Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2024: Second Stage


6:35 pm

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, and it needs to be implemented as quickly as possible. Education is fundamental to the future of our country. Students going to college should have a good experience, and that includes safe and good accommodation at a reasonable price. This has not been the case in many instances in the past. Now we have a situation where some landlords and others are imposing additional costs on the family of a student going to college by looking for rent for 51 weeks of the year when it should be for only 41. It is important that this legislation is in place as soon as possible to stamp out that. A number of parents who have had to pay for accommodation for the entire year have contacted my office in the past month or two inquiring about this legislation. Will this legislation apply retrospectively to people who got accommodation earlier this year? It is important this is tied down as a matter of urgency.

Speculation in student accommodation needs to be stamped out. The best way to provide it is through State resources and through the colleges so that it is purpose-built with social areas and amenities to give a good experience to students when they go to college.

In Galway, we are blessed with a fine university, and now a second university in the Atlantic Technological University.

The latter has campuses in Castlebar, Mountbellew, Letterkenny, Sligo and Letterfrack. The problem in all of these places is accommodation. We have willing lecturers and management within the colleges to deliver the education that is required and students who want to avail of it. For families who may have two or three children going to college, this is a significant burden. It is because the cost is so high and the grants are available to people of a certain income level. If you have three or four children going to university, it is a heck of a challenge over a period of four years when they are studying for their level 8 degrees, never mind going further. It is important that people who have the ambition for education are given every opportunity to get qualified as well as they would desire.

Between Galway and Limerick, the railway line which was reopened between Ennis and Athenry has been the fastest-growing railway line in Ireland in recent years. One of the great news stories is that it is being used by many students who are commuting to college because they cannot get accommodation, but the success of that is such that they often have to stand or sit in the aisles when travelling because the trains are full. It is great that Irish Rail is providing the service, that the fares are reasonable and that students are participating, but we could capture all that is good in that and deliver the rail service north from Athenry and up to Tuam and Claremorris, which would then connect the west of Ireland for our students, whether they are going to Castlebar, Sligo, Galway, Limerick or beyond.

We have to be imaginative. We cannot just keep building big blocks and trying to get people into the cities and the traffic. We have to have an innovative way of doing things. The railway line is an opportunity by means of which we can reduce the number of cars on our roads in the future. We will also give a good experience to students who will say that they do not need a car if there is a train service. If you were living in London, you would never need a car because you have all the public transport there. We need to look at not just student accommodation but the ways in which we get students into colleges from wherever they are.

Building houses in rural villages or towns is much cheaper than building them in the cities of Galway, Limerick and Dublin for the simple reason that land is much cheaper. The only problem there is that the land is not serviced. We draw up national development plans, county development plans, regional development plans and local area plans. We are always working under the restrictions of the Planning Regulator's core strategy, which sets out how much land we should designate as residential zoned land for the next five years, or ten years under the new legislation. The trick that is being missed is that sometimes much of that land will never be available for building on. We zone the land on the basis of population increases that might happen in the future. Our thinking is flawed in a way. We should be zoning much more land as residential for the simple reason that if we have plentiful land, we will get it at a reduced price. That would be one way of making accommodation affordable.

Where there are local area plans and where councillors make decisions on zoning, it is very undemocratic when these plans go to the Planning Regulator for comments. If the Planning Regulator makes a recommendation, it follows that the Minister will sign that into law and take the entire process of how councillors have zoned land away from the them. That is totally undemocratic. We were speaking about local democracy in the Seanad Chamber only the week before last. We were talking about how we can do things better. We elect our councillors in local areas. They have experience of those areas and the best interests of the people at heart. In Athenry, where ministerial direction has been given on development, we are now building a factory that will accommodate 1,200 employees of Dexcom. We have another building going up shortly which will accommodate another 145 workers locally in an indigenous business in the town. In Tuam, Valeo employs 1,200 people. However, we have not built a private housing scheme in any of these places since 2008. We do our local area plans. We have consultants and we spend money on doing every kind of presentation. Ultimately, however, we are not building houses for private sale. The affordable housing situation has not really kicked in because it is not affordable yet. There needs to be more Government support for that.

If we are realistic about saving our young people, educating them and keeping them in our country, we need to look at this in a very different way from how we have been looking at it. Right now, there is an emergency with housing. Much of what is in the planning Bill before the Houses will not solve our problems. It is so complicated and intense. Where a local area plan has been completed and where we have areas with residential zoning, the next step should not be planning permission, as such, but a case that the developers go to the local authority with their proposal and get them agreed in consultation with the local authority and the councillors also being involved in order that we can, in a short time, get planning permission to allow people to get on with building houses. The level of stagnation in the market is beyond belief. If you talk to people who work in the construction industry - not speculators or developers but contractors who build houses - you will find at this stage that they are looking at alternatives to the house-building market. That is at a time when we need people to come into house-building. They are withdrawing from it because there is no market for them to work in.

We have many challenges. We need to take a blank canvas and look at what the problem is - the quantum of the problem - and what would be the quickest way to bring about solutions over the next two to three years to turn matters around. We should not engage in significant discussion; we should get on with it and do it in a tangible way to make things work.

We need far greater investment. Irish Water has let rural Ireland down. It has not invested in wastewater infrastructure in the rural towns and villages that everybody wants us to build houses in rather than in rural areas. We cannot do it because we do not have the sewerage system. Galway city and the east of the county has had big plans for the Ardaun corridor since I was on the council 15 years ago. This is land that is designated for industrial and residential development, but we cannot put a house on it because we do not have any sewerage infrastructure. A wastewater treatment project has been discussed for years for the east of the county. It does not have a hope of ever seeing the light of day if we continue on the same pathway with Irish Water. We are not funding it properly or giving it funding to do the job. We should call it what it is and say that we are blaming Irish Water but that we are not giving it the money it needs to do the work.

Wastewater treatment plants in our towns and villages are not being provided quickly enough or far enough in advance of the demand for houses. We are trying to play catch-up, and we are not progressing things in the way we should be. We need to think outside the box when it comes to infrastructure for housing.

That will have a positive effect on student accommodation. We are trying to help our young people. They are the future. By charging such high rent for accommodation, the days of free education are well and truly gone out the door.

We must look at the root of this issue swiftly. There is not a lot of time left for this Government. No matter what, next March, we are out the door. Will somebody inject a new, fresh idea into what the Government is doing in order that we might get tangible results between now and the general election?


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