Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 23 November 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Vacant Housing (Refurbishment) Bill 2017: Discussion
No. 7 is the detailed scrutiny of the Vacant Housing (Refurbishment) Bill 2017. I remind members that we have two sessions today in respect of Deputy Cowen's Bill, which was referred to the committee for consideration. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Deputy Cowen.
Before we begin, 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 Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I now call on Deputy Cowen to make his opening statement.
I thank the Chairman and the committee for agreeing to discuss and scrutinise this legislation at such short notice after Second Stage was agreed in the Dáil.
The Vacant Housing (Refurbishment) Bill essentially creates a one-stop shop for approving refurbishment projects in local authorities, which will remove many of the existing administrative hurdles to redeveloping vacant commercial and residential buildings. This will not affect the building or safety standards that are required of these units. Rather, it will make it more convenient for owners to bring compliant units to the market. These are obviously badly needed in the context of the housing crisis. We believe that what we are seeking to do will bring thousands of vacant units onto the market, particularly as there are thousands of units throughout the country that are above commercial spaces or in older properties which could, and hopefully will, be used for residential purposes but which are not yet compliant with building regulations. Bringing such units to the market currently requires multiple meetings with different officials, namely, fire officers, disability officers, planners, and possibly conservation officers. For most people, this amounts to a lot of cost and hassle, meaning that an otherwise perfect unit remains unused into the future. Many of these units are in prime city or town centre locations. It is estimated, for example, that there are 4,000 vacant above-the-shop units in Dublin city alone, which is a shameful waste in view of the ongoing housing crisis here. We believe that this would also offer an opportunity to address the issue of dilapidation in cities, towns and villages and revitalise, re-energise and repopulate these areas. The latter would, in turn, potentially lead to the provision of greater retail facilities.
Under this Bill, safety standards and the necessity for full compliance with building regulations would remain unchanged. We earnestly ask the Department to draft and publish revised technical guidance documents to accompany each part of the building regulations for use by the one-stop shop in respect of these type of refurbishments. The core change suggested in the Bill would involve all regulatory sections - those relating to building control, conservation, disability access, fire and planning - being brought together to agree on a solution in the case of a refurbishment or conversion of an older structure or commercial premises to residential use. This is clearly a more joined-up approach to the issue of refurbishment and would make it more attractive for a building owner to seek certification for his or her building. While building owners will still have the option of using the old system to certify their buildings, the new one-stop shop procedure would offer a more expedited and centralised approach.
There would be an optional pre-application consultation whereby advice would be offered as to whether an application meets requirements to be processed via the one-stop shop. The actual application would be presented in person in front of a panel of experts. The latter would then sign off on the full application in one or two days.
The one-stop shop will issue a works permit which will replace a fire safety certificate and a disability certificate, as well as verifying compliance with other parts of the building regulations. Construction can then commence as soon as possible.
Approved inspectors would inspect the checklist on the site to ensure compliance. Creating a panel of approved inspectors in every local authority is the most significant contribution to the Bill, as it would pave the way toward a more rigorous and flexible inspection regime across the country. These inspectors would be paid standardised fees and be accountable to local authorities via a three-year framework agreement. This would remove the financial link between certifiers and developers. Being an approved inspector would also help inspectors get professional indemnity insurance and latent defects insurance, which is virtually unheard of in the market. While this new approved inspector system would be initially for refurbishments, once in place it could be tasked with increasing inspections and enhancing retrospective compliance with building regulations in existing rental units.
As anyone who has followed the news in recent weeks can attest to, this is clearly needed. There is just one inspector with responsibility for the entire Dublin city area for fire safety in rental accommodation. The inspection rate is estimated to be less than 10%. Similar issues with illegal subdivisions, over-occupancy and non-compliance with building control regulations will also be addressed by the enhanced inspection regime.
While this Bill is not a finished product, it represents a genuine attempt to overcome many of the existing administrative faults in our planning and building control processes identified as holding back urban regeneration. We have worked on this Bill in conjunction with several practitioners and experts. We have consulted widely with key stakeholders, including officials working in housing and planning in local authorities, Dublin City Council, multiple housing bodies working on the ground, such as the Peter McVerry Trust and Simon, builders and architects. We are appreciative of their efforts and support. We look forward to working with our parliamentary colleagues in this committee process to fine-tune the Bill. It is hoped it will have the desired effect of addressing significant vacancy rates and provide for greater participation of building owners to ensure these premises can be placed on the market. In turn, this will provide more units to deal with the current housing crisis.
I thank Deputy Cowen for this imaginative, practical and focused Bill. Any measure which will rejuvenate and get buildings back into use is to be welcomed and is important. However, it has to be an appropriate use and about proper planning and sustainable development. It is not any use but appropriate use.
Being familiar with section 57, dealing with protected structures and declarations, and section 5, exempt or non-exempt developments, the Bill will amend section 57(3) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 and speed up the process. We know it is a cumbersome process. I know from dealing with local authorities on getting clarification on exempt or non-exempt developments that it can take months. Ultimately, I have initiated the process myself and then waited for the decision of the planning authority. In some cases, if I were still not happy, I would go to An Bord Pleanála. It is a terribly long process.
We need to look at the whole issue of conservation officers. There are varying degrees of conservation officer across all of the 31 local authorities. Some do not have them while others share them with neighbouring local authorities. Some local authorities do little with protected structures and then there are others with engaging and imaginative conservation officers. They are not architects or planners. I do not know quite what they are and they do not know themselves. There is a need for tighter guidance on what is their function. I have spoken to planners and architects who have said that the conservation officers override their decisions. There seems to be conflict between county architects, county planners and conservation officers. The only way one can deal with that is by having robust guideline documents which set out the terms.
We have architecture of our time. The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland is keen to see architecture of our time which fits nicely with heritage buildings. It is different outlooks and different ways of planning. It needs to be streamlined, however, because people are telling me they are being frustrated by the process. The Bill is addressing this, which is welcome.
It is important to get over the complexities and the slowness of dealing with section 57 and section 59, planning and protected structures, and getting them to use. There was to be a national inventory of protected structures but some local authorities have not completed it. We need to look at that again and the power of local councils in designating buildings as protected structures. Several people in a local authority can decide to designate a whole lace of protected structures to frustrate development. There is no artistic, historic, scientific context as to why they should be protected structures. We need to tighten up how we define protected structures. What is the function of the councillors versus the function of the executive? There is always conflict between councillors wanting in some cases to designate buildings but they may not be motivated by what is of a historical or heritage value but more of a constituency value or to frustrate development. We have to be careful in this regard. We need stricter and tighter guidelines, along with a speedier and a more streamlined approach on these aspects of the Bill. I welcome the Bill and support it.
I thank Senator Boyhan for his contribution and welcome his support for the Bill in the round.
The whole area of protected structures is at the whim of the conservation architect in a local authority who, during the course of a preparation of a development plan, may make certain recommendations. Councillors democratically decide on the merits of these without necessarily having the technical guidance to make that a meritorious system over which one could stand. That is why we are seeking for the Department to draft and publish revised technical guidance documents to accompany each part of the building regulations for use by this one-stop shop. This will ensure consistency across local authorities. It would improve the current system, which is causing untold delays because of individuals seeking clarifications of interpretations, be they architects, fire officers or whatever. If this Bill forces the Department to bring forward revised technical guidance documents to cover all those areas, it will have been a success.
I thank Deputy Cowen for his presentation. Sinn Féin supports the legislation, as we outlined on Second Stage. We have had several discussions at this committee about this issue, particularly when we were examining the vacant homes strategy.
As Deputy Cowen pointed out, a range of organisations including industry experts, homelessness organisations and others have strongly advocated such a vehicle and it is very welcome. It is to be particularly welcomed if we are able to get the Bill through the Oireachtas in a timely fashion because it could be a very valuable tool not alone in terms of vacant housing stock, but for over-the-shop commercial units that are such a blight on our towns and urban centres and provide huge opportunities for residential stock and, in particular, affordable stock in rural town centres and large urban areas in cities such as Cork and Dublin. On that basis, we are happy to support the Bill. If the objective is to speed up the return of such units, we must scrutinise the issue of standards and safety to the best of our ability. Deputy Cowen made it very clear on Second Stage and again today that there is no intention or desire in the legislation to in any way compromise on safety and standards but we would be doing a service to the legislation and the committee if we scrutinised that aspect to the best of our ability.
The Department will present at second phase and the first of the two main concerns it will outline is the shift away from compliance with the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations, BCAR, system as it currently stands. It has raised concerns in regard to exemptions for fire safety and disability certificates and what it calls a kind of alternative building control system in respect of structure, fire, ventilation, stairs, energy efficiency and accessibility. It also raised a concern in regard to the subdivision of units being exempt from planning permission. In advance of the Department coming before the committee, I ask Deputy Cowen to give us a detailed response on how he sees the text of the legislation and its enactment responding to those concerns and not in any way undermining building standards or safety, in particular fire safety, because that is the crucial issue for the committee today.
There are some important positives in the proposal, such as the possibility of releasing the potential for new housing units above shops. It would be very positive if that were to provide good quality accommodation for those who need it and would also be of benefit if it were to bring people into cities, towns and villages that have a vibrancy during the day but become like a ghost town in the evening when shop shutters go down. To have people living in communities in those areas would benefit those towns and villages.
The purpose of this meeting is not so much to look at the broad positives but to try to tease out potential difficulties in the Bill and I will concentrate on that aspect. We have concerns in regard to the fast-tracking of planning. There is a danger that there could be a lowering of standards, which are important, and particularly so in respect of fire safety. We do not want any more scenarios such as that in Priory Hall.
A particular issue on which we want more discussion is that of subdivisions being exempt from planning permission. We do not want there to be very small units or to have the return of the bedsit by another route. We want to hear more about that issue and have it debated. We would be more in favour of using compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, than nudging owners into releasing the units.
As regards inspections, Deputy Cowne referred to approved inspectors, which seems to point towards the possibility of outsourcing inspections such as, for example, that one would have inspectors on three-year contracts and outsource the work in that respect. The inspectorate should be composed of local authority employees. There are 60 inspectors for private sector accommodation nationwide, which is ridiculously low and has recently been debated in the Dáil. We proposed that the number of inspectors should quickly be brought up to 500 to 750. There is no reason that a local authority inspectorate of that kind could not take this issue under its wing as part of its remit rather than outsourcing inspections, which we would oppose.
We are positively disposed toward the Bill and want it to progress but some issues need to be addressed, in particular regarding fast-tracking, fire safety, subdivision of units and the inspectorate.
I will deal first with the last questions asked. There may be some overlap. I welcome the continued commitment of members to the thrust of the Bill, which, as Deputy Ó Broin correctly stated, was also the tone on Second Stage, during which support for the Bill was obvious. I acknowledge that and know that members are interested in exploring the Bill in order to improve it and make it workable, as are my party and I.
Deputy Barry discussed his fears in regard to fast-tracking. The Bill does not necessarily provide for fast-tracking but, rather, a bringing together of local authority officials and those in responsibility in order to ensure there are synergies and that agreement is reached initially rather than through three or four processes taking differing lengths of time. That would suit owners and could suit the Department. It does not compromise standards because the system of inspection is for developments that are exempt from planning but inspection is ensured, which is not currently the case. At present, such inspections are sporadic and self-certified. The Bill takes that out of the equation and that can only improve standards.
We have proposed an initial outsourcing by local authorities to independent assessors. One would hope that there is scope for local authority staff to become the independent assessors and I voiced my support for that during a debate following the "Prime Time Investigates" programme that explored this area. If funding can be made available and local authorities are adequately resourced and financed to provide that expertise from within their own staff resources, I am all for that to be done because it copper-fastens the distance between the proposal and the works on the certification system. The Department has also raised issues in that specific regard.
There is no suggestion in the Bill that there should be a change in building regulation requirements in respect of fire safety, structural safety or ventilation as claimed by the Department in its response to the proposal. What is proposed is, as I said, a far more rigorous, integrated system with independent oversight either from independent assessors or local authority officials and which is safer than the self-certification and blanket exemptions that currently exist. The Department has reservations regarding a proposal to exempt the complex works of developing existing buildings without appropriate alternative arrangements that maintain the integrity of the standards and process.
What is proposed is essentially a far more robust system of independent oversight by technical experts than self-certification by the builder which is in essence, by the builder, owner or landlord. I contend, and I am sure the committee agrees, that what is contained here is a much higher standard of control than the Department's proposal that pursues much the same line of assessment that is currently there with self-certification.
The Department also states that the online application system for fire safety certificates and disability access certificates and dispensation and relaxation is also being developed. That is welcome in its own right but I do not believe it is necessarily relevant to the issue. It does not address the delays that are in the system now, be it online or paper-based, because it is going off on different strands. Regulations were proposed some time ago. They have not been published so it is not possible to compare them to this Bill. From the information that is available, it would seem that a self-certification extension of the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations, BCAR, system is envisaged. That would not overcome the barriers we have identified. The subdivision of a dwelling is a material change of use that could be addressed in the Bill, but in any case the Minister is not precluded from making new categories of exempted developments by regulation. That is an issue within the one-stop-shop system for the planner to clarify. If that is the situation, then one must accept it and go the route of a planning application for certain subdivisions.
I wish to follow up and expand on Deputy Barry's point on the technical instruments that we believe is required. At no stage does this Bill indicate a shortening or weakening of the building standards that are there now. We are, however, looking at vacant properties that exist throughout Ireland at present. Some of them that are currently being used are probably not fit for purpose. This Bill clearly states that when we are dealing with older buildings, we can apply the same technical documents that apply to new builds. They currently do not exist. We have given a number of examples of the areas in which these technical documents are required for older buildings so they ensure they comply with fire standards. We believe there is a very significant piece of work for the Department to do in this regard to draft these technical documents to deal with the areas that have been listed in Schedule 1 to ensure they comply with safety standards. Currently no technical documents exist for the renovations of existing old and listed buildings. They just do not exist. If we can get this aspect working properly and deliver this legislation, it might encourage those people out there who have already converted their buildings, which none of us knows about but we know there is a lot of them, to come in to this process to regularise it because the guidance documents will be there. The current building regulations stand until the technical guidance documents are developed by the Department for the retrofitting of older buildings where new standards cannot apply because we are dealing with older structures.
I welcome Deputy Cowen's submission to the committee. There is much merit in what he proposes in the Bill. I believe we are all agreed there is too much vacant stock, be it commercial or residential, in our towns, cities and villages. Given the fact that the houses are already serviced, it makes sense to try to bring a renewed focus on how to bring them back into use. A Bill such as this is very helpful not only to focus policymakers' minds, but to also put the issue on the table for the Department officials and the local authorities.
In the preparation of the Bill, did Deputy Cowen have any consultation with, for example, local authority management such as the County and City Management Association or councillor representative groups? There could be learnings there that could strengthen the Bill. Perhaps Deputy Cowen could clarify that point.
I take on board the Deputy's assurances on compliance, standards and building regulations. That aspect could possibly be strengthened further by regulation if the Bill proceeds. I have no doubt that the Deputy does not propose to reduce compliance standards, which I welcome.
On local authority inspections, I agree that we need to increase resources and increase the rate of local authority independent inspections of buildings to ensure that they are up to standard. Ireland's record is quite poor in this regard so the results we have seen in developments such as Priory Hall and other instances where buildings have not been up to standard are not a surprise. This Bill would certainly be a step in the right direction in that respect, starting with refurbishments. I welcome any improvements in that area. It will be interesting to hear the view of the Department officials on this later. If Deputy Cowen would like to comment further about this, I would welcome it.
The idea behind the Bill is a one-stop-shop, which we can understand. Would Deputy Cowen envisage it as just the co-ordination of existing departments within a local authority or would it be a case of professional people working as engineers, planners and fire safety officers within local authorities being seconded to the Department so that it is fully outfitted? How will it work on the ground practically? Obviously there will be resource issues. Would it be a service dedicated to refurbishment? I would like an understanding around it, for example, would there be flexibility within the local authority to manage it as it sees fit? Does Deputy Cowen understand where I am coming from? Will it be a dedicated service with full professional people or will it be somebody within a local authority who has the authority to call these people in from the various departments? I am trying see how the process would function practically.
Will there be some type of reporting system to the councillors, as the elected members, on the applications that go through this proposed unit? Would there be, for example, a monthly report on the success rate or otherwise provided to the members, similar to the housing report?
Yes. The members are correct that the creation of such a facility within a local authority or grouping can be a very proactive measure in this area, rather than reactive. This is a very good suggestion.
In answer to Senator Coffey's first query, the answer is "Yes". During the course of the deliberations, we consulted widely with stakeholders including council officials and especially within Dublin City Council. They said that a similar type of mechanism was created with them in respect of the south Georgian core report. The idea was to get all the regulatory sections such as building control, conservation, disability access and fire safety teams together to agree a solution, in this case, for Georgian protected structures. That could be elaborated on for different types of structures depending on the age of the buildings and that expertise could then seek to assist in communicating and publicising that it could be possible to streamline the applications to put the units back in to use without compromising standards and safety. Any such group should be accountable to the local authority members so they can ascertain and adjudge its productivity and success. Primarily we discussed this with Dublin City Council officials and with various Fianna Fáil members, especially following the UCD survey that identified up to 4,000 over-the-shop units in Dublin city, and following our own anecdotal evidence from around the State. We have seen, and are perfectly knowledgeable of, the dilapidation of towns and villages that have lost their vitality due to unoccupancy with people no longer living and residing within town centres. This Bill is a means to address this also.
Together with a re-purposed and altered repair and lease scheme and the publication of the deliberations of the commission on taxation, this would help landlords to remain in the sphere or encourage people to enter the market to address the crisis.
This proposal is a very good one and the legislation is excellent. Conservation is a good thing not a bad thing and we should and, in many cases, do encourage it. The conservation and renewal of older buildings while addressing energy ratings and other issues make a great deal of sense. While I am not talking about anybody in the room, some people say conservation is bad or does not make sense. The quality of older materials is far superior to that of many modern ones used in the so-called buildings we had during the boom. Those materials are much more substantial and will last a hell of a lot longer. The buildings are old but they are still standing. Some of them have been there for hundreds of years. I am not familiar with the Georgian group in Dublin to which the Deputy referred, but I have personal knowledge of a listed building where we took the guys who had very kindly knocked it down to the High Court and made them rebuild it with handmade bricks. We had a great deal of help from the Irish Georgian Society and conservation architects like Mr. John Redmill, who is extremely well known. There are many people with a lot of knowledge who would like to conserve and restore older buildings in our town centres and rundown areas. If we could ask them, they would set up a unit. Having spoken to people, they are quite prepared to work on this and to assist and help in every possible way to get the old buildings restored to the greatest extent possible. Having regard to the costs, taxation was mentioned. We should incentivise the conservation and reconstruction of these buildings.
I have some notes on the census but I will leave my questions to the officials when they come in. Clearly, the census indicates that there are areas in all our small or large towns and cities where there are higher rates of vacancy or, in many cases, dereliction. Those areas are colour coded. Where the higher vacancy rates occur is where this work needs to be done because people are not living there anymore. We could look at the creation of zones within the larger urban areas to fast-track planning while definitively meeting all fire safety and appropriate construction regulations. I would certainly favour making it a quicker process.
There is a great deal that is positive in what is proposed here. As a society, we seem to rely too much on our Departments and local authorities to do everything. They have failed the test so far in the housing crisis. Different local authorities have different skill mixes. I do not know if people here remember the national building agency, but it was a very efficient vehicle for the design, construction and delivery of houses and apartments in local authority areas. If we went back to that model and, for example, Louth County Council wanted to build 50 houses, the agency could design and manage the process in a very professional and efficient way. We would not need to start from scratch again because I presume the people involved are still employed by the public service. We should bring them together again as a dynamic force to drive this forward. They have all the resources, technical knowledge, expertise and skills local authorities would not otherwise have. That is the gap I see; the absence of a streamlined, fast-track administrative procedure with the appropriate and proper professionals available nationally to drive it. If this legislation succeeds, which I hope it does, it will be the Oireachtas working together collectively to ensure the needs of our citizens are met and that the rundown areas in our towns and cities are inhabited again. I very much welcome the proposal.
Deputy O'Dowd's points on conservation are well made and have been understood. In no way do we want to compromise conservation, no more than we want to compromise health and safety, fire certification or anything else in relation to building. What we are looking for is greater clarification around technical guidance. The example we gave on Dublin City Council and the Georgian core involves one set of guidance and criteria which applies in that sphere. It is something that could be applied on a broader scale in relation to conservation methods because the last thing we want is to make it practically and financially impossible for these buildings to come back into use. In the UK, for example, the facade is preserved and construction takes place behind it rather than having an effort to conserve every last detail. I do not have the technical expertise to make that judgment and rely on the professionalism of those who are qualified. That is why we are asking the Department to act as an agent to ensure the information is brought together and recommendations are forthcoming for legislators to adjudicate on and enact based on our constituents' representations and our knowledge of our own localities and communities. As such, we would avoid provisions which were onerous or might act as a barrier to the development we want to see revitalising and regenerating our towns and villages where nobody lives and there is clearly less desire to move given the dilapidation we see. There are other issues of property rights and legal difficulties which might arise relating to the release of these properties but that is for another Bill to investigate. The Department is going through its vacant property strategy. It was to be published in March but that is another conversation. I hope those issues are addressed in that process, which would help.
I welcome the Bill which has great potential. We were all trying to work with local authorities recently on the repair and leasing scheme, which has not taken off at all. The uptake has been very poor. The scheme only covers housing or apartments, but this Bill covers commercial and residential property. I compliment Deputy Cowen on working with all of the agencies involved because that is crucial. Currently, there are more than 240,000 vacant houses nationally, including flats. The Bill concerns all the different bodies covering fire safety, disability access, building control and local authorities which means things can move quickly and be done to a proper standard. I have no doubt that these agencies will deliver when they are brought together. The biggest issue with the schemes that have been brought through and the reason they are not working relates to the requirements imposed.
I know from dealing with the repair-and-leasing and buy-and-renew schemes that many people seeking to avail of them are not qualifying for them, so the requirements of these schemes will be crucial. This is a very good Bill and I hope it will get through to Final Stage. Will Deputy Cowen clarify the matter of the approved inspectors? Who will they be or from what Department will they come? I refer also to urban regeneration. It is crucial that as Senators and Deputies, we bring back regeneration into our towns. Doing so will help to create activity in our town centres. As Deputy Cowen said, he has worked with the different agencies - the Peter McVerry Trust, the architects and all the local authorities, in particular Dublin City Council - and they have given him advice. That is a sure sign of a good Bill that needs to be passed as quickly as we are allowed to pass it. To Deputy Cowen I say, "Well done."
The Senator makes the same point Senator Coffey made earlier, which is the potential is there for such a system or mechanism within local authorities to be proactive and even to make recommendations through the Department as to how to improve the criteria, for example, regarding the repair-and-lease scheme and for the Government ultimately to take on board such recommendations in order to make it more practicably possible for its intention to be realised. The point is well made. As I said in response to Deputy Barry earlier, we have provided in the Bill, initially at least, for assigned certifiers or persons to be of relevant expertise but independent of the builder or landlord or both, and for an employee initially of the local authority to make an independent authoritative assessment of compliance with the regulations and technical guidelines we hope would ensue on foot of it. I am open to that assigned person or certifier being within the local authority and having similar relevant qualifications and capabilities to those from the private sector. This also could act as a revenue source of income for local authorities to be used and ring-fenced within the housing income for further dispersal and usage by local authorities thereafter. I will provide Senator Murnane O'Connor with specific details regarding the section as it is composed and proposed within this Bill. Section 11 of the Building Control Act gives the meaning to an "authorised person". As I said, I am here with my colleagues, who have a shared will to address many aspects of housing policy of which this is only one. We want to pool together those resources and those minds to improve the Bill and make it more appropriate to the needs of the market and local authorities but ultimately to target those people who do not have homes at present in a way that allows these properties to come into use much more quickly and much more cost-efficiently while improving the quality of certification regarding their suitability and compatibility with guidelines and regulations surrounding health and safety, fire certification, disability, conservation and the planning realm, as adjudicated by the planning member of the panel that initially meets the proposers.
I fully support Deputy Cowen's Bill. The one-stop shop streamlining is well in order. The Bill is timely, given that we are in a housing supply crisis and that we have so much vacant stock around the country, not only here in Dublin. Regarding the conservation aspect, I lived in the Netherlands for nine years, and one sees in streetscapes in Amsterdam or any of the other large cities that they maintain their buildings very well. There is a formula there that Ireland could use. We have absolutely magnificent old buildings, as Deputy O'Dowd said, that were well built at the time, whose materials are still good and that should be utilised. The compliance with regulations and standards should be recognised, but we need to push this on as a committee because we are still in a supply crisis. We have a lot of supply, and every time I come through the city into Leinster House or wherever else, I look at the underutilised housing supply all over the place above shop buildings and so on. It is an inefficient use of buildings and we need to move on from it.
I will take on board the Senator's recommendations regarding investigating the system of conservation methods used in order to facilitate the retention of the buildings she mentioned in the Netherlands. As I said earlier, I am aware of some cities in the UK that have also in recent times come up with a mechanism that retains those kinds of buildings, their facades especially. Perhaps that is a mirror version of what takes place in the Netherlands. I do not know. I thank the Senator for her contribution and note it and will seek to investigate the matter further.
I thank Deputy Cowen for bringing forward the Bill. We have long been due some sort of joined-up approach in this regard and I have always felt there has been an awful disjoint when it comes to housing, particularly vacant units. I have raised the issue over the years and I keep getting the figure of approximately 4,000 over-shop units, and we have 200,000 or so vacant housing units across the country, but I have never got a figure yet on how many shops are below ground. I have requested this number but I do not think it is included in the figures I have already been given, so we do not have a clear picture. Taking as an example Ballymun, which is the area with which I am most familiar, we have at least 20 to 30 units from the regeneration alone which have been lying idle and blocked up for ten to 15 years. I saw the same thing when I was in Bodenstown. The new shopping centre has been sitting idle for ten to 15 years. It is therefore important we first get a grip on the figures. I do not know whether Deputy Cowen heard what I said.
I was talking about Bodenstown and Ballymun. Across the whole Ballymun area, for instance, we have at least 30 units below ground level with large windows boarded up, and not just there but right across the country. It is the same in Bodenstown. Every time I go there I see these units boarded up, and we have no figures on the number of such units. There is a huge amount of work to be done, whether planning or design, on how they might be brought back into use. As we would have problems over development plans and master plans where these units were all put in, supposedly to supplement the incoming residential population, we really need to consider this hugely significant area.
Regarding the architects and the panel of experts, most of the local authorities have the experts. They have the architects, the planners and so on.
We should keep as much as possible within the remit of the local authorities. The inspectors and this panel of experts will obviously come from the local authorities to be supplemented perhaps from some other external sources. I believe they are best placed and have the experience for this role.
Did Deputy Cowen consult the senior management of the local authorities, and discuss the issue with them? I would be interested to learn how they viewed it.
After the Celtic tiger period, we saw the emergence of ideas about locating shops throughout the country. The predictions of areas of population growth were a total failure and we have ended up with vacant units everywhere. There are issues with the older units in towns. Fire safety is now a consideration in terms of design and the frontage. The experts need to look at this to ensure it is in harmony with its surroundings.
Another area which we need to consider is the conversion of warehouses, mills and older buildings. The old mill in Phibsborough was converted into accommodation many years ago. There are similar buildings that need to re-imagined. There are many old schools and other buildings that have been left lying idle in Dublin city centre and we could look at converting them for use.
We are in the middle of a housing crisis. How long does Deputy Cowen envisage it would take for such a Bill to be enacted by the Oireachtas? Will the process take six months or longer?
I thank Deputy Ellis. I will begin by responding to his final question on how long it will take for a Bill to be enacted by the Oireachtas. If the urgency of the situation is taken into account, this can be done quickly. We have previously sat long nights to assist other sectors. There is a significant responsibility on the Oireachtas to help and assist people who are in dire housing circumstances. When there is all-party support and universal weight behind a proposal such as this, it is incumbent on us to ensure this happens as soon as practicable. We must extract such a commitment from the Department when it comes before us. The Government had committed to bringing forward a strategy in March 2017, and I assume it is in the offing, both the Minister and the Government have acknowledged they will work with this Bill as part of their response to addressing the issue. I take that at face value and with the best of good faith. I look forward to that being realised.
In response to the Deputy's query on basement properties and the properties in his constituency, particularly in Ballymun, that should be explored. I am not precious about anything in the Bill and I am open to suggestions on improvements. We can discuss use of space over the shop as well as under the shop. We can at least make recommendations as a committee for further legislation to address the vacant commercial units that exist in towns, villages and in the city centres where the envisaged use has not materialised and there is a pressing need for residential use. Every effort should be made to accommodate change of use in a fast-track manner without compromising any standards.
In response to Deputy Ellis' question on whether I had discussed the issue with local officials and management, yes, I have and there is support and a commitment to it. There is the greater potential for dealing with insurance and latent defects than is the case at present. We should be conscious of that and it would lessen the financial burden that may accrue to local authorities under the present system in the event off a claim. That is my fear about the present certification inspection system. This Bill addresses that problem too and ensures that insurance cover is much more forthcoming than is the situation at present.
One of the primary drivers of the Bill is as a result of the representations of retailers and subsequent consultation. In addition, members of political parties and none highlighted the dilapidation and underuse of properties in their area and the barriers to the possible potential use. The barriers remain in place if we do not do take action as suggested in the Bill, which focuses the minds of management and officials in local authorities on the areas of responsibilities in respect of standards and brings them together and ensures there is a mechanism put in place that allows them to act in a more cost-efficient and timely manner. That benefits everybody concerned.
This is the second session of our detailed scrutiny of the Vacant Housing (Refurbishment) Bill 2017 today. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Terry Sheridan, Ms Sarah Neary, Mr. Niall Cussen and Mr. Brendan Buggy of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, members and visitors in the Gallery are asked to ensure their mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device, for the duration of the meeting. It is not sufficient to put phones on silent mode as this will maintain the level of interference with the broadcasting system.
I draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint 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. 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 by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask Mr. Terry Sheridan to make his opening statement.
Mr. Terry Sheridan:
I thank the members of the committee, including the sponsor of this Bill, Deputy Cowen, for giving me and my colleagues an opportunity to discuss in more detail some of the key elements of the Vacant Housing (Refurbishment) Bill 2017 subsequent to its initial discussion on Second Stage in the Dáil last month. The departmental colleagues who are accompanying me are Ms Sarah Neary, who is the Department's principal adviser on building standards, Mr. Niall Cussen, who is the Department's chief planner, and Mr. Brendan Buggy, who works in the Department's new empty homes unit.
As part of the overarching Rebuilding Ireland policy document, we are committed to bringing vacant properties back into use. There is scope to maximise the use of many underused or vacant properties in this country. It should be noted that many such units remain underutilised for a number of complex reasons. It can be labour-intensive and financially unreasonable to identify and reactivate them. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, with the assistance and advice of the Housing Agency, has undertaken substantial analysis and consideration of the issues around vacant housing. Earlier this summer, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, announced that various actions are being taken at central and local government levels to prioritise the identification and reuse of vacant homes and buildings, particularly in vacancy hotspot areas where there is significant pent-up demand for houses. It is in this context that the Department has examined the Vacant Housing (Refurbishment) Bill 2017. I would like to take this opportunity to outline briefly the Department's broad views on the overarching provisions of the Bill in advance of more detailed discussions.
Section 2, which relates to building standards, proposes amendments to the Building Control Act 1990 to provide for a one-stop shop local authority process, exemptions from fire safety certificates, disability access certificates and certificates of compliance on completion, exemptions from being recorded on the building register, an alternative building control system, and amendments to regulations regarding structure, fire, sound, ventilation, stairs, energy efficiency and accessibility. While we support the broad intention of the Bill, concerns are raised by the proposal to alter the performance requirements of building regulations in respect of fire safety, structural safety and ventilation, etc. These fundamental regulations protect the health and safety of people in and around buildings. Unfortunately, many incidences of building failures and severe non-compliance with building regulations have come to light over the past decade. As part of the response to this, new building control requirements have been introduced to bring a new order and discipline to bear on construction projects. For that reason, we have reservations about the proposal to exempt the complex work of developing existing buildings for residential use from these requirements without appropriate alternative arrangements that maintain the integrity of the standards and process.
A working group established by the Department has been tasked with developing new guidance to provide clarity on the regulatory requirements that apply when existing buildings are being developed for residential use and advising on how best to facilitate the reuse or development of underused older buildings in the context of such regulatory requirements. This group, which includes people with expertise in building regulations, fire safety in buildings, planning, design and heritage from inside and outside the Department, has met twice and a further meeting is scheduled for next Monday. The group has been gathering evidence on the real regulatory difficulties faced by people when they are bringing vacant buildings back into use for residential purposes. The working group has identified a number of common existing building typologies, worked on the application of the regulations to existing works and commenced developing guidance for these circumstances. An online application system for fire safety certificates, disability access certificates and dispensation and relaxation is being developed to help further streamline and speed up the certification process.
Sections 3 and 4 propose amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000. Section 3 relates to exempted development provisions and proposes three new classes of exemptions in the context of residential development, including works requiring the change of use from commercial or industrial use to residential use. Section 4 provides for the new one-stop shop application procedure mentioned earlier in the Bill to be used to expedite requests for section 5 declarations and states that this will be determined by a panel of "authorised persons". As the Government has already committed under Rebuilding Ireland to reviewing planning legislation to allow the change of use of vacant commercial units as residential units without the need for planning, we can indicate broad support for the thrust of the planning related proposals. In this regard, the Department is at an advanced stage of redrafting proposed amendments in this regard by means of secondary regulations rather than by means of primary legislation as proposed in the Bill.
It is intended that the draft regulations will shortly be presented to the committee and to both Houses of the Oireachtas for approval before these proposed regulatory amendments can come into effect. We are holding a further meeting on Monday on these proposed exempted development regulations.
A key point distinguishing the draft regulations from the features of the Bill is that it is not proposed to require a mandatory section 5 declaration prior to availing of the exemptions.The draft regulations are more streamlined in approach. In keeping with existing exemptions procedures, a developer will immediately be able to avail of the exemption without the need to engage with, and get confirmation from, the planning authority before commencing work.
Separately, there is a concern about the proposal in the Bill which concerns making the subdivision of a dwelling into two or more dwellings exempt from planning permission. This conflicts with the Planning and Development Act 2000, which provides that such development is a material change of use and intensification of use, requiring consideration by a planning authority through the planning application process, with particular regard to protecting residential amenity and other considerations.
These are just some initial thoughts on the provisions of the Bill. Hopefully over the course of these discussions we can provide some additional insight into the proposals set out byDeputy Cowen and we will be happy to address any questions the committee may have to the best of our ability.
I have two sets of questions. The first relates to some of the concerns Mr. Sheridan expressed in the written presentation regarding building standards and safety issues. I have heard and read the comments, but I am interested to know in more practical day-to-day detail how Mr. Sheridan believes the provisions of the Bill would negatively impact on safety if they were implemented. Mr. Sheridan listed a series of concerns, including structure, fire ventilation, stairs, energy efficiency and accessibility. In layperson's terms, I would like him to talk us through the reasons he thinks the provisions of the Bill would cause problems in those particular areas.
I would also like to address exempting the subdivision of units from planning permission. My understanding, from the Bill and from listening to Deputy Cowen earlier, is that there is no reduction in standards. They remain the same. However if one has, for example, above-the-shop commercial units and one is looking to subdivide what was a large commercial unit into appropriate residential apartments, this may be a sensible way to speed that up. If there is an appropriate inspection regime, we can make sure that the standards are fully complied with.
Separately from the legislative language, I am interested to hear more on that. The general view of the committee is that we support this Bill and its intentions. There is nobody, from the proposers through to those of us who support it, who wants to see compromised in any way minimum standards, builder compliance or fire safety. If there are unintended consequences to pursuing the objective of the Bill that we can design out as we go through Committee Stage, the committee is keen to address them in order to get the best possible legislation.
Mr. Terry Sheridan:
I will ask Ms Neary to respond on the issue of reservations regarding fire safety, ventilation, access etc. Generally speaking, we are on the same page. We want to achieve the same objectives. We are informed by pillar 5 in the Rebuilding Ireland plan, which includes a commitment to review the planning legislation to allow the change of use of commercial into residential without the need for planning permission and we are working on that. Since earlier this year, we have broadened that commitment to review the building control requirements with a view to streamlining the planning aspects as much as we can and exempting specific conversions from the current requirement to obtain planning permission. We are also working to streamline, and perhaps better co-ordinate, the management process around building control by local authorities. We have a working group working on that aspect and we are fairly advanced, particularly on the planning aspect.
We hope to present the exemption development regulations to the committee very shortly. We are on our third draft now and a further meeting on Monday will hopefully result in a fourth and close to a final draft. That is very advanced and we are also making progress on the other aspect. The Department has the same objective as the committee but we are trying to come up with the most streamlined process possible while maintaining standards in respect of fire safety, access, structure, etc. Ms Neary can go into more detail on the reservations.
Ms Sarah Neary:
As a general statement, this is probably the most complex building work that one can do. It involves confined spaces and confined access and it is uncertain what will be discovered in the foundations, structure or whatever. Existing buildings represent probably the most complex infill. The Bill suggests a number of amendments to parts of the building regulations. That is where I have concerns about changing the legislative requirements, which are broad performance requirements. Regarding structure, they require that a building would be safe and can withstand the loadings. Part B of the regulations requires a building to have adequate fire detection and alarm systems, means of escape, resistance to the spread of fire and so on. The suggestion in Schedule 1 of the Bill before the committee is that these would change, and that would fundamentally change the level of safety. I will come back to the question of how we are addressing that in a minute. I understand the idea behind this but I am concerned about the approach to changing the legal performance requirements of buildings.
The second issue is the Bill's provision that such developments would not require a fire safety certificate. That requirement is a very powerful tool in enforcing upfront consideration of fire at an early stage. The detail must be designed in to get work approved. It is probably the strongest of the building control measures and it would be a highly retrograde step to go without it for the most complex development works about which we are talking. The third issue is the fundamental change from the system of assigned certifiers under the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014. This would be an alternative means. It is difficult to see exactly how it would work out and what fundamentally is different between the two systems. I would rather see the existing system being built upon and the available expertise being used. It takes time for industry to respond and when one form of development is different from another, complexities are created and things get lost in that.
I must come back to the main point around the difference in standards. What we are trying to do in the group that Mr. Sheridan talked about is provide greater guidance on existing buildings. Our building regulations are very much geared towards new build, and so is our guidance. In recent amendments to building regulations the guidance has dealt a little bit more with existing buildings, particularly in Part M, which concerns accessibility, and increasingly in Part L. We are moving into that area, but I admit there is not as much guidance for this kind of development and re-use of existing buildings as there is for new buildings. That is what this group is all about. If there are real problems with compliance, we are trying to identify what they are. Even in our two meetings so far, we have brought forward a number of documents on the application of building regulations to existing buildings, examining particular parts of the regulations and how they apply. To be honest, I do not think that is fully understood. We have circulated some documents on that. They are being reviewed at the moment, and even that will be a step forward in clarifying which building regulations actually apply. The next step is to drill down into the detail to ascertain where the problems are and to provide specific guidance on that.
The emerging approach is that we look at four or five typical types of urban building, see what regulations apply and determine the guidance we provide across the building regulations for that type.
That is what we hope to do within this, and it addresses the issues raised in the Bill but without changing that fundamental requirement for fire safety, structural safety, etc.
I have a brief follow-up question. If the planning work is done and the regulations and guidelines for refurbishments changed, one of the attractive things about Deputy Cowen's Bill from our point of view is the idea of the one-stop shop, whereby a person does not have to go to a number of different places to try to get a number of different things to get his or her project across the line, particularly given that we are trying to get these units into active use more quickly. Are the two sets of alternative proposals Ms Neary and Mr. Sheridan have outlined compatible with the one-stop shop mechanism, whereby the owner of the property can still go to a single place and go through that entire process relatively quickly and in a way that does not undermine standards? It is not just about those technical aspects but also about the procedures that people must go through for the refurbishments.
Ms Sarah Neary:
There have been some good examples of the one-stop shop, such as the Living City initiative in Dublin City Council, DCC. DCC had set up a one-stop shop for applications for that initiative. It brought together its multidisciplinary groups dealing with planning and building control, fire safety, heritage and accessibility. It provided that service. Therefore, I do not think it is impossible to do the one-stop shop, but the landscape might be very different. The two pillar areas are planning and building control. If there is an exemption under planning, we are probably back to a one-stop shop in terms of building control, fire safety and the 12 parts of the building regulations.
I thank all the witnesses for attending. We had a very interesting engagement with Deputy Cowen on the Bill earlier. I think we all agreed that compliance and standards should not be compromised and we all felt there is much merit in the Bill. It is very obvious, given the number of vacant properties in our cities, towns and villages, that something is not working. Practically, I understand and respect the responsibilities of various Department officials and the various sections within those Departments on the ground, and the same goes for local authorities. However, having spoken to people who wish to redevelop town centre or city centre properties, I feel that the frustration on the ground is that the bureaucracy and the administration that goes with it just creates barriers and people just do not bother.
We must look at ourselves and ask ourselves, including policymakers, officials in the Department with responsibility, and local authorities, why it is not working and what we can do to make it work. I think we are all agreed that we cannot compromise on safety or standards, but there is a sense that there is no ownership within either local authorities or even the Department. Mr. Sheridan has responsibility for building standards, for example, and he will protect and argue and advocate for that, and others have responsibility for planning, but there is no oversight or cross-cut, as it were, that actually makes things happen.
The thrust of the Bill is to try to introduce a one-stop shop, a co-ordination unit or whatever one wants to call it. As Mr. Sheridan mentioned, it is already established in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in respect of vacant houses. We do not have that in the local authorities, for example, because they are operating like silos, similar to what happens within the Department. There is one section doing one thing, another doing its own thing, and they all do a good job, but there is no cross-cut. The practical reality of this on the ground is that we are not making progress. Deputy Cowen can correct me if I am wrong, but that is our frustration, and the idea behind the Bill is to try to bring that type of cross-cut into local authorities and the Department in order that we actually deliver on turning these vacant houses around and bringing them back into use. That is my frustration.
There are also some very good proposals in the Bill concerning inspections of property which will enforce the argument Ms Neary has just made about standards. I am concerned that self-certification is not the ideal answer, and this is reflected in the problems we have seen in building stock, as in cases such as Priory Hall. I think Deputy Cowen's Bill proposes that there be a strong local authority inspection for all refurbishments and that nothing be signed off on unless it is up to standard and in compliance with planning regulations and so on. I am interested to hear whether there is any new thinking within the Department in this regard.
The witnesses touched on other mechanisms that might be brought forward, but we really need to grasp this nettle and do something that can progress the bringing of vacant stock into use because there is just too much of it and we can all see it around us. Given the crisis we have, we need to think outside the box, and Deputy Cowen's Bill could be the vehicle to do so. Let us amend or shape it if we need to do so and bring the technical guidance or expertise along with it to make things happen because the present situation is very frustrating. Vacant housing is not being brought back into use because there are too many silos in local authorities and within the Department.
Mr. Terry Sheridan:
Our objective is the same as Deputy Cowen's. There are significant numbers of vacant properties and vacant spaces within properties throughout the country, and our objective is to bring as many of those back into use as possible. We have a dedicated pillar in Rebuilding Ireland on bringing vacant properties back into use, and that is where much of this work we are doing emanates from. I totally agree with Senator Coffey that there are myriad regulatory requirements that must be met when bringing properties back into use for residential purposes, including planning, building control, fire safety, disability access, registration with the Register of Electrical Contractors of Ireland, RECI-----
Mr. Terry Sheridan:
-----conservation, electricity connections and Irish Water connections, all of which increase costs and give rise to risks and uncertainties for developers. We are trying to streamline the whole process as much as possible, as I said, to co-ordinate and manage better the way the interdisciplinary teams within local authorities operate. Part of the guidance we are developing is to provide greater clarity on how these buildings can be brought back into use. We are therefore ultimately working towards the exact same objective, although coming at it from a different approach, that is, to maximise the reuse of properties, minimise the risk and reduce regulatory barriers as much as we can. That is where we are coming from with our work under Pillar 5.
I agree with the previous speakers. Timing is crucial. I understand and totally agree that we must have regulatory requirements in respect of building control, conservation, disability access and fire safety, but we have a housing crisis, with more than 230,000 vacant properties from houses to apartments and flats. People do not understand this. I told the Chairman this morning that, according to a survey, 70% of Irish people have no faith in the Government's housing policies. Driving down a street, I sees boarded up houses and apartments. Why, when so many people are homeless, can we not deal with this? A one-stop shop would have all the different agencies working together to solve this.
Like other speakers, I was a councillor for years and worked through the local authority. In my dealings with people seeking to avail of the repair and leasing scheme, it was clear it did not work. It has a very poor uptake because it is not working, even for people trying to qualify for it. In my area, Carlow, I have made several representations for people. They are not qualifying for the scheme. There is the vacant site levy, which I think will come into force on 1 June 2018, and the buy and renew scheme, but what we need is everyone working together.
The Bill deals with commercial and residential. We need to make sure our urban areas and town centres are brought back into use, and I believe the Bill can do that. The witnesses are dealing with professionals. They are all professionals in their Department on building control, disability access and fire safety. We are dealing with professionals. If they all get together and cannot work on something like this, it is not good. All the very professional agencies such as the Department working together can deliver on this.
The sad thing is that should have happened a long time ago because things are not getting better, there now are more vacant properties and action needs to be taken. Timing is crucial.
The witnesses have said the Department is working with the working groups, which I welcome because it is vital that everybody works together. However, we do not want to meet again in six months or a year and for nothing to have been done. I ask that the witnesses to work on this issue. Fire safety and planning are crucial but they are all professionals and should be able to ensure that is done.
Mr. Terry Sheridan:
I am in total agreement with Senator Murnane O'Connor. Our brief is urban renewal and increasing housing supply and we need to come up with mechanisms to facilitate that. As Ms Neary outlined, the current building regulations are perhaps more focused on the standards for new builds but we want to clarify that those new-build standards do not always have to apply to conversions and existing structures. The objective is to bring clarity on that to property owners and developers and try to minimise as much as possible the barriers that exist.
It is to be hoped that all present can get onto one page in respect of the Bill and get it moving forward because, as all speakers have said, there is a very high level of public frustration on the issue. A person trying to convert a building first applies for a planning exemption certificate, then a fire certificate and then a disability access certificate, all of which takes a significant amount of time and involves much back and forth with the authorities. That is also the case for conservation. The process proposed in the Bill would get all of those professionals together such that a person could deal with his or her application and the issues. It is not the intention behind the Bill to put standards at risk and it contains no indication that that will be done. We have suggested that instead of certificates for a planning exemption, fire safety and disability access, an applicant would be issued with a work permit that would deal with all of those issues. I hope the Department does not think that we are trying to weaken standards through our proposal because that is not our intention.
We all must admit that there are no technical documents currently available for a person who is refurbishing an existing building. All the technical documents available refer to new builds, not refurbishments. The Bill states in subsection (6)(c)(ii), as proposed to be inserted by section 2, in regard to the six criteria we mention, that: "the Department shall draft and publish revised technical guidance documents to accompany each part of the Building Regulations indicating how the amended requirements detailed in the Schedule 1of the Act of 2017can be achieved in practice". We are asking the Department to provide those technical documents. All present know that each local authority is currently doing so independently. There is no standard nationwide process for the refurbishment of buildings. Proper technical documents need to be drafted. Has the Department got the resources to provide such technical documents? They are significant and detailed and will be required if this Bill or the Government Bill on the issue is passed by the Oireachtas.
There will also be a difference of opinion in regard to the inspection and Building Control (Amendment) Regulations, BCAR, processes. We clearly indicate in the Bill that we want to move away from having an assigned certifier, which in the opinion of many members is self-regulation, and move to an independent certification process. I would love it if our local authorities had the resources and expertise to do that but we all know they probably do not. Therefore, we suggest that a framework agreement be set up whereby each local authority can bring in resources as required to provide the independent inspection. The independent inspection will put everybody's minds at ease that the work permit and related building controls have been carried out and independently assessed.
Ms Sarah Neary:
I hope to be able to answer all of those questions. The first point was that an applicant has to go through planning, fire certificates and disabilities access certificates, DACs, and I acknowledge that. As Mr. Sheridan outlined, we are considering a planning exemption which would take the planning requirement out of bringing a building back into use. If planning is removed, we are left with fire certificates and DACs. A fire certificate can be applied for. There is a two-month turnaround and the applicant gets a response from the local authority.
Ms Sarah Neary:
If a person wants it more quickly, seven days before going on site, he or she can submit the fire certificate. The person takes the risk that it is being done in accordance with the building regulations but, as the Deputy said, we are dealing with professionals who should know what they are doing. We do not want to put anything at risk but that facility is available within the current building control structure whereby a person can apply seven days before starting on site.
A disabilities access certificate can be applied for, if required. There is much misunderstanding of when building regulations apply in that regard and that is an area on which we have done a certain amount of work which is available on our website. More is being done in the context of the working group.
As regards technical guidance documents, TGDs, I take the point that they are more geared towards new builds. However, they are not exclusive to new builds. Sections in several of the documents deal with, for example, replacement boilers, energy works to existing buildings and accessibility to existing buildings. There is a very big section in that regard, with much detail. It takes time to go through and understand in terms of applying it to certain developments, but it does exist. I accept that we could do more.
As regards Deputy Casey's point on revising all the technical guidance documents, that is not required because they are not all significantly different whether one is dealing with new or old builds. However, some are more difficult to interpret and that is why the working group, rather than producing a new series of the documents from A to M, is looking at typical typologies of existing buildings and giving more specific guidance on the trickier areas. We are trying to achieve the most efficient way of producing guidance to help facilitate buildings rather than embarking on a new set of 12 technical guidance documents which would take a long time to produce.
In terms of resources, it would be great if we could have more.
Ms Sarah Neary:
As regards inspections, an important part of the BCAR system is that time is put in upfront by the design certifier to design the building in accordance with building regulations. That means it has been thought about it before people go on site and they have something they know is going to work and that has been certified by a competent person. When people move on to the construction phase, a risk assessment is done to create a sample inspection plan, which is the plan of when the building is going to be inspected. Those inspections have to be carried out by a competent person. The system involves a pushed approach to inspections at the most critical times.
The second level is the State layer, whereby building control people go out and do inspections. I will not go into the detail now but there is a lot of work going on in terms of ensuring we are doing risk-based inspections through building control. Obviously works such as this would feature on the risk scale and be considered complex, and we would, therefore, expect that such developments would be inspected by the local authority.
I feel a sense of frustration when reading the witnesses' brief. The working group has met twice. It would be good for this committee to get an update on its work. Ms Neary spoke about fire safety certificates and disability access certificates and said dispensation and relaxation are also being developed. Everything is being developed but there is a housing supply crisis. We see the potential for stock all around our urban centres such as vacant premises over shops etc.
The brief raises many questions, for example, when is this, when will we get that, and why is this not happening when we are in a crisis? Deputy Cowen outlined his Bill this morning. It is something concrete and specific and it can be progressed quite quickly having regard to health and safety standards and compliance. We absolutely understand that. Homelessness on our streets and the demand for housing have grown almost exponentially in recent months. We know the document, Rebuilding Ireland, exists but we are not seeing urgent action. I do not feel a sense of urgency in the presentation today. Deputy Cowen has given us legislation that will move things more quickly. I have concerns about the efficiency of dealing with the housing and homelessness emergency we face.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. Everyone here is singing from the same hymn sheet about what we want to see. There is huge frustration that we are not delivering quickly enough and that there are a series of obstacles, including planning, fire safety etc. That is why we think Deputy Cowen's Bill could help to create a package that will be delivered quickly. It has not been delivered quickly enough over recent years. Now we are in such a crisis that we need to move much more quickly.
We talk about the 4,000 units over shops and the 200,000 or more places vacant across the country, but I have tried repeatedly to get figures on how many shops are boarded up. Since the Celtic tiger period in 2008 there are at least 30 with fronts boarded up in Ballymun. I see them in Bodenstown but there is no figure for them. We should be able to get that and to find out why they are not being dealt with. It would be complicated to convert them, whether into units for living or otherwise. That would require a great deal of work, with architects etc. In small towns and in Dublin there are warehouses that are not accounted for. There are places left vacant all over the city. We need to find out if they can be utilised, whether to help those who are homeless or to get them up and running as living places. Years ago the mill in Phibsborough was converted. I think there is a plan to convert the old mill on Pearse Street into something similar. We need to be more imaginative about how we do it. It is very frustrating.
The working group should have been set up years ago and now it has met only twice which is not very often when there is such a hell of a crisis. We should be literally working around the clock to resolve this. I know many of those on the working group have other things to do but there should be an urgency to identify how work can be speeded up. We should pull out all stops to do that.
In respect of the Bill, local authorities are best placed to provide inspectors because they have experts, architects and planners. The biggest problem in the Bill is planning because many places got permission and they have been put into development plans, area plans and master plans, and the repercussions of all those would have to be considered too. I am not clear on that area and we need to consider it. Anything that can speed up this process and pull all the little threads together is very important. That is what makes the Bill attractive to us.
This committee has always worked very well with the Department and this time last year we passed the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2017 which allows us fast-track any application for a development of more than 100 units. When we talk about speeding up the process, vacant homes are only one area of many in Rebuilding Ireland. There are applications for 4,000 homes, 2,500 apartments and 5,000 student accommodation units before An Bord Pleanála at the moment. By working together we can see that we are speeding up the process. This is another measure for vacant homes and there is consensus on this. It is a question of how we work together and tease it out. I know there is an urgency. While the witnesses mentioned only two meetings, I know multiple daily meetings are happening in this area. Do Mr. Sheridan or Ms Neary want to respond to any of the questions Senator O'Sullivan and Deputy Ellis raised?
Mr. Terry Sheridan:
In response to Senator O'Sullivan, yes we can provide an update on the working group. I note her comment that everything seems to be being developed, but as the Chairman has outlined, we have done an awful lot in a short space of time. The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 is before the House but it has been stalled for six months. I had hoped that it would go through the Dáil before Christmas but that does not look like happening now because priority is being given to the Finance Bill 2017.
In view of that potential gap in our workload, I am optimistic that we can bring forward the exempted development regulations as a priority between now and Christmas and bring them before the committee in the normal way. The Minister cannot sign these under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2017 without Oireachtas approval, so we have to come through the committee and a subsequent resolution of both Houses. We will do our best to get that part of the work done between now and Christmas.
Huge priority is being attached to vacant homes as well.
We see them as being a very important means of increasing supply. They are also a lower cost than a new build as well as a more efficient use of resources. As the Chairman has outlined, we have done a great deal with the strategic housing development provisions of the Planning and Development (Housing) Residential Tenancies Act 2016.
We are also bringing forward the land hoarding provision in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 that is before the Dáil and which we are anxious to progress. We are increasing the vacant site levy, which will be introduced when that Bill goes to the Seanad. A great deal is going on in the background.
We are working between the two divisions, building control and planning on clarification guidance on building control. We are looking at the possibility of amalgamating some of the certificates. Everything is being explored. Originally we had a timeframe of six months from the establishment of the working group. In view of the urgency involved, we are trying to bring that forward as best as we can. I hope the parts dealing with planning will be out of the way between now and Christmas and we can try to progress the building control guidance documents as quickly as possible in the new year.
In response to Deputy Ellis who referred to vacancy figures, the CSO figures are a snapshot in time, May 2016. In view of the demand for housing, many of those properties have been brought back into use since then. I am not sure the figures are as high as they were at that time. The Minister has tackled and progressed the issue of vacant properties. He has already asked the local authorities to develop vacant homes action plans and to allocate and designate staff as empty homes officers to identify vacancy hotspots. We have received quite a number of action plans from local authorities, although the deadline for the submission of the plans is the end of the year. The local authorities are addressing this as well.
We are treating our work as urgent, but everything does take time. We have to tease out issues and we want to ensure that there are no unintended consequences from bringing forward proposals. My colleague, Ms Neary, will add to my comments.
I thank the officials for attending and for their response. It is obviously vital that we hear from the departmental officials. There is universal support and approval among all parties and none for addressing this issue. There are things that we can do to address the short-term issues. We know there are major ongoing efforts on the medium to long-term issues which we could spend several hours discussing, but our proposals in that regard do not necessarily mirror the current policies.
This issue predates Rebuilding Ireland. I grew up in a town centre, but I know the occupancy rate in that town centre is very poor now. That is replicated throughout the country. The retail business is different now from the past. The repopulation of town centres can revitalise and bring vibrancy to those towns, villages and cities. It is great to see the commitment by the Department and the Government to streamline processes, and to put action plans and a working group in place to address the issues identified in Rebuilding Ireland. We, too, have consulted with all the stakeholders and have a commitment in the first instance to our constituents, who are the most important stakeholder.
Earlier this week, we discussed rural and urban crime. The level of frustration and anger is palpable. Fear has taken hold. When we talk to constituents, especially those living in substandard accommodation who are on housing waiting lists, we feel their fear because of the option of being forced out of existing accommodation for whatever reason, as provided for in recent legislation. This has people in a state of fear and flux, because local authorities do not have alternative accommodation available for them. It is as simple as that. These people see the dilapidated void units in the town and ask their public representatives why they are not informing them of the ways and means of releasing these properties for residential use in the short term to address the current difficulties.
We have also consulted officials, architects and professionals in local authorities and builders. I am ridiculed by some for seeking to help and assist builders by whatever means. One will not build, repair or reinstate buildings without builders. Helping builders is a nice stick to beat the likes of me and my party, but I am referring to carpenters, block layers, electricians, plasterers, labourers and the number of trades and jobs that were in the industry in the past. Do people think that the people with these skills will fall out of the sky? Do people think they are not entitled to their jobs or that they cannot contribute to the country? Of course they can and the way we can help is by ensuring that we do something constructive and positive for people who are living in substandard accommodation. It is obvious to me and my colleagues that the current system of obtaining exemptions and compliance certificates from the various sections of the local authorities is a barrier, because one has to go from one division to another and the process is costly in both money and time. As Deputy Casey said-----
I will have to remember two or three more.
There are guidelines in place for new buildings, but there are no guidelines for the refurbishment of existing buildings. When somebody tries to find out whether there are exemptions to the guidelines for existing buildings, there is nothing to refer to and that must be rectified.
The current planning system is failing us. It was mentioned that the Planning and Development (Strategic Housing Development) Regulations 2017 mean that large scale housing developments go directly to An Bord Pleanála. However, it is up to Members of the Oireachtas to ensure there is a statutory timeframe for decisions to be made by An Bord Pleanála. It is also up to us to ensure that a person from County Wicklow cannot object, as they can at present, to the data centre in Athenry. These objections have ensured that this development will not now take place. That centre has been built elsewhere in the meantime. That is another duty we have.
The technical guidelines must be put in place. The current system of inspections cannot be allowed to continue.
That is why we think this proposal will enhance and improve the process going forward. All properties will be inspected and the worry about subdivision will be addressed. Evidence from a recent programme suggests this issue is ridiculous in the extreme. The self-certification system and the risk-based system is not serving our constituents well. It does not auger well for the future if that is to continue. There is also the area of latent insurance defects. This system will improve the potential for insurance to be secured that cannot be secured at the moment.
I accept and acknowledge the witnesses' expertise, experience and professionalism, and we will take it on board. We began this consultation process scrutinising the Bill as it stands. We want to improve it. We want to broaden the consultation to include some of those stakeholders and others that I mentioned with a view to fine tuning this Bill and ensuring that it plays its part as urgently as is practically possible in bringing these properties on stream. We hope the Government will recognise that and the witnesses, as advisers to Government, would also recognise that. The Government then, in its political sphere, can improve things such as the repair and lease scheme to marry against this mechanism to ensure that we do not have €35 million set aside but only seven projects approved to date. That is all we want to do. We will play politics some other day when that arises.
In the meantime, in the absence of that strategy and that chapter materialising into real and effective change, it is our duty to come together and to put proposals forward. We would hope to direct the Department, as will the Dáil, but let the Dáil be best informed before it makes that decision. However, let it make that decision urgently on the part of those we represent.
I apologise to Ms Neary that I do not have time to go back to her. I ask her to send her responses in writing to those previous questions so that we can include them in our scrutiny, if that is possible. I thank the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government officials, Mr. Buggy, Mr. Sheridan, Ms Neary and Mr. Cussen, for attending today and for the ongoing engagement with the committee.