Thursday, 1 December 2016
Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Second Stage of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 to the Dáil today and I thank Members for facilitating the debate on this very important Bill. As the provisions in the Bill are quite important, I am anxious that it would be enacted by the end of the year, if at all possible. The Bill only just completed Report and Final Stages in the Seanad earlier this week. Over the course of its passage there, Senators were very much engaged with the subject matter of the Bill, with lively and constructive debate on all its aspects.
There were a number of amendments made to the Bill during the Seanad Committee and Report Stages, particularly around the planning provisions in Part 2, which I feel enhance the Bill. I will touch on these later in my contribution. Amendments were also made to Part 3 which relates to the Residential Tenancies Acts. A small number of these were Opposition amendments which the Government opposed. I am examining these with the assistance of the Office of the Attorney General. In some cases, a small amount of redrafting may be required to align the amendments with the language of the Bill generally. However, one of the amendments does require legal advice. I hope to be in a position to resolve any issues arising during the passage of the Bill through the House. In the same way, I look forward to debating the Bill in this House and hope we can positively and constructively work through all issues that are raised.
I do not think anyone will disagree that the current housing supply shortage situation is one of the most urgent and pressing challenges currently faced by the Government and the country, with significant impacts on all forms of housing tenure - social, private and private rental. The Government’s commitment to ending the housing shortage and tackling homelessness is clearly evidenced and underpinned in the Government's Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. The action plan includes two specific pillars which are about building more homes and improving the rental sector. In this regard, the action plan includes a number of innovative legislative measures to increase housing supply rapidly and reinforce the rental sector. The main purpose of the Bill before is to give early effect to and underpin these measures, which I will now outline.
Following the Seanad discussions, the Bill now contains 41 sections over five Parts, which I want to turn to in some detail. Part 1, covering sections 1 and 2, contains the normal standard provisions dealing with the Title, collective citations, definitions and commencement. Part 2, which comprises three chapters, relates to amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000 and is a substantial element of the Bill. Chapter 1, covering sections 3 to 19, inclusive, deals with strategic housing developments and proposes the introduction, for a limited period, of new streamlined planning processes in respect of large-scale housing developments comprising 100 housing units or more or 200 or more student accommodation bed spaces. This will allow planning applications for such developments to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. The new fast-track planning procedures will apply for an initial period of three years until the end of 2019, with the possibility to extend that period by a further two years until the end of 2021 to coincide with the timeframe of the Rebuilding Ireland plan.
Under the new procedures, An Bord Pleanála will be required to complete pre-planning application consultations on proposed developments with the concerned developers and the relevant local authority within a maximum period of nine weeks. They will subsequently be required to make a final determination in respect of planning applications for concerned developments within 16 weeks of receipt of the planning application. This will potentially result in planning decisions for concerned large developments within 25 weeks of commencement of the pre-application consultation, as against the current two-stage planning process which can, in certain circumstances, take up to 18 months and even up to 24 months from initial design stage to securing ultimate approval.
We had a long debate on this element of the Bill in the Seanad. I know Sinn Féin opposed it and had its reasons for doing that.
We have made some changes since then. We have listened to the concerns of councillors in particular and have produced an amendment to ensure that in the pre-planning process, which involves local authorities assessing an application in detail over a nine week period, directly elected councillors will be involved in that process in terms of getting a full briefing on the proposal, its consistency with local area plans, zoning decisions and so forth. This whole process will only apply to zoned land, that is, land that councillors have voted to earmark for housing. The issues then are those of density, design, community development, open spaces, infrastructure and all of the other elements which planners have to take into consideration. Concern was expressed that we were somehow bypassing local authorities or local councillors and we have moved to address that concern and reassure people.
It is also clear from the legislation that local authorities will be able to make a recommendation to An Bord Pleanála at the end of the nine week consideration process. The views of councillors, if they have been expressed, can be part of that submission. We have proposed amendments which go beyond what was previously contained in the original draft which allow local authorities, through their planning departments, to also be able to make recommendations around the conditions of planning. That will, of course, influence the final decision of An Bord Pleanála to grant or refuse permission.
This is about streamlining the decision making process to provide more certainty in terms of timelines but it very much involves local authorities giving detailed assessments and recommendations. It is a little bit like granting planning permission which then gets appealed to An Bord Pleanála, whereby the original planning permission is considered by An Bord Pleanála in a defined process. This is not as radical a change as some people believed it to be. It is, rather, a streamlining of the process. On the basis of the consultations we have had, I believe this will make a big difference in terms of incentivising developers to opt for larger scale developments and to increase the housing supply at a more rapid pace than may otherwise have been the case. It will also be a significant help in the context of financing many of the big projects because there is a direct link between the ability to secure finance for a project and obtaining a planning decision.
Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, in particular, has been asking for evidence that there is a problem in this area, so I looked at the statistics. I asked An Bord Pleanála how long it is taking to make decisions on applications for developments of more than 100 units. The statistics are about six weeks out of date now but they show that there were 15 applications with An Bord Pleanála at that point in time and the average length of time for a decision was 78 weeks. We are now talking about putting a system in place that can be just as robust in terms of the assessment but which will take only 25 weeks. Given the pressure we are under to increase housing supply, particularly in high-density developments in the city centre, it makes a lot of sense to streamline the decision making process for a temporary period until we have a more normalised and balanced housing market.
As mentioned, there was extensive debate in the Seanad on a number of aspects of the proposed new streamlined planning procedures. Amendments were proposed and discussed on all sides which resulted in my acceptance of a number of key amendments to this part of the Bill during the Seanad Committee and Report Stages. These are now incorporated in the Bill before us today and the Bill has been improved as a result. I will briefly outline the detail of some of the amendments we have taken on board.
First, some concerns were expressed regarding the perceived diminution of the role of local government and elected members in the new procedures for large scale housing developments as I have already said. To address those concerns, the Bill now includes provisions whereby on receipt of a planning application for a large scale housing development, the planning authority will notify the local elected members of the application at an early date. It will then outline the detail of any such proposed development to the elected members at the next meeting of the local area committee or municipal district. In addition, the Bill also enables the views of the elected members on any such development to be reflected in the chief executive's report to An Bord Pleanála on the proposal. These new provisions, which I accepted in the Seanad, are aimed at enhancing the involvement of elected members in the new procedures, giving them an opportunity to have an input into the process and to represent the views of their constituents in accordance with their democratic mandate. I also said that I would look at the issue of fees that councillors would have to pay to An Bord Pleanála if they wanted to object to an application for planning permission. I will deal with that matter in separate legislation which is currently working its way through the system.
Second, there was much debate around the mechanisms to extend the operation of the streamlined planning procedures beyond 2019 if considered appropriate. Following the Seanad discussions, the Bill now proposes that prior to the end of the first three year period and no later than 30 October 2019, the Minister of the time will review the operation and effectiveness of the strategic housing development provisions. A report on the conclusions of that review will then be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas, with no extension of the operation of the provisions being possible before the review report is so laid.
Finally, section 42 of the Planning and Development Acts currently allows for an extension of the duration of planning permission where either substantial work has been carried out during the original planning permission period and certain other conditions apply, or work has not commenced and certain other conditions apply. In light of the Seanad discussions, the Bill now includes a provision restricting the extension of planning permission in the case of large scale housing developments only to situations where substantial works have been carried out during the original planning permission period. The extension of planning permission in respect of large scale housing developments will no longer be allowed where the developer sits on the planning permission and where no works have been commenced or undertaken during the period of the initial planning permission. These enhancements to the provisions reflect what we are trying to achieve here, which is to bring forward the provision of housing supply for those that urgently need a quick response. If a developer obtains planning permission through this new, streamlined system, he or she will not get an automatic renewal in five year's time, as would have been the case going under the normal system. If developers get planning permission, they need to get on with building; otherwise, they should not be submitting planning applications under this new streamlined system. We are not going to allow speculation, whereby developers come through a streamlined system, get a decision in 26 to 28 weeks and use that permission to flip on the property at a profit, nor are we going to allow them to sit on the planning permission for a number of years, assuming that they will get an automatic renewal. The whole point of this streamlined system is to get sites moving across the country - sites for large scale housing developments which are badly needed in many parts of the country and particularly in the capital. Ultimately, as I have indicated, the new streamlining procedures are intended to provide greater certainty for developers in terms of the timelines for decision making, while also facilitating the earlier provision of much needed housing supply and helping to address the current housing shortage.
Chapter 2 of Part 2 of the Bill, covering sections 20 and 21, proposes to introduce new screening arrangements for the conduct of environmental impact assessments, EIAs, in respect of certain types of works, including emergency flood relief works, with the aim of further streamlining the process for the undertaking of such types of works. This came about primarily as a result of a conversation with the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney. We are trying to progress flood relief projects more quickly. If there is no good reason for carrying out an EIA, then long periods of time should not be spent doing one. It is as simple as that. It is a pragmatic measure which is robust from an environmental perspective because where an EIA is needed and justified, it will happen. However, there are certain types of development that could move very quickly and which should not be delayed.
Chapter 3, covering sections 22 and 23, relates to further amendments to the Planning and Development Acts.
Section 22 provides that a second extension of duration of permission may be granted by a planning authority in the case of a housing development comprising 20 houses or more in circumstances where the authority considers that a further extension is necessary to enable the development to be completed. This will remove the requirement to go through the planning process again and expedite the completion of the housing development in question, but it needs to be consistent with current area plans and so on.
Section 23 relates to new streamlined procedures to be followed by local authorities under section 179 of the Planning Act and Part 8 of the planning regulations. The Part 8 process relates to the bringing forward of local authority own development proposals, including those relating to social housing, local roads, fire stations, libraries and so on. Most local authority own development proposals are generally approved by the elected members fairly quickly. However, some delays can be encountered on occasion regarding social housing projects as a result of local opposition. Under the current provisions, no maximum timeframe is set for deciding on development proposals of this kind under the Part 8 process, which is the major cause of some of the delays encountered. Consequently, the Bill proposes a number of amendments to the existing section 179 provisions, including the setting of a maximum timeframe of 20 weeks for the determination of local authority own development proposals by the elected members, thereby providing greater certainty in the progression of such development proposals, including the earlier delivery of social housing in particular. The decision-making will still be with councillors but they will have a timeline in which to operate. Obviously, this will place the onus on a chief executive and his or her planning team to make sure they work in a timely manner and convince the councillors that it is the right thing to do.
Part 3 of the Bill, covering sections 24 to 39 and the associated Schedule, relates to the rental sector and provides for amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts. We are all very aware that there are acute pressures in the rental market and we had a very useful and informative debate in this House yesterday on the pressures on rents, in particular, but also on issues regarding security of tenure. These pressures are driven by a number of factors - rising demand, a lack of supply and high costs - that indebted landlords face in servicing their loans. The problems in the rental sector constitute one of the most significant issues facing us today and they are an absolute priority for this Government. That said, there is no doubt that the difficulties in the rental sector are part of a bigger problem. Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis in terms of shortage. The problems caused by high rents reflect, and are reflected in, the other issues facing the housing market, namely, not enough homes for first-time buyers, increased demand for social housing and unacceptable levels of homelessness. While many factors contribute to these problems, the one common to all is the prolonged and chronic lack of supply of new homes.
The Bill implements the commitment in pillar 4 of Rebuilding Ireland to bring forward legislation to amend the Residential Tenancies Acts for early enactment. One of the most significant proposals to be introduced in the Bill is to be found in section 30, which provides that where a landlord proposes to sell five or more units within a single multi-unit development at the same time, the sale will be subject to the existing tenants remaining in situ. The purpose of this amendment is to prevent a future recurrence of situations where large numbers of residents in a single development have had their tenancies terminated simultaneously. This amendment was the subject of much debate in the Seanad and the original figure of 20 dwellings was reduced to five on foot of a Report Stage amendment tabled by the Opposition. I am in the process of taking advice on this change and may need to come back to the House on it if it makes sense to do so. I do not believe we should try to bring small landlords into this category because we will disincentivise people from remaining in the landlord market if we do so. That is why we had suggested, in the changes proposed, that the figure should be ten rather than five, but we can discuss that on Committee and Report Stages.
Section 31 further improves security of tenure for tenants by providing for the abolition of a landlord's right, during the first six months of a further Part 4 tenancy, to terminate that tenancy on no stated grounds. This is an important amendment and one that has been welcomed both by those working with tenants and those working to prevent homelessness.
Sections 33 to 37, inclusive, provide for a number of other early actions which will enhance the Residential Tenancies Board's enforcement and dispute resolution powers, including accelerated dispute resolution timeframes.
As committed to in Rebuilding Ireland, the provisions in the Bill will be supplemented by a new rental strategy, which I intend to launch in the coming weeks with a view to delivering a mature and stable rental sector providing a true balance between the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. The provisions in this Bill are a fundamental part of that overall process.
I am trying to give Members as much detail as I can at this point because I know we will have to try to move through the Stages fairly quickly to try to get this done before the end of the year. That is the idea. I would not usually go into this level of detail on Second Stage.
Part 4, which covers section 40, gives effect to action 4.9 of Rebuilding lreland to amend the Housing Finance Agency Acts to enable the Housing Finance Agency to provide low-cost finance to higher education institutes for the purpose of providing student accommodation. In addition, as a new initiative identified in Rebuilding Ireland, the Housing Agency is to be provided with capital funding of €70 million, with the specific focus of acquiring properties from financial institutions for social housing nationally thereby increasing social housing delivery. As a support mechanism towards giving effect to action 4.9 of Rebuilding Ireland, provision is being made for the Housing Finance Agency to lend to the Housing Agency for this purpose, subject to obtaining the relevant ministerial consents and compliance with prevailing fiscal rules.
Part 5, comprising section 41, is aimed at enabling me, as Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, to make the required payment, to a maximum amount of €420 million, from the local government fund to the Exchequer, as envisaged in the Revised Estimates Volume for 2016. It is necessary to provide for the legislative underpinning of this proposed transfer of funding to the Exchequer by amending section 6 of the Local Government Act 1998.
I think Members will agree that this Bill contains a number of fundamental legislative measures emanating from the Government's Rebuilding Ireland plan, specifically the two pillars relating to building more homes and making our permitting and approval systems more efficient and improving the private rental sector in terms of supply and security. As I have already outlined, these are priority matters for the Government and for all the parties in this House.
I look forward to the contributions and suggestions from Members. I also hope to be able to introduce an amendment on Report Stage that is consistent with the new rental strategy once I get that approved by Cabinet. That is likely to be on Tuesday week. I hope others in this House will help to facilitate the process of getting that done because it is very important that if we make a decision on the rental market we have the capacity to implement that decision quickly rather than making an announcement and then having a long period before we can enact it. That is why the timing in terms of this legislation is important.
I thank the Minister and I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I will discuss some provisions and sections in the Bill but also broader issues to help with the delivery of housing, which is a massive issue nationally.
I welcome some of the proposals in the Bill, particularly section 42, which deals with the extension of recurring planning applications up to 2021 without the obligation to submit new applications. That is a major issue nationally, particularly in my constituency where people started to develop and build up to 100 houses on sites, which is not a massive number by any means. Unfortunately, due to economic circumstances outside their control, they did not have the sites finished and because they got an extension of time, they then had to engage with the local authorities.
They were asking them to submit a whole new planning application and redesign the site, which was totally impractical and was causing further delays. From dealing with the officials in the Department whom I thank for their engagement and positive feedback, I understand that is now being substantially dealt with in this Bill where a planning permission can be extended up to 2021 without making a new application. I hope my reading of it is correct. That is hugely important. If we are serious about delivering houses and serious about dealing with the housing crisis, and we look at the different ways that can be done, this is an area where we must be realistic and practical and we have got to support and help in the delivery of housing in a strategic, proper, practical way.
I note that in the other part of the Bill, the Minister is speaking about flooding and dealing with trying to assist the other Department, and I met the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. Currently, for example, in Celbridge in my constituency, there is a local area plan going on public display in a couple of weeks' time. There is a substantial area that is not being considered which is beside both the motorway and public transport, the new Hazelhatch train station, which has got a whole new timetable with advanced and more frequent trains, and extra services. I note within the plan that they are not considering that area on the advice of consultants because of a risk of flooding, although the OPW website states that flooding does not happen on this site, and on one part of it it is a one in a 100 year risk. I wonder whether there is something within this Bill that we could look at to assist proper strategic development in an area, which is a five-minute walk from public transport, beside a lot of sporting amenities and beside the motorway. It is something that might be worth looking at.
I acknowledge that the only way housing can be delivered is through three mechanisms: local authority housing, the housing agencies and through the private sector. Kildare County Council made a positive announcement yesterday, which my party welcomes, where it has signed the contract to develop 20 units in Kilcock. That is sending out the right signal. At the same time it is preparing and going through a Part 8 process to deliver further social housing in Prosperous. That is all extremely welcome. The local authorities need to be better supported and aided to deliver social housing on their own sites to enable them make more announcements, such as we have seen yesterday for Kilcock and for Prosperous.
We need to support the housing agencies to work with the local authorities to deliver as well, but in addition the private sector has to play a major role in developing and delivering housing, of course, in a strategic, balanced manner. The reality is local authorities cannot deal with answering the current housing crisis on their own. It has to be a partnership approach from all of those different agencies working positively to get houses built and that is really what we should be focused on doing. Anyone who believes that this problem can be resolved without the private sector playing a major positive role is not living in reality because we need their involvement and input in a number of different ways.
I also note the lack of infrastructure and I spoke about it in this House under the Finance Bill and previously with the Minister and with his officials. This is a national issue but, for example, my county, Kildare, in addition to Dublin and a couple of other counties are recognised as having an acute housing crisis. In areas of Naas, Maynooth and Clane there are sites zoned for housing and planning applications ready to go and people in funds, but they cannot build houses because of the lack of infrastructure. In those three areas, Naas, Clane and Maynooth, it is a lack of ring roads. I met someone recently in Maynooth and someone in Naas who have land zoned. They went in and had meetings regarding lodging planning applications, one of which is for 70 units. They are ready to go when they get planning permission and it is on zoned land so it is inevitable that it will happen. They were told with regret that they cannot return to the planning authority until the ring-road is built, but they cannot take the lead in that because the fact the route goes through a number of different land-holdings is causing an issue. That is a problem that we need to focus on and address because that would assist positively in developing and delivering much needed houses.
Celbridge and Leixlip are fast-developing towns. Celbridge has a population of 22,000 and Leixlip's is 15,000. They are going through local area plans at present but there are major deficits because of lack of infrastructure, such as bridges, to free-up particular areas of the towns for development, and that is another issue.
Of course, then there is the issue of wastewater infrastructure and the lack of it, where other areas are being held up in those same development locations which are ready to go in Leixlip, Kilcock and Celbridge. This is a problem. I have met senior officials in the Department at the Minister's say so and we have had positive engagement. Here funding needs to be delivered to the local authorities to deliver the infrastructure that is within their control, such as ring-roads and bridges.
In addition, Irish Water must come on board and play an important role here. I note from the previous two engagements I have had with officials in the Department that there seems to be more positive engagement coming from Irish Water, but still not what we need to see. It is not acceptable that they say to those who have been granted planning permission that they can build houses but they cannot occupy them for up to six years. It is neither acceptable nor good enough that there is a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant in Leixlip in the north of the county and they say they cannot deliver the waste and effluent to it. We should be looking at delivering the infrastructure in tandem with the delivery of housing units. The housing will not be delivered overnight - it will take up to two years - and there is nothing to say that the infrastructure cannot be delivered in tandem with the housing development. Kildare County Council, like many other local authorities, has made significant applications to the Local Infrastructural Housing Activation Fund. It is a €200 million fund and we would be hopeful that it would be designated for the counties in need rather than there being a little bit for everyone which would be a mistake. We need to ensure that the fund is divided up in a way that will have a meaningful effect on the delivery the infrastructure to help deliver the units that we all so badly need.
I also note there is an opportunity under the capital expenditure programme. We should look to extend that, given the cost of borrowing is less than 1% at present. I wonder why the Government is not borrowing at this low rate to invest in capital projects which would assist positively the Local Infrastructural Housing Activation Fund of €200 million in delivering houses. It is all about delivery. We can talk in this House forever about houses, the need for houses and the housing crisis but the only way the housing crisis will be dealt with is by getting houses built. These are real, practical issues, in addition to what the Minister spoke about, has alluded to and is dealing with in the Bill, that are preventing houses from being constructed right now.
I note, too, there is currently a shortage of skills in the country for obvious reasons, with people retraining or emigrating. We need a consistent house-building programme so that over a period of time we can sustain house building jobs, finances and, indeed, the economy. That is hugely important. There has been no house construction for a number of years, it is trying to get started and now there is a shortage in all those areas. If we have a balanced consistent approach with a good strategy to develop and deliver housing over a period of time, and it does not merely come in a peak and go, it means we will be better able to sustain the economy and those jobs.
My final point, because my time is nearly out, is in relation to landlords. I agree with the Minister that we cannot disincentivise landlords because we are depending on them to take people out of homelessness or to deal with the current housing crisis. While we cannot give them a blank cheque or anything like that, we need to work with and support them with legislation and policy to ensure that they continue to allow their properties to be rented, particularly to those on the social housing list. That is a significant issue. Whether with HAP, RAS or rent supplement, private landlords are being incentivised. We need to ensure that we keep them in the loop so that they make their properties available to rent to those who are homeless who are on housing lists who need them. There are no other houses at present and there is a housing shortage. We need to work with them, until we get more houses constructed and until there is a greater supply.
I welcome the Bill.
I compliment the Minister, his staff and the Seanad on the work they have done in the past number of weeks on analysing and scrutinising the Bill and making some very relevant amendments to it.
The Minister said, quite correctly, that the housing crisis is the greatest challenge facing the Government and the country. We have been debating that point and we have sought to assist by putting forward proposals and suggested initiatives in the months since the Government was formed with a view to addressing the crisis in a real and meaningful way. We all played our part, at the instruction of the House, in establishing a special committee on housing which made a raft of suggestions and proposals in its report. That fed into the document the Minister produced within 100 days, Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, as he had committed to do. I commend him on that. The consultation process was extensive and appropriate and involved all the stakeholders, including ourselves. Since then, we have produced various submissions on the budget relating to measures that would assist. We have also submitted initiatives to address the rent strategy, which we discussed during the debate on the Sinn Féin Private Members' Bill. During that debate, the Minister gave a commitment that on Committee Stage of this Bill he will make some further amendments and adjustments to the Residential Tenancies Act which will allow him to give effect to aspects of his rental strategy. We welcome that.
I have no doubt that the medium to long-term initiatives contained in the Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness document have the potential to address the crisis in a more real and meaningful manner than the plan in place under the previous Government which, despite its best intentions, failed to address the crisis and only allowed it to worsen. The crisis is also having a profound effect in many other areas, such as in the context of the public service pay debate. Undoubtedly, far too much of people's disposable income is being spent on rent and mortgages in their efforts to provide a home either in the cities or elsewhere throughout the country. It was quite obvious that interventions were required in existing systems and planning procedures to address both demand and supply. The Minister has gone part of the way in recent months with his demand initiatives, but I do not believe he has gone far enough with supply initiatives. I will continue to impress upon him the great need to do that.
He took one step in that direction recently when he agreed to have the Housing Finance Agency prepare the relevant statistics and information to provide a definitive independent assessment of building costs. I believe that will show what we have been saying for some time, that there is a need to tackle development levies and certification costs, without compromising standards or quality. When one compares our system of certification with that of the UK and the North one finds it costs up to five time less in the North for the same certification. We have outlined to the Minister the possibility of the local authority becoming the certification master in such instances. There is also the VAT issue and the costs associated with the construction industry. Another area is competitive finance and the availability of the credit unions to play a part in making competitive finance more real and effective, which would allow them to play a role in assisting us out of the unfortunate mess we are in at present. That could be allied to the measures announced last week by the Central Bank and the measures announced in the budget for first-time buyers. Indeed, those measures could be extended in certain areas to help the second-hand market, which is stagnant in many parts of the country outside Dublin and particularly in rural provincial areas.
The main aspect of the Bill relates to the fast-tracking of developments of over 100 units directly to An Bord Pleanála. I agree with that and I acknowledge that it must be done. However, I also acknowledge the fears and concerns that were expressed in the Seanad and by various councillors throughout the country. I re-affirm to them and to others who believe that somehow the local democratic process is being compromised that this could not be further from the truth. The primacy of the local development plan remains in place. It is sacrosanct in the hierarchy of plans and it is the bible in respect of planning applications. My only worry and fear is that many of the other plans, be they regional plans or spatial strategies, might not be as up to date, which can have an impact when a planner or the board is to make a final decision. They might not be consistent with the current social and economic situation in the areas where the applications are being made. I hope people will be cognisant of that.
I hope that relevant personnel and expertise will be available to An Bord Pleanála. There is a 25% drop in staffing rates now compared to 2008. There is also increased potential for legal challenges to decisions. Again, is there capacity to deal with that should it be the case? I seek reassurance that there will be no deficiencies in the board's capacity to meet the demand that may be placed on it by the provisions of this Bill. The rationale for the new planning procedure is that in the vast majority of large applications that were appealed to the board previously the board most often upheld the local authority's decision. There is the capacity, therefore, to reduce the time by up to 52 weeks, as has been indicated previously. Local authorities will continue to be the prime decision makers on planning permissions for developments below 100 units. There is some controversy about this. However, the planning system should not be made the scapegoat for failures in the housing market. The barriers to construction which I have mentioned also must be acknowledged.
Given the deficits in housing supply across the country and the persistence of historically low levels of construction activity, especially of multi-unit developments, we must take these measures to jolt the market. I understand and support that. I hope my worries about staffing levels will be addressed to deal with the upsurge in activity and to be able to give decisions in the timeframe contained in the Bill. It is a welcome and new departure for the procedures. Up to now, we have had extensions of time for many applications of this nature and they were the expectation of those who made those applications in recent times.
Another amendment we welcome is the extension of time for permissions. Deputy O'Rourke raised that matter in the House some months ago. With regard to the reform of the Part 8 approvals, we welcome that going from eight to six weeks. The main delay with social housing delivery is not necessarily within the planning or Part 8 procedures. It is the approval of the Department for local authorities' submissions. One case that was brought to my attention this morning relates to Cork. The local authority sought approval for 120 units last March but it is still not approved by the Department, despite the opinion of Cork County Council that it could get started by early 2017.
There is anecdotal evidence of that throughout the country that has been made known to us. The accuracy of that information may be questionable but there still seems to be too long a delay despite the fact the Department has moved from an eight-step to a four-step procedure but we have not seen the impact of that locally. Considering the effort to deliver what is contained in Rebuilding Ireland, the Government's fanfare around it, and the focus of the special task force in the Department, as mentioned by the Minister, which is working with local authorities in a much closer and meaningful manner, I hope we will see deliveries that we can stand over in the future.
I do not want to elaborate on the Bill much longer. We will go through it in greater deal when we come to deal with amendments on Committee Stage. I look forward to a wholesome contribution by all Members to ensure the Bill has the desired effect in assisting in alleviating the crisis in the mid to long term and, with respect to the tenancies Act, that efforts will be made in the short term to improve the position of those who currently find themselves in a terrible situation.
The next speaker is Deputy Ó Broin. I understand he has an arrangement with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan whereby he may require an extra five or six minutes. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan is being generous.
I may not need the time and I thank the Deputy for that. This is significant legislation. I acknowledge the Minister's sincerity in terms of what he is trying to do with this Bill, notwithstanding areas where I have concerns or where Sinn Féin has outlined disagreement in the debate on the Bill in the Seanad. We accept what the Minister is trying to achieve in all aspects of the Bill. I also acknowledge the work of the officials at the pre-planning stage when they briefed Members and in their provision of additional information, which has been very useful in enabling us to understand fully the implications of the Bill.
The Bill provides for a very profound change, albeit a temporary change to the planning system. On that basis, and given the difficulties we have had with planning historically in this State, this legislation requires detailed scrutiny. Not unlike the Minister, many of my comments will be much more like Committee Stage comments, as I wanted to raise them on this Stage to assist in progressing the Bill in the timeline the Minister has outlined.
As the Minister said, some positive amendments were agreed during the debate in the Seanad, to which we will return, but it is disappointing there has not been more media interest in this debate. There have been various newspaper headlines during the past week or so about a former politician of this House potentially rejoining a political party of this House, which is of pretty much no consequence to anybody. This is serious legislation that seeks to deal with significant issues and it deserves more attention than just from those of us whose job it is to scrutinise the detail.
I support the Minister's desire to speed up the delivery of public and private housing. Whatever other disagreements we have over the housing policy agenda, this is one where we definitely want to work together, and I want to state that clearly. As I have been working my way through the Bill to understand it, my concern is that we cannot in the process of wanting to fix one problem, which is one of supply, create other difficulties, even unintended ones, as we go through this process. We do not want in any way to compromise good quality planning. I know that is not the Minister's intention but it is still one of the concerns of which we all need to be cognisant. We do not want to undermine the role, even on a temporary basis, of local elected members or of planning officials in local government. We need to be cognisant of the fact there are significant legal issues which are relevant to this Bill in terms of domestic, constitutional law, European law and international obligations. I will go through a few of the details because I have some questions to which I am keen to hear the Minister's response, if not at the end of Second Stage, then on Committee Stage when we come back to all these.
I am not saying any of this to be awkward. These are genuine questions and concerns I have in getting my head around the legislation. We have genuine concerns about a number of aspects of the Bill, and the Minister will know this because that was expressed by my colleagues in the Seanad. At the outset of this process when we agreed in committee to dispense with pre-legislative scrutiny to facilitate the Minister, I said that I was open to be convinced on all aspects of the Bill. I am still open to being convinced and I say that in all sincerity.
In terms of the substance of the legislation, I will start with Chapter 1. That was the subject of the lengthiest debate, particularly during the ten-hour marathon Committee Stage in the Seanad the other day. I watched all of it and reread sections of it before coming into the Chamber. For people who do not have it, the information that is being provided by the officials is key to understanding the problem and finding the correct solution. The average length of time is 81 weeks for those 15 planning applications, which is far too long in any set of circumstances. We need to have effective mechanisms to address those and to reduce that time.
I get the sense when I read the Bill, irrespective of whether it was the intention of the Parliamentary Counsel, that local authorities are carrying too much of the blame for the delay whereas, obviously, local authorities are only one part of that process. There are concerns about poor quality applications, lack of adequate information supplied by applicants at various stages in the process and poorly designed aspects of the planning process. This is not any reflection on the current Administration but more to do with how historically we have legislatively framed pre-planning in particular. There is also the length of time it takes even for board decisions to be made. On the basis of the information in the Bill, the board is the quickest element of the three pillars of pre-planning, council planning and board decisions. The board's functions are very specific and it has a much easier job to do in some respects than the local authority officials at an earlier point. Therefore, the 19 weeks on average for those 15 applications is probably too long.
I will move on to the specific concerns I have about this chapter of the Bill. I heard the Minister say repeatedly that it is not his intention and he does not believe the Bill is in any way undermining the role of councillors and local officials, but I do not agree.. Again, I am not questioning the Minister's sincerity in this. Local councillors, while having no formal role in a planning decision, bar making third party submissions, are key in the planning process in terms of the county development plan. There is a big shift when we move responsibility for taking a decision on an application from the local authority to An Bord Pleanála. The local authority planners must take into account the detail of a county or city development plan, whereas as we know, legislatively, An Bord Pleanála's relationship with the county or city development plan is different in that it must have regard to that. That creates a different relationship to that fundamental document in planning. I know there was a discussion on this with a number of councillors. The way in which the role of the local councillor is being undermined in this legislation means that the strength of the county development plan as the framework for underpinning planning decisions is weakened, irrespective of whether that is the intention of the Bill, and that is an issue.
Another issue is the lack of any non-judicial appeal. A fair and reasonable right to appeal a planning decision by a third party or by an applicant is not only right and a good feature of our planning system but something that is required under our obligations under the Aarhus Convention. In particular, there are clear obligations in Articles 5 to 8, inclusive. I would be interested to hear from the Minister, either later today or on Committee Stage, whether legal advice was sought on that particular issue and if the legal advice, or a summary of it, could be made available to us to allow us grapple with what are important issues in that regard.
I have a concern, and it is not a reflection on the quality of the staff in An Bord Pleanála. There would be at least ten local authorities to which this fast-track planning process would be expected to apply if it is introduced. We already see that not just big urban counties but also mid-sized rural counties have had applications of that size. We are probably talking about ten or more local authorities. There is a big difference between local authority planners who not only know their county development plan and associated policies but have been through the process of designing them, advising on them and so on, and the function of An Bord Pleanála staff.
I acknowledge the Minister keeps talking about how the planning section of the local authority has a consultative role in making submissions to the board but, in making the decision, the board's staff do not have the same depth of knowledge in respect of the specifics of policy or local conditions as professional planners in the local authorities, and that is a problem in terms of the quality of decisions. There is a huge volume of sifting through the detail of applications in the planning process at local authority level, both in the pre-planning stage and in requests for additional information during the planning stage. That is one of the reasons that stage of the process takes more time than An Bord Pleanála dealing with specific aspects of an appeal. I am not convinced that is adequately compensated for in the alternative arrangements in this section to reduce the time, and I am concerned about that.
My main concern with this section is that there was a better way of doing this. I do not have the experience of the Minister's officials and I was not on a local authority for a long period but ,according to the data the Minister supplied to us, the average time of the pre-planning stage in 15 applications was 33 weeks, the average time for the planning stage was 29 weeks and then it was 19 weeks with An Bord Pleanála. The longest stage is, therefore, is pre-planning and that is because there is not a tight enough statutory framework within which that stage of the process should take place. For example, if I submit a section 247 application to a local authority, I do not have to submit a detailed plan. I know from speaking to many managers that sometimes it is weeks before the more detailed plan is submitted. How can the planning, roads or housing departments of a local authority agree to, and properly inform themselves for, a pre-planning meeting if they have not even seen the plans? We could have had legislation that tightened all that up. There is no reason to fail to restrict pre-planning to six weeks, but that would have to be done legislatively for it be properly enforced.
The average time for processing the planning application is 29 weeks but when the time taken for the applicant to respond to requests for further information is sifted out as opposed to the time for the decision-making process, it is remarkable that the bulk of the delay is down to the time it takes the developer to respond. Of the seven long applications listed, in all cases almost half the time it took to process the application was in the hands of the developer. I understand that some of the requests for information are technical. They require certain types of surveys and there could be seasonal issues among other things, but either those issues should be identified in the pre-planning stage in order that they can be addressed before the application is submitted or developers and applicants are taking too long. They have up to six months, which is excessive. The Minister could have introduced legislative amendments to tighten that timeframe and shift some of the requests into the pre-planning stage, leading to much better outcomes. When the ten additional weeks that is added to that stage of the planning process is stripped out as a result of the time it takes applicants to respond with additional information, the time it takes the local authority to get through applications, according to the Minister's data, is the same as An Bord Pleanála. It works out at an average of 19 weeks.
An Bord Pleanála does not have to undertake the same work on an application as local authority planners and, therefore, there is no reason, as long as there is adequate staff, that it should take 19 weeks to decide appeals, some of which are taken on tightly defined sets of issues. I am not an expert on this and it is not an area on which I have the same knowledge as other areas of housing policy but I can identify an alternative 25-week process which would still allow the local authority to make the initial decision and allow for a fair and reasonable process of non-judicial appeal, which would achieve the same objective that the Minister is striving for. Perhaps I am naive and I do not understand the process properly, but this should have been examined more comprehensively.
Environmental impact screening is a good idea. I am convinced of the need for this both for applicants and for ensuring best quality protection of the environment. I have a number of concerns, however. There was not sufficient scrutiny of the sections in the Seanad. It took me a great deal of time to get my head around this. My first concern is that while there is a consultative element to what the Minister has designed, it distinguishes between organisations that are consulted before a decision is made from a list prescribed by the Minister of the day and other parties, whether that is members of the public or environmental non-governmental organisations, when a decision is made. The difficulty is those in the second tier of consultation will be consulted after the decision has been made, and I am not clear from reading the Bill what purpose that consultation has because there does not seem to be a procedure for altering the decision. Unless I am incorrect, the only third parties who have the right to take the issue to the board if they are unhappy with the decision are those who are involved in the first stage of the consultation process, that is, those who are invited to do so from the statutory list provided by the Minister. That creates a problem and undermines the State's obligations under the Aarhus Convention to ensure people have an opportunity to participate in the planning process. The Minister could have met those in ways that would not have required additional time. If there is legal advice on the implications of this both in terms of the EU's EIA directive 2011-2014 and relevant articles of the Aarhus Convention, I would interested in hearing it.
I have no difficulty with extensions to planning permissions in principle because that is sensible, but there is a small problem. There have been cases, including two in my constituency, which I will not name, where a developer who was phasing in a development did not complete a job in the first phase and then sought an extension of the permission for the second phase of the development. There are strong grounds for providing that third parties, whether they are local authority members or members of the public, should have the opportunity to engage in the process and to participate in consultation. There is a missed opportunity in this regard in the legislation and it could have been provided for without elongating the planning process. I urge the Minister to examine this. I will, however, table amendments in this regard.
I commend the Minister on the amendments to section 179, the Part VIII process, which I support. I have been through a number of controversial Part VIII applications and they were approved within six to eight weeks. There is no excuse in a housing crisis for county or city councillors to delay much-needed social housing, even when it is potentially controversial. My only disappointment with the section is these applications are not the primary problem in the process. We have had this discussion previously and I acknowledge a review is under way, as outlined in Rebuilding Ireland. The four-stage approval, tendering and procurement process is the big delay. I voted in favour of developments as a member of South Dublin County Council in October 2013 which still have not been built and which are still stuck in that process. The Minister is committed to making amendments in this area, but I made a relatively detailed submission to him and the Department and I had hoped he would address this in the legislation. Perhaps he has something for early next year in respect of amending that process. However, he keeps repeating to us that while there used to be an eight-stage process, it is now four stages. That is true but the four-stage process is still a problem. I urge changes in this regard either in this Bill or in new legislation early next year.
The amendments to sections 3 and 4 of the Residential Tenancies Acts in Part 3 are sensible and welcome, but there is another category of social housing tenants who do not have the same basket of rights as those of us in the private rented sector or those in the approved housing bodies, AHB, sector have, which is renters from the State. It makes no sense whatsoever that social housing tenants in local authority properties do not have access and recourse to the same mechanisms.
The Minister probably did not have time to think about that in the context of this Bill. I urge him to return to this issue at some point next year so all rental tenants - local authority, social rental, approved housing body and those of us in the private sector - will have the same set of rights and protections. My suspicion as to the reason why local authority tenants are not included under the terms of the Residential Tenancies Act is because it would open up a can of worms in terms of some of the issues of quality of accommodation in various parts of the country. That is not a criticism of the current Minister. It would also give tenants in local authority properties access to the RTB in disputes with their landlord, which, essentially, is the State.
The Minister knows my view on the Tyrrelstown amendment. We have discussed it before. The problem with the threshold of 20 - I will come to the issue of the five in a moment - is that it means the vast majority of people who are currently at risk of homelessness or who are in emergency accommodation because they were made homeless as a result of a property being repossessed by a bank and the landlord giving notice to quit will get no additional protections. The Minister is introducing an amendment to strengthen the rights of some tenants but the vast majority of people who need this protection will get no additional protection either under the initial proposal or under the reduction to five. The Minister knows that landlords who own 20 properties or more represent approximately 0.56% of landlords and 15% of tenancies. It would be great for those people but the other 85% or so will be left out. Even though it is good that the threshold of 20 is being reduced to five, it is still-----
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. The threshold of five applies to less than 10% of landlords and less than 25% of tenancies. That means we are creating a two-tier protection for tenants who are at risk of homelessness, one for those in that 25% of tenancies and then everybody else. I just cannot support it and I will be tabling an amendment to reduce it to one. I do not accept that there are any legal impediments. Clearly, there is a debate to be had in terms of the impact on the supply and existing stock of rental properties but that is not a legal matter but a policy matter. Not only do we need to look at the consequence for landlords, we also need to look at the consequences for those people who are at risk of homelessness.
I strongly welcome the repeal of section 42. I have two queries. One of the concerns when approved housing body tenants came under the terms of the Residential Tenancies Act was whether long-term tenants of such bodies would experience any diminution of rights in the probationary period at the start of the first Part 4 tenancy. I am wondering if that is still the case, even under the terms of this amendment. If we remove that six-month probationary period for the next four years and the four after that, will it also mean that those subsequent tenancies will be the same tenancy as the first four years, for the purpose of rent reviews, etc., or will they be new tenancies? Are there loopholes in terms of rent review legislation? It is very worthwhile to examine the position.
On the amendment to section 100, I am strongly opposed to the reduction to ten days. We need to speed up the time of the tribunals and the appeals but in many cases the people who are in these situations may have literacy difficulties or vulnerabilities and they may need to obtain access to support or advocacy organisations. As a result, ten days is insufficient. If we want to speed matters up, I urge the Minister to consider additional resourcing for the relevant body rather than less time to make the appeal. I will make a similar point in terms of reducing the membership of tribunals from three to one. Sinn Féin tried to submit an amendment in the Seanad to reduce it to two as a compromise but that amendment was ruled out of order because it would impose a cost on the State. Some of these, even on individual issues, can be quite complex and having a second opinion in the tribunal, particularly given the vulnerabilities of and the difficulties for landlords and tenants, would be very prudent.
An amendment of section 124 provides that determination orders go to the District Court rather than the Circuit Court. The only difficulty I have with this is that in the absence of any policy changes promised in Rebuilding Ireland in terms of a new mortgage resolution regime, it could lead to increased levels of homelessness. It is not acceptable that when a determination order has been decided, there can be a further period of months of legal dispute. I am worried that this provision could end up increasing the flow of certain families into homelessness. It needs to be addressed.
I fully support what is proposed in respect of student housing. We also need to include something around affordability. Universities that will be accessing low-cost, Government-guaranteed Housing Finance Agency loans need to ensure us they will provide accommodation at an affordable level. Some of the on-campus student accommodation currently provided cannot be described as affordable. That is crucial.
I repeat what I said at the outset. We have lots of rows in this Chamber. There are lots of times when we accuse each other of playing politics. All the questions I have raised on this Bill are sincere. I hope that we will be able to get into the detail of this on Committee Stage because I have serious reservations, particularly about the strategic housing developments. I have some concerns around the environmental impact assessments. The Tyrrelstown amendment, in particular, does not go far enough to provide the kind of protections that both the Minister and the rest of the Deputies in the House are trying to provide.
I also intend to be constructive on this legislation. I recognise the Minister's intentions to ensure we have construction of houses and supply as quickly as we can and that we take away obstacles to the achievement of that aim. He is right when he says that supply is the major problem, although those of us on this side of the House would argue that in the meantime we have to protect people who are not able to buy homes and are, therefore, stuck in the rental sector. We debated that matter yesterday and I will not revisit it now. I welcome elements of the Bill and I understand its intention but I also have concerns, particularly around the fast-tracking proposal to go straight to An Bord Pleanála with developments of 100 units or more.
I will first of all refer to the sections of the Bill that are positive. The proposals on Part 8 developments are in that category. Other Deputies have referred to the issue around clarification on whether environmental impact statements are necessary. That is helpful. It will give greater clarity and avoid undue delay and expense where there is sometimes a doubt as to whether they are necessary or not. That is positive.
The issue to which Deputy Ó Broin just referred in the context of the lending for the purposes of student housing from the Housing Finance Agency is a positive. In my previous role I was very familiar with the difficulty of student housing, the shortage and the fact that students very often have to compete with other renters in the private rented sector. We want to see higher education institutions providing student housing that is affordable.
Deputy Cowen referred to the assessment the Housing Finance Agency is carrying out in respect of the cost of building. That is a positive. I have heard a representative of the Housing Finance Agency speaking before about the fact that it could be lending more widely than it is at present. It has often made the argument that it should have the power to lend to local authorities. That matter should be examined.
When he commented on Part 4, the Minister referred to the initiative in Rebuilding Ireland whereby the Housing Agency would be provided with capital funding of €70 million to acquire properties from financial institutions for social housing. That is positive and could be expanded. I have made a proposal before that local authorities should also be allowed to purchase properties, do them up and rent them to their tenants. There is an element in Rebuilding Ireland that deals with that issue. We have all referred to the fact that there are nearly 200,000 empty houses in the country. The census broke some of those figures down. In 17 of our larger towns, there are significant numbers of empty houses.
Let us suppose a local authority could buy a derelict house in a town - they could do so cheaply in many of our towns. It could do up the house or have it done up by a local builder and then allocate it to local authority tenants. The Minister would solve a number of problems, including taking away the problem of empty buildings in our towns as well as providing housing for people on the housing waiting lists. Perhaps this is not the place to say it, but the Minister referred to the point in his speech. I believe there is more potential to get rid of the blight of empty properties in our towns and to put more vibrancy and life into those towns as well as providing homes for people on the social housing waiting lists by going in that direction.
I will come to the element to which I wish to give most of my time presently. It relates to the amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act. Most of the amendments are welcome, but I wish to focus in particular on the proposals relating to developments of 20 dwellings and the proposal to reduce to five the number from which vacant possession would not be allowed by the owner of the properties. I am keen to see the figure reduced to one. The idea that a landlord could get rid of a tenant who still has a lease because a property is being sold is a fundamental cause of homelessness and represents a balancing against the tenant and in favour of the landlord. I believe the balance needs to be put more in favour of the tenant, especially in light of the rising cost of rents. We get figures every day of the week relating to the rising cost of rent, especially in our cities. The Minister indicated that the reduction from 20 to five came from a Report Stage amendment in the Seanad. Obviously, five is better than 20, but I am somewhat alarmed at what the Minister has said today that he is in the process of taking advice on this change and may need to come back to it at a later stage. I can only understand that to mean it may go back up from five, and I would be rather concerned if that is the intention. Perhaps the Minister cannot clarify the point today but I imagine it will come up in later stages. Certainly, I am concerned that there might be some legal issue around that.
Since we are discussing legal issues, I would be interested in the legal advice relating to the Aarhus Convention. I understand the Minister is taking advice on the matter and I would welcome any clarification.
The area I am especially keen to speak relates to the plans to fast-track planning of developments of 100 or more units, establish a strategic housing division in An Bord Pleanála, albeit for a restricted period, and to effectively take out the planning layer in local government in respect of those developments.
The Irish Planning Institute has expressed grave concern in this regard and has described the move as being damaging to democracy and misconceived. The institute has a strong point in that regard. Various people have referred to councillors who are also concerned. The Association of Local Government in Ireland, which represents councillors, has sent a detailed submission - I think everyone received it. The association made the point that all local planning authorities have statutory planning timelines of 16 weeks and that these must be adhered to in all cases. The timelines include an eight week period for a decision on an application following validation and a further four week period if a request for further information is made. Then a final four week period applies for granting of permission if no appeal is made. I concur with what has been said already. The pre-planning area is really where significant delays are experienced.
Nevertheless, it is no harm to represent the practical proposals of the association. The association has said that it accepts that delays in the planning process may arise. However, it is of the opinion that these delays can often be on the part of the applicant, who has a statutory six month timeline for replying to requests for further information. In order to help to speed up the timely delivery of planning decisions by local authorities, especially in respect of large residential developments, the association has proposed that the period would be shortened to no more than a three month period to reply to requests for further information. It has also suggested that a mandatory time-bound pre-application consultation process at local authority level should be in place. Such a pre-application consultation could mirror the proposal detailed in the Bill, including the preparation of a report by the planning authority on the application following the consultation process. The association maintains that would help to assure applicants that once their application is lodged with the local authority, it will be dealt with in a timely manner.
Other concerns have been expressed. I was somewhat unsure what the Minister meant when he explained that the views of councillors and elected members of any development will be reflected in the report of the chief executive on the proposed development, etc. That still takes away the layer whereby local people and communities can have a say at local level in planning. Others have made the point that An Bord Pleanála, understandably, would not be familiar with the local area in the same way as the local system.
The issue around the extent to which An Bord Pleanála will have to abide by the local county plan or area plan is relevant. There are genuine issues and concerns around eroding the local level or layer of the planning process. I am concerned that this change will give rise to more judicial reviews, because effectively that would be the only way in which an appeal can be made. It is regrettable that centralisation is under way rather than devolution. We have talked for years about how we should have more powers devolved to local level. In fact, this represents the opposite. It involves taking it to a central level. I genuinely believe that the delays are not caused by the local process. Oftentimes delays arise because developers are not really organised or ready when they put in an application, or they have not gone through an appropriate pre-planning process. Often, they are responsible for extending the process.
The Minister often refers to the fact that there is planning permission in the greater Dublin area for approximately 27,000 housing units. These planning permissions already exist, yet, people are sitting on those permissions and not building. If we could get that moving more quickly, we would be doing a greater service to the whole process.
That is where the real problem lies. I do not believe that the measures the Minister is proposing to introduce in this legislation will do a great deal to speed up the process. In fact, doing something about deterring developers from sitting on sites with permission would do far more. I intend to bring in legislation next week to address this in the context of the Kenny report and by bringing forward the vacant sites levy. That is for another day, but the fact that there are so many existing planning permissions is enough to suggest that the problem does not lie with the local tier of the planning process.
I welcome the measures in respect of the extension of planning permission. The Minister has said that this will only apply where substantial work has been carried out. I know the Minister has brought this forward in the Seanad. That is welcome because we do not want people getting extensions to planning permissions simply because they want to delay the process. They have to show that they have done some work. That measure is welcome.
Overall, there is much good in this legislation, but the issue of real concern to me and others in the Chamber is the erosion of the local tier of the planning process. Genuine principles of local democracy are at stake in this regard. Councillors rightly have a limited role in planning processes, but at the same time they have the opportunity to raise issues about planning, and local communities have the opportunity to submit comments on planning applications. This process will now be centralised through An Bord Pleanála. I do not believe this will greatly speed up the process of construction. While this is what we all want to achieve, the answers lie elsewhere than in this measure in the Bill. However, overall, as I said, I acknowledge that there are good elements in the Bill as well.
We have heard much about the need for this Bill to be progressed very quickly. Those of us who on the housing committee heard the Minister's arguments to speed up its passage or allow it to bypass pre-legislative scrutiny. People may have the impression that this is emergency legislation to resolve the housing crisis. I only wish it were so. The Bill has fallen way off the target of what is causing the housing crisis. It will neither resolve it nor make an affordable house available any more quickly to anybody and it damages and sets aside important checks on developers in cases of large developments. Tenants' rights are very poor in Ireland compared with other countries, despite the fact that at least 20% of people now rent. The figure is much higher for cities. The Bill does not give any additional powers to tenants over a landlord to protect themselves against eviction. I will deal with that further in a moment.
Regarding planning issues, the Irish Planning Institute is quite alarmed by this Bill. It would argue that the very important local checks by communities and councillors will be damaged by the Bill, with no evidence that this is necessary. Nobody examining the situation could say that the planning system is to blame for the delay in housing coming on stream. In Dublin alone, there are 28,000 planning applications granted and thousands more in the pipeline. Why are these applications not being processed? We must nail this. It is because developers are hoarding the land and waiting for prices to increase in order that they can make even more of a killing on the market. This is absolutely the reason for the delay. The developers have their planning permissions and they are not using them. Instead of caving in to developers, we must intervene.
The other argument I think the Minister used concerned a very small sample of planning applications. I have seen many counter-examples as a councillor. It is not the case that huge delays come at local level. In fact, very few planning applications are delayed. Those that are tend to be very unusual, with large-scale objections and so on. If a big development is being considered for planning permission, it is important that communities have a right to a say on such matters as overshadowing, traffic and so on. It is quite a serious erosion of rights for the Minister to wipe that away. I have seen a sample in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in which no planning applications whatsoever were delayed at local level. We really need to hear much more evidence from the Minister and the proponents of the Bill that this is necessary.
What is delaying housing now? NAMA, a huge landholder in key areas where there is a housing crisis, has been sitting on land for a number of years and the developers are dysfunctional after the crash. However, it now seems that we must wait for the private developers to decide when it is profitable for them to start building again rather than for the State to intervene and build affordable housing on a grand scale, as it did in the 1970s to resolve the housing crisis of the 1960s. In the 1970s, 8,000 or 9,000 local authority homes were routinely built every single year without fail. That is the only way. The focus yet again is on kick-starting the private developers and removing impediments in their way, whereas we all know that there is no guarantee they will provide affordable housing.
I also want to deal with the issue of tenants' rights. My constituency, Dublin West, has been widely acknowledged as having a very serious homelessness crisis. Several surveys have shown that 40% of those in homeless and emergency accommodation in Dublin hail from Dublin West. There are particular reasons for this. Dublin West has a young population and a large migrant population which are very reliant on private rented accommodation. It also forms part of a local authority that simply does not have the land zoned to build housing straight away. There is a key reason people are being made homeless now, however, and I mentioned it last night in the other debate we had. We went through a survey of our cases. The reason given in 31% of cases of eviction was sale of the property. In 12% of cases, there was a family member the landlord suddenly needed to move into the property. These two grounds alone constitute 43% of cases. Sale of the property has bypassed rent increases as a reason for eviction. Many people can apply for a rent increase, although rent increases are increasingly being used to vacate properties in many areas. The Minister originally proposed, supposedly to declaw the vulture funds, that they could only evict 20 families, and they are usually families, from properties in one development in a period of six months. I pointed out to the Minister in September when he broached this matter with the Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government that such a measure would be very simply bypassed by just ordering 19 evictions. Getting rid of people in large-scale developments is a long-haul game anyway. It takes some time for these landlords.
The other point I made is that we must outlaw the sale of the property in such cases for anybody at all. Most tenants in this country - 83.5% - live in properties owned by a landlord who owns fewer than ten properties, so the Minister's original proposal would only have catered for a tiny number of people. However, 70% live in properties owned by a landlord who only owns four properties or fewer. An amendment was passed in the Seanad, which I assume was against the Minister's wishes, to change the number of evictions permissible to five per development. Even with the amendment, 70% of people will not be covered by this measure. The Minister has left in many loopholes to protect landlords in these locations.
Let us say they can only carry out five evictions at a time. One way a landlord can get around the measure is to state that he or she would lose, as the Minister has put it, 20% in the sale of a property if he or she must sell with a tenant in situas opposed to on the open market as a vacant dwelling. That is very easy to do. Once again, the Minister is placing the rights of landlords and vulture funds to profiteer over the right of a family to keep a roof over its head. We all know that all a landlord has to do is show three other properties in the area with a higher sale price and - bingo - they can evict. They are doing this now. It is simply not good enough to leave in the legislation such a huge power in the landlords' hands. If the Minister is serious about hitting the vulture funds, this just looks as if he wants to be seen to be hitting them when he is not. I understand that amendments have been made to the other ground, that is, that if it is unduly onerous on the landlord, he or she can be exempted. The Minister is giving landlords so many loopholes to get out of this. They have all the legal teams they need against the usually powerless family that does not even know the law or its rights. I ask the Minister to accept amendments on this matter on the next Stage of this process.
Another issue I seriously implore the Minister to consider is Part 4 tenancies. These also came up in the debate last night. He can put into the legislation all the changes he likes, but if a vulture fund or landlord wants to get rid of somebody, it simply has to wait until the four-year cycle is up before the tenant is back to a period of having no rights again.
It is normal and usual for families to be in properties for at least four or five years before eviction comes on the cards. The Minister must rebalance the rights of tenants over the rights of landlords to evict at will.
In my remaining time I would like to clarify remarks I made last night in the housing debate, and I spoke with the Ceann Comhairle about this earlier. I made the point that there is a very high level of landlord representation in this House when compared with society as a whole. In society, 4% of Irish people are landlords but in here the level is 20% to 25%. When I spoke about the Minister and Minister of State, it certainly was not personal. It was a political point that being close to landlord activity must influence decisions made here or decisions made by parties. It was a political point about how decisions are made. I understand the Minister of State is not a landlord; he owns multiple properties but he is not a landlord.
This legislation is directed towards trying to deal with the housing crisis and at the beginning of any discussion on that crisis, we must start by reminding ourselves of the human reality. It came home again in the past week when a man in Dundalk died on the street as a result of exposure to the cold. It is almost two years to the day since Jonathan Corrie died close to the entrance of this building. Those very stark and awful facts are set against a background of the homelessness issue not getting any better since Jonathan Corrie's death but rather very considerably worse. For all the work, talk, plans, publications and announcements, the issue has worsened and people continue to die on the streets. The number of people on the streets in homeless and emergency accommodation has increased. In particular, it is a shame beyond shame for any Government that there are now 2,400 children who are homeless, with 85% of those in the city. It is beyond shameful.
I do not doubt the Minister has put much effort into this but it is not working because, overwhelmingly, there is a reliance on the market to deliver. In everything the Minister does, there is the fear and "sensitivity", a word that almost made me scream, that the Government feels it must have for a thing called the "market". We should remove the euphemism of the "market", as it is a euphemism for developers and landlords. That is what we are talking about when we mention the market. We are talking about people who want to make money from property. The Government's entire policy is directed towards incentivising them and removing obstacles; in essence, it is not doing anything that might annoy them or suggest to those people that they might make less money from property and housing. These vested interests are clearly telling the Minister and his Government, as well as Fianna Fáil, if we take into account how it reacted to the rent certainty legislation, what cannot be done because it would mean those people would not make enough money. The Government is rolling over and saying that is acceptable. Everything the Government does is circumscribed, essentially, by the fears, anxieties and greed of the developers, landowners and landlords. For that reason, it ends up doing things that at best will achieve very little and at worst may be counterproductive. That brings us to this Bill.
We should be clear about this Bill. As Deputy Coppinger has stated, the primary reason we have not got the famous supply of housing is that NAMA, landowners and developers have not seen it as profitable to deliver housing. There are problems at local authority level and I do not dispute that. They are inherent to the democratic process of planning and public consultation but to say that is the main issue is the knee-jerk view of the developer and landlord class. That is what they always think. They believe the problem is bureaucracy, red tape and inefficient public bodies rather than themselves. That is not to say there are no problems or delays in the planning process but even with the legislative streamlining being proposed by the Minister, it will make no difference. The problem at the level of the local authority and An Bord Pleanála is a lack of staffing. The Minister can legislate all he likes but it will not make any difference in terms of timescale. If it does make a difference, it will be because the quality of planning oversight will reduce in order to meet the deadlines being set by the Minister. There will be bad development, bad planning decisions and so on because the Government is not providing resources but is demanding that the stuff be rushed through. The Minister is not addressing the central problem.
If the Minister manages to speed up the process he will still be at the mercy of developers. I received an interesting piece of anecdotal evidence during the week indicating that many of the planning applications in Dublin are now for student accommodation and hotels. I believe Mr. Denis O'Brien is moving into the provision of student accommodation. It is always a bad sign when he moves in any particular direction.
One can get many students into small spaces and there is much money to be made in that. Many people can be put into hotels and there is much money to be made in that as well. There is not as much money to be made in building decent and affordable residential property. Such people go where the money is and the Bill will still encourage them to do so rather than delivering social and affordable housing. Even if the legislation did that, it still would not work, and the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area illustrates this point.
If the private developers deliver in a speedy timeframe, which they will not unless the Minister helps to provide staff and the local authorities do it themselves - I will get to that point in a moment - there would be no difference in our area anyway because of affordability. The average house price in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown is €498,000, which is €160,000 higher than the average in Dublin, €210,000 higher than the average in Fingal and €230,000 higher than the average in south Dublin. That is completely unaffordable. Nevertheless, the Minister is leaving this to private developers who will charge such prices.
The trend is similar with rents. The average rent for a one-bedroom home is €1,800 per month and for a three-bedroom home it is €2,280, which is totally unaffordable. If those prices come down and there is not enough money in it for the developers, which they and the Minister keep saying is the big problem, they will not increase supply. They will stop at the point at which prices start to come down because they are interested in price and profit. The supply will never equal demand because the only demand they are interested in will result in high prices or rents.
They are not interested in absolute demand; they are interested in effective demand backed by money that is willing to pay these extortionate prices. Given that they have a monopoly of control of the land, and in light of the Minister's decision to give them most of the control over the social and affordable housing that will be delivered, why on earth would they develop or increase supply to the point at which prices would begin to decrease? They have never done this in the past and they are simply not going to do it in the future. It is for that reason that direct builds are needed.
I will conclude by talking about the real delays associated with direct builds, even in cases of Part 8 planning. The Minister is talking about reducing the amount of time that councillors will have to make decisions. The real delay relates to the tendering process that is necessary as a result of the outsourcing of local authorities' public and social housing. We got a breakdown of this from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. We need to address the activity that is accounting for the bulk of the time that is being lost by directly employing people to build houses on public land. If we do not do this, the approach being pursued by the Minister in this legislation will make a negligible difference, or no difference at all, to the problem of slow delivery of houses. We need direct labour that is directly employed to build local authority housing on public land. That will force the private developers to build. If the public sector begins to build housing, the private sector will be forced to crystallise its land holdings into development.
I echo the comments that have just been made by Deputy Boyd Barrett. Nothing more true has been said about housing in this House in the past seven or eight years. The regressive and retrograde decision to abandon large local authority development in the mid-1990s was made on spurious grounds of design etc. The Minister will agree that there are many examples of beautiful and incredibly sustainable local authority areas and estates in his city of Cork and my city of Dublin. If previous Governments and our local authority predecessors were able to do that in the past, it should be possible for us to do it again.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak briefly on the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016. I fully agree that major initiatives are urgently needed to increase housing output vastly and address our deepening housing and homelessness catastrophe. I do not believe this Bill is one of those initiatives. I asked the Minister in recent parliamentary questions to resource local authorities to enable them to build directly. I remind him that whole local authority departments of skilled planning and construction professionals were depleted, if not wiped out, over the past 20 years. The Government has done almost nothing about this. The Bill before the House is a further continuation of the old failed rip-off system that was led by private developers. I recognise that the Minister is sincerely aware of the depths of this crisis and the need for urgent and dramatic action. I have called for a FEMPI-type response to this crisis on many occasions. We saw on the financial side that this kind of response involves very direct action. This House was prepared to take ruthless action in relation to the banks and public sector pay etc. but it does not remotely seem to have the same inclination in relation to housing.
Although I agree that the planning process could be expedited at different stages, I believe it is absolutely unnecessary to eviscerate the powers of local authorities in the manner set out in this legislation. I remind the Minister that up to 100,000 housing units were built each year between 2004 and 2008. The exact housing figures were 68,819 in 2004, 76,954 in 2005, 80,954 in 2006, 93,419 in 2007, 78,027 in 2008 and in 51,724 in 2009. We were able to turn out housing in such massive numbers under the system that is currently in place. Vast new urban districts were built under the existing Planning and Development Act 2000. Large developments were built in my own constituency of Dublin Bay North even though it was not a strategic development zone. I understand there are existing permissions to built 27,000 homes in Dublin alone. This would exceed the basic annual output for which the Minister is aiming. I understand that enough land has been zoned as residential across Ireland to facilitate the construction of 414,000 homes. Why are these homes not being built? That is the fundamental point. A total of 17,434 hectares of land is zoned as residential across the country. Some 2,654 hectares of this, or over 5,000 acres, is in the Dublin area. This land could be used to provide 116,700 urgently needed homes.
This legislation will do nothing to address the problem of our total reliance on the failed speculative bank-and-developer system. We know that land hoarding is still a huge problem. When I look at some estates that are being built at the moment, I am reminded of the construction of the cathedrals of the Middle Ages or the Great Wall of China. It seems to be going on and on. I wonder why this is the case. Is it a question of a lack of finance? Are developers deliberately holding and hoarding in the knowledge that the housing crisis will be even worse next year and the following year and prices will continue to escalate? Many planning permissions have been granted in the local authority areas I represent - Dublin city and Fingal - in the past two or three years, but we are still waiting for the homes. Bankrupt developers are working their way back with the help of NAMA. The Government is now calling on developers who left us with messes like Priory Hall and Longboat Quay, with pyrite-ridden homes and with fire traps to come to the rescue in addressing the housing crisis as it spirals out of control. The dysfunctional bank-and-developer financial model that has been driving our housing market has been overseen by the Central Bank, which has been equally dysfunctional at times. Like other Deputies, I have complained month after month over the past year and a half on behalf of constituents that action needs to be taken on the macroprudential rules. The Governor of the Central Bank, Mr. Lane, did not see fit to come forward with minor positive moves to try to relax those rules until the past week.
On the positive side, I accept that the Bill includes a few small improvements for tenants. Unfortunately, it does not really make an effort to address the real power of landlords and property owners. Section 4 of the Bill provides for the streamlined planning processes that will apply to strategic housing developments, which are defined in the Bill as developments of more than 100 homes or developments of student accommodation with 200 or more bed spaces. Although this streamlining is due to expire in October 2019, the Minister has said that it could continue until December 2021 as a result of a Seanad amendment. If these changes are deemed to be necessary, why is the Minister placing time limits on them? I suggest that the Minister could have considered taking the opposite approach by leaving the key invigilation and decision process with the local authorities that know their own areas best and by greatly reducing the times permitted for the appeals process.
Surely local planners, elected representatives who make third party submissions and the various civil society groups and residents' associations etc. are best placed to assess proposed major developments and to decide what is best for local areas. I would like to refer in this context to one of the many large developments that have been proposed in my constituency recently. I believe the residents of the receiving environment and the Dublin City Council planners are best placed to decide on what constitutes a sustainable development for the site in question, which is on the grounds of St. Paul's College near St. Anne's Park. I remind the House that there are 6,500 people on the homeless and housing list in my constituency. Urgent action is needed for that reason. The effect of this legislation will be to ban third party submissions regarding large developments at local level.
The Minister said in the Seanad and again in this House that under the process that is being created, the chief executives of local authorities will be able to have an input by making submissions. This will differ significantly from the current situation, which permits interested citizens to make submissions immediately. The Minister might recall that when many houses were being constructed in the 2000s, as I have mentioned, people had eight weeks to make submissions in the first stage of the local authority process. This was reduced to five weeks as part of a previous attempt to streamline the process.
In my experience, much information is often missing from the original proposals and, when additional information is required, it is usually the developer's fault. In the past two to three years, there have been many time-wasting reapplications by developers, seeking either fairly minor amendments or to increase the number of houses compared to apartments, in order to take advantage of current market conditions. I note the Minister has moved on that problem to some extent.
After the current five-week process and the decision by the council, people will have only four weeks to make an appeal application to An Bord Pleanála. The latter's target to make a decision is usually 18 weeks. From my experience of my constituency and neighbouring ones, even the largest proposals rarely receive an oral hearing. The only instances where there have been oral hearings have been for very large developments of perhaps more than 500 homes or for shopping centres and developments of that type.