Housing: Motion.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 670 No. 4

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Deputy Ciarán Lynch: Information on Ciaran Lynch  Zoom on Ciaran Lynch  I move:

[842]

I wish to share time with Deputies Upton, Ó Snodaigh and Ferris.

The motion I put before the Dáil jointly on behalf of the Labour Party and Sinn Féin calls for a moratorium on house repossessions, an expanded programme of social housing, new measures to deal with the problem of homelessness, stronger protection for tenants in rented accommodation and legislation to regulate the activities of management companies.

As we approach Christmas 2008 there are more people than ever on social housing waiting lists, an unprecedented number of families are facing the threat of having their homes repossessed and homelessness is as prevalent as ever.

  7 o’clock

The threat of losing a home is possibly the greatest fear a family can face. As unemployment grows, more and more families who took on heavy mortgage repayments, based on incomes they were then earning, now find that, as a result of the loss of one job or more, they are coming under pressure from financial institutions. A spate of repossession orders in the new year could create a social disaster and the Government must negotiate a moratorium on repossession orders for the duration of this recession. I note from this morning’s newspapers that 14,000 households are over three months in arrears.

The social housing figures published last week showed a jump from 43,700 to nearly 60,000 in just three years in the social housing list. What is truly shocking about this figure is that the Government has presided over a doubling in the social housing list over the past ten years. [843] These figures show the extent to which Fianna Fáil squandered the boom, leaving tens of thousands of families high and dry without adequate housing. An expanded social housing programme would not only provide families with badly needed accommodation, but would also help to put the construction sector back to work.

No Member of this House should need to be reminded about the issue of homelessness when we see the persons huddling in the porches and alleyways around Leinster House each evening. Despite this daily reminder, there are an estimated 5,000 experiencing homelessness at any given time, almost 500 of whom are children. It is in this context that I put the motion before the House.

It is clear that as far as the Government is concerned it is a case of “Crisis? What Crisis?”. How you define a housing crisis is determined by how you define the purpose of housing. Do you see it as a commodity? Do you see it as a home? Do you want to build developments or do you want to create communities? Ultimately, do you want developer-led Government or Government-led development?

When this Government came to power the average house cost three times the income of a working family spread over a 20 year mortgage. Just before the housing pyramid collapsed the cost of an average house had risen to 12 times the average income, with a mortgage of 30 plus years now the norm. In the period 1997 to 2007 residential mortgage debt in Ireland grew to an extraordinary 522%. Many made money from home buyers in that period as the market rose and many will continue to make money as these mortgages continue to be paid over the coming decades.

How did this happen? The answer is simple. Those who had a duty of care — Government, regulators and banking institutions — all neglected that duty and this country’s future was invested in a property bubble. An example of this mindset was best captured in April 2006 when the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, spoke about the “health” of the housing market and sneered at economists who predicted a collapse. With chest out he proudly proclaimed that people who listened to the “loo-las” would have missed the boat and would have to pay more for their houses at that time. This is the type of frightening talk we are more used to hearing coming from dodgy salesmen, with a mantra that you should get in and buy now or you will have to pay even more later.

It did not matter to Deputy Ahern or his Government that the cost of buying a home was out of control and running beyond the grasp of working people. It did not matter that families were being locked into mortgages that would take them their entire working lives to clear. It did not matter to them, in those sunny days, that when a rainy day came people would be in danger of losing their homes because of their recklessness.

This motion, once and for all, seeks to banish the mindset that the primary purpose of housing development is profit for speculators. This motion proposes that housing development, whether private or public, is to meet the needs of society in providing people with homes of a quality standard, at an affordable cost and providing long-term security.

If there has been a consistent theme to how Fianna Fáil’s developer-led Government has been focused towards the housing market over the years, it has been to focus on sorting out the developers, and on getting new developments built; and then at some stage in the future maybe get around to sorting the problems of schools, transportation, green spaces, common areas etc. In the private rental sector, for example, figures I obtained show that less than one in ten houses are inspected for standards. The figures produced by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government show that less than 6% of 188,000 registered private rented dwellings were inspected in 2007. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, speaks of introducing guidelines and “a dedicated stream of money” to local authorities to carry out [844]inspections but it seems he neither has the determination nor the powers to ensure that inspections are carried out and that standards are enforced. The result is that, despite promises of legislation, vulnerable people are left without protection.

Just like social housing, the private rented sector fills an important function providing necessary housing for hundreds of thousands of people. However, it is unacceptable that, despite the legislation in place, and the promise of even more in 2009, adequate enforcement of standards is still not in place.

What is needed to ensure standards in the rental sector, whether private or social, is the creation of a national inspection regime ensuring that standards are enforced and which would guarantee the establishment of effective and efficient timeframes in which disputes would be resolved and, in the case of local authority housing, determine an acceptable period in which urgent repairs must be carried out.

The problems relating to management companies are well understood and have been analysed to a great extent by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement.

These companies, many of which were set up by developers, need to be regulated in the interest of residents rather than developers. The fact that they are currently in a legal no man’s land is causing endless trouble for affected residents. For several years, the Government has spoken about the need for legislation in this area but we are continually fobbed off with policy reviews and committee meetings. This motion calls for less conversation from this Government and a lot more action.

If we were to look to the long-awaited Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 as a remedy to the issues identified in this motion we would be well and truly disappointed. That Bill was expected to deal with homelessness but, embarrassingly, this issue was omitted when it was first published. The Government was shamed into cutting, copying and pasting a paragraph on homelessness into the Bill when it was debated in the Seanad. The Bill’s response to anti-social behaviour is to load additional bureaucratic nonsense upon local authorities without giving them any additional powers. This will only add to the frustration that currently arises when residents make a complaint and find their situation has not improved at the end of a long and futile merry-go-round.

The biggest indictment of the Bill is its revelation that the mentality of the Galway tent is still alive and well when it comes to promoting tenant purchase schemes. The significant changes in this area are targeted towards shifting property described as “new build”. There will, therefore, be no new incentives to regenerate existing communities by allowing tenants to purchase their homes. In fact the Bill could cause a repeat of the exodus in the 1980s of earning residents from local authority estates, a mistake for which we are still paying the social and financial costs. The Bill in its present form continues to ignore tenants of local authority flats, who have been left in the lurch for years and denied the right to buy their homes. It intends instead to introduce a purchase scheme confined exclusively to new build property, whereby people who have been assessed for social housing can get a loan up to €285,000 from a local authority once they have been refused a mortgage by at least two lending institutions. Ironically, this is going to be called the first choice purchase scheme. As everyone knows, people are refused mortgages for two reasons. One is that the evidence indicates the prospective lender cannot pay back the loan and the second is that the property is over valued. What purpose will this scheme serve other than to provide a sub-prime lending service and set a false floor price for new houses in a declining yet still over valued property market?

While this country is no longer as wealthy as before, it is wealthy enough to be ashamed of its record on homelessness. With housing vacancy rates in Ireland of 15%, it is unacceptable [845]that 5,000 people will be on the streets this winter. We need a strategy which enables homeless people to make the successful transition from temporary emergency shelter to long-term accommodation. This can only be done if the proper rehabilitation processes are in place and on the basis of a cross departmental and interagency approach.

Even in today’s falling housing market, hard working couples can find that the cost of buying a home exceeds ten times their income. If they are waiting for social housing they can find their names have gone backwards rather than forwards on an ever increasing list. If they live in the rental sector they cannot be confident that the basic guaranteed standards will be enforced. For too long, this Government’s housing policy has been driven by the needs of everyone but home dwellers. The situation badly needs to be changed and the motion before the Dáil demands that we get our priorities right and our house in order. It is time to end developer led Government and to put in its place Government led development, whereby house prices are driven by affordability rather than speculation, standards are enforced and not just put on paper and communities instead of housing developments are built. We need to look beyond the bricks and mortar to insist on a future built on a foundation of social conscience and integrity. I commend this motion to the house.

Deputy Mary Upton: Information on Mary Upton  Zoom on Mary Upton  The legacy of the Celtic tiger will not be relished by a large number of people in this country because of the fear it has generated in their lives. They face a stark outcome of uncertainty about their homes, heavy debt from their mortgage commitments, lives in overcrowded conditions and shelter in hostel accommodation or a cardboard box in the doorways and archways not far from these Houses.

What is the real outcome of the downfall of the tiger? The number on the social housing lists now tops 56,000 and more than 5,000 people are homeless. Major urban regeneration projects, such as St. Michael’s Estate in Inchicore, have failed and revised plans have been scaled back significantly. There is no regulation of management companies nor support for apartment owners, although a great deal of favour is shown to landlords and construction companies. Unfinished and vacant housing and commercial developments dot the country, with all the signs of neglect and incipient dereliction. Lack of regulation by the Financial Regulator led to sub-prime lending and 100% mortgages and spurred the recent spike in housing repossessions.

There were opportunities over the past ten years to deal with homelessness and social housing but they were squandered. The Government’s job is to lead and make the right choices for all the people and not just the chosen few. Above all else, it has the responsibility to protect those least able to look out for themselves. This did not happen for many people who now face repossession of their homes or exorbitant mortgage payments which they cannot make because of rising unemployment. The Government bought into the property bubble and bent over backwards to provide tax breaks to help developers continue building private homes. There were no sanctions for the banks and mortgage providers which indulged in excessive and irresponsible lending practices. I have previously referred in this House to the case of a woman on a community employment scheme who was given a mortgage worth €150,000 that she has no prospect of repaying and is now facing the repossession of her house. Tax breaks were available for second homes. Poor planning decisions went unheeded and every attempt to update planning legislation to favour residents over developers was dismissed.

As we look back on this activity it is clear that very little was done to support those in need of help. Where are the supports for the thousands of homeless people? A hostel for the homeless was built on James’s Street in my constituency but was not opened for months because there was no funding for its day-to-day operations. It was only today that the official opening of this facility took place, although I acknowledge it has now been open for several months.

[846]The legislation to regulate management companies seems to be stored in mothballs. The future of our cities and towns is higher density development and, in all probability, more management companies yet the Government seems incapable of regulating these companies so that they work for their residents instead of their directors and management agents.

Home repossessions are increasing. An increasing number of people in my constituency are facing an uncertain future in their homes. The social housing list continues to expand, with 4,991 people on the social housing list in the Dublin City Council area alone. As this figure dates from February 2008, it probably underestimates the true nature of the current list.

If we bail out the banks what does Ireland get in return? Will we see an end to primary home repossessions for the duration of the recession, as is the case in the UK? Will repossessed commercial space be given to community and sports groups? Will houses in vacant developments be made available to people on housing lists? Thus far, we have received absolutely nothing for bailing out the banks, despite the large cheque written by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to accompany the State’s guarantee. The Government has forgotten that it was using taxpayers’ money during the Celtic tiger era. Now that the good economic times are over, it is clear that no real progress towards equity and equality in the housing market was made. We have thousands on the national housing lists and many more face evictions or repayments of sub-prime mortgages. Public private partnership regeneration projects are foundering as developers look for more money and the Government’s relentless drive to support developers has not given Ireland any long-term benefit or addressed the huge housing crisis. The Irish housing boom was the emperor which never had any clothes and people are only just beginning to feel the consequences of the various ill-judged investments of taxpayers’ money over the years. I commend the motion to the House.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Charlie O’Connor): Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  Tá deich nóiméad ag an dTeachta Aengus Ó Snodaigh.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Ba mhaith liom 15 nóiméad agus cúig a thabhairt don Teachta Ferris.

Acting Chairman: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  I am happy with anything the Deputies have agreed among themselves.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Páirtí an Lucht Oibre as ucht tacú linn an rún seo a chur os comhair na Dála anocht.

In recommending this Private Members’ motion to the House I will outline Sinn Féin’s approach to housing and homelessness and speak to a number of central elements of the motion, which is co-sponsored by the Labour Party. Issues related to housing probably constitute the bulk of most public representatives’ work throughout the country. In my own area it probably accounts for approximately 80% of the people coming to the various clinics or advice centres that I or the councillors in my area have. It is certainly the case at local authority level but I am sure if everybody in this House was asked what the bulk of their work would be at local level, it would be work dealing with housing and homelessness.

Sinn Féin believes housing is a right and not a privilege. Whereas the majority of people living in the State can afford to own or rent their own home, an increasing number cannot. That is a position which, unfortunately, is set to worsen given the current economic climate and the rapidly rising level of unemployment. There is also an increasing number of people who because of that economic situation are being forced out of accommodation which they were in the process of buying through a mortgage and on to the public housing lists.

[847]I received figures tonight relating to the mortgage interest supplement which indicate the number of people availing of it has doubled in two years. That is a yardstick by which to measure the crisis we are facing. For such people, the State has a political and social responsibility to respond to their housing need and ensure they are adequately housed. That is not something which can be reneged on simply because the economic climate has changed. Addressing the housing problem is inextricably linked to the overall economy and particularly in an economy such as our own, where construction comprised such a major part and where so many people have recently lost their jobs.

Whereas social benefit measures such as rent supplement, mortgage interest supplement and the rental accommodation scheme have a role in addressing housing problems, it is Sinn Féin’s view that the provision of social housing, funded by Government via local authorities, must be the central element in any successfully housing strategy. Unfortunately, that did not happen over the most recent period when more resources were available to the State than at any other time in our history.

Figures released last week by the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Michael Finneran, demonstrate two stark facts. The first is that housing need in the State is increasing every year and has now reached crisis proportions. In March this year, 59,000 households were in need of housing, languishing on local authority waiting lists. That figure has increased substantially since then, given the economic crisis. More than 40,000 children live in these households and the most frightening aspect of that figure is that it has grown to such an extent over the years of economic prosperity. Inevitably, unless immediate and urgent action is taken to tackle the waiting lists through a programme of public house building, it will continue to grow, perhaps even at a faster rate.

A second stark fact was outlined in the Minister of State’s figures, although he did not understand how stark it was. The Government housing policy is failing, which is demonstrated by the fact that since 2005 housing need has increased by 30% and has doubled in the past decade. As I have said, this was at a time when the State was arguably in a better position than ever before to do something positive to turn that issue around. Unfortunately, it was content to allow the private sector and property developers dictate the housing agenda, often in ways that were detrimental to people either buying or attempting to buy their own homes.

Many of those issues are fundamental to the current overall economic position and the so-called credit crunch. The simple fact is that the Government is not spending enough money on social housing and, as a consequence, local authorities are not able to provide sufficient social housing to meet local needs.

In 2005 the Government’s own think tank, the National Economic and Social Council, stated that the State would need 200,000 social houses by 2012 if the housing need was to be met. On the basis of the existing stock in 2005, this would require the building of 10,000 social housing units every year for seven years. Since then the Government has committed to and completed significantly lower numbers of social housing than suggested by NESC, especially when one takes into account tenant purchase and de-tenanting, which leads to local authority housing stock being reduced.

Everything is rosy in the amendment to be proposed by the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. He will tell this House that in 2007 and 2008 the Government met its NDP commitments of 9,000 social units a year. However, this is still nowhere near the level of new social units required to meet either the NESC targets or the levels of need in society. It is also the case that Fianna Fáil’s current partner in Government, the Green Party, made a commitment broadcast to everyone of building 10,000 social housing units a year if part of the Cabinet. The [848]party has Ministers in Cabinet in Deputies Gormley and Eamon Ryan. They must explain yet another failure to fulfil a promise made to the people who put them where they are.

Sinn Féin also believes that the figure of 59,000 households in need is a significant and deliberate underestimation of the actual level of need across the State. When drafting the guidelines for the triennial housing needs assessment, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government instructed local authorities to remove a number of categories of households from the final figures. These households included people designated by the local authority as in need of social housing but who are either living in local authority housing that was overcrowded, those who are materially unsuitable or living in the private rented sector.

This is a cynical exercise in massaging the figures and in doing so it undermines attempts by local authorities to develop housing plans based on an honest and objective assessment of the levels of need in their areas. It also grossly underestimates the true level of unsatisfactory accommodation and effectively condemns a significant number of people to continue to live in below-standard accommodation and to be unable to improve their position by accessing local authority housing.

From a political perspective, the massaging of figures serves the short-term interest of the Government and the self-defeating purpose of pretending or seeking to portray the housing issue as not as bad as it actually is. Such tactics tend to backfire, as the many thousands of people affected are unlikely to be fooled by the rhetoric or massaging of figures.

Today I challenge both the Minister of State and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to come clean and release the full figures for households deemed by the local authorities to be in need of social housing. That would at least give us a clearer and more accurate picture of the actual position and allow housing policy to be guided by a response to it. That works under the assumption that the political will exists for it.

As the joint Sinn Féin-Labour Party motion makes clear, our parties believe that in the current financial climate, Government and local authorities should do everything in their power to increase the stock of available social housing in the coming year. If unsold properties on the private market meet the standards required by local authorities, represent value for money for the taxpayer and are appropriate to the needs of families on waiting lists, the Government and local authorities should actively pursue the purchase of these properties, hopefully at or below building cost prices. In addition to meeting housing needs, it would have positive additional economic benefits.

With rising unemployment in the construction sector, the Government should also provide additional resources or loan guarantees to local authorities to commence an expanded social housing, new-build programme in the coming year. I again urge the Minister of State to examine regeneration areas, which are blighted due to the collapse of their ill-thought out PPPs. That approach would represent a significant boost to the construction sector and to the overall economy at the current time.

At the minimum, we need 10,000 new social houses to be provided per year, net of tenant purchase, if the needs of the 59,000 households on local authority waiting lists are to be met. I say “at the minimum” because the actual demand is undoubtedly higher. In addition, the numbers seeking to leave private accommodation, which they are currently either buying or renting, will increase significantly over the next period if, as predicted, the economy continues to be in a depressed condition.

At a time of rising demand and deepening recession, it makes both social and economic sense for the Government to invest in social housing. Failure to do so will not only further exacerbate our economic difficulties, but will also lead to a further increase in levels of need, [849]with more families, including children, languishing on waiting lists in overcrowded, materially unsuitable accommodation, or in accommodation that they simply cannot afford.

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  This is the Minister of State’s chance.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Homelessness is another serious problem linked to the lack of suitable housing. This phenomenon has been increasing in recent years and appears to have worsened in the current economic downturn. At any one time, approximately 5,000 homeless people are living in the State and it is estimated that as many as 1,800 people become homeless each year. For some of these, drug and alcohol addiction, family breakdown, domestic violence or psychiatric illness are the triggers that lead to homelessness. Others, however, are actually part of the economy or have been recently let go from their jobs. That is a particularly frightening aspect of the problem and illustrates both how it is possible to reach that situation and how difficult it is to escape from it.

Whatever the reasons for homelessness, however, the central problem of those affected is that they cannot access a place to call home, and because of that they almost attain the status of non-persons. Everything becomes far more difficult when a person has no home; life becomes more precarious and often dangerous.

As I said earlier, housing needs have reached crisis point with 59,000 households stuck on local authority waiting lists. On top of that, many people are living in homes that are unsuitable, overcrowded and too expensive. These people are most vulnerable to becoming homeless given their profile and problems. Some 80% of people in that category are single men, representing the sharpest end of housing needs in this State. That is especially so, given that they rate as a lower priority on the housing lists than others, for example, adults with children, but that is not an excuse for failing to meet their needs.

That figure is a symbol of the Government’s ongoing failure to meet the housing needs of the most vulnerable in our society. Figures released yesterday by the Homeless Agency in Dublin indicate a 4% increase in homelessness in the city. Some 2,300 people are homeless in Dublin city tonight. I know that people are living in tents in the Phoenix Park, many of them from eastern Europe. The homeless represent a cross-section of our society, including people who were recently part of the workforce but who have lost their jobs, are unable to keep up rental payments and have been forced onto the streets.

I commend this motion to the House. I urge the Minister of State to withdraw his amendment and vote with us to tackle the problems of homelessness and housing need in our society.

Deputy Martin Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris  Zoom on Martin Ferris  As Deputy Ó Snodaigh outlined, housing needs have reached crisis point. Some 59,000 households are stuck on local authority waiting lists. That figure has increased steadily over recent years and will continue to grow. Those on housing lists are often living in homes that are unsuitable, overcrowded and too expensive. They have to share accommodation with others, including family members, or are in private rented accommodation that they cannot afford. Many families with children, in particular, are living in apartments and flats that have no facilities for children to play, either within or close to the buildings. In many cases, that means that children spend much of their time cooped up inside.

Much privately built and rented accommodation around our cities and towns is unsuitable for the raising of families, yet many families are being forced to rent them. In many instances, this happens with financial support in the form of rent allowance because public authorities have been unable to meet existing demand and targets for social housing have not been met. That means that what appears to be a saving for the public finances turns out to be a drain on them. Instead of building a physical asset, the State has often provided large sums of money in [850]rent allowances to accommodate people who might otherwise be housed by local authorities. In effect, speculators who capitalised on economic growth by building houses, have their mortgages paid for by the State.

In my county, the housing list grew from 1,483 in 2002 to 1,831 in 2005. Those years witnessed the pinnacle of the Celtic tiger, but despite that the signals were not recognised and the necessary steps were not taken to address the fact that the public housing building programme was inadequate to meet demand. Since then, the situation has worsened considerably in Kerry and elsewhere. The overall waiting list for the whole county is now over 3,300, which represents an increase of 82% since 2005. Some 1,296 of these are on the county council waiting list.

In Tralee town alone, the waiting list has grown from 948 in 2005 to 1,300 now, which is an increase of 37%. In Killarney, the increase is even greater with the list having doubled in those three years to around 600. That situation can be mirrored across the country in every council area. It gives an indication of the demand that exists as well as the lack of facilities being provided by the State. That extremely disturbing situation reflects an increasing dependence on the public housing sector as a consequence of house prices having been beyond people’s reach. In addition, the increasing number of unemployed has led to increased demands on local authorities.

We cannot overlook the fact that while the economy was doing well and the public purse was full, resources were not invested in meeting that demand. The State was content to allow the private sector, including lending institutions, to set the housing agenda. That meant inflated mortgages and rents were often way out of line with wage increases as well as the consumer price index for other products and services. We must recognise therefore that there was a considerable element of profiteering involved in the housing sector, which has contributed to much of the current economic crisis.

It is not too late to address the shortfall in public housing. It has been argued that a housing programme designed to clear the existing local authority housing list, which is almost 60,000 for the entire State, would provide a substantial boost for the construction sector and the economy in general. If that route was followed we would be killing two birds with one stone: fulfilling a pressing public need and injecting much needed impetus and capital into the economy at a time of sharp downturn. It would also reduce the burden on rent allowance.

Homelessness is a growing problem that affects many people who have recently lost their jobs or who are in low-paid employment. The demand for local authority and social housing is stark, but it needs to be met. This situation offers an opportunity to the Government to sustain the construction sector and the economy generally. We can do that and everybody will be prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel if the Government is prepared to take that chance. Otherwise, it will be indicted for what has occurred, namely, a waste of money and the neglect of those most in need.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Michael Finneran): Information on Michael Finneran  Zoom on Michael Finneran  I move amendment No. 1:

notes the outcome of the Financial Regulator’s examination of procedures for handling mortgage arrears and repossessions across credit institutions and other mortgage lenders, including the findings that lenders generally have procedures in place which clearly state that the repossession of a residential property is a last resort, borne out by the limited numbers of repossessions secured through court orders, and the issuing, by the Regulator, of best practice guidance prepared on foot of its examination; and

[852]

As the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, I am pleased to move the Government’s amending motion in this debate. I never cease to be amazed by the Labour Party’s capacity to repeatedly table ill-judged motions, providing the Government with opportunity after opportunity to respond easily to its wide-of-the-mark claims by outlining our significant achievements. Given the time of year, the Labour Party Deputies remind me of turkeys voting for Christmas. For the purposes of tonight’s debate, they have been joined by the Members of [853]the Sinn Féin branch of the turkey family. If they will insist on playing the turkeys, we are happy to do the stuffing.

I want to use my time this evening to do two things. First, I want to outline recent developments in our housing policy and programmes, particularly in our housing policy statement, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, which was published early last year. Second, I want to respond to some of the reckless scaremongering by elements of the Opposition concerning house repossessions, which were described in a performance by the Labour Party leader that I can only call hysterical as Ireland’s biggest ticking social time bomb.

Like all the best scaremongering, this is without foundation in fact. It seeks to create panic and unease in households already feeling the effects of the current economic conditions, the very households for which the Labour Party purports to be concerned. I will revert to this matter later.

I want to outline how the Government has consistently delivered on highly ambitious policy objectives and output targets for housing in Ireland. The Government’s policy statement, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, sets out a vision to guide the transformation of the housing sector in the medium term by delivering more and better quality housing responses in a more strategic way focused on the building of sustainable communities.

We are working on the implementation issues that need to be addressed to transform the housing environment to meet the challenges arising, many of which are identified in the policy statement. I am pleased to say that substantial strides forward have already been made. In recent years, we have made considerable progress in meeting housing needs through the broad range of social and affordable housing programmes. In 2007 alone, more than 13,000 social and affordable housing units were delivered and the needs of almost 18,300 households were met across the housing spectrum. This represents a significant increase of 24% on the level of needs met in 2006 and a significant step towards assisting an average of 20,000 households per annum over the seven years of the National Development Plan 2007-2013.

We hear much noise but little content from the Labour Party and Sinn Féin regarding housing. They hope that their noise will drown out the facts. It is time that the Labour Party faced up to the facts. When it was last in office in 1997, the needs of 9,300 households were met by the housing programmes in place. Last year, the Government’s range of programmes met the needs of 18,300 households. While the truth hurts, this Government is meeting housing needs at double the level delivered by the Labour Party. I would have thought that before the Labour Party decided to try to lecture this side of the House, it would have undertaken at least some element of self-assessment of its own performance. This is not surprising, as the turkeys voting for Christmas phenomenon is alive and well on the benches opposite.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Who was in government at the time?

Acting Chairman: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  The Minister of State without interruption.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  He is calling himself a turkey.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  We will leave the turkeys out and get a few pigs.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Gobble gobble.

Deputy Michael Finneran: Information on Michael Finneran  Zoom on Michael Finneran  The commitment entered into by the Government under the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, was to achieve 27,000 social housing starts in the period 2007-09. In terms of delivery, we set out to reach the first one third of this target in 2007. By [854]the end of 2007, we had exceeded this target with a total of 9,061 starts across the local authority, voluntary and co-operative housing programmes and the rental accommodation scheme.

An ambitious target of delivering 17,000 affordable homes in the years 2007-09 was set in the agreement. The challenge presented to local authorities was to increase the supply of affordable homes, which stood at over 3,200 units in 2006. Authorities rose to that challenge, delivering a significant increase in the supply of affordable homes. They delivered more than 3,500 units in 2007, an increase on the previous year of 10%, and 2008 delivery is expected to exceed 4,000 units. While short of targets, this is hardly surprising, given the significant changes in the housing market.

The results of the housing needs assessment, which I published last week and which show an increase in net social housing need of more than 30%, are a reminder of the importance of sustaining this unprecedented level of effort. The increase presents a challenging scenario. However, in light of our delivery record, which all indications suggest is continuing at a strong pace in 2008, the increase is more representative of economic drivers, such as movements in houses prices and an increased number of foreign nationals resident in Ireland, than it is an indictment of what we have achieved in terms of output and the range of tailored supports put in place.

Everyone knows the difficult economic climate in which we live and the pressures on the public finances. Despite these, the Government is providing €1.66 billion in funding for housing in the 2009 Estimates. While this is a reduction of 4% on the 2008 Estimate, it is still well ahead of where we were in 2007 and, taking account of the better value now to be had in the market, will allow us to maintain strong momentum towards meeting our commitments in the Towards 2016 social partnership agreement and our long-term goals under the NDP.

Despite the compelling demands and priorities calling on available resources, the Government has shown its commitment to minimising the impact of the tighter financial situation on the social housing programme. The reduction in resources in this area of activity has been kept to just 1.7%. Nevertheless, I accept that even small-scale reductions in funding present challenges for us and local authorities in terms of maintaining levels of activity at current levels. Therefore, we are determined to optimise the use of available resources.

One way or another, the extent of current housing need, notwithstanding the debate around how we best define it, demands a flexible and imaginative response to the structuring of our investment programme. In the context of a difficult economic transition, we must seek to maximise the return on public investment, as measured by the extent to which we are meeting housing needs. More than ever, we need to question the accepted ways of doing things.

One option that my Department will be pursuing with local authorities in the context of their 2009 investment programmes will be the use of long-term lease arrangements for social housing purposes to supplement traditional local authority construction or acquisition. This would provide a more cost-effective, targeted approach in line with the principles of the life cycle concept endorsed by the social partners.

Tackling homelessness, undoubtedly one of the most complex areas of my brief, will continue to be one of my top priorities in 2009. When I launched the Government’s new homeless strategy in August, I outlined my vision for ending long-term occupation of emergency accommodation and the need to sleep rough, two challenging but achievable targets. The new strategy builds on the strong progress made under previous homeless strategies and sets out a vision to address adult homelessness over the next five years.

Since 2000, when the first homeless strategy was published, more than €600 million in State current funding has been made available for homeless services, as well as significant capital [855]investment in new facilities. Despite the most difficult budgetary situation in decades, current funding for homeless services from my Department and local authorities will increase by 5% in 2009 to more than €62 million. This shows clearly the priority that I attach to addressing homelessness.

The next key step in this process will be the completion of a strategic implementation plan. The draft plan will be circulated later this week to the cross-departmental team on homelessness and the National Homeless Consultative Committee. The plan, when published early in the new year, will provide a blueprint for the range of actions needed to pursue the aims of the homeless strategy. We are already progressing a number of key measures that will feature in the plan. Yesterday, I announced a new scheme to provide both homes and supports through leasing arrangements on a long-term basis for formerly homeless people, with an initial target of 300 homes to be delivered in 2009. Work on development of this initiative is quite advanced and it will be launched through a competitive tendering process early in the new year.

A figure of 5,000 homeless nationally has been cited in some quarters, but the source for this figure is unclear, particularly given that the 2008 housing needs assessment only identified 1,394 homeless households. While I acknowledge this figure represents the number of homeless households that have applied for and have been considered eligible for social housing support, and therefore cannot represent the total number of homeless households in the country as a whole, I must also point out that it represents a decrease of 30% on the last assessment in 2005.

The results of the counted in survey in Dublin, which I launched today, provide a very refined and comprehensive method of measuring homelessness. The counted in report indicates that homelessness in Dublin has not changed significantly since 2005 and that there has been a small decrease relative to population growth. There has also been a significant and extremely welcome reduction of 41%, down from 185 to 110, in the number of people reported sleeping rough.

In common with society in general, many Members will probably have experienced, directly or indirectly, some form of anti-social behaviour. While it is crucial that we make progress in this area, we must be clear that local authorities cannot be expected to deal with the criminality associated with such behaviour. The latter is the responsibility of An Garda Síochána, using the powers available to it under the criminal justice code.

The role of local authorities arises in respect of their functions as the landlords of some 110,000 dwellings. In that capacity, they have a duty to secure and protect the interests of their tenants by preventing and addressing such behaviour in their estates. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 sets out to reflect the commitment of the Government in its policy paper, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, to increase statutory powers and actions to facilitate a targeted approach to combating anti-social behaviour.

The proposed changes to the legislative framework include provisions requiring housing authorities to prepare an anti-social behaviour strategy and amend the definition of anti-social behaviour in the Housing Act 1997 to include damage to property, graffiti and impairment of the enjoyment of a person’s home. While these are significant enhancements to existing anti-social behaviour measures, it was not possible, in the Bill as published, to deal with all issues arising. Discussions with the Attorney General’s office in respect of strengthening the statutory supports available to housing authorities are continuing. I will be in a position to bring forward further provisions when the Bill is considered by the Dáil early next year.

The Bill also contains significant provisions to improve and expand on the range of home ownership supports available. We continue to believe that home ownership should be available to as many people as possible where this is their preferred option. In this context, tenant purchase plays an important role for social housing tenants. We are expanding the options for [856]existing social housing tenants and households qualified for social housing support with the proposed introduction of the new incremental purchase scheme. This is an innovative scheme which involves transferring full title of a new house built by a housing authority or the voluntary and co-operative sector to the household on the payment of a proportion of the purchase price. The housing authority or voluntary or co-operative body will place a charge on the property, in its favour, in respect of the portion of equity not paid for, and this will decline over time until the charge is eliminated. In return, the buyer will pay his or her mortgage and accept full responsibility for the maintenance of his or her home.

In so far as the tenant purchase of apartments is concerned, Deputies will be aware that previous efforts to introduce such a scheme failed due to a range of difficulties. However, work is continuing on a model, based on the long-standing arrangements in the private sector for the ownership and management of multi-unit residential developments, which will address those problems.

Clearly, the transition from a rented social housing complex to a mixed tenure of privately-owned and social-rented accommodation adds an extra dimension to the legal and practical problems that can arise. Nevertheless, the ultimate aim of the Government is to establish a robust legislative framework that will stand the test of time for apartment buyers, apartment tenants who choose not to buy and local authorities. I hope that legislative proposals for a viable apartment sales scheme can be finalised in time for consideration during Committee Stage of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008. In addition, the introduction of the new home choice loan from 1 January 2009 and changes to the provision of affordable housing will ensure there will be a closed loop in terms of routes to home ownership for households across the income spectrum.

We have also made great strides in modernising the private rented sector. A range of measures to update the minimum standards regulations for rental accommodation were recently approved by Government. These will provide a platform for bringing standards in the sector into line with the expectations of a developed 21st century nation. I am proud to deliver on this key Towards 2016 commitment and take a real step forward in significantly improving the quality of life of some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Regulations to give effect to most of the package will come into effect generally on 1 February 2009. They will apply in their entirety to all new first-time lettings from that date, while a four-year phase-in period will be provided in respect of existing lettings in order to allow them to comply with some of the more onerous provisions, such as the installation of dedicated sanitary facilities in each rental unit. The remaining elements of the package will be given effect by legislative amendments to be introduced via the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Successful enforcement of the regulations is critical. I will be emphasising to local authorities the continuing importance of rigorous and targeted inspections of rental properties. I will continue to make dedicated funding available to them towards these ends and I am satisfied that increased funding for inspection activity and the increasingly performance-linked basis for allocations are contributing significantly to a much improved inspections regime.

I wish to return to the issue of repossessions — the second main matter I intend to address. There is no doubt that some households are experiencing difficulties in making mortgage payments in the current economic climate. Good practice and good sense suggest that when people are in arrears, they need help. They also need reassurance that there is a way in which their difficulties can be addressed. Such people also require sound advice on what action to take. What these people do not need is to be frightened or be subjected to “foaming-at-the-mouth”[857]scaremongering, with suggestions that robber baron banks and bully boy building societies are, like scrooges, lining up to take their family homes from them as soon as the spirit of Christmas disappears over the horizon. However, that is exactly what the Labour Party has done by making great play of the suggestion that this is some sort of massive ticking social timebomb in existence. The only timebomb of which I am aware is that Labour and Sinn Féin have put together, for political purposes, in order to shatter the legitimate and well-founded hopes of those who are experiencing difficulties in making mortgage payments that there are pathways through those difficulties.

I referred earlier to the importance of the facts. I will not allow the proposers of the motion to prevent the facts from getting in the way of their quest for a headline.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  To which facts is the Minister of State referring?

Deputy Michael Finneran: Information on Michael Finneran  Zoom on Michael Finneran  Citing repossession cases before the courts recently, they neglected to mention the fact that repossession is always a last resort for lenders and borrowers or that all members of the Irish Banking Federation subscribe to the code of practice on mortgage arrears, and are required to do so under the terms of the bank guarantee scheme. The proposers of the motion also neglected to mention, as evidence published today by the Financial Regulator shows, that the number of repossessions made on foot of court orders between January 2005 and June of this year, is less than 130 out of a total of almost 1 million mortgage accounts. The updated figure for the interim period is believed to be less than 160. Those are the facts. They cannot be contradicted and they are now a matter of record.

The proposers of the motion further neglected to mention that many repossession orders do not lead to actual repossessions. In fact, many repossession orders serve as a wake-up call for borrowers and prompt them to engage properly with their lenders in order to arrive at an agreed approach that is in the interests of both parties.

The proposers also neglected to share with us the fact that lenders generally accept revised repayment arrangements where a borrower is experiencing difficulties but has a willingness to repay the mortgage. They neglected to distinguish between repossession orders for principal residences and those relating to investment properties. They failed to mention that the Irish Banking Federation’s members work closely with the Money Advice and Budgeting Service in the development of appropriate debt management solutions for borrowers in financial difficulty.

Why rely on truth when hyperbole will attract a juicier headline? Instead of trying to create panic and peddle the fallacy that avoidance rather than engagement between lender and borrower is the solution, I want to ensure that mortgage arrears do not result in legal proceedings seeking home repossession. I also wish to ensure that all lenders, mainstream or otherwise, have fair and reasonable procedures in place to deal appropriately with arrears and, where absolutely necessary — and as a last resort — repossession.

  8 o’clock

I warmly welcome the publication by the Financial Regulator of best practice guidance for lenders dealing with arrears and repossessions. While concerns have been expressed in respect of how non-bank lenders — these account for less than 2% of the mortgage market — deal with arrears and repossessions, the information available to me suggests that such lenders, although not members of the Irish Banking Federation, are generally considered to operate in a manner which is compliant with the code. Nevertheless, I have discussed with the Financial Regulator and the Irish Banking Federation how the position in this regard might be underpinned. The Financial Regulator will be giving consideration to this matter in the context of the review of the statutory code of practice early in the new year.

[858]For those households currently in difficulty with mortgage repayments, there are supports in place. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme provides for a supplement to be paid in respect of mortgage interest to any person in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their needs. While the amount payable varies, it will generally ensure that remaining income, following payment of mortgage interest, does not fall below a minimum level. Advice can also be obtained from the Government’s Money Advice and Budgeting Service, to which I referred earlier.

While, as one would expect in a downturn, there has been an increase in the number of households in receipt of this supplement, this does not mean these households are at risk of losing their homes, rather it means that the Government has recognised and responded to their need by enabling them to remain in their homes. We will continue to do this and, more important, we will continue to proactively respond to the root causes of increasing reliance on short-term income supplement by acting decisively in the long-term interests of current and future generations of Irish citizens. The most enduring way we can do this is through the creation of employment and seeking to maintain to the greatest possible extent the economic progress we have achieved in the past decade. This is where Government attention is firmly focused.

I have outlined to the House the details of the Government’s significant record of achievement, in particular in meeting the needs of those faced with lower incomes and those who need support to purchase a home. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, will contribute to this debate tomorrow night and will focus on our programme for further innovation.

The motion before the House is a sad reflection on the proposing parties’ inability to offer any concrete policy proposals. They do not have anything to offer in terms of housing responses for older people, people with disabilities or the Travelling community. This is not exactly in keeping with the inclusive vision for Ireland shared by Arthur Griffith and James Connolly. The only positive is that, based on this motion, it will probably be some time before the electorate gives them the opportunity to actually do anything concrete.

In contrast, this Government has a coherent housing policy. We are not simply addressing the specific needs of one group or sector. Housing is for all people and this Government is delivering. That is the bottom line, and we have the commitment and the vision to continue to do so. I commend, without hesitation, the amendment to the House.

Deputy Terence Flanagan: Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  I wish to share time with Deputy Pádraic McCormack.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Brian O’Shea): Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Terence Flanagan: Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  I thank the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, in particular Deputy Ciarán Lynch, for tabling this excellent motion, which Fine Gael will be supporting.

We have a housing crisis, for which this Fianna Fáil-led Government has a lot to answer. Failure is the hallmark of this Government’s housing policy. Currently, more than 56,000 people are on social housing lists. This is a shockingly high figure which highlights the Government’s failure to deliver to those people who find themselves in need of a home. The Fianna Fáil-led Government had ample time and resources to house these people during the housing boom but turned a blind eye to them. These massive waiting lists are a direct consequence of this inaction. I am concerned that the numbers will continue to rise in the current economic climate, in particular when more homes than ever are being repossessed.

What is even more alarming is that the latest figures, published in July 2008, indicate that more than 5,000 local authority houses remain empty. This is at a time when huge numbers of [859]people are on waiting lists. The Minister needs to be held accountable for his failure to turnaround properties in a quick manner. In my constituency of Dublin North-East more than 80 properties are boarded up. A resident has informed me that the house next-door to her in Darndale has been boarded up for the past year and a half. Why has this been allowed to happen at a time when people are crying out for housing? I call again on the Dublin City Council manager to ensure that boarded up houses are turned around within strict timelines.

The comment by the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to RTE that he thinks 9,000 houses will be delivered this year, is not good enough, in particular given the growing housing lists. I call on the Minister to provide 15,000 extra houses annually to reduce these housing lists. Questions need to be posed as to why the Minister is handing over money to local authorities without ensuring regular checks in respect of performance delivery. At the very least, there should be strict targets set to which local authorities should step up and achieve.

The Government previously gave a commitment to end long-term homelessness by 2010. Homelessness remains a major problem in society. According to recent figures the number of homeless people nationally is 3,013. However, this is not a true figure as it does not take into account the invisible homeless. I remain unconvinced that this Government will deliver on its promise to end homelessness. In July of this year, for instance, the HSE imposed a funding freeze on services in respect of homelessness resulting in people being turned away from emergency accommodation.

The Government has failed to deliver on regeneration schemes for Dublin. Last week, the assigned property developer pulled out of the Croke Villas public private partnership, PPP, which was to build 30 much needed social housing units. Already this year property developer Bernard McNamara walked away from five public private partnership projects leaving residents devastated. The council lost €5 million in the process and is now seeking to go ahead with only three of these five projects. To add insult to injury, residents will be left in limbo until 2010 or 2011 when these projects are supposed to commence. This is a serious blow to the residents concerned. As I stated earlier, waiting lists are at a record high of 56,000 and will continue to increase in the current economic crisis. It is the less well-off in society who are always the first to suffer in this situation. The vulnerable are the ones, unfortunately, who are hit.

The Government has failed to deliver on its affordable housing targets. Under the programme for Government and the national development plan, 17,000 affordable units were to be delivered between 2007 and 2009. In 2007, only 3,500 units were delivered. In the first three months of 2008, only 976 houses were delivered. Today, there are 6,500 people on Dublin City Council’s affordable housing list and there are 732 people on Fingal County Council’s housing list. The Minister of State will be aware that a problem arises in respect of affordable houses, the cost of which are that of current market value, as a result of which people are refusing to accept them.

Budget 2009 introduced schemes to assist first-time buyers. Two schemes were announced, namely, the Government equity scheme and the home choice loan scheme. The Government equity scheme provides for the Government acquiring a stake in a property based on market value, the equity stake being between 25% and 30% leaving the buyer highly vulnerable if market prices increase when the house is being sold. This scheme, which is to replace the affordable housing scheme, is flawed.

The Government’s new home choice loan scheme will provide up to 92% of the market value of a new property purchased by first-time buyers unable to obtain a loan from banks. This scheme encourages people to borrow up to seven times the value of their salary, leaving them open to becoming trapped in bad debts and negative equity. Fine Gael has reservations about the Government’s home choice loan scheme which amounts to a bail-out of developers [860]and could lure first-time buyers into negative equity as house prices continue to fall. With house prices continually falling month by month, the Government’s latest intervention in the property market could trap first-time buyers in negative equity and, eventually, bad debt.

While we welcome any initiatives to assist first-time buyers this scheme would be better if provided when house prices stabilise. The fact that it only applies in respect of new properties is a nod from the Minister for Finance to his friends in the construction industry. If he truly had the interests of first-time buyers in mind, the scheme would be open to all properties. The Government must return to the drawing board and design suitable, affordable housing schemes which favour buyers and not developers and the Government coffers. The Government has failed to protect homeowners from sub-prime lenders. In 2008, there was a surge in the number of repossession orders granted in the High Court. In the current economic climate the threat of repossession is real and worrying for many persons with mortgages. On 6 October seven of the nine repossession orders granted were sought by the sub-prime lender, Start Mortgages. Between January and June this year 126 repossession orders were granted in the High Court and 81 in the Circuit Court. Last year 465 repossession summonses were issued in the High Court compared to 311 in 2006. It is clear, therefore, that the number of repossessions is on the increase and it is expected more repossession orders will flood the courts in January. It is estimated that 15,000 people have taken out sub-prime mortgages in the past five years, yet the Government has done nothing to protect people from sub-prime lenders. It was able to bail out the banks and developers but has ignored the ordinary mortgage payer. For months sub-prime lenders have had a free-for-all and dragged people with mortgages into the courts while the regulator looked on.

In January this year I called on the regulator to draft new industry guidelines on reckless mortgage lending and to create new penalties for mortgage professionals found guilty of reckless lending and deception. I also asked for a report to be compiled on lending practices engaged in by the mortgage industry in order that those which undermined consumers’ rights cjould be identified and eliminated through better regulation. Sadly, that call was ignored and we are seeing the results of the regulator’s inaction. He should be asked why he did not act. Last week in the Dáil the Taoiseach stated he would instruct the Minister of State with responsibility for housing to consult the regulator on the matter. It is a case of attempting to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. This month I called on all Irish banks to implement the six-month moratorium on foreclosures for homeowners announced by RBS. What is needed is protection for all those affected and support for the many who are struggling with mortgage repayments. It is high time the banks showed the same leniency towards mortgage payers as they have shown to property developers in recent times.

The Government has failed to ensure rental properties are inspected and meet the required standard. There are also significant problems in the rental market. In 2006 only 3% of all rental properties were inspected. Last month the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, stated measures to improve standards in rental accommodation would come into effect on 1 February 2009. It is farcical that there is a phasing-in period for existing landlords of four years, although first-time lettings will be affected from 1 February. We on this side of the House welcome these measures which include the provision of separate toilet facilities, piped water and fire safety measures in rented accommodation. New standards are welcome but a four-year phasing-in period is ridiculous. There are approximately 200,000 registered private tenancies in Ireland, yet in 2006 only 6,800 were inspected. The increase in non-compliance fines of €2,000 is negligible. It is necessary to increase them to a level that will make landlords take the matter seriously.

[861]Fine Gael has raised consistently the issue of property management companies, in respect of which we need regulation. More than 500,000 people reside in apartment blocks and 4,600 property management companies are in operation, yet there is no legislation in place. It is farcical that a regulator has been in place since July 2006 but he has no statutory powers to take action against rogue property management companies and agents which operate in the market. They do not offer value for money to hard pressed property owners who already face negative equity and the added burden of exorbitant property management fees. The lack of regulation is a big failure on the part of the Government. The matter needs to be addressed.

I am extremely concerned about the lack of inspection of apartment complexes in terms of fire safety measures. A recent fire in an apartment complex in my constituency gave rise to many issues. It emerged that fire drills did not take place on a regular basis and that there was no fire safety equipment in the complex. In addition, fire brigade personnel could not gain entry to the building as it was a gated development. They had to rely on an apartment owner to gain access. The fire service should be able to gain access to apartment complexes.

The Government has failed to deliver on housing. We have a major social housing waiting list of 56,000. That failure can be laid at the door of the Minister of State and the Government which has mismanaged the economy and squandered a great deal of money in areas where it should not have. It should seek to provide at least 15,000 houses and have a realistic target to help those on housing waiting lists.

Acting Chairman: Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  I understand Deputy McCormack wishes to share time with Deputy Sherlock. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  This Private Members’ motion deals with the shambles local authorities face in housing. The Government is clearly responsible for how it has squandered money in the past ten years which has led to the neglect of the social housing sector. There is no possibility of the problem being addressed in the current economic climate, given that the Government was not able to address it in the previous ten good years. The Minister of State referred to turkeys at Christmas but the chickens are coming home to roost for the Government. He should not have been so critical of the motion tabled by the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, as it is vital to discuss the serious housing problem we are facing. I do not know who wrote the speech the Minister of State had to read. He is a decent man but what he outlined does not tally with the situation faced by local authorities.

I am familiar with the figures for County Galway and Galway city and I am sure the picture is the same nationally. In County Galway, for example, 1,800 people are on the social housing waiting list and 550 on the affordable housing waiting list, giving a total of 2,350. Last year 175 social and affordable houses were provided and the total provided so far this year is only 116. If we continue at that level, even if nobody else is added to the housing list, it will take up to 20 years to clear the housing waiting lists in County Galway. That is a fact which contradicts some of the statistics given by the Minister of State. I will have to study his figures carefully, as I do not see how they measure up.

In Galway city there are 2,285 people on the social housing waiting list and 350 on the affordable housing waiting list, giving a total of 2,735. Last year 167 houses were allocated and fewer will be allocated this year. At this rate, taking the figures for the past two years to form an average, if nobody else is added to the social and affordable housing waiting lists, it will take at least 15 years to clear the current housing waiting lists in Galway city. While I accept the Minister of State has only been responsible for the matter since his appointment, his predecessors are responsible for the past ten years of neglect.

[862]Based on what the Minister of State outlined and in spite of the figures I quoted, the Government will do nothing to address the matter, apart from allocating less money to local authorities next year. The sad reality is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of completed new houses in Galway city and county that lie idle but local authorities have not been provided with sufficient funding to buy even one house. As the Minister of State knows, those houses are now better value than what the local authority could provide them for. The solution to the problem is to release money to housing sections of the local authorities. I have in mind Galway, but this applies to the whole country. Even if they bought only a few from the developers who have completed the houses, it would regenerate the finances in the local area. The builder would be able to pay off his or her suppliers, plasterers, carpenters and so on. That, in turn, would create a more vibrant local economy. The Minister of State will never have as good a value again as he can get now in housing.

There are people in my city and county being threatened with court action because they have not been able to pay the development charges. They have offered the local authority an apartment or house in lieu of the development charges. The local authority is unable to take up the offer of that apartment or house at very good value because it has no finance available to it. I appeal to the Minister of State to look into that aspect and help to alleviate the hardship as reflected in the housing statistics for Galway city and county.

The cutback in funding for housing repairs reflects another sorry state the Government has got us into. There is a pretence that grants are available for housing repairs. Formerly, grants were available under three headings for housing repairs: special housing aid for the elderly, which is dealt with by the HSE; essential repairs grants, which allowed elderly people, often living alone, to repair a house; and disabled person’s grant, now known as the house adaptation grant. The HSE and one local authority in my area have not taken applications for the past four months. People are being pushed from Billy to Jack, under the pretence that they will be assessed for grants, and nothing happens. In some cases, people whose grant applications were approved, borrowed the money to repair the house or install a downstairs bathroom for an invalid, and now neither the local authority nor the HSE has the money to pay the grant. The Minister of State must take a serious look at housing grants as well in considering this motion.

Included in the motion and referred to by my colleague, Deputy Terence Flanagan, is the involvement of management companies in apartment blocks and housing estates throughout the country. I have raised this with the Minister of State’s predecessors for the past four or five years. I have raised it on the Adjournment and other people, too, have asked questions, but yet nothing has been done. More than a year ago, the current Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government told me that within a week he would have a report from the working group he had set up, on proposed action in respect of management companies. No legislation has been introduced and people are suffering on housing estates and in apartment blocks because of management companies over which they have no control. I drew the Minister’s attention at the time to the fact that both of the Galway local authorities were inserting conditions into planning permission, ensuring that management companies would have to be set up. Will the Minister of State, or whoever will reply to the debate tomorrow night, state whether the practice of local authorities inserting such conditions into planning permission has been eliminated? I know, on the basis of information from previous Ministers, that the local authorities have received letters from apartment owners saying this practice must be discontinued. However, it has continued long after the circulars were issued to the local authorities.

When the Minister of State addresses this issue tomorrow night, will he deal with the facts about the waiting lists for houses and not just rely on a prepared script? I have given him the facts. I checked them today with both Galway local authorities. Between Galway city and [863]county, there are 9,990 people on the waiting list, mostly for social housing but some for affordable housing. Yet taking an average for this year and last both local authorities will only provide 317 accommodation units for those people. That rate effectively indicates that it will be 15 or 16 years before the list is cleared in Galway. Will the Minister of State deal with that fact and most importantly, release money to the local authorities so that they may acquire some of the very good value for money houses now on the market.

Some management companies set up by the developer or the builder of the estate are charging households anything from €500 up to €2,000. I know of estates in Galway where there are only five or six houses, perfectly finished, and yet there is a management company in place. I know of an estate with 32 houses, and one site is left vacant. Builders will sometimes leave one house unfinished, so that the local authority may not take the estate in charge while waiting for the one house to be finished. This is a ruse to keep the management company in place, despite the fact that the 31 other householders would be quite willing to run their own estate rather than paying €800 or €900 a year, or perhaps much more. One sometimes finds the same directors in a management company as in the building firm that built the houses in the first place.

When will the legislation be introduced that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government promised me on 15 October 2007? He said he would have the report within a week and would then introduce the legislation. That report is almost four years in gestation. I raised the matter in 2005-06 to try to have something done about the crisis involving management companies. Some householders signed contracts before they noticed the small print about management companies, and having sold their own houses, found themselves trapped because the necessary legislation had not been introduced to deal with the problem.

Deputy Michael Finneran: Information on Michael Finneran  Zoom on Michael Finneran  That is not a matter for this Department but rather for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  As far as I am concerned, it covered by the motion tabled by the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, which I am addressing.

I do not know where the Minister of State got the facts as relayed tonight in his contribution. In fairness to Deputy Finneran, however, because I respect his position as Minister of State and know he is a decent man, I will study this document. I know that statistics, perhaps, may be used in different ways, but I can assure him that the figures I have given him are the facts in the case.

Debate adjourned.


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