1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that covers housing and homelessness. (Question 51712/17 asked on 05 Dec 2017)
The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
Following the streamlining of the Cabinet committee structures earlier this year, Cabinet committee D was established to cover the areas of housing, climate action, infrastructure investment and delivery, including transport, the national planning framework and the ten-year capital plan. The committee last met on 23 November 2017.
I consider Cabinet committee D to be the appropriate forum to consider housing issues. On housing, the Government has announced a number of additional actions following a review of Rebuilding Ireland. These include measures in budget 2018 to increase expenditure, taxation changes and the establishment of Home Building Finance Ireland to provide additional finance to developers.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has also announced further actions in regard to the rental market and the planning system. He has also announced approximately 200 new permanent accommodation spaces as part of this year’s cold weather initiative. It is important to point out that these spaces will be permanent. While they are described as being part of a cold weather initiative, they will, of course, still be open in the spring, summer and following winter.
The impact of the Government’s policies can be seen in very strong year-on-year increases in planning permissions, housing guarantee registrations, commencement notices and ESB connections.
The Cabinet committee is contributing to the development of the national planning framework and new ten-year capital plan. This long-term approach will provide clarity, coherence and certainty in regard to planning and capital expenditure, including investment in transport.
The ten-year capital plan and national planning framework will also support moving our transport system away from its current carbon-intensive nature to significantly reduce the emissions profile of the transport sector as a whole.
The committee does not have any role in regard to industrial relations matters in the public transport or any other sectors.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Are we taking Questions Nos. 1 to 4 together?
An Ceann Comhairle: Yes.
Deputy Micheál Martin: We need to be clear. The first question is on housing and homelessness. The fourth is on transport and the third is on infrastructure. I would have believed the question on housing would be separate from that on transport. We need to be very careful that we are not amalgamating questions and making it impossible for people to focus on a core issue within the minute and a half they are allowed. This kind of grouping needs to be stopped. The same thing happened last week.
The House is aware that, in the past three years, there has been a long string of announcements on housing and regular claims that the Government is getting on top of the problem. Indeed, the Taoiseach announced at his own party’s conference that the Government has a plan and that it is working. This was in sharp contrast with the statement of his Minister, who announced simultaneously that the problem will get worse. Generally speaking, given the claims, no one believes we have turned the corner where housing and homelessness are concerned. The language from the Government has been far too complacent. Unfortunately, people are dying on our streets regularly. People who visit Dublin are shocked at the number of homeless people lying on our streets. House prices continue to escalate. Housing rent comprises a huge proportion of people’s salaries, particularly young people who are starting out on the employment ladder. All of us in our clinics are meeting young mothers, with their children, who have gone back to live with their mothers in extremely overcrowded circumstances. They are not on any housing list. They may be on a social housing list but they are not identified as homeless. We need to avoid using any language that suggests the problem is well on the way to being resolved. It is not; it is getting worse. We need to get rid of the spin and the attempt to put some gloss on it. I have never seen the problem as bad.
The number on the social housing list is very high. We now have to say to couples and families that, although they have been the list for six years, they will have to wait for another four years. That is what is being said to people in Cork. I can imagine what it is like in Dublin. I have been on the doorsteps in Dublin meeting families who have been told they will never get a council house. This is not about the Taoiseach’s latest fad, which is distinguishing between social housing and council housing; it is a matter of the inability of people to have any prospects. They cannot get into the rental market. There is considerable human misery as a result of this problem.
I cannot deal with the transport question now. I have two questions tabled.
An Ceann Comhairle: Keep going.
Deputy Micheál Martin: On the transport question, I have a number of points. Can the Taoiseach outline the position on our utilisation of the European Investment Fund and particularly the European Fund for Strategic Investment, known as the Juncker plan? We have apparently secured investment only in primary health care centres under that particular plan. Trenitlaia, the national train operator in Italy, has secured a €300 million bond agreement to finance the acquisition of new passenger rolling stock through the Juncker plan. Polish transport has also secured funding to completely modernise and renew its passenger rail fleet. Despite this, I do not believe there is any single transport project that we have put forward that could seek potential funding from the European Fund for Strategic Investment. Could the Taoiseach outline why that is the case? We are still investing far less in critical national infrastructure than we need to be.
Will the Taoiseach confirm when the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, will deal with the issue of the second runway at Dublin Airport? It is a critical infrastructural project for the country, never mind the capital. The Minister has really sat on the fence in this regard. We now need decision-making on this core question.
Deputy Gerry Adams: Some 8,000 people are homeless, including 3,000 children. This is a huge indictment of this State. It is a problem that could be rectified by the Government if it had the political will. In addition, we have the spectacle of rough sleepers, as they are called. I refer to people sleeping on doorsteps, on pavements, in front of shops and, more recently, in secluded places along canals and so on. A number of people have died as a consequence.
One solution would be to expand the Housing First programme. The Taoiseach will know that the programme provides housing to homeless people with complex health needs and also provides wraparound health and social care supports.
The latest available figures suggest 180 tenancies have been created. The Government target was 300. That is not good enough by anybody’s standards. The Taoiseach said last week that a national director of Housing First would be appointed shortly. Can he confirm when this will be?
I want to deal briefly with the issue of accommodation for the Traveller community. Will the Taoiseach spell out what steps the Government intends to take to address the significant under-expenditure on Traveller accommodation? So far this year, €5.9 million, out of the budget of €9 million, has not been drawn down by local authorities. That means over half the Traveller accommodation budget for 2016-2017 has not been drawn down. Some counties have failed to draw down any funding at all. Therefore, the Government has a responsibility to intervene in this regard. I did some work on this in my constituency and noted the Government can press ahead with some of these initiatives.
Could the Taoiseach update the Dáil on plans to establish an expert group to review the effectiveness of the Traveller accommodation programme and the supporting legislation?
Deputy Brendan Howlin: In the minute and a half I have I wish to focus on the capital plan. The Taoiseach has repeatedly told us that the Government intends to publish a ten-year capital plan. That is a momentous event because it will tie the next two Dáileanna to a capital programme that he and this House will determine. How can we have an input into the plan? I accept that things will be tweaked over time. I do not disagree with what he suggests, but, in essence, it is to have a strategic view for the next decade of our capital needs and what is to be prioritised in the next decade, largely tying the hands of the next two Dáileanna. We had some announcements in the budget by Ministers who indicated some of their plans. A few of them have announced four-year projects. I have looked at the Exchequer returns for November and see a net capital underspend of €455 million against profile by the end of November. That is a shocking figure of almost 13% against profile. If there is such a calamitous shortage, as I believe there is, in capital expenditure, we should certainly be spending what we have voted at the rate profiled by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Is the Taoiseach confident that all voted expenditure will be fully utilised in this calendar year, but, more importantly, what mechanisms is he proposing to ensure all of us will have a democratic input into a ten-year capital plan and that people outside the House will also have an input in an open and transparent way?
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I again refer to the question I asked earlier about housing. It is not acceptable that, on the one hand, we are planning to have a social mix to privatise 800 publicly owned sites, with up to 60% in many of the plans being given over for some form of private housing, whereas the miserable 10% on private sites, supposedly under the guise of a social mix, now turns out to be not even 10%. The Taoiseach has said he has no plans to introduce legislation on the matter. Why is there a different set of rules for a social mix when it comes to private sites? Because private developers want more profit from the sites we are letting them shove social housing off-site or to segregate it in one part of the development, as is happening on big sites where the housing is often smaller. In one case in Dún Laoghaire reported on yesterday the reason given for social housing being off-site is the houses were too big. I know big families who have been waiting for years to get into big houses, but the council stated it did not have any big council house. However, it then refuses to meet or does not insist on meeting the Part V requirement for big houses that could be used to house these families. That is totally unacceptable.
The Taoiseach: On housing and homelessness which are not the same problem, although they are very much interlinked, we do have a plan and it is working, but it will take time and there will be setbacks. It is very similar to the unemployment crisis we faced five or six years ago, or the mortgage arrears crisis that we faced in recent years. If one puts in place the right policies, sticks by them and drives them through, one will see progress, but we are far from turning the corner yet. However, we will reach that point and will have progressive improvements thereafter.
On rough sleeping and homelessness, the position is getting worse. There is no denying it and I will not do so, but we have made some minor progress in some areas. For example, the number of families accommodated in bed and breakfast acccommodation and hotels is down from its peak in March, which is due to two things, namely, the family hubs which provide much more appropriate accommodation for families and also the provision of additional social housing and social tenancies for many families who have exited homelessness. While people are entering homelessness at very rapid rates, others are exiting it also at much more rapid rates than was the case heretofore. We are seeing at least some evidence of a levelling off in Dublin in the rate of family homelessness, with no or small increases in recent months. I do not say that is something to be celebrated, but it is to be noted.
We have managed to ensure emergency accommodation is available for any family and child who needs it. From 18 December there will be 200 additional permanent beds for rough sleepers in Dublin. That means that unless there is a big increase in the number of rough sleepers for some reason, there will be enough beds available each night. They are single beds in two-bed rooms for those who need them, thus providing shelter and allowing people not to have to sleep rough.
To pick up on the question from Deputy Gerry Adams on Housing First, yes we are expanding it. There have been 180 tenancies. It is the way to go when it comes to dealing with rough sleeping. It has shown some real results because rough sleeping is about so much more than accommodation; it is also about addiction, mental health, often family breakdown, physical health and lots of other issues. Often people struggle to hang onto a tenancy or a home, even when they get one and the supports provided through Housing First seem to be showing some real results. A total of 180 people have moved from rough sleeping into secure, sheltered, safe accommodation under the programme. We have agreed, at the instigation of the NGOs and other homelessness charities, to create a director of Housing First. I do not have a date for that appointment, but I know that it is imminent. We certainly have a long way to go. Nonetheless, the amount of social housing being built and provided is increasing. The number of private homes being built is increasing and it will take a few years to get on top of the issue. I do not accept the view from experts saying it will take ten years. The Government does not accept that position. We want the problem to get better rather than worse much sooner than that.
On the Juncker plan, I will have to check the position and get back to the Deputy. I am not entirely up to date on the extent to hwich we have drawn down funding under the Juncker plan. The last time I looked at it we had loans rather than grants and loans have to be repaid. We are able to borrow very cheaply on the existing financial markets and also from the European Investment Bank. Luas cross city which will carry passengers for the first time this weekend was in large part funded through a very low cost loan from the European Investment Bank and in the next couple of days it will sign the contract to part fund the new national children’s hospital. We are availing of many cheap loans from the bank, but I am not sure whether they fall under the Juncker plan or whether they are less expensive than loans offered under the plan. I will have to double-check.
I was not aware that we had a capital underspend of €400 million. I am confident that there will not be a significant capital underspend this year. Last week or the previous week the Cabinet allocated a Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government for an extra €100 million in capital spending this year over and above what had been budgeted because local authorities are finally starting to ramp up their construction and acquisition of housing and ahead of themselves, which is encouraging. Therefore, we had to find extra money to make sure the bills would be paid this year and that there would be no slowdown in housing construction. Given the planned increase in capital spending by 70% in the next three or four years, we will need to bear in mind that we may run into some problems that we last had when capital spending was relatively high , namely, a risk of construction inflation becoming an issue where we would end up getting less for the same amount of money every year and running into capacity constraints in terms of having the required qualified people, from architects and planners to brickies and engineers. That is not yet a problem, but it may well become one. When one tries to ramp up capital spending by such a considerable amount so quickly, it is possible that one will run into capacity constraints as we did during the boom period over ten years ago.
The national planning framework is linked with the capital plan. They are two separate documents, but they will be tied together for obvious reasons. There has been a lengthy public consultation process on the national planning framework. A huge amount of the capital plan will comprise projects that are already in the pipeline or on which consultation has taken place, for example, in the transport sector. Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the National Transport Authority already have a greater Dublin area strategy running out to 2035. Many of the projects that will be in the capital plan already exist in unfunded plans on which there has been consultation. Certainly, any input from Deputies is most welcome.