Dáil Éireann - Volume 627 - 08 November, 2006

Other Questions. - Social and Affordable Housing.

Ms Shortall asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the number of voluntary housing schemes currently awaiting approval in his Department; the number of housing units represented by these schemes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36495/06]

Ms Burton asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the number of co-operative housing schemes currently awaiting approval in his Department; the number of housing units represented by these schemes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36496/06]

  Mr. N. Ahern: I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 42 together.

My Department provides capital funding through local authorities to approved housing bodies which provide accommodation in accordance with the terms of my Department’s schemes for voluntary and co-operative housing.

Funding is no longer a constraint on progress as far as implementation of the voluntary and co-operative housing programmes are concerned. In February of this year, I substantially increased the capital grant maxima for new projects. In 2006, my Department provided a record €243 million in funding for the sector.

There are currently four projects with 48 units of accommodation under technical examination and awaiting approval in my Department. Other[69] wise, my Department has approved some 48 projects to proceed to tender stage for the delivery of 966 units of accommodation. There are, in addition, a further 49 projects with 947 units of accommodation where the Department has sought clarification and further documentation from the local authorities. In all cases, the Department works with the local authority and the voluntary body to progress these projects to completion as quickly as possible.

  Mr. Stagg: I welcome the Minister of State’s reply, in particular the increased amount for the voluntary sector. The Minister will probably be aware that my county is somewhat of a champion of voluntary sector housing. I championed it myself when I was in the Minister of State’s position in the Department and it has been operating since.

I bring to the Minister’s attention the crisis that exists in the social housing area where voluntary housing is directly involved. I will give the Minister one example. Celbridge, which the Minister knows well because he opened a housing scheme there recently, is a middle class town. There are 1,600 families on the waiting list for social and affordable housing in the town. This figure is extraordinary. Although a very large sum of money has been allocated to address the problem, it is simply not enough, even when combined with the other moneys available. There is a need for a further allocation and I hope the Minister of State will press his colleagues in Cabinet to ensure it is made.

Does the Minister of State agree there is a need to make some changes in the voluntary housing sector? Landlords now seem to own far more houses than all others and Respond resists very strongly the possibility of tenants purchasing their houses. Will the Minister allow for a purchase scheme in the voluntary housing sector that is similar to that pertaining to local authority homes? I know he will meet strong resistance, as I did when I tried it.

  Mr. N. Ahern: At political level, we receive requests all the time to introduce tenant purchase schemes in the voluntary housing sector. The Deputy is correct that some large organisations are strongly opposed to it. Last December, we stated in our policy document that we would instigate a pilot scheme pertaining to tenant purchase in a small number of new schemes. This must be done in consultation. Some discussions have taken place and I would like to believe we could have pilot schemes pertaining to existing developments also.

Many residents, particularly those in integrated estates such as those in Celbridge, might be working in the same factory. Some 30 houses in the estate might be local authority houses and 30 others might be associated with voluntary housing. When everyone was unemployed in 1985, for example, this did not matter, but it does at [70] present in that the one group can buy their houses and the other cannot. This must be addressed slowly and through consultation.

Deputy Stagg stated his county is a champion of voluntary housing. The schemes in question would be one of the smaller ones. I sometimes wonder whether they should have been part of co-operatives rather than voluntary housing associations, but that is another issue.

I understand what the Deputy is saying but he should note that all of the €243 million allocated for voluntary housing will probably not be used. Local authorities received an allocation of approximately €980 million this year and the Department’s housing Vote amounts to €2 billion. We have made extra money available this year and we have committed additional money over the coming years. Our main problem is trying to make the local authorities and voluntary bodies deliver. There is no shortage of money at present.

While there is always a demand for housing, it should be noted the number on the waiting list this year dropped by 10% as compared to the figure for three years ago. This may be due partly to improvements in the compilation of the list, but there is a slight decrease nevertheless.

I wish the money were spent quicker. I would love to be able to say to the Minister for Finance that the allocation is all gone. It is the other way around, however, in that we are driving the local authorities and voluntary bodies so they will do more and use all the money available to them.

  Mr. Stagg: I concur with the Minister of State and empathise with him. I sometimes despair of the local authorities.

  Mr. O’Dowd: I despair of the Minister of State.

  Mr. Stagg: In fairness, if money is being provided to local authorities and they are not doing their job, it is not the Minister of State’s fault. I had the same experience when I was Minister of State and, as a result, I did something which was probably unorthodox, that is, I addressed meetings of councillors. I went to the elected members over the heads of the officials and it was effective. I told the members the amount of money they had available to them and the number of houses they could provide each year and we achieved our targets much more readily than we would have done had we dealt directly with officials. My council is one of the worst in the country for spending the money available to it. I ask the Minister of State to go directly to the elected representatives to get them on the job in addition to their officials.

  Mr. N. Ahern: I try to communicate that message to colleagues in the House. They may not be members of councils any more but at least they have links with them.

[71]   Mr. Stagg: Have an open estate.

  Mr. N. Ahern: The Deputy may have a point. Members of the Oireachtas still have links with councillors and we try to communicate with them when travelling around the country.

Some phenomena never cease to amaze me. I met a delegation from a particular local authority not so long ago which was looking for more money for the authority’s programme. I outlined the facts to the delegation and was rather surprised some weeks ago to find out that what the local authority officials regarded as a really big scheme was shot down at council level over some technical difficulties associated with Part 8 or Part 10 of the legislation. In reality, they did not want the scheme and they were put under pressure by those with a snobbish point of view.

As public representatives, we sometimes shout and roar and councillors are no better or worse than us in this regard. They want social housing and talk about the figures. They want the Government to provide money but when it comes to making a decision at council level, their bravery sometimes diminishes. Our job is to provide the resources and we are doing so. In the past, different Ministers might have slowed down submissions in the hope they would not run out of money. It is the other way around at present in that we are chasing the councils to make applications for projects.

  Mr. O’Dowd: If the local authorities are not doing their jobs and producing the houses, responsibility should be removed from them. They must meet their responsibility in respect of the applicants.

Reference was made to a reduction in the number on waiting lists for housing. In County Louth, there has been an increase — the number almost doubled in the past year. This may be because more single people are living in the county or because more people are moving to the county. One must acknowledge the reality that there are significant increases in the numbers on waiting lists in some counties.

I agree with Deputy Stagg that people living in houses such as those managed by Respond should be able to purchase them. Why should one family be able to buy its local authority flat while another family in the same complex, whose flat is not a local authority unit, cannot do so? This must be addressed. There is no reason that Respond or any other group should oppose this move. Everyone has the right to buy his or her own home.

Conversely, when local authorities purchase houses outside their stock, could they not be offered to Respond tenants or others in similar houses which they could never purchase? It would give the tenants an opportunity to start buying. This is everyone’s right and people want to do it for their families.

[72]   Mr. N. Ahern: We hope to initiate a pilot tenant purchase scheme to see how it will operate. I can well understand why the voluntary housing body would still want to control an estate and be responsible for the green areas therein. I see merit in this because its input and commitment might decrease if it were only looking after half the estate. I am sure it would be possible to have some sort of scheme or co-operative — I do not want to use the phrase “management company” — whereby the house owner would still pay a certain amount for estate management or landscaping.

There has been a reduction of 9.8% in the number on waiting lists for housing. Many people are on more than one local authority housing list, particularly in Dublin where there are four local authorities. Perhaps we encourage this and I probably do so myself at clinics. Louth and Meath county council areas are just out the road and, depending on where one’s constituent lives, one might encourage him or her to include himself or herself on a couple of lists. When we carry out the overall national assessment, we account for this duplication by co-ordinating all the information so that the final figure amounts to less than the sum of the parts.

The aforesaid phenomenon might feature more in Dublin than in the middle of certain other counties. In the greater Dublin area, people are inclined to back all horses and include themselves on the lists of Fingal County Council, Dublin City Council and South Dublin County Council. When we compile all the figures, we often discover the true size of the waiting list is much smaller than expected. Co-ordination in the compilation of the data has improved. During the last assessment, we used PPS numbers and this helped to tidy up the figures. That was not the only reason for the reduction in the numbers, but it helped. People who were renting privately and were moving from one rent allowance to another used to sit on local authority lists under a couple of different addresses.

  Mr. Stagg: The Minister of State referred to a scheme that has been turned down by councillors. The only example I have seen of that related to the design. Will the Minister of State ensure that local authorities stop designing duplexes for single parents, who have to drag children, prams and trolleys up dangerous outside stairs in winter and summer?

  Mr. O’Dowd: Yes.

  Mr. Stagg: Such designs are totally inappropriate. I know of a project in Kildare that was sent back to the design stage for that reason.

  Mr. N. Ahern: I hear what the Deputy is saying.

[73]   Mr. Stagg: Does the Minister of State know what I mean by outside stairs?

  Mr. N. Ahern: I was not speaking about Kildare on that occasion. I was referring to a case further afield.