Election Management System

Ceisteanna (29)

Shane Cassells

Ceist:

29. Deputy Shane Cassells asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if his Department has examined the possibility of using online voting for elections; his views on whether it could encourage greater voter participation in the democratic process if it were utilised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26869/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (23 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

Will the Minister of State outline the possibilities for using online voting for our elections? Will he examine whether this would encourage greater voter participation in our democracy? I met with Albert Royo-Mariné and Gov2U promoting e-democracy across Europe last month. I know the Minister met with him afterwards. Even trialling online voting would be an acceptance of how our younger generations engage and participate in all facets of their lives. Considering bad weather and people going on holidays can depress voter turnout, could technology remove some of these barriers to democratic involvement?

There are no proposals to introduce measures to support online voting or to re-introduce e-voting. In February 2000, the then Government decided to introduce a new system of direct vote recording and electronic vote counting at elections. In 2008, a commission reported that e-voting should not continue.

I have an open mind on the subject of online voting which is completely different than the e-voting system we had previously. The priorities in the Department are modification and updating of the electoral register, as well as the provision of a facility for online voter registration with a single identifier. It is hoped that work will commence in October 2018. It may take two to three years to complete but it will allow a facility for people to register for voting online. There are 23 different forms which are applicable for a voter registration, such as dealing with change of address, joining the supplementary register of electors and different types of postal votes.

I am in constant contact with the eight staff in the franchise section in the Custom House. They are the people who effectively run every election and referendum. Their resources are limited, however. The priorities are the provision of online voter registration and the establishment of an electoral commission. The broader question the Deputy raised on online voting is one that could be legitimately raised if we get to a position of having our electoral register in better order than it is currently.

It was online voting to which I was referring, which is a completely different scenario. If we are talking about updating the register, for all who practise politics, we should be concerned about our democracy and that our system needs modernisation and is secure. There is undoubtedly abuse of our system as it is based on the issuing of voting cards. These can go to addresses where people no longer reside and, in some cases, multiple cards go to one address. An examination of the voter register, especially in the areas of townhouses and apartments, points to this. Tightening this up to eliminate the potential for voter fraud should be uppermost in our minds.

I am amazed we can use online activities for every other facet of our lives. The Revenue Commissioners have secure portals for LPT payments, for example. Why can it not be used for this? Up to 14 countries have some form of online voting. Estonia, a small Baltic nation, was the first to introduce permanent national Internet voting. It has gone from 1.9% of votes cast through online voting to nearly 30% in its recent parliamentary elections. Interestingly, it also keeps the simple pencil and paper system.

If we are looking at voter registration, there is the potential to look at online voting.

There is not the potential in terms of the facility that the franchise section has as there are only eight officials working in it.

Other Members and other practising politicians consistently raise with me the fact that electoral registers are not as accurate as they could or should be. It has been a political priority for me for the past 12 months to get modernisation of the register moving.

Preparation of the scoping document on improvements to the register and proposals for online registration is now well under way and at an advanced stage of drafting. The Government will make a decision on this, hopefully, before the summer break or immediately after the return in the autumn. The proposal is to commence that work nationally before the end of this year.

I do not want to dampen the Deputy's enthusiasm and I acknowledge that online voting is different from the electronic voting we had previously. However, we should all remember the public backlash against the e-voting system that was introduced. The strong view of general public was that the principle of using a pencil and paper at the ballot box was still valued. That is not to say that as technology improves, we cannot look at online voting. Online registration and improving the register must remain the priority.

We can all agree that voting on paper is technically simple. A person goes to a polling station and writes a number. I hope it would be a No. 1 beside Shane Cassells and that would be that.

Who would be No. 2?

Online voting would make the process of voting for Shane Cassells or anybody else in Meath West even simpler. It would also be a recognition of the reality of the world in which we live. It would help younger people to engage with the democratic process. Young people are accessing information on online portals and there is an opportunity to use the same medium to allow them to vote. If we consistently resist online voting and use experiences from past elections that did not embrace technology in the best way, we will never make progress. The Minister of State said there is an opportunity to improve the electoral register. We should use that opportunity to introduce online voting. As I said, if Estonia, a small Baltic nation with a small population, can embrace this process, as it has since 2005, surely Ireland also has an opportunity to do so. There will be a series of elections next year and we could potentially trial this process in a number of constituencies.

As a vehement opponent of electronic voting in the past, I ask the Minister of State to bear in mind that voting is a democratic principle that requires a certain amount of ceremony, attention and care. We should, as a consequence, take it very seriously. The Minister of State should take on board the concept of updating the electoral register. An Post is the most appropriate body to do this as it has daily access to every doorstep in the country. It should be given the responsibility.

It is a disgrace that the Deputy is using the opportunity presented by my parliamentary question to claim online voting would not be implemented with great care. It is disgraceful that he is trying to thwart and pervert this discussion.

Deputy Cassells, I ask you to control yourself.

I am in control.

You are not. I ask you to listen to me.

If anybody in the House on any side is to accuse me of implementing or not implementing rules, I refer them to Standing Orders-----

I have no problem with you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I refer to Deputy Durkan's remarks.

I refer you to Standing Orders. What Deputy Durkan says is a matter for him.

I appreciate that.

The Ceann Comhairle, Leas-Cheann Comhairle or the occupant of this Chair has the opportunity, outside of priority questions, to give any Deputy a chance to ask a short question.

It is still shocking.

I will finish my supplementary question and I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for protecting a Member of the House.

He needs protection.

Will the Minister of State bear in mind that despite considerable scientific investment being made on the previous occasion electronic voting was proposed, the model was found to be totally inappropriate for the Irish system? Adopting such a process would leave voting in this country open to manipulation, as has happened in other, bigger jurisdictions. Will the Minister of State bear in mind the necessity to ensure voting is treated as a serious matter with pencil and paper? Due consideration is needed and the citizen should have the last word.

I point out to Deputy Durkan, my great colleague, that I indicated I had no proposals to examine the introduction of online voting. There will be a public consultation on the need for online registration in the autumn and everybody will have the opportunity to advance a view on how people could improve the standard of the electoral register online in a safe and secure way with a single identifier. My priorities and those of the franchise section continue to be the provision for improving the register and an electoral commission. The public consultation will be an opportunity for people to express their view on forms of voting in future.

Housing Assistance Payment Administration

Ceisteanna (30)

Frank O'Rourke

Ceist:

30. Deputy Frank O'Rourke asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if he will consider reviewing the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme whereby a person or family identified as homeless is required to have financial access to a deposit and one month's rent in advance to access private accommodation, given that in most instances such finance is not available, thereby rendering the person or family unable to move into housing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26612/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

I acknowledge the work departmental officials have done with me in this area, which is allowing homeless people to access the upfront payment for a deposit when they are trying to get into a home. What is the Department's definition of a family or individual who is homeless? This requirement under the HAP scheme is having a negative impact on families seeking to access the upfront payment and deposit from local authorities. Are the local authorities being given extra resources for the place finder mechanism announced in January? Is the Department following up with local authorities to ensure a place finder service is in place and to discern how successful it is in helping homeless people move into a home?

I thank the Deputy for the question. In January last, I provided each local authority with the capacity and resources to establish a dedicated housing assistance payment, HAP, place finder service. Among the services and support the place finder service can offer is the capacity to pay deposits and advance rental payments to landlords on behalf of households in emergency homeless accommodation or at immediate risk of entering such accommodation in order to secure housing via the HAP scheme. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection continues to make assistance available to eligible households generally, which are seeking financial support to access rental accommodation. However, in an effort to consolidate homelessness supports within the local government sector, I provided local authorities with the specific capacity to provide this financial support to homeless households.

This targeted intervention for homeless households which are finding it difficult to secure HAP tenancies has been in operation in the Dublin region since 2015 and in Cork city since last year. To qualify for these specific additional supports available to homeless households, a household must have been determined by the relevant local authority to be homeless within the meaning of section 2 of the Housing Act 1988. The operation of local homeless services, including the place finder service, is a matter for each local authority, utilising the supports provided through my Department, as I have just outlined. I understand the service will become operational in the Deputy's local authority area next Monday, no doubt as a result of the efforts he has made in this regard.

The problem is that people were unaware of the announcement made by the Minister in January and the resources to go with it to help people. The Minister is aware that people who are currently homeless are turning up at local authorities seeking an upfront payment or a deposit. There is a question as to what constitutes being homeless. I am dealing with families and individuals who sleep on different couches every night. They are couch-surfing but they are being told they are not regarded as homeless because there is a roof over their head, although it is a different roof every night. There should be clarity between the Department and local authorities on the definition of homelessness. I regard such individuals and families as homeless and I believe most Deputies will agree with me.

People also seem to be unaware of the upfront payment when they try to access services. I have checked with the local authority, the community welfare officer and the rents unit about how to access an upfront payment and a deposit to help people to get off the streets, as we all want them to do. The level of awareness in this area is not as good as the Minister and his officials would like it to be. Will they focus on this issue to ensure homeless people who show up at a local authority public counter after finding a property receive every support necessary to allow them to move into a property as quickly as possible?

I thank the Deputy for his questions. I do not doubt he has done much work in this area and I am well aware he has engaged with my officials for a number of weeks on a couple of cases. The place finder service was only rolled out beyond Dublin and Cork at the beginning of the year. Of the 20 local authorities which requested a place finder service, 17 now have a service in place. The opening of a service in the Deputy's area will bring the number to 18. This is a new measure and its implementation will not always be straightforward in every local authority area. Deputy Ó Broin is aware of cases involving people who sought support at a public counter and were turned away or told they did not have the correct documentation or information. This cases should not occur. As we encounter these problems, we will continue to ensure the local authorities fully understand their obligations and their staff are given the necessary training.

About €3.6 million will go to emergency accommodation supports in the mid-east region this year. Roughly 350 tenancies will be created each week of the year. We know that it works. We also know that with the homeless housing assistance payment, we prevented more than 1,000 families from having to enter emergency accommodation last year.

The Deputy asks an important question about what is homelessness. It is defined in the 1998 Act, but it is very much for the local authority to make the determination within the parameters and criteria set in the Act. One of the reports from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive which was published yesterday speaks to the need for us to address the question of what it is we mean by "homeless". Of course, it is a problem that has come up in the use of section 10 funding in cases in which someone is or is not in emergency accommodation and there are questions about their status. This is a conversation we are having as an Oireachtas and a society. It is a welcome one because for too many years we were not getting into the actual details of the complex challenges we were facing. We are now discussing them, from which will come new solutions.

I thank the Minister. That is the issue - when one actually gets into individual cases and does the spadework with those involved, one sees the complexities. We want to work with the Minister and his officials to unravel them in order that we can help the people who are most vulnerable. Am I hearing the Minister correctly when he says that from next Monday Kildare County Council will be given the resources it needs to have a HAP place finder section to deal with the issues I have raised with him and his officials and to sort out the problems people are experiencing when they show up looking for the upfront deposit and payment?

There is something else the Minister might consider. With regard to the housing assistance payment, as has been spoken about before, there is a discrepancy between the payment allocated and the actual true rent paid. That has to do with a lack of supply, an issue which will obviously be addressed in time. In some cases, however, families are actually getting a top-up from a family member, parents, etc. They are going to the local authority with letters stating the top-up of €200, or whatever it is, will be guaranteed in order to get them off the street, but they are not being accepted by the local authorities. They are not being accepted by Kildare County Council. I wonder if the Minister and his Department can assist in that regard because it is adding further adding to homelessness. In the interim, we are trying to assist people who are homeless to get off the street. We should do everything in our power to make sure that will happen. Unnecessary snags and obstacles are being put in people's way. We should try to work together to remove them.

I thank the Deputy for his question. He touched on a couple of issues and I will try to get to each of them briefly. He is absolutely right to focus on people who are sleeping on the street, on trying to get them into emergency accommodation and then onto a sustainable pathway. We now have the policies in place to do so. Since last year we have seen a dramatic reduction in the level of rough sleeping, 40%, which is very welcome, but there are still more than 100 people sleeping rough in Dublin, an issue on we continue to work. Housing First now has a national director. It also has a programme throughout the country. In one of the reports which, again, was published yesterday, we see a 90% retention rate, which is very welcome.

The third housing summit will be held shortly, in the first week of July. I will be speaking to local authorities, specifically about affordability and the crisis of homelessness we continue to face. I will be speaking about the reports, their recommendations and how to implement them. I will have a further engagement today with the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on the recommendations and how they should be brought forward. The Deputy is right to state that on Monday the new person will be in place and ready to get to work in his local authority. That is good because they will be able to work on the hard and complex cases the Deputy's constituency is experiencing.

There is an uplift so far as the housing assistance payment scheme is concerned. There is a figure of 20% for the normal housing assistance payment scheme and 50% for the homeless housing assistance payment scheme. However, some local authorities are not using it. Where I find an example in some of the data of their not using the uplift, we can go back and insist on a local authority using this measure because we know that it works.

Traveller Accommodation

Ceisteanna (31)

Eoin Ó Broin

Ceist:

31. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the status of the appointment of a special expert group to review the legislation on Traveller accommodation. [26818/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

As the Minister of State responsible knows, it has been one year since the publication of the review of funding for Traveller-specific accommodation and the implementation of Traveller accommodation programmes. I acknowledge the very significant amount of work the Minister of State has been doing since the publication of the review to try to establish the expert group to work out how to tackle the very serious deficiencies. I refer, in particular, to deficiencies in the local government system which is failing Travellers and Traveller communities in meeting their accommodation needs. Will the Minister of State update us on that work?

In line with the commitment in Rebuilding Ireland, in 2017 the Housing Agency commissioned an independent expert review of funding for Traveller-specific accommodation.  The review had regard to targets contained in the local authority Traveller accommodation programmes, actual delivery, the current status of accommodation funded and funding provided for accommodation maintenance and other supports. 

Following its consideration of the review which showed that more than 3,000 units which the Government had hoped would be delivered had not been, the national Traveller accommodation consultative committee, NTACC, agreed to the establishment of an expert group to examine and make recommendations on issues regarding Traveller accommodation policy, strategy and implementation.  The committee recently submitted to me the proposed terms of reference for the expert group.  It is correct to say there has been a long delay in this process, with which I am unhappy. However, we have engaged with the committee to get it moving and there has been some progress in the past couple of months. It is my intention to establish the group as soon as possible, with a view to it concluding its work within a short timeframe. 

The expert group will consult relevant stakeholders at local and national level, including Traveller representative organisations and other stakeholder groups represented on the NTACC and local Traveller accommodation consultative committees.  Such consultation will include an invitation for written submissions and a series of national and regional workshops. My Department will consider recommendations made by the expert group to improve the delivery of Traveller accommodation nationally and ensure full use is made of the increasing level of funding available for this purpose, which is €12 million this year.

I hope the expert group can be appointed in the next couple of days. We have been in contact with the people who have been nominated and selected through a process who will I hope all say "yes." If they do not, we will move to the next choices, but I hope we will have an answer this week and be able to get moving. It has taken far too long, but it is important that we move as quickly as we possibly can. I compliment the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on the work it will do in conjunction with the expert panel to track its work and work with it. This House, taxpayers and the Department are playing their part by increasing the budget, but we have to make sure the money will be spent. That is the key issue in the context of the review.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. One of the startling figures from the report published last year, a report commissioned by the Department and the Housing Agency, was that, as the Traveller accommodation programmes progressed from 2000 to 2018, the incidence in meeting their targets fell. From 2000 to 2004, they hit about 90% of their targets. In the period from 2014 to 2018, that figure had dropped to 39%. The Minister of State is correct to say funding has been increased for Traveller accommodation programmes, albeit far too modestly. However, the tragedy is that none of the additional funding has been spent by the local authorities. Last year was the worst year on record in terms of drawdown. There was a 45% underspend, which essentially means that all of the additional funds allocated since the Government was formed remain unspent. The problem is very clear. Local councillors and county managers are, in many cases, refusing to provide land or make provision for Part 8 developments. They are refusing to draw down the money. The announcement of the group needs to be made as a matter of urgency. The Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government wants to play its part. We want to support the Minister of State and the expert group. However, we will need to see radical changes to ensure the money which the Minister of State is increasing, albeit again modestly, will be drawn down to ensure the systemic discrimination against Travellers in the housing system, as made clear earlier this year by the Irish Council for Social Housing, is brought to an end.

I certainly agree with the Deputy that our ambition, as a Department, and certainly mine as Minister of State and that of the Minister is to have the money spent. It is very hard for us to argue for increased funding for Traveller-specific accommodation if it is not spent. Last year less than €4.5 million out of a total budget of €9 million was spent. We are engaging with various people before the expert panel is formed. We are engaging with the local authorities and all other stakeholders to try to have the money spent this year. I visit a lot of sites and see no reason we cannot progress work on them. We are certainly making the Department available to work on solutions and projects. The money is available and we want to see it being spent. I have made it very clear to all stakeholders that it is there to be spent and should be spent and that there is no reason we cannot move on projects. The issue sometimes is the Part 8 planning process or with local managers or authority members. I refer also to stakeholders' ambitions. In some cases, I visit sites and the ambitions are not realistic. To be fair, last year's report on the Traveller accommodation programme recommended greater consultation with all stakeholders to work out solutions. The issue is not always just on one side. Part of the overall process of engagement involves encouraging stakeholders to have realistic ambitions. Again, in the case of some of the sites I have visited, I see no reason we cannot get people into a room to form agreements. However, it does not happen and the money is left to one side. There is a lack of focus. I will certainly be open to considering any suggestion the expert panel may bring forward. I hope it will complete its work quite quickly. I am conscious that its members are not going to be paid a lot of money to do it, but we want their advice and expert suggestions which we will implement.

I urge all Members of the House, including the Minister of State, to read the report of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission on inequality and discrimination in the housing system which was published this week. It confirms again, as did the Department's own report commissioned last year, that there is systemic discrimination against Travellers in the housing system. There is also a responsibility on the political leadership. In that regard, I again acknowledge the good work of the Minister of State. However, it is not just a matter for him or some of us on the Opposition benches. All Deputies need to stand up and be counted to ensure that when the issue of Traveller accommodation is being discussed in their constituencies, they do not turn a blind eye to county managers or councillors who are playing politics, with the result that Travellers are denied access to quality accommodation. I am a strong advocate of giving extra powers to local authorities and would be loath to see powers being taken away from them.

However, where a local authority has a track record of refusing to provide land or Part 8 planning or refusing to draw down the funding, then I believe we need to consider, perhaps on a temporary basis, removing that power from the authority and conferring it elsewhere or applying financial sanctions.

Like everyone else, those in the Traveller community deserve equal access and equal rights to housing. I wish to acknowledge the work of the Minister in this regard. Those of us on the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government are committed to working with the Minister to ensure we get this right. If the expert group comes up with good recommendations, those of us in this House can do a good day's work by ensuring that, whatever legislative changes we make, the money will be spent and Travellers get the housing they need.

Those of us in the House at the moment who are focused on this area have an ambition for this money to be spent. There is responsibility on all stakeholders, including Deputies, councillors, Senators, local managers and local authority staff as well as local communities and local Traveller groups. We need to work on this together. The Traveller accommodation programme review points out various difficult areas – it is not limited to one side. I urge anyone who wishes to see progress to work with us to get progress.

We are trying to get this year's allocation spent along with potential changes recommended by the expert group. However, people have to recognise their responsibilities across the board and across the system. That means changes for all sides if we are to get this money spent. I have seen some accommodation that is absolutely not acceptable for these times. Regardless of what party a person is from or what ambitions that person has, it is important that we get this money spent. I hope that we can work with people who are solution-focused. I see people who are objecting or delaying accommodation solutions for different reasons and that is not acceptable either. I appeal to people not to play politics with this in the years ahead because there is a duty on all of us to deliver accommodation. Let us be clear: there is difficulty in some cases with spending on the social housing budget. It does not only apply to Traveller-specific accommodation. We have difficulty in general with social housing projects. We are trying to bring in new design and quality measures to ensure we bring forward top class projects that will be more acceptable to communities. All of us have to play our part.

Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund

Ceisteanna (32)

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

32. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if under the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, 2 scheme, projects that were approved for LIHAF 1 but that did not progress to construction, such as the project in Ballincollig, County Cork, will be prioritised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26866/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

We all recognise the need for housing, including social and affordable housing. Nowhere is the need greater in my area than in Ballincollig, where prices are continuing to drift up. At this stage the average price for houses being sold in recent weeks has reached €308,000, up from €245,000 last year. There is tight demand for social housing. Housing needs to be made available. Phase 1 of the local infrastructure housing activation fund was supposed to supply houses in the area. It was to provide over 500 houses initially and a further 3,000 afterwards. However, the project has stalled and is not being progressed. Can it be prioritised for the next round of LIHAF?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The aim of the local infrastructure housing activation fund is to increase housing supply through enabling infrastructure such as roads, bridges and parks.

It is now the case that significantly increased funding will be available for enabling infrastructure projects through the new €2 billion urban regeneration and development fund and the €1 billion rural regeneration and development fund announced under Project Ireland 2040.

Local authorities will also be able to apply to the new serviced sites fund, which will support delivery of both off and on-site infrastructure that can unlock local authority-owned lands to deliver affordable homes.

Given the crossover between these funds, I have reviewed whether it is necessary to have a further call specifically under LIHAF. I have concluded, in consultation with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, that it would be unnecessary duplication to have separate calls under separate funds for the same types of projects. In addition, I want to give further support to local authorities to bring forward publicly owned sites to provide affordable housing under the affordable purchase scheme.

Accordingly, it has been agreed that the funds that had been allocated for the second call under LIHAF will be transferred to the new serviced sites fund. This will increase the Exchequer funding available from €25 million to €75 million over the period to 2021. This funding will help to speed up the development of affordable housing from publicly owned sites and I will issue a call for proposals under the fund by the end of next week.

The four projects that the Deputy referred to can apply for funding through either the urban regeneration and development fund or the rural regeneration and development fund. Calls for proposals under both funds are expected to issue in the coming weeks.

There is clearly extraordinary demand in the area for housing, whether it is delivered through one scheme or another. People have seen the public schemes. The Old Fort Gate scheme has been stalled and the Poulavone scheme of social housing on public ground has also stalled at second stage evaluation. LIHAF was to deliver a large number of houses on privately owned ground. It was going to be a real opportunity for people in the area. Prices have continued to drift up from an average price of €245,000 last year to €308,000 at present. The social housing demand is phenomenal. The house offered on the choice-based letting website this morning will have up to 500 bids before the week is out. Houses are not being delivered currently. We need the schemes to start delivering sooner rather than later, including those on the publicly owned sites to which the Minister has referred. Are the proposals for LIHAF phase 1 in respect of which the need was established going to be transferred and prioritised for further schemes? That would allow an opportunity for housing to come on-stream.

I thank the Deputy for the follow-up questions. LIHAF 1 is about using State money to unlock larger areas of land and housing potential than would have been available had we directly built the houses ourselves. Approximately €200 million will deliver in the region of 20,000 homes. Not every scheme that applied to the fund was successful. There were three successful schemes under LIHAF 1 in Midleton, Carrigaline and Glanmire. As the Deputy knows, there were some particular issues with the Ballincollig bid. That meant the application could not be finalised when I was finalising the projects last year. It was not so much a problem with LIHAF 1 but a local problem that we could not get around at the time.

The fact that we are standing down the possibility of LIHAF phase 2 does not mean we are standing down the possibility of those projects submitted to my Department for funding for the same scheme or for something similar. It is simply that they will now be under the urban regeneration and development fund or the rural regeneration and development fund. These are bigger schemes, with €3 billion between the two funds. That is separate from the €75 million available for affordable housing provision. I will be launching the urban regeneration fund next week. It will be open for applications for three months and will close at the end of September. We will make decisions in October for the first tranche of money to be drawn down from 1 January next year. A total of €100 million will be available next year. Those projects that are shovel-ready will get prioritised. The announcement will be made next week.

I thank the Minister for the information. Clearly, the need was demonstrated in the four areas, including Ballincollig. The council has been looking to advance the project. There was local pressure to get the project going. The council is putting the proposal back in for LIHAF 2. I imagine applications for the other three projects will probably come in as well. Will they have to go back around again and make new applications for the new scheme? Can the Minister prioritise or fast-track them? Clearly the demand is demonstrated in these areas. They already have matching funding in place and would be more advanced than any scheme coming in fresh. Can they be prioritised? What is the Minister's intention to deal with those? Will they be delayed by having to go back around again with a new application?

Two of the concerns I have with the first round of LIHAF are relevant to the second round. Many of the larger funding allocations were granted to developers who do not actually need the funding. These developers have profitable cash reserves and would have proceeded with the developments within the same timeframe without the money. That is in direct contradiction to the original intentions of LIHAF.

Let us consider the detail of the discounts the Department has provided us with. The average prices after the discount at 2017 prices in the private LIHAF Dublin sites are a little under €320,000. However, the 2017 prices are not locked in. Therefore, as those houses are built in 2019 and 2020 we will see house price inflation. Outside of Dublin we see prices at approximately €250,000 on the basis of 2017 prices. Again, in many places these are actually higher than private sector new-builds. The Minister is giving money to developers who do not need it. There is no guarantee of affordability. In fact, in many cases there is no agreement whatsoever on public sites and mixed sites. It is not simply about ensuring that developers on the sites who need the funding get it. If the objectives of the scheme are to be met, it is vital that funding only goes to those who need it and that there is an affordability dividend. In many cases under LIHAF 1 that was not that case.

I will respond briefly to Deputy Ó Broin. I do not agree that the sites would have proceeded had we not put in place LIHAF 1 funding. The State is getting the money back for the investment made. The State is getting far more back in terms of unlocking these sites for housing than it might have gotten had it directly invested the money. If the current inflation trend for house price increases seen in the first four months this year continues, then we will have single digit inflation this year. That would be a welcome development because we saw double-digit inflation during the past 12 months.

I do not doubt the need for houses in the areas the Deputy has identified in his constituency.

If we are to proceed with LIHAF 2, local infrastructure housing activation fund, there will be a need for a new application. The great thing about these projects is that a huge amount of the heavy lifting has been done in putting proposals together and ensuring the other funding required to leverage LIHAF 2 funding is in place. They will have to make a new application for the new funds because there are different weighting criteria and a number of objectives that have to be met. However, an application that is ready to go will be looked at more favourably because we want to ensure the money will be drawn down from the beginning of next year. We have to invest a large amount of money between now and 2027, the lifetime of funds under the national development plan. These applicants will start from a very good position, but they will have to pay attention to the new criteria which will be slightly different from those under LIHAF 2. I have no doubt that, given the progress made under LIHAF 1, they will be in a good position when the applications process is opened.

Will there be any-----

The Minister might have a word with the Deputy.

Vacant Properties

Ceisteanna (33)

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

33. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the job description of vacant homes officers in local authorities; if they are required to investigate and report on the reasons homes in their authority area are left vacant; if they have specific time allocated in their working week to work specifically on activity to bring homes back into use; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26814/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

The purpose of this question is to find out exactly what vacant homes officers are doing. Given the fact that there are now so many people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, coupled with the fact that there is such a shortage of available housing, it is a scandal that there are empty properties throughout the country which could be used as homes. Even if the numbers are nowhere near the census figure of 183,000, we need proactive engagement on empty houses available throughout the country in order that they can be turned into homes for people. What are vacant home officers doing? Are they being proactive in bringing homes back into use?

I agree that we have to be very proactive in dealing with vacant properties. That is what we are trying to do. It was nice that the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures last week reflected the fact that over 5,000 vacant properties had been brought back into use in the past two years. The report of the CSO was released last week and is independent of the Government. We also know that 8,400 local authority voids have been brought back into use. There has, therefore, been a major focus on vacancies.

Local authorities have designated vacant homes officers who act as a central point of contact. They provide information and advice for owners of vacant homes and also deal with queries from members of the public in respect of private residential vacant properties in their administrative area.  

The range of duties of the vacant homes officer includes tasks that support the development of local authorities’ vacant homes action plans. They are involved in co-ordinating both initial vacancy assessment exercises such as drilling down into available data, primarily from the CSO and GeoDirectory. They also undertake visual inspections of properties in their administrative area, where appropriate, as well as engaging with the owners of vacant homes on the options available to assist them in bringing their properties back into the habitable housing stock. A range of options have been outlined by the Department which are an attractive carrot designed to encourage people to bring forward these vacant properties.  

It is, of course, a matter for each local authority to decide the appropriate allocation of staff and resources for this work, having regard to its overall workforce planning policy. However, we have indicated to local authorities that we want them to do as much as possible to ensure vacant homes in areas of high demand for housing are targeted and brought back into use, where feasible. In that regard, my Department will be providing funding to support the work of vacant homes officers within each local authority, allowing for an increased focus on vacancy issues and boosting take-up of schemes to tackle vacancies. Correspondence from local authorities to that effect was received last week and there will be more in the weeks ahead.

I had the opportunity recently to visit Limerick where I saw some great work being done on vacant properties. I have to commend the vacancy unit for the work it is doing. I have asked it to do much more of that work. It has brought forward some excellent properties under the purchase and renewal scheme. It is also dealing with the repair and leasing scheme. There is a range of schemes in place. There is, therefore, no excuse for leaving properties vacant. I accept that in some instances there is a reason which must be addressed with the person who owns the property which might be complicated, but local authorities are being asked to prioritise this work. They have been provided with funding and we have seen some great results throughout the country, in Limerick in particular.

I am really trying to find out whether the people who have these jobs have other tasks to do. Is a specific amount of time devoted to proactively finding out the reasons properties are vacant, rather than just responding if somebody provides the information? Do they draft action plans? In the British system vacant homes officers have a very proactive role. They identify the reason a property is vacant in their local area, rather than waiting for somebody to apply under the existing schemes such as the purchase and renewal scheme. Is there a proactive plan in place for local authorities to specifically identify vacant houses? Do the officers in question then go and talk to their owners? Are there plans to have a tax on properties that have been left vacant for a long period of time?

Vacant homes officers and their teams are engaging on the issue. In Limerick four people have been assigned to the task. There is even a vacant homes manager. Their job is to proactively chase up vacant properties. I have seen good examples in different counties I have visited where vacant properties have been brought forward. We want the officers in question to do more. That is what we are asking them to do. It involves engaging directly with the owners of properties to find out what has gone wrong. The website, vacanthomes.ie, was set up by Mayo County Council and my Department. It is a useful tool in that regard and over 1,700 homes have been registered on it. It raises awareness of properties and encourages people to work with us to bring forward solutions. There is a range of schemes available which I will not go through. There are many options available through the local authorities. The allocated funding for this year, amounting to around €50,000 per unit, will be announced in the weeks ahead in order that this process can be driven physically on a day to day basis. I understand this is what vacant homes officers are doing in most cases. We have asked them in our meetings with them, when we meet them at housing summits and weekly meetings with local authorities, to focus on this issue and dedicate resources to dealing with it. We are matching that funding with resources from the Department.

The numbers taking up the two schemes are disappointing. Does the Minister of State have plans to increase the uptake either by changing the schemes or introducing a stick-based approach? Are there plans to have a tax on homes that have been left vacant for a long period of time?

We all agree that the numbers are not as high as we want them to be. The schemes have been put in place and they are attractive. We made changes to them to make them even more attractive. There is no reason the purchase and renew scheme cannot be used much more by local authorities which now understand this also. There are over 600 repair and lease-back properties in the system. Some 900 properties have been through the scheme and 600 are still being judged or worked on. I hope the majority will come through the system. We have changed the scheme to make it easier and more attractive. There is an option to lease back properties after five years. We are trying to place a focus on this project. Asking each local authority to have a vacant homes action plan, fund officers and put money behind the scheme is an attempt to place a focus on the issue. We should see a major improvement in the number of properties coming through both schemes, as well as others, in the months ahead. The vacant homes unit in the Department which was set up by the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, aims to drive this agenda to increase the level of activity. We will see increased activity in this space in the months ahead.

Water Quality

Ceisteanna (34)

Eoin Ó Broin

Ceist:

34. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the response to the European Court of Justice legal action regarding the breaches of the urban wastewater treatment directive; the status of ongoing discussions with the European Commission and the Council on the revised drinking water directive; and his views on the possibility of additional European Court of Justice action for breaches of the existing drinking water directive. [26819/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (4 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

The Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, as well as officials from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Environmental Protection Agency, have voiced concerns about the revised drinking water directive the European Commission is considering. Will the Minister update us on his engagement on the matter? Has he been discussing it with the European Commission and the Council? Has there been any shift in the position of the European Commission on the matter?

The European Commission has referred a complaint against Ireland to the Court of Justice of the European Union in relation to compliance with the urban wastewater treatment directive.  The case relates to 40 urban areas which the Commission believes to be non-compliant.  The Chief State Solicitor's office formally lodged Ireland's defence with the Court of Justice of the European Union in October 2017 and the written procedure on the case closed in February.  The decision of the court is awaited. 

Funding under the national development plan and in line with the objectives of the river basin management plan for the period 2018 to 2021 has been designed to tackle the impact of historical under-investment in wastewater treatment facilities.  The river basin management plan which I launched in April sets out €1.7 billion worth of investment by Irish Water in 255 urban wastewater projects which are proposed to achieve compliance with the urban wastewater treatment directive and other measures to prevent deterioration and support targeted water quality improvements.

In relation to the revised drinking water directive, the Commission has presented its proposal and the working party on the environment has provided an initial reaction. The Presidency has developed some preliminary compromise papers and some aspects will be the subject of political discussion at the June Environment Council.  The incoming Austrian Presidency will consider the appropriate next steps.

The Commission initiated pilot infringement proceedings in May 2015 in relation to THMs in drinking water in Ireland. Ireland’s response was rejected by the Commission on 23 January 2017, but the case has not yet been escalated. My Department has been working closely with Irish Water on drinking water standards and work programmes are well in hand to address the issue.

Is the Minister satisfied the levels of investment in upgrading wastewater treatment plants are sufficient to ensure we will not face further legal action? Does he have any estimate as to when the decision of the European Court of Justice will be made? Is he confident that the European Commission is going to return to World Trade Organization, WTO, standards in the revised drinking water directive as an alternative to what is proposed in the current draft?

We do not have time for a response to the points raised by the Deputy because under Standing Order 29 we must now move to Leaders' Questions.