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 Header Item Offshore Islands (Continued)
 Header Item Local Authority Housing Rents

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 861 No. 1

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  10 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Noel Harrington: Information on Noel Harrington Zoom on Noel Harrington] I encourage the Minister to consider a more long-term solution to copperfasten funding for the non-Gaeltacht islands. The work the federation does is invaluable and it is under pressure. The population on each of the islands, bar none, is under severe pressure. Various censuses over the years show a very worrying trend. The loss of services results in a vicious downward spiral. Since this country is an island at the periphery of the European continent, we should look after our inhabited offshore islands and go a bit further to support them and recognise that they comprise a resource. They have tremendous tourism appeal. The Government has recognised the difficulties island farmers have in terms of access, and they are to get an extra payment owing to islands being areas of natural constraint. The islanders get increases in capital funding, also for access. The funding for the development offices and officers will provide continuing comfort for island inhabitants and ensure their health, welfare and education. It will enhance tourism and employment prospects.

As I stated, the advocacy group is a one-stop shop for liaising with the State agencies and Departments and highlights the difficulties island people have. These difficulties are not very well understood unless one has spent time and lived on islands. I thank the Minister and look forward to further discussions and agreement on how the funding will be copperfastened over the coming weeks.

Deputy Alan Kelly: Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly I understand the issues facing many of these islands. I have been on them, particularly when I was an MEP or, more appropriately, when trying to become an MEP. The islands are fantastic places and there is general acceptance that the vital infrastructure already put in place needs to be maintained. Subject to available funding, we will do everything we can, working with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, to ensure the structures and services that are in place will be maintained in the coming years. Whatever discussions and negotiations are necessary to ensure appropriate services are maintained will be engaged in. I have given this assurance previously, as I stated to Deputy Michael McCarthy, and I am offering assurance to Deputy Harrington this evening. I certainly believe that, through working with the other Department, we will be able to find enough resources to ensure services will be maintained within existing funding constraints. I am quietly confident, given the initial and ongoing discussions between the Departments, that we will be able to get there. I certainly believe the services on the islands need to be maintained. It is certainly the intention of the Government to maintain them.

Local Authority Housing Rents

Deputy Dessie Ellis: Information on Dessie Ellis Zoom on Dessie Ellis Over the past three years, there has been much austerity coming from the Government. This has made life harder for struggling people on low and middle incomes. Some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable in society are tenants of local authorities. This is because of the very narrow parameters one has to fit between in order to be able to apply for social housing and the even more narrow parameters required for a person to actually be housed. People who fit into the first set of parameters almost always end up in private accommodation, receiving rent supplement that costs the State nearly €350 million annually. Recent rent increases in the private sector have pushed rent supplement to the limit and have done massive harm to many families. Far too many people have been made homeless due to these rent increases, so much so that there are record numbers in need of emergency accommodation. This kind of accommodation is bursting at the seams due to the failure of the Government to protect tenants from rent increases by implementing rent controls.

In the case of local authority homes, rent is controlled and it is much less likely that a tenant will lose his home. This is welcome, but the Government needs to strike a balance by having rent that is both fair and affordable. This balance has been struck in many ways, but we are dealing with people who live on extremely tight budgets and who have been the victims of many cuts over the past three years. The cut to the dole for young people was particularly hard. Increases in utility costs and the cuts to the household benefit, in addition to all the supplementary payments that must be made, took their toll on people living in council housing. The impending water charges loom large in the minds of these people. They will not pay, simply because they cannot pay.

Next summer a new rent scheme will come into place that will set base levels and thresholds for rent, in addition to bands. These may not change much, but there are some projections indicating that rents could increase for some people who really cannot afford to pay anything more. It may be an indictment of our economy and many other factors, but it is a reality that must be considered when setting the basic criteria for how local authority rent is charged.

I wish to ask the Minister about voluntary housing bodies and their rent levels. We recently saw the obscene set of circumstances in which a property that the State helped to develop was left idle because a Catholic housing association in Dublin was refusing to accept rents in line with the reality of what people could pay. Instead, it wanted market prices. Of course, most approved housing bodies charge a fair level of rent, give good service and are always eager to have their homes occupied, but a lesson must be learned from that. Common sense eventually did prevail.

Councils and approved bodies must continue to allow people to rent at a fair and affordable price. Will the Minister commit to not changing the rent scheme in any way that would result in higher rents? Senior citizens and such people who pay a certain rent could be affected if the proposals are implemented. I have examined some of the rent levels and am extremely worried that the new rent scheme will be much more disadvantageous. I ask the Minister to consider it very carefully. I realise we will be debating it thoroughly in 2015, but I just believe we need to examine it carefully now. I am worried about the bands that are being proposed.

Deputy Alan Kelly: Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. With regard to the issue he raised about the housing body, I know what he was referring to. As he is aware, discussions took place last night in order to solve the problem. I am happy that it is certainly moving in the right direction. Having said that, I share some of the Deputy's concerns and attitudes in respect of ensuring common sense prevails.

Consistency and fairness are at the heart of the new differential rent framework. Responsibility for setting local authority rents has been devolved as an executive function to individual local authorities since 1986. Under the new scheme, this will become a reserved function. While all housing authorities charge rents known as differential rents, related to the income of tenant households, the amount of rent varies from local authority to local authority across the country. This has led to a situation whereby similar households in comparable accommodation are charged varying amounts of differential rent depending on where they live and the local authority letting the accommodation. The rent regimes in individual local authority areas also differ on issues such as the types and amounts of income that are reckonable for differential rent purposes. There is no justification for this disparate and inconsistent approach to rent setting for accommodation that is funded wholly by the Exchequer. There are many cases that cause great concern, so this needs to be addressed.

Section 31 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 facilitates significant harmonisation of local authority rent levels while retaining the principle of having rents related to household income and leaving some discretion to individual authorities to determine rent policies in their areas. The new system, however, will be more equitable, transparent and consistent, with regulations providing for a base charge for each household member, amounting to €30 per week in the case of single-person households, which is identical to the rent contribution paid by single persons in receipt of rent supplement, and €45 per week for couples. Households with incomes in excess of thresholds to be set in regulation, which will be related to household composition, will also be required to pay a differential charge of a proportion of their income above the threshold.

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