Westmeath Co. Co. Annual Cathaoirleach Awards


Westmeath County Council

Annual Cathaoirleach Awards  by Cllr Frank McDermott

Belvedere House and Gardens

12th May 2017.

Address by Minister Damien English.


Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

As Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government I am delighted to be here with you this evening for this important annual event, the Westmeath County Council Cathaoirleach Awards ceremony.

Thank you to my colleague and friend, Cathaoirleach, Frank McDermott, and to all the members and management of Westmeath County Council for your kind invitation to be here.

As a public representative serving North Westmeath in Dáil Éireann, I am aware of the important role that the community and voluntary sectors play in the wellbeing of our nation.

I want to personally thank each and every one of you here tonight for your active participation in the community.

Thank you for giving your time so selflessly; for sharing your energy, enthusiasm, and expertise for the betterment of County Westmeath.

From the individual working on their own, to the group of like-minded people, you are ones who have a sense of social concern, of shared values, who have a sense of pride in their place and a sense of service towards their community.

Small tasks make a big difference to those who benefit directly, but, in many ways, the real winners are our communities which are made healthier by the multiplier effect of a positive volunteering spirit running through our society.

Each act of voluntary participation combines to form the cement that binds and unifies our society in common purpose and makes it a better place for its entire people. Voluntary participation is at the very heart of active citizenship and enriches and energises our democracy.

A key determinant of the health of society is the degree to which individuals are prepared to come forward to give of their own time on a voluntary basis. This essentially sums up the value of volunteering and the significance it has for the maintenance of a healthy society.

The extent of volunteering in a society is a barometer of its civic health. And in County Westmeath the barometer is set high.

On behalf of the Government I want to recognise the value of your engagement in volunteerism. I believe that a better and more inclusive society can be created by Government listening to the voluntary and community sectors as a reflection of the views of large numbers of its citizens.

My Department supports a range of volunteering organisations, including 21 volunteer centres across a range of counties, volunteering information Services in counties without a full-time volunteer centre and a range of volunteer supporting organisations such as Volunteer Ireland and Young Social Innovators.

While central Government has a key role to play in supporting the volunteering sector, local government also has an important role to play. In this context, I wish to acknowledge the significant funding distributed each year by Westmeath County Council to community and voluntary groups in the form of awards and grants.

The benefits of this level of engagement at local level are clearly demonstrated in the awards being given out tonight – across a range of very worthy categories including eco-schools, Tidy Towns and Person/Group of the year.

In Westmeath and equally throughout the length and breadth of our country, thousands of individuals and community organisations contribute, each and every day, to society in a number of ways from providing essential services in areas such as social care, to education, the environment, sport and much more.

Young and old together with a shared vision for their community, united in a common goal to carry out fundamental and crucial jobs for the betterment of others.

We must not and should not forget that or even take that dedication as a sort of ‘given’, as if it will happen anyway.

To do so, devalues and undermines selfless effort and most certainly does not bode well for the future of any community let alone any society.

I’ll conclude on a slightly different, but none-the-less related, theme. Government is, and remains determined, to promote active citizenship, to support a vibrant, diverse and effective community and voluntary sector.

Engagement with the community and voluntary sector can, and should, lead to a better reflection of the views of larger numbers of the population and, as a consequence, to the creation of a better and more participative society.

Government is also determined to facilitate having your voice heard and heeded in matters of importance to the locality.

In that regard I wish to highlight to you here tonight the work of the Public Participation Networks (or PPNs), which are the main link through which local authorities connect with the community and voluntary, social inclusion and environmental sectors.

While still relatively new, I believe that the PPNs will be critical in facilitating greater engagement between active citizens, communities and local government into the future.

Finally, I would like to congratulate everyone involved in this very prestigious event here this evening. I am confident it will be a tremendous success and in my mind everyone here present tonight is a winner.


Address by Minister of State English to Westmeath County Council

Action Plan for Housing, Housing and Urban Renewal, Wesmeath

19th September 2016

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Cathaoirleach, Chief Executive, members of the Executive and Councillors.

Before I move into my main remarks about the Action Plan for Housing – Rebuilding Ireland, I want to say a few things on a personal level.

It is an honour to address Westmeath County Council as Minister for Housing and Urban Renewal, but more importantly as a T.D. representing North Westmeath.

Your Chairman, Cllr. Frank McDermott, who invited me here on his first day in office, has been a good friend and support to me in my work for Westmeath over the years.

All of the Oireachtas Members who represent Westmeath are also a pleasure to work with, and are regularly raising issues of concern with me and with other Ministers on your behalf as a Council, and on behalf of your constituents.

They got a good grounding in this chamber and I know that time and that experience will serve them well as the years go on.

I know from my own experience representing North Westmeath since 2007, and from reading the local newspapers, that Westmeath County Council is forward thinking and progressive in how it does its business.

Much of the credit for that is down to you as Councillors, working locally on the ground, and working together here in the chamber with the Executive for the common good that sets a positive tone for the County.

I am optimistic that you will channel that same spirit and that same character in playing your part to help Re-Build Ireland, and help provide a quality home near to a quality job for all those who need it.

That is why I am here today. I want to have a conversation with you, as well as telling you our own plans. I want to hear your feedback, your ideas or indeed your concerns.

Housing Shortage

The acute shortage of homes available to those who need them is one of the greatest challenges facing this country today.   It is having a profound effect on the daily lives of many individuals and families who feel they have been failed by the system and who urgently require homes.

The Government and I have made it our number one priority to resolve the housing and homelessness crisis and under Rebuilding Ireland we have set out a broadly-based and comprehensive set of action to do just that.

Shortly after its publication, my colleague, Minister Coveney wrote to all elected members and all Chief Executives in relation to the implementation of the Rebuilding Ireland programme.

As I see it, local authorities are absolutely central to that implementation, given your role as the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level.

One of the biggest challenges we face is getting house building, and supply more generally, moving again. Planning powers, in particular, at the disposal of local authorities can be employed to encourage and facilitate good quality housing, at affordable prices, in high demand areas.

It is imperative that local authorities do all within their power to get all suitable potential sources of housing supply to be activated as quickly as possible.

Both Minister Coveney and I will be visiting as many local authorities as we can over the weeks ahead to outline what we need and expect to see in terms of implementation and to hear from you the specific challenges that are faced locally in delivering on the Plan.

So where are we now?

 At the last summary of social housing assessments, the housing waiting list in Westmeath County stood at 1,893 (of course we’ll have updated figures when this year’s summary is published towards the end of the year);

In contrast, to this the total number of new houses completed last year was just over 200 homes, 70% (143) of which were individual one-off houses.

We are building considerably less new homes than we need and have done so for a number of years;

Almost 12% of housing stock in the County was reported as vacant in the 2016 Census and,

Meanwhile many families and individuals are in mortgage arrears or facing increasing rents.

It’s time to do something serious about this, that’s my mandate from Government, as Minister of State with responsibility for Housing and Urban Renewal, and that’s what we’re here to talk about to-day.

 Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan for Housing & Homelessness

 Rebuilding Ireland sets out a practical and readily implementable set of actions that will increase housing supply to create a functioning and sustainable housing system that is capable of:

  • Providing homes for families in emergency accommodation;
  • Tackling the underlying causes, addiction and otherwise, of people living on our streets;
  • Producing a minimum of 25,000 housing units nation-wide every year by 2020;
  • Delivering more social housing, much faster, and putting in place financially sustainable mechanisms to meet current and future requirements for social housing supports.

Accelerating delivery to this level is essential if we are to –

  • Address the unacceptable level of households, particularly families in emergency accommodation;
  • Moderate the rental and purchase price inflation, particularly in urban areas;
  • Address the growing affordability gap for many households wishing to purchase their own homes;
  • Support the emergence of a rental sector which provides choice, mobility and quality accommodation in the right locations;
  • Position the housing sector such that its contribution to the national economy is steady and supportive of sustainable economic growth; and,
  • Ensure that measures intended to remedy the current supply difficulties also contribute to longstanding objectives in the housing sector, such as the need to support urban development and achieve sustainable communities.

Rebuilding Ireland balances delivery on these fronts with the necessary financial resources (€5.5bn investment by 2021) and structural reforms.

A key feature of the Plan will be highlighting ‘pathfinder’ projects, innovative and effective solutions to problems and approaches to projects that can be replicated in other local authority areas. I would encourage Westmeath to come forward with an exemplar in this regard.

We know that to deliver more quickly we need to look at the States procedures and processes be they planning, approval of social housing or otherwise and we’re doing that.

In terms of improving the viability of construction, it is important to recognise the reforms already in place. These include:

  • Reduced development contributions;
  • the vacant site levy;
  • Part V;
  • apartment guidelines;
  • financing under Activate Capital, and,
  • Planning and Strategic Development Zones.

It is estimated that such measures taken to reduce input costs have decreased the cost of building new residential units by between €20,000 and €40,000, depending on whether apartments or houses are being constructed.

The Minister for Finance has indicated that fiscal measures to support the Rebuilding Ireland programme, and importantly measures for first-time buyers, will be included in the Budget in October.

We have responded in particular to the calls for funding to address infrastructure blockages, through the establishment of a €200m Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund to support enabling infrastructure to release lands for housing development. A call for proposals for suitable projects issued from my Department on 26th August and proposals are due back on 14th October. We anticipate that this fund has the potential to release the delivery of at least 15,000 to 20,000 new homes, which would otherwise not be delivered.

In terms of improving the functioning of the rental sector in the first instance we had to protect the most vulnerable and the increases in rent supplement and Housing Assistance Payment limits will do that.

In the longer term we need a really good and attractive rental option and the publication later this year of the comprehensive rental strategy currently being developed by the Department will chart a course to achieve a vibrant and attractive rental tenure option.

Rebuilding Ireland is a holistic Plan, an all-Ireland Plan, a plan that includes rural Ireland

Since taking up this Ministry, I have seen first-hand the negative effect the housing shortage is having on people and their families and how the whole system is struggling to cope and devise solutions.

Rebuilding Ireland is, I believe, a really good starting point to resolve these problems. Our commitment of €5.35 billion will go a long way to providing much needed social housing and the €200m infrastructure fund should encourage the production of thousands of homes for the market.

It’s a whole-of-Government initiative, and a national plan that needs to have an impact at all locations and all scales of development. Revitalising our rural towns and villages is as important as the plans for the main urban centres.

Urban Renewal

I lead the Urban Renewal Working Group, and I am committed to the re-building of our communities by addressing not just the physical environment but also by investing in social and economic development and in this context, we intend to introduce a new Town and Village Renewal Scheme.

Using the €30 million available to local authorities this year, the Scheme will seek to increase the attractiveness and sustainability of our towns and villages as places to live and work. My aim is use housing and community schemes in a collaborative way to improve city, town and village centres.

We will continue to work with colleagues in the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to co-ordinate their schemes with ours and to bring forward joint demonstration projects, where we can.


So that’s my take on what needs to be done to fix our broken housing model.

I really want to hear your views to make sure we have all the facts and that we are heading in the right direction under the Rebuilding Ireland programme.

Returning to a normally functioning housing and construction sector is critically important in order to support economic growth, social progress and environmental sustainability.

Our engagement here today forms an essential element of this broader policy context.

While the Government is acting, the challenge does not stop there. It is vital that as the 84 actions to facilitate house build are implemented that local authorities, approved housing bodies, builders and developers proactively respond to the housing supply challenge.

I know from talking to you and other Councils around the country that you are up for that challenge and will not be found wanting.