Seanad Éireann - Volume 144 - 12 October, 1995

Adjournment Matters. - Essential Repairs Grant Scheme.

Mr. Wall: I am concerned about the operation of the essential repairs grant scheme governed by the housing regulations made by the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment in 1993. This grant scheme was put in place for the purpose of prolonging the usefulness of older houses throughout the State.

My concerns about the scheme and the way it is being administered relate principally to an apparent inflexibility in the way the scheme is operating. Some of this inflexibility derives from the regulations referred to setting up the scheme, while some may be a consequence of administration decisions taken by individual local authorities. For example, why is it necessary to specify that the approved cost of the works is not less than £200? Why cannot each case be considered on its merits, having regard to the sometimes very difficult situations facing individuals? We can sometimes make these schemes more responsive to administration requirements rather than to the people they are meant to help. A sum of £200 may not seem a lot, but it is a sizeable sum to an elderly person on a small income.

[1573] Cases have been brought to my attention where applicants for these grants have been ruled out on the grounds that the part of the house they are seeking to have repaired — for example, the back kitchen — did not constitute a part of the original house. How can one explain or justify such a decision to a person of 76 years of age living alone, whose back kitchen and adjacent toilet are no longer usable because she has been refused a grant under this scheme?

I have had numerous requests in this regard. On a bad night, or when it is raining, people cannot use the toilet, the one facility an old person wants in the house, because of the amount of water that is coming into it, or if they do use it they would have to take off their shoes. At the same time they are being deprived of an essential repairs grant. It seems a crazy situation that any local authority could deprive a person of that age, residing alone, the use of the two vital essentials in their house — the back kitchen and the bathroom.

I am in favour of a very high standard of public accountability in the administration and management of public funds, but we also need a more practical, realistic and sensitive approach to the award of grants such as these, having special regard to the disadvantaged group of people at whom this scheme is targeted.

The reality is that the inflexibility inherent in the scheme is leading prospective applicants to use, as a more workable and flexible alternative, the home improvement scheme for the elderly, operated by the health boards. I have spoken to the officers of the health boards. They are overcome by the number of applications because of the inflexibility of the essential repairs grant scheme. They have only limited finance to back up their schemes and they have not got the workforce available to undertake them. Not only are they not able to implement their scheme, but those applying for it are unsuccessful. As a consequence, the scheme is overrun with applications and is de facto [1574] becoming part of the essential repairs grant scheme.

I am asking the Minister for the Environment to review and revise the essential repairs grant scheme, now that some of its deficiencies have become clear. I also ask the Minister to make strong representations regarding a review of applications such as those I have mentioned. These are numerous, especially in rural Ireland, where it was the norm years ago to build on a back kitchen and a bathroom. It was established and agreed at that time that they would become part of the general household. To state now that because they are not part of the original household a grant cannot be provided is crazy and unacceptable.

It would be better to put those concerned into a district hospital where they would have the facilities they fought for and for which they were grant aided so long ago. However, now, at a very important time of their lives and in order to ensure they do not have to leave their homes at nightime, they are being refused the grant. In view of this I ask that a review of the essential repairs grant scheme be undertaken and that the deficiencies which exist at present be addressed.

Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. Gilmore): I thank Senator Wall for his contribution to which I have listened carefully and which I will bring to the attention of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Deputy McManus. The essential repairs grants scheme is a long established social housing option. It is a modest but worthwhile measure as it enables people in accommodation which cannot be made fit in all respects at a reasonable cost to have basic repairs carried out to their houses so that they can continue to provide an acceptable standard of accommodation for the occupants. The scheme is generally used to secure essential repairs to dwellings occupied by elderly persons, often in isolated rural areas.

[1575] The scheme, in common with the other social housing measures, is administered entirely by local authorities within the policy framework set out in regulations made in 1993. The authorities are responsible for processing of individual applications and for decisions on them. Consequently, the Department of the Environment does not have available information in relation to individual cases or on the circumstances in which a particular grant may have been refused. However, I can say that there is no specific requirement in the regulations that householders must make a contribution to the cost of work undertaken on their houses. Whether or not such a contribution is sought is a matter within the discretion of the local authority, which would be expected to take the circumstances of the occupant of the house into account if a contribution was being sought.

Each grant paid by local authorities is recouped in part by the Department of the Environment. Under the 1993 regulations, the maximum recoupment from the Department was increased from £600 to £900 for each grant paid. These regulations also redefined the circumstances under which the grants were payable, in particular by removing the limitation of grants to houses in county health districts. I understand, however, that the changes made in 1993 may have led some local authorities to take an unduly strict interpretation of the terms of the scheme in relation to the location of houses which could benefit. In the circumstances, the Department of the Environment is now confirming for local authorities that essential repairs grants may, in accordance with the regulations, be paid where: the occupier is approved for local authority housing; the house cannot be made fit for human habitation in all respects at a reasonable cost but the repairs proposed will prolong the useful life of the house; and there would be no continuing demand for local authority housing at the location of the house in respect of which the grant is paid. Subject to compliance [1576] with these requirements, a local authority may pay an essential repairs grant in respect of a house in any area. I would, however, expect that, generally speaking, only a small number of cases in built up areas could comply with the regulations.

Other options may be open to the local authority, where payment of an essential repairs grant would not be appropriate because there is a continuing need for local authority accommodation at the location of the house or to meet needs such as those of a family. For example, authorities should consider whether the necessary improvements to a house could be undertaken by means of the scheme of improvement works in lieu of local authority housing. I encourage all authorities to exercise this option, if appropriate.

In so far as the funding of the essential repairs grant scheme is concerned, it is shared between the contribution local authorities make from their own resources and the recoupments made by the Department of the Environment. As an indication of the level of activity under the scheme, recoupments amounting to almost £1 million were made by the Department in 1994 in respect of 576 houses. The level of recoupment, as I have already mentioned, was increased by 50 per cent, from £600 to £900, as recently as 1993. While there are no proposals at this stage to adjust this recoupment level, the matter will be kept under review by the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment with responsibility for housing and urban renewal.