Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht

General Scheme of Planning and Development (No. 1) Bill 2014: (Resumed) Discussion

2:25 pm

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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The Chairman, Deputy Michael McCarthy, is briefly absent but will return presently to assume the Chair. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the general scheme of the planning and development (No. 1) Bill 2014 with representatives of the Association of Irish Local Government, Cork County Council, Dublin City Council, Leitrim County Council and the Local Authority Members' Association. I welcome, from the Association of Irish Local Government, Councillor Padraig McNally, president and cathaoirleach of Monaghan County Council; Councillor Colm Brophy, vice-president, whom I know from my previous incarnation as a councillor on South Dublin County Council; Councillor Sinead Guckian, member of the executive committee and also a member of Leitrim County Council; and Councillor Damien Geoghegan, member of the executive committee and also a member of Waterford City and County Council.

From the county council group, I welcome Mr. Tim Lucey, chief executive, Cork County Council; Mr. John O’Neill, director of planning, Cork County Council; Mr. Richard Keating, senior executive officer, property and management, Cork County Council; Mr. Andrew Hind, senior planner, Cork County Council; Mr. Frank Curran, chief executive, Leitrim County Council; and Mr. Jim Keogan, assistant chief executive, Dublin City Council.

From the Local Authority Members Association, I welcome Councillor John Sheahan, Limerick City and County Council, Councillor Sean McGower, Leitrim County Council, Councillor Bobby O'Connell, general secretary, Kerry County Council and Councillor Noel Bourke, Offaly County Council.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, has requested the committee to scrutinise the heads of the general scheme of the planning and development (No. 1) Bill 2014 and to report to him on it prior to its publication. The committee has already met with officials from the Department, as well as representatives from the Construction Industry Federation, the Housing Agency and the Irish Planning Institute. It has also received written submissions on the issue from several other organisations.

I call on Mr. Padraig McNally, president, Association of Irish Local Government, to make his opening statement.

Mr. Padraig McNally:

The Association of Irish Local Government thanks the committee for inviting it to make a presentation on the general scheme of the planning and development (No. 1) Bill 2014. We bring to the table the experiences of elected local authority members for whom planning related issues are a central concern in their work as public representatives. With the possible exception of roads, there is no other local government issue which generates so much of a councillor’s workload as planning. That planning law and practice is an ever-evolving area is underlined by the fact that the Bill under discussion is the latest in a series of legislative Acts brought through the Houses of the Oireachtas since the first Planning and Development Act in 1963.

The committee will notice a diversity of viewpoints in our presentations today.

This reflects the reality that our members represent a great variety of planning environments across the country. Some of our members are rooted in Ireland at its most rural, where councillors are working to sustain communities badly in need of new development of all kinds. Yet more of our members are based in city centre or inner suburban communities where there are extensive vacant or brownfield sites which could prove a viable solution to the demand for more housing sites in such urban locations.

Therefore, the Association of Irish Local Governmentrepresents a broad church and essentially our role is to act as a conduit of opinion and information from elected members and how they see the new Bill in terms of its contribution to their communities. This can lead to quite different viewpoints as regards the individual amendments specified in the new Bill. This is not as a result of a difference of opinion, rather it indicates our determination to ensure that the Bill does not become a "one size fits all" piece of legislation but rather has the flexibility to enable local government to do what it does best – plan for the circumstances unique to the locality in question whether that be a rural, suburban or urban locality.

Having said that, the association appreciates the intention of the Bill which, among other initiatives, is to bring clarity to the operation of what are termed the Part V requirements regarding the provision of social and affordable housing by developers. There is also a welcome for the provisions designed to prompt the resumption of construction on land areas zoned for housing where construction is not actively under way arising from the wide variety of circumstances – some of them outside of the planning remit such as the availability of finance and mortgages. Similarly, the Bill also has relevance to what are termed "brownfield sites" where sites in inner urban areas lie unused representing a loss in terms of the public investment in utilities which serve such central urban areas.

We would now like to make some specific points regarding individual measures in the heads of Bill as published. I wish to draw attention to the provisions on voluntary housing agencies in Part V. We feel they carry out a very important function, however, there is a need for greater regulation of them. We need more joined-up thinking by the voluntary housing agencies with local authorities and other bodies in trying to solve the problem of housing.

Issues may evolve as a result of our discussion with the joint committee. We as an organisation would be willing to meet at short notice if that would benefit the committee's examination of the plan.

I now hand over to the vice president of the Association of Irish Local Government, Mr. Colm Brophy, who will make specific points on the general scheme of the planning and development (No. 1) Bill.

Mr. Colm Brophy:

As the president of the Association of Irish Local Government stated, we broadly welcome this general scheme of the Bill. There are a number of aspects which we are very happy to see and welcome. I would like to comment on one aspect from the association's perspective. Part V deals with social and affordable housing, the removal of the reference to "affordability" is something that we believe needs to be looked at and examined, in particular we want to flag the situation that affordability of houses is still an issue for a large number of people who are looking to get on the housing ladder. While fully recognising the major fall in house prices and the changes during the past number of years, for many people in employment and looking to get on the first step of the housing ladder, affordability is still an issue. We believe the issue of affordability should be looked at in the context of addressing the question of housing.

We broadly welcome the reduction of the threshold of social housing from 20% to 10%. This is a welcome measure and should incentivise developments. However, while we recognise that at the heart is the need to have integrated developments, we think that extra flexibility in terms of the location of social housing should be looked at. As part of the remit of the local authority, the elected members could have a role in this if that is their view.

Local authorities might take the view that it is preferable to locate the social housing element in an area that is accessible to public transport and has more direct amenities. That type of flexibility should be strengthened in the context of preserving the desirability of integrated social housing alongside privately owned homes. Where a local authority can make a better area available for social housing, in terms of amenities and services, it should be allowed the flexibility to act accordingly in conjunction with the developer.

Ms Sinead Guckian:

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the committee. I will make particular reference to head 5, which enables local authorities to incentivise the development of vacant sites. As is clear from our written submission, our members acknowledge the good intentions behind this proposal. There are vacant sites in the centre of towns in every county. They are not only unsightly but they also hinder our development plans. Most councils outside of the largest urban centres are trying to bring life and vibrancy back to the smaller town centres. A core objective of our county development plans and local area plans is to seek the development of the lands we have zoned. In that regard we broadly welcome the proposed levy. We also welcome the proposal that the introduction of levies will be decided locally as a reserved function under the development plans. As we believe in retaining and strengthening local democracy, we would like to see a greater emphasis on allowing decisions to be made at a local level where this is possible.

While the vacant site levy will have the greatest impact on large urban centres like Dublin, the proposed population threshold of 3,000 means that it will have limited applicability in smaller counties. In my own county of Leitrim, the only town that meets the criteria is Carrick-on-Shannon. That means many towns and large villages around the county will get no benefit from this provision. I am sure that will be the situation in other counties. In regard to the potential for implementing the levy in Carrick-on-Shannon, the land that we would like to see developed, which is in the centre of the town, is likely to be exempted under the provision as proposed because parts of it are tied up with title or financial difficulties.

We were unable to ascertain from the heads how agricultural land would be treated in respect of towns with a population of more than 3,000. Carrick-on-Shannon is more than 400 years old and history as much as local government has dictated its development plan. In our case, agricultural land is zoned general, which permits agricultural use. However, the introduction of the vacant sites levy may put the land into a grey area. By taking out a pocket of land, would the council open up the possibility of other land owners coming forward to make a case for their own properties?

From the perspective of implementing the levy in a more rural county, very few local authorities have managed to overcome the obstacles to implementing the derelict sites levy. We are concerned that the introduction of a vacant site levy would face similar obstacles.

There are concerns about whether local authorities would have the resources or expertise to carry out the work to introduce any levy. There is a question about how local authorities would be expected to establish the status of sites. I imagine many committee members are aware that many sites can have complex ownership or legal questions. Our members have suggested that each planning department would need dedicated properly-resourced enforcement offices and officers to carry out any implementation of a vacant site levy.

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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Is that it from the Association of County and City Councils? Thank you very much. I call on the representative from Cork County Council to address the meeting. Can we limit the presentation to one speaker at this stage?

Mr. Tim Lucey:

We are happy to participate on the basis that we believe our input will be of value to the committee. Leitrim County Council, Cork County Council and Dublin City Council were asked to do a presentation. We have presented a paper which we believe encapsulates a range of issues from the three authorities. The authorities cover a rural area, a rural and urban area combined, Cork county, as well as the urbanised area of Dublin city. We are presenting on behalf of the County and City Management Association in this regard. We will make one presentation but we are open to the participation of the representatives of the three authorities.

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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You will do a presentation for all three counties. Is that correct?

Mr. Tim Lucey:

Yes, it is a combined presentation, which we have sent in already. The document is presented primarily as an aide to the committee. It presents a range of matters which we believe require consideration by the committee prior to finalisation of the legislation. The presentation is based on the experiences of officials in the three authorities as they relate to the practical application of the existing legislation as well as in consideration of any implementation matters that might arise in respect of the proposed vacant sites levy and the modification of planning permission legislation.

Our practical experience primarily relates to working with Part V legislation and development contributions. Rather than present a commentary on the proposed legislation we have taken the approach of setting out issues that we believe require to be addressed. We have listed some practical matters that might be of benefit to the committee's deliberations.

We will set out some observations on the proposals in the areas of Part V and development contributions. We will also highlight, particularly in respect of Cork County Council and Dublin City Council, how the Part V legislation has been of benefit.

The achievements of the existing Part V legislation have been manifold. The Cork county joint housing strategy initially set a 5% social housing figure and a 15% affordable housing figure. This was changed to a 10% social figure and 10% affordable figure in 2009. It responded to the demand at the time. This has been the case in all local authorities in that the Part V legislation has allowed us to respond flexibly to the demands and economic conditions in each authority.

The scheme was widely applied throughout Cork county on zoned land and through development boundaries and smaller settlements. In summary, some of the achievements in Cork county include the delivery of 460 social built units, 1,208 affordable built units, four land parcels and 13 individuals service sites. Significantly, we believe, the scheme delivered €16.2 million in financial contributions. This money was then used for the purposes of aiding the delivery of housing thereafter. In the case of Dublin City Council, a total of €7.8 million in financial contributions has been paid, while the council acquired 1,177 units. This breaks down into 812 affordable units and 356 social units on two sites. In the case of both these authorities and in Leitrim some outstanding agreements are in place but they are not yet completed due to the inability of the authorities to fund the acquisitions at the moment.

The existing legislation is of critical importance. The delivery from that legislation demonstrates that the outturns reflect the good working relationship between the local authorities, developers and the Construction Industry Federation in implementing the Part V legislation. I believe this view is accepted generally by the CIF. Although the federation may have a different view I believe it has worked well.

One question that requires consideration on foot of the proposed legislation is that while the immediate requirement for affordable housing may be diminished there may be a renewed requirement in future as the market develops. It is likely that as prices increase in the market, wages may not increase to the same extent. This creates issues for the model upon which the affordability of housing will be achieved.

Is it reasonable or prudent to apply a 10% Part V requirement across the board, that is, equally to all authorities? Cork County Council's current Part V requirement in our adopted development plan, having looked at the model of housing and the model of affordability, is 14% social and 0% affordable. In the case of Leitrim it is 12.5% social and 0% affordable. That is on foot of extensive analysis of the various criteria impacting on affordability in particular. Therefore, is it reasonable to apply a simple 10% across each authority and thus take away the local decision making which reflects local conditions?

The continuation of the role of financial contributions as an option requires careful consideration and must consider key factors. Where a development has fewer than nine units it will not deliver anything under the proposed legislation. Sites where 10% results in a fraction of a unit or units arising must be considered. Will there be a social housing need in all areas? In other words, there might be areas in local authorities where there is not a social need to the extent that could be met by the delivery of houses. In addition, in many cases 10% might only yield a small supply in rural areas, particularly as the proposal is to apply Part V only to ten or more unit developments.

Increasing the exclusion threshold from four to nine is not recommended for smaller counties such as Leitrim, where the majority of housing developments will have potentially fewer than nine units. It is understood that the proposed threshold provides consistency in the context of the proposed social housing obligation of 10%. However, as I said earlier, in the case of Leitrim its social obligation in its adopted plans is 12.5%.

Another significant factor will be the availability of funding to enable the purchase of Part V units into the future. That is linked with the fact that the proposed options in the legislation provide for compliance of Exchequer funding at the time of validation of planning applications. This might result in difficulties if the national finances at a time of completion of units cannot meet the commitments that were made at the time of validation of planning applications.

Some issues arise in respect of valuation and price calculation. This comes from the practical application of the existing legislation. These require clarification in the legislation and involve matters such as the format for payment and the calculation of price. The concept of a nominal sum should be removed completely. The definition of existing use value requires elaboration and clarification. How would lease to rent accommodation be valued? There may be a difficulty with excluding the value of existing buildings that are to be demolished. These are just some practical implications of the legislation in terms of its application if it were adopted.

Circular 11/12 of 2012, dated 29 February 2012, from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government advised that, in negotiating agreements under section 96, Part V obligations should be discharged through mechanisms that place no additional funding pressures on authorities. This led to arrangements being made to accept financial contributions in compliance with Part V requirements. Is it the intention of the new section that these commitments be retrospectively revisited and replaced by one of the proposed options?

We would be supportive of the concept of the vacant sites levy. However, some issues arise. The principle of a vacant or under-utilised sites levy is worthy of consideration, especially if applied within larger urban areas. The process that is set out appears to be unnecessarily long and protracted and, as a result, may prove to be administratively challenging and incapable of delivering the desired results expeditiously. The definition of areas to which this is to apply requires careful consideration. There is reference to a reliance being placed on the definition "census towns", and this could exclude a number of large urban areas in County Cork, for example, Ballincollig, Glanmire, Douglas, and other urbanised areas. There are significant urbanised areas that would have sites to which this proposed vacant sites levy would be applicable, but in the published Central Statistics Office, CSO, data they are not classified as "census towns".

Questions also arise as to whether it is intended to apply this to greenfield land identified for urban expansion on the periphery of towns and cities and whether the lower threshold of a population of 3,000 is too high. Another issue is the definition of under-utilised. For example, is farming land on the edge of a town location under-utilisation? Is application of the levy on private land ownership alone reasonable? The categories for exemption require clarification in that regard.

Is there a role for the vesting of sites that remain under-utilised after a prolonged period and where the levy remains unpaid? The combination of matters and circumstances being considered under the hardship clause could also, we believe, severely limit the potential application of the provision. Too large a proportion of developers and landowners may use this provision, which may render the provision ineffective in its application.

On the head covering the reduced development contributions on permissions not commenced, a table in the submission we forwarded to the committee in advance shows an example of the benefits that arose from the general, special and supplementary schemes that were adopted by Cork County Council. For example, in 2006, those combined development contribution schemes delivered €57.4 million to Cork County Council for the provision of infrastructure. In 2007, the amount delivered was €58.8 million. This amount has dropped at this time. In 2013, it was down to €3.2 million, reflecting construction activity. It should be noted in this regard that the entirety of this funding was expended on capital infrastructure projects of benefit to the county and to the development of a significant supply of housing, office and other development over that period. Without that level of contribution, the Exchequer would have been required to fund this level of investment in infrastructure provision in support of economic growth. Therefore, there is a significant issue in regard to how infrastructure which aids economic growth is to be funded into the future, in the event there is a significant or further reductions in development contributions.

As an example of adjustments made already to some of the schemes, most authorities across the country have made adjustments to reduce development contributions, reflecting the guidelines issued by the Minister approximately 12 months ago. In Cork county for example, indexation of 8% per annum was suspended from 1 January 2009, water and sewerage contributions were reduced by 50% for non-residential developments with planning decisions made on or after 1 January 2011 and also in respect of developments permitted prior to 1 January 2011 and to commence in 2011. Warehousing charges for other non-residential developments were reduced by a further 50% for water and sewerage services in respect of similar planning decisions. Horticulture enclosed development and intensive animal husbandry charges for other non-residential uses were reduced by a further 50%. Clearly, with Irish Water having been established from 1 January 2014, water and sewerage elements of the general scheme are no longer applied by the local government sector. In regard to the supplementary scheme, which supported the development of suburban rail from Cork to Midleton, the charges on office type development within 1 km of that rail line have been reduced from €92.82 to €52.00 per square metre, with effect from 1 January 2014. These are just examples of how Cork County Council is dealing with the situation and reflects the position across the country in regard to how local authorities have responded to the issue of the impact of development contributions on development.

Key issues that may require consideration on foot of consideration of the current proposed legislation include the issue that in order to release housing land, for example in the metropolitan area of County Cork, significant infrastructural development is required, particularly in the area of non-national roads. Therefore, the local authority and that sector across the country needs access to capital funding to initiate works to secure the supply and release of land for housing. This is a significant and pressing issue in metropolitan Cork and is an example of what will be replicated throughout the country in terms of the pressures on local authorities to provide infrastructure to support development.

In the same way, funding is also required to ensure that new residential neighbourhoods are provided with appropriate recreation and commercial facilities at an early stage in their development. The proposals, as set out in the legislation, will be difficult to implement in areas where verification of what is sold or unsold required. It is difficult and resource intensive to inspect all partially completed developments on ongoing basis. The status of units owned by a developer but let for rent also requires consideration.

In regard to the section on modification of planning permissions and permissions part of which have not commenced, we list a range of issues that may require consideration. The first issue concerns whether it would be constitutional to have a "use it or lose it" policy. We put this as a question. Would the proposed legislation be akin to the current section 35 provision, where planning permission can be refused due to past failures to develop? However, it is extremely difficult to implement or enforce this.

The provision as set out is predicated on each developer outlining a development schedule at planning application stage.

The question arises as to whether this is reasonable and binding. It is not so provided and may be difficult to implement. The provision for the extension of the duration of an appropriate period seems to conflict with this provision and requires consideration and clarification. This provision might work best in the case of sites in the centre of large urban areas in a buoyant market. There may be a potential adverse effect on the supply of housing by calling into question the duration of permissions granted, thus creating a level of uncertainty in the decision-making process surrounding the funding and activation of development.

It is hoped the aforementioned matters which are based on the practical experience of officials across the three local authorities in working to support development under the current legislative provisions will be of value to the committee in its deliberations.

Deputy Michael McCarthy took the Chair.

Mr. John Sheahan:

On behalf of the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, I thank the joint committee for the invitation to address members on the general scheme of the planning and development (No.1) Bill 2014. I am PRO of LAMA and joined by my colleagues Councillor Bobby O'Connell, general secretary, and Councillor Sean McGowan, assistant secretary. The Local Authority Members Association was founded in 1980 and is a prescribed organisation working on behalf of local authority members. Our membership is made up of members from all 31 local authorities, while our executive is made up of a representative from each authority to give us an inclusive and holistic representation of councillors on the front line of local government.

LAMA welcomes the general scheme of the planning and development legislation and support efforts to kick-start growth and jobs in the construction industry. To date, planning in Ireland has been retrospective and policy has been changed or adapted to react to the needs of a changing society. We zoned massive tracts of lands in boom times in the belief demand would continue at unrealistic levels. Proper planning can only be achieved when the proper infrastructure is put in place, including water supply, waste water treatment facilities and connectivity with the services a modern society like Ireland requires.

The general scheme proposes to retain Part V but reduce the percentage of social housing required from 20% to 10%. It is also proposed that the 10% be provided in actual social housing units, rather than as land or money, as was previously the case. This is positive and LAMA supports it. We also welcome the closing of loopholes, whereby money in lieu of social houses was acceptable. The last policy failed in this respect, with less than 2% of social housing having been provided nationally since Part V was introduced. A Part V style provision needs constant monitoring. Provision should be properly dispersed throughout developments and thought given to flexibility within the relevant percentage so as to accommodate future demand. What works in large cities may not work in rural areas and vice versa.

A vacant site levy is to be applied to vacant sites in towns with populations over 3,000. The vacant site levy should be tied with development plans and local area plans. Currently, local area plans are for towns with populations of 5,000 or more. This should be the starting point for the levy, as lands in towns without plans have no structure outside the core strategy policy. A provision should be inserted into the Bill to cover force majeurecases in relation to sites where an owner has fallen on hard times or is suffering from ill health. No site should be developed just to avoid a levy and each site's case should stack up in the interests of proper and sustainable planning. Levies collected should be ring-fenced for the regeneration of the centre of the town in which they are collected.

We welcome the changes to have reduced development contributions in the interests of supporting the kick-starting of developments with existing planning permission. With this change, more favourable contributions under new development contribution schemes could be applied to developments with current live permission.

We also ask that support be given to developments that lead to manufacturing jobs in local communities and that these be exempt from any development contribution.

I now turn to the modification of the duration of planning permissions. The "use it or lose it" principle will allow local authorities to remove planning permission from a developer if he or she does not use it. Permissions granted prior to 1976 were for life, but post-1976 the five-year permission rule applied. Permissions should still last for five years, but in the case of large developments a planning schedule from the developer containing commencement dates, phasing proposals for building and proposed finishing dates should be agreed with the local authority. If these are not adhered to, planning permission could be removed. We recommend this schedule be put in place two years into the life of the permission and work similarly to seeking permission consequent for developments with outline planning permissions. As local area plans are reviewed every six years, five-year planning permissions should still suffice.

We thank the committee for its time and hope our concerns will be taken into account in framing the Bill. We also request feedback on our presentation and welcome questions from members of the committee. Part 2 of the Bill deals with the introduction of a planning regulator. We have views and concerns in this respect and would welcome an opportunity to relate them to the committee at some stage in the future.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all contributors for their presentations and efforts in making the joint committee aware of and bringing it up to speed on the issues in their local authorities and organisations in order that it can be more informed in its presentation to the Minister and the Department when it comes to finalising the Bill. I am conscious of the overlap between the Government's announcement last November on the provision of social housing and the amount of funding supposedly tied with it. Listening to the county manager in Cork talk about funding, infrastructural deficits and negative aspects such as its inability to meet the demands placed on it, I wonder what consultation has taken place between the Local Authority Members Association and the Department on the provisions to deliver that element of the social housing policy that is at the forefront of the Government's mind when one thinks it is to spend in the region of €2 billion or €3 billion. If it is the case that the association does not believe many local authorities will be in a position to meet the demands placed on them because of the deficits, how are the two combined to deliver where there has been a failure to do so in the past?

The other point I want to make to local authorities and representatives of management and the executive concerns how successful they believe the enforcement offices within the various local authorities have been in enforcing, reviewing and contributing to better planning legislation, given that it is my considered opinion that they were not adequately resourced or funded, in monetary and personnel terms, to enforce planning legislation the way it should have been enforced in the past. Many have looked at the failings in oversight and signing off, to which local authorities were central. They, including management, have an obligation to have an enforcement office in place to have the oversight needed and reflect the thrust of planning legislation. I do not believe that was the case in the past and I have not heard local authorities coming out loudly, clearly and forcefully enough in the meantime to ensure the issue will be addressed in the future. I am surprised that issue has not been mentioned.

My other point concerns the vacant site levy. If the example of the derelict site levy is anything to go by, huge improvements must be made. Again, there have been failings on the part of local authorities, particularly management, to advise members to deal with these issues appropriately. In my time on a local authority I saw no success in addressing the obvious dilapidation in many towns and villages, as Councillor Guckian said, despite the best intentions of members to achieve success.

The excuse, either stated or withheld, was that local authorities did not have the resources to deal with the legal issues and bring them to a successful conclusion. Again I have not heard the local authority management or executives coming out and identifying the deficiency and saying how it might be improved. I am disappointed that I have not heard it today either. I hope the witnesses will identify the deficiencies in a succinct and straightforward manner in which the members can achieve the wishes of the people who give them the privilege to sit in the chambers throughout the country. That issue was left behind and it is vital at this stage to deal with it in view of the way that towns and villages have deteriorated during the bad times. They will continue to be left behind if collective action is not taken to address those issues.

I take the point made by the Local Authority Members Association on the caps on populations. That is right and proper. It is a case of horses for courses. County Leitrim was described as a case in point and that is replicated throughout the country. There should not be a national figure of a population threshold of 3,000 that is applied across the board. That is leaving many small towns and villages behind. I hope the Department does not think the vacant site levy will be a revenue generating exercise, which is what has been made of the local development contributions in the past. There is an expectation, rightly or wrongly, on the part of management to believe that some funding can be generated from this source because we generated money in the past. Again it is horses for courses. We are in a new situation, whereby that stream of funding is not available to most local authorities, and most definitely not to rural local authorities. I know the situation has improved and is improving in the cities and large towns, but that is not the case in most local authorities. Again, the vacant site levy should not be viewed as a revenue generating exercise. I hope the Department will be conscious of that when bringing forward new planning laws.

The various exemptions to the planning laws needs to be teased out more. I understand that many landholders are in the position that they cannot commit to developing the land, as much as they may wish to, because of financial difficulties and liens on the property from other institutions.

Land that is zoned for agricultural use should not come into play. The local authority members, in conjunction with the local authority management, devise development plans every six years. I am sure the planners, management and local authority members are in tune with their area when they are devising the new development plan. We all know the procedures for making changes to the development plan. If land is zoned as agricultural land, one cannot expect to see it developed for residential or commercial use. We have all learned lessons from lands being developed on the edge of towns, when lands were rezoned for commercial use. This has added to the problem of dilapidation and a dearth of activity in town centres. I expect that in the time that remains we would hear some specific recommendations or opinions on how we revitalise our towns and villages throughout the country. I brought forward a paper to my party in recent times. This is an issue that must be tackled. If the Bill offers an opportunity to deal with the lack of life and vitality in towns, which is very debilitating, we should all take it on board. I know that local authorities have a role in the setting of rates. Provision must be made in legislation to give local authorities an opening to be more imaginative in addressing issues, as well as in the planning and development legislation.

We should be seeking ways and means in which we allow people to live and reside in these areas to bring back some vitality to them. Having done that, the opportunity will then arise for other ways to encourage civic activity in those areas. I thank the delegations for their presentations. We will digest and investigate them further over the coming weeks before we finalise our own recommendations to the Minister and the Department. I hope they will not take offence from anything that I said earlier as we are all working in the best interests of all those we represent. That is our duty and our role. This process is about teasing out issues to better the legislation and to make it more appropriate to the needs of the public.

Mr. Tim Lucey:

Several of the questions raised are outside of the Bill’s remit but we will be happy to address them.

There has been significant engagement between the county and city managers, local authority chief executives and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on the Government's social housing strategy. There is no issue in Cork County Council in meeting the delivery of social housing that is expected over the next four to five years in the social housing strategy. The council is awaiting the formal notification of funding for this. It has actually identified the sites required. In those sites in its ownership, it has identified the extent of social housing that can be delivered in them. It has also identified the various lead-in times, etc. required to get houses to the construction phase. Clearly, it is in the business like any other private developer. Over the past four to five years there has been no housebuilding in the local authority. Accordingly, there is a lead-in time associated with going to tender, etc. In a nutshell, the sector is well prepared and is working in conjunction with the Office of Government Procurement in progressing the procurement of external services if required. It is probably our highest priority in our engagement with the Department.

On the delivery of infrastructure and development contributions, my comments on provisions for development contributions in the legislation were primarily around our capacity to supply infrastructure to service land to, in turn, support private sector housing as opposed to public sector housing. There is no doubt that in some parts of the country in order to meet the demand for private sector housing that will arise over the next several years as set out in Construction 2020, as well as in other various government action plans, there is a need to invest in road and public water infrastructure. For example in metropolitan Cork, we have identified nine masterplan areas which are the ideal locations for housing. We will be working with the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, and local developers on this.

However, there is an infrastructure cost to ensure those sites are capable of commencing development. The cost is either met directly by the Exchequer or through development contributions. That is the real issue that arises from the proposed legislation. We are concerned the level of development contributions required may not support the development of infrastructure. It is either the Exchequer puts money in to put in place road or water infrastructure to release land for development or it is done through development contributions. Once the funding is there, there is no issue with delivering the infrastructure. Neither is there an issue with the capacity of local government to respond and support the private sector in that regard.

Between 2005 and 2013, through development contributions, Cork County Council spent €47 million on roads infrastructure to support private sector housing development in particular. Indeed, the growth in metropolitan Cork and the CASP, the Cork area strategic plan, area was above the national average. That demonstrates the impact the development contributions have had during those years.

If that source of funding had not been available, the Exchequer would have had to provide direct funding to local government. This again raises questions about whether the Exchequer or developers should make this contribution and what funding model will apply. The model will have to emerge from the proposed legislation.

I will ask our director of planning or another colleague to speak about enforcement issues. Reference was made to the derelict sites levy. The legislation in this area is extremely cumbersome and we are fearful that implementing the provisions of the proposed legislation on vacant sites will be equally cumbersome. We support a vacant sites levy because such a levy is needed in urban areas. It is a facility which could be activated to try to force development in towns and town centres in larger urban areas. However, the proposal includes a significant number of hardship clauses. The test of the legislation will be whether its implementation will be as problematic as implementing the legislation on derelict sites. This latter legislation provides for a series of processes, appeals, engagement with developers, etc., which means it can take two or three years, notwithstanding the best intentions of local authority staff, to apply a derelict site levy to a site. Again, the concern is that a similar scenario will arise unless there is a significant tightening of the proposition regarding vacant sites. That addresses the key issues arising in that regard.

We will be pleased to comment on enforcement, even though it does not fall within the scope of the proposed legislation.

Mr. John O'Neill:

We have an enforcement inspectorate in Cork. The key issues in respect of enforcement are staffing, resources and a will to act. We have applied the staffing and resources in Cork. We did an exercise in recent years which found that we have received €3 million in back-payment of fees and contributions arising form enforcement activities. The exercise demonstrated that a strong enforcement regime and inspectorate will largely fund itself. In our case, it has provided resources and given us the confidence to have a good regime. We report on an annual basis to our members, which challenges us with respect to the various issues that arise.

While I take the points the Deputy raises, in our case resources have been provided by management and members and we have a good regime in place. I emphasise also that the inspectorate is largely self-financing. Enforcement is such a wide ranging issue that it often begs the question as to how long is a piece of string. The larger local authorities, those with greater resources, have a fairly successful regime. Nevertheless, it is clearly a challenging issue and difficulties will always arise. The courts also have a role to play in supporting local authorities in their enforcement efforts. My experience is that we have been given resources to address enforcement at local level and we are doing so reasonably successfully.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the witnesses to the Oireachtas to discuss planning legislation, one of the most important issues for councillors, Deputies, Senators and society as a whole. As one of the witnesses stated, planning is a broad church and views about it differ in rural and urban areas. There are guidelines in place on good planning.

Given the serious housing shortage, I hope the Bill will result in housing being built faster and in the right places at the right time.

As stated by one of the councillors, it is important that we do not take a broad brush approach to the Bill and that we bear in mind the submissions made.

Councillor Brophy alluded to the removal of the word "affordability" from the Bill, which issue was also raised during previous hearings. It is important that this issue be addressed, particularly in the context of the increase in house prices in the Dublin area. I understand the reasoning behind the removal of the word "affordability" was to make it more affordable for developers to build houses. However, if affordability continues to be an issue in terms of ever increasing housing waiting lists, we need to discuss it further. I have taken on board the point that permissions should continue to be valid for five years.

The voluntary housing agencies were mentioned. There is in place legislation governing these agencies. However, it was mentioned that this legislation needed to be strengthened in the context of how voluntary housing agencies worked in concert with the local authorities. I have taken on board this point also.

On having additional flexibility in regard to location, this also relates to the broad brush approach. As Ms Guckian said, some areas may not need social housing, while others may need more. There is much discussion of the issue of devolution of functions to local government. This is one area that could be considered in that context.

In regard to housing need, there are 15 counties that do not require development. In Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare and surrounding areas huge development is needed, while in other counties some development is needed. There are some counties in which there are many vacant properties. How in the delegates' view should this issue be addressed? While in Dublin generally more than 2,000 acres of land has been rezoned, there is still a shortage of housing. In Dublin city only 1,200 planning permissions have been granted.

Ms Guckian referred to head 5 of the Bill which deals with vacant sites and populations. There was a contradiction between what two of the representatives had to say in that Ms Guckian said a population threshold of 3,000 could leave many places and counties exempt from development, while the representative of the Local Authority Members'Association, LAMA, said a 5,000 threshold was acceptable. We will have to tease out that issue further. The point about provision in the legislation for a 3,000 threshold is valid, as is the one about land zoned for agricultural use and where, because of historical use, it fits into all of this.

The issue of affordability, again, is one for the Government, the banks and councils in working together. One cannot expect that just because the word "affordable" has been removed from the Bill, this will result in housing being more affordable. The availability of funding is another important issue, on which we have heard the delegates' views loud and clear.

The issue of land use and value and how it is calculated was raised by one of the delegates from Cork County Council. I think it was Mr. Justice Clarke who set out how calculations were to be made. There is a need for further discussion of the issue of values, land use and the calculation made by Mr. Justice Clarke, including whether we need to designate in recommendations how calculations should be arrived at or if this should be determined on the day by each local authority. This is a matter that caused great difficulty in the court case, leading to Mr. Justice Clarke's determination in that regard.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the CEOs and the representative organisations, the AILG and LAMA. It is important that they are following on from work they have done on other Bills in making contributions and submissions on them.

On Part V, concern was raised earlier in the submissions about the regulation of the voluntary housing bodies, because these organisations are providing housing, are providing for a need. However, a significant amount of housing stock is under the ownership and control of organisations that are officially listed as charities, but that are not under the control of local authorities.

I have problems with the removal of the affordability concept and I ask for a response on the matter because across the country, certainly in my own county, Laois, there is a need for affordable housing. Although housing prices have dropped, people are not able to buy housing. There is a role for providing affordable housing.

On the increase of exclusion threshold so that Part V would only apply to developments of nine houses or more, even in the town of Portlaoise I have seen a situation where five houses were built and the local authority acquired one of those houses. I must say "buy", because there is a myth in some areas that the local authority gets a house gratisfrom the developer. It does not. There is a formula for calculating the price of it. It is important that is retained, particularly in small counties. Five houses might be built on the edge of a village and it is important that one of those houses is social housing. This brings me to the 10% rule. It is too low. I would welcome the views of the organisations on this. It needs to be near to double that.

The other question is where Part V housing is located in estates. I have seen greater social segregation as a result of Part V than there was with straightforward local authority developments. I could show the witnesses examples of it, developments where up to 500 houses are built, including 30 or 40 social houses. These social houses are not peppered throughout the estate. They are built in the furthest corner of the development, out of sight. It has led to huge difficulties. I have come up against it in Portlaoise and other towns. I would particularly welcome the views of the CEOs on this. The remit of the planners has been to sort this out and, for whatever reason. I am not saying the CEOs here have done it but CEOs and planning staff seem to have given in to the wishes of developers. Not alone are they pushed over in one corner, they are also of the lowest quality. Everything is cut-price and of a low standard. The back gardens are very small. They are the same size as, or smaller than, some people's kitchens. I would welcome views on the need to stitch quality of housing into the Bill, as well as its location in estates.

There are huge weaknesses in the proposals in regard to vacant sites, although I am in favour of a vacant sites levy. I brought forward a Bill last year on derelict sites. In theory we have a 3% levy on derelict sites, but we all know - the councillors in particular - that it is very ineffective. The issue is around policing and enforcing it. During the boom, 3% of a site could have been a sizeable amount of money, but 3% of the value of a property now could be only a few hundred euro in some cases.

We need to change that. I would welcome the witnesses' views in that regard.

I also welcome the suggestion by the AILG that councillors should have a reserved function in this area. Mr. Tim Lucey suggested this would be a protracted process. I see it going the way of the Derelict Sites Act in terms of it being on the Statute Book but lying in a cupboard. What revenue could a local authority accrue from policing derelict sites? At the very least, they would have to bring in sufficient money to pay for enforcement. That is not happening at present. A local authority might bring in a few hundred euro but it will spend €10,000 trying to police these sites. That balance has to be tipped.

Reference was made to a reduction of 50% in development levies in Cork for non-residential developments. However, Cork is contending with deficits in its infrastructure. While we want to offer incentives for commercial development, we also want a degree of flexibility. Elected members are responsible for making the development contribution plan. If we are going to have commercial development, we need infrastructure. We cannot continue the practice whereby the infrastructure follows the development. Both must be constructed simultaneously. In regard to the two year reduction in the planning duration, my experience is that it is always a matter of pounds, shillings and pence, in other words, the developer's cash-flow, regardless of whether it is a private house or a much bigger development.

Mr. Tim Lucey:

I ask Mr. Richard Keating to deal with the questions on land valuations and the grouping of houses given that he is currently involved in negotiations with developers around Part V and the valuation of lands. Our senior planner, Mr. Andrew Hind, has experience of dealing with the issue of the 10% and affordability, most recently in the context of developing our own housing strategy for the next six years. He will be able to comment in depth on those issues.

Mr. Richard Keating:

Senator Keane raised the issue of valuations and referred to Mr. Justice Clarke's ruling in a judicial review many years ago. This ruling brought clarity to existing use values and development values, as well as the dates to which they would be applied. We are concerned that the Bill as it is currently proposed does not take existing buildings into consideration for arriving at existing use values. Does this mean the property would be treated as a greenfield or brownfield site as if the buildings did not exist? The benefit of Part V depends on the difference between the existing use value and the development value. In the interest of local authorities, the lower the value for the existing use value, the greater the benefits from the whole operation. This needs to be clarified because it could give rise to disputes in the future.

In regard to Deputy Stanley's question on grouping, the practice in Cork County Council has always been to cluster social housing in large developments. If we were taking 20 units, for example, we would take five in each of four different areas.

If we were taking 20 units, for example, we might take five together in four different areas so that there is integration and completeness and they can be managed by the Housing Authority. This is our recommendation.

Mr. Padraig McNally:

Senator Keane and Deputy Stanley made some particularly apt points. The concept of Part V is not a bad idea, in an ideal world. I fully agree with Deputy Stanley and I know of instances in which these houses were pushed into corners. The way they made them affordable for the councils to buy them was not necessarily lack of quality but a much plainer design. This led to a scenario in which it was obvious which houses in an estate were the Part V houses because of where they were and how they looked. They were a much cheaper option and the developers did not lose. Although we would love to see a rate of 20% affordable housing, in reality the developers add what they lose on those houses to the cost of the others. I have a difficulty with the term "affordable housing". We should aspire to a situation in which all family size houses should be affordable. Instead of trying to identify a house that should be cheaper than the one next to it, the houses should be the same. The question is how to deliver them. We need to seek to make all three-bedroom houses affordable, although it would be very complex. This is what happened in the past. A few got affordable houses through the affordable housing scheme while others paid the balance and are still suffering.

Where a farm is on the edge of a town, in general it is because the town moved out to the farm. The farmer did not move the land into the town. I would be very hesitant to agree to anything that would involve a levy being put on such land if it is being actively farmed. We must be very careful as there would probably be legal issues. I accept that the legislation on vacant sites is weak and probably has not been enforced. Every town or village, no matter how vibrant, going in the opposite direction has suffered and one can see the reality.

The lack of joined-up thinking has left a situation in which voluntary housing agencies are coming in and buying houses and the first the local authority hears of it is when the agency contacts it asking for tenants from the waiting lists. This has happened in at least three counties. There was no knowledge of the fact that the voluntary housing agencies were buying houses. It would be different if they were building because everybody would know who they were.

In another capacity I am a member of a body that is trying to identify hurdles to fast-track development and there are some very obvious ones. While it may not be in the committee's remit, I have a particular issue with the lack of zoning in some areas, where there is too little land in the ownership of too few people, many of whom do not want to sell, for example because they are elderly and do not want millions or hundreds of thousands of euro. I have an issue with that because of the reduction forced on councils a few years ago. Almost every major planning application is referred to An Bord Pleanála and the process takes 12 to 18 months. Major reform is needed if we are to achieve fast tracking. This is especially true of commercial development where it is the easiest thing in the world to delay a project for a year or two by referring it to An Bord Pleanála. It is the same for many housing developments. This may not be in this committee's remit.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
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Mr. John Sheahan:

Deputy Cowen mentioned the vacant site levy becoming some sort of an income stream for the councils. The problems with its enforcement and what one would get from the levy have been outlined. When the development contribution scheme was introduced it was contentious. It became a revenue generator for the local authorities and contributed to the infrastructure that was needed for future development. Unfortunately, it was frozen with the general Government balance. There is a lot of money in local authorities that cannot be spent.

If we got that alone lifted, it would help with putting in some of the infrastructure, which would help kick-start the construction industry.

On the issue of the difference between the councillors on the 3,000 limit and the 5,000 limit, to us, a vacant site levy is for vacant sites within large towns and cities, not for agricultural land on the side of towns. As Councillor McNally said, the towns moved out to meet them. What we need to do is bring life back into our towns because there is nobody living in them, as there is nobody living in parts of our large cities. Most of the upstairs units in commercial premises are empty and are going to rack and ruin. It is those places we need to regenerate in order to bring life back into the cities. When it comes to 7 p.m., there should be an evening economy in a city or town, rather than everybody moving to the suburbs and leaving a desolate city or town. To mix it up with agricultural land is to take the wrong way.

We suggested the 5,000 limit for population because the Bill contains so many get-out clauses for not developing the site. If one goes into the smaller towns, the footfall is not there at present because the economy has not yet reached those places. We have to start with areas of larger population, where we would hope the economy will come back to first, and then get those vacant sites developed.

We had a difficulty with the previous overall affordable housing scheme, which was cumbersome both for the local authority and the person buying the house. Deputy Stanley referred to flexibility on the percentage in Part V. We are saying that has to be flexible because there will be places where more or less flexibility is needed. We said in our presentation that dispersal of Part V, which the Deputy referred to as the pepper-dusting rather than the clustering of Part V houses, is very valid. However, through the regeneration programme in Limerick, we have found that this only works if the local authority can put in place a system whereby the people being housed are integrated, that is, that there are residents associations and everybody is up to speed on what is happening. If that does not happen, there are other situations and problems.

Mr. Colm Brophy:

With regard to affordability, as an association looking at this, one of the things we wanted to guide it was the fact that while the drive must be on social housing and that is acceptable particularly in smaller developments - we are talking about a ten-house development and one becoming available - there is no impediment in larger developments in larger urban areas, where a number of houses will be becoming available, to flexibility in terms of maintaining the mix of social and affordable housing. It is just a matter of looking at it and saying that, instead of having a prescriptive way of removing the affordability element completely, we should allow for that, because the fundamental problem of affordability, which was alluded to by Deputy Stanley and Senator Keane, is still there.

Ironically, that affordability problem is becoming most acute in large cities, particularly in Dublin, where, even though there has been a substantial fall from the peak of house prices, it does not take much, on a 20%, year-on-year house price point, for a three-bedroom semi-detached house to become completely unaffordable again for people on average incomes. Therefore, if we are putting in place a legislative approach to this, it must not only address the immediate next few months but address what will be needed a few years down the line. If things continue as they are, there is no question that affordability of housing will become an issue.

I agree very much with Councillor Sheahan that how Part V is handled in developments is crucial. We alluded to the fact there are different approaches to this by different local authorities and I do not believe there is one definitive way that works for everything.

By being too prescriptive in national legislation we are running the risk of removing the flexibility of local authorities to develop a local dimension, which should be led by local councillors as representatives of the public. They can determine the best use of the Part V provisions in a particular area and could decide, for example, not to allow one house to be built in a development of ten houses but three houses to be built in a development of 30. That might be a far better use of every aspect of the Part V process as well as of our infrastructure resources and the resources of the local authorities themselves. From my perspective it all boils down to subsidiarity and allowing flexibility to be devolved down rather than being too prescriptive and trying to shoe horn it in.

Mr. Andrew Hind:

I wish to make some practical observations on the affordability issue and the 10% figure because from a local authority perspective they are very much intertwined. Under the current legislation, the requirement for affordable housing and the overall percentage of housing development to fall under Part V is established through the preparation of the housing strategy. The methodology for preparing the housing strategy was issued by the Department to local authorities as long ago as 2000. In our most recent exercise in connection with the review of our development plan, we used the model set out in the existing guidance from the Minister. We were very concerned that the model, having been issued in 2000, might no longer be fit for purpose but actually, in our exercise it worked very well. In fact, this time around it worked better than in previous development plan cycles mainly because there is more and better data available on house prices through mechanisms like the residential property price register and so forth. The picture we were able to build of the local housing market was a better and more accurate picture than before. As a result of all of that, in Cork, the city and county councils reached the conclusion that the right level of provision of social housing was 14%. That was how the model worked out and that was the percentage we reached. Our colleagues in County Leitrim reached 12.5% having gone through a very similar exercise at a similar time. While not everybody fully agreed with that process, there was a large degree of local consensus among the stakeholders that the figure was right. Having gone through that process, our concern with the proposals in this Bill is that if the national requirement is to maximise the delivery of social and affordable housing then setting a 10% cap nationally might not deliver the full potential of all the markets around the country. Our view is that the existing mechanism works and indeed, it works better than it did in previous years because of better data. Therefore local authorities should be allowed to reach their own conclusions.

On the question of affordability, when we ran the model issued to local authorities by the Department over the past two years we found that market prices had fallen so much that the cost of building an affordable unit was greater than the market price achievable. As a result, we included no requirement for affordable housing in our housing strategy. However, our concern would be that as the market improves and prices rise, that may open up a gap between house prices and income levels, thus introducing a future requirement for affordable housing. Again, we would be concerned that taking affordable housing off the Statute Book altogether might foreclose the options available to local authorities in future circumstances.

Mr. Frank Curran:

I also think there should be some flexibility. The method of calculation is not complicated and includes looking at future household formations, future population trends, market conditions, income projections, housing needs assessments and at housing provided by the local authorities themselves. Each area can come up with a particular percentage based on that data. We came up with 12.5%, while in Cork, the authorities came up with 14%. We too had a 0% requirement for affordable housing because house prices in Leitrim are so low at the moment that people will either require social housing or they will be able to purchase a property. However, that might change in the future so the Bill is quite prescriptive in that sense. We also feel that the nine houses figure is too high.

This is because in a place like County Leitrim, the majority of housing developments in the future will be small and consequently, in our opinion this number should be lower and the other percentage should be higher.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I welcome the representatives of the three associations. In particular, I thank the Chairman for inviting the council associations before the joint committee on foot of a proposal from Senator Keane and me. It is very important that these associations appear before the committee in respect of any pre-legislative scrutiny pertaining to legislation dealing with local government. As this Bill is in that realm, I welcome them to the meeting. I must also get my head around the new title, namely, the County and City Management Association, as opposed to County and City Managers Association, because of the change in respect of the chief executive officers. I also welcome the association to the meeting.

I have listened closely and intently and while I will not go back over what already has been said, I will make a few points. I agree completely with the flexibility concept with regard to the 10% social and affordable provision but the difficulty is how does one put that into legislation. What happened previously was that the default position was flexibility. Consequently, members have seen what happened in the past where there was a movement from houses being provided to a position in which money was paid instead and the entire concept of social housing was lost. It is a challenge for the Minister in the first instance to include this in the Bill and then for members to respond to it. However, it is important to be cognisant of the points that were made regarding flexibility as one size does not fit all. I come from a small rural town - I acknowledge some of the councillors present come from major urban areas - and one must look at both contexts and some flexibility must be built in. Perhaps a default position should be considered in which the legislation sets out a particular position but that there could be a default from that for which local authorities could apply on a case-by-case basis. There may be some scope in this respect.

I have a question for the witnesses from the County and City Management Association. In their submission, they made a comment regarding the potential delays in collecting the levy. How do they think that process could be speeded up? I raised the issue of the 10% and the ten units with previous associations. I reiterate that I come from rural Ireland where even now, some of the limited developments are of seven and eight houses. As 10% of seven housing units is no house or unit at all, this issue must be examined, flexibility must be considered in that context and members must be forceful with the Minister on this point.

In his submission, Councillor McNally referred to approved housing bodies, which also are known as voluntary housing associations. He called for their regulation, which is something for which I have called since entering the Seanad. There are hundreds of voluntary housing associations and the word "voluntary" with regard to housing associations is a misnomer, because nothing is voluntary. The funding for such associations is provided in the main by the Department. I acknowledge that of late, they have been obliged to come up with some money themselves but up to then, it was provided by the Department. The counsellor might expand on the benefit of regulation with regard to how the local authorities do their business. In addition, I believe Councillor Guckian referred to the levies being used at local town level. I seek her opinion in this regard but the difficulty is that since last year, a new local government system has been in place and whereas previously, there were distinct town council areas, in some cases there now are municipal districts encompassing a number of towns. If this is a reserved function, will it fall to the elected members of the municipal district to decide where the money is to be spent within that municipal district or will it stay in the town in which it has been collected? This is a major issue because as the witnesses are all aware, geography plays a massive role in how the municipal districts now are configured. Off the top of my head, I can name four or five places in this context. For example, I note Councillor Geoghegan is smiling at me, if the money was collected in Dungarvan, it could end up being spent in Lismore. I seek the witnesses' views on how that can be tightened up.

The final issue on which I wish to make a point is whether this provision would apply to towns with a population of 3,000, as was mentioned, or to towns of 5,000. The town of Templemore in my native county has a population of less than 3,000 and has a development plan. On the enactment of this Bill, does one run the clock on the current development plans and the lands that were zoned therein or does one start afresh from the time the Bill is passed?

That is another imponderable to which I do not have the answer. Perhaps Mr. Sheahan might like to comment, given that he has spoken about the issue already.

Mr. Tim Lucey:

On the collection of the levy, a concern was expressed about the number of stages that had to be gone through before a levy was finally determined and capable of being collected. Clearly, market valuations have to be made and there will potentially be appeals to the Valuation Tribunal and so on. While the legislation is being developed, our commentary is based on our experience, in particular, our experience of the application of the derelict sites levy, which almost appears to be replicated. It is inevitable that there will be time delays in a system of appeals, which is a concern. Even before we get to set a market value, there will be a situation where there will clearly be interaction between the local authority and the site owners on whether the site is under-utilised, whether there are hardship clauses or whether particular circumstances are set out in the legislation which would apply to the site. That is the concern. However, the concept is good, but it will only remain so if it is reasonably efficient and quick in its application. Obviously, the concept is to try to ensure development commences. However, if we are held up in a series of processes which results in a year or 18 months passing by, it will have failed in its original objective.

On the spending of development contributions generally, in our own circumstances we believe the system was very well received by our own local authority members in that it certainly added significant benefits to infrastructure in the county. To revert to my previous point, it was of significant benefit in aiding development coming on stream. It is a good system and should be continued, although at what level is a matter for consideration. They are probably the two key issues.

Mr. Richard Keating:

On the issue of flexibility and many options leading to financial contributions, as members know, in the legislation the default position is the transfer of land, an option which is open to the developer. If local authorities cannot agree with developers on the options under Part V, the matter is referred to An Bord Pleanála. The important point concerns how the legislation is implemented. Our priority was always to acquire houses where there was a need and the houses available were suitable; there was never a suggestion of entertaining anything other than this. We had a policy of pepper-potting clusters of a similar-type of house. What I am saying is that it concerns how the legislation is implemented. There is a proposal that the financial contribution be removed, which could be of benefit in certain areas. Is there any other issue?

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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No, but I take Mr. Keating's point. We do not want everything to end up with An Bord Pleanála. We want to avoid this because it would leave everything in abeyance. That is the idea in bringing this forward. I am asking for the delegates' views on how we can get around this. I am talking about the default position being the opportunity for each local authority to go to the relevant Minister and say, "This is not workable in our area because...". We are at scrutiny level and I do not know whether that would be feasible, but that is the point I am making.

Mr. Richard Keating:

The default option was probably the one we availed of least in our activities.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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It is of little use now also, to be honest.

Mr. John Sheahan:

I return to the Senator's points on the question of the 3,000 and 5,000 limits.

The vacant site levy has to be viewed in the round, in conjunction with the derelict sites levy and the levy on vacant properties for rates purposes. All of these levies have been introduced to try to kick start things, but they will not work unless we pick strategic sites and target those who are sitting on properties and could well afford to develop them but who are not doing so because they want to wait until the potential return increases. There is no point in chasing the fellow who does not have a bob in his pocket and telling him to develop his site. There is no point in this if the individual does not have the wherewithal to develop it. That is why I suggest we allow the current local area plans to run their course before the new system kicks in. That said, local authorities should flag all strategic sites in areas proposed for development with 5,000 people or more well in advance of finalising future development plans. In that way, nobody would be able to cry and say, "it was not in the plan before." We should start on a new playing field. If the economy recovers in the way we hope it will, that will affect the areas with larger populations first. We will have more success in pursuing the development of vacant sites in these areas than in in areas with smaller populations.

Mr. Bobby O'Connell:

The proposed legislation includes a requirement that developers provide up to 10% of units for social and affordable housing in developments of nine units or more. Let us say a developer has a substantial site that is capable of holding 30 houses but decides to build four separate developments, each with eight houses. In that way, he or she would be building 32 houses, but he or she would not have to provide 10% of units for social and affordable housing. That is an escape clause.

Mr. Padraig McNally:

I refer back to the provisions for voluntary housing bodies, about which there are a number of problems. We are not opposed to the whole concept, but we believe it must be tightly regulated for a number of reasons. First, the voluntary housing bodies appear to be buying houses without consultations with local authorities on where houses are actually needed. I could give the committee several examples of houses acquired by voluntary housing bodies 18 months ago, 30% to 40% of which are still vacant because they are in locations in which people do not want to live. These houses were bought only because they were very cheap.

Second, housing provided by voluntary housing bodies is often expensive. I know of one woman who left such a house because her rent was so high. She was an old-age pensioner who was being charged €76 per week in rent, which she could not afford. She only stayed in the accommodation for eight months.

Third, there is no ability to buy from voluntary housing agencies. These bodies have vacant homes because families, in particular, will hold out and resist entering a scenario where they will never own their own home. Given that Government money was provided - in the initial period at least - it is regrettable that there is no requirement for voluntary housing bodies to sell a percentage of the properties they own to people who will remain in them for the rest of their lives.

Fourth, voluntary housing bodies are not required to take account of an individual's position on the housing waiting list. They are contacting people whom they think are suitable, regardless of where they are on the list in terms of points acquired for waiting and so forth. A lot more regulation is required in this area.

Mr. Damien Geoghegan:

Senator Denis Landy made an important point about retaining moneys in the towns in which the levies were raised. That certainly has presented an even greater challenge since the abolition of town councils. We had a system in place under which money could be retained at local level, but town boundaries no longer apply. It is a question of councillors within districts deciding, in a fair way, how the moneys raised should be allocated. We had a good system in place previously.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the delegates of the representative associations. The first time Mr. O'Connell was here was as general secretary of the Local Authority Members Association, a position I held for a number of years.

What the Bill needs to provide for is a better social mix.

All members have experienced situations where local authority houses have been constructed and then, in a 20-year lifespan, visited thrice for total refurbishment. This costs local authorities a great deal of money; therefore, the issue of the social mix within local authority estates must be addressed. Housing design must be improved because there should be no need to distinguish a council estate from a private estate. This will be important in the future. In addition, citizens are and have been the real victims of bad planning during the years. Bad planning has had an appalling impact on the lives of people nationwide, in particular in the midlands, the Shannon region and the mid-west. The report of the Mahon tribunal, which everyone has probably read, showed what happened when vested interests became involved in the planning process and there is evidence that Part V of the legislation was also interfered with. This undermined and corrupted the entire planning system and destroyed the countryside. In the future a more accountable and transparent planning system will be needed, with no room for corrupt practices. How will this feed into the national spatial strategy which is under review? I understand work is ongoing on the strategy. We have local, county and regional development plans and so on, but while there is a lot of planning, there is very little action afterwards. How do the representatives feel about this?

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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I also thank the representatives of the Association of Irish Local Government, the Local Authority Members Association and the City and County Management Association for their attendance. I will not repeat some points that have been taken up.

Affordability is certainly an issue. As Councillor Brophy noted, it will be difficult for anybody to get onto the first rung of the housing ladder. It is up to members to try to ensure it will be easier to get on the ladder. If social housing is located in areas in which infrastructure is not in place, it must be provided in the form of roads, water and transport services, etc. This is very important.

The Part V provisions have been mentioned by many speakers, including Councillor John Sheahan. I personally support the provision of housing in preference to any financial contribution to local authorities. While I must admit and recognise that contributions have been made and used wisely in several local authorities, some local authorities did not follow up on the contributions and consequently the requirements in some housing estates were not met.

I seek opinions on two matters, now that new laws are being compiled. On unauthorised developments and enforcement issues, in the opinion of the delegates as councillors and chief executive officers, is there a legal way by which the enforcement laws could be strengthened? Could they be tightened or do the delegates have suggestions for improving the laws as they stand? I am personally aware of unauthorised developments that have been in place for six and seven years and it appears local authorities are reluctant to avail of court procedures. I will not use the word "threaten", but it is seen as a last resort.

The local authorities are reluctant to threaten court proceedings as it an option of last resort. There must be some way of ensuring that unauthorised developments that were built without planning permission or turned down by An Bord Pleanála are dealt with by local authorities.

I was in a housing estate just before Christmas with 26 or 28 houses and was amazed at the number of cars and vans parked in the estate, some of them on the footpaths, some out on the public roads and the rest in driveways. Should we look at the law in the context of providing more space for cars in our housing estates? Most households have two cars. Indeed, with grown-up sons and daughters, there could be three or four cars in a household. Is it time to look at the density of housing and the number of car parking spaces that are required? Could we improve our planning laws in that regard? Should we do so? I would welcome the views of the witnesses on that matter. The number of vehicles parked in the aforementioned estate took away from the beauty of what is one of the best county council estates in the country. I returned last weekend because I thought that on my previous visit there must have been a carnival happening but that was not the case. Is there anything we can do? Better planning is required in this area.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I fully agree with Senator Brennan's point about car parking in housing estates. We have had some very serious problems in north Kerry in that regard. When a private estate is being planned, architects will make sure that there is enough room for cars to be parked in a proper fashion without interfering with the flow of traffic and so forth. There is one particular housing estate in Listowel where it is quite difficult for two cars to pass one another and that is not right in the context of health and safety.

I apologise for being late but I had to attend another meeting. I welcome the representatives to our meeting and in particular, it is nice to see the city and county managers here as a recognisable force with whom we can deal. They were always able to identify us as public representatives. On the issue of representation for councillors, when the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, AMAI, was subsumed I was concerned about what might happen in the future but, along with most of the public, I am impressed with the way things are shaping up. With the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG and the Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, we have readily identifiable organisations representing local government and the councillors who have to work the system. Those two organisations seem to be working well together. I must give a special welcome to the General Secretary of the LAMA, my old friend, Bobby O'Connell. We were elected together 22 years ago.

I will not delay proceedings as I have to be back in the Seanad Chamber at 4.30 p.m. but I wish to assure all of the representative organisations that they have the goodwill of Senators. We will support them in every way we can with the new system. When I was elected to the county council it was like the wild west and anything went. We have seen the price we had to pay for that. Mr. Keating made a very valid point earlier which resonated with me. The new system will work because the people involved will make it work. The representatives here are at the coal face now and it is up to them. There was a famous councillor in Kerry called Danny Kissane who always finished up by saying, "Therefore, is". It is up to the councillors and the staff of the local authorities to work it out and I am sure they will.

I am available to meet the witnesses afterwards on a social basis.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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"Meet me at the church" is what Senator O'Sullivan means.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
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I thank Senator O'Sullivan for that unique invitation.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I am sorry that I missed most of the meeting but I have not quite mastered the art of bi-location yet. Pre-legislative scrutiny is very useful in that it gives us the opportunity to put together legislation that has a practical effect. Those of us who were members of local authorities for many years often came across actions that were possible in theory but not in practice. Some of the points that were made regarding the Derelict Sites Act, for example, are relevant. That Act is cumbersome and, as referred to at last week's meeting, there are good reasons that legislation does not work. Regarding the vacant site tax, therefore, we need to hear suggestions on how to make it workable. It is very good in theory but we want to make sure that it is also very good in practice. In that context, Cork County Council deserves some credit for its work in Clonakilty, which is the one place where it was shown to work well, once real efforts were made.

The submissions were very useful. There was quite a bit of cross-over between the various submissions but the one from the County and City Managers Association sought clarification on numerous issues. The submission suggests, for example, that the format, payment and calculation of the price in terms of Part V developments requires clarification, as does the definition of "existing use" value. I ask the witnesses to expand on the difficulties they would see in terms of how this will all work in practice. There has been a variety of outcomes under the scheme up to now. It is important to bring the coal face experience to bear on the more academic process of preparing legislation. It would be useful if the witnesses could provide an additional submission on those particular areas.

The issue of affordable housing and the 10% limit also came up at last week's meeting. When dealing with any proposed legislation, we should not just view matters from today's perspective and the current very difficult economic environment but must take a longer-term view. In that context, I suggested the inclusion of a sunset clause because while there are difficulties at the moment the market may well be much improved in four or five years time. We may have to revise the legislation then so is there a way of making provision for that now? A sunset clause in the legislation which commits the Oireachtas to revisiting certain aspects of the legislation might be the way to deal with this, rather than having certain provisions fixed in stone. I would welcome suggestions in that regard.

Town centres were also mentioned and it will be up to the members of the local authorities to determine, in the development plans, their locations. In the initial stages it would probably be wise to limit their size, particularly in the context of determining how things work out with the vacant site tax. A lot of the vacant units in town centres were speculative developments and many would not be big enough to be in NAMA. They are probably going to be more difficult to work through because in some cases there are encumbered debts on them. We must think that through carefully.

The suitability of units is also an issue in many places. I have come across many examples of units that do not match the accommodation needs in an area. In many places, for example, developers were only offering apartments but there was a need for three or four bedroom houses.

Then, of course, this management company charges it as well. It would be useful to hear how the witnesses think that might be predetermined in a mixed development because it can cause problems further into the future.

In regard to the reduced development contributions, of course, there are no longer development contributions in regard to water and wastewater since the establishment of Irish Water. There was supposed to be pick-up whereby the local authorities lost the ability to apply development contributions but there has not been a comparable piece of legislation that will permit Irish Water to invest in that area from the point of view of development contributions. I believe this will be a double disadvantage to the local authorities in that they will not get the contributions but, at the same time, there will not be another authority that has gathered development contributions that could be spent in the location they are collected from.

I would be interested to know, although not necessarily today, some of the things that have been identified as administratively challenging. I want to know what exactly would make it workable. In regard to the points that require clarification, it would be useful if the witnesses could flesh out this area so we get a fuller understanding in order that we might be able to meaningfully get some changes in the legislation.

Mr. Padraig McNally:

Deputy Bannon rightly said that everybody wants houses, not cash, because there are too many temptations for local authorities to siphon off money to do other things, given the demands are so great in other areas. Members themselves would be at fault in many cases for jumping on the bandwagon and taking money that was given in lieu of houses. Once a person gets a house, it is there forever unless the person decides to sell it.

Senator Brennan spoke about the priority of getting people on the housing ladder. I believe any legislation should always aim to make it easy for the first-time buyer or builder because a house for them is a necessity whereas it is a choice for people beyond that. Whether people get into a house that is affordable forms the rest of their lives, in particular their working lives, so I believe that is very important.

With regard to unauthorised developments, all local authorities are accused of allowing the big man get away with murder. The reality, in my experience, is that there are several reasons for this. In particular, the courts are too lenient. All that a person summoned to court has to do is put in a planning application and the judge will adjourn the case pending the outcome of that, and he will further adjourn it because of an An Bord Pleanála appeal. Then, when it goes beyond that and if the people are determined enough, the councils, because of their lack of funding, are afraid of their lives to incur big legal fees by losing the case. We have had a few cases of that.

Parking is a particularly interesting issue. Every estate built in the last 20 years is totally inadequate in terms of parking. I believe lowering the density is an area that could certainly be looked at as it would obviously have an effect. There are huge issues regarding access for fire vehicles and ambulances, and I have seen streets too narrow to allow these vehicles through. We must examine the design of parking outside front doors where, for example, a long narrow strip might accommodate three cars but the owners will not park in the space because they would have to move two cars to get to a third car. In many cases, people are parking on the street even though there is off-street parking. There has to be better design and I believe regulation is needed in this regard.

That is all I wanted to say although there are many other areas I could expand on, perhaps on a future occasion.

Mr. Seán McGowan:

I want to deal with a couple of issues discussed by Senator Landy and Councillor Geoghegan in regard to development levies. The town councils that have been abolished have since come into the municipal districts, where there would be a number of town councils. My opinion is that any development levies should be pooled for the municipal district and that the executive would spend them wisely. Given there are smaller villages and areas that would not have benefited at all, the development levies should be spread out to provide footpaths, lights and so on in those small villages and towns.

Councillor McNally alluded to the issue of car parking.

When many estates were built, including when local authorities were developing estates some years ago, they put just one car parking space outside the house and there was no proper planning or foresight with regard to what would happen. Nowadays, there are two or three cars at every house so, going forward, we must look to a situation where adequate parking is provided, perhaps at the end of the estate. We also have to look at access and exit routes from estates to allow for emergency vehicles to get in and out. With regard to private estates, when the submissions are being made to the planning officer and there are pre-planning meetings, the issues are well teased out and the plans are pretty good in regard to providing enough car parking facilities for the estate.

Mr. Tim Lucey:

I want to respond to two issues raised by Senator Brennan. The first is the link to the national spatial strategy, NSS. In broad terms, the concept behind this Bill is to try to facilitate a quicker supply of housing, both in the private and the public sectors, how to incentivise this and how to support infrastructure development, where required, particularly from a private sector housing point of view. Therefore, it clearly has a link to delivery of housing supply, whereas the review of the NSS is some time away. This Bill is certainly linked in this regard, in that the conditions around supply of housing will be set very much by this Bill.

Other attendees have commented on unauthorised development and enforcement. One thing of benefit, and which could be significant, is the new building control management system. In law, a person cannot occupy a house without a final certificate of completion, which, in essence, means a house cannot be sold without a certificate of completion. I suggest this is a very effective deterrent in terms of moving ahead with an authorised residential development in particular.

To be fair, Deputy Catherine Murphy picked up on a number of the issues we raised. On completion of this session, we would certainly be happy to send a note to the committee, particularly in regard to the land valuation issues we have raised, with some thoughts on the practical issues that might be of benefit to the committee in considering how those issues might be clarified.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
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That concludes our consideration of this topic. I ask members to remain for a few minutes because we have to go back to an earlier item on the agenda. I thank the local authority members and officials, who are free to go.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.45 p.m. and adjourned at 4.50 p.m. until Tuesday, 3 February 2015.