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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 6 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 6

Vacant Properties: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

recognises that:

— the overarching goals of housing policy should be affordability, sustainability, equality and social inclusion;

— the high cost of housing can lead to deprivation, exclusion and poverty at the household level and lower levels of consumption, and economic growth at the national level;

— since 2015, national house prices rose by over 35 per cent or an average of seven per cent per annum;

— house prices rose by 14.4 per cent in 2021;

— the Irish Independent/Real Estate Alliance Average House Price Survey of the actual sale price of three-bed semi-detached homes reports that house prices have increased by €100 every day to date in 2022;

— rents are almost 40 per cent above their pre-crisis levels in Dublin and 20 per cent higher across the rest of the country;

— the National Planning Framework estimates that structural demand for new housing, based on demographics, is between 25,000 – 35,000 per year; and

— the Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan Scheme failed to meet its annual target every year and was 41,000 units below its overall target;

notes that:

— there is an untapped supply of vacant or derelict housing throughout the country, in both rural and urban regions;

— the GeoDirectory Residential Buildings Report states that there are more than 90,000 vacant dwellings across the country;

— according to the same report, there were 22,096 residential addresses classified as derelict;

— the latest Northern & Western Regional Assembly report entitled "Regional Vacancy and Dereliction Analysis" indicates that 44,905 residential and commercial properties are empty in the West, North West and Border area;

— 72 per cent of the towns and villages in the West, North West and Border area recorded a residential vacancy rate above the national average;

— 59 per cent of the towns and villages in the West, North West and Border area registered a commercial vacancy rate above the national average;

— every year up to 4,500 people leave behind an empty home when they enter long-term nursing home care, yet just 400 of these homes are rented out as the Nursing Homes Support/Fair Deal Scheme charges an older person three separate times if they decide to rent it out; and

— interest rates on loans for retrofitting homes are far too high and inaccessible for some homeowners; and

calls on the Government to:

— provide the resources to regenerate derelict and vacant properties in cities, towns and villages as a major priority action;

— revise the Repair and Leasing Scheme operated by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to remove the test for social housing in the area, therefore immediately releasing additional housing to meet broader social housing needs and/or private rental needs;

— provide first-time buyer grants of €30,000 for the refurbishment of vacant and derelict properties as homes;

— extend the Help to Buy scheme to first-time buyers of second hand and vacant properties;

— expand the Local Authority Home Loan Scheme to include refurbishment costs in addition to the acquisition costs;

— allow flexibility of planning regulations for the refurbishment of properties to bring them back into use as homes;

— introduce zero per cent long-term loans for retrofitting homes, whereby repayments are made through utility companies based on energy savings, to include micro-generation technologies;

— engage with the Irish League of Credit Unions to establish an interest-free loan scheme for home retrofitting;

— incentivise the development of clustered bungalow housing close to services for older people, allowing them to downsize and freeing up family homes;

— reform the Nursing Homes Support/Fair Deal Scheme to remove the financial barrier to renting out a property, thus releasing vacant family homes across our cities, towns and rural areas;

— provide additional green spaces, recreational facilities and biodiversity areas adjoining town and village centres, and related infrastructure to attract people to live in cities and town centres;

— review the housing grant limits due to rising construction costs;

— address supply-side constraints, including:

— skilled labour shortages;

— rising costs of construction;

— rising costs of materials; and

— excessive lead times, which are limiting the affordability of new dwellings; and

— establish a framework for the supply and installation of prefabricated 3D volumetric modular homes, which can significantly reduce the construction time for social and affordable housing.

I am happy to open this debate on behalf of the Regional Group. It is ostensibly about the housing crisis that is being driven by the lack of available dwellings for temporary or permanent habitation, increasing input costs and rising inflation to finished construction costs. This is creating an affordability crisis for many in our population, especially those with aspirations to buy and live in their own homes.

Supply deficits are also affecting the rental market. Monthly rents have totally eclipsed most average monthly mortgage payments and, for many individuals and families, renting is becoming unsustainable. The housing crisis is also creating great difficulty for local authorities tasked with making housing available to the vulnerable and those qualifying on low incomes. We have dysfunction in builder housing finance availability and the overarching regulatory requirements stifle new-build timelines and opportunity. This is significantly slowing the housing delivery process and adding to the costs.

Our motion calls on Government to introduce initiatives that will bring the significant stock of vacant and derelict properties sitting unoccupied in the State back into use. Activating this housing stock for sale to new homeowners or supply to the rental market will go some way towards alleviating the supply crisis and the upward trajectory in housing costs.

More than 90,000 vacant properties have been identified throughout the State. These could form the basis of a recyclable housing stock with the right initiatives. Many need retrofitting and refurbishment but a sale into use price would reflect that. Many of these homes are located in our regional towns and villages and developing them could breathe new life into our regional economy while venting pressure from our large urban centres, which cannot cope with the current housing demand.

In my region, the south east, there are over 53,000 young people aged between 18 and 49 living at home. Those competing for the local authority housing list in my county of Waterford, for example, will, if they qualify, join a queue of 3,000 on the housing list for an annual local authority allocation of 300 homes. Across the south east, there are more than 23,000 vacant homes, excluding holiday units, and some 500 are vacant under the fair deal scheme. The Government must move to make the houses locked up in the fair deal scheme available for rental agreements and to the rental market. There must be several ways of creating innovative financial solutions to ensure the State gets fair recompense in terms of the fair deal, while allowing these houses to be made available to the rental sector.

The Government is making €4 billion available to tackle the housing situation and new modular building methods may be a significant step forward. At present, a company in Carlow can provide new one-bedroom units for €75,000 to €100,000. Adding some site valuation could deliver first-time buyer mortgages of just €400 to €600 per month in large parts of the country.

An initiative has been suggested to me which I offer to the Minister of State. I believe it is worth considering under the Housing for All strategy. It requires that over a 12-month period under Housing for All, a tax credit could be used and converted from unallocated finances to first-time buyers of vacant homes. This credit could target, for example, vacant homes of €200,000 valuation, where the allocated buyer grant delivers €100,000 spend capacity. A similar grant could target first-time buyers for new modular home construction at less than €200,000.

In Waterford, for instance, the local authority's Housing for All allocation is €125 million per year. If the council failed to allocate 30%, this would amount to €37 million that could be reallocated to a new housing grant that could deliver between 180 and 360 new developed properties. This could deliver a significant number of new homes from vacant housing stock. These homes would meet both supply and affordability criteria and would allow many people to get the housing start they desperately need. Delivering this affordable solution would also allow these families and individuals to retain some discretionary spending each month, which would deliver benefit to the regional and local economy.

Significant initiatives are available to the Government to help deal with the housing crisis but they require Government to have an open mind and need the Department of Finance to show latitude in terms of providing new innovative debt solutions to the domestic housing sector.

It has been more than 30 years since homeownership peaked in Ireland. In 1991, 80% of Irish people were homeowners, while private rental accounted for 8% and social rental stood at 10%. At that time, there were 2,700 people registered as homeless. The Ireland of today is vastly different to the Ireland of 1991. There are more than 9,000 people classified as homeless and 67% of Irish people are homeowners. While across Europe homeownership rates are increasing, in Ireland they are falling. The age at which people apply for their first mortgage is increasing, largely due to the fact that the cost of renting is extortionate and the ability to save towards the cost of buying is diminishing more every year.

The cost of buying a home has soared by an average of 14% across the country. The supply of affordable homes available for purchase is historically low. The availability of rental properties is sparse, which leads to frightening rents being demanded.

The Government has set a target to promote the construction of up to 400,000 houses over the next decade. This averages 40,000 homes per year. It is worth noting that this figure was announced before the need was identified to provide homes for Ukrainian refugees who have been forced to take up residence in Ireland.

The Government's figures are ambitious. Are they even close to being realistic? According to 20 of the country’s top developers, the figures are far from realistic. Their target is closer to 125,000 homes over the coming ten years, which is far removed from Government’s aspirations.

The reason for pessimism is that not enough land is zoned across the country for residential building. Developers are describing the unavailability of fully serviced land for housebuilding as a crisis. Combined with the spiralling cost of building materials, this adds another layer of crisis to the ever-escalating housing calamity.

The construction industry has expressed a view that it will run out of land in the next two to three years. One leading developer has stated publicly that they may have to stop building houses completely for at least six years. Yet housing must be provided. Homes must be made available to meet the growing needs of Irish people and those who have made Ireland their new home.

The solution to the crisis must lie, to a significant extent, in investing in renovating vacant properties. Every city, town and village in the country has a number of vacant properties that could be renovated and refurbished to become family homes. Across Ireland, there are more than 90,000 vacant properties. In Tipperary alone, it is estimated there are up to 3,000 empty dwellings located across urban and rural areas.

Some of these houses fell into disrepair after they were repossessed by lending institutions and left idle. Some were left vacant after the passing of the owners. There are endless reasons that a house can become vacant. For the most part, these endless reasons provide significant opportunities to address the need to provide social housing or private homes. These opportunities need to be examined as a matter of urgency.

A time limit needs to be introduced on how long a property can be left in limbo at a time when people across the country are crying out for homes. This should be coupled with low-interest loans for home buyers so as to make taking on a renovation project more appealing. This is a vital incentive. Without addressing this aspect of bringing vacant houses back into use, the idea will die before it ever has a chance to prove its worth.

If the focus was switched away from acquiring high-cost serviced land to provide new build homes on the outskirts of cities, towns and villages, it would have multiple positive impacts. Repurposing vacant houses in towns would help to revitalise town centres. Apart from the obvious bonus of making them more attractive, population growth invariably leads to increased demand for services. These services, such as shops, schools and high-speed broadband, not only meet the needs of newcomers to the community, but also improve day-to-day life for everyone in the area. Rather than focusing attention on the almost impossible task of acquiring serviced land for new developments, incentives should be put in place for builders and tradesmen to turn vacant properties into family homes. This, in turn, would create employment in the building sector.

At the present time, we not only need to think outside the box, but to act as well. There are options, there are solutions, and they should be put in place. People need homes now.

It is a fact that Ireland ranks tenth highest in the world in terms of the proportion of homes that are vacant. Almost all of the concentration on finding solutions to our chronic shortage of accommodation has been centred on building new homes. Although necessary, this takes a great amount of time and money. For many years, there has been a considerable shortfall in the number of homes being built. While the rate of construction has stepped up considerably, it will be a long time before supply catches up with demand, if it ever does.

There are thousands upon thousands of habitable homes lying idle in our villages, towns and cities. Many of them only need a little attention to bring them up to a standard where they can become homes for families. Others only need an adjustment by the Government of the rules governing the fair deal scheme to see them made available on the rental market.

The most recent GeoDirectory residential buildings report showed that there were more than 90,000 vacant dwellings across the country, with the bulk along the west coast. More than one third of those vacant dwellings are located in counties Mayo, Donegal and Galway. The census of population that is currently under way will give a good picture of vacancy rates throughout the country, but I do not see there being any improvement on the figures in the previous census. For example, that census showed that there were 17,500 homes lying vacant in Galway city and county, or almost one in five of the total housing stock. Although many of them were vacant holiday homes, there were still almost 14,000 habitable homes lying empty and unused. I stress that these were not derelict buildings, but homes that could, with just a little attention in many cases, be perfectly suitable for families desperately seeking somewhere to live. This shows that, even in the areas of highest housing demand, there is a large number of homes that are just waiting to accommodate families.

Steps have been taken by many a Government to try to address the issue of vacant homes, but the success of those has been insignificant. For instance, the vacant housing reuse strategy has failed to produce the hoped for results, making little impact on the overall numbers. Recently, the Minister for Social Protection, who is also the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, confirmed a spend of more than €18 million on 99 projects throughout the country under the town and village renewal scheme. While the programme for Government is committed to an expansion of this scheme to bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use and promote residential occupancy, few if any of the projects to be supported will provide residential accommodation. A far more ambitious programme is required to tackle the issue of vacant homes lying idle, which would have the added advantage of bringing new life to many rural communities.

There are many excellent proposals contained in this Private Members' motion, which I wholeheartedly support. One of them can make an immediate impact on the availability of accommodation. Currently, anyone who moves into a nursing home under the fair deal scheme and rents out his or her own home has to pay 80% of any rental income towards the cost of his or her care. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has promised to exempt rental income from the assessment of means, which by his own estimation could release several thousand homes onto the rental market. That is a large number of properties. However, we are still waiting for it to happen. It cannot come soon enough, as many of these homes are in turnkey condition and are ready for people to walk into overnight.

Research carried out by a UK price comparison website, based on data from the OECD, put Ireland in the unenviable position of being the tenth worst in the world for vacant housing. Tackling this issue and getting a substantial return does not have to cost a great deal of money. It will not solve our country's chronic shortage of accommodation, but it could have a serious impact. The well-thought-out proposals outlined in the motion would go a long way towards easing pressure on the accommodation market. I urge the Government to support and implement them as quickly as possible.

I compliment our administrator, Ms Cáit Nic Amhlaoibh, on the tremendous amount of work she has done with us on getting the motion to the floor of the House.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute and I thank my colleagues in the Regional Group for tabling this motion before the House. Over the past number of years, I have lost count of the amount of times I have raised the issue of vacant homes in my constituency of Louth. You can walk through any residential area in Dundalk and be sure to see vacant homes. It is clear that this is a problem in every county.

In tabling this motion, we in the Regional Group want to highlight the problem while also offering real solutions to the Government. The bottom line is that housing should be affordable and available. Unfortunately, it is neither. Since 2015, national house prices have risen by more than 35%. In 2021 alone, prices rose by more than 14%. This year, a survey has revealed that house prices are rising at €100 per day. To put that in context, that is more than €36,000 in a year. This is not sustainable. When we look at rents, we see that they are 40% above the pre-crisis levels in Dublin and 20% higher in the rest of the country. In my home town of Dundalk, house rents are simply out of reach for most families.

In tabling this motion, we in the Regional Group want to highlight the potential that vacant properties, if developed properly, could have for tackling the housing crisis. The GeoDirectory residential buildings report has highlighted that there are more than 90,000 vacant dwellings across the country and that more than 22,000 residential addresses are classified as derelict. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly's latest report on regional vacancy and dereliction has shown that there are almost 45,000 empty residential and commercial properties in the west, north west and Border area. Nearly three quarters of the towns and villages in the region have recorded a residential vacancy rate above the national average.

Our motion also highlights the issues that the fair deal nursing home support scheme has created. Every year, up to 4,500 people leave behind empty homes when they enter into long-term nursing home care, but only 400 of these homes are subsequently rented out. The reason for this is simple. The scheme charges an older person three separate times if he or she rents out his or her home.

My colleagues in the Regional Group and I are looking for cross-party support for the motion. We feel that it will offer real solutions to the housing crisis while bringing back into the stock the many thousands of vacant and derelict homes in our towns and villages. We are calling on the Government to provide once and for all the necessary resources to regenerate the derelict and vacant properties in our towns, villages and cities. We want a change to the repair-and-leasing scheme that is being operated by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage so as to remove the test for social housing in the area, which would immediately release additional housing for social needs and private renters. We are also calling on the Government to provide a first-time buyer's grant of at least €30,000 for the refurbishment of vacant and derelict houses. We want an extension of the help-to-buy scheme to first-time buyers of second-hand and vacant homes. We need to see the local authority home loan scheme being expanded to include refurbishment costs in addition to the purchase costs. We need a Government-supported 0% loan scheme for retrofitting homes where the repayments are made through the utility companies in the form of reduced energy costs.

We also need the Government to engage with the Irish League of Credit Unions to establish an interest-free loan scheme for home retrofitting. The Government must look at incentivising the development of clustered bungalow housing close to services for our older generation, which would allow them to downsize and will in turn free up family homes. We need to remove the financial barrier in the fair deal nursing home scheme to renting out a property which, again, would release vacant family homes in our towns, villages and cities. We also call on the Government to review housing grant limits due to the dramatic rise in construction costs.

The Government has consistently called on Members to engage with it and work together to help solve the housing crisis. The Regional Group believes that our motion offers real solutions to the Government. We are not trying to play party politics but only trying to offer real solutions to a very real problem. I call on all Deputies to fully support our motion. I look forward to working with each and every one of them in order to find a solution.

The Minister of State has been doing the rounds over the past number of weeks. He visited County Louth last week. When he hands a family the keys to a house, whether it is a social house, council house or whatever, he sees that there is nothing better and it is all families want. I do not know what is going on with the Government at present but we should put more emphasis on building more houses. As the Minister of State knows, we have a lot of land in County Louth that can be used to build houses. I welcome that he came to County Louth last week. I hope he spoke to those in the local authorities there and that he will come back again.

I thank the Deputies for tabling this motion and the valuable contributions they have made in the process of doing so. As set out in A Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, the Government believes that everybody should have access to good-quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard and located close to essential services, offering a high quality of life. We understand that the provision of more affordable housing has a profound benefit socially and economically. We believe the State has a fundamental role in enabling the delivery of new homes and ensuring that best use is made of existing stock. I welcome the opportunity to discuss and debate these very important issues.

We have now translated our programme for Government mission, Housing for All, into a strategic housing plan for Ireland, which is a radical one that sets out four pathways to a sustainable housing system. The plan is backed by historic levels of investment in excess of €20 billion through the Exchequer, the Land Development Agency, LDA, and the Housing Finance Agency over the next five years. The plan provides for an optimal mix of social, affordable and private housing for sale and rent. The plan is underpinned by measures to support availability of the land, the workforce, the funding and the capacity to enable the public and private sectors to meet targets.

The LDA has an immediate focus on managing the State’s lands to develop new homes, the majority of which will be social and affordable homes. The transfer of State lands to the LDA, with potential to produce 15,000 homes, is under way. Work at two sites, St. Kevin’s Hospital, Cork, and Shanganagh Castle, Dublin, will commence this year. These sites will deliver a total of 861 social and affordable homes. In addition, the LDA recently submitted a planning application for 977 social and affordable homes on the Central Mental Hospital site in Dundrum, with further planning applications on other sites to be submitted this month. The LDA has also launched Project Tosaigh to accelerate delivery of 5,000 homes on non-State lands where planning permission has already been granted but not yet activated. The first delivery stream of this LDA initiative to bring privately developed units to market affordably and quickly will be launched later this year, targeting schemes in excess of 150 units per development in the greater Dublin area, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford. The first of those homes, cost rental and affordable purchase, should be delivered towards the end of this year.

I thank the Deputies for raising the important issue of vacancy. As they know, this issue is a priority for the Department and the Government. It is why one of the four main pillars of Housing for All is solely dedicated to this issue. At a time when supply of homes is a challenge, it is clear that every appropriate, available avenue must be exhausted. Addressing vacancy by making the best use of our existing stock is crucial in light of the current housing crisis. It is for those reasons that the Government has developed a multifaceted approach to addressing the issue.

We are ensuring that robust, up-to-date data is available to understand the quantity, locations and characteristics of long-term vacant dwellings and the reasons they are vacant. The most recent figures available from census 2016 indicate there were more than 183,000 vacant homes nationwide. While this is a 20% reduction on figures reported in census 2011 of more than 230,000, we are nonetheless still not at a sustainable level for a properly functioning housing market. The vacant property tax consideration being pursued by the Department of Finance includes the work under way through the current local property tax returns to assess present vacancy levels. This forthcoming new data evidence base will underpin and inform the implementation of a range of policy initiatives in this area as outlined in Housing for All.

An important area of innovation will be the new Croí Cónaithe towns fund initiative, which will be delivered by local authorities. This funding stream will provide serviced sites for housing in towns and villages as well as supporting the refurbishment of vacant properties enabling people to live in towns and villages. Other areas include utilising a new local authority-led programme to help local authorities buy or compulsorily purchase 2,500 vacant houses in their areas that can then be sold on the open market, which will ensure houses are brought back into use as homes.

The Derelict Sites Act 1990 confers significant powers upon local authorities, including requiring owners or occupiers to take appropriate measures on derelict sites, acquiring derelict sites by agreement or compulsorily, and applying a derelict sites levy on sites. My Department is continuing to engage with local authorities on the operation of the vacant site levy pending its replacement with the vacant property tax and, in particular, the derelict sites levy, to identify issues and challenges that have arisen in the operation of the two levies to date with the objective of improving their effectiveness. In the meantime, local authorities are encouraged to continue to determine the most appropriate use of the legislation within their respective functional areas and to ensure more productive and effective enforcement of the provisions of the legislation.

On the legislative front, the fair deal scheme has been reformed to remove disincentives for the sale of vacant properties. Further reforms are being progressed by the Department of Health to remove the disincentive to the rental of vacant properties by participants in the fair deal scheme, which will be brought forward shortly. In addition, the Planning and Development Act (Exempted Development) Regulations 2022 extends planning regulations that exempt certain vacant commercial properties, including over-the-shop spaces, from requiring planning permission for change of use for residential purposes to 2025, and includes vacant public houses within the scope of the regulations.

All of the initiatives under Housing for All addressing vacancy will not only support housing but supply, which will be profoundly positive from a social and sustainability perspective, utilising existing space, re-imaging and regenerating vacant properties and cutting down on the volume of commuters, leading to cleaner air and less congested urban areas that will ultimately provide commuters and communities with greater vibrancy. Addressing vacancy and the efficient use of existing stock makes sense on a number of levels and is of major importance to this Government. Most importantly, addressing vacancy will provide homes to families and, in some cases, stock is within our reach. It is imperative that we do so, even as we roll out record levels of new-build social and affordable homes over the coming years.

The reuse of vacant properties will be a key criteria in future funding rounds for the rural regeneration and development fund and urban regeneration and development funds. Utilising existing stock, and unlocking the potential for the reactivation of vacant and derelict home properties, will breathe new life into towns and villages, boosting schools, the local economy and local communities. Coming at a time when blended working has been accelerated and the availability of access to high-quality broadband and remote work spaces is growing daily, such incentives as the Croí Cónaithe towns fund are coming at precisely the right time to bolster this new approach to work-life in towns and villages. Addressing vacancy, therefore, remains a significant element of Government policy. When combined with the broader unprecedented level of Exchequer investment in housing in respect of €4 billion in multi-annual funding, this will have a significant impact on putting the country on a sustainable path.

The Government is acutely aware of the difficulties faced by people in sourcing affordable homes to rent and buy. These difficulties are not unique to Ireland and are experienced in many countries across the EU and further afield. We are taking significant measures that will deliver and make a very real difference to affordability and quality of life in the everyday lives of our people. The clearest demonstration of this commitment is the record State investment of €4 billion that has been allocated to the housing programme for 2022, which is a 20% increase on 2021.

In 2022, 11,800 social homes will be delivered, including 9,000 new-build homes. The focus of this funding, is, therefore, very much on the delivery of construction of new social homes. However, it is also important that the best use is made of existing vacant stock and Housing for All provides the clear pathway to addressing vacancy and efficient use of existing stock. We will realise this potential and opportunity to increase residential development in cities and towns with a consequent emphasis on amenities and quality of life.

Deputies have made valuable points in the debate. Through Housing for All, we are ensuring that vacancy is reprioritised. By the second quarter of this year, each of the 31 local authorities will have a full-time vacant homes officer to ensure that sufficient priority is given to it. The Law Reform Commission is examining the compulsory purchase process and will report on it.

I wish to make a point regarding the zoning of land. We must get into activation. We have a lot of zoned land already and a large number of vacant houses. It is activation that we need now. People should remember that in 2008 we had enough zoned land in the country to accommodate the growth of the population to 10 million. No one could predict where the infrastructure would go. We were left with a massive problem. Now we need to focus on the activation of existing zoned land. With the zoned land tax and the land value capture mechanism coming down the line, we are telling developers or people sitting on land that if they do not activate it there is a massive stick coming down the line. First, we have to work with the carrot through the Croí Cónaithe scheme and providing funds to unlock viability. We are working hard to try to ensure that people have sufficient housing stock ready and waiting for them.

I am pleased to be associated with today's motion by the Regional Group on derelict and vacant properties. I reiterate our thanks to Cáit, our administrator.

On a leisurely walk through any town or city in Ireland one will find many derelict or vacant properties. This is particularly the case in towns and city centres but it is also the position in rural areas. These properties are owned by someone. I fully support the rights of people to own private property. However, we need to incentivise people who own a derelict property or a vacant site to do something beneficial with it, especially when we have a severe shortage of houses and an ever-increasing list of people looking for places to live, and a broken planning policy in the way of their ever becoming homeowners. The motion states that the Dáil recognises that "the overarching goals of housing policy should be affordability, sustainability, equality and social inclusion". Affordability is clearly an issue for many people. First-time buyers are being priced out of the market for various reasons. One of those reasons is the dreadful practice of county councils trying to increase their stock of social housing by competing in the market with first-time buyers. This practice is counterproductive and merely serves to make it more difficult for first-time buyers.

The motion also recognises that "Rebuilding Ireland failed to meet its annual target every year and was 41,000 units below its overall target". Unfortunately, this should really come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the way our planning laws are being applied or the way in which certain officials are implementing their own version of these laws. In some cases, they are inventing rules of their own.

The Office of the Planning Regulator’s role in curtailing and putting barriers in the way of housing development over a number of years must be highlighted. What has happened in this regard must be corrected before the problem gets worse. Every barrier put in the way of a house being built is just another straw to break the back of the struggling first-time buyer. I appeal to the Minister to take his head out of the sand and deal with the issue.

The motion notes that there are more than 90,000 vacant dwellings across the country. Some 22,096 residential addresses have been classified as derelict. Every year up to 4,500 people leave behind empty homes when they enter long-term nursing home care, yet just 400 of these homes are rented out as the fair deal nursing home support scheme charges an older person three separate times if they decide to rent out their home. Government regulation is actively discouraging people from renting out their properties. This is despite the fact that there is a rental crisis as a result of over-regulation and bureaucracy. The bricks and mortar are there in many places.

With those issues and others in mind, we are calling on the Government to do a number of things. We need to provide the resources to regenerate derelict and vacant properties in cities, towns, and village as a major priority action and provide first-time buyer grants of €30,000 for the refurbishment of vacant and derelict properties as homes. Stimulating demand for derelict houses may encourage people to sell run-down properties they own but are not using. This is especially so in light of the current cost of a new build and the difficulties in getting planning permission. The motion also calls for reform of the fair deal nursing home scheme to remove the financial barrier to renting out a property. This would release vacant family homes across our cities, towns, and rural areas for rent. The fair deal nursing home scheme is a godsend to many people who, without it, would struggle to afford appropriate care for their loved ones, but it is not perfect. Thousands of vacant properties lie idle because of the cost and bureaucracy associated with renting out a property under the scheme.

In recent days I read with great disappointment a report about a family having to leave a Gaeltacht area due to difficulty in getting planning permission. This happened on Inis Meáin. If our planning laws are not made less onerous and restrictive, they will contribute to the death of rural Ireland, local parishes, rural GAA clubs and thousands of communities.

I am delighted to speak on this very important motion on vacant and derelict housing. I pay tribute to Deputy Denis Naughten and our group administrator, Ms Cáit Nic Amhlaoibh, who did most of the heavy lifting in preparing the motion.

I very much support the motion. It provides a comprehensive and detailed blueprint. I endorse all the recommendations it contains. I will highlight three proposals in particular. The first is one which the Minister of State highlighted, namely, that the Government should provide additional resources to tackle the issue of derelict houses. I take his point but the case for investment alone is compelling. From the Government perspective, it is one of minimum input and maximum return. We are all practising Deputies here. We are members of a constructive Opposition. We recognise that there are finite resources in the country. However, every euro put into a derelict house will return five times the amount.

Second, expanding the existing local authority home loan scheme is extremely important, in particular for those with poor credit ratings or low-income households which do not have access to normal banking finance. Introducing a 0% home retrofit loan scheme is also a key component. The Government should engage with the credit union movement. Everyone in the House will be familiar with the movement. It is actively seeking greater community financing options. It is totally on board with this. Any influence the Minister of State can bring to bear in respect of that proposal would be greatly appreciated.

The Minister of State appreciates that housing is a very important and emotive political issue in the country at the moment, and for good reason. If you are not adequately housed, you cannot progress professionally or personally. You are always looking over your shoulder when you are precariously housed and you cannot really develop. It is particularly acute now with the influx of Ukrainian refugees, although it is no fault of theirs. Up to Easter, an expected 30,000 Ukrainians will have come here. That imposes a massive problem on top of an existing one. As with most issues and problems, however, the solution is often under our nose. Vacant and derelict housing is a perfect example. The Minister of State gave a statistic that there were 183,000 vacant properties nationwide according to the previous census. That is staggering. That is six years of housing supply if we can get it reactivated and back on the market. Renovation is the cheapest way to build a house in terms of cost and from a carbon perspective.

I will conclude by mentioning a housing crisis within the housing crisis. The military housing crisis is especially acute in my constituency, Kildare South. Its origins are clear. Some 25 years ago, our Defence Forces had more personnel. In the intervening period, successive Government have closed almost half the military installations across the country. That has caused a military housing crisis.

We now have troops commuting hundreds of kilometres every day and they cannot afford to put fuel in their vehicles. It is especially acute in the Curragh Camp. I am not sure how familiar the Minister of State is with the Curragh but he would be most welcome at any time and I would be happy to show him around. There are more than 50 houses lying derelict in the camp. It is completely unacceptable. They are boarded up. We are familiar with dereliction in every town in Ireland but some of it can be explained as the bank owning the house, or a house being in receivership or awaiting probate. However, these more than 50 houses in the Curragh are all publicly owned, which is staggering. They are owned by the Department of Defence. The Department says it is not its core function to provide housing. I argue against that. If its core function is to provide for the defence and security of the country then it is appropriate that it looks after military families as well. To be fair to the Minister of State's Department, while I accept it should be in the lead in responding to the housing crisis, it should not be exclusively so. Every Government Department should play a supporting role and try to address this issue. I am not sure what the Minister of State's own thoughts are on this but there is room here for an AHB to go to the Department of Defence and offer to take the houses if the Department is happy to offload them and have the housing body provide them to military families on military land. It makes sense as well because it would take military families off the social housing lists and free them up for other families based in garrison towns around the country.

In conclusion, I very much welcome and support this motion. It is very comprehensive and detailed and is a blueprint for addressing the vacant and derelict housing crisis in this country, and in turn assists in tackling the larger housing crisis.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete the following words:

"— extend the Help to Buy scheme to first-time buyers of second hand and vacant properties;"

I thank the Regional Group of Independents for bringing forward this motion. It is a very timely motion. We in Sinn Féin welcome any opportunity to contribute to a debate about vacant homes and how we need to do better on being in a position to return them to use.

GeoDirectory indicates there are around 90,000 vacant properties across the State. This is a scandal. No-one would come into the House and say anything else other than that this is an absolute scandal. It is evidence the Government schemes have not worked. Whatever has been done to date has not worked and 90,000 vacant properties indicate this. We must do much better in this regard. We know that when it comes to refurbishing and bringing homes back to life, or whatever word you want to put on it, this approach is much more environmentally-friendly than building from scratch. We all know this and need to be conscious of it. It is also cheaper than building from scratch. I do not understand why more cannot be done. The Minister of State spoke about the need for activation. There is a real need for activation, that is, for every single lever the Government has at its disposal to be pulled. Every single opportunity to house a family that needs a home should be taken. In our alternative budget, Sinn Féin allocated 20% of our public housing target to be delivered via vacant homes.

Sinn Féin broadly supports the motion before us this afternoon. The amendment we have put down is intended to be a friendly one. We understand the recommendation to extend the help-to-buy scheme to second hand and vacant homes is very well-intentioned but we cannot support it. Help-to-buy as it currently stands is inflationary. It increases house prices. This is clear when you look at the house price inflation taking place across the State. The latest CSO figures show house prices have increased by 14.8%. Prices in Dublin are rising by 13.3%. I am conscious of how anyone who is struggling to save up to get their first home - I do not use the awful phrase "getting onto the property ladder" as it is no more a ladder than I am the man in the moon - might feel when hearing of 13.3% rise in prices in Dublin and a 14.8% rise nationally. House price inflation is astronomical at this stage. The Border regions continue to experience extreme house price inflation of up to 24.7%. Extending the help-to-buy scheme will only add to these inflationary figures and therefore we cannot support this point. We also have some concern about the first-time buyer grants of €30,000 for the refurbishment of vacant and derelict properties. Again, I understand the motivation behind this measure but I have concerns about how it would work in practice. How would it be ensured the €30,000 is not just swallowed up and then added on to the selling price, which would again crease the people who are trying to buy their first homes? Would this be the maximum amount available? Would smaller grants be available? How would it be ensured the grants are tailored to households that really need them? As I have said, the amendment we have put down is intended to be a friendly one but we have some questions and concerns.

I referred to my next point a few minutes ago. The Minister of State talked about the need for activation and in the minute and 20 seconds remaining to me I raise an issue I have raised with the senior Minister in the Department, the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach, the Department of Health and the HSE. It is grand for the Minister of State to talk about activation but actually doing it would bring into use12 homes in my area that are vitally needed. There are 12 units at the entrance to St. Ita's Hospital. They are in the ownership of the HSE and have been vacant for some time. I understand the HSE is amenable to leasing the units to the council for a nominal fee. The council, it appears, is not hostile to developing these 12 units. I raised this in the previous Dáil with the Department of Health so it is perhaps five years since I first raised it. It seems no progress can be made. I urge the Minister of State to look at the St. Ita's site and the potential to bring 12 homes back into use. It would be significantly cheaper than knocking them and rebuilding and there is a real need for housing in my area. The Minister of State's Department and the council have discussed the capital assistance scheme, CAS, potentially being useful. That would be a good point to start with but I ask the Minister of State to take a look at this and put the word "activation" into active use.

The number of vacant properties across the State is staggering. As this motion from the Regional Group of Independents states, there are 90,000 vacant dwellings across the country. Some of this stock of dwellings could, and should, be used to address some of the issues around our housing crisis.

In my home country of Limerick there are 4,000 vacant properties. These range from dwellings to office buildings that are being allowed to fall into disrepair. While we have a vacant site levy, the collection of it is haphazard. In response to a parliamentary question I asked in January, it was confirmed that in Limerick there was almost €1 million outstanding in vacant site levies over a two-year period. It is extremely disappointing these properties are not made available for use. It is astounding that when they are left vacant there is no urgency to collecting the amounts owed. In contrast, if a council tenant ends up in arrears on his or her rent the local council energetically pursues him or her to ensure the owed money is rightly paid.

My office deals daily with people desperate to be housed. They often live in overcrowded, small homes with multiple generations of the family living cheek by jowl. I am also contacted quite frequently by those living adjacent to vacant sites or boarded-up homes. Disuse of these dwellings creates negative conditions for those who live next to them. In my experience, the longer a site is vacant the greater the chance of illegal dumping, vermin infestation and structural damage to the adjacent homes. It is simply not fair to those living next to them. Your home is your refuge and your safe place and something that, in the main, people take great pride in.

In February I joined the derelict site walking tour of Limerick City. It was a cross-party, non-party event where we visited several vacant sites within the city. These sites ranged from former office buildings to vacant houses and apartments. One of the locations we visited was the Watergate Flats complex in the heart of the city centre. This is an apartment complex with 100 units. The locals who live there are angry and frustrated and tell me at least six of these flats are boarded up and vacant and have been idle for a number of years. Many are ready to be let and are sitting empty. Across Limerick there are many other dwellings that could be refurbished and made available, yet they also remain idle.

National house prices are rising by an average of 7% per year. Those who allow sites to lie vacant are profiting while our people are desperate. Those who leave properties vacant must be pursued vigorously to show the levies owed are collected.

Last month one of the local papers, The Connaught Tribune, reported there were 7,500 vacant properties across Galway. According to daft.ie there are fewer than 150 properties for rent in Galway today.

The Irish Times reported this year that almost 45,000 properties in the west, north west and midlands are lying empty, although these figures are frequently disputed. Some say they are too high while others say they are too low. Some say that the GeoDirectory database from which these figures are often drawn is not accurate enough. Why, after more than a decade of a housing crisis, can we not say with certainty what the figure for vacant properties across this State actually is? Why do we not have a property register for vacant and derelict properties? It is absolutely remarkable. I often raise this with the local authorities in my area when trying to find out the exact number of vacant properties but they find it difficult to tell me. We have had successive Governments involving Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael telling us that housing is their number one priority but no effort has been made to gather the data that would actually help us to tackle the problem.

What many people see when they walk through Galway city and towns in the county is vacant and derelict sites and they ask why we do not know how many are actually sitting idle. The reality is that it helps to maintain an artificial scarcity of supply that keeps prices and rents high. If the Minister really wants to solve the housing crisis, he needs to come to terms with vacancy and dereliction. We all know that the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to improve housing supply is to start with vacant and derelict properties. My constituents in Galway are constantly asking me about properties that are sitting idle. They cannot understand why, after more than a decade of a housing crisis, there are still people without homes and homes without people.

The housing crisis continues to escalate. The war in Ukraine and the resultant humanitarian crisis has highlighted the state of housing in Ireland yet again. We need to allow for thousands of refugees to come here to seek safety but our housing market is an absolute mess. By Easter weekend, we are expecting the number of arrivals to be between 26,000 and 32,000.

Fine Gael has been in government for more than ten years, with support from Fianna Fáil for six years, and nothing has improved. Things are getting worse in every aspect of housing, including for renters, people who want to buy a home, people on the housing waiting list and for those who are homeless. We also have an unacceptable number of vacant homes across the State at an estimated 90,000. Our rate of vacant properties is among the highest in the developed world and yet we are in the throes of a major housing emergency. That, in itself, speaks volumes.

There are 86 local authority-owned vacant dwellings in County Louth. This represents 86 families who could be housed, with thousands waiting on the housing list. The Government has had three vacant homes schemes but they have consistently failed to reach their targets. Sinn Féin has been calling for long time for a vacant property levy to disincentivise speculative vacancy and I am glad the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is finally on board with this. It is morally wrong, in the middle of a housing crisis, that the Government allows property owners to leave homes sitting vacant. It is unbelievable that this practice has been allowed to continue for so long. Our concern, however, is that the Government may wait until budget 2023 to introduce this tax, which could mean that it will not come into practice for another year or possibly two. We need assurances that this tax will be introduced urgently and it must be punitive if it is to have any real impact. However, that will not solve the crisis. We need serious State involvement in the building of social and affordable homes for that to happen. Unfortunately the Government is still refusing to do that and the results of that intransigence are plain to see.

Vacant homes are a serious issue around the country but they are no less of an issue in the inner city. The difference is that in the inner city, Dublin City Council is responsible for these empty homes. A short walk from here I could show the Minister ten empty flats that are boarded up. That is ten homes that could house people in homelessness or in overcrowded or unsafe conditions. Dublin City Council flats can be empty for months. There needs to be a speedier process to reactivate the flats. In some cases, flats are empty for nearly a year.

Some flats are empty while plans are put in place for regeneration or redevelopment but the process of redeveloping flats is tortuously slow and as a consequence, homes are left empty for a very long time. One development that is a five-minute walk from here on Fenian Street is a very good example. The council met residents of St. Andrew's Court three or four years ago and put proposals to them for redevelopment. It is a big redevelopment plan and while people were concerned and anxious about it, generally it was welcomed. People were happy that public housing would be built on public land. However, the process is absolutely crawling and the homes at St. Andrew's Court have been empty for years. Approximately 15 flats are just sitting there, empty and the project is only at the design team stage.

Pearse House residents are also facing a regeneration scheme but if it is going to take as long as St. Andrew's Court, it will be a disaster for residents living in the inner city who are under huge pressure and in desperate need of housing. The turnaround of voids also needs to be accelerated. There are five or six voids in Pearse House at the moment. People who are living in horrendous conditions are looking at flats that are boarded up, empty and derelict. The turnaround of voids and the process for the regeneration of flat complexes such as Pearse House and St. Andrew's Court needs to be fast-tracked. If it is not fast-tracked, it amounts to neglect of the residents who are living in accommodation that nobody in 2022 should be expected to live in. It is often said that Pearse House is a beautifully built art deco building and, indeed, the architecture is lovely but for people having to live there, it is a sentence. That is just not acceptable and it must be changed. Redevelopment must be fast-tracked. We cannot have people living in substandard accommodation for years and years when the process can be speeded up through fast-tracking.

Vacancy and dereliction are serious issues in rural Ireland. There is significant dereliction in every small town. Houses are lying empty and shops, pubs and other business premises in once-thriving communities are dying on their feet because of the changes in how people conduct their commerce. They now shop in big towns and so on. We have a huge problem with that in the private sector and a carrot-and-stick approach is needed to resolve it. The problem for a lot of the people who own these properties is that they are not really assets but liabilities, often inherited, and they do not know what to do with them. Something needs to be done to assist people with that particular problem. The other side of it is that there are people who sit on properties and do not, or will not, develop them. That is also an enormous problem. We must try to get the balance right. We need to do something that will provide housing for people and, in doing so, we will also provide work. We need to get all of this right. Of course, I recognise that some advancements have been made, particularly with the grant aid scheme that is now in place to properly insulate homes, regenerate them and bring them back into use. All of those measures are positive but, unfortunately, people still have to get into debt to do it and that is a big issue for a lot of people who own property.

The other side of this relates to the local authorities.

Throughout my constituency in counties Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon there are issues with empty local authority houses and properties. The local authorities are taking a long time to bring them back into use in order that people can live in them again. Much of that is down to funding and so on. In the past, local authorities had large teams who would carry out that type of work. When a house became vacant, the local authorities had staff to do the work to bring them back into use, but that no longer happens. Currently, properties are placed on a list and a contractor is employed to do the work, but a contractor will not be called in to refurbish only one house. The local authorities wait until ten or 15 houses become vacant before employing a contractor, which means a house could lie empty for a year or up to two years in some areas. There needs to be a re-examination of that policy. Some might suggest that the old system was wasteful and that it is more efficient to do the work via a contractor, but the length of time houses remain empty dispels that argument. We clearly need to return to a situation where local authorities can employ people directly to do that work. I hope that will be one of the proposals considered in respect of this issue.

The buy and renew scheme, which allows councils to buy old properties and bring them back into use, needs to be rolled out across the board, in particular in our town centres and small urban areas and rural towns. We need to get those types of properties back into use and to get people living in town centres again. That is vital. If the correct funding is put in place for local authorities to do that, it would make a huge difference.

The vacant homes tax is a measure that is required in a lot of areas to try to get properties back into use. People will sit on and do nothing with them, but if they are incentivised to bring them back into use or to move them on or otherwise be hit with a tax bill that would put the pressure on. Everything that can be done to get people homes needs to be done. As we know, thousands of people are coming here from the Ukraine. They are very welcome. People here are trying to accommodate them in their homes and in other houses, some of which are properties that have not been used in the past. There is also a huge problem here with people not being able to afford to buy or rent a home or to find a home in any circumstances. We need to recognise that and ensure that we put every effort into providing houses for our people.

I support the motion. I wish to refer to Question No. 688, which I tabled on 5 April to the Minister for Health, in which I asked him if he would report on the Housing for All plan for an amended fair deal scheme to remove disincentives for sale and rental of vacant properties. The question was answered by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. It states:

My Department is actively collaborating with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and other Departments in the development of a mechanism in relation to the rental of vacant properties "in a way that is targeted, equitable, evidence-based and provides appropriate safeguards for vulnerable older people", as committed to in Housing for All action 19.8. Complex policy questions are currently being resolved in order to meet these criteria and mitigate the high risks and costs associated with unintended consequences, with a view to introducing legislation as soon as possible once this is complete. I expect to be in a position to bring legislation forward in the coming months.

When we receive these replies, we try to dig into the language of what they mean. I take some solace that where the Minister states, "I expect to be in a position to bring legislation forward in the coming months", she means what she says in that regard. There is a legitimate expectation on the part of Members and the public that this legislation would be promulgated as soon as possible for the simple reason that there are so many houses out there that are vacant as a result of people being in nursing homes or participants on an elder care scheme or the nursing homes support scheme. I ask that some urgency be given to that legislation. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, in responding to the motion might give us some sense of a timeline for when that legislation might be brought before us.

The language used in replies to parliamentary questions is sometimes quite dense. As outlined above, the reply states, "Complex policy questions are currently being resolved in order to meet these criteria and mitigate the high risks and costs associated with unintended consequences...". I have a sense of what that might mean, but I would prefer clarity on what exactly it means and on the stumbling blocks to that happening. If that hurdle was jumped and the legislation was brought before us, it would create a supply line of houses for many people. That seems to be low-hanging fruit. Within our constituencies, we all see the evidence of vacant homes as a result of people being in nursing homes through the nursing homes support scheme. If Government could do that one thing as an early win, perhaps before the end of this year, it would release a lot of houses for people to live in. Ultimately, the motion is about getting people into houses.

I agree with the spirit of the motion and the request for urgency. If the sense of urgency that we applied to the Covid response, where we acted collaboratively, was applied to the getting the supply of housing in this country sorted, the Government would find itself pushing an open door. It would take a lot of the political heat and rhetoric out of the issue. It would also take a lot of the personalities and the egos out of it. In terms of some of the egos that have informed this debate, it is a little bit unedifying, especially when we are trying to provide housing for people who genuinely need it. If that same sense of urgency was applied to this issue, the Government would be pushing an open door with many Deputies across the House. If appropriate, I would like a specific response to the query that I have raised in respect of the nursing homes scenario because that has come up time and again in this motion. If is an overarching theme of this motion. If we could get a real response to that, we would be very grateful.

As of November 2020, there were 61,880 households on the social housing waiting lists. Those are the latest figures we have, but there may be updated figures. The Minister of State and I know that much of our work in constituencies is around advocating for people to access local authority housing. There are unintended consequences of being on a list for those in private rented accommodation. More people are coming to us stating that their rental agreements are coming to an end or that their landlord is selling the property. Many accidental landlords are getting out of the market and that is having an untold knock-on effect. It is not just about a lack of housing supply; it is the other stressor that creates within families as a result of not having the security or fixity of tenure that was so often a staple of political discourse in this country long before even this House was established. The idea of fixity of rent and fixity of tenure, security and a roof over one's head are fundamental principles embedded in the Irish psyche.

I do not want to be negative. I am trying to be proactive and progressive in seeking to support the Government when the Government is worthy of support. I sense from the answer I received to my question on the nursing homes support scheme and the already stated policy of seeking to let into the market those houses or to provide a supply of houses, is that urgency is not there and there are too many technocratic and bureaucratic impediments in the way of doing that. I hope those hurdles can be jumped so that we can release this supply of houses. There needs to be greater urgency. Every Deputy and Senator across the political divide is solution-driven and wants to see that supply.

We will do everything we can within our constituencies to facilitate that supply. However, there needs to be a top-down approach. Arguably, the policy is moving too slowly. I say that respectfully. Fine Gael has been in government for quite a long time. The Government of which the Labour Party was a part between 2011 and 2016 did not have money to build houses. We had to make stark choices. At the latter end of 2015 and in 2016, we made moneys available for house building but we have not seen the throughput of supply since 2016. It is high time we built more houses in this country and sorted out this problem. The money is there, as are the willingness and impetus to do the work. We need to see greater Government action.

I thank the Regional Group for bringing forward this motion, which I broadly support. The motion addresses the relevant issue of vacant properties. I will make one comment on the motion that I mean in a constructive sense. The motion proposes a long list of incentives and measures but it omits other measures that we know from international experience are effective in dealing with vacancy, such as a tax on vacant buildings and vacant homes that are not put into use. We also need those sorts of measures.

I am fully aware that many people who own vacant properties do not have the resources, wherewithal or finances to renovate, refurbish and retrofit them and so forth. However, the context is that there are almost 10,000 people living in emergency accommodation. There are 120,000 people on social housing waiting lists and living in insecure housing assisting payment, HAP, tenancies. We cannot tolerate a situation where there are more than 90,000 vacant homes in this country. We must apply a range of measures.

Every building that is built benefits from public investment in infrastructure and a societal investment. Those buildings cannot be left to lie idle. They cannot be wasted, year after year. There should be more supports in place but if people who own vacant properties do not have the means to deal with the issue, the appropriate thing is for them to sell the property in order that it can be put into use. Measures are needed in that regard. We need to disincentivise holding onto vacant buildings.

The GeoDirectory report gives the most up-to-date figures on vacancy. It said that in quarter 2 of 2021, there were 92,135 vacant homes. In addition, there were 22,754 derelict homes and 28,756 vacant commercial buildings. These figures are much lower than those from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, but they are more up to date. It is worth noting that the GeoDirectory figures only consider homes that no longer accept post as being vacant. That is how it defines vacancy. It does not separately count apartments in buildings with fewer than five apartments.

Vacancy, as we all know, is a terrible waste. It sends a terrible message to the thousands of people struggling without a home and to those paying high rents who are struggling to keep a home. Those things have impacts on people's mental health and on communities and their well-being. It is a problem across Ireland. It is a significant problem in rural areas but we also know from the CSO that 64% of vacant homes, according to the 2016 census, were in urban areas. There is a particular problem with vacancy in town centres. The Heritage Council, in its land use survey, found a vacancy rate in Tralee, for example, of 25%. The figure for Tipperary town was 31%. These are shockingly high ground-floor vacancy rates. It is a shocking level of wastage.

Not only do we have a housing crisis, we also have a climate change crisis and we must address both. Addressing vacancy is part of the solution. There is an urgency to this matter. I do not need to tell the Minister of State because he knows that to be the case. We have no time to wait to address the climate change crisis. It is now or never, as was stated by the most recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If we do not take urgent action now, it will be impossible to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C, which will have catastrophic effects. However, we still do not see urgency from the Government to tackle vacancy. We do not see the vacant homes tax that is needed, and which was needed yesterday. We have a housing crisis and a climate crisis. We are wasting these vacant buildings containing embodied carbon and yet this Government is not bringing in a tax on vacant homes. Why not? Where is it? Why has it not been brought in? How can the Government justify not doing so in the face of the climate and housing emergencies?

We know in respect of embodied carbon and the construction industry that 11% of global emissions are associated with upfront embodied CO2 emissions from new construction. That is a significant amount of global emissions. According to the Irish Green Building Council, carbon emissions from the construction process in Ireland account for 11% of our annual carbon emissions. That is a sizeable figure. Some 50 tonnes of carbon emissions can be generated when new homes are built, compared to 15 tonnes when existing homes are refurbished. According to World Habitat, in most houses it can take more than 50 years for operational energy use to balance out the emissions created in their construction. Demolition and construction created 8.8 million tonnes of waste in Ireland in 2019, accounting for 63% of the waste generated, which is a considerable proportion. Only 6.8% was recycled and very little was reused.

We know that the most sustainable building is always an existing building. Despite this, we have no regulations regarding embedded carbon in buildings and no definitive plans in that regard. While the Government is bringing forward a welcome Bill on circularity and reuse, it includes an incredible exemption for construction and demolition waste so it will not be levied if it goes to landfill or incineration. The Minister of State knows we have a climate crisis. How can he justify those measures and their massive impact on the environment? Those measures also impact people who need housing. This is not in any way tolerable.

Excellent work is being done by Ms Jude Sherry and Dr. Frank O'Connor in Anois. Not only are they highlighting vacancy and dereliction but they are also highlighting meanwhile use and what can be done in that regard. They have an excellent report on the topic and I recommend that the Minister of State reads it. In the report, they share good examples of meanwhile use from Amsterdam, Glasgow, Denmark, Italy and other countries, and they outline how important that is to reduce vacancy, to get life back into town centres and to provide space for the arts, culture and communities. They point out, quite correctly, that it was a meanwhile use approach that made Temple Bar take off years ago and put vibrancy back into the area.

We have an issue with ground-floor vacancy in newer developments, those built over the past ten to 15 years. There has been a lack of action in that regard. Those vacant properties need to be brought into meanwhile use to bring life back into those areas. We need to be looking at the good example of Scotland where the town centre empty homes project is a hybrid of grants and loans that brings vacant buildings back into use for affordable housing, either to rent or buy. The incentives around vacancy introduced by this Government are not fully aligned with affordability like they are in Scotland.

We urgently need the vacant homes tax now. We need the Derelict Sites Act and compulsory purchase order powers to be used to their full extent. We also need to bring in measures such as compulsory sales orders and compulsory rental orders in order that all our stock is brought into full use to address our housing crisis.

I thank the Regional Group for bringing forward this motion on an incredibly important subject, that is, the frankly scandalous situation around vacant and derelict properties and vacant sites that could be used to address the severe and disastrous housing and homelessness crisis we are facing. We support the vast majority of measures that the motion proposes. There are a couple of things with which we disagree but we do not always agree on everything.

We usually agree on most things.

We overwhelmingly agree that there needs to be radical new emergency actions to get vacant and derelict properties and vacant sites back into use to address the housing crisis.

The Government has singularly failed in its efforts to do that to date. Now, a crisis that has existed for nearly a decade, which we have not addressed, of housing and homelessness is being compounded by our need to show solidarity with people fleeing the bloody war in Ukraine, which we absolutely must do. Now has to be the moment to do things that are unprecedented. Those measures have to solve the accommodation crisis, both for those affected by the ongoing housing emergency and homelessness crisis and the people fleeing Ukraine. Unless we address the issue of vacant and derelict property in a seriously radical way, we are not going to be able to do that in the necessary timeframe.

It is important for us to remember the human side of this and why it is so urgent. This is an email I got in the last couple of days but I could read out dozens and dozens just from the last week or two. It states:

I am a public servant in the HSE. I ended up homeless, sleeping in my car. I got zero help from my county council. [I will not name the council or the employer so we do not identify the worker but it was a rural county council.] None. What happened to make me homeless was I had two deaths in my family. I left the family home and ended up paying all my wages for a while in a hotel and getting loans to stay in hotels. I ended up in severe money debt and had to sleep in my car. Not one ounce of help from the council. They knew I was sleeping in my car. I was going to work. I begged the council to help me. Nothing. I begged them to pay some for the hotel. I did not even get a reply to that. It is disgusting what is going on here. I am now living in a shed with no washing machine or cooker. It is damp, with rodents. I am public servant in the HSE so God help anybody who has no job.

This week, I am dealing with the case of another healthcare worker who works in a Dublin hospital. His wife cries to me on the phone as she sits in a park with her three kids while her husband is doing 12-hour shifts in a Dublin hospital, where he has worked throughout Covid. There is nothing for them. Their kids go to school in Shankill and Ballybrack and they were told to go to a place in Kilmainham, on the South Circular Road. That is all that was available to them. A council worker in my area is sleeping in his car. Another family are sleeping in a shed in a relative's back garden. I could go on.

Simultaneously, as I have been highlighting for the last four years, right across from my office there are 15 empty apartments in the hands of a vulture fund, which is trying to evict the five remaining tenants. They have been empty for two years. That is allowed to happen. I have told three or four Governments, at this stage, that we need to do something about this. The State should have the power to take those apartments and house the people who need them. A few years ago we highlighted a derelict site at the end of York Road, near Dún Laoghaire. It has been sitting there for years, derelict. Dozens of houses could be put on it. The owners now owe €140,000. That is only because we highlighted it and it was put on the vacant sites register. They owe €140,000, which they have not paid. The amount that has been paid for the 91,000 vacant sites all across the country is pitiful. We are not collecting this money. Recently, because we highlighted this, the owners of the site fixed the place up a bit and put in for planning permission. However, we discovered the company that owns it is registered in the Caribbean. They are only fixing it up and applying for planning permission in order to stave off action over its dereliction. This stuff is going on everywhere. Our main street in Dún Laoghaire is littered with empty buildings. Some are in private hands and some are in public hands. There is a place called Kelly's Hotel on George's Place in Dún Laoghaire which, just as it sounds like, used to be a hotel. It is owned by the council and has been sitting there for as long as I can remember - a decade, at least. We need a women's refuge. We need places for the homeless families in sheds and those being sent to the other side of the city and it is sitting there empty in public hands. I could go on.

This has to stop. This is the moment to take emergency measures, and that means short-circuiting property rights. Let us call a spade a spade. This cannot be allowed to stand. We do not even need a referendum to make this happen because the Constitution allows for the common good to override property rights and the common good is clearly served by ending the utter scandal of workers and families and kids in sheds, sleeping in cars, or being sent to emergency accommodation on the other side of the city where they could not possibly hope to get their kids to school in the morning. We passed a referendum on children's rights and we are doing this to kids. More than 2,000 kids are homeless, and the number is rising again. Their rights surely override the rights of speculators to sit on empty property, or vulture funds in the case of St. Helen's Court, or the rights of owners of derelict buildings. Dunnes Stores owns a site right in the middle of Dún Laoghaire that has been derelict for years. It is an absolute scandal. We need action. The State should be able to say to the owners of these sites that if they do not have a good excuse for something being derelict or vacant for more than six months, it will take it off them. It can then refurbish them and put people who need housing and have a right to it, whose rights are being abused and breached by not being provided with as basic a thing as a secure roof over their heads, into those properties. I do not know how any people can call themselves a government if they cannot do that for people when the physical properties and sites are there. We do not even count the derelict ones. In the census currently being conducted, and in the previous one, we did not even count the derelict sites. We need teams to be sent out from every local authority across the country to count these sites. We must insist they are brought back into use regardless of the impact on the property owners.

The number of vacant dwellings in Ireland stood at 90,158 last year, according to the residential building report. The housing situation in Ireland has been at crisis point for too many years. We need a different plan and a different strategy that actually works. Every single day, my office is blinded by the number of people being made homeless and the number living in squalor. My clinics, which are held on every Friday and Saturday, are bombarded with people looking for homes. I sometimes have up to 50 house queries a week, many of them from people facing homelessness.

There are also huge difficulties when people build on a greenfield site. I know a young family in west Cork with a very sick child. They have moved into their lovely new home but are waiting since last December for a postcode. Such codology. They cannot get a phone or broadband because they have not got a postcode. Imagine moving into a new home and waiting months for that. They are now being told it could be May before they get a postcode. In the name of God, anyone can go on Google Maps, get the co-ordinates, put them into a computer and send out the Eircode postcode. It should be given automatically once planning is granted. The fact that this is stopping people getting a phone connection is beyond a farce.

That is only the start of the problems with planning. People are being turned down left, right and centre for the most ridiculous reasons. I do not have time to go through them all but sometimes I think there is a negative mindset among the authorities, totally opposed to giving a start to any young person who applies for planning permission in rural Ireland. I went out to see a site in west Cork last weekend that was going to be refused planning permission. The application was withdrawn before it was refused. One of the reports said it only had 170 m viewing left and right. I walked 250 m both sides and there was still another 150 m so I do not know what is going on with the planning authority making a decision like that. This was a young man trying to get his life up and running and he cannot do that. The irony of it is that it is affecting the people who have moved to rural Ireland to revive the communities there.

I sincerely thank the Regional Group for this excellent motion. The simple fact is that this problem is becoming more and more serious as the days and weeks go by. Of course, the Ukrainian people are most welcome here in their time of need but this compounds the problems and difficulties we have in trying to take care of and cater for everybody. I really believe there is one thing we have to do.

Every town in every county had small building contractors and bigger contractors in recent decades. Now we are living in a society where, if a politician, including a Minister, was seen to be talking to "contractors" it would be outrageous and people would be questioning it. Of course we should be talking to them and we should all be standing up here on a Tuesday talking about how we met developers and contractors, be they big, small or medium-sized, who are looking to build homes. These people provide local employment and they will start providing us with much-needed housing. The whole system seems to be that if you are labelled as a builder or contractor that is something bad. It is not bad. Bad things happened over the decades but that was not everybody. The vast majority of building contractors in Ireland were fine and respectable people in our communities. Unfortunately they are gone now and they cannot get access to money to build houses. They cannot get planning permission to build houses or zoned land to build them on. These are the difficulties we have to get around and we have to shake off the idea that politicians cannot work with builders. Of course we can and of course we should.

I also want to thank the Regional Group for bringing forward this timely and long overdue debate. We are talking about different incentives to take over shops and return them to high-street trading. Tipperary town was mentioned earlier and every town and village is suffering from a lack of regeneration. Two things will happen if we get a shop that has been closed for years opened or get people living in it. We will get a living town back and footfall will be brought to the shops that are trying to survive there. I hear people on the left talking about this rule and that rule and about a right to a home. There is a right to a home but we cannot seize people's property. We complain about what is going on in Russia and different places but we must make haste slowly and do the things we can do.

We must stop the blockages in planning. A huge issue is that An Bord Pleanála has no statutory requirement for when a case might be assessed and the Minister of State must address this. It gives a date at first but once that date has been passed, there is no statutory obligation for when it must make a decision. I have a number of cases in my county that are waiting on An Bord Pleanála and there is a huge backlog.

Ní neart go cur le chéile and we must work on this together. We must stop this knee-jerk reaction whereby people think they can take over someone's home and decide that because it is a constitutional right we can do a bypass and not have a referendum on this. People worked hard to build, buy and achieve their houses. We need more houses built but then the same people are objecting to houses being built as well. They want jam on both sides of their bread. We must have a meaningful and worthwhile debate on this and cut out the blockages. We should allow people in the country to build if they have the wherewithal and the site to do so and if they are able to get a loan or get funding or if they have their own funds because the banks are not helping. There are a lot of blockages but a lot of hot air is being spoken here as well.

I have been a building contractor all of my life and I have always been in the buildings, which has given me the life I have had, working with others to build homes for people for the future. When I was in the county council I saw first-hand how the Government put in regulation after regulation to stop people building houses in rural areas. The charge for any house built in rural areas outside the towns and villages is worked out by square foot. Down at the bottom of that price is stated what one is paying for, including the local library, the footpaths, roads and lighting, none of which apply to a person living in a rural area. That is still included to show what is being paid for. The minimum cost for building a house in a rural area in planning permission fees is about €5,000 for an average-sized house. That money is going to the Government for footpaths, lights and libraries. The Government has closed down all those amenities and taken them away from us but it is charging us for them in local authority fees. How laughable is that? The Government is talking about building houses. These are the people who are not putting their names on the housing lists; these are people who want to build their own houses, put in septic tanks on their land and build with their own money that they will borrow up to the hilt for. All the Government can do is put figures in front of them to prevent them from building houses for themselves. These are the houses the Government cannot supply. What does the Government do? It taxes us out of existence and finds another way to put another charge on the people of this country and it gives us nothing in return.

On a point of order, I want to apologise. At the beginning I should have declared an interest in this issue. I should have done that before I spoke so I am sorry for that. I want to correct that.

I forgive the Deputy.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I have long been speaking about the devastating effects of dereliction and vacant housing on our towns and cities and the potential they hold in addressing the devastating housing crisis in this country. I have, in the past, called for a public housing programme led by local authorities, with a view to addressing dereliction and vacant housing, and I wish to call for this again. In my constituency of Donegal, 7,700 houses are vacant. That is about 10% of the overall housing stock in the county, which is a shocking percentage. At the same time, there are 2,646 families on the housing list in the county. If we were to truly and properly invest in vacant housing we would be able to house those families almost three times over. It seems like the most logical solution to the problem, yet this Government fails to take necessary action on it. Instead it does nothing to address the long housing lists or to address the fact that both the housing and rental markets have spiralled completely out of control. It will also do nothing about the fact that as of February of this year, 2,667 children in this country were in emergency accommodation. This is something that should cause us great shame and that should drive us to immediate action. It should not paralyse us into complete inaction and uselessness, which seems to be the effect it has had on the three Government parties

. Something needs to change. We need to move away from failed Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil housing policies. A new approach is needed fast. We need the introduction of at least a 10% tax on vacant and derelict properties and the Derelict Sites Act 1990 should be used properly to activate vacant or unused sites around the country. One of the problems is that most property owned in towns and villages around the country is owned by people with no tax liabilities. There is a constant focus on tax breaks in order to encourage the development of these properties but this completely fails because they are all owned by elderly people who do not have a tax liability and who will not benefit from them in the first place. The derelict sites levy and the Derelict Sites Act 1990 are woefully underused and have clearly not been effective.

At the beginning of the year it was revealed that almost €20 million in vacant and derelict site levies owed to Dublin City Council remained outstanding. This is an incredible amount and it demonstrates the amount owed in Dublin alone. Can the Minister of State imagine how much would be owed nationwide? This is especially because the total number of vacant properties in the northern and western region amounted to more than 44,000 properties, with an incredible 72% of towns and villages in this region recording a residential vacancy rate above the national average. In County Donegal in 2020, Bundoran, Ballybofey, Stranorlar, Donegal town, Glenties, Killybegs and Letterkenny all recorded above-average residential vacancy and dereliction rates, with a total of 366 residential dwellings classified as either vacant or derelict in Letterkenny alone.

This just shows how ineffective the Derelict Sites Act 1990 and the derelict sites levy have been and far more needs to be done to address this. In the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage’s Housing for All plan, there were suggestions that there may be a vacant property tax in the future. This housing crisis cannot wait. We cannot continue to kick the can down the road in the hope that one day, things will get better when we have been given every indication that things will only get worse. It is time to take decisive action on this untapped supply of housing. Drastic measures are needed. The Government’s wishy-washy Housing for All promises are not enough. A vacant property tax must be introduced and must include all property, including commercial property. As Dr. Rory Hearne has stated:

Policy half-measures will not suffice ... Owners of derelict and vacant property can no longer be allowed to leave it unused. Use it, or lose it.

That is his mantra. Once again the public seem to be far ahead of the Government on this one. It is time that their calls were listened to and that the hidden dereliction crisis is addressed. We can no longer justify such high levels of homelessness and hidden homelessness while thousands of houses lie empty.

I thank the Regional Group for bringing forward this well-thought-out and comprehensive motion, which outlines a series of proposals to utilise the many vacant and derelict properties throughout the country.

In my opinion, the proposals outlined here are reasonable, practical and could be implemented in a timely manner. I believe the Government will not oppose this motion, but as so many Deputies have said, we need urgent action. We are all aware of the extent of the housing crisis. While the Government tells us about its Housing for All plan and how it is being rolled out, people are at the end of their tether. There is huge pressure to find a place to live, to rent or to buy. It is crisis across the entire country. We need other actions parallel to Housing for All that can be implemented immediately and that will deliver accommodation in the short and medium term. I strongly support the proposal to introduce 0% long-term loans for retrofitting homes. The proposal that repayments be made through utility companies based on energy savings, to include microgeneration technologies, is good and should be investigated.

As I said, this motion is comprehensive and encompasses the fact that the homes that we renovate, build, supply and so on should be fully retrofitted. While retrofitting grants are available for some homeowners, many will still have to take out loans to retrofit their homes. That can be a significant cost at the best of times, but since it is highly likely that interest rates will rise, that will deter people from borrowing to retrofit. Energy-saving homes are an essential component in cutting our emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels. They are a necessity, not a luxury. Innovative proposals such as interest free loans should be given full consideration by the relevant Ministers and action should be taken on foot of that. The idea of taking credit unions on board to deliver these interest-free loans should be examined, because we know credit unions have money to lend and want to play their part in assisting people to either build, renovate or retrofit their homes.

As the Minister of State knows, the Northern and Western Regional Assembly published a regional vacancy and dereliction analysis in January this year. It is a valuable resource for policy development, since it gives the baseline figures. We know where the vacant and derelict properties are. This facilitates planning at local and regional level. The national vacancy and dereliction rate for residential properties in 2020 was 4.9% in Ireland. It is 10% in County Sligo, 14% in Roscommon, 10% in Donegal and 16% in Leitrim. The renovation of derelict and vacant homes has huge potential to reinvigorate and renew many of the towns and villages across the north west. It would bring them back to life.

If the Minister of State implemented some of the recommendations in this motion, it would be a game changer for many towns in my constituency, especially those towns with residential vacancy rates at or above 10%, including Bundoran, Ballyshannon, Ballinamore, Dromahair, Drumshanbo, Mohill, Ballysadare, Ballymote and Boyle.

I call the Minister of State.

This motion contains some good proposals. Will the Minister of State please tell us he will take some on board?

I will try to respond to some of the points raised. I agree with Deputy Berry about the Curragh camp. I have written to the Minister for Defence on this. As a demonstration project, it could deliver sustainable housing for the Curragh, and the plans are important. Deputy Chris Andrews and I have spoken before about the redevelopment of the Dublin city flats, which are important from the point of view of housing and heritage, and should be repurposed. Deputy Kenny raised Housing for All and a number of members raised the retrofit programme. It is the most ambitious retrofit programme in the history of the State and Housing for All is the most ambitious housing programme. Specifically on the question raised by Deputy Sherlock about the fair deal scheme, the Minister for Health will introduce legislation to reform and to remove the disincentives to renting those properties in the second quarter of this year.

Deputy O'Callaghan raised some interesting points about town centres, the Heritage Council and the collaborative town centre health check, which I think is a vital component of gathering data to see what we need, where empty properties are, and how they could be repurposed. He mentioned Tipperary town and Tralee, both of which have gone through collaborative town centre health check programmes. Climate resilience and walkable, cycleable town centres are what we are trying to receive. This is not just housing policy in isolation or policy about vacancies in isolation, but is about creating liveable urban centres. The issue of the Irish Green Building Council and the use of GGBS cement will be included in a green procurement policy and brought forward by Government. A number of Members have referred to the housing crisis and to Ukraine. The Government is committed to addressing it all. It is challenging and we have hit the ground running in trying to address them.

A number of Members have raised the issue of living above shops. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has brought in measures related to that. Many of these premises will not go back into retail use and should be considered for bringing into full occupancy. We should consider that for our town centres. There were references to construction workers, builders and tradespeople, which need to be addressed. Regarding rural housing, clustered housing and constructed wetlands should be considered to deal with water and wastewater infrastructure.

I thank Members for their contributions. As the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, stated at the outset, to give the issue the attention it deserves would take more time than is available to us this evening, so actions will have to speak louder than words. I welcome the opportunity this has given Deputies to discuss a sustainable housing market and the significant contribution that recovering vacant and derelict properties makes to underpinning a sustainable housing market. The high cost and affordability of housing, and the challenges it presents for people and families including the wider economy is fully acknowledged by Government. That is why we developed and published Housing for All, the Government's housing plan for Ireland, which is a radical one that sets out four pathways to a sustainable housing system. I remain convinced that Housing for All provides the firm pathways for transforming Ireland’s housing delivery.

This Government believes that everybody should have access to good quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard, and located close to essential services, offering a high quality of life. The programme for Government, Our Shared Future, has been given impetus by the clear plan of action under Housing for All. Supply pipeline indicators, including commencements, are strong and give confidence that the overall targets for delivery of homes will be met and likely exceeded. There were 20,433 new home completions in 2021, despite the Covid restrictions imposed on the sector in the early part of the year. Commencement notices for almost 4,200 new homes have been received in the first two months of 2022. In the 12 months to February 2022, commencement notices for 33,006 new homes were received. This is the highest rolling 12-month total since comparable data was first published.

The number of homes granted planning permission in 2021 was 42,991, representing a fourfold increase on 2011 and indicating a strong housing supply pipeline. There are also positive developments on the capacity of the sector to deliver the targets set out in Housing for All. Employment in the sector is very close to pre-pandemic levels, construction apprenticeship registrations are increasing, and the future building initiative to address construction sector capacity issues by matching vacancies to jobseekers, as well as an international recruitment campaign, in conjunction with industry, is under way.

The Government is mindful that it is clear that there are challenges ahead, with the war in Ukraine leading to a number of risks. It has led to significant inflationary pressures, supply chain disruption and instability, all of which pose challenges in delivering the plan. In addition, our commitment to welcome those fleeing Ukraine leads to an immediate need for accommodation and a longer-term requirement for additional housing. Against this backdrop, the delivery of Housing for All at scale and pace is now more important than ever.

As already discussed, many areas of cities and towns and villages of all sizes face the blight of vacant properties, which, if brought back into use, could add real vibrancy to towns of all sizes around the country, and new accommodation in both urban and rural areas. There is a real opportunity to increase residential development in cities and town centres, with a consequent emphasis on amenities and quality of life. We are ensuring the houses we already have are being fully used at a time of such high housing need.

The Government does not want to see habitable properties lying idle while people are homeless or living in unsuitable accommodation. There has been good progress on a number of fronts in advancing actions in this pathway, particularly with the launch of the town centre first, TCF, policy in February, which provides a co-ordinated whole-of-government policy framework to proactively address the decline in the health of towns across Ireland and to support measures to regenerate and revitalise them. Under the TCF approach, there will be a preparation of town centre plans to identify challenges, actions and integrated responses across a number of themes, including business, commercial, community, cultural, housing, built environment and heritage. The plans will be action- and project-oriented in nature and will assist towns in accessing a range of future funding programmes available for urban regeneration across a number of Departments and Government agencies.

Town regeneration officers will lead dedicated town centre first implementation at local level, including support local town teams in the preparation of the TCF plan, assisted by the wider local authority. The Department of Rural and Community Development has provided funding of €2 million for this purpose. In addition, a national town centre first office will be established shortly within the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, to drive TCF actions and co-ordinate stakeholder engagement at national level and across the local government sector. This will include the collaborative town centre health checks that I have referenced, which will be critically important in gathering that data and building capacity within the town teams. A national oversight and advisory group, which is composed of representation from local government and Government Departments, agencies and wider expert representation will also link with town teams to provide feedback loop on the progression of the overall programme. A number of pathfinder towns will be identified nationally to act as priority demonstrators of the TCF approach. They will be assisted by the TCF national office.

The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, highlighted the broad suite of measures in Housing for All aimed at addressing vacancy in a co-ordinated, robust manner. It is also important to draw attention to other crucial initiatives in tackling vacancy under Housing For All, namely, the repair-and-leasing scheme and the buy-and-renew scheme, which work in tandem. In addition to providing social housing, the schemes involve additional benefits in terms of regeneration, employment and investment in local areas.

The repair and leasing scheme assists private property owners, local authorities and approved housing bodies in utilising existing vacant housing stock throughout the country for social housing. The scheme provides upfront funding for any works necessary to bring the property up to a required standard. In return, the property owner agrees to leasing the dwelling to the local authority to be used for social housing for a period of five to 25 years. The cost of the repairs is to be repaid by the property owner by offsetting it against rent. Funding under the repair and leasing scheme is targeted at owners of vacant properties who cannot afford or access funding that is needed to bring the properties up to a required standard for rental property. The maximum cost of repairs allowable under the scheme is €60,000, which was increased from €40,000 in November 2020. A total of 279 units have been brought into use under the repair and leasing scheme from 2017 to 2021. The 2022 allocation is €12 million for the repair and leasing scheme.

In a situation where leasing is not an option that the homeowner is willing to pursue, the buy-and-renew scheme supports local authorities to purchase, acquire, remediate or renew vacant properties that are in need of repair and to make them available for social housing use. Consequently, the scheme is particularly focused on older vacant homes to help tackle the problem of dereliction and to improve the appearance of the built environment in the community. Some 735 homes have been delivered through this scheme for social housing purposes since its introduction in 2016.

I again thank all the Deputies for their contributions. This has been a worthwhile debate. I reiterate the Government’s commitment to tackling the issue of vacancy through Housing for All and the other measures I have outlined.

We will go back to the Regional Group and an Teachta Denis Naughten to conclude.

I thank Deputies on all sides for their contributions and for their support for the principles behind this motion. In particular, I thank Ms Cáit Nic Amhlaoibh, who assisted us with the drafting of the motion and the research relating to it.

There is something fundamentally wrong in a country that is in the middle of a housing crisis - which has got far worse in recent weeks - and in which there are 90,000 vacant homes. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly has identified 44,905 residential and commercial premises that are empty in the five Connacht counties and the three Border counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. This is one third higher than Ireland's total national annual housing requirement of 33,000 homes. There are whole streets in our towns and villages that have not had a football kicked in them for a generation. Some 40% of the vacant homes in the country are located in these eight counties. Many of them are vacant family homes, are close to schools and services and have 1,000 Mbps high-speed broadband outside the front door. The housing crisis is not just about the lack of houses; it is about the failure to have empty homes occupied by families, especially those in our towns and villages. In fact, if these homes were occupied, it would have an immediate dividend to the State, to rural Ireland and to homeless families. Frustratingly, I have been making this point for years. Thankfully, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has listened to the arguments that I put forward and the Government has taken my suggestions on board.

An entire section of the Housing for All strategy is focused on how we can bring families back into empty houses. However, the strategy was published last September and we are still waiting for its implementation. The Minister of State pointed out that the TCF strategy is going to help to develop this. However, there is no point me going to my clinic on Friday morning and talking to a family who have become homeless again and telling them that the Government has another plan, namely, the TCF plan. Plans are no good. We need to see action.

I will give a practical example. In County Roscommon, we have the perverse situation whereby we have a vacancy rate of 14%. There are 4,090 vacant homes in County Roscommon. There are just 12 homes for rent and 334 for sale. As a result, we have a housing crisis in the county. We have had families living in emergency accommodation because there is no door that they can go into. Yet, we have over 4,000 vacant homes in our county. Local auctioneers have waiting lists for people for rental accommodation or for those who want to buy houses in Roscommon. In east Galway, the situation is even worse because the demand is much higher and because our local villages there do not even have wastewater facilities.

The Minister of State is talking about using wetlands to deal with wastewater. We have wet streets because the raw sewage is flowing down some of the streets in east Galway at the moment and that is the situation that we are dealing with on the ground. We need to bring vacant and derelict properties back into the housing stock. This needs to happen immediately because it is an untapped supply of housing. It is there to be retrofitted and it is there to be refurbished. In many instances, the owners need innovative supports to take on these projects.

We have proposed in this motion that the help-to-buy scheme would make available €30,000 to help with the refurbishment of some of these empty homes. The Government is paying, on average, €31,000 to provide a serviced site here in Dublin, to develop privately owned land to ensure that it is opened up for development. This is a worthy initiative but if we are prepared to pay €31,000 to try to develop land in Dublin, why would we not pay something to open up derelict houses across rural Ireland?

The Minister mentioned the local authority repair-and-leasing scheme. That scheme is worthless in our part of the country. I say this because you have to have a social housing test under the scheme. There has to be a demand for social housing in the particular area before the local authority can use that scheme. The reality is that we have a housing crisis across the country. We have 44,000 houses in my neck of the woods and they are not going in under the repair and leasing scheme because there are not people in the village of Ahascragh looking for housing at the moment, or in the village of Caltra or in Ballintober. Yet, we have vacant houses there. We have people who are prepared to go in under that scheme. We need to have more flexibility in relation to it. If someone on the social housing list does not want to go into those villages, I can guarantee that there are many families here in Dublin who would be quite willing to relocate to rural Ireland if they were to be guaranteed a fixed rental charge for the next five years in the relevant community. This would release a house that can provide social housing for a family here in Dublin.

We need innovative thinking rather than the current rules and regulations that are in place. We also need to look at clustered housing, particularly for older people. Many older people are living in houses that are totally inappropriate for them in terms of the bedrooms and bathrooms located upstairs. They would like to be able to move into locations closer to town centres where they could have access to facilities. We need to provide high-quality, specialist, age-appropriate housing for older people close to existing communities and promote vibrant retirement within those communities in order that older people can enjoy healthier and longer active retirements. One thing critical to that is security of tenure. The Government is not going to get an older person to sell his or her family home and move into long-term rental accommodation unless that person knows he or she can actually afford it and that the rent will not be hiked up, as has happened in many of those facilities throughout the country in recent years. There is a responsibility on the Government to provide clarity for people in respect of that matter.

It is not just older people, however. We need to do this right across our housing stock. This is not a problem that is unique or new to Ireland. In fact, as the Ceann Comhairle will know, we had very same problem in the 1990s in terms of agricultural land. Back then, all of our land was leased on an 11-month basis. Today, approximately half of all leases relating to agricultural land are for durations of more than five years. Some of them are for up to 15 years. In agriculture, the taxation system has been reformed to incentivise long-term leasing of land for the public good. Now surely, if we can accommodate cattle, we must be able in a housing emergency to accommodate children under a similar scheme by actually providing security of tenure in terms of housing right across the country. I am not talking about giving an incentive to big landlords. They are doing very well with the current incentives. I am talking about accidental landlords with one or two houses who could lease out a house to a family for a five-, ten- or 15-year period. There would be an in-built incentive for the landlord because he or she is guaranteed income coming in over that period and it provides security of tenure for families.

The single biggest problem I have in my constituency with homelessness is people being made homeless because of an eviction notice being issued to them. Now, if there are 12 houses in County Roscommon when there are 4,000 vacant homes in the county, surely, there is something fundamentally wrong with our housing system. There is something fundamentally wrong when I have people in emergency accommodation in my county because there is no rental accommodation available. If we could provide security of tenure, it might act as an incentive for some of these houses to be opened up again. It might act as an incentive for some of the accidental landlords not to sell that property, enter into a long-term lease and provide security to those particular families.

We are also calling on the Government to implement a 0% long-term loan scheme for retrofitting homes and domestic microgeneration. These loans would be paid back through the savings made on people's energy bills. Rebuilding Ireland has failed to meet the annual target it set and is now running 41,000 units below its overall goal. The Government needs to think creatively on innovative ways to provide homes. It is now time to make use of our existing housing stock and resources and provide roofs for homeless families right across this country.

Amendment agreed to.
Motion, as amended, agreed to.

I congratulate Deputies on that work.

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