There are 500 council houses lying idle in Cork City today. The number is increasing at a rate of 2 or 3 per week. At the same time demand for social housing in Cork City is in excess of 7500 houses. The problem is that Cork City Council, like other local authorities around the country, now finds that it has practically no money to renovate its housing stock, thus existing stock is being depleted at a time of high demand, and this is of grave concern. Clearly this is an issue of immense importance to the great many people, and their families, who benefit from social housing and to those who are presently on the list awaiting housing.
National government has done little to help. Indeed there has been a 25% increase in Cork City in vacant houses since this government took office and this figure continues to rise. Recently, a grant of just €480,000, a very modest sum, given the enormity of the demand upon Cork City Council, was made available by government to the Council. Frustratingly, this grant was accompanied by explicit instructions that it was to be used solely for the purpose of purchasing four new homes. This is not the best use of these funds, especially when existing stock cannot be maintained and when there is such a high demand.
Councillors are, however, seeking creative solutions to address the challenges posed. I devised three solutions and I have pursued these solutions via a motion calling upon the Minister to consider each. Firstly, I have proposed that the grant of €480,000 would be better used to renovate houses rather than purchase new ones. As many as 50 or even 60 houses could be renovated, and returned to active use, using this sum. Secondly, it may be possible for the Council to take out a loan to the value of the renovation works to be done. The rental income from the restored houses would be used to pay off the loan thus making the solution self-sustainable. Thirdly, the Council could sell, in a controlled manner so as to achieve the very best price in each instance, a proportion of the existing housing stock to raise the funds required. Here too the solution funds itself. Using a combination of these three solutions 500 newly-renovated houses could be made available for those waiting on the social housing list, rather than the 4 houses for which the Council has received funding from government.
Nationally the Irish Council for Social Housing (ICSH) estimates demand to be as high as 96,000 houses. The lesson here is that local solutions can be found to local problems, and perhaps even to national issues. Support has not yet been forthcoming. There is little point in government expecting councils to be self-sustaining while at the same time tying the hands of council’s each time they find creative solutions to important problems. There must then be change in current government policy on social housing and in government attitudes towards local government.
The lack of support for my solutions is likely part of broader government policy aimed at fast-tracking centralisation. The town councils were swept away by Minister Hogan with a single stroke of a pen and so too was the say in local affairs of those who voted for those councils. Powers previously held by the Cork City Council have been divested to the National Roads Authority (NRA) and to the National Transport Authority. Other powers are being divested to Irish Water as it becomes fully operational. Recently €400,000 due to the Council as part of the newly introduced Household Charge was withheld. This money was badly needed locally.
Under the previous Fianna Fáil – led government there was ample support for social housing, for local voices, and the fruits of that support are still evident. Take for example, The Glen and for Knocknahenny where funding was made available for regeneration by the late Fianna Fáil TD and former Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan and this only now coming on-stream. In fact it is the only such money coming on-stream.
Public support, for the Council and for its initiatives, is vitally important. Just as the people depend upon the voice of the Council to support their interests, the Council depends upon the voice of the people to support projects taken to achieve those interests. Social housing is one such important issue. Progress is possible, as has been shown here, if there is enough will and determination. There is cause for hope. However, the voice of the people of Cork is needed if measures, such as those proposed here, are to be pushed through. I am asking the people of Cork to support me, and my colleagues in Fianna Fáil, in our efforts to provide 500 social houses in Cork.