Council to deliver 750 new build social housing units in five years

Westmeath County Council will have to deliver 750 new build social housing units between 2022 and 2026 as part of the government's €40bn Housing For All plan.

The ambitious target was revealed last week at the September meeting of Westmeath County Council, which was held online.

Director of Services Mark Keaveney told the meeting that when it comes to the delivery of social housing, the focus will be on new built homes. While the final five year target had not been confirmed, he believed it would be in the region of 750 homes, an average of 150 a year.

This year the council's estimates that under the Rebuilding Ireland (2018-2021) programme it will deliver between 114 and 138 new builds.

There are 1,206 households on the council's social housing waiting list, including 459 in Athlone and 472 in Mullingar.

In addition to the projected delivery of 750 new social housing units, there will also be a focus on bringing vacant units back into the housing stock, as well as a new fund to provide serviced sites in towns. He also said that with the increase in social housing availability there will be a reduction in the reliance on the controversial HAP scheme, as well as a review and reform of the income eligibility limits for social housing.

A portion of the 750 new builds will be available to would-be home owners under a new affordable housing scheme that will be primarily targetted at first-time buyers from areas "with the greatest housing requirement and affordability challenges," Mr Keaveney said.

Mr Keaveny said that the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has given a commitment to both "improve operational capacity across local authorities" and reduce red tape.

Cllr Aengus O'Rourke was one of a number of representatives to question whether the council had enough staff in the relevant departments to deal with the upsurge in activity that will be brought about by the plan.

Both Cllr John Dolan and Cllr O'Rourke noted that there would have to be a huge reduction in the amount of "red tape" associated with the delivery of social housing projects.

Cllr Dolan also wondered if there will be any provision made in the plan for people on the social housing list who could be in a position to provide their own site in a rural location.

Cllr Tom Farrell said that he was concerned that there was not much mention of rural housing in the plan. He said that the move to remote working during the pandemic has brought life back to rural communities.

Cathaoirleach Frankie Keena said that for the plan to be a success it needs to "hit the ground running", particularly in the provision of affordable housing.

Cllr Vinny McCormack said that he would like to see the programme relating to serviced sites rolled out to rural towns and villages.

Cllr Glynn also said that he had "huge concerns" about whether 2022 to 2026 is a "realitic time frame" for such ambitious plans.

While he welcomed the government's attempts to tackle the housing crisis, Cllr Bill Collentine said that tradesmen are already very hard to get and wondered where the workers to building the 300,000 new homes set out in the national plan would be found.

Cllr Hazel Smyth said that it is vital that affordable houses are built for the many young couples who are currently unable to afford to buy their own homes.

In additon to noting that council's staffing levels will need to be "ramped up", she also said that current income thresholds for social houses and HAP rates will also have to be increased.

Cllr Johnnie Penrose said it was an ambitious plan and he that he hopes it works out. "I have seen plans before and they haven't worked out," he said.

He also called for the the income thresholds for people looking to get on the social housing list to be reviewed.