Opponents of the €100 household charge might find some support from recently published figures which show that central government has agreed to absorb over €110m of loans taken out by local authorities up-and-down the country to fund local boom-time developments. The information is provided in a letter from Minister Phil Hogan’s Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to the Committee of Public Accounts on 12th September 2012, which has just now been published on the Oireachtas website.
With the collapse of the property market and the economy in 2008, the value of the property underpinning local authority loans also collapsed, and with a general oversupply of residential property from years of over-construction, these local lands are now unlikely to be developed. In 2010, the Fianna Fail/Green government introduced the so-called “Land Aggregation Scheme”**, which allowed local authorities to transfer both the loans and the land to a new state-owned body called the “Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency Ltd”. In that way, local authorities wiped their hands clean of what were often poor buying decisions during the boom. And nationally, we have shouldered the burden of these mistakes, as it is central government that pays off these loans on property which is no longer worth the amount outstanding on the loans.
The information released by Minister Hogan’s department shows that to date, €110.4m of loans – includes outstanding principal and interest – has been absorbed by the nation. With €26.5m of loans, Fingal County Council has transferred the most. However it seems that most local authorities HAVEN’T transferred loans, so nationally it seems we are funding the mistakes of some parts of the country but not others. The list of loans absorbed to date is shown below. You can see a full list of the loans that the scheme was intended to absorb together with the names of the people from whom the local authorities bought the land here.
So the next time you hear a Government politician telling you that the household charge is necessary to pay for local authority services in your area, you can take the statement with a pinch of salt because the national government has shown that it funds local authorities – it has to date absolved them of €110m of boom-time property loans. Though on the other hand, you might also sympathise with the fact that we have a €13bn annual deficit and our lenders demanded we introduce a property charge as part of the bailout so regardless of who funds local authorities, we do need close the budget and have some sort of property tax.
** Overview of the Scheme (from Department of Environment, Community and Local Government Briefing Note). In order to alleviate the financial burden on local authorities in servicing land loans, the scheme was developed for land owned by a local authority in respect of which outstanding loans with the Housing Finance Agency (HFA) have fallen due for payment. The Land Aggregation Scheme provides that a local authority may transfer lands, acquired for housing purposes on which outstanding HFA loans are redeemed, to Housing and Sustainable Communities Ltd. (HSC Ltd). This transfer of land is subject to approval from DECLG on the basis that the local authority has no short to medium term plans for the development of the land. The local authority redeems the loan from the HFA in advance of transferring the land. Funding to redeem the loan is made available by DECLG, subject to the availability of that funding. There is no onus on a local authority to take part in the scheme but it can be of benefit to those local authorities who are servicing land loans where the land in question will not be developed in the short to medium term. HSC Ltd. is responsible for the management and maintenance of lands transferred under the scheme. There is full consultation with local authorities in regard to any future proposals for use of the lands. The lands may be utilised for social housing or other appropriate public uses with the approval of DECLG. Following transfer of the land, HSC Ltd. is required to prepare a report and implement a strategy for the management, utilisation and ultimate development of the land in question. HSC Ltd. seeks input from the relevant local authority and other interested bodies in respect of the land in question when preparing the report.