Key personnel changes among Clare County Council’s top officials have been a breath of fresh air. Pat Dowling, the new CEO, and recently appointed Director for Social Development Liam Conneally are displaying an openness and willingness to deal with difficult issues in a true spirit of partnership and cooperation with elected councillors.
Take for example the housing crisis in Ireland that is of historic proportions. The legacy of the economic collapse since 2008 has left local authorities bereft of funds to provide adequate social housing in their areas.
Last week Cllr PJ Kelly called for financial and tax incentives aimed at encouraging property owners to bring vacant houses back into use. The call received a wholesome endorsement from Liam Conneally who stated in no uncertain terms, “This should be incentivised without the fear of Revenue or other State interference. There should be a monetary incentive and also some tax incentive to encourage those property owners otherwise these properties won’t come on the market. The State must put forward a case in terms of financial reward.”
Meanwhile, chief executive Pat Dowling returned from the Government’s housing summit in Dublin more hopeful than ever of receiving funding to build more social houses and tackle the growing issue of homelessness.
On Monday, Mr Dowling held a special meeting with councillors to discuss the housing crisis. The meeting heard that 2,644 applicants are on Clare County Council’s housing list at present. However, 1,668 have accommodation and are in receipt of housing benefits or leasing arrangements. In real terms, 996 applicants are in actual housing need in County Clare. More critical is the growing number of people presenting as homeless in the county. At present 51 adults and 44 children are in emergency accommodation in the county, 18 families in all.
Pat Dowling and Liam Conneally expressed their determination and commitment to deal with these issues despite the fact that they are often frustrated by Government bureaucracy.
In recent years soaring house prices, a catastrophic rental market, harrowing tales of homelessness and ever-increasing numbers on local authority waiting lists have become a stark reality of life. Minister Eoghan Murphy hosted a summit with top officials of the 31 local authorities and later announced a number of measures to be introduced. These include a radical change in policy, away from acquisitions into direct build programmes for local authorities and housing bodies. Minister Murphy aims to build 3,800 new local authority homes next year.
On their return from the summer recess, 15 Clare councillors co-signed an emergency motion calling for an urgent debate on the crisis. CEO Pat Dowling responded positively to the request before briefing the council on the Dublin summit.
From the outset, Mr Dowling acknowledged that there has been very little capital investment for social housing in Clare for many years. “The scale of capital funding has been totally inadequate, to say the least,” he stated. According to the CEO, Clare County Council has purchased 60 properties in the last 18 months and has a number of leasing arrangements operational. The council has also received Government approval to build over 100 houses but the slow pace of the process means that construction will not commence until next year.
Mr Dowling also spoke of the growing need to provide for homelessness in Clare. While this is mainly an urban problem, he said it has become a growing issue across the whole country. Mr Dowling said it was made clear at the summit that the need for transitional accommodation in the area of homelessness is now a priority. The use of B&Bs and hotels is no longer deemed a suitable response.
He also acknowledged that the situation in County Clare is very unsatisfactory given that people presenting as homeless are often left to find their own emergency accommodation. “We need to put a homeless action team on the ground in Clare, in collaboration with other agencies to respond locally,” said Mr Dowling.
On house construction, there is a revised focus away from acquisitions to direct build. While house acquisitions will continue to take advantage of value in the local market, Mr Dowling said the Government wants all local authorities to identify sites in areas where housing need is greatest. In Clare, those places in greatest need are in Ennis and Shannon, Kilrush and Ennistymon, but there is a housing need across the county which he said must be responded to.
Pat Dowling has been refreshingly honest in strongly criticising the systemic flaws which are causing serious delays of up to four years in the building process. He noted that each house building project must pass through a bureaucratic four-stage process; a design stage, a planning stage, then a procurement stage before reaching the construction stage.
“Those stages,” he said, “have taken a long time, causing a lot of frustration at the system for all of us as it can take up to 4 years from the time you identify a site until you hand over the keys to new tenants. Mr Dowling emphasised to councillors, “I gave a clear message to the Government that it needs to look at that process and to speed it up.”
A measure being proposed is a Rapid Build Framework, which reduces the process to two stages. Mr Dowling is not enamoured by this because it can produce inferior quality social housing. He is more concerned to proceed with a full build programme as quickly as possible.
Pat Dowling will report back to Government in six weeks with detailed plans to tackle homelessness, including the emergency services that are needed in advance of the winter months. In addition, he will also report on the key sites and time frames for house building in areas of the county where the need is greatest.
Mr Dowling said he was led to believe by both Ministers at the summit that capital funding will be made available. In particular, where projects are being fast-tracked, funding will not be an issue. He stated, “We’ll make sure we get our fair slice of that in Clare.”
Pat Dowling emphasised to councillors, “The system can be slow, so we need to be clever and identify projects that are easy to progress from a house building perspective. Because we have 51 people homeless in the county, we need to ensure that this issue is dealt with because the indications are of an upward trend in all rural counties so that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”
Finally the chief executive paid tribute to the staff in the council’s housing section for their tremendous effort. He added, “they care sincerely about these people who are homeless particularly.”
At the end of the discussion, Cllr Johnny Flynn thanked Mr Dowling for a very comprehensive report, which he said should be very reassuring to the people of Clare. Cllr Flynn committed himself and the other councillors to work positively with the council executive to deal with these urgent matters.