I spent more than 13 years in this House as a Senator and am delighted to return today as Minister of State with responsibility for housing to initiate the passage of this important legislation.
Housing is an issue that affects everyone. In these turbulent days, we are all too familiar with the issues arising in the housing sector both in this country and abroad and are also aware of the human dimension of the steep downturn we are experiencing. This places a spotlight on our public policy and finances. Are we getting value for money from our investment? Are we efficient and effective? Most importantly, are we protecting the more vulnerable sections of our society?
Housing means providing homes for people. This is a basic human necessity and the Government has a responsibility to help those who cannot afford to provide a home for themselves. The priority afforded by the Government to housing was clearly articulated in a number of important strategic documents, including Towards 2016, the National Development Plan 2007-2013 and the Government's statement on housing policy, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, published in February 2007. We have made progress in implementing the commitments contained in these strategies and increased investment by Government has allowed for expansion and diversification in housing support. It is expected that investment of about €2.5 billion in social and affordable housing in 2008 will meet the needs of 20,000 households.
It is important we have the appropriate legislative framework for planning and delivering housing in a way that can adapt to changing environments and meet the needs of individuals and the community. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 provides the platform for a more efficient and effective housing service. It gives effect to the programme of housing reform measures outlined in the Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities policy document.
The current body of legislation on housing dates back more than 40 years and has developed on a piecemeal basis. This Bill will provide greater clarity and transparency to underpin the housing service of the future. This service will not only be more responsive to the household and recognise that its accommodation needs must be addressed in a flexible manner as its needs change over its life cycle, but will also be cognisant of the need to build and maintain sustainable communities. The Bill will establish a modern system of governance for social housing and will provide legislative backing for new and innovative schemes and existing operational mechanisms.
Assessing individual housing needs in a community setting means that there is a critical local dimension to the delivery of housing services. The Bill reflects the Government's ambition to strengthen local democracy by reinforcing the role of elected members. In this way full account will be taken of national policy while responding to the particular needs of members' areas. To ensure national policies are reflected in the exercise of statutory functions at local level, powers for the Minister to issue directions and guidance are now provided for in this Bill.
The Bill is set out in four Parts with 43 sections and three Schedules. I will refer in some detail to the main provisions. Part 2 concerns the functions of housing authorities. With the exercise of any function, it is crucial that the structures and administrative tools are in place to guide strategic and operational activities. Part 2 of the Bill outlines, in a transparent manner, the range of functions of housing authorities. The Bill does not alter the basic distribution of housing functions across the different levels of local government reflected in the current legislative code, but it does provide for better planning and integration of services by providing for housing services plans which take a broader strategic perspective at county and city level.
The Bill makes it clear that the key function of housing authorities is to provide a housing service. As section 10 outlines, this service comprises a range of different housing supports, including social housing support, affordable housing and other services with which Members are familiar. Other housing services such as management and maintenance and regeneration are also reflected in the section 10 definition.
Sections 12 and 13 deal with funding issues. Section 10 replaces section 15 of the Housing Act 1988 and lists the various types of support for which grants or subsidies may be provided from the Exchequer. Section 13 deals with resources available to local authorities from sales or clawbacks and provides that these should be placed in a single fund to be used for housing purposes with the prior approval of the Minister.
I refer to housing services plans. Sections 14 to 18 are at the core of strategic planning and operational delivery of housing services. They deal with the making, by local authority members, of housing services plans and with the preparation by managers of housing action programmes to implement such plans. The housing services plans will provide a strategic focus for the planning of housing services, including delivery and ongoing management. The plans build on multi-annual housing action plans that were introduced on an administrative basis in 2004. These proved to be a useful tool for the integrated planning of services and placing them on a statutory footing will provide the necessary framework for engagement with the elected members and a link to work undertaken in preparing housing strategies in the context of development plans.
Under section 14, elected members are obliged to make a housing services plan not later than six months after the current development plan is made and section 15 sets out the matters to be taken into account including the development plan, the demand for social and affordable housing and the need to deliver housing in a way that supports sustainable communities. Section 17 provides for a variation of the plan to be initiated by the manager or the Minister.
Section 18 provides for the making of housing action programmes. The programmes in effect will be the delivery mechanisms for the plans and will be prepared by the manager. It is envisaged that the housing services plans will contain high-level goals and objectives, while precise annual targets for programmes will be set out in the housing actions programmes, which probably will be of a three-year duration. This will allow for appropriate planning of projects and for adjustment to take account of changing needs and resources.
I will turn to social housing support. Chapter 3 of Part 2 of the Bill deals with providing social housing support, which is a crucial component of the broader housing service remit of authorities. It provides the necessary legislative underpinning to the philosophy set out in Towards 2016 and Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities that housing support should be tailored to individual needs as they evolve over their lifecycle and that the delivery of such support must take account of the broader sustainable communities agenda.
Section 19 updates and replaces section 56(1) of the 1966 Act and gives powers to housing authorities to purchase, build, lease etc. dwellings or sites and enter public private partnerships for the purpose of providing social housing support through a variety of methods. In providing such accommodation, section 19(4) obliges local authorities to have regard to their housing services plans, as well as to ensure that they provide a mixture of house types to meet the needs of a range of different household types and to counteract undue social segregation.
As for addressing social housing needs, an objective and consistent assessment of individual housing needs is the key to providing social housing supports. This is essential for determining a household's priority relative to the needs of other households and to identify the appropriate supports. Section 20 is the basis for the new assessment of need and provides regulatory powers to set eligibility criteria, classify need and determine the form of this assessment. Section 21 allows for the individual assessments to be summarised in a prescribed form for a variety of purposes, including the making of a housing services plan under section 16. This will replace the current triennial assessment of need provided for in the Housing Act 1988, and will provide for a clearer and more timely picture of the scale and nature of housing need in each local authority area and nationwide.
The next step in the process is to link needs, as assessed in accordance with section 20, to the allocation of resources. Section 22 replaces section 11 of the Housing Act 1988 and provides housing authorities with a new approach to allocating dwellings. The new system is an attempt to improve consistency and transparency in decision making, to provide a better fit between needs and resources and to respond, as far as possible, to the expressed preferences of individual households. Under the new approach, each authority will adopt a new allocation scheme, which will allow for local discretion within the national framework. In this way, it is hoped to strengthen the link between local needs and the subsequent provision of resources and ensure consistency in the way in which applicants for social housing are prioritised.
Chapter 4 deals with the rental accommodation scheme, which is more commonly known as RAS. As Members are aware, RAS was introduced in 2005 and aimed to provide a new housing option for those in receipt of social welfare rent supplement with a long-term housing need. Building on the experience of the scheme to date, sections 23 to 27 of the Bill provide a comprehensive statutory framework for RAS in order that it forms part of an integrated suite of social housing options. Section 24 contains the power for a housing authority to enter into a rental accommodation availability agreement. Under this agreement, the provider makes the accommodation available for a period either for a sitting tenant or for any tenants allocated to the property by the housing authority. There are certain requirements to be met by the provider before entering into an agreement under section 24(2) and the terms and conditions associated with that agreement are set out in section 24(4).
Section 25 deals with the tenancy agreement to be known as a chapter 4 tenancy agreement between the person making the dwelling available and the tenant. It outlines what should be in the agreement and importantly, in section 25(5), sets out additional obligations to those under the Residential Tenancies Act. These include payment of a rent contribution to the housing authority and provisions regarding tenancy termination under the Residential Tenancies Act. Any breaches of these obligations can give rise to terminations. The Bill will, therefore, provide a more developed statutory base for RAS in order that it can continue to evolve and play an important role in broadening the range and choice of social housing options.
I now will turn to the management of social housing. Sections 28 to 34 also form part of the social housing governance regime dealing with local authority responsibilities in respect of housing stock, including tenancy agreements, rent schemes and a new requirement to adopt anti-social behaviour strategies. I wish to draw attention to some of these provisions. Section 31 provides for an authority to make a rent scheme setting out the manner in which it will determine rents taking account of national parameters set out in regulations. It is important to point out that the provisions do not alter the basic concept of differential rent, where rents are income-related with provision for the temporary waiving of rent in cases of financial hardship.
Section 34 requires each housing authority, by reserved function, to adopt an anti-social behaviour strategy for the prevention and reduction of anti-social behaviour in its housing stock. I suspect few Members of this House or of society generally have not experienced, directly or indirectly, some form of anti-social behaviour. Anti-social behaviour disrupts the lives of householders and has the potential to destabilise communities. It is important that we make progress in this regard and local authorities, as landlords of 110,000 dwellings, have a duty to secure and protect the interests of their tenants by abating and preventing such behaviour in their estates. Section 34, therefore, specifies the principal objectives of a strategy, notably the promotion of co-operation with other agencies, including the Garda Síochána. This is crucial as local authorities alone cannot be expected to provide comprehensive solutions to anti-social behaviour issues in their estates. It also outlines the matters that may be dealt with in a strategy and sets out the bodies that must be consulted in drawing up a strategy.
The Bill also amends the definition of anti-social behaviour in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1997. Part 5 of Schedule 2 effects the amendment to extend the definition to include damage to property and graffiti and significant impairment of the use or enjoyment of a person's home.
I will turn now to one of the more innovative measures contained in the Bill. Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities made a commitment to respond to the home ownership aspirations of those who face difficulty in purchasing homes on the open market or through the affordable housing schemes by providing paths to home ownership which are additional to social housing. The incremental purchase scheme, for which provision is made in sections 35 to 40, is one such path.
The scheme involves transferring full title to the new house to the household on the payment to the housing authority or approved body as appropriate of a proportion of the purchase price. The housing authority or approved body places a charge on the property in its favour for the portion of equity not paid for, declining over time until the charge is eliminated. In return, the buyer pays the mortgage and accepts full responsibility for the maintenance of the home.
Eligible households, as defined in section 35, include those assessed as eligible for social housing support by reference to section 20 and, subject to some conditions, existing tenants who wish to transfer to homes made available under the scheme. Section 36 provides that incremental purchase may apply to houses newly built by housing authorities or approved housing bodies and to new houses that are vacant on the coming into force of the Act.
Section 37 provides the power to sell a dwelling under the arrangement by means of a transfer order and sets out the terms and conditions that should apply. Section 38 sets out in detail how the incremental feature of the purchase will operate. It requires the housing authority or approved body to put a charge, by way of a charging order, on a house sold under the scheme. The charging order creates a "charged share" in favour of the housing authority or body, equivalent to the discount granted off the purchase price. This charged share is reduced in equal proportions over the period of the charge. The reduction in the charged share for the first five years of occupancy is not applied until that period has expired. The section also provides for the authority or body to discharge the charge when it expires.
Section 39 deals with the control on resale of incremental purchase dwellings. If the incremental purchaser wishes to resell the house during the charge period, the housing authority or the approved body concerned has the first option on buying it at the proportion of the market value equivalent to the prevailing share of the equity that is not charged.
The resale of an incremental purchase house in the market is subject to the consent of the housing authority or body, which may refuse consent for specified reasons, including anti-social behaviour by the prospective purchaser or in the interest of good estate management. Where an incremental purchaser resells his or her home in the market, he or she must make a payment to the authority or body calculated as the proportion of the market value of the house equivalent to the prevailing charged share.
The incremental purchase scheme offers a number of key benefits. For families, the scheme offers the earliest possible start on the path to home ownership for those willing and able to undertake a house purchase. In addition, giving the buyer responsibility for repair and maintenance of the home helps build the householder's stake in the property. The scheme is also structured to make it attractive for people to put down long-term roots in the community and commit to an area, thereby contributing to more stable and integrated communities.
For the State, the scheme will provide an opportunity to extract additional value for money from capital expenditure through our social housing investment programme. It will allow capital funding to be recycled quickly, which can then be used to provide additional social housing without the need for additional Exchequer finance. The full details of how the scheme will operate will be spelled out in regulations to be made under the Act in due course. This is a worthwhile and innovative initiative deserving of the support of the House.
The final Part of the Bill deals mainly with the application of clawback arrangements to both the provision of sites for private housing and grants paid for extensions under the adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability. In the latter case, the clawback applies in the event of the extended dwelling being sold within five years of the grant payment, while in the case of what is known as the low-cost sites scheme, the clawback mirrors that already in place under affordable housing schemes.
The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 is an important milestone in the development of housing policy. It provides a more strategic approach to delivery and management through housing services plans and anti-social behaviour strategies. It presents a new, more objective and comprehensive basis for assessing need and allocating housing. It provides a more effective management and control regime covering rents and tenancy arrangements and a more developed statutory basis for the rental accommodation scheme. It is innovative with, for example, the introduction of an incremental purchase scheme aimed at helping those seeking social housing support and existing tenants, in some circumstances, to become home owners. The Bill supports local democracy by conferring a number of new functions on councillors, including the power to make housing services plans; adopt modern and coherent allocation and rent schemes; and put in place specific anti-social behaviour strategies.
Whereas the Bill addresses a wide range of issues, there are other aspects still under development which I hope to bring forward for consideration during the Bill's passage through the Oireachtas. In particular, I am keen to introduce provisions to allow for the tenant purchase of apartments. We have made significant progress in dealing with the complex legal and policy issues arising but it was not possible to finalise the necessary provisions in time for inclusion in the published Bill. I am determined, however, to continue work to finalise proposals for a viable sales scheme.
This Bill provides additional legislative support to the efforts being made by the Government, local authorities, the voluntary and co-operative housing sector and other actors in the housing area. I am confident it will radically improve the capacity of housing authorities to plan and deliver their services in a coherent, flexible and responsive manner. I commend the Bill to the House.