Thursday, 26 May 2022
Property Services (Land Price Register) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I might not take all of my 20 minutes. I thank the Ceann Comhairle and Deputies Cian O'Callaghan and Nash. I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government's position on this Bill.
At the outset, I want to inform the House that the Government must oppose this Bill. I will set out the reasons for that. It is not because we do not support greater transparency with respect to commercial property transactions because we do. It is not that we do not want to deal with the issue of hoarding, land prices or anything like that because of course we do. The Bill would consider significant legal and practical difficulties, and I do not believe it is the suitable vehicle through which to try to achieve its stated aims. Even more importantly, I am concerned that this Private Members' Bill would also require extensive publication by the State of the personal details of private individuals who are involved in perfectly innocent and ordinary property transactions and have no involvement in land speculation or land hoarding. I will provide some concrete examples of these problems later.
The stated aims of the Bill are to create transparency around land transactions and that transparency is to tackle land speculation, unsustainable land price inflation and to address the hoarding of development land. The Bill seeks to achieve this aim by providing for publicly available registers of all transactions in residential or non-residential land or property. With regard to residential property, we already have a residential property price register which publishes online the sale prices of residential properties. The Bill would significantly expand the scope of that register to also cover gifts or inheritances of residential property. It would also significantly expand the content so that not just the sale price and the address of the property would be published, but also the name and address of the vendor and purchaser or in the case of a gift or inheritance, the donor or deceased person. The name and address of the person receiving or inheriting the residential property would also be published.
The Bill does provide a limited exception for a person's home. If a person involved in any of the ways I have mentioned in a residential property transaction contacts the Property Services Regulatory Authority, which maintains the current residential property sales register, to formally declare that the property is their own principal private residence, then they can request exemption from the publication requirements. I have taken account of that exemption in the examples I am considering here. However, the remaining requirements of the Bill still seem to involve an overreach into private information in many ordinary situations that have absolutely nothing to do with speculation.
Let us take, for example, a separating couple who have a modest holiday home in Ireland. As part of the separation agreement, they decide to sell the holiday home and to split the proceeds. The Bill requires publication of the name and address of each of the spouses and the sale price of the holiday home. If a person dies, leaving a small plot of land in a rural area to be shared between their three adult children who agree to divide it equally, the name and address of the deceased, the name and address of each of the three children and the value of the plot of land would all have to be published online. This seems unnecessarily intrusive where none of these transactions relates to property speculation and all these details will already have been provided to the Revenue Commissioners under existing legal requirements. The exemption for a principal private residence does not apply to any of these transactions.
With regard to non-residential land or other property transactions, the Bill proposes setting up a new online database of all non-residential property transactions which again would publish extensive information. My concern again relates to the degree of overreach that is provided for in the Bill. I am not sure if that was the intention of the proposed legislation. Consider, for example, a retired small business owner who decides to let out their former shop on the main street of a small rural town or an elderly farmer who decides to sell a modest plot of land to help make ends meet. In each of these examples, section 6 of the Bill requires that the elderly person's name and address, and the amount of rent or sale price they have received, to be published online in a readily accessible and electronically searchable online format. This raises safety concerns with the publication of the address of an elderly person and the amount of money they are getting in rent or the significant amount of money they may be getting from selling land, not to mention the evident privacy concerns I have already mentioned.
There are also data protection concerns given the extent of data that would be published. Article 36.4 of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, imposes an obligation on member states to consult the national data protection supervisory authority, the Data Protection Commission in our case, during the preparation of legislation that involves the processing of personal data.
Therefore, there is an obligation under GDPR to consult the Data Protection Commission on this Bill.
In addition, there are significant concerns about the availability and compatibility of much of the data that is proposed to be collected and published under the Bill. It essentially provides that the expanded register of residential property transactions and the proposed new register of non-residential property transactions would be housed in the PSRA. Sections 5 and 6 state that the PSRA is to receive, maintain and publish online the extensive information that I have referred to, where such information is duly filed with statutory bodies. However, the Bill does not specify who should provide the information to the PSRA, either the statutory bodies or an owner, as broadly defined by the Bill, nor does it give any statutory body the power or obligation to share such information with the PSRA. These omissions appear problematic. The lack of a specific legal basis for the public bodies to share all of this personal data would also give rise to data protection issues. Even if the Bill were to be amended to empower or require statutory bodies to provide the specified information to the PSRA, it appears unlikely that it would work effectively in practice. The required information, where available, would have to be obtained from more than one statutory body and probably from a number of bodies. However, the PSRA has indicated that this would raise compatibility issues between the data collected and provided by different bodies. For instance, it may not be possible for the PSRA to match information provided by different statutory bodies where no common identifier is used across all bodies. Compatibility issues are also likely regarding the interoperability of the different IT systems operated by different statutory bodies. Furthermore, it is not clear that the PSRA would be the most appropriate statutory body to host such extensive databases on land transactions, including land ownership. The primary role of the PSRA is to regulate property services providers, namely auctioneers, estate agents, letting agents and property management agents. For all these reasons, it is not at all clear that publicly available registers containing all of the extensive information required under the Bill would be the most appropriate or effective way to achieve the objectives of this Bill.
Conversely, a number of commitments in Housing for All would be more appropriate to address the issues of the hoarding of development lands and land speculation, which I agree we need to deal with. As stated in Housing for All, the Government's objective is that everybody should have access to sustainable good quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard and located close to essential services, offering a high quality of life. The biggest challenge to delivering more affordable housing and mixed-use urban development in Ireland's cities is the need to tackle the supply of land and, in particular, the nature of the urban land market, which is one of the biggest drivers of cost and of constraints on housing delivery. For many decades, Ireland has experienced the impact of hope value. This arises from public decisions around zoning of land or investment in infrastructure, where the uplift in land value goes to the landowners or developers who are in a position to benefit but is not shared adequately with the State. As a result, land values have been inflated, contributing to higher development costs that result in higher house prices. This has also constrained the delivery of key infrastructure required by the community and necessary to support further development.
Through Housing for All, the Government is committed to tackling this issue and is bringing forward a system of land value sharing to enable local authorities to secure a proportion of the uplift in value when land is newly zoned for residential development or mixed-use development that includes residential use. The money will then be available to support the cost of providing social housing and improving social infrastructure.
Regarding the use of development land, there is only a one in six chance of zoned land being developed within the six-year cycle of a local authority development plan, with the lack of certainty as to which land will come forward for development resulting in an inability to plan for infrastructure provision. It is currently difficult to assess and monitor the extent of zoned and serviced land and track land that is brought forward for development, including the value of such land. The residential zoned land tax, another commitment in Housing for All, was introduced in Finance Act 2021 to incentivise the activation of land that is zoned and serviced for residential development but remains undeveloped. This is primarily intended to influence behaviour towards increasing housing output rather than to raise revenue. This tax, which will replace the vacant site levy, will come into effect in 2024.
Housing for All also mandates the provision of a national zoned lands register, which will be a central database on lands zoned for housing development. It will be based on the statutory development plan of each local authority and will underpin the residential zoned land tax and land value sharing measures. The national zoned land register is being established by my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and his Department in conjunction with the 31 local authorities and is being supported by Ordnance Survey Ireland, OSI. It will ensure that the geographical location of zoned land is digitally captured and that the created register is updated on an ongoing basis.
These measures brought forward by the Government are a much more appropriate mechanism for dealing with the issues that the Deputy seeks to address than the Bill we have before us. There are also technical and drafting difficulties with the Bill but the challenges I have outlined are the main reasons for not accepting it. We could get over technicalities but the fact is that so much work has already been done through the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, which is probably the most appropriate place to deal with the very relevant issues that Deputy O'Callaghan has raised.