Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 17 November 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Planning and Development Regulations: Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage
Good morning and welcome. We are meeting to consider the Planning and Development (Exempted Development) (No 4) Regulations 2022. I welcome the Minister of State. He is accompanied by officials from the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Briefing material and the draft regulations have been circulated to members. I invite the Minister of State to make his opening statement.
I thank the committee for affording me the opportunity to present these proposed planning and development (exempted development) regulations. The proposed regulations amend provisions in the principal Planning and Development Regulations 2001-2021 relating to development that is exempt from the requirement to obtain planning permission. Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, each House of the Oireachtas is required to approve draft planning regulations relating to exempted development by way of positive resolution before they can be signed into law. The consideration of the draft regulations by the committee today is part of that approval process.
The draft Planning and Development Act (Exempted Development) (No. 4) Regulations 2022 that have been laid before the Oireachtas amend Part 1 of Schedule 2, entitled "Exempted Development - General", to the principal planning and development regulations by inserting a new class 20F in the relevant schedule. This new class provides for the temporary change of use by or on behalf of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth of a wide list of buildings and structures to accommodate or support persons seeking international protection.
This provision is a temporary measure and will expire on 31 December 2024, with the use of the relevant buildings and structures for this purpose ceasing to apply at the expiry of the regulation. It should be noted that where a proposed change of use would materially affect a protected structure, the exemption does not apply and planning permission is required for the proposed use of such structures for the accommodation of international protection applicants in accordance with section 57 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended.
It should also be noted that neither the granting of planning permission nor the provision of an exemption from the requirement to obtain planning permission removes the requirement to comply with any other statutory code, particularly in relation to building control regulations. The aim of the building control regulations is to provide for the safety and welfare of people in and about buildings. It is important to note in the context of these exempted development provisions that compliance with the building regulations 1997 to 2021 must still be achieved and building control procedures will still apply before any such buildings can be occupied.
Under the EU recast reception conditions directive of 2013 Ireland, through the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, is legally required to provide accommodation to international protection applicants who seek it while their claim for international protection is being determined by the Department of Justice. The accommodation of international protection applicants is a demand-led process with applicants arriving in the country and seeking accommodation spontaneously. A briefing received from my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, indicates that the average figure for international protection applicants arriving here over the three-year period from 2017 to 2019 was 3,500. However, since 1 January 2022 alone, more than 12,300 international protection applicants have arrived in Ireland with almost 17,000 international protection applicants now being accommodated by IPAS.
Further to the EU temporary protection directive of last March, which requires member states to provide temporary protection and accommodation for displaced Ukrainian citizens arising from the Russian invasion of that country, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has been working to facilitate the provision of accommodation solutions for some 46,000 Ukrainian citizens who have arrived here. This has placed further significant pressures on the housing supply situation pertaining here. It is quite clear that there are now unprecedented numbers of persons seeking refuge in Ireland, from Ukraine and other countries, and the pressure to accommodate the 63,000 people who have arrived here since the start of the year, equating to a city with the population the size of Waterford, has led to significant difficulties in the provision of necessary accommodation, particularly for the international protection cohort.
I commend these draft regulations to the committee. The introduction of this temporary change of use planning exemption will assist the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and his Department in providing much needed accommodation for persons seeking international protection at a time when there is unprecedented demand for their services. As I have stated, almost 17,000 people are being accommodated by IPAS. Ireland is legally required to provide appropriate reception conditions to any person seeking international protection. These regulations are aimed at assisting the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in fulfilling these legal obligations.
I look forward to what I know will be an engaging discussion with the committee on these proposed draft regulations. The officials and I will endeavour to answer any questions that committee members may have. If these draft regulations are approved by positive resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas next week, they will come into force as soon as they are signed by my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for planning and local government, Deputy Peter Burke. In this regard, I believe it will be his intention to sign the regulations into law at the earliest possible date.
I thank the Minister of State and the officials for coming before the committee. I also thank the Minister of State for his opening statement. I am very supportive of what they are trying to do. I commend all of the work done by both Departments to support people fleeing war and persecution. We recognise the great challenge they have been working on. I want to flag an issue with regard to temporary use. If it becomes apparent that any of this accommodation may not be for short-term temporary use, it is important that it becomes regularised through the planning processes as quickly as possible. There should be quick engagement if it becomes apparent, in the context of any of these locations, that we are not speaking about temporary use for a year or two but, rather, a longer period.
I thank the Minister of State and his officials for the presentation. I acknowledge the very considerable volume of work that has been done by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and IPAS with respect to providing emergency accommodation to people fleeing the war in Ukraine and the growing crisis in our direct provision and international protection system. It is a very considerable increase in the volume of work. People are working around the clock and it is right that we acknowledge that here.
I will make the point that we are in an emergency. In an emergency, we need emergency regulations. We also need to ensure, both in the case of people fleeing war and persecution from other countries and the host communities who want to welcome those who, for whatever period, will live among them, that we do this right because that it is in everybody's interest. One of the things we really need to improve is the way in which, particularly the Departments responsible, communicate with local communities. I acknowledge there has been good engagement with political representatives but there needs to be greater communication with local community network organisations. Ultimately, we are relying on the goodwill of communities to host people, whether they are from Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan or wherever. Most people just have simple, reasonable requests, namely, to know what is going on, and to know how the needs of the refugee communities and the wider host community will be met in terms of services, facilities, etc. I urge the Minister of State to take that back to his colleagues in both Departments, if he can.
It is important to understand that one of the reasons this particular emergency regulation is being brought forward is because of the 17,000 adults and children in the international protection system, 26% of whom should not be there. There are 4,500 men, women and children who have a legal right to remain in this country and who are trying to get out of direct provision, which is essentially being used as a form of emergency homeless accommodation. In many cases, these people are on the social housing waiting list and are eligible for social housing support and the housing assistance payment. If the two Departments whose officials are before the committee today could work more closely to try to resolve that issue, it would free up slightly better quality accommodation in direct provision than some of the temporary accommodation this regulation will cover. We need to keep in mind, when we talk about the 17,000 people in international protection, that a very large number of them should not be there. We need to get them out as quickly as possible. I will also say, and this is especially the case, for example, in Dolcain House in my constituency, which I share with Deputy Higgins, that the original communication from the Minister indicated this was to be a three-month arrangement. If that arrangement is to be extended, and there is a very strong chance it will be, the earliest possible communication with elected Members and the wider community is essential. I urge the Minister of State to do that.
I have three very specific questions to put on the record in order that anybody watching will have no doubt about what we are doing here. Will the Minister of State confirm that these emergency regulations on temporary provision of emergency accommodation will expire on the date on which they are supposed to expire? I ask for clarity on that. Will he confirm that if there is a desire, either on the part of the owners of these buildings or the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and IPAS, to turn these temporary arrangements into permanent arrangements, formal applications for planning permission will be required in all circumstances? Will he give us a commitment that he will discuss, both with his line Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and his party colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, the desire he will hear from all of us today regarding maximum engagement? I said previously that in an emergency, we do not get to have a veto on some of these arrangements, but we and the people we represent have a right to be spoken to, listened to, and involved in the process of dealing with what is a very exceptional set of circumstances. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could give us the assurance that he will bring that back to his two senior Ministers.
I am happy to address those issues. I will ask members of my team to come in on any specific items I cannot respond to. I agree wholeheartedly with the first point the Deputy made regarding communication. It is essential that there are good communication channels. We have good networks of local volunteer organisations, NGOs and public participation networks throughout the country that are doing exceptional work under very difficult circumstances and that have helped many families over the past number of months to integrate and become part of the community. It is critically important that we are in front of the communication regarding this regulation and specific buildings, etc. We are very fortunate that there has been a widespread welcome in response to what has been a very challenging situation for the entire country. There has been a widespread welcome throughout the country. We have been very lucky that communities everywhere have been so welcoming. It is important that the communication is beyond elected representatives, that it filters down and that we are out in front of that. I will absolutely take that point back to the Ministers.
On the date of expiry, officials will confirm it is the case that once the emergency regulations have expired, that is the expiry date and any-----
Correct. Any further developments, or if decisions are to be made around the use of those buildings on a more permanent nature, will require planning permission, as per normal. My officials may come in on that. Again, I will take back the points the Deputy raised regarding people with leave to remain. It is important that we try to move the 26% of people the Deputy said are in direct provision and who should not be there to more permanent housing arrangements.
I have one follow-up question. We had news this week that a significant number of Ukrainian families, and a significant number of children in my constituency who are currently residing in the Ibis hotel, received letters informing them that they will be moved within the next two weeks. The letters did not tell them where or under what circumstances they will be moving. These children are settling into local schools, and we have had communications from principals and others expressing concern. Everybody understands that where accommodation is temporary, there is a possibility that people will be moved. I live in the real world, so I understand that. I express to the Minister of State that the way in which those families were communicated with was less than ideal. A letter that raises more questions than provides answers to families who are already traumatised and fleeing a war is not the kind of personal or human touch that is required.
I again ask the Minister of State to take back to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, if he can, that where families are going to be moved, particularly if it is at short notice, it could be done in a more person-to-person manner, because those families are now very anxious. They are unsure where they are going to go. Some of the children, who are experiencing post-traumatic stress, are only just beginning to settle into routines and patterns and there is now a huge amount of uncertainty. That is not the ideal approach. Again, I appreciate that we are in an emergency situation but I ask for that concern be communicated to the Minister in order to review how we engage with the families and to ensure that, where moves are unavoidable, people are communicated with in the most sensitive and compassionate manner possible.
I accept that a letter is a cold means of communication. It would be far preferable that it is more personal, and that someone could call in to speak to families and take questions. That is a very valid point. We accept that.
I thank the Minister of State and his team for being here. In the past ten months, we have welcomed 47,000 Ukrainians and 17,000 refugees from other countries. We have never seen anything like that before in Ireland or Europe. It is the biggest movement of people since the Second World War. Of course, the catalyst this time has been the illegal invasion of Ukraine. I firmly believe that we must play our part.
I am very proud to represent a constituency that has played a leading role in Ireland's response to the crisis. In addition to a number of hotels in my constituency being used as emergency accommodation, the country's transit hub, Citywest, is located in my area. Dolcain House is our newest facility for emergency accommodation.
I would like to put on the record my frustration regarding the lack of information we had over the past couple of months. That created a bit of a vacuum of information locally, which was probably filled by a little confusion and concern. I am pleased that we are getting clarity about the regulations today, particularly as this facility will come under these regulations. We now have confirmation that a report was done and that works are completed in advance of anybody move into moving into the site. It has been provided pro bonofor use as an emergency accommodation centre for an initial period of three months. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has indicated his intention to extend that contract further. The regulations we are discussing have an expiry date. I would like to get some confirmation on this. It is my understanding that there is no built-in mechanism within these regulations for that to be extended beyond that period. In order for that to happen, we would need to come back to this committee and the Dáil. Could the Minister of State clarify that?
That would be the case. If there is a need to extend that period that would have to come back again to the Houses of the Oireachtas. We are hearing loud and clear the points raised in respect of communication and information. That is really important. It is challenging to do well, and it is important that we do it well and get the correct and accurate information out to communities in a timely manner. We take on board all those points.
I thank all the people in the Department who are working so hard to provide this level of response. It is been incredible what we as country have been able to do when we never would have anticipated this a year ago.
I would reflect on the points Deputy Higgins made about the scale and the numbers involved, for both those in receipt of temporary protection and those seeking international protection. Ireland has no control over those numbers. We are in receipt of those people. They come to our shores and airports and they seek international protection. In the case of those coming from Ukraine, they are entitled to temporary protection as a result of the EU directive. For many communities that often believe the Government has maximum control of everything, it can be very difficult for them to understand why we are not restricting, limiting, or discouraging them and so on. People are coming here and turning up on our doorstep, in the same way somebody in need would turn up at anyone's doorstep, and they are seeking protection. That puts a huge burden on Ireland in terms of the obligation and responsibility to house those people. We do have a responsibility here. These are people who are literally fleeing an unjust war - many unjust wars - and they are asking for our help.
I acknowledge the emergency nature of this situation and I acknowledge the actions the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has had to take. Its resources are incredibly strained and under pressure. Fianna Fáil Deputies met with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, last week and this was one of the points we put to him. When you do not have the resources and staff in place, it makes it more difficult to manage the emergency element. The emergency element of it is that people are not entitled to go on the social housing waiting list or to get the housing assistance payment and therefore the obligation is on the State to provide that temporary accommodation. I have been in one of the proposed facilities and I have to say it is a fairly grim affair. It is grim by nature of the speed at which we have had to turn around many of these locations.
I welcome the regulations in that they provide some certainty and clarity. I agree with Deputy Ó Broin that acting in an emergency capacity often involves us cutting out some of the normal standard procedures. What we should not remove is clear communication with communities and clarity of information. In this debate about centres opening or closing, there are people with very genuine and legitimate concerns. They need to have a route or mechanism to find out that information and they must be able to rely on the information that comes back. Public representatives need to have access to clear and reliable information so they can communicate that back and so it is not a case of shifting sands. There are people out there who are only waiting to jump on this issue and exploit it for party political reasons. We need to be very conscious of that.
That said, there are legitimate concerns. Somebody struggling to get a GP appointment might ask how the community can manage additional people. People want to be generous and they need to have confidence. The Minister of State is in a difficult position because he is here from a planning perspective and we have put a whole range of questions to him. There needs to be a wider Government response in the communication and consultation with communities. The HSE and the Department of Education must be part of that broader communication with communities so those concerns can be met. In my community, there are schools with quite low numbers that would welcome students coming in. With regard to the broader point about the services that are impacted by the arrival of new communities, and the clarity around the obligation on us to house people because they are not eligible for either the housing assistance payment or the council waiting list, all of that requires people. There is no substitute for somebody standing in a room speaking to a group of people and explaining to them what the situation is. My experience is that when that happens, those reasonable people in the community are often the first to try to help out or take whatever steps are needed.
These regulations deal with the planning issues. The fire safety issues are incredibly important as well. I have had some reassurance from the Minister that fire safety certificates will be in place in advance of people moving in and that if they are not, fire mitigation measures and so on will be. It is important that the community knows that and has confidence in it because we all have knowledge and experience of very tragic fires. Nobody wants to see people who have been through a huge amount of difficulty already be exposed to that sort of threat.
I return to the point Deputy Higgins made. The numbers are unprecedented. I have to keep looking at them every day because they change so much. Taking a ballpark figure of 60,000, my understanding is that nearly 44,000 of those have secured school places. We have issued personal public service, PPS, numbers and social welfare payments for a similar number. Nearly a quarter of people who are eligible have secured employment. That is a good story as well. On the basis of international comparisons, Ireland has reacted really well. There have been occasions where small numbers have been without accommodation. Nobody wants to see that but that involved numbers of around 40, 47 or 52 and we are talking about more than 60,000. Overall, the Irish people have responded to this crisis well, particularly when you look at Britain and the absolutely pitiful response from a country that could accommodate far more. There are other countries that have done far more than Ireland, which are closer to Ukraine. I have gone beyond the regulations. I welcome the clarity. Communication and consultation is our next challenge.
I thank Deputy McAuliffe. I agree wholeheartedly and welcome the positive comments generally. It is very encouraging we agree. There is no doubt this is an unprecedented crisis. We have responded incredibly well at local community level and with all arms of the State as well.
I take the point about communications from the HSE and the Department of Education. If we could correct the transport issue, it would give us lots of opportunities in rural areas. This is an issue on which the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, is working. It really would unlock a lot more potential across the country. At the moment, we are seeing a significant concentration in large urban centres. It is important that we try to strike a balance.
I take on board the Deputy's positive comments on the different elements. We have stepped up really well as a nation, and we should be very proud of that.
I want to put on the record how grateful I am, as I am sure are the Government, all Deputies and Senators and the various officials, for the generosity of the Irish people. They have opened their arms, doors, community centres and GAA clubs to people coming here. At the start of the war, there was a fabulous opening of arms as Irish people stepped up to respond. That is still there. People are still engaging with new arrivals. It is something we should be very proud of but we should not be surprised by it. The Irish people have always been known for our generosity and welcome.
It is important when people are being so generous and welcoming that the Government communicates and engages properly with them. There must be communication about what plans are coming forward, and we must ensure the services and supports are there for both local communities and refugees. That can only be done as a team effort. We are all in this together and we must work together. If that happens, we will get the buy-in. People are looking for openness and transparency.
I acknowledge these regulations are to deal with a planning issue and there is a deadline of 31 December 2024. I echo the point made by other speakers about the need for a whole-of-government approach involving the Departments of Education, Health and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. In addition, the role of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is key. Everybody must work together to come up with solutions. At this stage of the game, it is all about finding solutions. This has been a positive meeting. There is a lot of work to be done. We will be as constructive as we can be to that end.
I welcome the Deputy's comments and assure him we are taking a whole-of-government approach. Indeed, it is also a whole-of-local-government approach and a whole-of-society approach. That will stand to us well and we can be proud of our response. Even if communities have genuine concerns, people are very quick to bat down any far-right elements that try to latch on to those genuine concerns about facilities and infrastructure. We should feel proud that we are very inclusive.
The single most important point I am taking from this meeting is to do with the communication element. It is critically important that we ensure we do that really well. I thank the Deputy again for his comments.
The Minister of State has heard members' comments and he can take it that the committee endorses the regulations and supports the planning exemptions. It is absolutely necessary and right to do this. I ask him to take our thanks back to the staff both in his Department and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth for their unprecedented efforts to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Europe. We acknowledge the immense scale of their task of trying to accommodate quickly the many people who are coming to this country from extremely traumatic situations. We must bear in mind that these people are not coming here voluntarily but because they are being forced to do so in a situation of war.
I met recently with a family from Syria and with a number of Ukrainian residents. I could see their fear at the horrific situations from which they have come. What also was apparent was their gratitude for being here. They spoke about how welcome they have found Ireland and that they feel safe here. They are traumatised, obviously, but they feel safe. Being able to engage in those types of conversations puts a human angle on the situation. We talk about the numbers and we see on television what is happening, but meeting and talking to people who have come here is something that would benefit everybody. It is all part of integrating people into communities.
We have spoken about engagement with communities and ensuring the information is out there. As public representatives, we have a key and leading role to play in that regard. I acknowledge that the Department is engaging in this regard. It is trying to deal with an emergency situation and also trying to forward plan. I recognise the difficulties, stress and exhaustion I am sure officials are experiencing.
Reference was made to the great work being done by voluntary groups. Groups such as Tidy Towns committees and local sports clubs have been reaching out, including in my community, with children being brought, for example, to sports training sessions. It is fantastic to see. Those groups have a massive role to play in this. I urge the Minister of State to reach out to them when forward planning. It really helps.
We have discussed the provision of temporary residential facilities, many of which will be of longer duration than some of what is being offered. As a previous speaker noted, it is really difficult for families arriving in a town, not even speaking the language and the parents watching their children going off to school in the morning in an unfamiliar place. It is very upsetting for people. I know of cases where children have settled into places only to be uprooted and moved on again. If temporary accommodation can, in fact, provide longevity, it will be of benefit to everybody. That is one of the advantages of the necessary work we are trying to do here.
I would appreciate it if a note could be issued to the committee on the fire certification process that is required. A building might have a fire certificate that covers its previous use but converting it to residential use will require higher or different standards. A note on that would be useful.
These are planning regulations and I note the stipulation under section 57 that protected structures will not be not exempted if doing so would materially change the protection that applies to them. I ask that attention be paid to buildings that may not be protected but that do have architectural merit. There are some industrial buildings to which this applies. Taking into account the urgency of the requirement to provide accommodation, I ask that we also think forward ten, 20 or 30 years and ensure we do not damage buildings unnecessarily.
I thank the Minister of State for his attendance and the officials for their assistance.