Housing (Amendment) Bill 2013

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150

Dáil Éireann, 2nd May 2013

 

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this Bill.

 

I welcome the provisions of this Bill, the main aim of which is to streamline the way in which rents are calculated across all local authorities.  I also welcome the fact that the making of a rent scheme is now a reserved function of the housing authority as this will give elected council members a role in deciding rent policy.

 

This Bill seeks to give greater transparency to the process by which councils arrive at rent charges, including the way financial circumstances are treated and the allowances available for dependants.  The new harmonised structure will come into effect on January 1st and paves the way for the new Housing Assistance Payments Scheme, which will see the responsibility for rent supplement switched to local authorities.

 

This represents a sea change in terms of the way in which housing is administered by the state and I believe that the bringing of the rent supplement under the umbrella of the local authorities is long overdue as they have the local knowledge to best implement the scheme and are best placed to ensure that the state does not pay high rents to private landlords while public housing lies vacant.

 

 

 

Currently, there is a wide variation in rents charged by various local authorities and this Bill will bring some level of harmonisation to the system, while still allowing for an element of discretion.  The changes envisaged under this Bill will undoubtedly result in an increase in rent for some householders, and I recognise the fact that these increases, where they fall due, will be implemented on a phased basis.

 

This Bill merely paves the way for what I believe will be more significant legislation in this area later this year, when the rent supplement scheme is transferred to local authorities.  Already, applicants for rent supplement have to apply to the local authority for assessment of their housing needs and so the vast majority of those on rent supplement should already be on the files of the local County or City Council.  Thus, local authorities should be aware of where various people wish to live in terms of a general area and people can be offered vacant housing as it arises.

 

There is one aspect of this transition that I believe needs greater scrutiny and this relates to cases where arrears accrued many years ago.  In one instance that I know of a family left the county which was their birthplace in difficult circumstances and sought to return years later, when the issues that had given rise to their leaving had been resolved.  However, they were told that they couldn’t get back on the housing list as they had arrears with the housing authority relating to the manner of their leaving years ago.  This family could get on the housing list in every county in the Republic and receive rent supplement in any other county other than the county of their birth and the area that they had close family ties with.  I believe that some consideration should be given to such cases before the system is fully transferred over to the local authorities and cases where people are debarred because of arrears which arose many years ago, should be re-examined and those people perhaps allowed a hearing in relation to their case.

 

This is one of the very few reservations I have in relation to the transfer of responsibility of the rent allowance scheme as overall I believe that this is a common sense approach which will yield significant financial dividends for the country’s coffers.  The local knowledge which County Councils possess will be vital and I believe that an increased number of offers to people in relation to vacant council housing will see the current high bill for rent supplement reduced significantly in years to come.

 

In fact, I believe that a sustained campaign offered at ensuring that people on rent supplement are offered vacant local authority houses within ten km of their current address would result in huge savings for the state and result in increased rent collection for local authorities.  I believe that the issue of staffing in housing departments of local authorities may have to be addressed in months and years to come if the maximum savings are to be achieved and this may necessitate a reconfiguration of services within Councils, but may also in some cases, require extra resources, which will be more than offset by the savings achieved.

 

Harmonisation of the manner in which rent is calculated is a good idea, as is the harmonisation of the rent supplement scheme, which will see the current two-tier system involving local authorities and the Department of Social Protection streamlined into a more cohesive approach which will see better use of scarce housing resources.

 

That is one of the most important tasks facing this government, using scarce resources well, identifying areas where savings can be made and achieving those savings, doing more with less and I believe that this Bill is one further example of our efforts on that front.