Thursday, 3 June 2021
An Bille um an Naoú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Ceart chun Tithíochta) 2020: An Dara Céim [Comhaltaí Príobháideacha] - Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Housing) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]
Seán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. We all talk about housing and about it being a crisis. The spirit of this Bill is the right of a person to have a home, which we all agree with. The problem with it is, how do we get there? People keep talking about what is wrong and saying that we must find solutions. The Government is investing more money into getting more houses built, but sometimes we look a gift horse in the mouth. I have said this repeatedly, we have so many vacant properties in this county, in our towns and villages. Some 75% of the space over ground-floor retail units in Dublin city is empty. We must ask the following question. Why are we looking at this gift horse in the mouth and not doing something about it? What it requires is investment for a quick return in getting housing units back into use and at the same time rejuvenating our towns, villages and the city centre of Dublin.
I come from the constituency of Galway East and we have a housing crisis there. It is not confined to the cities or any particular place. Many of the telephone calls I get in my office are from people looking to rent a place and from people trying to find out where they can buy a house or where they can build a house. One of the reasons that is happening - Galway East is probably typical of many other constituencies - is that we have frozen the planning system. What I mean by that is that there are towns and villages where people cannot build houses, where the local authority cannot give planning permission and where An Bord Pleanála refuses planning permission for the simple reason that a waste water treatment plant is not in place. At the same time, we are asking about how we increase the number of houses. The Regional Group put down a Private Members' motion a number of weeks ago, which was calling on the Government to give some of the money for housing directly to Irish Water to get it to implement an infrastructure plan in these towns and villages.
People often talk about affordable housing and I wonder what they mean by it. It is not so much that we must provide affordable houses; we must provide houses full stop so that people can live in them. What is happening at the moment is that the supply of houses is not coming through. I hear people giving out about developers and builders, as if builders are the root of all evil. The building contractors in this country are trying to make a living like everybody else. They build houses; they are not speculators. They employ many people and we have to show them respect. If we do not have a building industry, we will not have any houses. Do not include builders in the blame game when we talk about what is wrong. We must look at what we can do to put things right.
When one looks at the situation, we must make sure that young people who are brave enough to buy a site on which to build a house are given the support to do that. If they want to build a house in their rural area, beside their family for family support in the future, we should actually support that. If the son or daughter, niece or nephew, of a family farmer wants to build a house on the family farm, we should support that. We should not be dithering on that.
There is another issue in relation to social housing. I know a bit about all of this because I worked in construction for a long time before I came to the House. Local authorities can build social housing to a top-class standard when they are given the resources to do so. They have proven it time and again. Even in the last two or three years, Galway County Council has completed some fine social housing projects in Galway, but the problem is that it needs to build more of them and it needs more resources. More expertise is required in local authorities so that it can drive it on.
I am not so sure about the Land Development Agency; I am fearful of it. When I look at Irish Water, it has concentrated its efforts, with limited resources, in certain areas. That is why people in Corofin, Craughwell, Athenry and Abbeyknockmoy are now frozen out of the planning system and cannot build because the infrastructure is not there. The reason is that Irish Water has concentrated its resources in places where the biggest pressures are. When resources are limited, decisions have to be made. For instance, Athenry has received an investment of about €5 million to upgrade its waste water treatment plant. The work has been done. The plant has been in commission for over three years, yet it is of little use to the town because the network cannot be put in place because the funding is not in place to do it. It has left that town, which at the crossroads of two motorways, railways and within shouting distance of Galway, without any housing developments. It makes no sense.
When we look at all of this we must say to the local authorities that we will make it easier for them. This is something which the Department must do. It must let go of some of the controls. At the moment, if a local authority wants to build a housing scheme, it must go through four gateways of approvals before it will receive any money. We must look at our planning system and how we can fast-track housing. The way we are doing it now is so cumbersome that people are just walking away from it. They do not have the appetite for it. People who are brave enough to build their house and to take out a mortgage need to receive better support from the Government. We must ensure those people have the right to own their own houses. This Bill, which is about a constitutional issue, is all well and fine, but what we must do as legislators is to make sure we do not bring in anymore strategies, think tanks or working groups. We must do the simple things and do them right - make available vacant houses and vacant sites and invest in Irish Water in the places where houses can be built. There are situations where land is zoned as R1 development in towns and it cannot be built on. That is why our supply is not coming through and prices are so high. The reason rent is so high is that the supply is not there. We can release some of the pressures if we do some practical things in a quick way. We should not take years to change it. The money is coming into the system, but let us put it in the right place to get the best result as quickly as possible.