Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government

Urban Regeneration: Discussion (Resumed)

Mr. Mel Reynolds:

It is basically a procedural reform and does not entail any diminution of any existing standards whatsoever. It is about doing it in a more streamlined fashion and integrating the different regulatory streams. A version of this was developed in the Urban Regeneration and Housing (Amendment) Bill 2018, which was legislation from the Opposition that had all-party support on Second Stage in 2018. Therefore, this is not changing our standards or making them any less onerous. It is concern with making it easier for people to undertake regularised developments. A regulatory system that is difficult and expensive to negotiate will encourage people to just carry out unauthorised developments, as Mr. Hogan mentioned.

What is being done here is to make it cheaper and easier to negotiate the process. It will bring people in and encourage them to do this properly. Any streamlined system like this process must be accompanied by much simpler technical guidance documents as well. It is no use having a simplified system or incentives in place if people are being referred to 12 or 14 technical guidance documents, many of which will not be relevant and which are 600 pages long. In a situation where a proposal concerns a modest building, for example, it is not going to happen if there is a requirement for a lift. Equally, if there is a requirement for balconies or private open spaces off each dwelling, then it is not going to happen either. Energy and conservation are the two areas in which my professional expertise lies. These areas must be looked at in practical terms. As Mr. Reid said earlier, at a certain point we must compromise and consider what we can live with in this regard. Perfection is the enemy of progress, so we must get people in these structures, make them save, concentrate on comfort and get those buildings up to modern standards as best we can. Otherwise, it is simply just not going to happen.

Presented with a proposal by an owner for a change in use for an existing building, most of my colleagues will say he or she should not bother. It will either not be possible to get a fire safety certificate or a disabled access certificate. It might be possible to get planning permission for the change, but the project will be nobbled somewhere. No additional warranties are issued which incur additional risk in Northern Ireland in the context of building control compared with down here. It is just that the processes are different. Therefore, we can do the same thing and implement the same standards in a much simpler way without any additional risk to our local authorities. This is a proposal that should be looked at. We can put in as many incentives or taxes as we want, but we must also make it easier for people to undertake these projects.

The planning exemption concept is interesting. There is a detailed breakdown of the figures in this regard for three years in the appendix of the document I submitted. The interesting aspect was that it was undertaken across several local authorities. The numbers in this context are modest now, but it can be imagined that this will happen in an organic way in many towns and cities. Therefore, I think this proposal is something that should be strongly considered.