Wednesday, 1 October 2008
Seanad Éireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Michael Finneran): I spent more than 13 years in this House as a Senator and am delighted to return today as Minister of State with responsibility for housing to initiate the passage of this important legislation.
Housing is an issue that affects everyone. In these turbulent days, we are all too familiar with the issues arising in the housing sector both in this country and abroad and are also aware of the human dimension of the steep downturn we are experiencing. This places a spotlight on our public policy and finances. Are we getting value for money from our investment? Are we efficient and effective? Most importantly, are we protecting the more vulnerable sections of our society?
Housing means providing homes for people. This is a basic human necessity and the Government has a responsibility to help those who cannot afford to provide a home for themselves. The priority afforded by the Government to housing was clearly articulated in a number of important strategic documents, including Towards 2016, the National Development Plan 2007-2013 and the Government’s statement on housing policy, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, published in February 2007. We have made progress in implementing the commitments contained in these strategies and increased investment by Government has allowed for expansion and diversification in housing support. It is expected that investment of about €2.5 billion in social and affordable housing in 2008 will meet the needs of 20,000 households.
It is important we have the appropriate legislative framework for planning and delivering housing in a way that can adapt to changing environments and meet the needs of individuals and the community. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 provides the platform for a more efficient and effective housing service. It gives effect to the programme of housing reform measures outlined in the Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities policy document.
The current body of legislation on housing dates back more than 40 years and has developed on a piecemeal basis. This Bill will provide greater clarity and transparency to underpin the housing service of the future. This service will not only be more responsive to the household and recognise that its accommodation needs must be addressed in a flexible manner as its needs change over its life cycle, but will also be cognisant of the need to build and maintain sustainable communities. The Bill will establish a modern system of governance for social housing and will provide legislative backing for new and innovative schemes and existing operational mechanisms.
Assessing individual housing needs in a community setting means that there is a critical local dimension to the delivery of housing services. The Bill reflects the Government’s ambition to strengthen local democracy by reinforcing the role of elected members. In this way full account will be taken of national policy while responding to the particular needs of members’ areas. To ensure national policies are reflected in the exercise of statutory functions at local level, powers for the Minister to issue directions and guidance are now provided for in this Bill.
The Bill is set out in four Parts with 43 sections and three Schedules. I will refer in some detail to the main provisions. Part 2 concerns the functions of housing authorities. With the exercise of any function, it is crucial that the structures and administrative tools are in place to guide strategic and operational activities. Part 2 of the Bill outlines, in a transparent manner, the range of functions of housing authorities. The Bill does not alter the basic distribution of housing functions across the different levels of local government reflected in the current legislative code, but it does provide for better planning and integration of services by providing for housing services plans which take a broader strategic perspective at county and city level.
The Bill makes it clear that the key function of housing authorities is to provide a housing service. As section 10 outlines, this service comprises a range of different housing supports, including social housing support, affordable housing and other services with which Members are familiar. Other housing services such as management and maintenance and regeneration are also reflected in the section 10 definition.
Sections 12 and 13 deal with funding issues. Section 10 replaces section 15 of the Housing Act 1988 and lists the various types of support for which grants or subsidies may be provided from the Exchequer. Section 13 deals with resources available to local authorities from sales or clawbacks and provides that these should be placed in a single fund to be used for housing purposes with the prior approval of the Minister.
I refer to housing services plans. Sections 14 to 18 are at the core of strategic planning and operational delivery of housing services. They deal with the making, by local authority members, of housing services plans and with the preparation by managers of housing action programmes to implement such plans. The housing services plans will provide a strategic focus for the planning of housing services, including delivery and ongoing management. The plans build on multi-annual housing action plans that were introduced on an administrative basis in 2004. These proved to be a useful tool for the integrated planning of services and placing them on a statutory footing will provide the necessary framework for engagement with the elected members and a link to work undertaken in preparing housing strategies in the context of development plans.
Under section 14, elected members are obliged to make a housing services plan not later than six months after the current development plan is made and section 15 sets out the matters to be taken into account including the development plan, the demand for social and affordable housing and the need to deliver housing in a way that supports sustainable communities. Section 17 provides for a variation of the plan to be initiated by the manager or the Minister.
Section 18 provides for the making of housing action programmes. The programmes in effect will be the delivery mechanisms for the plans and will be prepared by the manager. It is envisaged that the housing services plans will contain high-level goals and objectives, while precise annual targets for programmes will be set out in the housing actions programmes, which probably will be of a three-year duration. This will allow for appropriate planning of projects and for adjustment to take account of changing needs and resources.
I will turn to social housing support. Chapter 3 of Part 2 of the Bill deals with providing social housing support, which is a crucial component of the broader housing service remit of authorities. It provides the necessary legislative underpinning to the philosophy set out in Towards 2016 and Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities that housing support should be tailored to individual needs as they evolve over their lifecycle and that the delivery of such support must take account of the broader sustainable communities agenda.
Section 19 updates and replaces section 56(1) of the 1966 Act and gives powers to housing authorities to purchase, build, lease etc. dwellings or sites and enter public private partnerships for the purpose of providing social housing support through a variety of methods. In providing such accommodation, section 19(4) obliges local authorities to have regard to their housing services plans, as well as to ensure that they provide a mixture of house types to meet the needs of a range of different household types and to counteract undue social segregation.
As for addressing social housing needs, an objective and consistent assessment of individual housing needs is the key to providing social housing supports. This is essential for determining a household’s priority relative to the needs of other households and to identify the appropriate supports. Section 20 is the basis for the new assessment of need and provides regulatory powers to set eligibility criteria, classify need and determine the form of this assessment. Section 21 allows for the individual assessments to be summarised in a prescribed form for a variety of purposes, including the making of a housing services plan under section 16. This will replace the current triennial assessment of need provided for in the Housing Act 1988, and will provide for a clearer and more timely picture of the scale and nature of housing need in each local authority area and nationwide.
The next step in the process is to link needs, as assessed in accordance with section 20, to the allocation of resources. Section 22 replaces section 11 of the Housing Act 1988 and provides housing authorities with a new approach to allocating dwellings. The new system is an attempt to improve consistency and transparency in decision making, to provide a better fit between needs and resources and to respond, as far as possible, to the expressed preferences of individual households. Under the new approach, each authority will adopt a new allocation scheme, which will allow for local discretion within the national framework. In this way, it is hoped to strengthen the link between local needs and the subsequent provision of resources and ensure consistency in the way in which applicants for social housing are prioritised.
Chapter 4 deals with the rental accommodation scheme, which is more commonly known as RAS. As Members are aware, RAS was introduced in 2005 and aimed to provide a new housing option for those in receipt of social welfare rent supplement with a long-term housing need. Building on the experience of the scheme to date, sections 23 to 27 of the Bill provide a comprehensive statutory framework for RAS in order that it forms part of an integrated suite of social housing options. Section 24 contains the power for a housing authority to enter into a rental accommodation availability agreement. Under this agreement, the provider makes the accommodation available for a period either for a sitting tenant or for any tenants allocated to the property by the housing authority. There are certain requirements to be met by the provider before entering into an agreement under section 24(2) and the terms and conditions associated with that agreement are set out in section 24(4).
Section 25 deals with the tenancy agreement to be known as a chapter 4 tenancy agreement between the person making the dwelling available and the tenant. It outlines what should be in the agreement and importantly, in section 25(5), sets out additional obligations to those under the Residential Tenancies Act. These include payment of a rent contribution to the housing authority and provisions regarding tenancy termination under the Residential Tenancies Act. Any breaches of these obligations can give rise to terminations. The Bill will, therefore, provide a more developed statutory base for RAS in order that it can continue to evolve and play an important role in broadening the range and choice of social housing options.
I now will turn to the management of social housing. Sections 28 to 34 also form part of the social housing governance regime dealing with local authority responsibilities in respect of housing stock, including tenancy agreements, rent schemes and a new requirement to adopt anti-social behaviour strategies. I wish to draw attention to some of these provisions. Section 31 provides for an authority to make a rent scheme setting out the manner in which it will determine rents taking account of national parameters set out in regulations. It is important to point out that the provisions do not alter the basic concept of differential rent, where rents are income-related with provision for the temporary waiving of rent in cases of financial hardship.
Section 34 requires each housing authority, by reserved function, to adopt an anti-social behaviour strategy for the prevention and reduction of anti-social behaviour in its housing stock. I suspect few Members of this House or of society generally have not experienced, directly or indirectly, some form of anti-social behaviour. Anti-social behaviour disrupts the lives of householders and has the potential to destabilise communities. It is important that we make progress in this regard and local authorities, as landlords of 110,000 dwellings, have a duty to secure and protect the interests of their tenants by abating and preventing such behaviour in their estates. Section 34, therefore, specifies the principal objectives of a strategy, notably the promotion of co-operation with other agencies, including the Garda Síochána. This is crucial as local authorities alone cannot be expected to provide comprehensive solutions to anti-social behaviour issues in their estates. It also outlines the matters that may be dealt with in a strategy and sets out the bodies that must be consulted in drawing up a strategy.
The Bill also amends the definition of anti-social behaviour in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1997. Part 5 of Schedule 2 effects the amendment to extend the definition to include damage to property and graffiti and significant impairment of the use or enjoyment of a person’s home.
I will turn now to one of the more innovative measures contained in the Bill. Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities made a commitment to respond to the home ownership aspirations of those who face difficulty in purchasing homes on the open market or through the affordable housing schemes by providing paths to home ownership which are additional to social housing. The incremental purchase scheme, for which provision is made in sections 35 to 40, is one such path.
The scheme involves transferring full title to the new house to the household on the payment to the housing authority or approved body as appropriate of a proportion of the purchase price. The housing authority or approved body places a charge on the property in its favour for the portion of equity not paid for, declining over time until the charge is eliminated. In return, the buyer pays the mortgage and accepts full responsibility for the maintenance of the home.
Eligible households, as defined in section 35, include those assessed as eligible for social housing support by reference to section 20 and, subject to some conditions, existing tenants who wish to transfer to homes made available under the scheme. Section 36 provides that incremental purchase may apply to houses newly built by housing authorities or approved housing bodies and to new houses that are vacant on the coming into force of the Act.
Section 37 provides the power to sell a dwelling under the arrangement by means of a transfer order and sets out the terms and conditions that should apply. Section 38 sets out in detail how the incremental feature of the purchase will operate. It requires the housing authority or approved body to put a charge, by way of a charging order, on a house sold under the scheme. The charging order creates a “charged share” in favour of the housing authority or body, equivalent to the discount granted off the purchase price. This charged share is reduced in equal proportions over the period of the charge. The reduction in the charged share for the first five years of occupancy is not applied until that period has expired. The section also provides for the authority or body to discharge the charge when it expires.
Section 39 deals with the control on resale of incremental purchase dwellings. If the incremental purchaser wishes to resell the house during the charge period, the housing authority or the approved body concerned has the first option on buying it at the proportion of the market value equivalent to the prevailing share of the equity that is not charged.
The resale of an incremental purchase house in the market is subject to the consent of the housing authority or body, which may refuse consent for specified reasons, including anti-social behaviour by the prospective purchaser or in the interest of good estate management. Where an incremental purchaser resells his or her home in the market, he or she must make a payment to the authority or body calculated as the proportion of the market value of the house equivalent to the prevailing charged share.
The incremental purchase scheme offers a number of key benefits. For families, the scheme offers the earliest possible start on the path to home ownership for those willing and able to undertake a house purchase. In addition, giving the buyer responsibility for repair and maintenance of the home helps build the householder’s stake in the property. The scheme is also structured to make it attractive for people to put down long-term roots in the community and commit to an area, thereby contributing to more stable and integrated communities.
For the State, the scheme will provide an opportunity to extract additional value for money from capital expenditure through our social housing investment programme. It will allow capital funding to be recycled quickly, which can then be used to provide additional social housing without the need for additional Exchequer finance. The full details of how the scheme will operate will be spelled out in regulations to be made under the Act in due course. This is a worthwhile and innovative initiative deserving of the support of the House.
The final Part of the Bill deals mainly with the application of clawback arrangements to both the provision of sites for private housing and grants paid for extensions under the adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability. In the latter case, the clawback applies in the event of the extended dwelling being sold within five years of the grant payment, while in the case of what is known as the low-cost sites scheme, the clawback mirrors that already in place under affordable housing schemes.
The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 is an important milestone in the development of housing policy. It provides a more strategic approach to delivery and management through housing services plans and anti-social behaviour strategies. It presents a new, more objective and comprehensive basis for assessing need and allocating housing. It provides a more effective management and control regime covering rents and tenancy arrangements and a more developed statutory basis for the rental accommodation scheme. It is innovative with, for example, the introduction of an incremental purchase scheme aimed at helping those seeking social housing support and existing tenants, in some circumstances, to become home owners. The Bill supports local democracy by conferring a number of new functions on councillors, including the power to make housing services plans; adopt modern and coherent allocation and rent schemes; and put in place specific anti-social behaviour strategies.
Whereas the Bill addresses a wide range of issues, there are other aspects still under development which I hope to bring forward for consideration during the Bill’s passage through the Oireachtas. In particular, I am keen to introduce provisions to allow for the tenant purchase of apartments. We have made significant progress in dealing with the complex legal and policy issues arising but it was not possible to finalise the necessary provisions in time for inclusion in the published Bill. I am determined, however, to continue work to finalise proposals for a viable sales scheme.
This Bill provides additional legislative support to the efforts being made by the Government, local authorities, the voluntary and co-operative housing sector and other actors in the housing area. I am confident it will radically improve the capacity of housing authorities to plan and deliver their services in a coherent, flexible and responsive manner. I commend the Bill to the House.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to debate this Bill, which is long awaited. It is very timely, especially in the current climate, that we debate housing provision in general for the citizens of this country. It is a wide-ranging Bill that has much to do with public interface and how public authorities interact and communicate with people who have housing needs.
Housing policy as defined by the Department is “to enable every household to have available an affordable dwelling of good quality, suited to its needs, in a good environment and, as far as possible, at the tenure of its choice”. That is a very good definition but it is a pity it is not implemented in many ways through the housing provisions of local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It holds much rhetoric and spells out very clearly what we should be doing for our citizens. The message many public representatives receive daily is that there are long local authority housing waiting lists and many vacant houses which local authorities have few resources to get back up to accommodation standard. There are many such issues.
Much work is to be done but this Bill sets out, in principle, to address many of the issues I mentioned. Housing provision should amount to the provision of an efficient and fair system of social housing, delivery and service. I do not necessarily like referring to statistics but it is important we have a snapshot of where we are. In 2006, completions for social housing were approximately 93,400 houses. In 2007, that dropped to approximately 78,000 houses. That is a breakdown across all the social housing sector, including the rental accommodation scheme, affordable housing, Part V and the voluntary and co-operative sector. There has been a drop of 15,000, according to my figures, in the provision of houses.
The last official needs assessment carried out by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was in 2005, which was three years ago. At that time 43,700 people were identified as having a housing need. These are stark indications. With the current economic climate that figure could be higher now. People who had their own houses with comfortable mortgages at that time may now find themselves having a housing need. If a quick survey were done around the Houses, one would find that many Deputies and Senators have had people at their clinics who are now handing back their keys of private dwellings on which they had mortgages. I have experienced this, and I am sure others have. It is a sad day when that happens. We have to look to the future and to ways in which we can help these people. I am hopeful this Bill will address that matter.
The Bill gives legislative provision to allow a Minister to issue guidelines and directions to local authorities, a measure with which I have no problem. It will achieve consistency in the delivery of services across local authorities. The Minister must have a feel for how he wants to deliver social housing and that is a welcome element of the Bill.
The Bill clarifies the housing supports that local authorities are obliged to deliver in areas such as affordable housing, tenant purchase schemes, loans, grants and homeless services. It also acknowledges the official obligation on local authorities to present housing strategies and action plans which, in the interests of consistency and proper delivery of services across the country, is welcome. It is a systematic way to identify the different challenges each local authority faces. There will be public engagement, with consultation, and strategies and plans are to be adopted by the elected members which, as the Minister said, should enhance their role.
I note that under the Bill, as is the case in many areas relating to the environment, the Minister will now have the power to vary plans adopted by the elected members. I suspect this will cause problems because these are the councillors who are at the coalface daily, dealing with these issues, sitting on the housing strategic policy committees, Traveller accommodation committees, needs assessment committees etc. They may go to the trouble of adopting a plan they, as locally elected representatives with a mandate from their own communities, feel is appropriate, but if the Minister does not like it he can vary it. We in Fine Gael will oppose that measure. I would be interested to hear the views of the Government side on that element of the Bill. It is further evidence of Ministers trying to undermine the autonomy of local democracy. There should be an element of trust in this regard. The councillors are elected, they have the mandate and we must put our trust in them. Many Ministers have come through the local government system and should be well aware of the challenges councillors face. I ask for that element of the Bill to be reviewed.
Local authorities have wide-ranging functions regarding the management, maintenance and refurbishment of their housing stock. Many issues arise in regard to the efficient delivery of that service and function. I referred earlier to the resources available to local authorities. For example, if a number of council houses become available today, the turnaround time for them to be reallocated can be months or even years. It is not acceptable that it should take such a length of time to reallocate houses — ten to 20 houses in some cases — while many people are on the waiting list in urgent need of housing. When I ask various directors of services in housing why this is the case, they simply shrug their shoulders and tell me they do not have the resources or manpower to refurbish those houses and reallocate them. There is something seriously wrong if this is the case and I hope the Bill will address that problem.
The Minister mentioned Part L regulations. The BER standards, the building energy rating requirements for new buildings or any buildings to be let by landlords, have been in force since July 2008. If a survey were carried out today, how many council houses would meet those standards? I suspect very few would reach that standard because of the substandard levels of insulation, doors and windows, facias and sockets in local authority housing stock. I acknowledge that in recent years there have been major improvements in regard to the refurbishment of houses, but whether they are good enough to comply with the BER standards remains to be seen.
I ask local authorities to consider the redevelopment of derelict and vacant sites in towns and villages, something from which they have shied away over the years. They prefer to develop greenfield sites because they are easier to design, to get planning for and there are fewer implications for neighbours. That does not, however, achieve what we want to achieve, namely, the re-establishment of towns and villages. Councils should buy derelict sites and build houses on them to reallocate to the people on their waiting lists. That would be the most cost efficient and cost effective thing to do, and would meet the need to integrate communities. While that is not mentioned in the Bill, it could be facilitated under the service action plans.
The last official assessment of housing needs carried out by the Department was in 2005. It appears this Bill will make it obligatory for local authorities to carry out an assessment of need, which I welcome. Staff training and skill sets are required in local authorities in order that the system delivers a consistent assessment of housing needs across the board. Single people tend to be discriminated against as regards housing because they have no dependants and are seen to be fairly independent. They tend to be far down the waiting list. I would like the needs of these people taken into account when assessing people for housing. Officials and councillors should work together to meet those needs.
This Bill gives a statutory framework to the rental allowance scheme which has been in place for some time. Any initiative that gives people with housing needs the opportunity to own, or rent long term, a house is a positive development. A value for money and policy review of this scheme was promised by the previous Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for housing and urban renewal, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, and that was to be completed by the middle of this year. To date that has not happened. The Minister should assess the value for money aspect of the scheme to clearly establish if it can deliver the same accommodation as traditional social housing. There is a concern that local authorities are reneging on their duties to build social housing and are using these schemes to meet the needs of people on their housing lists. I would like such a review to take place as soon as possible.
The home ownership incremental purchase scheme, another avenue for people to get on the housing ladder, must be welcomed. It is an addition to the affordable housing scheme, the shared ownership scheme, the mortgage allowance scheme, the tenant purchase scheme and the subsidised sites scheme, which in the past were successful. It will provide an opportunity for those on incomes too low to qualify for affordable housing to own their own houses. This scheme closely reflects Fine Gael policy in this area.
My colleagues may cover some of the areas I do not have time to deal with, such as the Part V of the Planning and Development Act, under which 5,150 affordable houses were completed between 2002 and 2007. There were 2,482 social houses provided in the same period. With the current climate, it was hoped that the Part V arrangement would deliver more social and affordable houses. As this aspiration will clearly not be realised, it behoves the Departments and local authorities to review their policies and plans to ensure the projected provision under the scheme is maintained, either through direct provision or in other schemes. The abandonment of public-private partnership regeneration projects in Dublin is a typical example of the failure of the current approach. Those affected in the areas in question feel let down and are asking what options are available to them.
Every local authority has experienced its fair share of anti-social behaviour in estates under its responsibility. While this behaviour is concentrated in areas of social deprivation and inner cities, in recent years it has become more prevalent in local authority and private estates in smaller towns and villages. Unfortunately, many of the estates in question were developed by local authorities with the approval of Departments which did not give any consideration to the provision of necessary social and community supports to service these large estates. In many cases, the price we are paying has been the creation of urban ghettos. This is hard evidence of the abject failure of previous housing policies. I hope issues such as these will be addressed in the legislation.
Every local authority is challenged by anti-social behaviour, one of the key community concerns raised on doorsteps during the previous general election campaign. The Fine Gael Party welcomes in principle the provisions which will address how anti-social behaviour will be dealt with by local authorities and the enhanced powers which will be made available to local authorities.
The issue of homelessness and the challenges facing those in such an unfortunate predicament must feature in any debate on housing. I am informed that 5,000 people are homeless at any one time and 2,000 people become homeless every year, the majority of whom live in emergency accommodation. The Way Home homeless strategy announced by the Minister of State promises much in that it proposes to eliminate homelessness by 2010. While it is welcome, the strategy is strong on rhetoric and weak on identifying specific provision of adequate funding and resources to relevant agencies, local authorities and non-governmental organisations to reach this target.
The House should debate the issue of homelessness because in many cases those affected by the problem do not appear on the radar screen of local authorities. Homelessness is not acceptable. A clear, statutory definition of homelessness and the identification of committed resources to reduce the problem are required in the Bill. The role of non-governmental organisations and voluntary housing associations operating in this sector should also be clarified.
I thank the Minister of State for the opportunity to debate the Bill and look forward to further debate as the legislation proceeds through the Houses. I hope my colleagues will address some of the other issues I did not have time to raise.
Senator Martin Brady: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I value and treasure my long-standing friendship with him and wish him well in his role. I also welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill.
The Housing (Miscellaneous) Provisions Bill 2008 will improve the delivery of housing services by giving effect to the programme of social housing and the measures outlined in the Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities policy document published in February 2007. Current legislation on social and affordable housing dates back more than 40 years and has been developed in a piecemeal manner. The Bill will restore order to ad hoc procedures which have evolved over many years.
The Bill is driven by an overarching ambition to promote sustainable communities. Mindful of the role of government in setting down the broad thrust of housing policy, it gives housing authorities the tools and flexibility to implement policy in different ways to meet their specific local circumstances. It also reflects an ambition to strengthen local democracy by reinforcing the role of elected members in determining housing policy at a local level.
The Bill provides for a new incremental purchase scheme which will enable existing social housing tenants and households which qualify for social housing support to become owners of homes newly built by housing authorities and voluntary and co-operative bodies. This is a key provision. When one gives people something for nothing they do not take pride in or look after it. As has been evident in the case of local authority housing in Dublin over many years, people need to have a sense of ownership. In addition, large local authority apartment blocks and housing estates have been badly managed. While we often hear complaints about private landlords, they tend to manage their properties much better than local authorities which have failed in many ways over the years.
The allocation of local authority housing — an issue raised by Senator Coffey — is a major problem in the Dublin North-East constituency. When houses are vacated and boarded up they become a magnet for anti-social behaviour. Break-ins frequently occur and these properties become havens for drug abusers and a nuisance for neighbours. There are 5,000 vacant local authority houses in the State. In one case with which I am familiar it took seven months to renovate a house following its purchase from a private individual.
I am pleased anti-social behaviour is addressed in the Bill because the issue requires significant attention. Anti-social behaviour ranges from drug dealing, selling cars from houses, noisiness at night and general inconveniencing of neighbours. In some cases people are unable to sleep at night. The Bill requires home owners to take full responsibility for maintaining their houses, which is a positive development.
The incremental purchase scheme provides an opportunity for the State to extract additional value for the annual capital investment in the social housing building programme and will allow capital moneys to be quickly recycled to provide additional social housing without the provision of additional Exchequer funding. The Bill also includes important new powers for elected members to adopt strategies for the prevention and reduction of anti-social behaviour in local authority housing stock. An extended definition of the term “anti-social behaviour” covers graffiti and damage to property, which have become major problems in cities and towns. Graffiti appears to be trendy, with graffiti groups running competitions on websites. The Bill includes good, sensible measures which will assist us in achieving our objectives in tackling anti-social behaviour.
The Bill will broaden the choices available to those seeking social housing by establishing a more developed framework for contractual arrangements to secure rental accommodation for social housing. These provisions are based on experience with rental accommodation and involve housing authorities progressively taking responsibility for accommodating people in receipt of social welfare and rental supplement who have had a long-term housing need.
The Government expects to have rehoused more than 16,000 households with long-term housing needs who were previously supported through the rent supplement scheme. Rent supplement is a waste of money. Under the scheme a person rents from a landlord and his or her rent is subsidised by the Health Service Executive. The scheme does not give a person a sense of home ownership as the person concerned is renting somebody else’s house. It is similar to a person hiring a car in that he or she does not look after it as well as if it was his or her own car. It was preferable when people were given their own homes and received support in the form of the rent supplement.
The Bill amends affordable housing legislation to remove any anomaly in existing clawback provisions. They were intended to apply only where affordable homes were resold. A clawback provision provided that one could not sell on a house for a period of five to seven years. I recall that in the Dublin City Council area some people who bought houses under such a scheme resold them a short time later and made a substantial profit.
The Bill will amend the law to enable owners of affordable housing, with the agreement of lenders, to re-finance or top-up their existing mortgage loans without triggering the payment of clawback charge. The Bill supports the creation of a flexible and graduated system of housing supports for those in need of housing. It improves customer choice to meet the changing requirements over a person’s lifetime and strengthens the powers of the housing authorities as social landlords and regulators of social housing.
This Bill is positive, constructive and I believe all its proposals are achievable. The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, comes from a rural area and is in tune with what is happening on the ground and I am sure he will take on board and examine all the suggestions made. I very much welcome all the provisions of the Bill and commend it to the House.
Senator Ivana Bacik: Like previous speakers, I welcome the Minister of State to the House and express a broad welcome for the Bill and for the aim it expresses, which is to improve housing services and their delivery. I am sure all of us would be in agreement with the need to do that. However, there is an element of missed opportunity about this Bill and a number of areas in which the provisions of it could usefully be strengthened to provide a substantial improvement in the quality of housing services and in their delivery to individuals and families. That is the aspect I want to address in the short time available on this Second Stage debate and I welcome the opportunity to do so.
I am grateful to people from the Make Room initiative, which is run by four of the NGOs providing services to homeless persons, namely, Focus Ireland, Threshold, the Simon Community and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, for the information supplied. I am also grateful to the Library of the Houses of the Oireachtas which supplied a useful briefing paper on the Bill.
Unfortunately, there is an absence of provision for homelessness in the Bill, an aspect on which Senator Coffey touched. It is a missed opportunity in that this Bill could have provided an opportunity to place the Government’s own homeless action plans on a statutory footing. It presented an opportunity also to provide a better statutory definition of “homelessness”. Many front-line service providers would say there is a difficulty with current definitions of “homelessness” and with what appears to be an under-assessment of the numbers of persons experiencing homelessness. The assessment of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government conducted in 2005 concluded that there were 3,031 people experiencing homelessness but again that appears to be an under-assessment in that the NGOs providing services have not seen a drop in people using their services. They are of the view that the 2002 figures, which were higher — more than 5,500 — may be a more accurate representation of homelessness.
In addition, there is a difficulty with the definition in that perhaps it does not include those who are in short-term rental accommodation. There is a European-wide definition of “homelessness” that has been suggested that would include persons experiencing inadequate or insecure accommodation such as, for example, victims or survivors of domestic violence. We need to examine that. Although the Bill is very much about improving services, including to persons experiencing homelessness, regrettably there is not included in it a provision for a statutory basis for homeless action plans, or a definition of “homelessness”.
Turning to what is included in the Bill, section 19 deals with social housing provisions, which I welcome. The section deals with the provision of social housing support and gives power to housing authorities to provide, facilitate or manage such provision. There are some important and welcome aspects of the section, in particular subsection (4), which obliges housing authorities to have regard to the need to counteract undue segregation between persons of different social backgrounds when they are providing housing services. It also obliges housing authorities to ensure a mix of dwelling types and classes of tenure. It is important that is done in any urban centre. There is a broad welcome for that. I have a concern, however, about what may be a shift in direction within section 19 towards a more general power to provide social housing support and away from a focus on the actual provision of social housing and the building and construction of new social housing units. Senator Coffey mentioned we had already seen a drop-off in the completion of social housing units prior to these times of economic crises we are now experiencing. It is a real concern that local authorities might be examining other types of support when they should be providing the most secure form of tenure to families and households, that is, the social housing provision itself.
There is a radical proposal which, interestingly, would be facilitated by section 19 because subsection (3) permits housing authorities to purchase dwellings or sites to convert buildings or refurbish dwellings. The figures from the Central Statistics Office on the number of vacant housing units in the State indicate that there is a potential opportunity for local authorities to buy up unsold private units of which, apparently, there are 10,000 across Dublin, and to refurbish them or make them suitable to meet the needs of the thousands of families still on housing waiting lists. The 2005 figures suggest there are 43,000 households still on local authority housing waiting lists and for those people it is important there is still direct social housing provision and not just other forms of support. A concern regarding section 19 is that there appears to be a shift in emphasis away from actual provision of housing and towards different forms of support, some of which may fill short-term needs of households but may not be adequate in the long term.
The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, which other speakers have also addressed, is covered in sections 24 and 25. While RAS was an important initiative, and it is welcome that it is being given this secure statutory footing, I might have a concern that it would be expanded upon and developed as an alternative to the provision of social housing. RAS may not meet the long-term needs of the most vulnerable families and households.
From a reading of a summary of the regulatory impact assessment conducted by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in terms of the take-up of RAS in the four years since it was introduced in 2004, I note that the take-up of it has been slow and that the RIA identified barriers to take-up of the scheme. Those barriers would be of great concern because they include the poor quality of private rented accommodation. Any of us who spent time renting in this city or any other areas throughout the State will know that is a real issue. There is serious disparity in conditions in private rented accommodation, not just in old accommodation but some new apartments have been built to very poor standards. It also identified the unwillingness of certain landlords to join RAS and also a shortage of supply of particular types of accommodation at reasonable rent level. It is clear there are difficulties with RAS and it may not be enough to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people. I do not see in this Bill an answer to those difficulties and barriers to the take-up of RAS.
A previous Minister of State at the Department, and current Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, indicated that a value for money and policy review of RAS was under way and was due for completion in April of this year. Apparently, however, this review has not yet been completed. It would be useful to see what that review reveals in order that we might try to assess how best RAS can be developed.
Section 22 again represents a missed opportunity. The section, which is important and welcome, refers to the allocation schemes of housing authorities in the context of meeting housing needs and requires those authorities to make such schemes and determine criteria and priority for persons applying for housing or the allocation of dwellings. My difficulty is that the section still leaves housing authorities with undue discretion regarding the criteria to be adopted. Anyone with experience of campaigning and knocking on people’s doors will be aware that the criteria applied by local authorities in determining housing need and in allocating housing are a real concern for many individuals. In circumstances where inconsistencies exist and where different criteria are used, there are real concerns with regard to selectivity and unfairness.
The procedure for allocating housing in Northern Ireland was changed as a result of concerns in respect of there being too much selectivity. The experience in that jurisdiction and across different local authorities in this country shows the need for a single allocation scheme based on universal, objectively assessed criteria for allocating housing.
An issue also arises regarding the method used to collect data on housing need. At present, local authorities collect and collate such data separately. The Garda used to gather data relating to crime but in recent years it was recognised that it would be much more appropriate if the Central Statistics Office, CSO, became the agency responsible for doing so. The latter has been done and represents a huge improvement for people who work in the area of criminal justice because they can be more confident about the figures provided. In that context, there is an argument for using the CSO rather than local authorities to gather data relating to housing need, particularly because there is too much room for discrepancy and difference among the criteria used. It is possible that discriminatory criteria are being applied and different methods of selection used. This leads to perceptions of, if not actual, unfairness in respect of housing allocation.
The Bill does not improve on the current position and the inconsistencies attaching thereto. It is welcome that housing authorities will be required to make allocation schemes. However, the legislation is not sufficiently prescriptive regarding the criteria that should apply in the context of those schemes. There is still a need for universal criteria to be applied.
Previous speakers referred to anti-social behaviour, which is the subject of an important provision contained in section 34. As a criminal law practitioner, I am somewhat alarmed by this section. The criminal law provisions relating to anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOs, were introduced with much fanfare by a previous Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and have proved to be ineffectual in practice in the context of addressing the real problems and genuine traumas caused by anti-social behaviour to individuals in different communities.  We must be wary of how we might best legislate in order to deal with such behaviour. This is an extremely difficult matter for housing authorities.
I welcome the requirement in section 34 whereby local authorities must adopt schemes as to how anti-social behaviour will be dealt with. It is helpful that criteria relating to how such behaviour will be tackled will be set down. I would like greater emphasis on early intervention and prevention to ensure that matters do not come to a head in circumstances where eviction is ultimately required. While local authorities should have effective powers to allow them to deal with anti-social behaviour, a difficulty arises because eviction means that the problem is merely being passed on and that innocent people can be hurt if an entire family is evicted as a result of the behaviour of one member. I look forward to reviewing this provision in more detail on Committee Stage.
As already stated, there is an element of missed opportunity about the Bill. However, that is not to take away from the welcome improvements it will deliver. As we debate the legislation, it would be nice to think that amendments which would help to improve the delivery of services to people with housing needs might be accepted. I would welcome it if amendments that provide for a rights-based definition of homelessness were taken on board. Such amendments could be based on the broader criteria adopted by different voluntary agencies across Europe.
I would also welcome further clarification regarding the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. There is, for example, a suggestion that more power might be given to the Private Residential Tenancies Board, which oversees the activities of landlords. Weaknesses relating to the board have been identified. Addressing these might perhaps be another day’s work but provisions could be included in the Bill in order to strengthen the board’s powers. The issues to which I referred earlier, particularly the universal selection criteria, could be dealt with more adequately in the Bill.
There has been much discussion of regulation, particularly in the context of the financial markets. Equally, however, there is a need to discuss such regulation as it relates to housing services. The Bill should contain provisions regarding the regulation not only of State providers — the local authorities — but also of the voluntary agencies which provide housing services. I referred earlier to a universal set of criteria for the allocation of housing and this could also apply to agencies such as the Simon Community which are providing housing on a voluntary basis. The agencies are in favour of the use of such criteria. There can be no argument that the consistency of services would be improved and that matters would be much fairer if a single set of criteria that would — regardless of whether a person is seeking housing in Dublin or Dingle — apply across the board were introduced.
Senator Dan Boyle: I welcome the Bill, which will add significantly to existing legislation relating to housing. It points to how such legislation might be further improved. I do not believe the Bill is meant to be comprehensive in any way. It adds to existing legislative provision but there is no doubt that much needs to be added to it by way of amendment in order to improve it. The debates on the Bill in this and the Lower House will assist in that regard.
Several NGOs have referred in positive terms to the general thrust of the Bill and intend to make concrete proposals in respect of how it might be improved. I hope their suggestions will be looked on favourably.
There is inconsistency regarding the way in which housing, particularly social housing, is allocated. Much of this has arisen as a result of the development of different practices among the various local authorities. Senator Bacik referred to the differences in housing application lists between one local authority and another. It is obvious that some authorities employ good practices while others do not. The local authority of which I had the privilege to be a member for 11 years — Cork City Council — did not deal with this matter in the most open and honest of ways. There is a need for a dramatic improvement regarding the way in which the council operates its housing list. The council discriminates most particularly against single people — most markedly against single men — and different waiting times apply in respect of particular areas of the city where people might request to be housed. This leads to an unbalanced social approach to housing allocation.
Those who work within the housing department of Cork City Council do so with honest intent and are continually trying to square the circle. Their jobs would be made immeasurably easier if the legislation directed — perhaps ministerial regulations could also be made in this regard — that there be a consistent, nationally-based system of housing allocation. What works for people in Dublin city or County Waterford does not appear to work for those in Cork city. We should not be prepared to stand over the different approaches taken to the allocation of social housing.
Part of the inconsistency to which I referred earlier relates to how various State support mechanisms have been used. For example, the RAS payment — this also applies in respect of the various forms of rent allowances and supplements that existed in the past — has been made despite private rented companies not being listed with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. That type of inconsistent approach has led to people being given State support for housing of a poor standard. It is a double standard which will eventually be worked out of the system but the fact it has been allowed at all is a black mark against our national policy.
The role of private rented housing, which in Irish terms is still low compared to other European countries, should be about more than putting a roof over people’s heads and should be about having the highest quality housing. As someone representing the Green Party, it is fair to say that our private rented stock is the poorest of all housing stock in terms of heat efficiency and appropriate environmental standards. There is a role for the Government in regulating for those standards and in providing appropriate supports where necessary.
We are failing to reach our potential in developing voluntary housing, although there have been improvements in funding and in Government and local government interaction. Voluntary housing still comprises only a very small proportion of our total housing stock. I had the privilege of working with a housing body for a number of years, namely, Cork Community Housing Co-operative in Cork city which developed a very good housing project in Wellington Square-Magazine Road.
As a public representative, I had the privilege of accompanying the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to a recent opening of a very innovative project at Skiddy’s Alms House. That is a locally based voluntary housing organisation but in recent years, we have seen the development of Irish arms of organisations such as Clúid which is the Irish arm of the St. Pancras Housing Association from the United Kingdom. These groups, along with groups such as Focus Ireland and the Simon Community, are developing valuable social housing approaches on a medium-term and long-term basis which local authorities are not structured to deliver. We need a support mechanism which uses that potential more than has been the case in the past.
Senator Dan Boyle: Threshold is very active in Cork and in other parts of the country. The Make Room campaign tries to place a particular focus on homelessness. This Bill does not refer to homelessness but it should do so. I hope amendments along those lines will be favourably received.
Senator Dan Boyle: That is the nature of the legislative process and that is why we are having this debate. Irish legislation is already well advanced in having a legal definition of homelessness. That does not exist in many other jurisdictions. When examining legislation of this type, we need to ask whether that definition is broad and effective enough and whether this is an appropriate place to deal with the issue. I believe it is.
Particular questions need to be asked about homelessness. It is regrettable that there is a division between the local government element of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Health and Children on how we should tackle homelessness. The Minister of State recently launched an excellent homelessness strategy. There is a challenge to dedicate particular resources to ensure that strategy is effective.
Day-to-day funding for homelessness is provided by the HSE. Last year the HSE was given a block grant by the Government and asked to spend a particular amount on homelessness but it chose to ignore that advice and spent it in different areas. While that situation prevails, we must ask whether there is a better funding mechanism, whether that funding could be ring-fenced and whether there is a need for a separate agency. There is a homelessness initiative in Dublin but we must ask whether it can be given a nationwide focus because there are other large urban centres which suffer similar problems.
The question of anti-social behaviour is addressed to some extent. It is a development of existing law. The central question remains. If an individual or a family is regarded as anti-social, there is still a problem in terms of what can happen if that individual or family is a tenant of a local authority or even a voluntary housing authority. Is one moving the problem from one place to another? Perhaps it cannot be addressed in legislation such as this but there is a need for intervention and direct supports to deal with the problem at source because otherwise one is simply moving the problem.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is committed to the right to buy. He has met several groups involved in this thorny and seemingly intractable issue since difficulties arose originally in Dublin and subsequently in other urban centres about the right of local authority tenants to purchase properties. He has given a commitment to address that issue by way of amendment as this legislation progresses through both Houses. I look forward to seeing the nature of that amendment because it will add to this Bill. For another housing Bill to progress through the Oireachtas without that issue being tackled would be to neglect the large number of people involved.
Senator Dan Boyle: It is not in the Bill because it is still subject to legal advice from the Attorney General. The Minister will explain why when the Bill goes through both Houses but it remains a commitment of his and I put it on the record as such.
I welcome the Minister of State and this Bill which is important legislation that can go a long way towards helping people in need of housing. The legislation deals with some principal themes, including anti-social behaviour, the rental accommodation scheme and the incremental purchase scheme. It contains many provisions, including how a housing service is defined, housing service plans, needs assessment, allocation schemes and anti-social strategies. I signal now that we will table some amendments on Committee Stage but will do so in a positive manner. We hope they will be taken on board to try to improve the legislation and I hope my comments are helpful in that respect.
I welcome the contents of the housing service plan, in particular those sections dealing with social segregation and how we need to ensure that people from different backgrounds are catered for within the plan. It is good to see that the Bill calls for a mix of dwelling types to ensure there is a sufficient supply of housing for those wanting it.
Senator Dan Boyle mentioned the absence of a reference to homelessness in the Bill and said that he hopes to see that corrected by way of amendment on Committee Stage. I was glad to hear that because it is clear that there is a real problem with single males and homelessness. There is also a dearth of one-bedroom apartments in local authority provided housing. We need to ensure this is addressed through the housing plan.
I am also glad to see the housing service plan will be produced within six months of the county development plan, which is eminently sensible. However, I ask that the legislation be tightened as regards consultation. Section 16 calls for the housing authority to send a copy of the draft plan to various agencies and authorities. That needs to be stronger and we need to tighten the wording to ensure there is more consultation than simply sending something, waiting to get comments back and then responding to them. I would like local authorities to work much more closely with the relevant agencies.
The housing action programme is very welcome, but who is responsible for its delivery? Is it the county manager, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or the Minister for Finance? A programme is not worth a bucket of rainwater unless it is fully costed and funded. It is unfair on councillors, housing officials and people on the housing list to be told a programme of works is coming down the line only for the funding to disappear. Can I have clarity on who is responsible for ensuring the funding is in place?
The most recent assessment of homelessness shows there are more than 3,000 homeless people in Ireland and more than 43,000 households on local authority waiting lists. I am aware of the impact of this in my area. In Meath there are in excess of 2,000 people on the waiting lists and I regularly get telephone calls from people throughout the county who have been waiting years for housing. Some of them are in housing that is inadequate or needs refurbishment, but the council does not have the money to deal with the situation. It is clear, therefore, that we need a costed and fully funded programme of works.
I would like more information with regard to assessment of needs. Section 20(1) refers to a household as “2 or more persons who, in the opinion of the housing authority concerned, have a reasonable requirement to live together”. However, section 20(4)(a) mentions “a household comprising one person”. What is a household? Is it one person or two or more? Can the Minister of State also explain “reasonable requirement to live together”? I suggest one person’s definition of a reasonable requirement to live together would be very different from another’s. We need to provide a firmer definition here.
The Bill should consider also what constitutes acceptable housing. I know of an estate in County Meath, Alverno Heights, where little work has been done by way of refurbishment in more than 30 years. The people there have been promised year after year that refurbishment works will be carried out, but the Government is dragging its feet with regard to expenditure. Senator Brady, who has significant experience in these matters, asked whether it is the management of local authorities that is responsible for some estates being run down. It is probably because they do not get the funding from the Department to ensure these older estates can be refurbished. Will the Minister of State explain what he understands by social housing support? Does he consider renting a house from the private sector to be social housing support?
The Minister of State mentioned the relevance of Towards 2016. That document states the Department will provide 60,000 households between 2006 and 2009. Current output levels show that at 25,000, we are far short of that, more than 40% short. The result is we have a significant number of households in need of housing because of the failure of the Government to implement its policies contained within Towards 2016.
There is a way around this. There are 10,000 flats or apartments available which gives scope for an imaginative solution. The Department could work with the housing agencies to take those apartments off the market and kill two birds with one stone. First, it would reduce housing supply and kick-start the property market and also reduce housing lists by up to 10,000 households. Perhaps this is something the Minister of State should consider.
The Bill also refers to anti-social behaviour. It is a good idea to introduce additional legislation in this area. Some councils have adopted anti-social behaviour strategies. I spoke to the anti-social behaviour officer in County Meath yesterday. Meath took on board best practice worldwide and introduced a strategy a number of years ago and by being proactive in that respect, it has managed to make some inroads into anti-social behaviour. The Minister of State was correct in saying that anti-social behaviour in estates disrupts the lives of householders and has the potential to destabilise communities. We have all seen at first hand how people are harassed and intimidated in their estates and, sometimes, their homes. A nationwide anti-social behaviour strategy is timely and, it is to be hoped, helpful. What plans are there for an appeals process for people who are served with an anti-social behaviour order? It is only fair we should have an independent appeals process to provide transparency. Will the Minister of State consider that?
The Labour Party may table some amendments relating to incremental purchase arrangements. I have some questions regarding how easy it would be for a single person who started off buying a one-bedroom apartment but then started a family with a partner to move off the scheme and sell the apartment and buy another. What kind of clawback would be involved? Perhaps this will be clarified later. We welcome the Bill in principle as it has positive proposals. However, we will table some amendments in a spirit of improving the legislation.
Senator Larry Butler: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on how quickly he has moved since he took up the position. His website information on social and affordable housing has been very helpful.
People deserve sustainable communities and it is important each community can sustain itself. This legislation will assist in delivering sustainable communities. I agree it is important we find local solutions to fulfil local needs. The Bill will restore order to procedure that has evolved over years. The new housing policy gives the authorities the tools and flexibility to implement policy in different ways to meet local circumstances. There is a need to strengthen local democracy by giving new powers and roles to elected members in determining housing policies.
It is likely that repossessions and evictions will become more prevalent. The Bill should include a provision that banks and building societies should contact local authorities before any legal proceedings for repossession or eviction take place. In light of our assistance to the banking fraternity, the Bill provides a good opportunity to do this. Houses from which people might be evicted could be rented back to householders or local councils might be able to help with finance.
The Minister of State indicated the incremental purchase scheme provides a positive opportunity for the State to exact additional value from the annual capital investment in the social house building programme as that will allow capital moneys to be recycled quickly and provide additional and social housing without extra Exchequer funding.
The Bill provides new powers for elected members to adopt strategies for the prevention and reduction of anti-social behaviour in local authority areas. This has been a bone of contention. Genuine, ordinary, decent people who try to live their lives face interference from people through noise and intimidation. We need strong legislation to deal with this issue which housing authorities should build into their housing agreements.
Senator Larry Butler: Elected members will have new powers to devise rent schemes that set out policy for the determination of rents by managers, as well as updated powers for housing authorities to charge income related rents for accommodation and rent contributions in the case of the rental accommodation scheme, RAS.
Local authority tenancy agreements will include conditions specifically prohibiting anti-social behaviour. It is important we deal with anti-social behaviour because it destroys estates. In some cases, a handful of people can upset entire neighbourhoods. Irrespective of whether such practices take place in private rented accommodation or local authority housing, they are not acceptable.
The Bill will broaden the choices available to those seeking social housing by establishing a more developed framework for contractual arrangements to secure rented accommodation for social housing. These provisions are based on the experience of the rental accommodation scheme which involves housing authorities progressively taking responsibility for accommodating people in receipt of social welfare rent supplements. It is not acceptable for landlords to refuse rent supplement. It is discriminatory and should not be allowed. By the end of 2008, it is expected that more than 16,000 households which would otherwise be paying rent will be rehoused through RAS and other forms of social housing.
The Bill supports the creation of a flexible system of housing supports for those in need, improves customer choice to meet changing requirements over a person’s lifetime and strengthens the powers of housing authorities as social landlords and regulators of social housing to deliver better quality housing responses in a more strategic way by focusing on the building of sustainable communities. The most important provision in this Bill is its commitment to sustainable communities.
Local authorities have been some of the worst landlords in the country. While the private sector also includes bad landlords, during my time as a councillor I visited accommodation prior to it being occupied. It is disgraceful for a local authority to give a house in bad condition to a young couple or a mother with two children and expect them to live in it. This Bill should prevent this from happening because a house will be properly renovated before being occupied. Equally, the tenant should be expected to return the house in a good condition to the local authority.
The Bill will provide updated powers for housing authorities to assess a household’s need and eligibility for local authority housing, rental accommodation such as RAS and voluntary and co-operative housing provided with Exchequer funding. I welcome these changes and look forward to working with locally elected members to provide a better housing system for all who need it.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit sa Roinn Comhshaoil, Oidhreachta agus Rialtas Áitiúil, Deputy Michael Kitt. Housing, whether private, social or affordable, affects people. We are rightly debating this Bill and putting the Government’s policy on housing under the spotlight. Some of the contributions from Members on the Government side would have one believe that the Government has no role to play in the provision of social and affordable housing or the support of local authorities. What sort of lives are those Members living?
It is not comparing like with like to claim that some local authorities are worse than private landlords. No local authority can be compared with private landlords whom we have allowed to get away with absolute murder. They can charge what they want, lease housing in whatever condition they like and treat tenants appallingly. We need to tackle the landlords who pursue these practices rather than cosy up to them.
I concur with what the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Finneran, said about protecting the vulnerable but, unfortunately, his Government has failed to meet its obligations in that regard. The increase in the number of people waiting for local authority housing is unacceptable. We have just come out of an economic boom but in every local authority the waiting list for social and affordable housing has lengthened. To make matters worse, we are now encountering repossessions and cases of young married couples who cannot afford to buy houses. A couple consisting of a teacher and a nurse, whose combined salary would once have been considered very large, now qualify for affordable housing. Are the Senators opposite telling us this is what we aspire to? I certainly hope not, but that is what we are hearing. Housing or shelter is a human right. It is not just a necessity.
There is no mention of homelessness in the Bill. What does that tell the people of Ireland who are homeless or struggling to be housed and those working with the homeless? Why is there no mention of homelessness? Is it seen by Government as a housing matter or a health and social affairs matter? Under this regime, it falls between two stools. We have had rows between the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the HSE. Let us make it happen. Senator Boyle, in his contribution this morning, made reference to the fact that there would be amendments to the Bill. Why was this not included? We need to make the issue of homelessness a central aspect of the Bill. Let us change the definition of homelessness and broaden its scope. It is more than people sleeping rough. I have made this point in the House on numerous occasions. I challenge the Members opposite to walk from the front gate at Kildare Street, down Dawson Street, past Grafton Street, down towards O’Connell Bridge and onto O’Connell Street any night of the week. They will see a growing number of young, middle-aged and elderly people living on the streets.
Let us consider the issue of homelessness in the context of insecure accommodation and people living in squalor. I disagree with Senator Butler as there are landlords today who are abdicating their responsibility in terms of providing proper accommodation to their tenants. I cannot remember who made a comment in this regard this morning, but the largest group of people at risk in our society are single males, especially in terms of housing. We have done nothing to look after them. They must be a priority because for a strategy to work, it must look after the most vulnerable in our society. More and more single males are coming to us in our clinics and saying they are unable to find housing or buy houses of their own and they are being cast to one side. That must change. I hope a homelessness strategy will be incorporated into the Bill. In a time of recession, rather than cutting back on housing services, we should be increasing supports and budgets for local authorities and organisations such as the Simon Community and Threshold, which are doing such valuable work. This is not an unreasonable request. The funding should be index-linked so that these organisations can be provided for financially.
I could not believe my ears this morning when I listened to Senator Boyle speaking about the right to buy council flats. As we know, many people have been trying for years to buy their local authority flats. The Bill does not address this issue. There are people in my own city of Cork who have made provision to purchase their apartments or flats from the local authority and have been prevented from doing so. A commitment was made by Government nearly 16 years ago that this would be dealt with in legislation. Where is this measure? It is not here. It is not in the Bills digest, the excellent publication provided by the Bills Office. Why is that? The Bills digest states: “The proposed incremental purchase scheme does not apply to the sale of new flats or apartments.” I would like to know why. There was a belief that it would be included in the Bill. We are letting down the people who refuse to take other houses from the county councils, who are staying where they are and want to buy. How long will it take the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to say what he intends to do in this regard?
The Minister asks for local authority housing plans to come back to him. Why should the local authority have to submit its housing plans to the Minister for rubber-stamping? Local authorities differ in each area, as the Minister knows. Their needs differ and a different approach is required depending on where one is. I have never seen a Minister absorb so much of Fianna Fáil as Deputy Gormley has done. He even thinks like Fianna Fáil now. He wants to take power from local government and councils.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: If we are talking about delivery by local government and enhancing its role, surely the best group of people to do this are the active public representatives on the councils. Why do we have to send things back to the Minister for rubber-stamping? We are giving the Minister more powers.
We need to provide resources and enhance the powers of local authorities to deal with anti-social behaviour. I welcome the provision in the Bill for dealing with this issue. If it is to be serious, we need to provide the resources. People need to have their voices heard. Various anti-social behaviour orders and so on have been introduced. Councils have brought tenants to court and have brought prosecutions against them. However, unless we give people power through estate management we are going nowhere.
There has been systematic neglect of local authority estates in many parts of the country which is due to local authorities’ being denuded of power and finance by central government. Last night on the north side of Cork city there was a meeting of the policing forum attended by 400 people. People who attended had an opportunity to speak and they wanted their voices to be heard. Funding is important. I will return to the point I made earlier, namely, the Government should not take resources from local authorities in the area of housing, but rather enhance them and give them the supports they require. It should give people the opportunity to have their voices heard.
The rent allowance scheme is a good scheme which we should enhance and promote. Senator Butler made a comment about rented accommodation. We must consider the different types of rented accommodation and landlords. I emphasise that not all landlords are bad; many are good, decent landlords who look after their tenants well. However, there are some bogus landlords and some who are unwilling to participate in the rent allowance scheme. We have let landlords run amok. This must stop. The idea that we can let people stay in any old house must change. Senator Butler made reference to local authorities providing houses which are in bad condition. Why does it take an inordinate amount of time for a council house to be refurbished and given to other tenants? I have yet to get an answer in this regard, although I have spoken to the director of services and to housing officials. Is it purely lack of resources? Is it bad strategic management? Is it bad planning? Is it because the house is in such bad condition? I do not think so. It comes back to the central issue of funding. We have squandered the boom. We have looked after the fat cats who are great friends of Fianna Fáil and are eating at the master’s table. We have increasing numbers of middle-income people queuing up for affordable housing when ten years ago they were able to buy their own houses. I am concerned when I hear the Senators opposite blaming different factors.
Housing is a right for everyone and the Government should not take it away from people. I am disappointed that the homelessness strategy does not form part of the Bill because it would be a perfect vehicle to drive it on. I look forward to the amendments. We, on this side of the House, will certainly table amendments on the right to buy council flats. I will also look at the amendments from the other House regarding provisions for the homeless.
I hope the anti-social behaviour provisions will be effectively implemented. It is time to take out tenants that cause distress and that are involved in evil and bad behaviour. This poster boy type behaviour has no place in our estates. If we are serious about building sustainable communities, let us consider the planning regime and how we have built our estates and learn from the mistakes made.
Senator John Ellis: The Bill gives us an opportunity to consider local authority housing, social housing and all the types of housing other than private housing. However, on private housing, we all know that some people are now finding themselves in serious difficulty with regard to mortgages. There might be a case to be made to allow some of these mortgages come within the ambit of local authority or social housing parameters. This might allow people stay in their homes rather than allow the building societies or banks repossess them and sell them on thereby landing those people on the local authority lists.
There has been enormous progress with housing in recent years. However with progress comes problems. The biggest problem is anti-social behaviour in some of our housing estates. It is sad to think that people can make life hell for their neighbours without being accountable. In a private estate anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated too long. However, it has become a problem on local authority housing estates. It has even become a problem in smaller estates in small towns. We need to consider ways to deal with people involved in anti-social behaviour. If we take them to court we know what will happen — they will be reprimanded by the judge, walk out the door and get up to the same anti-social behaviour within weeks.
I do not know what measures we could take to frighten people involved in anti-social behaviour. We do not have the right nor would it be appropriate to throw people on the side of the road. However, in some cases the way those people have reacted to their neighbours might warrant something as serious as that. We need to ascertain what we can do. The Bill goes some way in trying to strengthen the hands of local authorities regarding anti-social behaviour. However, anti-social behaviour has various effects. Older people sometimes feel very threatened if they live in OPDs on council estates and they regularly attend our clinics to tell us they feel intimidated. On the other hand older people should not be ghettoised and put into areas with only other older people. We need to work to get the right balance.
The size of housing estates should be considered, as should the mix of people living in them. Certain housing estates in towns have been turned into ghettoes by the local authority because of the tenants they put into them. In brand new estates officially opened by a Minister everybody seems quite happy when the tenants go into the new houses. However, if one were to look at the lawns three years later one would find 20% of them in a mess, 20% of them reasonably maintained and the remaining 60% maintained to a first-class standard. It is wrong that people should be allowed to abuse public housing. While the Bill refers to maintenance, it should be mandatory for the local authority to build a maintenance cost into the tenancy agreements, which should be collected as part of the rent. Those who maintain their houses to a proper standard should qualify for a refund of that maintenance charge.
It is terrible that a person’s house can be destroyed by the people who live next door. If one person maintains his or her house to the highest standard it can be very disheartening if the house next door is not maintained. We are all aware of houses that have been handed over by the local authority in first-class condition — brand new in some cases — fully decorated and fully fitted out with the assistance of the State at some level and some 12 or 18 months later the doors are hanging loose having been kicked in and there is graffiti on the walls. Something needs to be done to prevent such social misbehaviour in public housing. Anything the Minister of State can do to add to the penalties and incentives would be welcomed by people in local authority houses. I could go on about anti-social behaviour forever.
We should give considerable credit to the voluntary housing groups providing housing at a reasonable cost for people in need. We have all seen the voluntary housing sector develop and it has done a good job. However, how much further will the Government be able to go in subsidising the voluntary housing sector? It is so highly subsidised at the moment that it will not be possible to continue the same level of subsidisation in future. We need to be objective in this. It has done tremendous work in places where it has provided sheltered and other housing where the local authority was not able to do so. Senators on all sides of the House have spoken about the problems local authorities have when tenants move out. There seems to be a continual problem with regard to the delay from the time a tenant moves out to when a new tenant moves in. If a private landlord was involved the beds would not be cold before new tenants would have moved in.
The local authorities are losing considerable revenue as a result of not being able to let houses. People attending our clinics advise us of vacant local authority houses. However, on investigation it is often the case that the tenant is in a local care home and hopes to return. The tenant cannot be evicted once he or she pays the rent. However, there are cases where houses vacated by families and individuals are left for months on end with nothing done to have them let again, which is wrong.
A local authority inspector should carry out an annual check of a house to ascertain whether it is being maintained or what damage has been done. There should be some way of recovering the cost of any damage done from the tenant. It is wrong that local authorities have had to spend enormous amounts on money refurbishing houses for the same tenant who had vandalised it. In the past I saw a house where £7,000 worth of damage was caused to a house by the sitting tenant who had the audacity to approach the local authority to have it refurbished. The house had to be refurbished, otherwise the tenant would have had to move to another house with the prospect of the same problem recurring. That is going too far, but it is the only way the local authority had of dealing with the situation. Responsibility for maintenance will have to rest with tenants. There should be estate management in every estate. Everybody should be made to participate and nobody should have the right to opt out.
I wish to raise the issue of management companies, how they treat some of their tenants and how they operate but time does not permit. Some are terrible while some are very good. We could look at some of the schemes in place in, say, New York where management of a block is taken on by the tenants and, in many cases, is done much better than by a management company.
I welcome the Bill, which we could debate for a long time. There is a definite responsibility on local authority tenants to maintain houses to the highest level, otherwise there should be a formula whereby the local authority can charge them a maintenance cost to ensure the houses are properly maintained. Public money goes into them initially and they are public property.
Senator Buttimer mentioned the sale of council flats. If we go down this road again we should ensure that the clawback system is such that people do not make some of the fortunes that were made in certain areas of the city when local authority houses were resold.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, to the House. I welcome the Bill and the majority of its provisions, especially in respect of anti-social behaviour, the rental accommodation scheme and incremental purchase. However, I share the disappointment of my colleagues in regard to the omission of homelessness, a matter to which I shall return.
Having recently been a member of a local authority I can testify that anti-social behaviour is the single biggest heartache for a local authority and elected members. How does a local authority support people who are trying to live their lives beside neighbours who have no regard and no respect for local authority housing? I share Senator Ellis’s sentiments that people must be made responsible for the maintenance of local authority housing. I acknowledge the research done by the Oireachtas Library in putting together a document on the Bill which is easy to understand.
While the State is absolved from any obligation to house people who have been engaged in anti-social behaviour and can evict them, it does not happen very often. I understand there is an obligation to look after children. I represent a number of local authority housing associations and residents associations which are afflicted by people who are wrecking their houses and the whole neighbourhood. The Health Service Executive can refuse to pay rent supplement but I do not know if this ever happens. In my estimation it does not. If people are moved from a local authority house they approach the HSE and get rent supplement. They then move into a private estate and proceed to carry on with the same anti-social behaviour.
The local authority of which I was a member is not building as many houses as heretofore. More people are getting rent allowance and moving into established old housing estates and proceeding to destroy them.
I welcome the provision in the Bill which deals with people who misuse or sell drugs. That is the kernel of anti-social behaviour in housing estates. I shall take the issue of those who inhabit our local authority housing estate a little further. I question whether it is the tenant who is in receipt of the contract from the local authority, the hangers-on or the people the tenant invites into the house who cause the trouble and the anti-social behaviour. I am disappointed the Bill does not address that issue. In my experience — since 1999 I have been a member of a local authority — it is the bad behaviour and evil in some of the partners who live in our local authority houses, who are not meant to be there, that cause all the trouble, especially in the area of drug dealing. The Bill provides for people who misuse or sell drugs but not people who take drugs. Users of drugs are high and irrational and they are the people who cause the trouble.
I shall relate an incident that took place on a confirmation day. The ice-cream van drove into a housing estate and the children were queuing up for ice-cream in their finery. A man who was high on drugs was brandishing a knife. He was not meant to be living in the housing estate in question but I and everybody else knew he was there. That is an area that needs to be seriously addressed. Senator Ellis said that an inspector should check out the condition of houses and how they are maintained. It is equally important that an inspector call and see who is residing and who is meant to reside in houses owned by the local authority.
The other area about which I am concerned in regard to anti-social behaviour is passing the buck — the local authority passing the buck to the Garda, the Garda passing it back to the local authority — with the result that the tenant is obliged to adhere to the tenant handbook and falls between two stools. Nobody takes responsibility. I welcome the Bill but is provisions must be implemented.
The rental accommodation scheme is a good scheme given that there is not as much land in urban areas to build as many houses as heretofore. However, I am disappointed at the uptake of the scheme, some of the reasons for which were mentioned by the Minister of State. Why do landlords not get involved in this scheme? The tripartite issue regarding maintenance is serious, as are the problems surrounding non-tax compliant landlords and tenants being concerned about security of tenure as opposed to getting a local authority house. Enticements could be given to landlords. A number of landlords with whom I deal who would like to rent to local authority tenants are not aware of the existence of the rental accommodation scheme. There would be a better uptake of the scheme if more people knew about it, especially in this climate.
There is a need for more joined-up thinking between the local authority and the HSE on the matter of rent allowance. I would like clarification on this matter. In my local authority if one receives rent allowance for 18 months one is entitled to avail of the RAS. The Bill does not mention it and I wonder if it is a national policy. The Bill states that the rental supplement scheme is a short-term scheme. However, that is a contradiction, if we expect those who wish to take up the RAS to be on the supplement for 18 months. That will not work, especially considering that there is so little local authority housing available. It is a disincentive to the RAS and might be one of the reasons people are not taking it up.
My colleague, Senator Hannigan, raised a point about single men. There is a changing dynamic in society and men who move out of the family home and wish to have access to their children need accommodation. There is no provision in this Bill for single men. I have raised this point at local authority level but we must provide such housing on a national scale.
With regard to anti-social behaviour, entire housing estates can become run down and disturbed because of a number of individuals. The Minister of State referred to the issue of “residualisation” in his document. I find that term very interesting. It is not something I had heard of before but I understand that it is a process whereby a number of people move out of a neighbourhood because it is no longer desirable. I have first-hand experience of this. It happens when local authorities and private landlords neither care for nor respect the dynamic of the families they put into a housing estate. A way to avoid “residualisation” is to put in place community resources, amenities and services for families to help them to live together. This is not happening. The only way people may be encouraged to live in harmony, and that anti-social behaviour may be abolished in “bad” estates where planning is not to the level we want, is to put in resources and community workers. That is the only way to solve the problem.
I am appalled to see that the people who most need our support do not feature in this document. The most vulnerable in society are those who have nowhere to live. We have just come from a Simon Community launch and therefore this failure of inclusion is outrageous. There are at least 5,000 homeless people in our society and I cannot see how we can progress the issue if we do not even mention them in the Bill.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: This Bill will improve services and delivery and give effect to the programme of social housing reform. These are outlined in the Developing Homes, Sustaining Communities document, a policy document published in February 2007 by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It updates provisions in previous legislation and replaces nine housing Acts from 1966 to 2004.
The new document has amendments that I welcome. It gives extended powers to elected local authority members but also deals with a number of specific, clearly defined areas. The Bill provides for measures with regard to how social housing is delivered by housing authorities. The Minister has new powers to issue policy directions with which housing authorities must comply. There are guidelines to which housing authorities must have regard in the performance of their statutory functions. That is highlighted in Sections 4 and 5 of the Bill.
Section 10 contains a comprehensive statement of housing services provided by local authorities. There are new powers for elected members to make housing services plans for the delivery of housing in their areas. They refer to social and affordable housing supports that are in line with the housing strategies of respective county development plans. These plans will be implemented through three-year programmes drawn up by managers enrolled each year. Elected councillors will have a key input into these plans.
It is also important to look at the value for money element of building houses in local areas. Because I come from a rural county I know that one of the best ways to house people on a value for money basis is available through the specific instant cottage scheme. I very much regret that my local authority in County Donegal has taken a backward step in terms of developing these houses. This is against the wishes and the best interests of elected members who wished to see specific instant cottages developed because they are better value for money.  If a scheme of houses is to be built the council or the Department must purchase the land and then build the houses. In the case of specific instant cottages the land is provided by the applicant or the applicant’s family and all that must be done is build the house. They are better value for money and they permit the fabric of rural townlands to develop and continue. If people want to live in rural areas they must be supported in doing so. It must be impressed on local authorities that they should explore this avenue and avail of this scheme as far as possible.
A number of Senators referred to single male applicants and this is an issue across the country. Because of the system now in place single male applicants find it extremely difficult to obtain local authority housing and may be on the housing list for many years. Some never get houses. That problem must be addressed by local authorities. I am not sure how it will best be done. Perhaps a percentage of available houses might be allocated to single males or females. The issue must be examined further.
Another emerging scenario is that of Irish people living abroad who wish to come home. People emigrated from these shores in the decades between the 1940s and 1970s because they could not find work in Ireland. They left here to find opportunities and employment abroad and built up such countries as England, Scotland, Wales and others. Now, when they might wish to come home they cannot afford to do so as many may not have pensions. The Safe Home organisation, based in the Leas-Cathaoirleach’s home county, does a great deal of work in this area. It has been able to house people not only in County Mayo but, by working with other local authorities, also in counties such as Kerry, Donegal and others.
A mechanism should be made available, with the assistance of the Department and the support of the local authorities, to set aside a number of houses in each county for returning emigrants who cannot afford to come home on their own. Not only would such people be returning home, those who have an eligible pension also would be bringing it home, which would constitute a revenue stream into a local community. I suggest this measure also could be considered.
The Bill makes statutory provision for a number of important social housing supports which include a new incremental purchase scheme, whereby existing social housing tenants and households that qualify for social housing support will be helped to become owners of houses that are newly built by housing authorities and voluntary and co-operative bodies. Full ownership of the house will be transferred to a household on purchase of an initial share of the equity. The housing authority or body will charge the property for the proportion of the equity not paid for and will release the charge in equal proportions for each year the buyer occupies the house until the charge is completely eliminated. The incremental purchaser will be able to resell the house at any time but will have to pay the housing authority or body that proportion of the proceeds equivalent to the prevailing charged share of the equity. This measure is outlined in sections 35 and 40.
Reference was made to the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. I greatly welcome the steps being taken in the Bill to place it on a statutory footing. The Bill provides for a comprehensive statutory framework for the provision of rented social housing through leasing or contract arrangements, notably the RAS, which was introduced in 2005. Essentially, as previously noted, it involves the local authority progressively taking responsibility for accommodated persons who are in receipt of social welfare rent supplements and who have a long-term housing need. Under the rental accommodation scheme, the housing authority pays the rent to private landlords who rent the accommodation back to the local authority.
While this is taking place sporadically, it is not happening nationwide. In my native county of Donegal the rental accommodation scheme is operating in the urban centres such as Letterkenny or Buncrana, but not in rural areas. While I am unsure whether these provisions are the answer, this is a step forward in that people may have longer term housing security by being housed in a dwelling for which a lease agreement has been entered into between the local authority and the landlord. Consequently, those affected will have some security because they will be aware they will be there for three or five years, as they try to make progress. The introduction of the statutory framework for the rental accommodation scheme will be welcome and beneficial and allow tenants to avail of it. More importantly, it will force those local authorities not rolling out the scheme, for a number of reasons, to so do.
Overall, the Bill is excellent legislation. It will support those who seek housing and support local authority members who ultimately are charged with the responsibility for drawing up the frameworks referred to in the legislation. I wish both the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with responsibility for housing, Deputy Michael Finneran, and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Michael Kitt, who is present, well in their efforts to move forward with this legislation. It will support those in greatest need, that is, those who seek social or affordable housing and who are unable to get on the housing ladder on their own.
My colleague, Senator Butler, mentioned the possibility that given the current economic climate, local authorities could negotiate with financial institutions when the latter find it necessary to take away property from those owners who are unable to make repayments. There is an opportunity whereby the local authorities may be able to work with the financial institutions in some way. Perhaps a mechanism could be found in this regard to assist a person who is living in such a house before that person finds it necessary to apply for a local authority house. Such persons should be supported in the houses in which they live, were they to encounter difficulty in paying the mortgage. Perhaps local authorities can help in this regard, although from a financial perspective, I am unsure how this could be worked out. However, this issue could be explored through the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in conjunction with county managers and local authorities nationwide.
Senator Pearse Doherty: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus roimh na díospóireachta seo ar Bhille na dTithe (Forálacha Ilghnéitheacha) 2008. Nuair a fhéachann muid ar chóras na dtithe sa tír, níl dabht ar bith go bhfuil muid i gcruachás. Nuair a fheiceann muid go bhfuil 44,000 teaghlaigh nó daoine aonaracha ar liosta feithimh na gcomhairlí contae ar fud an Stáit, léiríonn sin an cruachás. Chomh maith leis sin, tá 36,000 páiste ina gcónaí in árasáin a bhfuil droch dóigh orthu. Rud is measa fós, tá 5,000 duine gan teach agus iad ina gcónaí ar na sráideanna, i mbrúnna nó, i dtithe leaba agus bricfeasta ar fud na tíre nó in árasáin práinneacha.
Tá seo uilig ag tarlú i ndiaidh deich mbliana den tíogar Ceilteach agus i ndiaidh deich mbliana inar tógadh na mílte tithe go príobháideach. Má amharcann muid ar na figiúirí i dtaobh 2006, feiceann muid gur tógadh 80,000 tithe príobháideacha sa Stát. Léiríonn sin go bhfuil córas na dtithe sa tír agus an stráitéis atá ag an Rialtas ó thaobh tithe de go huafásach ar fad. Tá na figiúirí os ár gcomhair. Chonaic muid na figiúiríó dhaonáireamh 2006 a léirigh go raibh 70,050 teach folamh sa Stát. Níl a fhios agam cén dóigh inar féidir le Rialtas nó Aire ar bith bheith sásta leis na figiúirí sin nuair atá 5,000 duine sa Stát gan díon.
I welcome the debate on the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008. Both the debate and the legislation are important, as undoubtedly our housing system is in crisis. Almost 44,000 households are on local authority housing waiting lists throughout the State. These households include 36,000 children who are living in inadequate or inappropriate accommodation. At the most acute end of housing need, 5,000 homeless people are living on the streets, in hostels, bed and breakfast or other forms of emergency accommodation.
The recent housing boom, during which 80,000 private sector houses were completed in 2006, our housing system and Government housing policy continue to fail those most in need. The most graphic demonstration of this was revealed in the 2006 census, which found that there were 270,000 vacant dwellings throughout the Twenty-six Counties, including houses, flats and holiday homes. In Dublin alone, 10,000 unsold properties remain on the private market, many of which are two and one-bedroom properties and some of which must be suitable for providing long-term homes for people experiencing homelessness. This was the position during a time of economic growth. What will be the levels of housing need 12 months into the recession? These are some of the issues that Members must ensure are catered for in the Bill when it is considered on Committee Stage. One already gets some sense of the coming difficulties, as charities such as Simon, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Threshold, Focus Ireland and Merchants Quay Ireland all report a significant recent increase in demand for their services. I commend these organisations and thank them for providing Members with information in advance of today’s debate. This is the context in which Members must debate the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008. The question one must address is whether its contents will assist in making the position better or worse.
Sinn Féin welcomes the commitment of the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with responsibility for housing, Deputy Michael Finneran, to improve housing services. Moreover, as the Bill primarily is intended to provide a legislative footing for the 2007 policy statement, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, it holds out potential for progress with regard to housing regulation and provision. However, on first reading it is clear the Bill is deficient in a number of ways and I signal to this House today that it is our party’s intention to bring forward detailed constructive amendments on Committee Stage in the Seanad and, if necessary, the Dáil to strengthen the Bill.
Sinn Féin has a number of initial concerns that I would like to highlight. The Bill, for the first time, provides a statutory definition of social housing. Unfortunately this definition not only includes social housing as we generally understand it, namely, local authority and voluntary sector housing, but also tenant purchase and the rental accommodation scheme. This is a very dangerous move as it signals the Government’s intention to move away once again from direct provision of public housing in favour of sale or private rental sector options.
The Government is already significantly behind on the national development plan commitments in terms of social housing build. It is even further away from the National Economic and Social Council 2005 recommendation to ensure the State has a total social housing stock of 200,000 units. In this context, such a dilution of the legal definition of social housing can only mean one thing: the further erosion of Government commitments to ensure the State has a sufficient stock of social housing to meet the needs of those who continue to languish on local authority waiting lists.
It is also disappointing that the issue of homelessness is not addressed in this Bill. The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, launched the Government’s new homeless strategy, The Way Home, in August. The centrepiece of the new strategy is the objective of ending long-term homelessness by 2010. That date is fast approaching and many of the legislative commitments promised in the strategy could and must be included in this Bill.
Sinn Féin is also concerned about the lack of detail with respect to the anti-social behaviour strategies contained in the Bill. We have long argued for stronger powers and more resources to enable local authorities to respond effectively to anti-social behaviour problems. In principle, the development of anti-social behaviour strategies is a good thing but the legislation lacks clarity and detail.
We want to be constructive in this debate. We want to work with the Government and other parties to improve this Bill. In this spirit I stress that we believe the Bill to be a valuable opportunity, if positively amended, to empower local authorities to provide better housing services, especially to those in greatest need. I urge the Minister of State to approach Committee Stage with an open mind and heart. We can shape this Bill into something deserving of all communities across the State.
Senator Lisa McDonald: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the broad thrust of the Bill. In terms of the structures which many local authorities have been working through, it is important to have them in legislation because much work has been done through strategic policies etc. in the better local government action plan in the past five or six years.
There are some issues which must be mentioned, the first of which is anti-social behaviour. All the Senators who have spoken before me today have mentioned this as a significant scourge on society. To a certain extent the local authorities see it as such a problem because they do not have the teeth to deal with it. I am not sure such teeth will be provided in this Bill. When dealing with criminal behaviour, the Garda clearly must be involved.
If we are to go down the road of strategising the problem and not go any further, we will not be taking enough action. I worked on a local authority until quite recently and we would sit down, get a plan together and produce a policy for driving an area for a particular period. However, if there is no capacity to deal with the issue, our action will not work. I do not mean to be a merchant of doom but I suggest the local authorities be allowed set up a committee for looking at and dealing with the problem with a view to resolving it adequately.
This is in preference to just giving the power to strategise on the matter. We all know the problem of anti-social behaviour is desperate and the people involved must be dealt with but the issue is how this can be done. Such action possibly needs cross-departmental support with regard to counselling or drug related habits etc. I am not sure the policy of buying a house in a private housing estate and putting offending families into it will resolve anything. At the end of the day we must remember such people must be put somewhere.
If we are to move people from a local authority house, what is the next stop and where will they end up? Many end up on the street or in flats throughout towns and villages — usually towns — where other people live. They seem to just squat in them. I am thinking of one example but most of us would have come across similar examples. The Garda must be involved but as a landlord, a local authority should have the powers to deal adequately with anti-social behaviour. Such a power is not mentioned in this Bill.
The legislation must be policy-driven and all local authorities will welcome the fact they are being given the powers to strategise and put policies in place. Many already have such policies in place. The issue of liaison with the Garda must be dealt with and there is a question of whether we need a garda in each area responsible for the matter. Will the policing committees deal with it? These issues must be fleshed out in the Bill because it will be a wasted opportunity if they are not.
Dysfunctional families are dysfunctional for a reason. Local authority staff should be allocated to the area, and the social workers in the local authorities such as Wexford County Council, for example, are fantastic. They do trojan work and although they probably need more support, they need to know where to bring such people. Transient housing is not dealt with in the Bill but we may need to go down that route as a stop-gap solution. It would not be rehab but I have a similar concept in my mind. These people need to have their hands held through what is a turbulent time in their lives. Their actions affect neighbours and there is no excuse for that. I would like to see the issue fleshed out and perhaps we could deal with it on Committee Stage.
I heard Senators mention today the issue of single fathers and single men. In Wexford town there are 600 single men on the housing list. There are more people looking for single-bed units or units for a single person to live in than there are on the family list. This tells its own story. One of the biggest pressure points in society now is the breakdown of marriage which creates significant pressure on people who cannot afford to fund two households. Such people need to be taken into consideration.
It is usually the mother who stays in the family home with the children and it is generally the man who moves out. I am not saying this is right or wrong but it is the reality. We must provide for these single men. I note that under section 22, the Minister is provided with the powers to regulate with regard to allocation. This needs to be added to and a particular policy must be put in place for single men.
When I say “single men” I refer to divorced men and those with families who wish to have access to their children but who may not have provision for them to stay overnight. This all leads to societal breakdown which we have a great opportunity to deal with in this Bill. We should include these issues because there are more problems than just a lack of housing. Such problems lead to other issues such as suicide, drug use and a general deterioration in the fabric of society.
I wish to discuss rural housing. Unfortunately I do not see it dealt with in this legislation. When I say rural housing I refer to rural towns and villages. There is a national campaign for local authorities not to destroy the landscape with urban sprawl and spreading out towns. This has led to a policy for high density housing. While it may suit the cities it is not going down well in rural towns. I brought a lady who had a serious housing need to a four storey block of apartments, which would not be considered high-rise in some areas, but it is in Wexford town. She had a dog, a child and a pram, and said, “Who will I bring up the stairs first? If I bring the dog up the child will be on his own”. It reminded me of the story of the fox and the goose in the boat with the farmer and the grain crossing the river, and the problem of who to bring over first. She said she did not want it, even though it was a new apartment. We need to look at the design of our housing. Flats and apartments do not work everywhere. In Wexford town we have two unique developments where the door opens onto the street.
With regard to Part V, local development plans for local villages have fared quite well with social housing in recent years. However, the villages that did not have local plans, and where the local authority did not have capacity to deliver on local plans, got nothing. That has led to a burgeoning of one parish while another parish with a local school and plenty of capacity loses out.
Sewerage facilities need to be looked at. I do not believe our housing plan suits rural Ireland. The villages in rural Ireland are unable to house their own people, which is a shame. We need to look at that. If somebody is born in a village there should be a house there for him or her. They should not have to move to the next village which might be undergoing rapid development because it has a local area plan when there is no capacity to buy rural social and affordable housing.
The incremental purchase scheme is an excellent initiative. It is something we could look at in this climate for people in the private sector. From a conveyancing point of view it struck me as a new initiative. One could have equity in a house based on part payment; the deed would not be signed until the very end. It is a model that could be used in the private sector.
If no land is available, no land has been bought and housing has slowed down, Part V will not deliver in that regard. We need to look at the land bank situation and how we can buy more land. Given the fact that prices have dropped in recent times, it is perhaps a good time to buy.
Senator Paul Bradford: I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. Housing legislation is always very interesting from a policy perspective, because it is one of the few areas of Government policy where, even with limited resources, different and interesting political and economic choices can be made. A significant difference can be made to the livelihood of people if positive housing policies are put in place.
If we look back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when the economy was beginning to take off, and we could have predicted then that there would be year-on-year significant economic growth, that Departments would have surpluses rather than deficits and that there would be unending boom, nobody could concede at the end of that era we would have as many people on the housing lists, perhaps more than in the mid 1980s, that we would have a poor housing stock in many towns and villages and that we would have no grants for disabled people or the elderly. It would not be a credible political argument, yet that is now where we find ourselves.
This legislation stems from the report, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, which was published in February 2007. It was a document everyone welcomed and was happy with. What has happened since then? Most local authorities have no building programme and vital schemes for the elderly and disabled, which at minimal cost can make a major difference to many people, have come to a standstill. Last week I attended the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government — I am not a member — when this matter was debated. The officials from the Department gave a fine presentation, but the bottom line of their argument seemed to indicate no additional money was available for this calendar year. Hundreds of applications to Cork County Council for urgently needed house improvement works in late 2007 and early 2008 are on hold or being filed with no attention being given to them. We were advised that the success of the scheme has resulted in an increased demand for money over the last five or six years, from €10 million per annum to €55 or €60 million. That is a lot of money.
This is a scheme we cannot afford to abandon, yet that is what has happened. Additional money provided to each local authority may help in paying grants for work already done but it will not provide for additional grants to be approved. That must be put at the top of the Minister’s agenda. It is important to get these vital grants up and running because the disabled, the elderly and children are being affected on the front line by the policy decision of the Minister’s Department. That trend should be reversed.
There are many aspects of the legislation to which I would like to refer but time is limited. I welcome the Bill in so far as it goes, because it brings forward some new ideas. They are all helpful, but money will be at the core of the success or otherwise of the Bill, and it is difficult to know how much money the Minister and his Department is willing to commit. The Leas-Chathaoirleach and I were both involved in politics in the local authorities in the 1980s — perhaps the Minster was also — at a time when the country was the supposed to be almost bankrupt. We still provided money for social housing and local authority programmes. It is interesting to look at the house building figures for the period 1985 to 2005. The so-called cash-pressed years of 1984 to 1986 were the years when the local authority building programme was almost at its very height, because there was the political will to look after the social housing needs of a certain sector of the community. The political will does not seem to exist at present.  This needs to be looked at again and we need to give priority to those who cannot afford to house themselves.
Programmes such as the shared ownership scheme and the affordable housing scheme, both of which I welcomed, have made a positive difference. However, they are not sufficient. Insufficient financial resources have been put into the areas covered by social housing policy. To paraphrase a political slogan used by the Minister of State’s former leader, a lot has been done but there is more to do. While affordable and social housing and shared ownership loans have worked to an extent, more financial input is required from the Department. I hope the Minister of State will be in a position to meet this requirement.
Several speakers referred to voluntary housing bodies. Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, for example, referred to one such body in County Mayo. When I received correspondence from the organisation in question it rang a bell because one of the proponents of the scheme is our former colleague in the other House, Mr. Jerry Cowley. The group makes a valid case for receiving further support. I hope the Minister will look favourably on its request. Voluntary housing organisations are doing good work throughout the country and have a strong role to play in meeting the housing needs of communities.
The incremental purchase scheme provided for in the Bill is a welcome and positive step forward. Without wishing to give a history lecture, in 1987 the then Minister for the Environment, Mr. Padraig Flynn, who has since vanished from the radar screen as people pretend he never existed——
Senator Paul Bradford: In 1987, he introduced a progressive tenant purchase scheme which made a difference. Generous discounts were made available to local authority tenants who wished to purchase their homes and thousands of them chose to do so. I was an advocate and fan of the scheme which lasted until 1989 because the substantial discount available offered tenants value for money. The tenant purchase scheme which has been available for the past five or six years has not worked because it offers a maximum discount of 30%. Having checked the position with various local authorities, specifically in County Cork, I learned that take-up of the scheme is very low, the reason being that houses are valued at current market value and the maximum discount of 30% applies irrespective of whether a tenant has been living in a local authority dwelling for ten, 15 or 20 years. The scheme is not as attractive as its predecessor and should be reviewed.
I am aware that a different scheme, the incremental purchase scheme, will be introduced under the legislation and will operate in tandem with the tenant purchase scheme. I hope the new scheme will succeed and look forward to tenants availing of it. While I have not studied it in detail, it appears to be advantageous for certain groups of local authority tenants. We should aspire to allowing the maximum possible number of people to buy homes as it is good for local authorities, communities and society. This aspiration should be at the top of the Minister of State’s agenda.
I look forward to a debate on Committee Stage on the need to finalise a tenant purchase scheme for local authority tenants of flats and small dwellings. I understand the Taoiseach indicated in the other House that it may be possible to amend the Bill on Committee Stage to provide that local authority flats can be purchased. Persons living in local authority flats and other small dwellings are not second class citizens. Under current legislation, however, they are not legally able to purchase their homes in the majority of local authority areas. We must take a flexible approach which allows such tenants to purchase their homes. I hope the Minister will act on the statement given by the Taoiseach in the other House in response to a query made on the Order of Business.
The rental accommodation scheme is useful and successful. I was interested to learn that take-up of the scheme has been weak. We need to sell and advertise RAS more effectively. Although I consider myself more a local than national politician and know housing grant schemes and local authority housing programmes very well, I did not become aware of the RAS until 12 months after it was introduced. The scheme offers a solution for a certain group of people and is good for landlords and tenants. It also benefits the Minister who can console himself that the tenant’s name is removed from the housing list.
The problem with the affordable housing scheme is that houses are not affordable. Despite disappointing take-up, it should be possible to boost the scheme in the current downturn in the housing market. At a time when people want houses, builders need to sell houses and construction workers need to keep their jobs, it should be possible to find a solution that will benefit all parties, whether taxpayers, tenants, builders or auctioneers. Fresh, original thinking always has a role to play in housing policy. I look forward to discussing these issues in greater detail on Committee Stage.
Senator John Carty: I welcome my former colleague in the other House, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Michael Finneran, to his former haunt. I understand this is his first engagement in the House since his appointment. I am sorry he did not hold his current portfolio when I was a Deputy because a substantial amount of housing was built in County Mayo in conjunction with Clúid, CLÁR IRD, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other voluntary bodies. I have a couple of other projects lined up and I have no doubt the Minister of State will look after me during his term of office.
I welcome the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 as it will improve housing services and their delivery by giving effect to the programme of social housing reform measures outlined in the policy document, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, published in February 2007. In terms of how social housing is delivered, sections 4 and 5 give the Minister new powers enabling him to issue policy directions with which housing authorities must comply and guidelines to which housing authorities must have regard. I welcome this measure as it will give strong policy direction to local authorities. Mayo County Council, my local authority, does a good job in performing its housing functions and the new provisions will strengthen its hand. Sections 14 to 18, inclusive, provide new powers for elected members to make service housing plans for the delivery of services in their areas.
I once chaired the housing strategic policy committee of Mayo County Council. One group of people, male spouses who had to leave the family home in cases of marital breakdown, often came to our attention. While it is correct that female spouses and children should remain in the family home in the event of marital breakdown, many men leave home, often in fairly bad circumstances, and move into towns where accommodation such as single rooms is in poor condition. Local authority schemes should include apartments of one or two rooms specifically for the purpose of accommodating men in this category because many of them are unable to improve their lot due to personal circumstances and the accommodation in which they are living. In some towns, only the worst accommodation is available to them and many of them have a social disability.
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