Thursday, 18 February 2021
Land Development Agency Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I am sharing time with Deputies Canney and Tóibín.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the Chamber to bring the Land Development Agency Bill before us. We can all argue on the finer points but in general terms the direction of travel with this Bill is reasonable because it will most likely involve an acceleration of the roll-out of housing across the country. Everybody in this Chamber agrees that we need houses for the next generation. There are massive housing pressures and this Bill is at least part of the solution.
In his column in The Irish Timesat the weekend, David McWilliams put it best when he said that housing is such an important issue, it was the issue in the last five general elections and it is likely to be the issue - the dominant factor - in the next general election. There is a reason for that. For all the disruption they cause, pandemics come and go, but this housing crisis will persist unless we do something about it. The Bill before us today is an attempt and has a strong possibility of at least addressing some of the core issues, because if a person has no home, he or she has no hope. It is a precondition to progress, both professionally and personally.
I have points to make on the legislation. The first relates to putting the Land Development Agency on a statutory footing. Whatever people's views are on the operations of the Land Development Agency most reasonable people would agree it is a good idea for the State to have a land development agency. It is a good idea to have a register that is established and maintained by an agency that has a strategic and long-term view of the way we use our public land because, let us face it, our people are our most important resource but our land comes second. It is very important that we maximise that utility and leverage that asset for what it is. I very much welcome that the Land Development Agency will be put on a statutory footing. I appreciate it already exists but this gives it a much stronger basis because it is included in primary legislation. To be honest, I am surprised it has not happened yet. Having land registry is very important because it provides proper information and visibility for decision-makers in respect of the existing land banks. If there is poor information, one will make poor decisions regardless of how good a decision-maker one is.
The second point relates to transparency and accountability. As this will be a powerful agency it is important that the appropriate safeguards, checks and balances are in place. As a general rule this legislation has got it right in that it achieves that balance. First, the agency is under media scrutiny. It is subject to FOI, which is welcome. It is subject to very intrusive audits by the Comptroller and Auditor General. From a parliamentary supervision point of view it is subject to reporting to the Committee of Public Accounts and any committee in the Oireachtas. Through Leaders' Questions and other forums it is subject to scrutiny from the entire Dáil in plenary session, if necessary. From an accountability and transparency point of view, therefore, the structures in place are good safeguards.
This may be a minor point but I was on the website last night researching this contribution and the sites the Land Development Agency is currently working on are clearly laid out. There is nothing to hide in that regard. There is ample transparency. The checks, balances and safeguards in this legislation are a positive feature.
The third point relates to the funding stream. It is also welcome that €1.25 billion from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is being used to develop housing. We know that housing is holding back our economy, our society and our people. I cannot think of a better investment from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund than housing so I welcome the fact that €1.25 billion is being ring-fenced for that. It is also welcome that the Land Development Agency will have the option basically to erase debt, with the approval of the Minister.
It may be deliberate but there is no mention of the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg. The Minister of State might comment on that in his closing remarks or subsequently in correspondence from his office. Is it envisaged that the Land Development Agency could tap into the extra funding resources from the European Investment Bank to expedite and accelerate the building of homes in this country?
I would also welcome that if it could be done.
As a general rule, I am against compulsory purchase orders but I recognise their utility in very limited circumstances, particularly in urban settings. Most people in the Chamber are aware there is land hoarding, with prime sites that could be used for housing in potentially lucrative or select sites across cities in the country being hoarded. Compulsory purchase orders are at least an option for the Land Development Agency to use if it is deemed necessary. I am reassured to see that at least this is not regarded as a first option, which will always be voluntary agreement. Compulsory purchase orders will be used only as a last resort. I am also reassured to see the Land Development Agency will require a court order before a compulsory purchase order can be enacted. The balance is right in that respect.
The next point I raise is very important and it concerns the collaborative structures. The Land Development Agency will set up collaborative structures with local authorities, Government agencies and Departments, which is really important. The local authorities have been very successful across the country, particularly in my constituency in Kildare, as well as in Laois and Offaly in rolling out social housing in the past couple of years. I would like to see local authorities remaining in the driving seat. Any support from the Land Development Agency should not amount to an executive function. The local authorities should be maintained in the driving seat if at all possible.
These are the five points I wanted to make about the legislation but I have some other points on the Land Development Agency itself. The first may be close to the heart of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, as it relates to two sites currently being developed by the Land Development Agency. One is in Naas and one is in Mullingar, and both those sites are former military barracks. I have a bit of a history lesson. In 1998, the military was basically evicted from Devoy Barracks in Naas. It was thrown out with six weeks of notice. Hundreds of troops were accommodated at the barracks, as well as the Army apprentice school. The Army is still reeling from the loss of that school and all the accommodation lost in Naas. Similarly, in 2012, when Columb Barracks was closed, again with very short notice, all the troops moved to Athlone. Many military personnel and their families lost accommodation in the barracks.
My preference is that both of those sites be used for military purposes but I recognise the reality that they are currently slated for accommodation and social housing. In light of the specific history associated with the sites and with military housing and accommodation being such an emotive concern, what are the Minister's thoughts about giving the housing units on the sites to military families on the social housing list on a preferential basis? It would go some way to assuaging the anger still being felt in the military community because of how they were treated over 20 years with regard to the Devoy Barracks and Columb Barracks.
My final concern relates to military accommodation and housing in general all across the country and particularly in the Curragh Camp in my constituency. The Curragh is a lovely place full of lovely people but it is the most derelict town in the country. It is a town and there are two primary schools and a secondary school there but the camp is falling down. It really needs proper investment. I would be grateful for the Minister of State's thoughts on how he sees the Land Development Agency entering into a service level agreement or a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defence so the agency could provide additional funding through the Department or on its own to provide military housing for military families within the military perimeter of installations. Baldonnel airbase and the Curragh Camp are cases in point.
It is really important to provide military housing and this practice is repeated across the European Union. If soldiers and their families are accommodated on base and an emergency kicks off, troops would be on location and would not have to get into their car to drive 100 km before they can get to their colleagues. These are all the points I wanted to raise and I thank the Minister of State for his time. If we get some clarification on how the military housing matter could play out, we can take it from there.