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Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 10 Nov 2010

Vol. 205 No. 10

National Housing Development Survey: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann notes the recent publication of the National Housing Development Survey and is concerned that:

many completed houses are unoccupied despite a huge demand for social and affordable housing and there is no mechanism to transfer properties in ghost estates controlled by NAMA to local authorities for social and affordable housing and other community uses;

many estates are still lacking completed roads, pathways and open spaces;

there is no clarity around who will pay to complete unfinished estates;

and calls on the Government to step up their efforts to address these issues.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I am delighted to propose this motion on behalf of the Labour Party. It follows on from the publication of the National Housing Development Survey a few weeks back. Members will recall that survey highlighted that there are more than 2,800 ghost estates and developments currently incomplete and left in a sub-standard and dangerous condition throughout the country. We need to learn lessons about how we have got to this point, but in this debate I want to focus on how we can put things right.

We need to examine every possible way in which to solve this problem, to best utilise the vacant houses and many apartments that are out there, and make the living conditions of the people in these estates better. I note the amendment to be tabled on behalf of the Government. In particular I note the reference to "the establishment of a high-level expert group" by the Government. The purpose of this group, according to the proposed amendment, is "to advise on practical and policy solutions to ensure satisfactory completion or resolution of unfinished housing developments". I am very glad to see the Government do this, but I would like a commitment from the Minister of State to the effect that this group will finalise its work as a matter of urgency. I invite him, in his speech, to outline clear timescales for when this expert group will deliver.

With all due respect to the Minister of State, we have heard about these expert groups and task forces over a number of years. I draw his attention to the task force that was set up by his Government to look into the issue of job creation, which met once in the last year, I believe. I am glad to hear about this expert group, but seeing is believing and I want to see clear timescales outlined for when that expert group will deliver.

My party colleagues will also speak on this motion. They will look at issues such as how completed houses might be utilised within these estates to sort out our housing stock as well as the impact unfinished estates are having on the families living in them. They will talk about how legislation needs to be introduced to allow some of these houses to be transferred either into or out of NAMA and to allow local authorities to house some of the people on their waiting lists in these houses. There are many finished but empty houses in these estates.

In County Meath there are 85 unfinished estates that have not been handed over to the local authority. It is imperative we know exactly where we stand when it comes to finishing off these estates. We also need to work out exactly what it will cost. One of the first tasks the expert group will need to do is to trace back through all the planning applications, permissions and conditions attached to them to see exactly what needs to be delivered in terms of each of those estates. That will entail a great deal of work and means having to go through each estate to work out precisely what needs to be done to bring them up to an acceptable condition. It will mean finishing off every single footpath and knowing exactly where the lights should be and where the open spaces are meant to be. We must work out exactly what needs to be done to correct these eyesores and to put the estates to right. It is only when that trawl through the planning permissions and conditions is completed that we will know exactly the scope of work needed to correct these estates.

It is crucial that this does not drag on and that the process is finished off because currently some of these estates pose a health and safety hazard. Apart from being unsightly, there is a danger of risk to the families living in them. I have seen how this impacts on the lives of families. In recent weeks I have visited many estates around County Meath and I shall give a few examples.

I visited one estate in Stamullen where, because of footpaths not being finished, a child had fallen and injured himself. In another estate 50% of the public lighting was not working, either because it was never connected or the work was not done satisfactorily. Apart from that being a health and safety risk as we come into the winter months, it also impacts on people's perceptions of anti-social behaviour and crime in those areas. I saw an estate in Slane last week that was lacking the final wearing course of tarmacadam on the road. That means potholes and manholes located above the surface of the road, impacting on tyres and costing money in terms of damage to cars. I have seen other estates with half-finished housing sites that are sometimes not sealed off very well. As a result, they tend to become centres for anti-social behaviour, rats or target locations for people dumping rubbish.

All these things need to be put right. People have paid many hundreds of thousands of euro for their properties only to discover they are expected to rear their families on housing estates that are clearly not fit for purpose. I have outlined a few examples and mentioned a few towns. It is not one town that is suffering in County Meath, however, but every town and village. There are unfinished estates throughout the county and country. It has been going on for years and now it needs to be put right.

I welcome the establishment of the expert group. It needs to identify exactly what is expected prior to an estate being completed and handed over to the council and it needs to produce an estimate of how much it will cost to put these matters right. I should expect the expert group to appoint a firm, or perhaps many firms, of engineers to go through each estate, work out exactly what remedial works are needed and cost them. From this trawl of planning permissions we should for once get an exact breakdown of how much it will cost to put this problem right once and for all.

Bonds are in place, as the Minister of State is very well aware. There are estimates that these bonds amount to €500 million or €600 million, and the crux of the matter is the difficulty in accessing these. Builders and developers took out insurance and bonds with financial institutions, generally banks and insurance companies. Some developers are still in good standing, managing to complete their estates and will be expected in time to get their bonds. We are not overly concerned about them. The issue is more about those developers who have gone bust or who are having problems meeting their commitments and who cannot finish estates as a result. Perhaps such developers might have some money but the bonds they can expect to draw on are less than the costs of rectifying the estates.

We need to look at those issues and perhaps there is need for legislation or a statutory instrument to be put in place in order that we can access these bonds. It is definitely a painstaking task that has to be completed, but we need a comprehensive list of institutions with which the developers took out their bonds. That would allow us to assess whether the bonds are still in place in State-owned institutions or other domestic or foreign-owned entities. If the bonds are with State-owned banks and building societies, it is effectively we, the taxpayers, who will have to stand surety for these repairs. The possibility arises that a number of the bonds will have been taken out with good banks and even overseas institutions. None the less, an instrument must be put in place whereby the local authorities can access these bonds. If a proper and thorough examination is done of with whom the bonds were taken out, it should be possible to see whether the financial institutions sub-loaned such facilities to foreign institutions. The trail of the bonds needs to be examined in depth to find out which institutions hold them and how easily they may be accessed.

It may be that a legal mechanism needs to be put in place to draw down these funds. Even if only a portion of the €500 million or €600 million can be accessed, this would go a long way towards finishing off many of these estates. We need to call in these bonds to finish off the maximum number of developments as quickly as possible. If legislation is required, I would expect that the expert group will report to that effect and make recommendations accordingly. We need to establish what is to be done in the event of a bond being recoverable from an institution and assess whether it is sufficient. If not, how is the gap between the bond and the cost of the works to be filled? Most people when purchasing a home engage an architect to compile a snag list. Where problems are identified these are rectified by the builder before the final amount owed on the house is paid. However, when it comes to purchasing a home, we do not ask the architect to examine common areas, sewers and drains running down the central spine road. We assume that the clerk of works will do this work on behalf of the county council and for the common good. It is fair to expect a home owner to cough up money if problems arise in the house which were not identified on the snag list. However, it is not fair to expect home owners to put right somebody else's mistakes. For many people, whether or not one's estate is finished is down to pot luck. Some of us live in finished estates while others do not. Rarely is this the fault of the individual, rather it is because councils failed to implement proper checking at the time of construction of the estate. There is an argument to be made for the Government stepping in where a shortfall is identified between the bond and cost of the works. This shortfall could be addressed by central government through the councils.

I was recently told by people in Meath County Council that it will take between eight and 12 years to take in charge all of the unfinished estates in the region. That is how slow the process is and how little money councils have to put towards finishing estates in respect of which a shortfall arises between the bond and cost of works involved. Clearly, the process is far too slow. The issue of unfinished estates has been ongoing for years. People are fed up living in unfinished estates. It is difficult enough at this time for those who have jobs to pay their mortgages without their having to put up with living in unfinished estates in respect of which health and safety or anti-social issues are arising because a developer has failed to live up to the promises made at the time of sale of the property.

I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's contribution. I welcome the establishment of an expert group but would like to hear from him clear timescales in regard to when that group will report.

I second the motion and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran.

The Minister of State will be well aware that ghost estates are a monument to bad planning decisions which perforate our landscape. They affect every county from Schull in County Cork to Malin, County Donegal and Clifden, County Galway to Balgriffin in Dublin. The main cause of our economic crisis is widely regarded as cheap credit leading to foolhardy lending. Bad planning ranks every bit as high as a cause of our economic meltdown and the high cost of social provision, which is also a reason for the collapse in our competitiveness. If we slip into a full-blown economic depression, bad planning will without doubt be found to have been the enduring cause.

Many people say that in Ireland all politics is local. While I can understand the reason this is said I have never subscribed to this view, rather I have always believed that national and local cannot be separated and that it is up to politicians to communicate this message effectively. This motion supports my view. With 2,800 ghost estates identified in the National Housing Development Survey, the decision of national Government to introduce appalling planning regulations has been brought home to every locality in the country. County councillors were because of these regulations able to force through so many ridiculous planning applications against the advice of local authority officials. My view on the electoral and sometimes financial advantages gained by this is already on the record of this House and as such I will not dwell on the point again.

The misery visited upon the residents of our nearly 3,000 ghost estates is a direct cause of that bad planning. The price paid for the houses, the failure to complete the developments and the poor servicing of them, are Fianna Fáil's legacy of 13 years in power, a fact that cannot be denied or brushed under the carpet. Fianna Fáil is the architect of the disaster which so many residents of ghost estates are experiencing and will continue to experience for some years to come. However, there is hope. Senator Hannigan has put forward some great ideas in regard to funding that could be accessed to complete these estates and serve an important social function.

Another important factor that needs to be considered is that not all ghost estates are incomplete developments. Some of them are finished but the houses are lying empty. There are many such estates in south Tipperary. I am sure that is mirrored all over the country. Even if every house was completed and every estate finished, we would still need a functioning market in which to sell them. Re-establishing a functioning property market is essential to economic recovery and is an indispensable part of the solution to the human tragedy of ghost estates. While I accept the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, has put in place schemes to help people access housing, given the scale of the problem this response has been less than adequate. However, that is not entirely his fault as he does not have anything like the budget required even to begin addressing this problem.

Every now and then, an economist raises the spectre of mortgage defaults dragging our economy even further into the mire, leading to yet another revision of the figure for the structural deficit. I subscribe to this view. The Minister for Finance needs to recognise that a massive intervention in the housing market is needed and needs to look to the National Pensions Reserve Fund to finance it. It has long been argued that the NTMA, which manages the pension reserve, should be investing in this country's infrastructure. Given the state of the stock markets, it would be prudent for the NTMA to consider alternative investments. There appears to be an opportunity in the housing market if the properties can be bought at the right price.

Official figures suggest house prices have fallen by 36% from their peak price. However, those who work in property sales say one would have to do better than that in order to sell. There have been a number of media reports of supposed fire sales where properties have been snapped up at a price 50% below the 2006 peak level. While the experts say we need property prices to reach a floor before the market recovers, we are already seeing signs of what that floor might be. There are metrics for pricing property which over the years have proven to be robust, one of which is to regard the average house as being three times the average household income. Another is to value individual properties at 14 times the rental yield of the property. Compiling accurate figures is difficult in these chaotic economic times. However, when I examined some reasonable estimations I found that these metrics suggest that fair value for housing stands at approximately 50% to 55% of the peak average house price of €310,000, in other words, between €145,000 and €155,000. If the NTMA were to invest in the property market at prices somewhat discounted from this, it would be making a sound long-term investment. I accept other people might dispute this and that they may be right. However, it is time to develop strategies to get the housing market moving again. It should be a matter of constant public debate so that an informed policy can be implemented by whomever is in government.

The survey referred to housing estates in my area and stated that they had been completed to a high standard. While many have been completed to a high standard, some have been used as a dumping ground for discarded building materials and machinery, with many footpaths unfinished, which is a sad sight to have to look at when one has paid €300,000 to €350,000 for one's home. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's response to the interesting views put forward by the Labour Party.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:

"notes the recent publication of the National Housing Development Survey which:

provides an authoritative analysis of the extent and location of vacant housing units in unfinished estates;

shows that there are 23,000 complete and unoccupied new units in these developments with a further 10,000 units near completion;

sets out a detailed analysis in relation to the availability of services (roads, lighting and footpaths) in these developments;

welcomes the establishment of a high-level expert group comprising the key stakeholders to advise on practical and policy solutions to ensure satisfactory completion or resolution of unfinished housing developments;

looks forward to the preparation of a code of practice by the group for managing and resolving issues in unfinished housing developments;

notes the intention that the group to finalise its works as a matter of urgency; and

welcomes the potential role of the social housing leasing initiative in matching up housing oversupply with social housing need to accelerate social housing delivery in the most cost effective manner achievable."

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to the Seanad in which he played a key role for many years. I know he is committed to his brief as Minister of State with responsibility for housing.

We all accept that in recent years permissions were given in circumstances where they ought not to have been given. Nevertheless, I believe we have learned a vital lesson. I have been involved in public life for 31 years. I recall that during my time as a member of Westmeath County Council I, with the late Deputy Gerry L'Estrange, who was also a member of the council, proposed a motion in regard to developers who were not discharging their responsibilities. Nothing has changed except the date.

I welcome the National Housing Development Survey. It brings our problems into clear focus but the Government has taken definitive steps to address the problem. The key results emanating from the report are significant. A total of 2,846 developments were inspected of which only 429, or 15%, are active. While it is difficult to be precise about the exact numbers of housing units approved in total on all these developments, estimates so far indicate a figure of 179,273 dwellings. There are 78,195 dwellings in the developments surveyed that are completed and occupied. A total of 23,250 dwellings are complete and vacant — that is the bad news — together with the 9,976 dwellings that are near completion. A total of 9,854 dwellings are at various stages of construction from site clearance, foundations up to wall pit level. There is planning permission for a further estimated 58,025 dwellings. They are not commenced and therefore do not pose immediate construction or site specific difficulties.

Ghost estates are a symptom not only of bad planning but of poor planning enforcement. Planning enforcement is very important but it is not a role of Government, rather of local authorities. I have stated that previously, not only in this House but when I was a member of Westmeath County Council. Many current members of the council are constantly articulating that view. There must be appropriate planning enforcement. Local authorities have that power. It is vested in them by statute.

We must be careful not to demonise all developers. There are very many responsible developers who not alone complete their developments but contribute in a positive way to life after they have completed the estates. We must dwell, unfortunately, on those who are not coming up to the plate, as it were, when they leave disasters behind them in estates in respect of a number of areas, including play areas. Most new estates will have a young population, and children require play areas.

The point about footpaths has been made. I recall an estate being taken in charge prior to my becoming a member of the council and the first action we had to take in the estimates of 1980 was to provide money to complete the footpaths. A patch job had been done by the developer which involved plastering the footpaths. Needless to say, the first winter frost that came lifted it. In terms of roads, I have seen estates that were left by developers in which one could bury bodies. The rate payers and the taxpayers of County Westmeath, as with those in other local authorities, had to pick up the tab. In terms of lighting, the ESB would get an order from the local authority but when it came to the money being paid over by the developer, that did not always happen. Unfinished houses are not a new phenomenon. One has only to travel around towns and villages to see what that means. Regarding flooding, there are brand new estates but one would need waders after one shower of rain to get through them. Tree planting is another issue that is not always taken on board by developers.

Housing is an important part of life in this country. In terms of the towns and villages in the various counties that have development, we must match the number of developments that are completed with the number of people on housing lists. I accept it is not always possible from a practical point of view, and I am sure the Minister of State will develop that point further when he responds. The local authorities have a role in acquiring a number of these properties, especially in the villages.

A point I argued strongly when I was a member of Westmeath County Council was that everyone cannot live in the major towns. The villages have to develop. There are many small communities that could and should have village status. They have grown significantly arising from the housing boom and they should have village status. There are private dwellings in those areas, some not complete, that could be taken in charge by the local authority. I am aware the Minister of State is very interested in this area and I look forward to his response.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. I echo what my colleagues have said, namely, that the Minister of State is an interested and dedicated Minister for housing. I thank him for the interest he has shown in my area of Athlone. I appreciate it.

I commend this motion and I commend the Labour Party on tabling it because there are many uncompleted houses on unoccupied estates, especially in the midlands. In the town of Athlone there are 600 people on the housing list. In the catchment and environs of Westmeath there are huge numbers on the waiting lists. I am aware that many of those are not urgently in need of housing. Some of them are on the housing list because they have to be to get their rent allowance. There are 100,000 people in receipt of rent allowance.

I agree with the Labour Party motion. Why can we not use these houses that have been taken over by NAMA for social and affordable housing? The affordable housing schemes appear to be at an end. There are no longer any affordable houses. People cannot buy them. There must be joined-up thinking as to how we can convert those houses and ghost estates into homes and communities where people can live their lives.

The other area that concerns me is the amount of money involved. My colleague in County Cork, the mayor for County Cork, Councillor Jim Daly, raised the issue of bonds. Significant sums of money of between €500 million and €600 million were gathered over the period of the boom for bonds for housing estates. Those bonds could be drawn if there was a co-ordinated policy and the money could be spent on installing lighting, footpaths and roads in these ghost estates for the benefit of the people living there who are probably in negative equity because they have spent so much money on their mortgage and are now to the pin of their collars trying to pay it back. If we spent the €500 million that has been gathered in bonds, it would go a long way to putting in place roads and lighting for those people and would ease their plight. Now that building costs are greatly reduced, we would get very good value for money. It would also stimulate job creation and get people working.

The other area about which I am concerned, and I am sure my other colleagues have the same experience, is housing for single men. That is a serious issue because many relationships are falling apart. I do not know the reason it is so prevalent but that is a debate for another day. There are men who see their children and spend time with their families in places like McDonald's.

A gentleman who came into my clinic the other day told me that he was sleeping on his mother's couch in a one-bedroom old person's dwelling. He has five grown-up children whom he cannot see. They are all teenagers and as he cannot bring them to his mother's little flat, he sees them in McDonald's. He painted that sad picture for me. He has left the family home and is unemployed and there is no housing available for him. He is not in receipt of rent allowance and is destitute. I know he is only one of many. I have raised the issue of housing for single men several times before. They are just as entitled to housing as lone parents who are women.

I wonder why more landlords are not participating in the excellent rental accommodation scheme and ask the Minister of State to answer that question for me. Is it the case that we are not highlighting it sufficiently? It is an excellent scheme, under which the landlord has little to do. He or she does not have to pay the €200 second home levy; the council looks after the property and the rent is assured every week. I fail to understand why more landlords are not availing of the scheme.

Senator Glynn's amendment states Seanad Éireann "welcomes the potential role of the social housing leasing initiative in matching up housing oversupply with social housing need to accelerate social housing delivery in the most cost effective manner achievable". However, the long lease system does not seem to be working either. There is little going on in County Westmeath. Why is this not happening? It seems to be a no-brainer for landlords who have empty properties. Why are they not participating in either the long lease scheme or RAS? I know many people who would be more than willing to accept accommodation under one or other scheme.

Spending money on housing for the elderly or the disabled is a way of keeping people out of institutions and nursing homes and allowing them the dignity of living at home independently by adding extra bathrooms or modifying their homes to deal with mobility problems. However, I worry that if the money is spent early on in the year, there will not be one penny left to provide such aid later. This is not only the case in County Westmeath. I have been speaking to my colleagues and it seems to be happening throughout the country. I wonder whether there is buoyancy anywhere — probably not.

I appreciate all the efforts being made by the Minister of State, but I wonder whether the problem is a lack of awareness of the schemes that I mentioned. I commend the Labour Party on tabling the motion and ask the Minister of State to make the houses in ghost estates available to families who are destitute and desperate for housing. I also ask the Minister to respond to my comments on bonds from developers. There is money available in local authorities for works such as road, footpath and lighting improvements.

I second the amendment to the motion tabled by Senator Glynn. I do not want to do down many of the relevant points made by Senator McFadden and all previous contributors, but we must recognise the fact that the Government has stepped up its efforts to deal with this issue. The expert group has been meeting — I understand it met today — and its proposals will be presented to local authorities within weeks. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, who has a particular interest in planning has also stepped up his efforts to address problems such as that mentioned by Senator Prendergast, namely, the relationship between planning and the economic collapse, which is an accurate analysis. The flip side of over-lending was the supply of unsuitable land which far exceeded actual demand.

Planning issues played a major role in the collapse of the economy and, in a way, this is the untold story of the collapse of the Celtic tiger. Those charged with oversight and enforcement of planning regulations and those in whose hands planning and zoning decisions lay must be fully examined. The roles of councillors and planners, as well as planning law, local area plans and county development plans, all contributed to what has been a catastrophic collapse. There is no point in saying this as part of a blame game, but it does need to be recognised. Reform of the planning system must be seen as the flip side to banking reform; there is no point in doing one and not the other. They need to be done together and they have been.

The Labour Party motion which calls on the Government to step up its efforts to address issues in the area of housing misses the point. The Government has stepped up its efforts. The new Planning and Development (Amendment) Act has been passed and local government reform is under way. Alignment of the national spatial strategy and regional planning guidelines with county development plans and local area plans has taken place. The rule is no longer that those drawing up such plans must have regard to the superior planning document but that the plans must be in compliance with the superior planning document. This is a small change — a few words — but they will have a significant effect. The Government has also stepped up its efforts to address the issue of ghost estates by insisting that in the future planning and land use must be based on evidence of need and that this evidence must inform a core strategy which cannot be deviated from — if it is, the Minister of the day will have the power to intervene. There are many ways by which the Government has increased its efforts to address the legacy of ghost estates.

The code of practice soon to be published by the expert group will focus initially on estates in which people are living but which have large numbers of unoccupied units, which is reasonable. These constitute roughly 1,000 of the 2,500 unfinished estates. The rest — pre-developed sites, hard fill areas, areas in which drainage works were done and nothing further happened — all require a high level of expertise to deal with them. After a developer goes bust, how does a local authority return the area that was being built on to visual acceptability? The area may be 20 acres in size, with a road through it and a herringbone drainage system. What can the council do with these lands? Should it return them to agricultural use or wait for an upturn in housing demand? These are complex questions which require professional or expert advice. I do not think a rushed response would necessarily be the right one. There is a need for a case-by-case analysis and set of recommendations, but the guidelines must be clear and consistently applied.

I commend the amendment to the House and look forward to publication of the code of practice. I applaud the changes that have taken place. I take on board the need for instruments to be applied to release securities and bonds if that is what is required. Like Senator Hannigan, I am aware of all sorts of difficulties in finishing estates because of the financial arrangements that have been left in place being very difficult to realise — bonds beyond the reach of local authorities and insufficient bonds to meet the instatement of roads etc. All of those issues ring true with my experience of ghost estates and the local authorities' problems. I am pleased the expert group has that as a high priority.

On the issue of landlords coming into the RAS or the social housing leasing initiative, there is a kind of twilight zone involving people living in rental accommodation. Many landlords who have not declared themselves as such and continue to avoid coming into the full glare, are doing themselves a few favours while doing their tenants none. There is a wider issue regarding inferring the same rights on the person living in the rented home as a home owner would have. That is a longer term project that should be occupying our minds. We should seek to find legislative instruments to encourage that parity between the home owner and the person who chooses not to own a home but to rent it.

I commend the amendment. I believe the Government has stepped up to the plate regarding the ghost estates and that the motion, while worthy in intent, misses the point of what the Government has been engaged in in recent months.

Far be it from me to be contentious, but I completely disagree with my good friend and colleague, Senator Dearey. The motion gets straight and clearly to the point and I am very disappointed the Government should propose to amend it in this completely fatuous way. The Labour Party motion contains three elements. The first is that "many completed houses are unoccupied despite a huge demand for social and affordable housing", which is a clearly established fact. On the other hand one needs to be sensitive in these areas because it is not possible simply to take into State ownership willy-nilly housing estates that are incomplete as this might simply concentrate disadvantage in one particular area. It was tried in Dublin and was a big mistake. It is a rather more sophisticated problem than simply suggesting matching one with the other. However, at the same time the facts are established and quite clear, and the first part of the motion is right.

The next part of the motion states that "many estates are still lacking completed roads, pathways and open spaces", which the Government accepts. It is true and there is no argument about that either. The final part states that "there is no clarity around who will pay to compete unfinished estates", which is also true. Nobody knows and no mechanism has been put in place for that to happen although everyone wants it to happen and it is recommended by Focus Ireland and the auctioneers' association.

These issues are being addressed.

No interruptions, please

However, they have not yet been addressed and the Labour Party motion outlines the current factual position. It would be much better for both sides to agree rather than this appalling business whereby we are still in the middle of this crisis playing at logic chopping and political partisan point scoring. There is nothing in the Labour Party motion that could not have the words of the amendment in the name of Senator Cassidy attached to it in order to create a composite motion. I see no problem with the Government's amendment because it is so pathetically weak. It notes this and that, welcomes the potential to do something else, and commends the intention and the potential role of other things. It is all pie in the sky and would not detract from the Labour Party motion. If the Government wants the respect of the people it should stop playing this stupid game of party politics and agree a composite motion. We can then get together to address this serious problem facing the country.

I commend Senator McFadden on proposing that there should be social housing for single men, which has long been a problem. We should be able to solve at least some of it using this housing stock especially given that, as any person with any contact with the market will say and as covered on a radio programme over the weekend, people will not buy one-bedroom apartments. Some tricksters of property developers, who are now appropriately in trouble, specialise in building one-bedroom units. They brought in a transient population because nobody wants to stay in them or have a family in them. Nobody will develop a relationship with a community living in a one-bedroom apartment. On the other hand, single people, particularly single men, might well be grateful to get them.

I know there is a kind of antagonism to the phrase "ghost estates". I see the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, nodding and perhaps he will say something about this. The problem is that we are lumbered with the phrase in the same way that we are lumbered with phrases such as "boy racers" and "free fees", which is an oxymoron. They may be inappropriate and ugly, but they are there and people use them so we need to work with it. These estates are in different states of completion or non-completion, but there is no point in railing against the idea of calling them ghost estates. It may not be an exactly accurate scientific description, but it is there.

There is a question as to whether it might be better to demolish some of them and perhaps a partial demolition might be appropriate because of the decay. First, it is very depressing for people to have bought a house and see a large section — one third or even half an estate — decaying around them. It is also unsanitary with infestations of vermin such as rats, children exposed to danger because they will break into it, and the danger of fire; I need not go on. We need to consider whether on balance it would be better to complete or pull down and at least remove some of the visible aspects of blight.

The scale of the problem is significant. I am happy to commend the Government on establishing the national survey, which at least gives us fairly stark facts to deal with. There are 43,000 empty or unfinished units in 34 local authority areas. The Cork County Council area has by far the largest number of ghost estates — I apologise for using that term, but it is in the briefing I have — with 284 unfinished or substantially vacant developments. It is followed by Wexford with 180, Fingal and Kerry with 152 each, 147 in Cavan and 104 in Louth. Much of this follows the pattern of areas with defective planning permissions granted. In the number of planning permissions overturned on appeal, Donegal was the worst and it was also among the worst in terms of the developments. In Donegal, 60% of planning permissions were overturned and Cavan had nearly 40%. Those are astonishing figures, which reflect a dangerous practice in that they considered only their own selfish parochial or party interest in their planning decisions. I commend the Green Party on having a useful impact on Government in tidying up some of these planning aspects, but we were left with the historical detritus of it. Some 2,846 developments were inspected and only 429, 15%, were active. Some 78,195 dwellings were complete and occupied. A total of 23,250 dwellings were complete and vacant, 9,976 dwellings were near complete and 9,854 dwellings were at various early stages of construction activity. These are very serious figures.

I wish to return to a matter I raised on the Order of Business about school construction. A serious situation has been caused by the collapse of Pierse Contracting and Pierse Building Services which has left between 2,000 and 3,000 smaller subcontractors in the lurch. There is money in the Department of Education and Skills which should be used to complete these contracts, as Wexford County Council has decided to do with a half-abandoned Pierse construction site in Wexford. Why not reactivate the National Building Agency? Using the evidence from this survey the Minister could decide whether it is appropriate to use the National Building Agency or something similar to employ many of the unemployed building workers to complete those housing estates which appear to have a prospect of being sold or which would have some socially beneficial use.

At the beginning of this financial crisis I suggested, although no one took any notice, that we should consider the possibility of establishing a Department for home security, not homeland security, which would try to secure people in their homes in the context of defaulting on mortgages and so forth. When we have this blight of ghost estates, difficulty in the construction industry and queues and backlogs in waiting lists for social housing, the idea of creating a Department with that specific focus should be examined again.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I agree with Senator Norris that we should not play politics with this. I have no hang-ups about the wording of amendments. The people who are suffering are the purchasers who bought houses but are now living in drastic conditions.

I watched a programme on RTE a couple of weeks ago about an estate in Longford. I have to give the builder some credit because he stated that, like many others, he got involved in the building business knowing nothing about it. He was making 20% on each house and thought it was great. His son died tragically in the meantime but he was making an effort to try to rectify the houses for the people who are living there. There is a problem with sewers, they have no electricity connection and so forth. Children are using the unfinished houses as a playground and there have been a number of accidents. It is not a time for either side to be playing politics on this. We must help in some way or other the unfortunate people who are suffering.

I congratulate the Minister of State and especially the Green Party on bringing some common sense into planning. I do not wish to discuss the past because that does not achieve much but there was a situation in which there was self-certification building and excessive zoning. In some cases, more land was zoned for housing than was required by the population in the area, which was crazy. Local authorities acted in a completely irresponsible manner. No inspections were carried out. More than 2,500 houses in this country have had to be vacated by people — I believe there are approximately 400 such houses in my constituency — because the walls have cracked owing to pyrite. There is an ongoing court case about this which I understand will continue for the next three years. In the meantime, the house owners have been left in the lurch. There were no inspections and the local authorities did not act in a responsible manner. They did not carry out the duties required of them.

I compliment the Minister of State on making a start on this. We must fix the problem as soon as possible. In many areas people are living in unfinished estates. The roads and footpaths are unfinished while manholes are high over the surface of the road and are quite dangerous. People are crying out for help. We need to give them some hope and offer them a timescale for when something will be done for them. It is an horrific situation in which to find oneself. One of the people interviewed for that programme was asked what he would do. He said he might have to walk away from the house and rent one elsewhere.

People have found themselves living in remote places with no nearby shops or transport as well as no lighting or proper sewerage system. The Government and politicians in general have a responsibility to ensure no one is left in limbo. We also have a responsibility to ensure these people's mental stability is not affected. Many people are suffering from depression and so forth as a result of the housing in which they find themselves. It is not good enough. They are also quite angry because they see that some of the developers — I do not seek to paint all developers with the same brush — appear to be living in the lap of luxury in other countries. They have just walked away from all this and have not been held to account by anyone. In some cases, people do not even know who the developers are.

I welcome this move by the Minister of State. How far are we from fixing this? Can we say there will be some progress on it in six months or a year? We must make a start somewhere to give people some hope. It is just not good enough to leave them in their current situation.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue again. We must always consider the context of a debate and examine the reasons for being where we are. We have inherited a terrible legacy from the housing boom and the Celtic tiger economy. People have engaged in the blame game but we are right to seek accountability and to report on why it happened and who the main players were in making it happen.

There has been excessive zoning and we must acknowledge that. That is not the only reason, however. Just because land is zoned does not mean planning permission will be secured. An excessive number of planning permissions were granted and there is now an overhang in the number of housing units lying vacant. The reason for the excessive number of planning applications being granted is that there were Government sanctioned tax reliefs in many areas where housing developments probably should not have been built. There was easy borrowing from the banks. If that borrowing had not been available, the capital would not have been available to build the developments. There was also poor regulation. I do not wish to delve into this area but it is important to identify all the factors that contributed to the property bubble.

With regard to local authorities, they had a very high dependence on planning contributions. That must be acknowledged. This is fundamentally an issue of how local authorities are funded because they were depending on the enormous contributions that arose from granting planning permission and the construction of developments. There was an incentive for local authorities to grant planning permission. That incentive must be removed. If not, we will not have proper and sustainable planning. If that incentive is removed, we must examine new ways of raising finance for local government. These are the issues we must tackle if we are to learn from past mistakes.

We must also acknowledge that the Exchequer was heavily dependent on the income and tax receipts that were raised from the property bubble. There was high expenditure on our public services and in other areas which were dependent on the huge income from the property bubble. We now see the huge shortfall in the public finances, which is currently €19 billion. Tax income has taken a sheer drop, as if from the top of a cliff, but we still have high public expenditure. That is the legacy we are discussing and there were many factors in creating it. I agree that engaging in a blame game for purely political purposes will not generate solutions, and we must be careful about that. There must be accountability, however, and we all must play our part in trying to secure that.

I welcome the national survey as it serves as a baseline from which we can work. However, figures produced by the Department conflict with those produced in the national survey and the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis. We need to confirm the figures and ensure we have them as accurate as possible from the outset.

Despite the number of vacant houses, it is most frustrating that thousands of people are still on housing lists. Other public representatives and I, as well as those on housing lists, find it frustrating to hear daily about vacant units while we still have large numbers on waiting lists for housing. Many of them are in private rented accommodation and in receipt of rent allowance; therefore, the State is already paying out for them. Therefore, it is in its best interests to ensure they are provided with social housing as soon as possible.

Another matter that needs to be addressed before we start leasing private accommodation is the significant number of vacant local authority houses, many of which are boarded up and in need of either reconstruction or maintenance. Local authority officials say this is because they do not have the resources or the manpower to regenerate or maintain these properties. That is a crying shame, particularly in the current climate when we have thousands of unemployed construction workers. Local authorities and the Department could put together a scheme to get apprentices and craftsmen off the dole. They should let them do the maintenance works required in these vacant houses in order that they can be re-let to people on the housing lists. We need to think outside the box to get people off the dole queues to do this work.

There appears to have been a major shift in policy in the Department over the summer, I presume as a result of the number of vacant houses available in the private sector. A circular was issued to local authorities more or less instructing them to cease engaging in construction. I understand why the circular was issued, but I do not agree there should be such a major shift in policy without an analysis of needs in each local authority. A one-size-fits-all policy will not work. In the Dublin commuter belt there is a more serious overhang and a greater number of vacant private properties available than in other areas, but in rural areas with a large hinterland there is still a need for local authorities to construct new houses. They must be allowed this flexibility where a need is identified.

We need clarity on the national expert group, its terms of reference and who is represented on it. We need its report which must prioritise solutions to the problem of vacant properties and ghost estates. There is a question about unfinished estates and the bonds collected by local authorities. This week the media reported that local authorities still held many bonds but had not called them in. I understand from discussions with local authority officials that many of the bonds are inadequate. They were put in place to cover superficial aspects of estates such as the provision of lighting or the final skin on footpaths or roads but do not address the deficits in infrastructure such as the provision of sewerage and water systems. During the big freeze last year we saw that, even in some finished estates, the infrastructure was substandard. The infrastructure has been placed underground and cannot be seen. Unfortunately, in some estates it was not installed at the correct depth or to the proper standard and as a result water pipes froze in cold weather and we have ended up with a catalogue of problems. Pipes crack and water leaks and all such problems impact on local authority and State resources. Many of the estates are private and the work was certified by professional engineers with insurance policies. Why do local authorities or the State not call on these insurance policies? As professional organisations, whether for engineers or architects, certified the work done in these estates, why do we not call on the insurance policies when estates are subsequently found to be substandard? When the professionals are found to be at fault, we should call on their insurance policies. This issue must be examined.

We could debate this matter forever. The national survey is a start and will give hope to citizens living in unfinished estates that we will try to address the problems they have inherited through no fault of their own. They have paid good money for which they worked hard, but, unfortunately, the system and local authorities have let them down. We need to learn from this.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, and compliment him on his initiative some months ago to try to establish accurate figures. While they are the subject of debate, they can no longer be challenged. I am particularly pleased, therefore, that he took the initiative because it brings to an end speculation in this regard.

There has been a great deal of soul searching and wringing of hands about what the Government did or did not do during the housing boom. As early as 2004 or 2005 it became apparent that it was unsustainable that 25% of national wealth was being generated in the construction sector when the European average was 10%. I made this point in the House on a number of occasions. It was also becoming evident to the Government which began to dismantle the tax incentives available. If I have one criticism of the Fianna Fáil Government at the time — I am a member of the party and was a Member of the House during that period — it is that despite my strenuous objections to the extension of what was known as the Shannon tax incentive scheme, it continued. The scheme had worked exceptionally well. It set out to achieve the objective of ensuring the repopulation of counties such as Leitrim which had been ravaged by emigration dating back to 1840. It also provided a corporate tax break which resulted in significant investment in the county. One need only look at Carrick-on-Shannon today and when it was a small sleepy town through which people passed without giving it a second thought. Now it is a cool place to be.

The downside of the scheme was that too many houses were built. Up to 2004 most of the building activity in my county had taken place in Carrick-on-Shannon, Manorhamilton and Kinlough which is only two miles from Bundoran. However, it was not until the extension of the tax scheme that significant numbers of housing estates started to appear in my home town of Drumshanbo and outlying towns within travelling distance of Carrick-on-Shannon. It was at that point that people motivated more by greed than housing demand started to pay inflated prices for land and, subsequently, to charge enormous prices for their houses. I do not want to single out a particular builder, but two or three years ago one would have paid €350,000 for a four-bedroomed house in Drumshanbo. The prices asked for were outrageous.

The Minister of State and his colleague, Deputy Finneran, have acknowledged that the housing market overheated between 2004 and 2007. However, they make the defence — I am inclined to agree with them — that during that period the Government tried to give hard working families what they needed, a crack at home ownership. Also, no one said at the time that we should build fewer houses.

I would like to make it clear that developers were not offered special rates. Any tax measures designed to encourage the freeing of lands for development were not aimed at a particular group or an elite few. In other words, farmers and other owners of small amounts of land were able to avail of the measure. I can give examples in my county where some 90% of the land is marginal and on which nothing is grown apart from rushes. For a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s land prices were inflated, but like many others I did not object. Farming families with surplus land which was fallow and only used for grazing livestock were able to generate real money for the first time since the Famine. No one resented them for doing this.

The motion claims there is no clarity around who would pay to complete unfinished estates that are still lacking completed roads, pathways and open spaces. An interesting phenomenon has occurred since NAMA was established. NAMA has taken on a significant number of undeveloped or partially developed estates in Leitrim. The agency has either begun or instructed receivers to sell these properties. The buyers, in turn, are completing the estates. The downside of this was seen recently in my home town where houses, sold at the peak for €320,000, are now being sold for €140,000. While some may argue this is bringing house prices to sustainable levels, it is depressing the housing market. It is difficult to tell where this particular trend will go.

One key priority has been leasing unsold housing stock by local authorities and voluntary bodies for social housing purposes. More than 2,500 units have been sourced and approved for use under this scheme. It will be an increasingly important component in the State's response to housing needs in the future.

Taking a base vacancy rate of the national housing stock at 6%, Fingal County Council has a 2.1% oversupply while South Dublin County Council has 9% and Meath County Council 7.9%. Galway City Council is at -0.1% and has a slight potential of undersupply. In these local authority areas it is estimated stock should be taken up relatively quickly when demand returns. In my part of the world, oversupply figures amount to 35% in County Roscommon, 24% in County Sligo, 21% in County Leitrim and 19% in County Longford. The extent of oversupply is not near as great as had been thought. In some areas, the oversupply equates to a few quarters of normal demand.

Another interesting aspect of this debate is that Ireland did much better during the housing boom than Britain. In Ireland houses were built whereas in the UK the phantom housing boom added very little new housing stock. Why were so many housing starts spatially decoupled from economic activity? That is the problem facing us with the overhang in the north west and north midlands.

As a result of the tax incentives, houses were built far removed from locations where jobs were available. In my home town, people asked who would live in the new housing developments because no extra jobs were being generated in the locality. Instead, people were choosing to live in the town while willing to commute longer distances. Many residents in my area commute to Sligo, Cavan, Enniskillen and Longford, a 45-minute journey in all. This raises the problem, as outlined by the Minister of State, of a greater reliance on private transport and greater pressure on transport infrastructure. This is a legacy of these years with which we will have to deal.

I applaud the Minister of State for ensuring the planning process will be examined and it is to be hoped we will never have to face over-demand coupled with underresourced planning departments as was the case in Roscommon. The Heritage Council published a report in 2006 which was highly critical not of those working in the planning departments in Roscommon and Leitrim but of a system that had allowed huge demand for planning applications without sufficient resources to address them. Monitoring and enforcement were not up to the efficient standards they had been in the past with the result that the eye was taken off the ball when it came to housing standards and, in some instances, unauthorised buildings were erected. This is not as simple as it may seem to the outsider. Dealing with the legacy of oversupply in certain parts of the country, especially in those areas where industrial development and job creation were minimal, is a complex matter. I welcome this timely and accurate amendment to the motion.

The National Housing Development Survey, published by the Ministers of State, Deputy Cuffe and Deputy Finneran, is an important, welcome and much-needed report. It eliminates the unsubstantiated rumours of what had occurred in some housing developments. Having said that, the survey's results are alarming.

A housing development, by definition, comprises two or more dwellings set out in free-standing, semi-detached, terraced, duplex or apartment format. A special advisory group was set up to tackle the issue of ghost estates and offer solutions to the problem. With more than 2,800 ghost estates in the country, this was a welcome step. The group comprises members of NAMA, central and local government, the banking and construction sectors, and architecture, planning and engineering institutes. All have an important role to play in this.

One glaring omission from the group was the residents of these ghost estates. They should have been included to introduce the consumer aspect into the group's deliberations. While many of these ghost estates are partially occupied, the local authorities will not take them over, making it difficult for those living in them.

Senator Mooney claimed there will be a quick uptake of these houses when demand returns. How long do we have to wait for that? Demand may not return for up to ten years and the outlook for the quality of life for residents in many of these unfinished estates is shocking.

Dwellings considered complete by the survey are not necessarily so as the finer details of building regulations and planning permission may have been overlooked. Dwellings without outstanding works such as individual electricity supplied to a property are not considered major works and are, therefore, considered complete. Housing developments completed three or more years ago that have up to 10% of dwellings unoccupied have not been included in the report either.

In many ways, the survey is an understatement. Fingal County Council has 125 ghost estates with Balbriggan especially badly affected with 2,809 unoccupied dwellings, including the Hastings estate with 120 and Hampton Gardens with 998. There are 6,700 households on the housing list in Fingal, so that potential must be explored in whatever way it can. The director of Fingal's housing services department, Mr. Dick Brady, is a creative thinker on these matters and I know he will bring forward solutions. We must try to match this oversupply of houses in ghost estates with the more than 7,000 people on the waiting list. Unfinished houses must be completed in some way.

Innovation is required in this regard and the social housing list can be greatly reduced if these occupied houses are utilised. It is unacceptable, however, to say that everything will be fine when demand returns. I look forward to some creativity from this high level expert group. The Minister of State should try to ensure the consumer's voice is represented on that body.

I welcome the constructive debate we have had on this issue. I have taken notes of some of the contributions and I intend to feed them back into the ongoing process. It is not the first time we have had a good debate about the causes of oversupply in the housing market. We all have our pet blame for what went wrong and why. Within my own party, we put much of the blame at the door of excessive zoning of land, but there are many other issues, including development levies. In some counties there was far too much of a chase to get development levies and therefore to grant permission for development. That was part of the problem.

It is great to see almost a cross-party consensus that the tax incentives went too far in the final analysis. I re-read Charlie McCreevy's introduction of the levies when he essentially said that a rising tide would lift all boats. It did not. It was naive to assume that blanket tax designations would, at the stroke of a pen, transform local economies that had far more deep-seated socioeconomic challenges than simple tax incentives could cure.

The media were not mentioned, but the glowing tones with which the property supplements greeted every new development in the latter part of the boom contributed significantly to the problem. We like to blame banks for throwing mortgages at people, but the media threw homes at people. They made people feel a bit stupid if they did not have at least one property, if not several.

It was a regular feature of "The Gay Byrne Show" every day.

It was a challenge and that was part of it. A more fundamental issue is that we have a post-colonial obsession with property, which underlines every one of the issues I mentioned earlier. People see home ownership as providing stability. I strongly believe, however, that we should be looking at a more European model with a greater menu of options for home ownership. There should be greater security of tenure in the private rented sector in order that people would be happy to spend their entire lives in rental accommodation. In the reforms we are making in the private rented sector, we have to give people greater stability, not just in terms of tenure but also in that fundamental belief that they will be protected in a rental environment. That includes protection from noisy neighbours, eviction or whatever else untoward may happen in a neighbourhood. We would have a healthier housing market as a result.

This debate is not so much about looking at the causes of the problem, more about finding solutions to what now faces us. The work being undertaken by my Department and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran, is all about finding a way out of the challenges we have. The National Housing Development Survey is a necessary and critical first step in tackling the problems associated with unfinished developments. It establishes an authoritative baseline analysis at a national level of unfinished housing developments to assist in fully understanding the scale and extent of the issues. We are putting actual figures in place of estimations. We are replacing vagueness with certainty and, most of all, we are underpinning a clear plan of action to remedy critical situations in the most problematic developments.

I was interested to hear Commissioner Olli Rehn saying yesterday that we need better medium-term planning. He was talking about financial planning, but this country also needs better physical planning in the medium term. Let us move away from tax incentives and look at the real needs of counties such as Longford, Roscommon and others. We can plan better and provide an improved quality of living and working environments in those areas if we look beyond bricks-and-mortar solutions.

I am grateful for the plaudits given to me for initiating this survey and, while I would like to take the credit, I cannot do so. It was initiated by the officials in my Department. I want to place on the record my appreciation of the far-sighted work they undertook to determine the extent of the problem before I took office. It is a strong, evidence-based survey. We have that survey and are now taking prompt action. We have put in place a committee which met for the second time today. Its members sat down with a draft manual and are making some revisions to it. We want to move full steam ahead and put the manual out for public consultation in order that everyone can make their contribution, including residents. I take the point that perhaps residents should be represented on the committee. I have an open mind on that point and will certainly re-examine it.

I wish to set out briefly the key figures emerging from the survey. More than 2,800 housing developments were identified where construction had commenced but had not been completed. That translated into more than 180,000 housing units for which planning permission has been granted. Of those units, more than 120,000 dwellings have commenced construction while 77,000 are completed and occupied. A further 33,000 homes are either completed and vacant or nearly complete. Some 23,000 of these are complete and 10,000 require final fit-out and connection to services.

The 33,000 complete and nearly complete dwellings identified in the survey represent the most realistic assessment available of the overhang of new dwellings on the housing market. A remaining 10,000 dwellings are at various stages of construction, from preliminary site clearance to foundations to wall plate level. While the results of this survey will not immediately change the reality for those living in unfinished housing developments and who are deeply concerned for the future of those developments, it presents a strong evidence basis for the delivery of action.

I take Senator Brady's point that people were getting into building who had no background or understanding of it. Some 15 years ago, when I was a councillor in Dublin, I recall someone ringing me up to say he was having fierce problems getting planning permission. He got a nurse to draw up the drawings and could not understand why he was not being granted permission. That level of incompetence in the construction sector added substantially to the problems we are now dealing with. I do not remember whether the nurse managed to get planning permission for her client in the end, but it illustrates the challenges that existed, especially when we force fed tax incentives at the problem.

They were the Minister of State's colleagues or partners in government.

I do not know whether the individual who rang me up was of any particular political persuasion. The nub of the problem, however, was an abundance of tax incentives. That was a problem in Temple Bar, Drumshanbo and elsewhere. Even the seaside resorts scheme, for which Senator Buttimer's party and his colleagues in the Labour Party would take credit, added significantly to the challenges. Tax incentives look like the quick-fix solution by getting money and buildings in there. Members should visit the seaside resorts and the upper Shannon scheme. There is a legacy of major challenges. If we have learned something from this, it is that tax breaks in themselves do not address the challenges.

There was inaccurate reporting in the aftermath of the publication of the National Housing Development Survey. It was wrong for media commentators to characterise every one of the 2,846 developments inspected by the Department as so-called ghost estates. Such reporting is not just inaccurate, it verges on irresponsible. There are not 2,846 ghost estates. We examined 2,846 estates. The detail of the survey shows many of the developments have been completed, are fully occupied and perhaps have only minor completion issues outstanding, such as the provision of final road surfaces. Only 147 developments in the survey are fully completed but have less than 10% of the completed units occupied. Some 50% of the developments surveyed are quite small, at 30 dwellings or fewer, and 25% had ten dwellings or fewer. Some 1,050 developments are potentially of concern because they are substantially incomplete but have significant occupancy. Considering the 1,000 or so substantially incomplete but significantly occupied developments, further analysis will reveal the smaller proportion of these developments, probably in the region of 200 to 300 developments, that are in particular distress. I do not want to blind Members with statistics but it is worth drilling down into the very good survey analysis to gain a more complex understanding of the challenges. These distressed developments are essentially where neither a developer nor a receiver acting on behalf of a financial institution is present and addressing outstanding completion issues.

Every housing market, regardless of the point of the market cycle it is at and whether rising or falling, will have a certain level of vacancy in its stock. The Irish housing market is no different. These survey results provide an important snapshot of the housing market in Ireland. Now that we have identified the extent and scale of the problem, we can assess how best to manage the problems that have arisen.

The publication of this survey is just the beginning of the process of addressing unfinished housing developments, a process that will require the involvement of not just Government but developers, financial institutions, local authorities, professional experts in relevant disciplines and, above all, local communities and residents. The expert group recently announced by the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, and me draws representatives from all of these stakeholders and is actively developing practical and policy solutions to ensure satisfactory resolution of unfinished housing developments. The group is being chaired by John O'Connor, the chief executive of the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency.

The expert group is already making good progress in advancing a best practice guidance manual for managing and resolving unfinished housing developments. The second meeting of the group took place today, which demonstrates the urgency the group is placing on this matter. The expert group will publish the manual as a consultation draft in the next week or so. The manual will set out the roles and responsibilities of the key stakeholders in addressing unfinished housing developments, identify the type of developments and issues that need to be prioritised for action in the short term, and summarise the wide range of statutory powers currently at the disposal of local authorities to resolve urgent matters. It will establish an organisational context for leadership on this issue at local authority and national levels, building on existing best practice approaches developed in Ireland and elsewhere in dealing with the issue. Some local authorities have come to the fore in the actions they have taken. These actions and solutions will be brought together in the manual. We will ask the public for its views and integrate them in the final version of the document in the new year.

The manual will act as a code of practice for the range of stakeholders to address the issues. The focus of the expert group is on that fraction of the overall number of developments surveyed where there is substantial occupancy but also completion issues. Some of these apply to the Fingal examples cited earlier, especially where neither a developer or a receiver appointed by a financial institution is present. The Government will consider any recommendations made by the expert group in regard to legislative changes.

The survey output provides a key strategic input not just to the evolution of planning policy and practice and the operation of the housing market but also to the delivery of social housing over the coming years. From the point of view of social housing, more important than the precise number of unoccupied units is what we propose to do with those vacant and available for use. In this regard, the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, has been pursuing a multi-stranded approach to obtain vacant unsold stock for use as social housing through a long-term leasing initiative that will support the delivery of sustainable communities. This involves matching up oversupply with rising demand. This will be a plank of social housing supply in the coming years. It is not as easy as matching 10,000 empty units and 10,000 people on the housing list. According to those involved in the provision of social, affordable or local authority housing, the issue is more complex. We must ensure we do not have a particular group of people with housing needs concentrated in one area. We want to achieve a housing mix. Some housing bodies have done great work in recent years by ensuring one gets a mix of different tenancies in housing developments. We must learn from the existing examples. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has done good work in stopping the large, monofunctional housing estates we had in previous years. There is work to be done in ensuring we have a range of housing tenures.

I do not wish to interrupt the Minister of state but other Senators are offering to speak. The time allocated to the Minister of State is 15 minutes.

I will take two minutes more to get through the remainder of my thoughts. We are engaging extensively with NAMA to ensure we free up housing where possible in order that there is no stagnation at that end of the market. Some 2,500 units have been sourced and approved for use under long-term lease arrangements, which will arrange for two thirds of total social housing delivery this year. We must learn from the past and be careful that we do not see this unoccupied new housing as a quick fix to sort out social housing lists.

Senator Norris referred to one-bedroom apartments. We introduced regulations and guidance to ensure we do not have an oversupply of one-bedroom apartments. Some 15 or 20 years ago, I was very critical of very small housing units and the lack of housing mix. I referred to it as vasectomy planning, where the apartments were so small one would not think of raising a family in them. We need a range of housing types which is good for the surrounding community and residents.

The other side of this is reform of the planning system. The work of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and the passing of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act fundamentally change how we will plan in the future.

Senator Mooney referred to replacing rushes with housing. I am a little nervous about this proposal because rushes are an indication of bad drainage. We have undertaken work on flooding issues and we must ensure we do not build on land that is prone to flooding. The survey adds an additional chapter to a range of planning and housing information. The manual is the next element and this is all happening quite quickly. I look forward to further work on this issue.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The Minister of State is correct in saying that the survey will not immediately change reality for those living in unfinished housing developments. It presents strong evidence for the delivery of action. The remarks of the Minister of State are at odds with the comments of the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. He said he would not leave houses empty while thousands of people are on the housing list. I fully agree that we cannot match up one aspect with the other.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, to the House and commend him on his bona fides in this regard. The amendment before the House was unnecessary. We had a good debate on the issue contained in the motion during statements in recent weeks. There was no need for an amendment, which in itself is aspirational and lacks conviction. The Minister of State correctly said that we have identified unfinished estates of various types in each local authority area. I accept there was misreporting. We should put that on the record. People invested money in houses. I do not refer to those who bought five or six properties but people who bought them as homes.

I fully agree with the Minister of State. I liked his description of small apartments. He is correct. Planning was wrong. I opposed planners in my own area of the city because I believed certain developments were wrong for the locality. I speak on behalf of families and single people who bought a primary residence to be their home and who are now living in unfinished estates and apartment complexes with no one else or only a few other people living there.

It is unfortunate that we now have thousands of people on housing waiting lists in every local authority. If one engages with the local Simon Community one hears that increasing numbers of people are becoming homeless. Unfinished estates are the most visible sign of the collapse of the Celtic tiger. We have the banking bailout, unemployment and emigration but that is the visible infrastructural legacy, the lack of finished estates and other housing developments.

The Labour Party motion underlines the need for clarity on who will pay to complete unfinished estates. There is a need to deliver on that requirement. On the previous occasion when the Minister of State was in the House I made the comment that developers, bankers and others should not be let off the hook. Developers who come in by the back door with a change of name or register their companies in a different way should not be given planning permission. I am not anti-developer. I am pro-people who want to build and create sustainable communities. It is a given that a sustainable community needs families, homes, people, proper roads, infrastructure, paths and lighting. The press release issued by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government refers to next steps. For those who live in unfinished estates, the next steps are critical. They must see action. We can have hyperbole and fancy press statements but we must have action.

We have a picture of the situation as we have carried out a survey. Independent commentators and academics from Maynooth, UCD and other places can squabble about the number but we must see tangible evidence of how we can tackle this blight on society. There is much in the Minister of State's speech with which I could not disagree. The Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, impresses me, which is a rarity in the Government of which he is a member.

I thank Senator Buttimer.

That is a compliment.

It is. The Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, impresses me. He is in a boat on his own at times. I wish he was not in the Government of which he is a member.

As long as it is not a sinking boat.

As we know, the boat is on the rocks, but in fairness to the Minister of State, he is trying to stay on it.

The Minister of State must deliver. I accept he cannot do it by himself but he must lead people. We are talking about people. This is about sustainable communities. If people mean anything to us, we should build vibrant communities, urban and rural, in Leitrim, Cork or wherever.

As we speak, people are living in terrible, unfinished estates. Many of them are in negative equity, struggling with mortgage repayments and trying to pay the bills. I met a couple last weekend, one of whom had lost a job and the other was on reduced hours. They had a new baby on the way. They were told that the underpinning of the apartment complex is dangerous and that they have to move out. They spent their life savings on their home. The Minister of State is absolutely correct. We built apartments in this country that were like box rooms. They were terrible. There was no backup infrastructure.

I concur with the point made by Senator Ryan that residents should be on the committee. Let us give ordinary citizens a chance to express their views. They might rant and rave but they are legitimately entitled to do that. They would bring to the table a different perspective as they have experience many people in academia or Government do not have.

The mayor of County Cork, Councillor Jim Daly, referred to the bond issue. I do not have time to go into it in detail but he is correct that every effort should be made to assist local authorities to call in the bonds put in place by developers to bring about incremental changes. I accept there is no magic wand and that we must allow due process in terms of the report and surveys, but people expect and want action. I do not fly a flag for the person who has bought three or four houses who was trying to make money. I speak for the ordinary person who has invested his or her life savings. We must look after such people. I hope the Government side withdraws its amendment because the motion before us is about people and creating communities, something on which the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, and I agree. I appeal to the Members on the Government side to withdraw the amendment and to support the motion which does not try to condemn the Government but tries to bring about action.

I realise we are running out of time. Senator Buttimer brought home with graphic accounts the human misery involved for people who have to conduct their lives in ghost estates. It is something on which we must focus. Safety is a major concern if one is in a difficult situation and one is forced out of one's home under those circumstances. People might decide that it is unfortunate to live in an unfinished house but what can one do if one is told that a building is likely to collapse and one has no insurance? My heart goes out to that family. It brings home what we are faced with.

I take slight issue with the contribution made by the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, because we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Tax incentives were good. The Minister of State should recall Dublin in the 1980s. There was nothing in the docks area. Tax incentives changed that in the area beside the Four Courts all up along the quays. I accept it is not high quality building but what was there previously was dereliction. The new docklands areas on both the south and north quays was where we learned. Architecture of high quality is evident there. It is a joy to walk around that area.

There is stagnation of building projects now. We are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in that tax incentives were helpful in regenerating areas in my native city of Limerick for example. It is wrong to say there was not some good in tax incentives just because it is now fashionable to kick developers. For the sake of consistency, people are crying out for stimulus packages to generate income and transactions in the country. That is exactly the purpose of tax incentives. We must be careful about the language we use because it is what is being sought to get people to buy cars and do whatever else. A flexible taxation system is one that allows people to invest in other people's opportunities, be they for motor manufacturers or others. Tax incentives are not of themselves bad. The problem was compounded when there was cheap money and there was no need for tax incentives in the property sector. Inappropriate tax incentives do no one any good at all.

I agree with Senators Buttimer and Norris. One could not disagree with the Labour Party's side of this motion, but neither could one disagree with the Government's side. It should become a composite motion. I applaud the Minister of State and his Department, as they have conducted a survey with facts. This is useful because we can do something with that information.

In terms of the establishment, I am glad that the second meeting of the expert advisory group has been held. The Minister of State mentioned that we are where we are, but we must consider what we will do. I do not disagree with the Government which wants to show what it plans to do. In this light, one could not argue against the Government's amendment. For this reason, we have an opportunity to table a composite motion. As Senator Buttimer stated, it is about people. Something must be done about the properties in question and people need homes. Mixing the two is not an exact science, but solutions could be reached.

The Government's amendment clearly outlines what work will occur and how it will happen. The appendix to the terms of reference states: "To report to the Ministers on the above and on such other issues as are relevant to the subject matter no later than 31 January 2011". The Minister of State should not let this deadline pass; it is far too important. I have every faith in him in this regard as the problem is manageable, but in light of Senator Buttimer's illustration regarding people stuck in certain situations, we must keep the foot firmly on the pedal and ensure the problem is resolved. We can do it if we work together and tabling a composite motion would deliver a resolution.

I welcome the Minister of State. It is also welcome that we have had a full debate on the important topic of so-called ghost estates. Mr. David McWilliams gets credit as the man who first coined the phrase "ghost estate" in 2006, although the Minister of State has been quoted many times in commenting on the negative impact of such estates.

Most Senators mentioned the national housing development survey which is referred to in the Government's amendment to the motion. The figures have been well rehearsed. As the Minister of State mentioned, it is clear that a substantial number of the developments surveyed are complete and occupied. While we all welcome this, some 33,000 dwellings are complete or nearly complete but still remain vacant. This is a concern. There is also a concern regarding the nearly 10,000 dwellings at various early stages of construction. One wonders how likely it is that they will be occupied. It is these dwellings which are addressed in the Labour Party motion which is meant to achieve a resolution in the interests of consumers, those awaiting housing and those who cannot afford to buy a house, even in the downturn. It is in their interests that the motion is putting it up to the Government in a bid to seek answers as to what it proposes should be done about these unoccupied dwellings.

On reading the findings of the survey, I was deeply concerned by the fact that planning permission had been granted for a further estimated 58,000 dwellings, on which work has not yet commenced. While they are not the subject of the motion, they point to something on which the Minister of State has commented previously and a specialist group in Maynooth reported. They show that there are two sides to the downturn. Not only was there a lack of regulation of banking and a free-for-fall in giving out loans, the cheap credit to which Senator O'Malley referred, there was also a lack of regulation of planning permissions. Far too many were given. One report suggests that, using a proper objective estimate, in County Leitrim 590 new houses might have been needed between 2006 and 2009 to accommodate population growth, yet nearly 3,000 were built. This begs the question of whether there was any regulation or forward planning.

As Senator O'Malley stated, we are where we are. The Labour Party accepts the Minister of State's goodwill in the matter and we framed the motion in an attempt to achieve a constructive solution, not to score political points. We call on the Government to step up its efforts to address these issues and are heartened to note that the expert group has already commenced its meetings. As the Minister of State mentioned, the second meeting was held today. He hopes the manual will be published as a draft consultation document in the next week or so before the final draft is published in the new year. In the interests of those about whose cases my colleagues have spoken so eloquently, we must ensure the expert group meets its deadlines.

Senator Buttimer called on the Government to withdraw its amendment. It could do so, as the motion is not confrontational. However, we will not put it to a vote. In a sense, we are working in a composite way to try to achieve a solution to the serious problem of unoccupied dwellings. The motion suggests the National Asset Management Agency should be involved in that resolution, although it is represented on the expert group.

To be constructive, I wish to examine the three parts of the motion, the first of which refers to the need for a mechanism to transfer unoccupied dwellings to local authorities to provide social and affordable housing. I am glad the Minister of State described the proposal in respect of a long-term leasing initiative in this context. We accept there is not a quick fix, but there are many unoccupied units and many thousands of homeless families. Many of these units are not located where people might wish to live and there might not be an immediate homelessness problem, but we should see progress on this front in the near future. I am not only referring to the report of the expert group but also to the provision of housing units for needy families.

We need to consider matching unoccupied hotels with social purposes. While this is beyond the scope of the motion, many unoccupied hotels would make excellent nursing homes at a time when more nursing home places are required. We should, therefore, consider matching unoccupied properties with social purposes. That is at the heart of the motion.

The final two parts of the motion should not be overlooked. While dwellings in many estates are complete, the estates lack completed roads, paths and open spaces. This issue was highlighted in the survey and is of concern to the many families and individuals living in these estates. In Dublin, for example, of 155 open spaces identified in building plans, only 80 are complete and an alarming 67 have been substantially untouched. One can only imagine what it is like to live in these complexes, but it is a serious matter for the individuals concerned. There is no clarity as to who will pay to complete unfinished estates. I hope there will be clarity in the process described by the Minister of State.

We all recognise the serious problems presented by ghost estates. We all want to see a solution to match the need for social and affordable housing. I hope the Minister of State and his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, will make this a priority. I am glad progress is being made and hope the motion will assist in exerting pressure on the Government——

——to achieve the outcome we all want to see. In a spirit of consensus and working together, we will not put the motion to a vote. We are grateful to the Minister of State for outlining the progress made to date and to all those Members who contributed to the debate.

That is appreciated.

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

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.