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.