Wednesday, 28 March 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, to the House. I invite her to proceed with her presentation.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Jan O’Sullivan): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak with colleagues in the Seanad on the Government’s housing policy. I was happy to take up this job at a time of great flux within our society generally and in the housing sector in particular. We live in a time of great uncertainty and one of our greatest challenges is to bring back stability to a battered and bruised economy. There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the “irrational exuberance” in the property market, to borrow a phrase, was the main culprit in the now sorry tale of the Celtic tiger years. Such exuberance was encouraged by the previous Administration, which became drunk on the heady income stream the boom generated. The party is over and my colleagues and I must clean up the mess left from the party that has left us all with the mother of all hangovers.
I need not remind Members of the turmoil in which the State was embroiled last spring, nor of the painful sacrifices the people have borne with fortitude in the interim. The disaster zone the Government inherited in the housing area meant that new ideas and fresh thinking were absolutely essential and the delivery of a radical new policy framework sooner rather than later was needed urgently. The Government’s housing policy statement was published just three months after taking office and it has been diligent in ensuring the initiatives outlined have been actioned with all possible speed. This new housing policy statement responds to current and emerging conditions in the housing sector, taking account of the dramatic cycle of rapid growth and sudden collapse in the residential property market. The centrepiece of the approach is to chart a way forward for housing policy in Ireland by placing greater emphasis on choice, equity across housing tenures and the delivery of quality outcomes for the resources invested.
The recently burst property bubble was driven by low interest rates, easy access to money, loose regulation and a construction sector that failed to gauge the capacity for demand. Irish people have long aspired to owning their own homes and I consider this ambition admirable but only where the circumstances of the borrower allow it. The State is far from blameless in this regard. Responding to this ethos of home ownership, successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments have overly-incentivised acquisition. Since I was elected to the Dáil in 1998, I have sat through many Budget Statements in which various incentives were announced for the purchasing of houses and other property.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: This led to the point at which the super-heated market went into meltdown so spectacularly. The differential between borrowing and rental costs was too narrow and led to the “dead money” syndrome that nurtured the desire to acquire.
In order to recalibrate this ownership culture, it is essential to ensure that a fully functional, properly regulated and vibrant rental sector is introduced. The establishment of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, was the first step in ensuring that security of tenure was safeguarded and appropriate accommodation standards were maintained. It is essential to strengthen further the remit of the PRTB by bringing the voluntary and co-operative sector under its influence and by protecting the rights of both tenant and landlord alike. A cultural shift away from ownership to a greater reliance on the private rental sector will only take place if a market is created that is transparent, equitable and affordable.
The programme for Government commits the Government to addressing the issue of deposit retention and the Bill will introduce a system of fines for unjustified retention by landlords. While the introduction of automatic penalties will seriously reduce the incidence of deposit retention difficulties, a more substantial deposit retention scheme might also be necessary. The programme for Government has made a commitment in this regard and I already have indicated to the Government that I intend to return to it with my recommendations on this topic in 2012, pending research by the PRTB.
The economic crisis has resulted in increasing strains being applied to the social housing area. The Government finds itself with escalating housing lists as more people find themselves in financial distress. The challenges facing the Government are immense and when coupled with the need to curb State spending, have confronted it with a major task. Local authorities traditionally have provided social housing by means of build or acquisition. Such capital-intensive programmes will not be possible in the future, certainly to the extent they have been in the past, and the shift to more flexible and immediate solutions will play an increasingly important role. In the past number of years the leasing and rental accommodation schemes have contributed considerably to servicing an ever demanding sector. The widened deployment of these tools in the coming years will allow for housing provision in a more direct, cost-efficient and speedy manner, while simultaneously absorbing the current overhang in the housing sector.
Transferring responsibility for long-term rent supplement recipients to local government will, together with the move towards greater tenure neutrality, be seen as the most significant and radical of the reforms contained in our policy statement. The programme for Government commits the Administration to reviewing the operation of the rent supplement scheme and to better aligning rent supplement and social housing support via an interagency working group. Originally intended as short-term income support for households, rent supplement became a long-term housing mechanism. This resulted in employment traps, weak regulation of the supported private rented market and a fragmentation of social housing services. The new policy direction will see the transfer of responsibility for rent supplement households with a long-term housing need to local authorities. Rent supplement will continue to be paid as a short-term income support, as originally intended. My colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, and I brought a joint memorandum on this issue to the Cabinet yesterday. We intend to begin to introduce the scheme from the beginning of January 2013. In the meantime, we have quite a lot of work to do regarding the mechanism of transferring rent supplement to the local authorities. For those households in need, the proposed arrangements would provide a new form of social housing support while renting in the private market. The details of the new scheme are being worked out at present and the objectives will be to encourage recipients to take up full-time work, to facilitate better regulation of the private rented sector and to provide a more integrated service for households seeking State support to meet housing costs.
Future social housing provision will see a greater reliance on the voluntary and co-operative sector. Already these bodies have built up considerable expertise and credibility and demonstrated an ability to manage housing in a cost-efficient and effective manner. The move from a capital-funded model to revenue-based tools will enhance their ability to service this sector. A robust regulatory framework will be necessary for the expanded role of these bodies, using a collaborative approach between the sector and my Department to deliver a clearly defined set of standards which will ensure the orderly evolution of this sector. The interim voluntary code of conduct will provide transparency in assessing the credibility of individual bodies from many aspects, including funding. I have met representatives of a number of the housing associations to discuss such issues.
Allowing the voluntary and co-operative sector access to finance, both from commercial institutions and from the Housing Finance Agency, will allow them to become more pivotal providers in the social housing sphere. This will allow them to capitalise on the current overhang in the construction sector, acquiring units at a premium while contributing to absorption of the surplus. Last year we saw the initial acquisition of property by Cluid from NAMA, and I anticipate more, allowing it to mine the social dividend of the housing surplus while allowing NAMA to fulfil its commercial objectives. These new ventures also induce the development of mixed tenure communities, with a blend of social allocations and private disposals. The eventual sales to social tenants under various purchase schemes, in time, might allow for further pathways to ownership.
The Government is acutely conscious of mortgage arrears problems. Where any borrower is experiencing distress, he or she should engage with the lender to seek to achieve an agreed solution. The services of the money advice and budgeting service is available to such borrowers and support is available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. Provisions regarding lending by local authorities for the purposes of house purchase are set out in section 11 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992. Where a loan stands in default, section 11(10) provides that a local authority may make such monetary arrangements with a borrower as it considers equitable to take account of the particular circumstances of the borrower.
In addition, my Department issued comprehensive guidance in 2010 to local authorities on the treatment of mortgage arrears, including loans for shared ownership transactions, closely based on the Central Bank’s first statutory code of conduct on mortgage arrears, which ensures local authority mortgage arrears are handled sympathetically while also protecting the position of the local authority concerned. To reflect the content of the Central Bank’s revised code of conduct, effective from 1 January 2011, my Department is currently preparing updated guidance to local authorities in consultation with the County and City Managers Association, and publication of this manual is imminent.
The well documented and grave problems in the commercial sector prompted the setting up of the interdepartmental group on mortgage arrears. One of the key recommendations was the establishment of two mortgage-to-rent schemes, wherein distressed borrowers undertook to surrender their homes to the lending institution and thereafter lease them back from either the bank or a voluntary housing body who would purchase the property. Officials from my Department and the other stakeholders have devised and recently initiated pilot projects in this regard. Once we have assessed the efficacy and scope of these schemes we hope they will be rolled out more extensively. This relates to the specific measure our Department is delivering arising from the Keane report, but there is more cross-government action in this regard, particularly with action from the Departments of Justice and Equality and Finance on distressed mortgages in general.
When this Administration came to power, we were acutely aware of the problems presented by the plethora of unfinished estates nationally. We resolved to tackle the issues head on and to put the residents of these developments at the heart of all of our actions. On the recommendation of the advisory group on unfinished housing developments, we immediately set up the national co-ordination committee on unfinished estates to drive the proposed resolution agenda. By including representatives from the local authorities, Irish Banking Federation, construction industry, NAMA, the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency and the residents, we harnessed the goodwill, expertise and commitment of these entities to the job in hand.
The national co-ordination committee produced a code of practice for stakeholders, which defined the rights, responsibilities and interrelationships of the key parties involved. It also devised a guide for residents living in unfinished housing developments which outlined the possible steps to empower themselves and take a central role in pushing the resolution agenda. Perhaps the most pressing concern for us as an Administration was the public safety aspects of unfinished developments where the responsible party could not be held accountable in the short term. We made €5 million available to local authorities to assess and make safe those elements which posed a safety hazard to members of the public. To date, we have identified 166 such estates and have expended €1.48 million on this programme. We expect to pay out an additional €2 million for works which are currently being completed in this regard.
As evidence of my ongoing commitment, I have also set up a legislative review group to explore existing legislation and identify areas where it may need to be amended or strengthened. Additionally, we are developing and deploying a standardised site resolution plan to identify the necessary remedial works in problem estates. I am sure Senators are well aware of the problems of unfinished estates in the country and we must ensure we continue to respond to those problems and have proper site resolution plans to address the problems.
In the midst of a period of extreme turbulence and working within the financial constraints placed upon us, my officials and I have applied our best efforts to ensure the maximum possible outcomes are achieved for the least possible expenditure. That is what we must do across the board in these times. We will continue to devise imaginative and effective policies as we face unparalleled challenges. The indomitable spirit of our people historically responds well under these pressures and, in the same spirit of resilience, I have had to review housing policies and react to the changing landscape which our straitened circumstances have imposed upon us. We are not the font of all wisdom and I welcome suggestions Senators have on how to address the problems we face as a nation, especially in the housing area.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O’Sullivan, to the House and wish her well in her role at the Cabinet table. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to Deputy Willie Penrose, whom she succeeded in the Department, and commend him for the excellent work he carried out when he was part of the Department. It is ironic that on the day the Army barracks closes in Mullingar, the issue that caused him to resign his office, we are again discussing housing difficulties under various headings in the Seanad. I commend the former Minister of State as he listened to what was said in this House by those on all sides and acted within days on one matter, a debate we had regarding unfinished housing estates. Various proposals were made to the Minister of State, with one being to contact NAMA to try to get money for the estates for which that body was responsible. Within ten days of being in the House, that was done by him. Deputy Penrose was very positive with every opportunity he had to come to the House. He did not dwell on the past but dealt with the present and future, which is how we should move forward.
I will briefly discuss unfinished housing estates, which is a human tragedy for many families. There are families and children living in these unfinished or so-called ghost estates with no lighting, manhole covers or footpaths, or where the roads are potholed or unfinished. They are a few of the difficulties. In my own county there were 38 unfinished housing estates identified by Cavan County Council but what criteria was used to determine what is unfinished? My understanding is that where there were two or three unfinished houses, even in rural Ireland, the estate would be regarded as unfinished.
A detailed survey was carried out in late 2010, with 2,846 housing developments surveyed, and an advisory group was established to bring forward recommendations on unfinished estates. That group reported to the then Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, in June 2011. I understand the survey shows 1,655 estates where a substantial amount of work remains. The Minister of State indicated that €1.4 million of the €5 million allocation has been drawn down and she expects a further €2 million to be drawn down this year. Given the number of housing estates involved — 1,655 — the €5 million allocation amounts to only €3,200 per estate, which is an inadequate sum. Does the Minister of State envisage the allocation being increased?
In County Cavan, 12 estates were identified which need urgent repair. To date, Cavan County Council has received little money from the Department for this purpose. I ask the Minister of State to respond.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate her on her appointment. I wish to be associated with the sentiments expressed by Senator Wilson about Deputy Penrose. I thank the Minister of State for her contribution which was mainly constructive. We will allow her away with the non-constructive parts as having a cut is part of politics.
I am pleased the Minister of State referred to mortgage arrears in respect of social and local authority housing, as it is a matter I have raised in the House. While I am aware she has been in the Department for only a short period, since the revised code of conduct on mortgage arrears was published on 1 January 2011, the Department has not yet published guidelines for local authorities. The evidence available to me from my county of Fingal is that local authorities are finding it extremely difficult to deal with affordable and shared ownership housing. I would welcome a timeline setting out when the new code of conduct will be issued to the local authorities. How will the code be monitored? If a Senator or Deputy has information on cases where individuals believe local authorities are being reasonable, what can we do? While I know local authorities have a job to do, I have found that some of them have been inflexible on this matter. Why are we still waiting for a code of conduct to be issued to local authorities more than a year after the publication of a revised code of conduct on mortgage arrears?
I have a particular interest in unfinished housing estates which are a scourge affecting every county. The Department, through the local authorities, issued a list of housing estates exempted from the household tax, which is an issue on which I do not propose to dwell, that appears to feature several anomalies. I have documentary evidence of an unfinished estate, namely, Waterside on the Swords Road in Malahide, that does not appear on the list whereas other estates in the county are included in the list. Is it possible to submit to the Department details of such estates to have them exempted from the household tax? When a local authority deems that an estate is not unfinished, how can Deputies, Senators, councillors or, most important, residents interact with the Department to have the matter addressed? Given that the list produced by the Department is not comprehensive, public representatives could be of assistance in this matter.
I would welcome an extension of the remit of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, which was established by the previous Government to provide important protection for tenants and landlords alike. The role of the board should be extended to include residences covered by the shared ownership scheme. From my dealings with the PRTB, it appears to be seriously understaffed. For example, the timeframe for dealing with a complaint runs into months, if not years. Given that private tenants are generally on 12 month leases, time is of the essence when complaints are made. Does the Minister of State have plans to address this issue?
I wish the Minister of State well in her important portfolio. As she stated, no one has the answers to all of our problems. I would like to know how public representatives and members of the public can submit suggestions. Public representatives have received many complaints about the code of conduct on unfinished estates. Should complaints be submitted to local authorities or to the Department? I will provide information on specific estates that were not included in the Department’s list of unfinished estates at the end of the debate.
While the Fianna Fáil Party will support the Minister of State in her endeavours, as Senator Wilson noted, she will require more funding. This may not be easy to secure but we must bear in mind the awful tragedy that took place in the midlands only a few weeks ago and a serious accident that occurred recently in my own area. We are all on the same page on this issue because we all want to resolve the problem of unfinished estates. I urge the Minister of State to push the Department to ensure local authorities are fair to those who are in mortgage arrears. Will she indicate when the Department will issue updated guidelines to local authorities for people who are in mortgage difficulties?
Senator Cáit Keane: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend her for the proactive steps she has taken to deal with the difficult problems arising from the housing crisis. I also commend her predecessor, Deputy Willie Penrose. As the Minister of State outlined, a number of pragmatic measures have been undertaken in the past year to try to deal with the various housing issues we face. In this regard, the Government has stepped up to the plate, which was bare, and taken some action on the mortgage crisis. As I noted, this is a difficult problem because we have been left with a legacy from a period of “irrational exuberance”, as the Minister of State described it, and the boomtime excesses overseen by our predecessors.
Senator Cáit Keane: The Government should be commended for publishing a housing policy statement within three months. The Keane report, which was published by the interdepartmental working group on mortgage arrears established by the Government in October last year, is an important part of the Government’s continuing effort to tackle the mortgage crisis. The issue cannot be resolved in one day. The report sets out important measures that address the problem of mortgage difficulty. Work is under way to implement key elements of the report, including the reform of personal insolvency legislation.
There is no question that many people are still in great distress as they seek to meet mortgage repayments. The Government is determined to help any person who finds himself or herself in such circumstances. Its priority, as the Minister of State outlined, is to develop and implement schemes to assist those who cannot make their mortgage repayments. The Keane report, which was commissioned by the Government, sets out ten measures to help people. The new schemes facilitate the reduction of the debt burden to be reduced. A large-scale blanket debt forgiveness programme is not the solution to the problem as the taxpayer would have to pick up a bill of €15 billion. I presume no one wants this outcome when higher taxes are already a reality and there is nothing to be gained from increasing taxes.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to the mortgage crisis. The damage caused by years of reckless policies — I am not ashamed to say it — and the creation of a false property bubble by Fianna Fáil-led Governments will not be magically undone.
Senator Cáit Keane: The solution must be a long-term one. As I indicated, I am speaking to the future and working to correct the damage of the past. The emphasis is on the alleviation of debt for struggling homeowners, rather than waving a magic wand to fix the problem. Banks have responsibility to develop solutions.
Last month, the Cluid voluntary housing association completed its first transaction with the National Asset Management Agency. This is a positive development and I commend the Minister of State for activating a scheme with the voluntary housing agencies. As she has spoken about deposit retention, I will not dwell on that matter. The Government has a role to play in trying to deal with the mortgage arrears predicament, on which it is working.
There was good news today in respect of homeowners with tracker mortgages. They will now be able to move home and keep their valuable tracker rate. It would be good if the same scheme brought in by Ulster Bank could be used for people who bought houses under the shared ownership scheme from a local authority. They are caught in a catch-22, where they bear the brunt of falling house prices while the councils do not. They cannot rent their house because there is a clause in the shared ownership preventing this. I would like the Minister of State to look at this and try to do something for them. They have their houses. They own 50% but they are caught in a difficult situation with the local authorities.
The Minister of State announced the social housing capital budget last week, which is welcome. I know she had a difficult job on her plate to get what she could to preserve it. New buildings will not be the order of the day any more, but what she is doing in respect of social housing is welcome. A figure of €691 million is available under the social housing investment programme for 2012, and capital funding of €390 million is being provided for house construction, regeneration and improvement works this year. The Minister of State assured us last week that we are on course to deliver between 3,000 and 4,000 additional units of social housing.
The rent supplement situation is to be welcomed, as is the greater tenure neutrality. I will not dwell on the huge problem of unfinished housing estates, because most Senators have spoken about it. However, there is a case outside Dublin where the developer has given a bond to the council, but the council refuses to go in on it on foot of what happened in Mullingar. The council will not do the work. The money is there to do the work. I made a representation only recently to the Department, so perhaps the Minister of State might look at it. Councils fear being sued for doing work on a private estate that has not been taken in charge. Local authorities need to be informed that they will not be sued if they do the work, even if they take the bond and the money is there to do it.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome the opportunity provided for the Seanad to have this important debate. This morning The Irish Times quoted from the most recent CSO survey on income and living conditions in Ireland, which showed that the gap between the richest and poorest grew by more than 25% in 2010. The rate of those at risk of poverty rose from 14.1% in 2009 to 15.8% in 2010. I obviously expect that trend has continued in 2011. With that backdrop, it is appropriate that I address my statement on housing concerns to two very vulnerable groups historically in Irish society, namely, the long-term homeless and people with disabilities.
These housing concerns have been long known to successive Governments. They were never solved during the boom and I am very concerned that their specific needs will be further sidelined now that the housing crisis is affecting the general population so seriously.
Focus Ireland has estimated that as many as 5,000 people are homeless in Ireland at one time. Of that number, 1,500 children are homeless each year and a quarter of these are under 12. The previous Government had a target to end long-term homelessness by the end of 2010. Unfortunately, that was not achieved. I feel really strongly about the need to end long-term homelessness, not only because of the social justice imperative and in the best interests of homeless children but also because it saves money for the Exchequer. When we start looking at the figures, it is estimated that it costs €30,000 per annum for a bed in emergency accommodation, whereas it can cost as little as €14,500 to provide a home, even in Dublin.
According to the current policy, it is not deemed unacceptable for a person to be in emergency accommodation for up to six months. I first came across the term “emergency accommodation” when I worked in the Children’s Rights Alliance and thought it meant 24 hours or even one week, but this can go on for much longer periods. The majority of homeless people are in emergency accommodation for over two years. Some have been there for ten years. There are 2,500 individuals in emergency accommodation in Dublin city centre alone, including 225 family households. For family households, emergency accommodation can mean bed and breakfast accommodation. This means that if a person has a young baby, she may have to bath the baby in the shower. I have heard of children doing their homework on the side of suitcases. The whole family structure breaks down, so it has a severe and detrimental effect. My simplistic calculation of the cost of those in emergency accommodation in Dublin comes to €38 million. I struggle to understand why we continue to use emergency accommodation on such a long-term basis. I find it quite unacceptable.
I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to ending long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough. I understand that in order to achieve this goal, in addition to the delivery of supports and services for individuals and families vulnerable to homelessness, 3,000 homes are required nationally to end long-term homelessness by 2013. Given that only a few hundred homes have been delivered in the past three years by all local authorities and housing associations nationally, how are we going to deliver the required 3,000 homes?
I understand that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, announced last December that 2,000 units had been earmarked by NAMA to be available for social housing. I understand that further progress has been made on this and the Department is currently looking at 500 as viable for purchase or lease. Can the Minister of State provide us with any information in this respect? How many of these units will go to provide homes for homeless people?
The launch of the new housing strategy for people with disabilities is a welcome step. We need to see progress on several issues and I hope that this happens soon, including the establishment of a housing and disability steering group in each local authority. The supply and range of measures being deployed do not always meet the needs of people with disabilities. For example, the rental accommodation scheme and leased properties are usually not suitable for people with physical disabilities. What progress has been made to date on the strategy? It is of particular concern to me.
I have no doubt that colleagues have spoken before on the housing supply. I can see that Senator Hayden is due to speak and she will provide much more expert advice than I will on this issue. It has radically changed in the past two years, with a focus now on flexible measures, including long-term leasing of accommodation. In 2007, over 9,500 new social homes were provided in the State but in 2011, that figure dropped to between 3,500 and 4,000. We can see that the demand is increasing, but the supply is clearly reducing. I am concerned about that. The voluntary and co-operative sector could provide a great resource. I notice the Minister of State is agreeing with me. Why is 62% of the resources allocated to social housing for the period 2012-16, under the infrastructure and capital investment framework, being directed to local authorities and the private sector, when the majority of the new supply is expected to come from the voluntary and co-operative sector? I do not understand that figure.
I have much more to ask the Minister of State, but I will finish with a point on unfinished housing estates. I know of an estate where 25 of the 30 houses are finished, and I can provide the Minister of State with the details. Each end of the estate is occupied, but the rest of the estate has been boarded up and is under security watch. A young man has been employed to be the security guard for the estate. He sits in his car 14 hours per day outside the estate. I would lose patience sitting around for an hour in my car. This young man has 20 weeks left to complete his bricklaying apprenticeship and he is looking in at those five unfinished houses. He cannot emigrate because he has not got his apprenticeship, but he is very close to doing so. It does not make sense to me. I am sure he is not alone. I am sure it is not an isolated case. I will forward my other questions to the Minister of State. I appreciate the opportunity presented by this debate.
Senator Aideen Hayden: I welcome the Minister of State and pay tribute to the former Minister of State, Deputy Willie Penrose. While I am at it, I also pay tribute to previous Ministers of State, Bobby Molloy, Michael Finneran and Noel Ahern. We all agree that housing policy is incremental and does not just fall from the sky. Good things have been done in the last ten or 15 years which, although we are going through bad times, we must acknowledge.
I broadly welcome the Government’s approach of tenant neutrality. For too long we rewarded home ownership and council housing provision. Council tenants had the same rights as those who owned their own homes, through tenant purchase schemes, differential rent and security of tenure, while a swathe of others were left out of the circle, particularly single, unmarried and poor people. The broad approach of tenant neutrality marks a positive departure from the previous policy under which there was over-emphasis on home ownership.
I have a lot to put to the Minister of State who many consider is living in interesting times. The figure of 100,000 seems to pop up a lot. There are now almost 100,000 in mortgage arrears, 100,000 on the housing waiting list and 100,000 in receipt of rent supplement. One of the dangers mentioned by the Minister of State about the pro-cyclical nature of housing policy is that the contrary is also true, there must be an anti-cyclical approach, when appropriate. I am concerned that housing values dropped by 18% in the last CSO figures and that the figure for the construction sector has dropped to under 5%, which is regarded as particularly unhealthy in a developed country. We, therefore, run the risk of repeating the mistakes of the 1930s and 1960s and finding ourselves with a housing deficit in a short space of time.
The regulation of the voluntary housing sector and placing more emphasis on it is to be welcomed, but we must move quickly to regulate it. The Minister of State said this process was under way, but the lack of regulation is impacting on the sector’s access to finance.
I am concerned about the transfer of the dispute resolution machinery to the PRTB. It is progressing at a very slow rate. It has been put to me that there is a bureaucratic unwillingness to bring the sector within the ambit of the PRTB, something the Minister of State might deal with. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Donegan case also suggests we must act quickly to put in place an independent dispute resolution process between local authorities and their tenants.
Too much emphasis has been put on distressed mortgages as a financial rather than a housing issue. A mortgage-to-rent scheme has been put in place, but there are few situations where it will be applicable. I am concerned we have not seen more movement on the Keane report, particularly the suggestion in respect of shared equity based on incremental purchase, which is provided for in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. It is a variation on the idea of split mortgages, but it will be more relevant for more people. We run the risk of finding people in a position where their homes will be repossessed once insolvency legislation is in place. Are we ready to deal with the number at risk of homelessness when this happens?
There have been unhelpful comments from the Governor of the Central Bank recently indicating there should be large-scale repossessions of these properties. It has been indicated that 20% to 25% of AIB’s buy-to-let mortgage book is in arrears. That creates a significant problem, as these are not large-scale developers. The Department of Social Protection’s statistics show 58% of rent supplement landlords own only one property. We are talking about the person who lives next door. These are not people with deep pockets and we run the risk of completely destabilising that market.
The Minister of State did not mention homelessness. I thank Senator Jillian van Turnhout for bringing up the issue. The housing first approach has been prioritised in the programme for Government. In the review of homeless services in the Dublin region it is indicated that there are 900 people employed in the sector to deal with just over 2,677 homeless people, of whom only 90 moved into permanent independent living accommodation in the previous six months. We must re-evaluate how we fund homeless services and particularly section 10. We are incentivising the provision of emergency accommodation rather than dealing with the issue of prevention and moving on. The Minister of State has highlighted this point on a number of occasions.
I am glad the programme for Government is unequivocal that a tenancy deposit protection scheme will be established to put an end to disputes over the return of deposits. It is the most common issue in the private rented sector in which there are twice as many people living as in social housing. Almost 40% of the market comprises rent supplement tenants, and an additional 10% to 20% comprises the working poor on very low incomes. We are, therefore, talking about the loss of anything from €600 to €1,000 for individuals, which is important.
The proposal in the Bill to double the fines for those who withhold deposits will not work for two reasons. When a determination is given by the PRTB, it is not adhered to. There is a culture of non-compliance and a doubling of the fines will not be any more successful. Second, I have serious concerns that the PRTB is not enforcing its determination orders. This sends a message that the law is meaningless. I am concerned about the total lack of clarity on which decisions will be enforced. It has come to my attention that decisions in deposit cases are not being enforced.
Similarly, standards and regulations are not being upheld by local authorities, about which I am seriously concerned. I do not believe the matter can be rectified other than through a certification system under which landlords would have to certify their properties were fit to rent. A person cannot walk into a restaurant without there being a certificate on the wall indicating it is fit to eat in. We should not be putting people in homes that are not fit to live in.
I welcome the transfer of the rent supplement scheme to local authorities. It is a critical departure from the way we have tackled the issue of housing to date. As far back as 2006, 70% of those in receipt of rent supplement had been in receipt of it for over one year, while 55% had been in receipt of it for more than two years. People are in the rental sector as a long-term housing solution. From my own experience, when people have the opportunity to work and pay differential rent, they will work. However, the current system is stacked against those who wish to return to the workplace. The sooner the change is implemented, the quicker we will see a real improvement in people’s lives and their capacity to return to work.
I wish the Minister of State well in her brief which is an interesting one at a critical time. I thank her for coming before us. I would appreciate it if a specific debate on the future of social housing schemes was held.
Senator David Cullinane: I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to participate in this important debate. I also welcome the well rehearsed and delivered speech by Senator Cáit Keane, in which again the narrative is that it is all Fianna Fáil’s fault. There is a clear departure in terms of policy on the part of the new Government which it is stated needs time because Rome was not built in one day but that it will eventually sort out the mess left by the previous Government. The only problem is that there has been no significant shift in policy, especially on housing. There has been a shift away from social housing in the traditional sense to a different form of delivery, of which we can debate the merits or otherwise. That is partly due to economic reasons because we do not have the money to maintain the level of capital funding provided in the past. It is also partly due to ideological reasons, as some people prefer social housing to be delivered through the private rented sector and there are, of course, also policy implications. However, there has been no significant shift away from what was set in motion by the previous Government.
Let us take social housing as the first example. There has been a huge drop in investment in such housing. This manifests itself in a number of ways. First, local authorities are not building a significant number of new houses. Part of the logic behind Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 was that because there was a lack of social housing being built, it would be replaced by Part V housing through new build developments in the private sector. The difficulty we have at is that there is no new building in the private sector either; therefore, Part V developments are not coming on stream in local authority stocks. That, combined with the fact that there is no new building of local authority stock, means the housing waiting lists are increasing. In addition, approximately €500 million a year is being spent on supplementing private rented accommodation through either rent supplement, long-term leasing or the RAS, rental accommodation scheme, option. There is also a lack of funding for the retrofit scheme. When they were in the opposition the Government parties stated they would support proper investment in the scheme. In Waterford city there has been a significant drop in funding for the scheme and housing maintenance. There is also a lack of funding for what was previously described as the disabled person’s grant which became the housing aid for the elderly and mobility grants. The funding is simply not available where older people and people with disabilities need work to be carried out in their homes.
I was a councillor in Waterford city from 2004 until my election to the Seanad. Waterford City Council put in place a priority policy with grades 1, 2 and 3 and it was awful to see people being stuck in grades 2 and 3. They had an established need, but the council was never going to get around to them. It might be something as simple as replacing a bath with a shower, but it falls into grade 2 or 3 and the funding is not available to do the work. That is a problem also. A level of capital investment is required in housing to ensure these needs are met.
There is also a problem in mobility. There are two issues related to the rent supplement and RAS option with which I have a difficulty. The first is that people are moving house more frequently owing to the fact that they are in private rented accommodation. The landlord might wish to sell the property, for example, or end the contract for whatever reason and people are forced to move. This can be difficult for families, especially where they have children and put down roots and built relationships with friends and neighbours. It can create problems.
There is also a difficulty as a result of increasing the thresholds in the budget. These changes have meant that people in receipt of or seeking rent supplement are finding it more difficult to secure private rented accommodation. All Members can talk about people who are paying over and above the level of rent supplement. They are giving the landlord €30 to €60 a week in addition to rent supplement. It is the only way they can avail of the RAS option. I understand what the Government was trying to do. Saving money was part of it, but it was also trying to force down rents payable in the private sector and the charges being imposed by landlords for rental accommodation. However, it has not resolved the issue because people are paying cash in addition to rent supplement. In Waterford city the threshold for a single parent with two children is €510 a week. I am aware of countless cases in which those individuals are giving an average of €50 to €60 of their income in addition to rent supplement.
My last point relates to the private sector. One of the problems we have not solved but must solve — it goes to the heart of what was contained in one of the reports published recently that caused consternation — is that when councillors rezone land from agricultural to residential use, it makes landowners very wealthy overnight. It should be about the common good. A number of reports, including the Bacon report, recommended that if land was being rezoned from agricultural to residential use, a reasonable amount of money should be paid to the landowner. That would be a better solution. It is about the public good rather than making people millionaires overnight, which is what happened previously. This played its part in driving up the price of land and property. We must be conscious of this issue in the future. While we deal with the other problems that arose in terms of corruption, we must examine this aspect also, as it was one of the drivers that led to this happening in the first place.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Jan O’Sullivan): I thank the Members who have contributed to the debate and will try to reply to the questions raised. I join them in paying tribute to my predecessor, Deputy Willie Penrose, who did tremendous work in the period he held office. I hope I can continue the various initiatives he started. One of them which was mentioned by Senator Diarmuid Wilson was to deal with NAMA. In addition, Senator Jillian van Turnhout asked about the properties we were in the process of acquiring from NAMA. Not all of the properties are suitable. The local authorities concerned are engaging with NAMA and where properties are deemed unsuitable, we return to NAMA and ask for alternatives. When one looks at all of the empty houses and considers the number of people on waiting lists, living in inappropriate housing or who are homeless, it has to be seen as an opportunity. It is something we must advance. I am anxious to drive this and ensure we get the best possible social dividend from NAMA. Getting a social dividend is provided for in the Act.
A number of Senators raised the issue of unfinished estates. To answer the question about how we categorise them and whether they can be recategorised, in many ways it is a work in progress. Unfortunately, the categories stand as they are with regard to the household charge this year. However, there is ongoing engagement and a committee has been established, as I mentioned. The exemption applies to categories 3 and 4. They were categorised by local authorities in accordance with the criteria drawn up by the Department. I am aware that there were some inconsistencies in the categorisation and we are engaging with local authorities to look at them again. Obviously, there will also be changes, whereby estates will be improved as a result of the money made available for improving estates and the category of these estates might well be reduced. Certainly, we hope that will be the case because a significant amount of public money has been made available for that purpose.
A call was made for local authorities to identify what they required to make estates safe, to which the Department responded. That is why the full €5 million was not sought. Whatever was sought and whatever fitted into the appropriate categories was given. However, there is more money available. There might have been other areas with unfinished estates, but I was asked about specific estates in Cavan. I will have to refer back to the Senator concerned on individual estates, but the local authorities were asked to identify estates and look for money from the Department for them.
There were a number of questions about mortgage arrears with regard to local authority and other mortgages. I share Senators’ views that we must implement the recommendations made in the Keane report as quickly as possible. People are in distress because they cannot pay their mortgages. We must take every action we can in that regard. The Department is engaging with the local authorities and preparing updated guidelines which will include the shared ownership scheme in which many people are caught. We are working on those matters and there are a couple of elements to those guidelines. I cannot give the House an exact date but they are being worked on. If I can get a more indicative date, I will come back to the Senator about it.
Some strong points have been made about the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, and I know that Senator Hayden has a particular interest in that area. I heard her on radio recently making some good points. The deposit retention issue is in the programme for Government and I am committed to ensuring we move on that. There are a large number of issues concerning people who are entitled to get their deposits back but do not get them. On the other hand, some landlords are entitled to keep the deposit because certain things have happened. We must be fair to both sides in this regard but we do need a scheme.
I share Senator van Turnhout’s concern about homelessness. It is one of the areas for which we have ring-fenced funding, although it has been difficult to do so because of the necessity for cuts. We are developing a housing-led policy and want to ensure we spend the money as well as we can for the benefit of homeless people. In that way, they will not be kept in the trap of hostels but will move on to homes. In particular, we are supporting voluntary housing associations which support people in their own homes. I was in one recently in Athlone where I was impressed by the supportive system that was being set up there through the Simon Community.
The Senator said there was no change in policy but there has been a huge change. We have had developer-led planning and building but we will not have that any more. We are focusing on the needs of individuals now.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: I do not want to start a fight between Senators but despite the limited amount of money we have, we are trying to give people choice with this policy and focus on people’s needs. That does mean using leasing and encouraging voluntary housing associations to raise money in other ways. That is why we have things like the CAS scheme whereby they get a certain amount of money from the public purse but are also facilitated in raising money in other ways. We also want to regulate them because it will make it easier for them to borrow from financial institutions.
I would contest any suggestion that there is not a change of policy. It is not about developers any more, it is about people living in homes we are trying to provide for them one way or another. The move on rent allowance is a policy decision. We want to get rid of the poverty traps whereby people were afraid of losing their rent allowance. We want to get them onto a scheme that is similar to the local authority differential rent scheme. That is a policy decision to get people out of poverty traps and give them the opportunity to go to work.
The disabled person’s grant and the mobility grant were mentioned and I agree that they are important. In so far as we could, we protected that fund. I recently announced money for local authorities in that area. Local authorities get good value for money in responding to people’s needs. As to some extent, they must match the funding themselves, not all local authorities sought as much money as they needed because they had to find matching funds from their own budgets. However, we have tried to protect that as well. We also want to respond in terms of local authority housing stock, which is why we have a fund to upgrade vacant stock and provide those houses. It addresses two issues, first, the fact that there are a considerable number of vacant houses throughout the country, and second, the need to raise the quality and standard of local authority housing. We therefore have funding for that area as well.
The Donegan case was referred to, which essentially concerns anti-social behaviour and the ability of local authorities to take action where such behaviour occurs. The judgment did not allow the local authority to take action because of European human rights law. We are examining that matter because the reality is that, as well as having rights, people have responsibilities. Local authorities need to be able to deal with anti-social behaviour in their estates.
While it is not within my remit, Senator van Turnhout referred to apprentices looking at unfinished houses. Some local authorities use community employment schemes to finish apprenticeships. I know of some such cases and it seems to be a practical way of responding to the needs of young people who want to finish their apprenticeships. We need to find way of addressing such problems, which is what this debate is about. I thank those Senators who have contributed so far.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: There is so much to raise because it is such a wide issue. When the new Government came into power last March, within six weeks it had changed the criteria for people to qualify for local authority houses. People must now prove that they have been living in an area for five years before they can even apply for a local authority house. There are 100,000 people on the waiting list, but many others are not allowed to apply because they cannot prove they have been living in an area for five years. It discriminates against our own people. If a person is from Limerick and travels to Donegal, they cannot apply. That is something that has changed. In addition, funding for all the grant schemes has been drastically cut. Last year, for example, €6.7 million was made available to Donegal County Council, but this year’s allocation is €2.1 million. I would like to deal with a lot more issues, including unfinished housing estates.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: I would like to draw the following to the attention of the Minister of State. Categories 1 to 4 have been set out. The Minister of State has outlined that local authority staff drew up the lists, but that is not entirely the case. According to the senior planner in Donegal County Council, departmental officials surveyed housing estates within Donegal — I am sure it is the same for other local authorities — and decided that there were no estates in County Donegal in category 3 or category 4. Last Thursday night, I met the residents of one of those estates, which is unfinished. The developer has abandoned the estate, which is in category 1 when it should be in category 4. The lists have been drawn up in such as way as to camouflage the real issues. It will ensure estates that deserve some funding are ineligible to apply for it or to draw it down. That estate in Donegal, St. Jude’s Court, should be available to apply for the €5 million fund. The Minister of State mentioned that local authorities did not apply for the €5 million fund. They did not do so because they were not eligible to apply for it. The system needs to be radically reviewed immediately. If that is not done, people in housing estates that should be in category 3 or category 4 will be ineligible to apply for the €5 million fund. That fund is only a drop in the ocean to remedy the problems facing people.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The Minister of State is welcome. I have a specific question that has been a source of concern to people in Oranmore, County Galway, for quite a number of years. I am putting the question in order that the Minister of State might come back to me with a written response. She referred to unfinished housing estates. I will describe what is a very dangerous situation. The situation makes this estate, Oranhill, in Oranmore, an unfinished housing estate, but it is not classified as such for the household charge. There is a hole in this estate big enough to bury Leinster House. This hole was intended for a huge shopping centre development. It is cordoned off from the 250 houses in the estate, but not adequately. There is a safety issue and a serious visual issue which affect values and deter prospective buyers in what is a very nice area.
A few years ago, I tried to follow this up with the developer in this case. He was nice initially and then was not a bit nice. What is his responsibility? This estate cannot be taken over by Galway County Council. What protection is there for the residents? I note the report of the advisory group on unfinished housing development and also what the Minister of State has said about a national co-ordination committee. Will the Minister of State ask her officials to come back to me on this issue? Given the size of the hole, why is the estate classified as finished? Can that classification be reviewed?
When a person who is in a shared ownership scheme and who has been a social welfare recipient for 25 years pays off his or her mortgage, he or she may owe as much as €70,000 to the local authority, which will be completely out of the person’s reach. Could that debt be written off when the person has paid off the mortgage element of the debt?
The Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, should send out renewal notices. People who have signed up with the PRTB may not know when the year is up and should receive reminders, as we do for car tax.
Many vulnerable people bought houses in good faith in what are now classified as unfinished estates. I know of an estate in my own area where there are only two owner occupiers in an estate where 40 houses are inhabited and 30 need to be demolished. This estate is going to rack and ruin. The developer has gone into liquidation and I can see no hope for these people. They have beautiful houses but they are in an estate that is filthy and run down. When estates that are well progressed and where there are many family units are acquired from NAMA, consideration should be given to people like the owner occupiers of whom I speak. There are not many of them. Could they be allowed to transfer to another estate and have their original property in the unfinished estate acquired by the local authority? No matter how long it is there, the run-down estate where they are living will never improve.
Senator Pat O’Neill: I welcome the Minister of State. My question relates to rent allowance. In 2005, we spent €369 million on rent allowance. Last year, that figure had risen to €500 million. We are paying more than half a billion euro on rent allowance and 98,000 people are now in receipt of the allowance. I accept that it is a necessary evil but in some cases it is being abused. I welcome the changes to the rent supplement proposed by the Minister of State.
I ask that an audit be done. Some people go on local authority housing lists simply in order to qualify for rent allowance. If they were offered a local authority house they would not take it. The Minister of State has said there are approximately 100,000 people on housing lists. In my own county of Kilkenny, there are 3,000 people on the local authority housing list. Of those, 2,000 have applied for housing in the city. We have no unfinished housing estates around Kilkenny city. Therefore, we have no hope of housing these people because we do not have the capital funds to purchase houses and the council has very little income from rental properties. I ask the Minister of State to carry out an audit of the rent supplement scheme in each local authority in order that a genuine list of people who want a local authority house can be produced. Some people are using the local authority housing list simply to get rent supplement.
The Department issued the guidelines for unfinished estates and it was up to local authorities to decide what categories estates were in. There is an opportunity to look at the categorisation now, but not for this year in terms of exemption from the local authority charge. I will examine the particular case raised by Senator Healy Eames. She said the estate was finished, but I am not sure if it is categorised as finished or if it is still in the hands of the developer.
Senator Kelly raised a few issues, particularly shared ownership. We need to respond compassionately to people who are stuck in that situation. There is also the issue of asking local authorities to write off large amounts of debt. We have to make sure what we do works for local authorities. I know of similar cases and agree with the Senator that something needs to be done. I will get back to the Private Residential Tenancies Board in relation to renewal notices. The Senator also made a general point about ghost estates.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: I met representatives from a voluntary housing organisation yesterday. It is hoping to go into a ghost estate, where a certain number of people have bought houses. The organisation hopes to take over the vacant houses and provide social housing for people who need it. There is scope to work with the voluntary, community and co-operative sectors in these situations. However, Senator Kelly is talking about an estate that may never be finished. We need a solution for individuals in those cases. We must be careful not to put people on social housing lists who may not satisfy the criteria. We would have to look at each case on an individual basis.
Senator O’Neill spoke about rent allowance and the need for an audit of local authority housing lists. Work is being undertaken in the Department because we are taking over the area of rent supplement. I agree this is a huge amount of money. For a long time people have been asking that something be done about it because this spending is not controlled. There is not the degree of oversight one would have if the scheme were under a local authority. That is why we are bringing the scheme into the local authority system. I think we will be able to address the issues raised by the Senator.
Senator James Heffernan: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish her continued success in her brief. I understand she spoke with councillors in Limerick about retrofitting and insulation of local authority houses. This issue caused me a problem when I was a member of Limerick County Council. The council’s system was to insulate vacant stock first in preparation for tenants moving into the houses, while existing tenants, who were up to date with rent payments, were not entitled to have this work done. They did not qualify for grants because they were not home owners. This system stuck in the craw of many local authority tenants who saw houses being insulated and retrofitted for new tenants while they did not qualify.
In light of the findings of the Mahon tribunal, a sort of NAMA for local authorities was set up a number of years ago. I believe it is called the Housing and Sustainable Community Agency and it seems to be a very secretive organisation, as it is difficult to pin down what exactly it does. I understand it has taken over the assets of local authorities which bought land on the advice of the Department in the 1990s. They were told to grab land all over the country, but they ended up with a considerable bill that they could not afford to pay. I wonder, in the light of the Mahon tribunal report, whether it would be feasible for the Minister of State to see whether she could investigate the lands bought, the use that was made of them, from whom they were bought and exactly how much was paid for them at the time.
We all welcome the move by Ulster Bank — the news broke this morning — on tracker mortgages, etc. It is important that the other banks take up the issue and make more money available, particularly to young people who want to get into the housing market.
My question is about the derelict estates about which we are all talking about. Could a scheme be introduced to encourage the sale to young people who might have to be vetted of semi-finished houses at a very low price, perhaps the price of a site, while ensuring they have a genuine interest in coming together as a community to have an estate developed properly?
Senator Lorraine Higgins: I welcome the Minister of State and compliment her on her work in the Department since she took over the portfolio. In particular, I commend her for the recent announcement of €3 million in grants for the adaptation of homes for the elderly and those with a disability in County Galway and a further €4 million for the improvement of the existing housing supply in the county. While these figures are extremely laudable and she has had to fight hard to secure this funding given current budgetary constraints, there is one issue that concerns me, that is, the time lag between people being allocated a local authority house and their move-in date. In my experience, in some instances, it can be six months or more before tenants move into the dwellings they have been allocated because essential works may have to be done, the BER ratings must be carried out or other works may have to be put out to tender. This practice is depriving the Exchequer of much needed funds. I respectfully ask whether the Minister of State has any plans to look at this in order that she can achieve further efficiencies within her Department in order that ultimately the funding could be used for other worthwhile projects such as the ones I mentioned.
Senator Michael Mullins: I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan. While she has a challenging role, she has hit the ground running and I have no doubt she will do an outstanding job in the years to come.
On voluntary housing projects, how much money will be available in 2012-13 and how will the funding be shared out among the local authorities? I ask this because I am aware of a particularly worthy scheme to provide 17 residential units in Ballinasloe being organised by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
My second question relates to the tenant purchase scheme. I point out to the Minister of State — I raised this issue with the former Minister of State, Deputy Willie Penrose — that there is discrimination against persons on social welfare in the tenant purchase schemes as in order to qualify one must be in secure employment. I am aware of a number of cases in which there is significant income going into a house and those paying the maximum amount in rent could afford to pay an additional €30 or €40 a week towards the cost of buying the house which has been valued at a modest figure. However, because their income is derived mainly income from social welfare payments, they are deemed to be ineligible. Everybody aspires to own his or her own home. This, therefore, is an issue that should be looked at. I am aware of many local authority tenants who probably could afford to buy their home if this situation was rectified.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: I have two questions for the Minister of State. On unfinished estates, I wonder what has happened to those who left them unfinished. Obviously, some of those involved are bankrupt, but I suspect that is not the case across the board. Certainly, in my area there is much local knowledge of what happened, for example, that money was put aside and then re-channelled into another account. I wonder whether that is an issue the Government should be addressing, as well as the practicalities which I appreciate the Department has begun to address.
On regeneration, recently I visited Limerick and took an extensive tour of the regeneration project with its chief executive, Mr. Brendan Kenny, with some Members from Sligo. It is an interesting exercise, as no doubt the Minister of State is aware far better than I am, given that she is from Limerick, but it was clear how slow and difficult regeneration was and how, ultimately, it was not merely about rebuilding houses. I understand the Minister of State has announced the establishment of an independent regeneration office. I would be grateful if she would confirm this, what its function will be, specifically in relation to, say, the Cranmore regeneration project which has been in the offing for quite some time for various reasons. I appreciate that there are lessons that we, in Cranmore, could learn from the project in Limerick to ensure some of the errors made there are not repeated. I pay tribute to the work done by Mr. Kenny. I note that there has been criticism of the slowness of the project, but when one sees the complexity of the work involved, some of the achievements in difficult circumstances are worthy of mention.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: Senator James Heffernan raised the issue of retrofitting and insulation. There has been concentration on vacant houses. This in some ways relates to Senator Lorraine Higgins’s question as to why it takes so long for people to move in. One of the reasons funding is directed towards vacant houses is to bring them up to standard to facilitate their letting. In a way Senator Lorraine Higgins’s issue about speeding up the letting of vacant dwellings reinforces one of the reason the Department is focusing on vacant dwellings.
I sympathise with the point made by Senator James Heffernan which was also raised with me by Limerick county councillors. I am sure it is an issue for councillors in other parts of the country also where there is a tenant who has been living in a place for years and is looking at the house next door being done up and he or she is not able to have repairs done. Local authorities have their own resources, some of which they are supposed to use for repairs. Next year when we are making decisions on the provision funding I will be sympathetic to looking at the position of existing tenants because there is a genuine case that needs to be addressed. We might be able to set aside some money for this purpose.
Senator James Heffernan asked about the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency. This relates to the land aggregation scheme. The reason loans are being transferred to this organisation is that, unfortunately, local authorities bought land for house-building and following the bust were left with debts that they must pay. I understand the overall liability is approximately €500 million. What we have been doing is setting aside approximately €50 million per year and there is a queue of local authorities which are trying to access this funding. The objective is to take the cost of servicing loans off the books of the local authorities and, I suppose, park it. It is causing a financial problem for some local authorities who bought land at a time when they needed it — it is probably the advice they were given — and were then stuck with the cost of servicing the loans. We can give the Senator more information on the matter, if he wants it.
Senator Michael Comiskey also raised the matter of unfinished estates and asked whether they could be sold to young people. That is a good idea. It is probably one we need to put to NAMA because part of its briefs is to get a good return for the taxpayer from its property portfolio and also because it does not own the properties in question. It is a complex issue but something we would nevertheless like to progress.
I have already commented on the issue raised by Senator Higgins. Whatever we can do to assist local authorities to occupy vacant dwellings as quickly as possible will be done. I am very much aware of the difficulties faced by those waiting to be housed.
Senator Mullins asked about the amount of money available for the voluntary housing sector. The allocation for this year under the capital assistance scheme, CAS, is €70 million. However, there are other ways in which funding can be made available to voluntary housing associations. We intend later in the year to issue a multi-annual call for proposals which will involve asking local authorities to set out their priorities for social housing funding. Some of that funding will be administered through voluntary housing associations. There will not be a huge sum involved but associations will be able to access funding later in the year. I will follow up with the Senator on the particular case to which he referred.
Senator Mullins also referred to tenant purchase schemes and the difficulties experienced by people on low incomes in availing of such schemes. Ideally we would like to facilitate people to purchase the property in which they are residing if they can possibly do so. However, given the variations in interest rates and so on in the market, we must be careful that people do not take on something they cannot afford. There must be a balance between individuals’ available income and their desire to purchase the property in which they are living.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: I accept that. However, there is an ability to pay issue that must be taken into account. We do not want people undertaking to buy out their home and then finding they cannot afford to feed themselves.
Senator O’Keeffe asked what will happen to the developers of unfinished housing estates. I certainly hope the relevant authorities will pursue any of those who are guilty of misconduct in their affairs. Some of the developers in question lodged bonds which the local authority can use to carry out certain works. Some developers are in receivership, some are bankrupt and others are still in operation. In the case of the latter, our objective is that they would undertake to complete the estates in question.
In regard to regeneration projects, I am pleased the Senator was able to visit Limerick and wish her success with the regeneration project in Sligo. I, too, commend Brendan Kenny and his team for the work they have done. We have announced our intention to establish an office of regeneration which will be separate from the local authorities’ housing departments. It will be a directorate of regeneration in the local authority system with its own staff and so on, operating out of the offices in the current regeneration areas. In the case of Limerick we will have a joint authority between Limerick city and county. We hope the manager of the interim joint authority — it is a work in progress until the local elections in 2014 — will be the person to whom the director of regeneration will report for the entire Limerick area. We are trying to bring the best of the two systems together. Our aim is to maintain the good work done by the regeneration agencies, which will come to an end in June, but also to ensure we have everybody on the same path in terms of the local authorities. The regeneration office will be connected into the local authority but will be a separate entity.
Senator Colm Burke: An elderly couple came to see me recently with a query about downsizing. Now that their children are grown, they would like to downsize their four bedroom home to a single-storey building. They are getting nowhere, however, with Cork City Council. Does the Minister of State intend to introduce a programme to assist persons in that situation?
I have referred to the German letting model on previous occasions in this House. Under this system, landlords provide only a shell of an apartment and it is for the tenants to install the furnishings and fittings, from carpets to tiling to bathroom fixtures. There are many young people renting in this country who are unable to borrow money to purchase a home but have substantial savings. We need to look at new ideas. A scheme whereby tenants can avail of a ten or even 20 year rental agreement, as in the German model, should be considered. There are advantages for both landlord and tenant in such a system. First, tenants can specify their requirements precisely, thus engendering a greater sense of pride in the property in which they will be living. More importantly, while they must provide the outlay for furnishings and so on, they will secure the property at a much lower rent. The landlord, meanwhile, has a secure leasing arrangement and does not have to worry about wear and tear and the replacement of household items. Will the Minister of State consider introducing such a scheme?
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: The specific instance cottages scheme was a system whereby local authorities undertook to build social housing on a site provided by the tenant. This allowed individuals living in rural areas to have a home built on their own land, with an option to purchase after one year. However, I understand the scheme has been more or less discontinued — by the Department rather than by individual local authorities. Will the Minister of State consider reopening and rolling out that scheme in a progressive manner?
The banks in this country are a disgrace, none more so than the pillar institutions that were guaranteed by the taxpayer. I am not making a political point in this regard; I accord blame to former Ministers from my own party for how the matter was handled. The banks must be challenged on their failure to provide mortgage finance. They are claiming to be open for such lending but it is simply not the case. Any public representative, anywhere in the country, will confirm this. At the same time they are placing dreadful pressure on mortgage holders who have fallen into arrears. These institutions must be held to account. What steps has the Minister of State taken or does she intend to take to urge the chief executive officers of the banks to take action on the provision of mortgage finance and reduce the burden they are placing on customers who have fallen into arrears with their mortgage repayments?
Senator Aideen Hayden: As Senator Ó Domhnaill said, the issue of mortgage lending must be addressed. If the pillar banks will not comply, we must look at other options. We may have to go back to the local authority model under which considerable amounts of lending was made to low-income people. Alternatively, the credit unions may be able to offer some solution. Let us not forget either that we own the Irish Nationwide Building Society branch network. In a situation where mortgage lending has fallen to 1971 levels, action must be taken urgently.
In regard to vacant local authority housing stock, the Department has made additional sums available to turn around voids very quickly. There is no doubt that at times when the housing waiting list is long, the sight of boarded-up housing in existing estates is a cause of great frustration in local communities. Reference was made earlier to the difficulties experienced by people with disabilities in accessing housing. I am aware from my own experience that similar difficulties often arise for single homeless people. I ask the Minister of State to consider providing a specific incentive for local authorities when a unit becomes vacant. For example, it may be a three-bedroom unit that traditionally has been let to a family. The Department might consider making moneys available to subdivide and perhaps extend such a unit in order that it might accommodate two smaller family units or it might be renovated to accommodate a disabled person. This would bring more balance to the local authority housing stock, rather than having it geared specifically towards providing certain types of unit.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: I have a supplementary question on regeneration. I had misunderstood the position as I had thought the independent regeneration office to which I referred was a national office, but it obviously pertains to regeneration in Limerick. Is there an understanding of what the model will be for the Cranmore regeneration project? Will it be an independent regeneration office, in an alliance with the council or an entirely new model? Is the Minister of State in a position to comment on this? As the Limerick regeneration project has been ongoing for some time and as part of the project is coming to an end, I am aware of the need to establish how best practice might be brought to the Sligo project, given that it has started, albeit in a minimal way.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: On Senator Colm Burke’s suggestion regarding the German model, the Department will consider any model available. In some ways, it connects with the point made by Senator Michael Comiskey about making available the houses in the possession of NAMA to young people. I am not familiar with that German scheme, but I am certainly here to listen and take back Members’ suggestions to the Department. While I may not be able to state definitively that it will implement any particular measure, it will examine them to ascertain whether their implementation is possible.
As for the suggestion on downsizing in respect of people living in four-bedroom houses, this also relates to Senator Aideen Hayden’s idea of subdividing. This pertains to the phenomenon, whereby in some cases, properties are too big for the families living in them. Again, the Department will consider all of these suggestions. However, it must also consider their cost because it must give priority to areas of greatest need. For example, I do not know how much it would cost to subdivide. I presume Senator Colm Burke was referring to tenants in the case he raised.
Senator Colm Burke: I have referred to an elderly couple who now are tenants in a four-bedroom house. They do not need that space and wish to downsize to a two-bedroom house specifically aimed at elderly people.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: Local authorities move people around all the time, as individuals are placed on transfer lists and moved around. I understand a successful scheme operated in parts of Dublin some time ago. The Department can examine the scheme that was in place to ascertain whether there is potential in that regard. The same point applies to the specific instance cottages scheme mentioned by Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill. Again, the Department must consider the matter and establish what funding is available. However, I will take it back in the same spirit as the other suggestions made.
I agree with those Members, Senators Brian Ó Domhnaill and Aideen Hayden in particular, who have raised the issue of encouraging the banks to lend. My colleagues, the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, have regular discussions with the banks and are encouraging them in this regard. The Government must do everything it possibly can. If the banks are not doing this and there are other ways to fund mortgages, such ways must be considered. However, the banks must be incentivised. They have received a lot of public money and the Government must have some influence on the manner in which they spend it.
As for Senator Susan O’Keeffe’s question on regeneration, that was a specific solution for Limerick. The Ballymun regeneration project was a different model, being even more at a distance from the local authority. However, that project is winding down and probably will come to a conclusion in 2014. Other areas of Dublin are in urgent need of regeneration and the Department hopes to move some of the money available into those areas. I do not know whether there is a model available for Sligo. While funding has been allocated, it probably has been allocated directly to the local authority. However, I can revert to the Senator in that respect. Up to now, we have been trying to learn from both the Ballymun and Limerick models to establish whether we can put in place the best possible systems to deliver the regeneration these communities need.
Senator Denis Landy: I welcome the Minister of State who has been present in the Chamber for a lot longer than me this afternoon. I wish to raise two issues with her, the first of which concerns the categorisation of housing estates for the household charge. I have done some work on this issue and it appears as though housing estates were taken in their entirety for this purpose. However, in some parts of the country housing estates were built in a number of tranches and sometimes by different builders. In some cases, the original builder built very good schemes but then sold on one third or half the zoned land with planning permission. Other builders subsequently came in but were not as successful. In some cases, they have flown the country and left a mess behind them. However, I have evidence of specific instances in which, because the majority of houses are perceived to be finished, the estate is included under the global name of the original development. Consequently, the parts that remain unfinished are categorised as being finished and being penalised through the household charge. There must be further scoping in respect of both the methodology used and the actual listings provided through the www.householdcharge.ie website for local authorities regarding the estates that are not liable. Moreover, I note the existence of many other estates that are not liable either but which are not so listed. I hope I have made my point clearly.
I have encountered this phenomenon and it is very difficult. Last Monday evening I entered a housing estate only to witness nothing but housing footings and fencing around part of the estate. The people living in the houses that have been built have been told they must pay the household charge, even though there is no public lighting. Moreover, the sewerage system has had to be taken up completely because the builder did not even understand gravity. He fed it back into, instead of out of, the houses. Consequently, the local authority has been obliged to repair it. Furthermore, among many other things, the roads laid for construction of the building site have not been completed. I ask the Minister of State to comment generally on this issue. If she seeks specific details, I will provide them for her later.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: I thank the Minister for State for her earlier responses. I wish to ask a question that is supplementary to those I asked previously and which follows on from Senator Denis Landy’s contribution. The Minister of State has said the categorisation has been completed for this year. While I do not like this, I understand the Department’s point of view. However, I wonder about cases in which evidence such as that held by Senator Denis Landy or me is available. To be fair to the local authorities, this was the first time they were obliged to do this job, but it has not been as comprehensive as one would wish. To where can Members send such information to ensure it is not lost and is examined genuinely? Most Members will only forward information on genuine cases such as those mentioned by Senator Denis Landy and me. While I appreciate no changes will be made this year, is there an avenue, whereby residents’ groups or public representatives can make submissions on the list for next year? They can be helpful in this situation.
My final question which has been asked by other Members relates to housing bonds. There are estates that have been built for which cash bonds are not held. The bonds in question are insurance bonds held by reassurance groups not based in the State and terrible difficulties have arisen in getting moneys back from them. Does the local government auditor look at this issue within the local authorities’ planning departments? I thank the Minister of State for her contribution which has been appreciated.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: I thank the Senator. Senators Denis Landy and Darragh O’Brien have raised common issues. I understand the point they have raised because I am personally familiar with such estates in which parts may be classified as being in category one, while others are classified as being in categories three or four. This has occurred in large estates in which, as Senator Denis Landy has observed, a developer has sold on a piece of the estate and the builders have changed as time has passed. To clarify, these categorisations were made in conjunction with the local authorities. There were guidelines from the Department but the local authorities essentially put them into the various categories. I take the point from Senator O’Brien that this was the first time it was done and they did not know it would relate to a local charge when it was done. We have much to learn from this year but we will consider it again for next year.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: I understand that fully and take on board that point. That is why we are in the process of looking at the categories again. The person to contact would be the local co-ordinator, of which there is one in every local authority for unfinished housing estates. There are people in the Department who liaise directly with co-ordinators in the local authorities. I understand the comments but unfortunately, for this year, decisions on the categories have been made. They will be looked at again next year. If the Senator has an individual case we can see where it is and how it can be properly categorised next year.
Senator Denis Landy: To be honest, if these people take a legal case against either the local authority or the Department, they would win hands down. They are incorrectly categorised and we cannot force them to pay money when they should not be paying it.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: I cannot comment on people taking legal cases. The operation was done by the local authorities with the guidance of the Department. There are real difficulties with bonds and local authorities can struggle with them, depending on when an estate was built. I do not know if I have a real answer to the issue but if we can clarify the issue, we will revert to the Senator. Any of us who has been a member of a local authority knows that in some of the older estates there may not be bonds at all. Certain examples may not be cash bonds in any case.
On my own behalf and that of my predecessor in the role, Deputy Willie Penrose, I thank everybody for a very productive debate and, in particular, the constructive suggestions and support given in the work we are trying to do. We realise that we must be as imaginative and creative as possible and with housing, we are essentially trying to ensure that everybody who needs a home has a dwelling appropriate to his or her family needs.
|Last Updated: 08/03/2013 14:35:04||Page of 13|