underestimates the amount of money that we expect businesses that have stayed open to contribute in commercial rates that we would meet the full balance of it. That is the intention.
Is that a commitment?
Yes, that is a commitment. I will let the Deputy ask his next question.
I want to be clear. Is it the case that the full amount of estimated commercial rates will be met and any shortfall will be calculated at the end and rebated expeditiously to local authorities?
That is very much the intention at the moment.
That is very helpful. My second question relates to the goods and services income of €1.3 billion. Again, that is €108 million per month or €325 million for three months. It is obvious that this crisis is going to go beyond three months. Again, some services will not be impacted but others will be very significantly impacted. The Minister of State himself instanced car parking for example. There are incomes that will never be recouped. They are not going to come back and pay for all the car parking lost.
It would be asking them to pay twice.
That is the point. That is not going to happen. In fact, I think that will be a permanent reduction. There are others that will also be lost such as planning fees. The situation will very much depend on the local authority. In my local authority, harbour dues, for example, will be lost. Significant portions of the €108 million per month will be lost. So far, in answer to other Deputies, the Minister of State has indicated that the Cabinet will consider this on Friday. I want to know what they are considering. I hope the Minister of State will give me the same clarity in this answer as he gave me in the last. Is it his intention to meet the entire loss, or what portion of the loss of the €1.3 billion annually, amounting to €108 million per month, does he propose to meet for the duration of the crisis?
I am very conscious of the time. What I am being told by finance officers across the country is that they estimate that, at a minimum, the most optimistic forecast is that they will be down by €10 million of the €108 million per month. They estimate that the total amount that will be lost of their overall €5.7 billion is of the order of €100 million per month. Is that the sort of support the Minister of State is going to announce and pony up to local authorities on Friday?
Is that Deputy Howlin's final question?
No. I will be aiming to get another one in if I can. If the Minister could just say "Yes", I would like an answer now on Friday's decision.
Friday's decision is in relation to-----
Yes, rates only. In his question, Deputy Howlin referred to discussions with finance officers. There is another round of analysis going on with the CCMA and the Department officials on not just establishing the €108 million figure that the Deputy mentioned but the best guesstimate as to how much of a shortfall in that there might be as a result of the Covid crisis.
I am not really in a position to sign a second blank cheque in a few minutes, but if one looks at the figure-----
The Minister of State is doing well so far.
The projected figure for the monthly rates shortfall is about €84 million or €85 million.
I believe it is €87 million.
Yes. The Deputy mentioned that finance officers expect a goods and services loss of €10 million. That might well be a matter for whoever occupies my chair next. Once we have an analysis of that guesstimate I will be in a better position to answer.
Can I ask for clarity on the principle around that point? The Minister of State says that the Government will meet the rates shortfall in full. If it is rolled over the Government will presumably provide a recurring monthly amount for rates. Is there at least a commitment to give a proportion of the goods and services loss as well?
Will that be from the Exchequer and not only by balancing allocations across the country?
Yes. Extra funding from the Exchequer will be needed to meet the goods and services loss.
Does the Minister of State have any idea of what percentage of that €108 million loss, or, say, €10 million per month, might be made good?
Not yet. That will be another Government decision.
I would like to share time with Deputy Holly Cairns. I will take six minutes and she will take four. I have two questions for the Minister of State. There will be ample time for him to respond. I want to look at changes in construction output due to Covid-19 and how this will affect the delivery of social housing by local authorities. Private sector construction is projected to decrease quite severely as a result of Covid-19. More than 70% of new social housing builds in 2019 was bought from the private sector by the State, local authorities or approved housing bodies as turnkey acquisitions. Moreover, the number of turnkey acquisitions purchased from the private sector increased to 74% in 2019 from 55% in 2018. Turnkey acquisition has become local authorities' main source of new social housing units. In light of these facts, what is the projected impact of the reduction in private sector construction on the delivery of social housing by local authorities? Does the Minister of State agree that there is a need to reduce local authorities' reliance on turnkey purchased from the private sector units as a means of delivering social housing?
I will have to ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to respond to the Deputy directly on privately built local authority housing and local authority purchased housing and the figures for this year. This is another situation that is not uniform across the country. I am acutely aware of what Deputy Feighan said earlier. There are still chunks of the country, and I suspect there will be more, where existing second-hand units or new build construction will be delivered cheaper than housing provided directly by the local authority. I understand it is acutely different in large parts of the country. I come from a very rural part of the south east where the situation is more balanced. As I said, I am recording the questions and I will get the Minister to respond directly to the specific question the Deputy asked.
I thank the Minister of State. He is correct that it is different in different parts of the country. It is of particular concern that in Dublin the amount of new build social housing units built directly by the local authority is very low. In 2019 only 45 newly built housing units were directly provided by Dublin City Council. About half of those were Priory Hall units that had been brought up to standard. It is very concerning.
It relates to the Minister of State's comments earlier about homelessness services and where the units for moving people out of homelessness are coming from. One of the issues that sets us apart from most other countries dealing with homelessness is that local authorities are sourcing most of those units from the private sector, which means there is not a consistent and sustainable supply. Compared with countries such as Finland, which has come very close to meeting its targets of eliminating homelessness, we have been going in the opposite direction. One of the key differences between us and them is that we rely heavily on the private sector for units. There is a competing demand all the time, which pushes up housing costs for first-time buyers and so forth.
Given the issue of rent arrears in the private rented residential sector and how that will impact on local authorities dealing with homelessness, and given the increased problem of homelessness that will result when rent arrears surface once the ban on evictions is lifted, what measures is the Government considering to protect tenants and landlords in terms of rent arrears? Will it consider initiatives such as a statutory alternative to evictions such as repayment plans, debt forgiveness schemes, mediation and so forth?
My answer is largely the same as the previous one. I will have to get the Minister to respond directly. What I have found from talking to a number of both elected members and officials in local authorities is that the emergency response on housing during the Covid crisis has had a positive impact, by and large. I was struck by the question from Deputy Niall Collins earlier and I ask him, if he is watching the debate somewhere, to send on the information about the four families he mentioned who experienced homelessness in the midst of the crisis. The reports I have heard from throughout the country are very much that the local authorities are stepping up to the plate, in conjunction with voluntary housing bodies and other agencies involved in this area, to meet the demand for additional accommodation that the crisis presented over and above the homelessness figures that existed before Covid arrived on our shores. I will ask the Minister to revert directly to the Deputy with a response to his question.
Before this emergency, towns and villages throughout rural Ireland were suffering the closure of small businesses, post offices and banks, and now the remaining shop owners are terrified that they will never recover from the impact of Covid-19.
Rural Ireland and small businesses need a co-ordinated response to survive. Departments, local authorities and businesses need to work together. I am surprised and disappointed, therefore, at Cork County Council’s persistence in developing a Kildare Village-style retail outlet centre in east Cork, despite the planning regulator's objection, and the fact that it is contrary to the original county development plan.
Small businesses cannot compete with this kind of development. The proposed retail outlet will further local closures and add to the existing tragic number of derelict buildings. The Cork Business Association and University College Cork researchers have expressed concern for its negative impact on surrounding towns and the city. Too often we are expected to jump at the mention of jobs, but the creation of jobs cannot be at the expense of existing ones.
The British company behind the development promises employment, but we need only look at Debenhams to see the absence of loyalty to workers and communities from corporations. People need dependable jobs. For generations, shops on main streets have been providing them better than conglomerates ever can, and with that comes so much more, such as vibrant high streets, strong communities and places that attract visitors. When visiting Cork, would someone send home a postcard depicting an industrial scale retail outlet or would he or she be more inclined to send one of Kinsale or Baltimore? The proposed development flies in the face of shop local and buy Irish campaigns. Moreover, it is a car-dependent model that champions fast fashion during a climate crisis.
During this emergency, family businesses have gone above and beyond to help others. Central and local government need to help keep jobs in towns and villages before they are completely hollowed out. The planning regulator’s independent evaluation recommended against the proposed development, stating it "fails to set out an overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area concerned".
In light of Cork County Council’s appeal, do the Minister of State and the other relevant Ministers intend to follow the independent, impartial recommendation from the Office of the Planning Regulator? Will the Minister of State indicate the criteria for making the decision? More broadly, post Covid-19, can the Government assure existing small business and family-run shops that local authorities will prioritise protecting and enhancing our towns and villages?
On the planning law, I cannot directly refer to the issue Deputy Cairns has specifically raised. I would like to respond but suffice to say I wholeheartedly agree with the Deputy's points on the effect of Covid-19 on our towns and villages across the State, and with regard to the fear that exists in many of those places for the businesses on the main street or in the three or four streets that usually comprise the centre of market towns throughout the country. Some parts of Ireland survived the worst of the last recession better than others. Some towns in west Cork, in the Deputy's constituency, got through the last economic crisis much better than some parts of the constituency I share with Senator Murnane O'Connor.
Will the Minister of State explain the criteria for making the decision from the Department's point of view?
I cannot because that decision has not been made yet by the senior Minister.
What are the criteria for making the decision?
He has not even considered it yet. For me to comment upon it would be-----
-----to prejudge it in a sense. I cannot. It is not an area in which I have a direct or indirect responsibility.
In the past, has the Department ever gone against the recommendation of the Office of the Planning Regulator?
This is one of the first cases-----
It is one of the first.
I believe it is nearly the first.
Is that why there are no criteria?
The office was established partly as a result of various planning tribunals.
Will the Minister of State send that information to me-----
-----when he has it?
Sorry Deputy. The Minister of State please.
I wish to inform the House that the Department of Rural and Community Development, which is the Department of the Minister, Deputy Ring, announced today that applications for the year ahead may be made under the town and village renewal scheme, which applies to many of the towns and villages referred to by the Deputy.
This proposed development flies in the face of that.
I thank the Minister of State. Senator Murnane O'Connor is a Deputy these days.
Did I say that?
I apologise to the Deputy.
I am sharing time with Deputy Barry. I should probably be directing this question to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, but I will ask it anyway. I have made fairly well known my views that the box-room, rabbit-hutch accommodation known as co-living is not something that should be allowed in this country. It is just a way to make money for developers and to maximise the value of a site, rather than providing decent quality accommodation for people. If that was true prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, and I believe it was, is there any recognition from the Government now that we must immediately shelve and prohibit these co-living developments from a public health point of view? There is one planned in our area for 200 box apartments with shared kitchens. I believe that 40 or 45 people are to share a kitchen. This absolutely cannot happen in the era of Covid-19. The council in Croydon, for example, recently approved planning for a co-living development of more than 200 units but it is now saying it cannot go through with it anymore. Is the Government considering prohibiting these co-living developments on public health grounds? If not, why not? I put it to the Minister of State that all that is required is for the statutory ministerial guidelines of 2018 to be amended to prohibit these box co-living apartments. Will the Government do this?
Has the Deputy further questions?
It is back and forth. I will come back.
I must ask the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to respond directly to the Deputy. I have no responsibility on housing. I understand the point being made, and the Deputy mentioned a local authority in another jurisdiction. As I understand it, county and city development plans are another mechanism by which local authorities can set out the criteria under which planning applications should be judged. We are all familiar with them. I do not know what the local development plan in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown says on the issue of co-living. I acknowledge the Deputy's comments on the statutory instrument from 2018.
I will ask the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to respond directly to the Deputy.
There should be no buck-passing. The guidelines just need to be changed as this is public health we are talking about. These overcrowded conditions were unacceptable from the get-go but now they just simply are not compliant with public health guidelines. Accordingly, these guidelines should be changed.
One of the rather grim facts of the Covid-19 situation is the pretty awful spike in domestic violence and violence against women which has been reported by Women's Aid, the Rape Crisis Centre and other bodies that deal with this. That is an awful vista. In my area, it particularly highlights something that is just unacceptable, namely that we are one of the only counties, if not the only county, that does not have a women's refuge. For those counties which do have refuges, the capacity is not sufficient for the number of people seeking refuge when faced with domestic violence and abuse. Is the Government doing anything about increasing the capacity for women's refuges? At a minimum, should it not be the case that every single local authority area should have at least one women's refuge? We have none in our area and it is a real problem that has now grown worse as a result of Covid-19.
I was at a meeting on this issue at the early stages of the crisis. Extensive consideration was given to the issue of centres in local authorities and if there was sufficient capacity. The population of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown is around 250,000. Some local authorities, like my own, have a population of 100,000 while others have 60,000. There is not a uniform, one-size-fits-all solution. In some population centres, we need more than one. I recall from that meeting that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown is not the only one and that there are two or three. What was discussed at that particular meeting, with a view to being brought to the Cabinet subsequently, was the plans in place to fill the gaps in the local authority areas where there is not either a centre provided or an arrangement with an adjoining local authority area with capacity.
I will get the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to respond directly to the Deputy.
We were informed that for the end of March the numbers living in emergency accommodation had gone below the 10,000 mark for the first time in quite a long time. Apart from anything else, that does relieve pressure on local authorities and it shows the value of having a ban on evictions. There has been a crisis, however, in the private rental sector for a good while now. It is about to get a major new twist with the Covid crisis. There is the probability of a major spillover putting local authorities under more pressure, not just in terms of emergency accommodation, but in terms of demand for housing.
Recently the Irish Property Owners Association, a landlord organisation, corresponded with its members. Among the points it made, it stated rent is a contractual obligation and must be paid. It stated a deferment of rent still means that rent must be paid at a future date and that tenants will be in debt. The moratorium on rent increases and evictions runs until 27 June. Were it to be lifted on 27 June, in a short time we would see a spike in evictions. It would not just bring us back to the position that we had previously but could possibly far outstrip it, given the number of tenants who have fallen into rent arrears during the course of the Covid crisis.
From that point of view, the Government needs to extend the moratorium in question. I listened with interest to what the Minister said on this earlier.
He seemed to indicate that the thinking might be to extend it a bit in line with the reopening of the economy, but that would be completely inadequate. Such is the build-up of rent arrears that we will have a real crisis unless the moratorium is extended for a longer period. I would like it extended forever, but some housing campaigners are saying it should be extended into next year at a minimum, which I support. Unfortunately, we do not have statistics on rent arrears. However, we have a lot of anecdotal evidence, which indicates that they are piling up in a big way. Given the high level of rents, it is not realistic to expect people to continue to pay a high level when the crisis lifts and also pay back all the arrears. That points to the need for a scheme for writing off those rent arrears. I accept that some smaller landlords could be impacted significantly by that, but if we put a levy on the bigger landlords such as I-RES REIT and so on, there could be a pool of money there for the State to use, and if a small landlord was in that particular situation, he or she could apply for a refund from that fund and the tenant's rent arrears could be written off. Is the Department considering extending the moratorium and if so, is it considering 2021 as an option? Does the Minister of State accept that many tenants will never be able to pay back the arrears and that there is a need for a scheme to write off debt? What arrangements or preparations are being put in place to accommodate the extra demand for local authority housing that is inevitably going to arise in the next period?
I am at the point of repeating myself. I cannot directly answer the questions because I have no direct responsibility for housing. When I was speaking earlier, I was paraphrasing what the Minister said last week regarding the consideration of extending the moratorium on evictions and rents. The points the Deputy makes are valid. I will collate all the questions relating to housing and the Minister, who is responsible for that area, will revert to him
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. First, I offer my condolences to those who have lost their loved ones to the coronavirus during the past week. I also take this opportunity to thank all the heroic front-line staff who have been magnificent in helping to keep all of us safe during these very challenging times. Finally, I thank the Irish people for their continuing support in our fight to eradicate this awful disease. The fact that the numbers dying and contradicting the virus continue to drop dramatically only proves once more the determination and willpower of all the people to succeed.
In my home county of Louth, in the region of 100 homes owned by the local council are currently lying vacant. They are in a state of disrepair and require work to bring them up to the standard for families to live in them. I have spoken to council officials on many occasions regarding this matter and they have constantly told me that the council has not been given the funds by the Government to bring these homes up to the standard where families could live in them. Many of these homes are in established residential areas where community services exist, including schools, health centres and shops. These homes should be brought back into the housing stock immediately. It is a disgrace that these homes continue to lie idle and fall into further disrepair. There is a danger that many of them will become dens for drug addicts and alcoholics. I cannot understand why the Government will not provide the council with the funds to bring these homes back into the housing stock. Surely it would be more cost effective to retrofit these homes and bring them up to standard, rather than going ahead and putting in new homes, which seems to be what is happening. Those homes in County Louth would take 100 families off the county council housing list. That is 100 families who would now have a home and be moved from the homeless list. Why can this not be done immediately? Can the Minister of State confirm how many homes Louth County Council currently owns that are vacant because of disrepair? Can he also confirm what plans the council has for these homes?
Will the Minister of State also confirm what funds the Government is committed to providing to Louth County Council over the coming 18 months to provide new homes and refurbish others under the Rebuilding Ireland scheme?
It is clear that the housing crisis has been handled badly by this Government. Too much support was given to private developments to solve the housing crisis when we should have concentrated more on development solutions for the county councils. As a small token of the Government's commitment to solving the housing crisis, there is an opportunity to support Louth County Council and bring these houses back to the housing stock. Will the Minister of State confirm that he, or his Department, will help and support Louth County Council in taking these vacant houses back to the housing stock?
I will again preface my comments by saying that I will ask the Minister with responsibility for housing to respond directly. I repeat that there are vast differences between the delivery of different services depending on local authority areas. Louth County Council is a great example of an authority that is at the cutting edge in the issue of dereliction and bringing buildings that are derelict back into use. The council has used compulsory purchase orders and I know that compulsory sales orders are also being discussed.
I am surprised by the comment from Louth County Council about voids because there has been an unprecedented level of funding from the Department. I will have to ask Deputy English to respond directly to the Deputy with the figure for Louth but in terms of the speed at which houses are being turned around, that figure has been dramatically cut in the past few years. On the specific funding to local authorities to deal with voids, some local authorities are better than others at delivering and drawing down funding under different headings but there has been an unprecedented amount of resources and capacity devoted, at Department level, to ensuring that voids are returned to use quicker than previously was the case. I could name a couple of local authority areas where I know, from first-hand experience, that the turnaround of voids has been noticeably improved in the past couple of years. I will ask the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and urban development, Deputy English, to furnish Deputy Fitzpatrick with the specific information for Louth. From a Government perspective, the issue is not caused by a lack of funding from central government. This issue, on the face of it, sounds like a classic example of where service delivery varies from local authority to local authority. It is not because there is a shortage of funding.
Louth has probably the two biggest towns in Ireland, Dundalk and Drogheda. There are also big towns such as Ardee and Carlingford. I go through these towns on a daily basis and the amount of houses that are boarded up is an absolute disgrace. Every time I approach the county manager or the housing manager, they tell me that the Government will not give them money. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could contact the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, because this has been going on for far too long. One hears about hundreds of millions, or even billions, being invested in housing. There are more than 100 families who could be allocated these houses with the expenditure of a small amount of money. I ask the Minister of State to do that.
I deal with constituents on a daily basis in respect of their loan applications under the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. It was introduced with great fanfare and promised to help people to get onto the property ladder more easily. My experience of the scheme has been different. A constituent of mine is in a difficult situation with regard to this scheme. He was approved for a loan under the scheme in early December 2019, sourced a suitable home and agreed to purchase it in late February 2020. He paid a holding deposit of €5,000 to the auctioneer and proceeded to get the surveys and all the other bits and pieces he needed to get done at his own cost. He is now in a position to close the purchase of this family home and has been attempting to contact the local authority for over two weeks. He has learned that the person responsible for his case is, unfortunately, out of work due to illness. He is now being advised by the council that it will not be processing any more of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme applications as they are not deemed to be part of an essential service. It is now May and no definite decision has been made as to when the council can reopen to the public what is, in my opinion, an essential service.
This person's approval is due to expire shortly and he is afraid of his life of losing his house. He is currently working from home and his company is due to reopen towards the end of June.
If this approval expires due to no fault of his own, his biggest problem is he is afraid of losing this home. At present, he is living with his parents, who are both in their 70s and cocooning. This man has for years tried to save up a lot of money. Can the Minister of State reassure me about this applicant? After this, I will forward his details to the Minister of State. This is not only happening in Louth. I am sure it is happening everywhere else. Can the Minister of State give me a guarantee that the person I am talking about and others like him will get the money?
In advance of seeing the full details, I cannot give that guarantee. However, I fully understand the point the Deputy is making. The person in question is obviously afraid that he will lose the house that he has identified under the scheme.
At different points during the measures the Government has announced and different agencies have implemented across the State, there have been adjustments and changes. In relation to the Property Registration Authority, there was a particular bottleneck identified and working with that agency, it was able to be dealt with. I do not see why the Department, working with each local authority, cannot ensure that people in the situation Deputy Fitzpatrick outlined and who are worried about losing a house they have identified would be dealt with. My officials will contact the local authority directly on the issue. In the broader sense, that it would fall under essential services in the reopening of services by local authorities is a valid question and something I would like to see happen.
For a long time, constituents in Louth and, I am sure, every county in Ireland have encountered this problem of local needs. For the past number of years, I have been challenging the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State, Deputy English. In the past two or three years, they keep telling me it is the European court and this and that will be sorted out. People who live in villages, who want to stay in their own community and who want to build their own house cannot get planning permission. These can be farmers' sons and daughters. I do not know why it is so because in certain parts of the country, one can build a house anywhere. In my native county of Louth, the number of people who cannot build houses in a rural area is significant. I can understand the difficulty in urban areas of getting a house at present with density and everything else, but people want to go home and live beside their family. As people get older, they want their family beside them. What is the plan with local needs going forward?
Following on from the court judgment, the drafting of new criteria for eligibility for house construction in rural areas is not yet completed but I understand it is close to completion.
In relation to how we go forward with rural development, the point the Deputy makes is correct. There are plenty of people in Ireland who would not like to see any more houses built in rural areas for ideological reasons but it is crucially important for the future of the shops, the post offices, the schools and the clubs, not just people who have strong obvious local links-----
I thank the Minister of State.
Rural areas need new people too and there needs to be a balance brought into that debate.
The time is up. I thank the Minister of State. I call Deputy Mattie McGrath.
At the outset, we were assured in this Covid crisis that all evictions and people being made homeless would be stopped. Unfortunately, at the instructions of Ms Justice Reynolds, yesterday morning at cockcrow a force of 20 gardaí evicted four different people from a house in Clontarf and brought them before the courts, and rendered them homeless at the behest of vulture funds. This is going on all the time at pace, in spite of commitments that it would not go on. I want the Minister of State to investigate it and have the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, investigate it as well.
I have to give credit to our local authorities and their staff and the services, along with the local media and local radio, and of course, An Garda Síochána and all the community groups which have worked so hard and rose to the challenge, as they always would do.
One issue I have is the anomaly with the local authority restart grant for those who are not operating out of rated commercial premises. I refer to people who operate their businesses from their van such as the construction workers or owner-operated lorries delivering concrete or blocks. There are many such businesses, including a plethora of taxi drivers and mini-bus drivers for school runs and everything else. They cannot get a bob because they are not rateable. They are parked outside the house. Theirs is a mobile and uncertain business and they were significantly affected in the previous economic crisis.
On a local authority level, some of the questions have been raised by other Deputies. How does the Department envisage supporting local authorities to continue with their full services, despite the large amount in respect of the rates holiday? They will not be able to collect the rates from businesses, which will not be able to pay them this year if we do not change soon, cop ourselves on and facilitate the small businesses, which are the backbone of rural Ireland.
We can get the Tescos, Aldis and all the rest open but the small man behind the counter who is employing two or three, supporting every community issue and providing all the spot prizes is not allowed to do anything. The ridiculous 2 m rule is an issue. I see the Cabinet was overruled again today by Dr. Holohan. Who is in charge here? I am aware the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is not in the Cabinet but, by goodness, it is strange that one man can dictate to seven or eight members of the Cabinet and the whole country. It is time this nonsense was stopped and that the people were supported.
The local enterprise offices have been brilliant and very helpful during the lockdown, having had a number of progressive and engaging schemes since the start. From my engagement with the staff in the offices, I am aware that schemes have been totally oversubscribed. We see that. An example is the business continuity grant. Will the Department consider extending the funding for the schemes? The offices are doing great work and there is no point in having the schemes oversubscribed. They were announced in a fanfare and now people are going to be disappointed. The local enterprise offices are vital.
On the LEADER companies, we must get LEADER back to where it belonged - of the people, by the people and for the people. There was a smash and grab by the local authorities and Big Phil, the Minister of State's former colleague, destroyed what was recognised throughout Europe as a model to be worked on.
I fear for the future of schemes such as the town and village renewal scheme. The schemes have proven to be beneficial in our communities. I am referring to where groups have been awarded funding but have not had the opportunity to date to work due to the lockdown. They fear they might not be able to get the work completed, given the tender process and everything else. I met the secretary of a Muintir na Tíre group this morning in my village, Newcastle. I salute the community there. The secretary was out for the first time in ages. She was cocooning and looking after her husband, and rightly so. She is worried and wondering whether the work will get done, whether the money will be pulled or whether the grant will be honoured. God help us, I do not know where we are going to go next year.
The local improvement scheme is great. We have funding in Tipperary this year. It is not half enough but the scheme is wonderful. It was wiped off after the most recent economic recession. Will it be an easy target again? The rural people are entitled to have these schemes.
Why has the Department not announced the community involvement scheme funding? It is overdue. It is the end of May but the rural works would normally start before St Patrick's Day. Why has the funding not yet been announced to councils?
Mar fhocal scoir, I would appreciate it if the Minister of State wrote back to me with replies. Small businesses, including hairdressers, are ready. I saw the job Willie Walsh in Clonmel has done to get ready. The businesses have to be allowed to operate. They are the backbone of the economy. They bring people into the town and these people go to the coffee shop and elsewhere. The black market is thriving. There must be common sense here. The 2 m rule is ridiculous. As far as getting a pint in a small pub is concerned, I do not know when we will have one. I wish we had one before. Small pubs cannot operate according to the 2 m rule. It is patent nonsense.
We all talk about and give out about Hungary and have said here that powers were grabbed there. The Minister of State's leader and the Fianna Fáil leader attacked Mr. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister. The Hungarians kept the number of deaths down to 500, although it has many borders. The Republic of Ireland is almost an island; we share one border, with Northern Ireland. Bearing in mind our ineptitude over the sealing of the ports, we should note that Hungary is back up and running and has opened its borders. Hungary had 500 deaths, although it has a population two and a half times greater than ours. We had 1,600 deaths and this number is growing. I said earlier this evening there has been a scam, a scamdemic, over this pandemic. We need answers.
I thank my local authority, Kerry County Council, its management and workers for the great work they have been doing continually during this virus. I thank Radio Kerry, the Garda and all the voluntary workers around the county who have done tremendous work for people cocooning and those who are very isolated.
It is only now that we realise the value of businesses and employers. I have mentioned several times here that Friday evening is not long coming when someone has a team of men or women to pay. These are the very people who are paying for each and every one of us here. Consider what happens when they stop working. We see now there are no rates. There has been a lot of commotion over extending the three-month waiver in respect of the rates but in Kerry County Council there has always been a waiver system or reduction system for those not working or whose turnover is reduced, no thanks to the current Government. The question is whether the Government will replenish the money that would normally come in from the businesses to keep the services going.
Does the Minister of State or his Department have anything to do with the cut to the travel allowance for workers in our local authority? It is very wrong to cut the travel allowance of these people, who are under a lot of pressure to keep services going. Temporary workers have also been told that their contracts will not be renewed even though some have been working for the local authority for two or three years. That is not fair or right. They threw their lot in with the local authority. We are going to have reduced services if we have a reduced workforce.
On infrastructural projects, we have been promised that we will work our way out of this financial problem. I appeal to the Government to keep infrastructural projects that are ready to go, such as road and water schemes, on track and to keep them going. I ask the Government to ensure that the roads programme is not cut because, as Deputy Mattie McGrath said with regard to local improvement schemes and community involvement schemes, people in rural Ireland, including in Kerry, are every bit as entitled to good roads to their doors as people in Dublin 4.
With regard to planning in rural areas, perhaps the powers that be will now realise the value of people living in rural Ireland. They are isolated from these kinds of viruses. Perhaps we will now appreciate the value of people living in rural Ireland instead of living on top of one another here in Dublin. With regard to rural cottages and demountable homes, the previous Government certainly let rural Ireland down. For the period 2016 to 2021, 13 rural cottages are to be built in Kerry even though there are almost 70 people on a list who wish to build houses on their own land, possibly their farms, to be near their own people. We have had only one demountable home sited in the past three years. When a house in which an elderly man lived fell into disrepair, the local authority used to bring in a demountable home in which he could remain until the end of his days.
Applicants are being excluded from the housing list. Perhaps that is how the Government is reducing the numbers on it. When a couple with three children begins to earn more than €33,600, they are thrown off the list. Who could buy a house or get a mortgage on that income? It is totally unacceptable.
I ask the Government to keep the Killarney bypass progressing on track. I ask that the doors of the local authority buildings that supply and deliver services be opened as soon as possible. When the bank and shop on a street is open, what difference would it make to open the doors of the local authority in order to bring normality back to our country?
The Minister of State paid tribute to the local authorities for their co-operation with other groups on the ground. I join in that tribute. They have shown us the way forward. If we have learned anything, it is that we cannot go back. We must go forward with a completely different vision. Development in Galway has not been sustainable for a very long time.
I know the Minister of State cannot answer questions on housing but it is important that I put the situation in Galway in perspective. I am aware of somebody who will be on a waiting list for 15 years in July and who has never once been offered a house in those 15 years. That really shows the measure of the housing crisis in Galway. A mother with three children will be on the waiting list for ten years in October. She has been in emergency accommodation for two years. She and her children are in student accommodation courtesy of the university for the summer. They will then probably go back to bed and breakfast accommodation. That is the extent of the housing crisis in Galway. That is just a pen picture.
The market in Galway opened last week, which was positive, except that it was closed by the Garda later in the day for failure to comply with social distancing. It seems to me that this good news story was absolutely spoiled by a failure to anticipate what might happen in advance and take proper precautions in a proactive and positive way. I ask the Minister of State to look at the guidelines issued to the local authorities so that they can comply with them, rather than having those guidelines make their life difficult. It is a similar situation with allotments, which should never have been closed. That only happened because of a rigid interpretation of the guidelines from Departments, which was nonsensical.
The vacant site levy has been mentioned by a Sinn Féin colleague. The source of that information is the Parliamentary Budget Office, which I thank for the tremendous work it has done. The Minister of State might read its report. It tells us that the local authorities have repeatedly brought to the Department's attention the difficulties in the administration of the vacant site levy in terms of lack of staff, inconsistency and difficulties interpreting and enforcing the legislation. That issue has been brought repeatedly to the attention of the Minister of State. The most damning thing that stands out in the information provided is that the local authorities have suggested that approximately 18,000 total units could be added to the housing stock if they were able to implement the levy properly.
It is really back in the Department's lap to look at the problems the local authorities have highlighted repeatedly to the Minister of State. I am not in the game of blaming local authorities, which is what he seems to be doing. I spent 17 years in local government and I know the local authorities inside out. Indeed, I have been extremely critical of them, and continue to be so, for their failure to deal with the housing crisis. However, for a long time, there was no funding. At any given time, there are 70 empty properties in Galway. It is an absolute scandal and I am not sure what the Minister of State's Department is doing in that regard.
Finally, I wish to raise the failure by local authorities, particularly Galway County Council on this occasion, to draw down and use moneys. It has meant that vital work on na céanna ar Inis Meáin agus Inis Oírr was not done. The Minister of State's colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht, Senator Kyne, has been extremely critical of the county council in this regard. Again, I am not sure the blame game is the best way to look at this. There needs to be an analysis by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government of what has happened that such vital work, with health and safety implications, was not done. The work needed on the quay on Inis Oírr is minor relative to what is needed on Inis Meáin, but it does require safety railings, by-laws and so on. None of this has happened. Nothing has happened with céim a trí maidir leis an gcé ar Inis Meáin. Where does the interaction between the Department and the local authority come?
I have not left the Minister of State much time to answer but I thought that if I raised the issues, he might reflect on them and come back to me. I have asked, first, about empty houses in Galway; second, about the seriousness of the housing crisis; and, third, about the failure to utilise moneys that are available. In the case of the latter, is that due to a lack of staff? Certainly, all their energy, and all my energy, for quite some time was taken up with preventing the amalgamation and highlighting the lack of resources to both local authorities, particularly the county council.
Like many other Deputies, I want to pay tribute to the really good and important work of people in the local authorities and their commitment to their local communities, which has been outstanding in many cases. One of the advantages of being the final speaker is that one has the opportunity to hear what is said during the debate, some of which I have been listening to in my office. I raise the issue of the rates waiver. Three months was a good start but, as the Minister of State knows, some businesses will not be able to reopen after three months. Of those which do, perhaps in three or four months' time or whatever, many will take a long time to return to profitability. The last thing they want to think about is being faced with a rates bill they cannot pay. The Minister of State will correct me if I am wrong but I thought I heard him say that the Government is actively considering - perhaps it is even in its plan - to extend the rates waiver. I ask that he also consider, when people are back in business, a pro rata rate payment to reflect the level of profitability of businesses.
The other side of that, of course, is the local authorities. They are starved of funding. It is not just the loss of rates but also the loss of parking fees, planning permission fees and so forth. The Minister of State said that the three months of rates money would be in the bank accounts of local authorities in early or mid-June. That is good news. They will be delighted. However, is the Minister of State also considering assisting those local authorities with income forgone from the areas I mentioned such as parking and so forth? What precise commitments can he make?
My final question has been raised by a number of other Deputies. In a Zoom call with Leitrim County Council last Monday one councillor after another raised the issue of one-off rural housing as their highest priority. The Minister of State's party councillors were the same as the others. The problem is that in 2019, planning permission for just two one-off houses was granted in County Leitrim. We all talk about remote working from home. Unless the people in County Leitrim are to be denied that possibility there must be a change in how planning regulations are implemented. I am not saying there are no issues because there are. There are issues with soil suitability, for example, but there are innovative solutions. My request is that we stop looking at this with an urban mindset or from an ideological perspective. We should try to find solutions. It will be good for the environment, with fewer car journeys and fewer CO2 emissions. Issues with childcare can be more flexible and there can be a better work-life balance for people. There are many wins here, but the mindset must change. The Minister of State said he was close to completing guidelines or regulations on the building of one-off houses. Will he examine this issue with an open mind and a willingness to find solutions?
Deputy Danny Healy-Rae raised this as well and I agree fully. It has to be far too much ideology in terms of rural planning in general. It is a multifaceted answer but there are two obvious issues. First, there are the serviced sites on the edges of our towns and villages. There is also the dispersed rural housing, the once-off rural house. I am acutely familiar with some of the issues in Leitrim. The guidelines I referred to are as a result of the European Court of Justice decision - I cannot remember the name of the case - that kicked out our local need criterion as it currently stands. I believe we must drop the blinkers that apply in some quarters to the issue of rural housing and recognise that, in the midst of the crisis we have had, there have been huge advantages for people living in rural areas both for themselves and their families and also for the rural communities.
What about the local authorities?
The time is up. I thank the Minister of State and the Deputies.