Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Primary Care Centres Provision

I welcome Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, and thank him for his courtesy in attending the House. The issue before us is a very important one concerning the provision of a primary care centre in Douglas. Given the importance we, as a Government, place on primary care in our health policy, I hope the Government will prioritise the location of a primary care centre in Douglas. There are many suitable locations in this area and the success of other such centres, such as in Carrigaline and in other parts of the city, underscores the importance and need for a primary care centre in Douglas. We have had a number of briefings with the HSE, which highlighted its role in primary care. It is an opportune time to deliver a primary care centre in Douglas with, I might add, a daycare centre for the elderly, but that is a different matter.

A national needs assessment was conducted and identified the need for primary care centres in many parts of the city but, in particular, Bishopstown, Togher and Douglas. I hope that today we will get a clear indication from the HSE and the Government that this matter is a priority and that this will be the beginning of the journey to having a primary care centre located in Douglas. As the Minister of State, the Cathaoirleach, Members of the House and those watching the proceedings at home know, we are now living in an expanded Cork city council area, and Douglas has become part of Cork city. This is, therefore, an opportune time to promote the establishment of a primary care centre in Douglas. Douglas is a centre of population which is crying out for the location of a primary care centre. Confusion surrounds the plans and proposals for the primary care centre but we now have an opportunity to bring clarity and certainty and to remove the confusion around the primary care centre.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, for being here and I commend him on the work he is doing in his brief. He is a very progressive and proactive Minister of State. I hope that today we will see the beginning of a new chapter and a good news story for Douglas.

I thank Senator Buttimer for his kind words. As the Senator may be aware, the HSE has responsibility for the provision of primary care centres and other primary care facilities. I am happy to update Senator Buttimer on work being undertaken on the potential provision of a primary care centre in Douglas.

I understand previous efforts by the HSE to secure a primary care centre in the area have proved unsuccessful because of the high cost of suitable sites for developers. However, I am pleased to be able to advise the Senator that Douglas has been included in a recent advertisement by the HSE seeking expressions of interest from developers for the next tranche of 47 centres to be delivered under the operational lease model. This advertisement was published on 3 May and interested parties had up to the 31 May to make submissions. I understand that all bids have now been submitted to HSE estates centrally and that they are currently being compiled. The bids will issue shortly from estates central office for local assessment by the relevant estates offices in conjunction with local primary care staff.

There are a number of distinct phases to be gone through under the operational lease model before a centre can be delivered. After the HSE selects the preferred bidder based on submissions received, a letter of intent issues to that bidder who must then satisfy a number of requirements. Among other things, the bidder must enter into an agreement with GPs to co-locate at the site; provide evidence of ownership or interest in the site; obtain planning permission; and provide evidence that financing for the development is in place. Once these conditions have been satisfied, the HSE signs an agreement for lease with the relevant developer. The HSE will lease the accommodation for the facility which is built to the HSE's specification.

In the case of Douglas, subject to bids to an acceptable level being submitted, the HSE will issue a letter of intent and the process I have just outlined will begin. However, it is important to note that issues can arise during this process, and there is a risk that delivery of a given centre may not be able to proceed for any one of a number of reasons - for example, where planning may be refused or where GPs do not indicate an interest in co-locating.

The HSE has informed me that all other options for developing a primary care centre in Douglas have been explored but that, regrettably, nothing suitable has been identified and the recent advertisement for expressions of interest is the best way forward. I am advised that, with the exception of community nurses and the home support office, there is no accommodation for other community services in Douglas and that clients must travel to Cork city centre or the nearby Blackrock Hall primary care centre. As a result, the case for developing a centre in Douglas is clear and fully accepted. It would serve a population of approximately 20,000 people and offer services at a single site. This means that people would no longer have to travel to different places for different services, which would save considerable time and expense. Such a centre would undoubtedly enhance and expand capacity in the community sector in Douglas, enabling us to deliver high-quality, integrated care to people in the locality and on the vision for a reformed health service set out under Sláintecare, namely, "the right care, in the right place, at the right time". It is for these reasons that I very much hope that the recent expression of interest for Douglas will generate a positive response.

I welcome the Minister of State's comments and the expression of interest. As he noted, there is now a clear need for a primary centre to be located in Douglas, where there is no accommodation for other community services. I hope the matter will be progressed today.

As I outlined, a process is under way. At national level, it is clear that the future direction of primary care services will be guided by Sláintecare. We are moving in the right direction by investing in primary care infrastructure, while the expansion of primary care staffing and services was prioritised in the previous Estimates process and the HSE's national service planning. Overall funding for primary care was increased by more than €50 million, which will enable a range of measures to be advanced, including recruitment of additional nursing and therapy staff. I am sure the city and county of Cork will benefit appropriately as these staff are recruited.

Although concerns will always be raised about specific locations, we must not lose sight of the fact that we continue to make good progress in the development and roll-out of primary care centres. There are now 127 such centres, 18 of which became operational in 2018. While I appreciate the Senator's interest in Douglas, I am sure he will be happy to hear that 12 of the operational facilities are in County Cork, as are three of the nine centres expected to open this year, at Carrigtwohill, Bantry and Newmarket. It is also expected that the Beara and Clonakilty centres will become operational in 2020, while a further eight locations are at various stages of planning.

I reiterate that I hope the latest development round will be successful in attracting developer interest to enable Douglas to join the list. I thank the Senator for putting focus on the matter.

Vacant Properties

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this important matter and the Minister for his attendance. As the Minister will be aware, a considerable number of people throughout County Mayo are seeking suitable housing, both social and private. From my weekly clinics dealing with people on many housing matters and having had the opportunity to canvass many parts of the county, I know it is an important issue for many people. Having travelled throughout the county, however, I can safely say there are far too many empty houses in towns, villages and rural areas. On the main streets and in the older parts of some such towns and villages, there are many empty houses, which, I am sure the Minister will agree, is a depressing sight. Irrespective of how many social houses are built or how much private house building is encouraged - I welcome the increase in this regard - we cannot ignore empty houses. Something must be done because they will not go away and we do not want them to fall down.

Many such houses have been empty for years. Vacancy is not a recent development. I have observed several examples. Nothing seems to be happening, which is why I asked the Minister to come before the House. Many people look around their towns, villages and the rural areas in which they reside and ask why a particular house has been empty for five, ten or 15 years. It is far too common. I say this notwithstanding the repair-and-lease scheme, the buy-and-renew scheme and all the other initiatives the Minister and his predecessor have put in place to address the issue. It is clear that they have not had the impact we would have liked. In the older parts of a town, there could be a street where one or two elderly people could die and their houses could then be closed up. Similarly, houses in some estates may be caught up with banks or there may be some other reason they are empty. Whatever the reason, the matter should be explored further. Notwithstanding the schemes and the fact that they are advertised by Mayo County Council, there does not seem to be much interest in or take-up of them, which begs the question as to how attractive it is to be a landlord. From conversations with people, I suggest they do not want the hassle or cost. It is not as lucrative as populist media might like to indicate. It is a big responsibility for people who take it seriously and many do not want the hassle.

I acknowledge that Mayo County Council has beefed up its housing section and that despite being busy, it does good work. It has a vacant homes officer and seems to have all the ingredients to address the issue. I would like it to be more proactive, however, in order that there can be results on the ground in respect of the eyesore houses that could be used. They are a valuable resource and using them as part of the liveable housing stock should be a priority. The council needs to assign a technician to go door to door and establish why a house is empty, who owns it and what can be done to bring it back into use. There have to be boots on the ground. Standing back in an office will not sort out the problem. Will the Minister consider all the issues I have raised?

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and giving me an opportunity to set out the extensive range of measures the Government has introduced to allow for the reactivation of long-term vacant residential dwellings into the liveable housing stock.

An overarching action within Pillar 5 of Rebuilding Ireland is a commitment to develop a national vacant housing reuse strategy, which I published in July 2018. The strategy strives to provide a targeted, effective and co-ordinated approach to identifying and tackling vacancy throughout Ireland. My Department and local authorities have been proactive in dealing with vacant properties with all local authorities, having prepared vacant home action plans. In addition, a number of schemes are available to incentivise reactivating appropriate dwellings into the liveable housing stock.

We continually examine new ways of reducing the number of vacant residential dwellings. For example, when the initial national roll-out of the innovative repair-and-lease scheme did not yield the results hoped for, we examined it and made improvements to its terms to make it more desirable to those who wish to bring their vacant property back into use. Correspondingly, the buy-and-renew scheme also has strong potential to purchase and reuse empty dwellings where properties that are suitable for social housing use are available and, therefore, it is a valuable companion to the repair and leasing scheme.

Mayo County Council is committed to utilising the aforementioned schemes. Of the 80 applications made to it in respect of the repair-and-lease scheme, the council is engaging with the owners of 42 properties, while 12 agreements to lease have been signed. Three homes have been completed under buy-and-renew and the council is assessing a further ten homes. Similarly, nine homes have been compulsorily purchased by Mayo County Council in 2019 for housing. Three of these are being considered for progression under the buy-and-renew scheme. Mayo County Council is one of the local authorities that participated in a pilot field survey on vacancy to assess the level of long-term vacant residential homes. Having visually inspected some 1,065 properties in their administrative area, some 61 homes were identified as being vacant over the six-month period of the survey. This equates to a vacancy rate of 5.2%, which is in line with what could be expected to allow churn in a normal housing market. The council will aim to engage with the owners of the 61 homes with a view to getting them reactivated as part of the housing stock.

The Council has also developed the website vacanthomes.ie, on behalf of the local government sector, to serve as a central portal for individuals anonymously to log possible vacant homes in order that local authorities can follow up with the registered owners. The website has proved a useful tool in aiding local authorities identify vacant homes, with the latest statistics indicating that almost 3,000 properties have been registered on vacanthomes.ie to date. Aside from the reactivation of privately-owned vacant homes, the Department supports the comprehensive maintenance and remediation of local-authority-owned vacant housing stock by way of the voids programme. Since the outset of the programme in 2014, and in addition to its own resources, Mayo County Council has been provided with funding of €1.456 million to bring some 320 vacant homes back to productive use. Some 57 homes, or 2.7% of Mayo County Council's housing stock, are vacant, with 13 currently having a tenancy offered and a further eight due to be the subject of offers in the coming weeks.

Following a call for proposals for 2019, Mayo County Council submitted 32 properties for inclusion in the voids programme seeking funding of €225,000. Allocations for the voids programme are due to issue shortly.

Both centrally and at local level, we are committed to optimising the existing housing stock and, in that context, we will continue to review all initiatives with a view to offering the best supports to those who wish to bring vacant homes back into use.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am glad to note there is some activity. I would be interested in getting more information on the 61 vacant properties the Minister mentioned. I agree the majority of empty houses are privately owned. There are not many long-term voids in the council housing stock. However, I could point to 61 such properties in my town alone, which is only a small part of the county. I do not know where from where the council got that figure. Equally, I could point to 61 houses that have been long-term empty. I am not sure how those figures are being calculated. There is no substitute for going door to door, as we have the joy of doing during an election campaign. In that way one could quickly establish there are many empty houses and one could get to the bottom of this. I do not want to be disrespectful about the information provided but I cannot accept there are only 61 private houses vacant in Mayo.

I thank the Senator for her follow-up remarks. I hope the information I provided is useful in terms of actual numbers. The reason we can provide that is that we have vacant home action plans for, and vacant home officers in, each of the local authorities. As I said in my initial response, Mayo was involved in this pilot programme. When we get high level numbers around vacancy - we see reports from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, and from GeoDirectory - and what we have seen when we have gone in to do the work is that the true level of vacancy has been overstated because of what was counted. In the case of the CSO, it counts summer homes and houses that are for sale or for rent. These types of homes do not speak to the type of vacancy that we are talking about.

In the six-month period of that survey, there was a series of inspections of each property to make sure they were still vacant in that period. That was a visual inspection of more than 1,000 properties. Not every property was inspected. It would not have included all the homes the Senator might see in her constituency.

So it was a sample.

Of the 1,000 properties inspected, 61 are what we would consider to be truly vacant homes, which Mayo County Council believes it can bring back into liveable stock. It will engage and do that now, which is important. The council has also received 80 prepare and lease applications. That is another 80 vacant homes it can bring back into use, which is separate from the applications it received under buy and renew. Of its own vacant social housing stock, 320 vacant homes requiring the investment of serious money, have been brought back into its stock of social housing. There are now 57 homes vacant under the voids programme in Mayo County Council. We will work on a plan for an application for funding for 32 of those homes to bring them back into use with that funding this year. Good progress has been made, although more needs to be done.

I thank Mayo County Council for setting up the website vacanthomes.ie. It is doing the heavy lifting for the rest of country in allowing members of the public to identify vacant homes on their roads wherever they are based in the county. That information is submitted. People can take a picture of the home on their mobile phone, and it is geo-co-ordinated with the global positioning system, GPS. People will know where the property is and can visually inspect it. This applies to each of the local authorities throughout the country, and they can then determine whether it can bring such properties into their programme, be it under the repair and lease, the buy and renew, compulsory purchase order, CPO, or another measure. Mayo County Council has developed a very helpful tool and I was very happy to see it do that. Not long after I came into this brief, it stepped forward and it has been leading the way since and I thank it for that.

Sitting suspended at 10.55 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.