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Funding red tape has led to low output of Traveller-specific accommodation

Noteworthy takes a deep dive into the funding issues that resulted in poor resourcing of housing projects.

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WITH IRELAND IN the grip of a housing crisis, the need for adequate resourcing of Traveller-specific accommodation solutions is becoming increasingly apparent. The allocation of funding for such projects, however, has in the past been haphazardly distributed and unnecessarily convoluted. 

Since the 1998 Housing Act, local authorities have been funded by the Department of Housing to provide Traveller-specific accommodation (TSA) in their areas and it is funded separately to general social housing funding from central government. 

However, over the years many local authorities have failed to spend this money. In July, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) published the findings of equality reviews for all of Ireland’s local authorities, focused on Traveller-specific accommodation. 

The reviews found that between 2008 and 2018, of €168.8 million allocated to local authorities for Traveller-specific accommodation, just two thirds (€110.6 million) was drawn down. 

The reviews found evidence of poor information gathering to inform decision-making and in identifying Travellers’ true accommodation preference. There were also failures around staff training at local authorities, accounting for Travellers with disabilities, and ensuring there was no discrimination when it came to access to housing.

Background - Top of a trailer - caravan - with quote from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission press release on Council-by-Council Equality Review - There is evidence that underspend is being driven by both structural issues in how funding is allocated and drawn down, but also by a frequently inadequate deficient process for identifying actual and future housing needs. Source: Photo - Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

Noteworthy audits 

At Noteworthy and The Journal, over the past number of months, we examined housing and accommodation supports for Traveller children as part of our TOUGH START investigation.  

Today, we also published an article on how poor Traveller accommodation led to a hepatitis A outbreak and the hospitalisation of children. The full investigative series can be read here.  

As part of this work, over the past number of months, we conducted an audit of each of the 31 local authorities and the Department of Housing, submitting FOI requests and asking a number of questions in relation to Traveller accommodation.  

We asked each local authority what budgets they were allocated for TSA from 2017-2021 (year to date), and what they spent it on. If allocations weren’t fully drawn down, we asked why, and we questioned whether units of TSA had increased or decreased in each local authority area since 2017. 

It is important to note that up until 2020, local authorities were given annual allocations of funding from the Department of Housing. These allocations were based on each local authority providing details to the Department of Traveller accommodation projects they had planned for the coming year. This could be either future planned projects, projects approved in principle, or existing commitments (projects with planning permission or already underway). 

Based on this, the department would then provide an allocation to the local authority. However, the local authority was not able to draw down the necessary funds until the section works applied for had been fully completed. 

If a planned project did not proceed, for whatever reason, the allocation was categorised as not drawn down. If the works stretched into another year, then the local authority could not claim the funding that year, and the allocation for the year in question was categorised as not drawn down. This money may have been drawn down the following year upon completion of the works, but it still is added to the annual totals of unspent funding.  

This system was overhauled and simplified in 2020, with the Department sending out a circular in January of that year to notify local authorities of the change.  

The changes meant that there would be no annual allocation, with the Department instead approving projects on a case-by-case basis, and each local authority drawing down the funding for the project when the works were completed.  

Following this change, 2020 saw the highest spend on Traveller accommodation in years, with €14.5 million being spent, just under the full budget.  

With all that in mind, the below table gives an account by local authority of targets set by TAP, total drawdown of funds, reasons full allocation were not drawn down, and whether units of TSA have increased, decreased or remain static since 2017.

Figures released to Noteworthy by the Department show that between 2017-2019, €10.6 million allocated to councils wasn’t spent. 

Between these years, four local authorities (Laois, Longford, Mayo and Westmeath) didn’t draw down any funding for Traveller accommodation. The four examples illustrate the variety of reasons why funding isn’t drawn down: 

In response to questions from Noteworthy, Mayo County Council said that while it hadn’t spent any TSA in this time, it had spent c. €3,130,550 on acquisitions and new builds of general social housing to be used to house Traveller families. This was drawn down from the Department, separate to Traveller-specific funding.  

Documents released by Laois County Council under FOI show that it was not allocated, nor did it draw down, funding for the years 2017-2018. The reason was that it had no targets in its TAP for these years other than an upgrade to a halting site in Portlaoise. In 2019, it submitted a proposal for this upgrade and was approved. In 2020, the local authority drew down €192,519, for a mixture of Covid supports, to construct a welfare unit, and for upgrades to the Portlaoise halting site. 

Westmeath County Council had €150,000 allocated in 2018 and €100,000 in 2019 that it did not draw down. In its response to Noteworthy, the council said that the allocations were in relation to proposed improvements at Blackberry Lane halting site. These improvements were not carried out, and instead a €3.1 million capital programme to upgrade the site has been approved by the Department. €114,325 was drawn down by the council in 2020. 

“While there has been considerable work and resources put to this project, the Department only permits partial recoupment of this cost at particular stages in the four stage process,” a council spokesperson said.  

Finally, Longford County Council drew down no funds from 2017-2019. It is also the only local authority to draw down no funds in 2020. A spokesperson said the council used separate Department funding for providing Traveller accommodation, and that there was no identified need for additional TSA in the county over the past number of years. 

In relation to overall spend from 2017 to July 2021, the below graph shows the amount spent by local authority per head of Traveller population (using Census 2016 figures): 

Again, the counties with least spend per Traveller report a variety of reasons for this. These include: department refusals, boundary disputes, Part 8 planning not being passed by the local councillors, Covid-19 halting the progress works, and other reasons.

The Expert Group recommendations 

The examples above illustrate the myriad of problems associated with drawing down and spending funding for Traveller-specific accommodation in Ireland. As we have seen, these problems can result in situations like the ones at Labre Park and Spring Lane arising which put the health and safety of Traveller children at risk. You can read more about these issues in our main article on Traveller housing here >>  

In 2018, the Traveller Accommodation Expert Group was established to review the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 and to examine whether it was effective enough to meet the future accommodation needs of the Traveller community. The group also reviewed legislation that impacts on the delivery of TSA. 

The Traveller Accommodation Expert Review was published in July 2019, and put forward 32 recommendations around improving the provision of Traveller accommodation.  

The government has a work plan for 2021 on considering and implementing its recommendations. Below, we outline some of the key recommendations and how they are being progressed by government. 

The inclusion of an ‘ethnic identifier’ 

One of the primary issues raised by Traveller advocacy groups is that there is no way for Travellers to identify themselves as Travellers on any Social Housing Needs Assessment. Groups ITM have long called for the inclusion of an ‘ethnic identifier’ on social housing forms so that Travellers may identify themselves. 

The expert group recommended that this be included so progress in meeting Travellers’ housing needs can be monitored effectively.

A Pavee Point advocacy paper on homelessness published last week also recommended “ethnic equality monitoring” be included in all housing and homeless datasets. It stated that without this, it is not possible “to inform good policy and practice or highlight the existence of systemic, indirect or intersectional discrimination”.

In response to our queries, the Department of Housing said regulations would be “implemented shortly to provide for a Traveller identifier on the Social Housing Support application form”. 

Planning system criticised  

Professor Michelle Norris is the director of Geary Institute for Public Policy and professor of Social Policy at UCD, and is one of the authors of the expert report. 

Speaking to Noteworthy, she identified some of the main problems relating to Traveller housing:

Professor Michelle Norris - Director Geary Institute for Public Policy - wearing a colourful top - with quote - The data we have indicates that there has been a very, very low output of new halting sites and group housing schemes in the last two decades. Source: Photo - Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

“So there’s a specific problem for Travellers who want to live in Traveller-specific accommodation in terms of access. And that’s the critical problem in terms of social housing.” 

One of the key reasons for this is around Part 8 planning regulations. Part 8 is the means by which the vast majority of Traveller-specific accommodation is delivered. It is a reserved function, which means that councillors can vote to advance or block TSA developments in their areas.  

Related to this, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman told Noteworthy in part one of this series that “there’s a time when local politicians have to stand up”.  

He spoke of an experience as a councillor in Fingal of “very significant pressure” being put on counsellors by the “local community” not to support a Part 8 vote “on a small piece of Traveller accommodation”, though added that “the majority voted for the accommodation”. 

The expert review found serious problems with this process in blocking the delivery of TSA. Traveller advocates have also long criticised this process. Instead of new halting sites being built, funding is diverted to renovations of existing halting sites, which have multiple issues. 

For Norris, this is one of the key issues to be addressed: 

“The system is that the councillors have to initiate the decision to either buy land or sell land or initiate planning for a council development. And this is just simply not done by councils,” she said. 

The review put forward three recommendations in relation to council powers: it said chief executives should use their emergency powers to bypass councillors when it came to TSA; that councillors’ Part 8 powers should be suspended by legislation, with this reviewed after a period of five years; and that laws should be put in place to bypass councils when it came to TSA, and go straight to An Bord Pleanála. 

The Department spokesperson told Noteworthy that 18 of the 32 recommendations were selected for “consideration and implementation” by the Programme Board. The three above recommendations are part of those 18, and are being considered. 

A small dog sits in front of a red and white wall with black gates. In the background there is a mobile home behind gates, with a house behind it. Photo of Traveller-specific accommodation from the Traveller Accommodation Expert Review Source: Traveller Accommodation Expert Review

No plans to establish National Traveller Accommodation Authority 

The Expert Review also called for the existing National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee – which functions in an advisory role on the nationwide delivery of TSA – be given more powers and changed to the National Traveller Accommodation Authority (NTAA). 

The NTAA would have increased powers and would be able to oversee assessing need and the delivery of TSA. It would standardise the monitoring of annual estimates of Traveller families by local authority and would monitor the implementation of local authority TAPs, among other functions. 

The Department spokesperson said that despite the recommendation there are no plans to establish the NTAA.  

They added, however, that the Department is working with CENA, an Approved Housing Body dedicated to providing Traveller-specific housing solutions. The spokesperson said the Capital Assistance Scheme (CAS) funding stream is being used for the first time to help deliver TSA. 

“A national agency for Traveller accommodation” was also one of the key recommendations of newly released research - The Traveller Community and Homelessness - which Pavee Point commissioned but had previously opted not to publish over the summer. 

In relation to the existing National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, this research stated that it “has not published annual reports since 2013″ and “it was now intended to update them”. It also said there was a “state-centric imbalance” with “only three representatives out of 12″ on the committee being Travellers. 

As outlined in a recent research paper from the Geary Institute for Public Policy, a key aspect of each of the four statutory investigations into Traveller accommodation, dating back to 1963, has been the need to establish a national statutory body to deliver Traveller accommodation. 

Despite these recommendations dating back almost 60 years, the government still has no plans to establish such a body.  

The future of Traveller accommodation  

Norris said that the Department of Housing has responded well to implementing the recommendations of the Expert Report. “I didn’t expect everything would be implemented immediately, but actually they have made a lot of progress, and that’s why the drawdown of the spending has improved in the last two years.” 

She added: “So I would like to acknowledge that – they have made very significant progress.” 

However, she said certain key recommendations – like the ones around Part 8 planning – still need to be addressed if the supply of TSA is to increase. 

Background - Bottom of a trailer - caravan on concrete - with quote from Professor Michelle Norris - Director Geary Institute for Public Policy - The funding is not drawn down because there are no new developments initiated. And in large parts of the country there haven't been halting sites built for decades. I think that’s what’s necessary - to take it out of the hands of councillors. Source: Photo - Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

Norris said it is essential that local authorities construct more appropriate halting sites if the Traveller accommodation crisis is to be addressed.   

For Travellers and advocacy groups across the country, there is still huge progress that needs to be made in supplying adequate accommodation for Travellers and ensuring they have safe, clean and culturally appropriate places to live.  

The Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) – along with the other main Traveller advocacy groups – have called repeatedly for the full 32 recommendations of the Expert Group to be implemented and have criticised the rate of progress.  

“We remain concerned, we remain deeply concerned,” said Bernard Joyce, ITM’s director. 

“Because it’s not from the want of policies, it’s the implementation required in order to address those policies to show that there’s key clear tangible outcomes for the community.” 

For Rose Marie Maughan, national accomodation officer with ITM,  the situation facing Traveller children in Ireland today remains severe, and won’t be resolved until the serious issues around housing are addressed.  

“Traveller children are traumatised from the very moment we are born. And that trauma doesn’t stop for us. And traveller children carry that trauma, right from childhood to adulthood. And that becomes internalised oppression,” she said. 

“And nobody talks enough about that. Because I think society, they’re more interested in hearing the stats and the figures and the failures of the budgets.  

“They don’t talk about the hurt and the trauma and the pain inflicted on poor Traveller children. And that’s the message that we need to get across.” 

***  

This article – by Cormac Fitzgerald - is part of our TOUGH START investigation which was led by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy and Michelle Hennessy of The Journal. The entire series can be read here.  

Design for Tough Start project - An old football that has too little air in it sitting on the side of the road.

This Noteworthy investigation was done in collaboration with The Journal. It was funded by you, our readers, with support from The Journal as well as the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs. 

You can support our work by submitting an idea, funding for a particular proposal or setting up a monthly contribution to our general investigative fund HERE>> 

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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