The state of public housing in Ireland
In recent years the local authority housing repairs and maintenance service has been subject to widespread criticism for high costs, inefficiency and slowness in carrying out repairs. Housing Unit 
The traditional funding model for the provision of social housing in Ireland had a simple basis. The Exchequer provided the initial capital for the construction and acquisition of social housing and the local authority was responsible for ongoing repairs and maintenance. But this apparent clarity in the division of responsibilities ignored one key factor. The capacity of the local authority to fund maintenance and renewal programmes, not to mention their willingness to do so, was severely compromised by the level of income received from rents and the lack of control over sales.
Over the years the system had learnt to cope with the shortcomings in the funding model. Through a mix of remedial projects, regeneration programmes and national improvement works schemes, central government stepped in to support local authorities. In the past 20 years over €3 billion in Exchequer funding has been provided in this way. Apart from projects linked to specific housing developments, the overall public housing stock has benefitted from national schemes of energy conservation, boiler upgrades, the replacement of doors and windows. In more recent years, the funding of measures to get vacant units back into use was introduced. While together these helped modernise the housing stock, they did little to encourage local authorities to take the initiative in improving their properties. Why would a sensible Finance Director even contemplate spending scare local resources for such a purpose if a future Exchequer scheme might provide. This position still obtains today.
Condition of local authority housing
Less is known about the condition of local authority housing than one might imagine. Figures are available on the overall age of the stock and on the distribution between apartments [18.2%], houses [81.3%] and demountables [0.5%]. Over half the apartments are in schemes that are more than 40 years old.
Figures based on 94% return [total housing stock of 130,600]. NOAC 
But beyond the broad descriptions based on age and type, information on the physical condition of dwellings is limited. The nearest thing to a comprehensive national survey was last carried out back in 2002 by the ESRI, and even this was based on tenant responses. The last national survey that actually looked at the physical condition of local authority housing was in 1991!
According to a report by the National Oversight and Audit Commission [NOAC] in 2017, only a few local authorities carry out regular house condition surveys and none reported conducting a comprehensive survey of their housing stock at regular intervals [although a small number did undertake rolling surveys]. At a recent Housing Webinar on the subject held by the Institute of Public Administration it was acknowledged that in many cases physical surveys of individual properties have not been undertaken for years.
Repair and Maintenance Service
Concerns about the state of the local authority housing have surfaced on several occasions in the past. In the mid 1990s, a Housing Management Group was set up which produced reports in 1996 and 1998 that established a broad framework for housing management at local level. They also led to the establishment of The Housing Unit [later the Centre for Housing Research] which published a series of operational guides for local authorities over the next decade.
Given a wide range in the levels of expenditure, staffing numbers and in operational practices and procedures between local authorities, it is dangerous to generalise about the public housing stock as a whole. But a few common themes have emerged that could be said to characterise the way housing maintenance and management is carried out in Ireland:
- the level of resources committed to responsive maintenance [emergency, urgent and routine repairs]. While it is difficult to provide a meaningful national figure due to differences in accounting practices, it is clear that much the larger part of expenditure in all authorities is spent in responding to callouts from tenants. NOAC reported in 2017 that only 17 local authorities had some type of preventive maintenance programme in place,
- the carrying out of improvement works.
Local authorities tend to leave the improvement and upgrading of individual properties to the times between tenancies when properties are vacant or when they can include them as part of periodic national improvement works programmes. This can result in long intervals when no substantive maintenance work is carried out on a property,
- the recording and reporting of information.
At this point there is no fully integrated information management system (It is understood that work is underway to develop such a system but implementation is some way off ), combining data on repairs, house conditions and tenant complaints, in use across the sector. This not only limits the capacity to make useful comparisons but undermines the operational efficiency of the maintenance programme.
Over the years many recommendations for changes in practice have been put forward and adopted with varying degrees of success within the local government sector. The time taken to relet properties has fallen, complaints / call out systems are in place across the board and some authorities at least have carried out surveys of their stock. It should also be acknowledged that tenants have reported improvements in the service provided by local authorities. Increasing levels of tenant satisfaction was observed by Michelle Norris and Michael O’Connell in their study of seven estates between 1997 and 2007 (‘Decline and Renewal of Disadvantaged Neighbourhoods…’ Planning, Practice & Research V29, 2014). More recently, as part of the major NOAC study in 2017, tenant surveys pointed to reasonable levels of satisfaction with 64% praising the housing and maintenance services of the local authority and nearly half saying that the service had improved in the previous five years.
But these improvements, important as they are, have not lessened the need for a major overhaul of the systems, processes and procedures governing the way in which local authorities approach the management, maintenance and improvement of their housing stock.
It is against this background that we look at the ECSR complaint.
European Committee for Social Rights
In 2014 the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) made a complaint against Ireland on behalf of tenants from 20 local authority estates. It was not until 2017 that the ECRS made its decision. There were a number of parts to the case taken by FIDH, some of which were rejected by the ECSR, but the critical point related to Article 16 of the European Social Charter. Article 16 is about the right of the family to social, legal and economic protection and refers specifically to the provision of family housing.
The central point of FIDH’s complaint was that some local authority housing is in very poor condition and does not meet the legal standards for rented housing. In its decision the ECRS noted that under Article 16 there is a requirement that countries:
- adopt the necessary legal, financial and operational means of ensuring steady progress towards achieving the goals laid down by the Charter;
- maintain meaningful statistics on needs, resources and results;
- undertake regular reviews of the impact of the strategies adopted;
- establish a timetable and not defer indefinitely the deadline for achieving the objectives of each stage;
- pay close attention to the impact of the policies adopted on each of the categories of persons concerned, particularly the most vulnerable
In respect of the specific complaint made, the ESCR confined its judgement to the adequacy of existing housing [not whether there is an adequate supply of such housing] and found that the Government ‘has failed to take sufficient and timely measures to ensure the right to housing of an adequate standard for not an insignificant number of families living in local authority housing and therefore holds that there is a violation of Article 16 of the Charter in this regard.’
In its submission for the 2020 ‘Findings’ report by the ECSR, the Irish Government reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring that ‘tenants in social housing are provided with adequate housing that meets the standards most recently laid down in the Housing [Standards for Rented Houses] Regulations 2019’. The Government noted the efforts of the City and County Managers Association to adopt a shared approach to preventative maintenance, including the carrying out of stock condition surveys. The Government also highlighted the various national house improvement programmes that had been undertaken, backed by €145 million Exchequer funding since 2014, leading to the refurbishment/upgrade of 11,000 social homes. Specific improvements have also been made to the housing schemes mentioned in the original complaint.
In reviewing the actions taken to address the complaint, the ECSR noted that ‘progress has been made in adoption of measures to ensure an adequate standard of living in local authority housing … but there is still a large number of families who continue to live in substandard conditions’. The lack of national statistics on conditions in the public housing stock was again commented upon. Ireland is deemed not to be in conformity with Article 16 of the Charter.
The Nature of the Challenge
It cannot be stressed too often or too loudly that if you do not have the basic information, collected in a systematic manner and available in a form that management can use to make decisions, that no real improvement will take place.
We do have some useful output data collected as part of the Performance Indicators Report published annually by NOAC. These highlight areas of activity around vacant dwellings, the time taken and the cost of reletting properties and direct spending on maintenance. But the information provided comes from desktop and financial systems. Surveys on the ground of actual physical conditions are less easy to find and are certainly not comparable across authorities.
The direct costs of repair and maintenance per dwelling unit is, according to NOAC figures, slightly lower today at €1,169 than five years ago – but there is considerable volatility in the figures year on year. But perhaps the main challenge in interpreting the figures is that it is not possible to draw any reasonable conclusion about the adequacy or otherwise of the investment given the range of variables involved – maintenance spend, expenditure on reletting properties and the number of inhouse staff [as opposed to contracted staff] used by each authority. Add to this [not included in table] the number of schemes in each authority and the breakdown between houses and apartments and it quickly becomes evident how difficult it is to draw meaningful conclusions about whether certain authorities are spending too much or too little on repair and maintenance.
An IPA report in 2017 concluded that the main barrier to the creation of efficient and cost effective systems for the maintenance and management of local authority housing is the lack of core information about the condition of the stock.
In terms of the expenditure figures themselves we have no shortage of statistics – but they can be difficult to interpret and there is a strong suspicion at least that they do not always mean the same when you try comparing the performance of different local authorities.
The key point to make is that current income, which would normally be used to fund not only the repair and maintenance of properties but also periodic improvements and even [in the case of housing associations and private sector] pay off any outstanding debts on the property – does not come near covering costs in the case of public housing.
There is nothing new or surprising in this. As far back as 1987, John Blackwell, who wrote extensively on housing matters at the time, calculated that rental income provided less than 20% of the total cost of the provision and maintenance of local authority dwellings. It is only when we reduce the costs to a narrow definition of maintenance and improvement that we see the overall national level of rents exceeding expenditure. In 2017 NOAC determined that rental income was 159% of maintenance costs. But even this hides wide variation between authorities.
The broad conclusion is that the amount collected by local authorities in rents is not sufficient to pay the full costs of the management, maintenance and upgrade [to modern standards] of the public housing stock. Further, the amount of funding available to the local authority is quite volatile, varying from year to year depending on government grants, the volume of house sales and the actual amount collected as rents.
Sed quis custodiet Ipsos custodes Juvenal
– Loosely translated as ” But who will guard the guardians”
There is an widening divergence in the approach to the management and maintenance of social housing between local authorities and housing associations.
In respect of the former there are general rental standards to comply with and some additional responsibilities concerning anti-social behaviour. But there is no universal standard of service that one can point to as a guide to how local authorities should meet their management and maintenance responsibilities. Minimum standards are set out in the Housing [Standards of Rented properties] Regulations 2019 and responsibilities for maintenance in the tenancy agreement. Enforcement is ultimately through the courts but for the most part this is overseen for public housing by the local authorities themselves.
In the case of the voluntary sector, housing associations who control in excess of 90% of the stock have signed up to a voluntary regulatory code managed by an independent body. There are 82 separate headings under the Performance Management Standard. In addition, many associations use a standard methodology for assessing performance management developed by the Irish Council for Social Housing. Over the next couple of years a new statutory code will be introduced under the Housing [Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies] Act 2019.
A change in terminology might help here. Asset management conjures up the idea of accountants poring over spreadsheets with lists of property valuations. But it does not have to be like this. In this context the term denotes a multi-faceted understanding of the value of public housing, part of which is its social character. It allows of a more strategic approach to the management of the public housing stock and to the efficient and effective delivery of services linked to the tenancy.
So what might a more strategic approach look like? It might start with a clear understanding that the primary objective is to protect the public asset and ensure its optimal usage over the life time of the property. This takes us beyond seeing the processes and procedures that underpin maintenance programmes as simply being about operational efficiency and meeting the local authority’s statutory duty and contractual obligations at the least cost. It is about looking at the whole life management of the property.
A systematic approach based on asset management provides a set of organising principles that can become a driver for social housing reform. This would be in line with international best practice.
So where does Ireland stand in terms of its implementation of systems to protect its housing stock? It could be suggested that on the scale indicated below that Ireland resides on the lowest rung with perhaps some individual authorities one step up.
At a national policy level we need to realise that housing is not just about supply. The maintenance and improvement of the local authority housing stock must be treated as an equal priority. But what does this mean in practice?
A strategic shift in the way in which we manage the public housing stock in Ireland requires changes at different levels. We need to carry out detailed physical surveys of properties across all local authorities. Statistics needs to be gathered and reported on using a common information management platform. At an operational level, the proportion of planned work needs to significantly increase. This includes preventative maintenance, cyclical replacement of housing elements and services, end of tenancy refurbishment, as well as the planned improvement of housing in line with modern standards and national policy.
But it cannot be expected that any significant change in the approach to housing management will occur unless local authorities are given greater autonomy, including becoming less reliant on the Exchequer. This means that a new funding model is required. In the absence of any major changes in the differential rents model, block grants based on the number and type of dwellings a local authority might be an interim option until a more sustainable model can be put in place. This would be in place of the multiple improvement schemes such as those for dealing with voids, replacing windows and doors, energy conservation and so forth as well as specific regeneration and urban renewal programmes.
But the main change required is to make local authorities fully responsible and accountable for the properties they own and manage. To do so does mean providing them with the funding needed to enable them to take on this core function. But to do this national policy needs to make this a priority and local authorities need to see themselves as more than temporary landlords [until the house is eventually sold to the tenant] but custodians of a scarce and valuable public resource. Any chance of those happening?
 Expenditure on maintenance includes direct labour, contracted works, plant & machinery and materials costs. It does not include administration & technical salaries, management fees, Local Property Tax, expenditure on accommodation provided under the Traveller Accommodation Programme, estate management costs, the cost of insuring the stock, the cost of disability adaptations to stock or any expenditure on dwellings included as re-letting costs.