On the formation of the Government just over 12 months ago I specifically asked to be given responsibility for housing. I did so because I wanted to lead the Government’s response to what was then and still remains one of our greatest national challenges.
Over the last year, a lot has been achieved, most significantly in terms of a focused and coordinated approach to tackling homelessness. I set an ambitious target last year that by July 2017, the Government’s response to family homelessness would no longer be dependent on extensive use of hotel accommodation. That has always been a necessarily ambitious objective and setting it has made a dramatic difference. It ensured that:
- 3,079 households exited homelessness in 2016 – the highest number ever – with an even higher level of ambition for this year;
- €1.3billion is being provided in 2017 to support social housing delivery, including longer term accommodation for homeless families;
- 17 new supported family facilities are being delivered across the Dublin region, with other facilities in Cork, Limerick and Kildare;
- 810 households were supported into secure tenancies with the Homeless Housing Assistance Payment initiative in Dublin in 2016, with a further 700 homeless households to date in 2017.
- At end April, the number of families in hotels and B&Bs had reduced from 871 to 695 and with more facilities coming on-stream shortly I am confident that our target will be met in the coming weeks so that commercial hotels and B&Bs will only be used for homeless families in exceptional circumstances.
In terms of housing more broadly, implementation of the commitments contained in Rebuilding Ireland has changed the narrative around housing in Ireland. We have created the conditions for the strong supply response that is so badly required across all tenures through a multi-stranded approach that addresses all segments of the market, from owner occupier, to private renter to social housing tenants. For example, we have:
- Put in place funding of €5.3 billion to support the supply of 47,000 social housing units by 2021 – a 30% increase in the total social housing stock in Ireland;
- Produced a comprehensive strategy for the rental sector with measures to encourage new supply while protecting struggling tenants through an innovative system of Rent Pressure Zones which now apply to 57% of all tenants. The latest data from the RTB, the first set published since the new rent predictability measures were introduced last December, shows that this system is having an effect, with a moderation in rent levels nationally and a small decrease in Dublin.
- Delivered social housing supports to just over 19,000 households in 2016, with overall expenditure of €935 million, exceeding the target of 17,240, and giving a very positive start to the challenge of meeting the ambitious targets in Rebuilding Ireland;
- Set a target for 2,300 homes to be built in 2017 and a further 1,250 to be acquired – a dramatic increase on the 75 new local authority homes built in 2015;
- Reformed the Mortgage to Rent scheme to provide new improved and streamlined arrangements will facilitate more households in long-term arrears to remain in their homes;
- Introduced a new streamlined consent system for large scale housing delivery so that significant scale residential development proposals can be submitted directly to An Bord Pleanála;
- Provided access for approved housing bodies and higher education institutes to new low cost finance from the EIB, channelled through the Housing Finance Agency, a key partner in the delivery of social housing.
In terms of momentum for broader supply, the facts show that even though the Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan is just under a year old, the supply effort is rebounding and delivering. All output indicators are up, with planning permissions for 16,375 new homes granted in the 12 months up to end December 2016 (an increase of 26% year on year); Commencement Notices for 14,192 new homes submitted in the 12-month period to end March 2017 (a 38% increase in commencement activity year on year); and 15,684 ESB connections (a 19% increase, year on year). This rebound in supply is a factor of various measures, including fiscal and policy measures such as the Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund, and is putting us on course to reach the sorts of supply levels we need to reach within a short few years, enabling us meet our social, demographic and economic potential.
Beyond housing some significant milestones have been delivered also.
- Work is well advanced on the Ireland 2040 project – one of the most ambitious whole-of—Government projects ever undertaken in Ireland which will see the development of a long-term, national 20-year strategy for the spatial and place-making development of Ireland that will assist in shaping future growth and change. Government will be considering a draft full framework in the coming weeks ahead of an extensive consultation process over the summer and early Autumn.
- I recently secured Government approval on draft legislation to give effect to the recommendations of the Special Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. This legislation will provide a legally robust, sustainable basis for how we provide and pay for domestic water use for many years to come, drawing a line one of the most contentious and protracted political issues of recent times.
- Last week I published the report of the Expert Advisory Group on Local Government Arrangements for Cork. I am accepting the recommendations in principle including, in particular, the recommendation that an expanded City Council area offers the optimal means by which to create a modern, first class, effective model of local government for all of Cork – City and County – including the shared metropolitan area, for generations to come. I have set up an implementation group to drive this important project forward. A further comprehensive package of local government reform will be brought to Government in the coming weeks dealing with other boundary issues, leadership and governance in local government and the issue of directly elected mayors.
- In March I secured Government approval to hold a referendum to amend the Constitution to extend the franchise at presidential elections to include Irish citizens resident outside the State, including citizens resident in Northern Ireland. This is a historic recognition of the strong and enduring links between Ireland and all our citizens, wherever they are in the world and a profound acknowledgment of the importance that Ireland attaches to all of our citizens, wherever they may be. It is an opportunity for us to make our country stronger by allowing all of our citizens resident outside the State, including our emigrants, to vote in future presidential elections.
One year on from my appointment as Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, there are clearly many positives to reflect on. At the same time significant challenges remain for my successor Minister Eoghan Murphy but the Government’s commitment to meeting those challenges also remains undimmed.
It has been a great privilege for me to have responsibility for this brief at a time of such challenge. It has been enormously challenging but also enormously rewarding. I want to pay tribute to and note my appreciation for the support and goodwill of stakeholders from across the housing sector, including local authorities, agencies under the Department, approved housing bodies, voluntary and community organisations and, of course, the hugely dedicated staff in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, and to my Ministerial colleague Damien English.
Yesterday, the new Taoiseach asked me to take on new challenges as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
I am delighted to serve in whatever capacity the Taoiseach thinks appropriate but I will take with me an enduring commitment to the objectives set out in Rebuilding Ireland. I will be part of a cabinet team that will continue to work collectively to see through the process of resolving Ireland’s housing crisis and, in particular, to dealing with family homelessness.