Wednesday, 7 December 2016
Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I understand the desire of many in the House to speed up the construction of housing. There is a chronic lack of supply which has contributed to a housing crisis, unprecedented levels of homelessness, enormous social housing waiting lists, completely unsustainable rents and mortgage arrears. Overcoming this lack of supply is vital but the most obvious way to do it, which is a well-funded scheme of housing from the Government, is not forthcoming. The strategy in this Bill aims to facilitate proposes to provide only one third of the housing needed to clear waiting lists. This is not an adequate response to the housing crisis and, in fact, things will get worse under Fine Gael's national rental strategy.
I welcome the amendment made on Committee Stage in the Seanad which deals with the speculative hoarding of land. It is essential that the new fast-track planning permissions are not held back for years on end, rendering the procedural changes useless. The most efficient reform of planning would be more extensive use-it-or-lose-it policies. There are 28,000 permissions outstanding and not acted upon in Dublin. The solutions include introducing the vacant site levy earlier - 2018 at the latest - as well as a four-month limit on outstanding planning permissions. What use is an expedited process if developers can simply hold on to the permission and not build?
It is difficult to see how planning can be fast-tracked effectively without dealing with staffing issues. Unless we are prepared to examine that question, any fast-tracking is open to result in shoddier planning rather than more effective procedures. I am also concerned about the diminution of the role of local government in the planning process which the proposed changes seek to bring about.
The fact that decisions were passed to An Bord Pleanála in a way that would allow county plans to be bypassed is very worrying, limiting further the role local elected officials can play in determining how their communities develop.
There has also been much discussion about the so-called Tyrrelstown amendment in the House. I want to draw the attention of the House to the research of the Private Rental Tenancies Board which shows that 91% of landlords own three properties or fewer. In that context, the amendment proposed by the Seanad to protect tenants in the case of five or more properties being sold off is the very minimum we need. The Government's proposal that these protections be limited to the 0.54% of landlords who own ten or more properties is totally unacceptable.
I want to propose that we approach these issues from two perspectives. The first is from the position that there is a housing crisis that affects the majority of people in the country and not just a small minority. The second is that we need to consider tenants' rights as the issue at hand. In the case of the latter, there is an equity issue to be considered in the introduction of security of tenure solely for tenants in a tiny number of properties which do not apply to other tenants. We need to explore ways to protect all tenants, not just a few, in cases where properties are sold.
I welcome the amendment introduced by the Seanad to limit the exemptions offered to landlords in this case. As housing expert Lorcan Sirr remarked in The Sunday Times, the Bill, as originally drafted, would allow any landlord worth his or her salt to drive a coach and four through it. It is vital that the attempts the Seanad has made to close these loopholes remain.
It is important to highlight changes made in regard to receivers. Many tenants are fearful of the results of receivership because receivers are not subject to the same laws as landlords. This must be changed as soon as possible.
I want to comment on the Bill as part of fulfilling the national rental strategy. What we need to solve the crisis in the private rental sector is commitment to fundamental reform. This does not just mean measures to facilitate developers, rather it means a Government policy that stops the entire housing sector being turned over to the market. Without adequate rent security provisions or a major scheme of public housing construction, we will not be able to solve the biggest crisis in the country today.
The solution to this profound crisis cannot be found in simply speeding up the existing process. It can only be found in changing the ideology that has underpinned how we have dealt with housing in this State for decades. We need a Government which is willing to say that housing is a right for every person, that paying for it should not drive a person into poverty and that it is too important to leave its provision to private profiteers. Until we achieve that, we will be putting a sticking plaster on a wound that cuts to the very heart of this society. That is the essence of what is happening today.
I am sure every Deputy has received an e-mail from Focus Ireland. We all received e-mails from supporters of the campaign. My inbox is full of them. I would like to read it because it is important. It is from Mike Allen, who says:
I am writing to you concerning the planning Bill that you will be debating this week and our campaign to close off one of the main routes through which families become homeless. You will have received some of the almost 40,000 emails which have been sent by supporters of this campaign directed at their own TD and giving their own address. We thank you for your courtesy in responding to these.
From front-line work, we see more than 20 families each month becoming homeless simply because their buy-to-let landlord has been forced to sell up. This is the cause of homelessness for about a third of families becoming homeless. The issue is not just about 20 families becoming homeless this month, but also about the almost 15,000 households who have a buy-to-let landlord who has arrears of over two years. There is little doubt that without legislative changes most of these families will find themselves evicted from their homes over the next couple of years even though they may be completely up-to-date with their rent and have years left on their tenancy agreements.
The proposed amendment is both fair and proportionate, given the scale of human misery which will result from inaction on this issue. Individuals, banks and lending institutions which entered into a buy-to-let arrangement did so in the full knowledge that part of the business plan was to provide a home for a tenant. Many have benefitted from the section 23 and other tax reliefs and the Focus amendment limits their options if they want to sell so that they must sell the property with the tenant in place. This is commonplace in commercial rents.
Focus Ireland recognises and welcomes the strong cross-party concern and commitment that exists on this issue. We recognise that the Government's Tyrrelstown amendment is well-intentioned. However, it provides protection for only a tiny percentage of all tenants and in our experience excludes virtual of the tenants who are at real risk. The Tyrrelstown amendment is also undermined by the loophole that allows landlords to set aside tenant protections where they can increase the sale price by 20% through doing so.
While we understand that this provision is designed to address constitutional concerns, we believe it is misconstrued. It is surely not the intention of the Constitution that a price should be put on the protection of the family home. If goodwill alone was enough to solve the problem of homelessness there would be no child facing Christmas cramped in a hotel room.
We understand that the solutions to homelessness are complex and many will take a number of years to make a difference. The hard truth is that there are very few policy changes available to us which can help quickly reduce the numbers of families which become homeless. Focus's proposal, which has been drafted with expert assistance, is one of the very few interventions capable of slowing down the family homelessness crisis the short term. They hope that the Dáil will support it and in all truth if the Dáil decides not to support such a simple measure it is hard for Focus to conceive of any meaningful measure which it would be prepared to take.
That should be taken on board by the Minister because it is a fact that those living in buy-to-let properties will be the worst affected. In cases where tenants are paying their rent in full, have no problems with the rent and are expected to remain in a tenancy agreement for a number of years, but whose landlord has to sell because of problems, the unit should be sold with the tenant in situ. That is the least we can do to protect families who could face homelessness over the next year or two.
I am delighted to speak on the Bill. I welcome many aspects of it, which address the under provision of housing. It has become an acronym. We are addressing the issue, but things are not happening. More homes cannot be built because young couples living in the country who have sites and, in some cases, planning permission for housing cannot get money from banks. I will not say what one would not get from the banks. They will not approve any loans.
The Bill refers to accelerating social housing and improving the rental sector, which are noble objectives. I have been here for nine years and the crisis has been around for some time. We are discussing what we will and will not do. I was on the Committee on Housing and Homelessness, and compliment Deputy John Curran for his work. We are all talk and no action.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, to the House and wish to refer to some matters that are his area of responsibility. The OPW is under his remit. The Bill proposes to introduce the streamlining of arrangements to enhance flood relief, which is badly needed. A flood will come and sweep some of the officials away. Tree-huggers, planners, the EPA, the NRA, TII and the whole lot of them were not to be seen last year when we were under water for months. They could not be found, they were in hibernation. One cannot cut a bus in a river or open an inlet.
I hope what is proposed works. I believe the Minister understands the situation. He is a quantity surveyor, and understands what needs to be done. We have to get rid of all the quangos. It will be some job because, as far as I can see, they have mushroomed.
The Bill will also enable the Minister to make payments from the local government fund, which is vital. Flood works were done in Clonmel, which were largely successful - I addressed the Minister of State about that last week. We will have to drain the rivers. We can build walls as high as the roof of the Chamber, but that would be a waste of time because dirt from roads and other wastage are flowing into them. They were always clean, but now because of certain environmental agencies they cannot be touched.
Having completed the new sewerage scheme, which cost €16 million, I met people in Clonmel who had made their living from the River Suir by selling eels to the now defunct Clonmel Arms. When we put in the treatment plant, the water was pristine - it was almost as clear as the glass I hold - but there was not an eel in the river, or any other kind of life either, including plant life. We need to check if the remedy and the medicine is worse than the pollution. However, this is not about pollution. I wish the Minister of State success in the many areas he has visited. He visited my county, for which I thank him, and listened to the people and their families and understood their language.
To get back to other aspects of the Bill, I want to refer to the building of more homes. With the permission of the Cathaoirleach, I wish to refer to a press release that I issued in desperation on 28 September 2015.
It is on topic. It was headed "Less than 7 houses built in Tipperary in 2015", referring to those built by the local authorities. That was in September 2015 and we are now at Christmas 2016, going into 2017. I stated that the latest house building figures released by the Department for County Tipperary - they were not my figures - confirmed the scale of underinvestment in the county. The House must remember that we had Alan the Mighty, who was the Minister at the time, and, God, what he was not going to build, knock out of his way and get done. It was unreal. That was his way; he could not wait to get at it. He was going to leave a legacy after him. He left some legacy all right.
In the press release, I spoke about the data from the building control management system managed by the Local Government Management Agency - again, they were not my figures - which showed that only six publicly available houses were built in County Tipperary up to the end of July 2015 while 2,920 people were on the approved housing list in the county. The figure of approved applicants for social housing in County Tipperary is now well north of 3,000. We are not even scratching the surface. One would not know that Deputy Kelly ever came to Tipperary or was ever Minister with responsibility for the environment, although he was in Europe. He pledged to stay there for five years when he got elected, but he came back after two and a half.
In the press release, I noted that these numbers were incredibly worrying and pointed once again to the total failure of the last Government to address the scale of the housing emergency with anything like the speed that was required. We can have all the Bills we want in this House, but nothing is happening. There is no excuse for work: taking out a pickaxe and a shovel. We built houses when all we had was pickaxes and shovels. We had labourers, whom I salute. I will not say they worked as Mary O'Rourke once said about some kind of a man because it might be inappropriate, but they worked very hard and built houses with no equipment or machinery. Nowadays we have all the machines and equipment in the world along with designers, architects, special advisers and you name it, but we cannot build anything.
From March to December 2014 no houses that could have been placed on the public market were built in County Tipperary, while only 30 one-off houses were built, although more people would have built one-off houses had they been allowed. I know lots of couples that cannot get planning permission on their own land because the process is too rigorous. They have the vision, passion and energy to build their own houses but they cannot get the planning permission or the loans because of all the red tape. In 2015 the number of publicly available houses had not reached double digits, with only six houses being built for that purpose, while 50 one-off houses were built. That was only 80 or so houses altogether in the two years. I stated that it was now a matter of clear and certain judgment that the then Government had failed, as had the then Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, in respect of his promises. Deputy Kelly now speaks on Bills and what this Government should do, but he did nothing himself. It is the kettle calling the pot black. One would think he was on a different planet. The Labour Party had many other issues as well when Deputy Howlin was the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. That was the situation. I feel so sorry for the homeless and those who need homes.
The buy-to-let scheme is a solution. Some 200,000 units are being bought up by vulture funds while this Government wants to change the legislation to fast track cases through the Circuit Court. I, with the land league and others, stopped Circuit Courts in their tracks from evicting people. In many cases, county registrars - these people are not even judges - were basically throwing people out of their homes. We stopped them in their tracks, but now the Government wants to change the law to allow them to take on that role again. It will be cheaper, mar dhea, and there will be only so much in legal fees. It is a Bill aimed at fat cats, although I mean no disrespect to the Cathaoirleach, who is an eminent lawyer. I heard lawyers in this House arguing that it would make the process faster and easier on families, but it does not matter what representation those families have, they will be evicted from their houses unless this is stopped in its tracks. We must not change that law.
I welcome the e-mail from the Simon Community, Focus Ireland and other organisations today, which Deputy Collins mentioned. I got it as well. There are 200,000 buy-to-lets in the country. No one who is paying his or her rent should be fired out of the house. Many pubs, shops and businesses are sold on with tenants in them. It is standard practice every day of the week. Why can it not be done here? It is greed. The banks and the vulture funds see a killing. The greed must be stopped because it has gone on for far too long.
A recent census report stated that more than 100,000 properties are vacant. We are codding ourselves. We need to take a dose of Epsom salts, pinch ourselves hard and smell the coffee. These are houses that are available. Many of them are boarded up and this Bill is only tinkering with the situation. I see houses in my own area where finished estates have been abandoned for the past seven or eight years. They should be subjected to a compulsory purchase order by the county council and a reasonable rate given to the developers and builders.
There are some very good builders out there. Not all builders and developers are monsters as portrayed by certain Members of the House. Many of them are good people. Small builders could make a big dent here and lift the rural economy too by getting a start. Tús maith, leath na hoibre, if only they could get the money from the bank. They are only out to make a small profit to feed their families, employ people and do the one-off houses.
We are not examining many available options. We have various committees and reports from those visiting various parts of Dublin, but this will all be an abject failure because we are not doing anything. We have lost our way. Our county councils have lost their way as well. They have also lost the interest and the skills. I do not know what they have lost, but they just cannot build the houses, although they could build them when they did not have any expertise. We have architects to design one-bed, two-bed, three-bed and four-bed units. Why can we not have the one design for all counties adapted as appropriate to the particular site? It is because the architects would then not have their pound of flesh.
We need to look deep and examine the quangos. I wish the Minister of State and his successor well in dealing with them. I know how involved they both are in the flooding issue. I will not say much more because I think my time is nearly up. However, I ask the Minister of State to go down to the place in Clonmacnoise I mentioned to look at the flooding issue there. I know the Minister of State will go down to see that friend of mine in his constituency and that he will try to deal with those who are trying to keep out the floodwater. However, we might as well be getting ready to get on the ark while we are waiting for the public officials and various departments to build houses. It is not going to happen. The wind is out of the wheels and the wagon is bunched.
I too am glad to speak on the housing and rental crises again. Nothing has been discussed more than this topic since I was elected to this House. It was mentioned in the programmes for Government day after day and even before I came up here it was discussed in Kerry County Council. So much has been said, but words are not enough because words will not build houses. These Bills will not build the houses either, but certain things need to be done.
I disagree with Deputy Mattie McGrath when he stated that the local authorities had lost their way in house building. The Taoiseach also said that and I got very cross with him that day because that is not true. How could the local authorities build houses when they did not have any funds to build them? There was mention of 30 houses being built in Tipperary last year. In terms of social housing, three rural cottages were built in County Kerry in the past seven years. That is a fact. It is the Gospel truth and nothing but the truth and it is a shame and a disgrace given the number of people on the housing list.
We were promised €62.5 million at the start of 2015 to address the housing crisis in Kerry but, as of yet, not one social house has been built. There are only a few days left in 2016 and I know that no houses will be built before the end of the year. However, 22 houses are to be built in Killarney. They went out for tender during the summer, but they have been put out for tender again. As a result of the restrictions the Department has imposed, no official in Kerry County Council would sign off on the tenders that came in and this now has to be put out for tender again. It only went out the other day. I worry about whether these houses will be built in 2017. I hope they are but I am not so sure.
Private builders are not building houses. The only houses that are currently being built in County Kerry are one-off houses that are being built by farmers' sons, etc. A few houses are being built by local people who have enough money to build a house but others cannot get money from the banks.
The developers and builders will tell us this. As Deputy Mattie McGrath stated, rogue builders were blamed for the crash but many good builders also went down in the crash. I am sorry for them because they provided valuable housing units and a good service. They cannot dream of starting business again because they will not get finance from the banks. While other lending institutions from outside the country will lend to them, they will do so at interest rates of 10% and 12%. The average cost of a house in County Kerry is not €400,000, €500,000 or €600,000 but between €210,000 and €220,000. If builders paid an interest rate of 10%, their profit from building a house would be €4,000 or €5,000. Who would take on such a responsibility, especially given all the regulations builders must adhere to and the requirement to have the key turned in the door before they would be paid?
Staged payments, which was how builders used to be paid, have been ruled out, which is also wrong. An authority should be responsible for checking that a project is progressing and the works are being done to a satisfactory standard. If problems are identified at the final stage, the final payment could be delayed. Small builders and developers cannot start building because of the regulations in place. The regulatory side is not working.
I will refer to a case I highlighted previously involving a young farmer who wanted to borrow €100,000 from a bank to build a house. He, his brothers and other relatives were in a position to do much of the work themselves. Lo and behold, the bank insisted that he borrow €180,000, even though his income ruled him out of accessing a loan of that size. He is now at a standstill.
Other problems have occurred on a long stretch of the N72 approaching Killarney. Four families who had enough money to build new houses received planning permission from Kerry County Council and the council's road engineers passed their plans for road access. Everything was fine but, lo and behold, in 2012, the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, insisted that access to national secondary roads would no longer be approved. County Kerry has more miles of national secondary road that any other county. I have asked that this impediment be removed and I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, to address the issue because the road in question is as straight as the barrel of a gun for 400 yd. in either direction. There is no way the four families in question will be granted planning permission. They will not be allowed to build in their own place but are supposed to move into Killarney, which is overcrowded and has no housing available.
Deputies are being contacted by many people who are having their homes taken from them. Why can the banks not do a deal with the local authorities to allow these people to lease their homes and become council tenants? They could then purchase their homes when they get up and running. Surely it would be easy to introduce such a mechanism given that the State has a large stakeholding in the banks.
The Minister referred to the introduction of temporary, fast-track planning arrangements. Why are the arrangements temporary? Why does the Minister not propose to keep them in place once they are up and running? At the current rate, we will not build enough houses in the next 20 years. Why is the word "temporary" used to describe these arrangements?
The Minister also stated that applications would be submitted to An Bord Pleanála. As all Deputies know, An Bord Pleanála does not make decisions on planning applications for at least six months. The organisation should be directed to respond within a quicker timeframe than six months.
Reference was made to the introduction of new screening arrangements for the conduct of environmental impact assessments to streamline the process of determining planning for the consent for and subsequent undertaking of works, including emergency flood relief works, to be carried out by the Office of Public Works. This is fine in cases where the OPW is responsible for the rivers. In County Kerry, however, the OPW refuses to assume responsibility for even a fraction of the rivers or waterways. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, I am grateful to him for what he has tried to do for the county.
One authority must deal with flooding problems. Inland Fisheries Ireland has a say in this matter, which means people are threatened with the Garda, jail or the loss of farm payments if they go near a river. Our rivers are clogged up and blocked for this reason. When rivers cannot flow they flood houses and roads. We have heard a ridiculous proposal from the OPW to create flood plains and build walls to hold back waters. This is not the answer, which has always been to clean out the rivers and allow the waters to flow. Time is slipping by and we will soon be into a new year. Next year will go just as quickly or maybe even quicker than this year. If something is not done to have one authority deal with rivers and flooding, we will be back to square one.
The Minister is a hard-working man who does his level best. I give him that but he will have to get stuck into the Department that is responsible for the restrictions that are preventing local authorities from building houses because, as hard as he tries, his reputation is on the line.
Over the period from 2002 until 2006, the number of house completions rose each year to a peak of 88,200 in 2006. In 2007, Ireland had the highest rate of house completions at 18 per 1,000 of population when compared with other European Union member states. This was done with a planning system that allowed direct
public input. The planning system did not put a brake on volumes and was obviously not an impediment to the development of housing.
If planning permissions exist, there is no guarantee that they will deliver housing. I can point to locations where that is the case, including in areas of high demand. What is holding back some of those developments is the shortage of money to commence or complete them.
The planning system can be slow, particularly when the applicant does not properly pay attention to the kind of detail needed to make a decision. I have seen many planning applications improved by public input and the submission by the applicant of additional information at the request of the council.
Members of the public have a vested interest in planning. Most objections or observations are generated by those who live close to a proposed development. They have, therefore, a vested interest by virtue of living in the locality. This interest is generally maintained in their area long after the developer has dismantled the builder's compound and left. Despite this, it is the members of the public who are being punished by the Bill. They are being blamed for causing delays and more than 80% of the Bill is designed to cut them out of, or greatly limit their role in, the planning process. The name of the Bill should be changed to the Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 because it has nothing to do with planning.
If we want citizens to be active, as they should be in a republic, we cannot cut them out of such a vital process. This Bill is fundamentally undemocratic and also conflicts badly
with the Aarhus Convention, to which we signed up and which gives the public the right to be consulted in a meaningful way on environmental matters that affect them.
There were things that could have been done to speed up the planning process, such as ensuring a sufficient number of planners, improvements to the quality of preplanning meetings, conditioning of planning decisions instead of seeking clarifications to further information, the extension of vacant sites levies and so on. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, will know if has looked at the requests for additional information that many of the issues that are highlighted therein with which the applicant has to deal often require expert input. This will be absent because of the rush to make decisions. Mistakes will cost communities and the Exchequer into the future. If we do not learn from history it tends to repeat itself. We have so much history in respect of this particular area.
I live in a county where the population has quadrupled over four decades and so we have a lot of experience of development. Many of the housing estates in the area were constructed with the benefit of what were known as "Tully permissions", a fast-track approach to planning permission with inadequate oversight, which resulted in short cuts being taken, the price for which was paid for not by the developers but those who live in the estates and the local authorities that ended up taking on problems that were expensive to resolve. What we have now in terms of this Bill is "Coveney permissions", which will remove the local authorities from having a direct role in the planning process for the bulk of new housing estates and will sideline the public as though a disinterested nuisance seeking only to cause delays. This will also sideline local knowledge and soft information in respect of developers who have a history of taking short cuts.
The definition of what constitutes environment in respect of the Aarhus Convention is completely narrowed and, I believe, open to challenge. The first section of the Bill deals with fast-tracking, which will fundamentally change the planning system. The Minister is providing for guidelines to be written by himself or the Department. He appears to be making this up as he goes along. This Bill provides for An Bord Pleanála to pay a substantial fine to a developer from the public purse in respect of decisions not given within the specified timeframe. The appeal process is provided for by way of judicial review, which, in effect, means there is no appeals process. It appears also that the site notice is being dispensed with or will only be included in a guideline. It is not clear how local authorities will deal with compliance. Up to now the conditions set by the local authorities are included in permissions granted under appeal by An Bord Pleanála. The board must now decide on the substance of those conditions. It is being asked to do so without the kind of considered expert background input that is available to local authorities in regard to roads, sanitary services, fire services, etc., from those who know the area best. The public certainty that has been created over decades in this process is now being dispensed with. The positive changes that have been evident in the development plan process, in particular, is being undermined as these plans can be materially contravened. The planning process was publically understood and that brought with it a degree of public trust. That will go. It appears that the public will be able to make a submission to the relevant local authority but the CEO of the local authority may or not include their concerns in a summary of issues raised. The CEO can also suggest that permission be refused but must also explain, if granted, the suggested conditions that should be imposed.
Section 180 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 provides for the taking-in-charge of estates. This process was lengthened in subsequent legislation. Section 180 now provides that seven years after a five-year planning permission has elapsed residents can petition to have an estate taken-in-charge. This extension was further increased by another five years, such that this process currently takes 17 years. Under this legislation, it is proposed to allow yet another extension of duration. As I have often said, a person has more consumer protection when he or she buys a bag of crisps than he or she has when they buy a house. There is nothing in this Bill that limits a developer who is dragging out this process, such that some people are confined to living on construction sites almost permanently.
There are positive changes in Part 3 of the Bill in respect of residential tenancies but the Government could have gone further and sought to meet the call by Focus Ireland to legislate to ensure families in buy-to-let houses that are repossessed are not evicted. Part 4 deals with student accommodation. While such accommodation is definitely required the place where it is located is important, as is the relationship with the neighbouring community. We must get this right otherwise there will be conflict. The involvement of the Housing Finance Agency in lending for this purpose to local authorities and tier three housing associations is welcome. The availability of finance for these sectors is likely to deliver housing units on the ground. If the Government provided local authorities with funding to deliver local authority houses we would see more house delivery on the ground.
I object to Part 5, as I have done each time I have seen in a Bill a provision to provide for the transfer of funds from the local government fund to the Minister for Finance. This fund is made up from motor taxation and property tax. In previous years we saw changes to the Local Government Act 1998 to allow for the transfer of up to €540 million from the local government fund to the Exchequer for Irish Water. In a previous year, approximately €600 million was legislated for in the Local Government Reform Act for the same purpose. Is it intended that the €420 million that will be stripped from the local government fund will to go to the Minister for Finance or to Irish Water? Why is this money being stripped from the local government fund?
As I read this Bill, I got angrier and angrier. It is all about planning permissions and has nothing to do with planning. It is not about anticipating problems. The old cliché comes to mind that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I believe that this is deplorable legislation. There is so much more that could be done to get houses built. This legislation will result in greater lobbying of Deputies in respect of planning applications to An Bord Pleanála. People will be livid, and rightly so, when they discover that they have been cut out of a process into which they have a right of input. As I said, planning permissions have been hugely improved by virtue of the input of local communities. It is a disgrace that the public is being cut out of this process. I do not believe that this will necessarily assist in the delivery of houses because the real impediment is the lack of funds. Essentially what we need to do is deliver local authority houses. That is the only thing that will help to rebalance the situation.
The Green Party also has serious concerns about the manner in which this Bill seeks to address the housing crisis. We need to address it but we believe the measures being taken by way of this legislation are deeply flawed and may lead to a worsening planning system and housing outcome. Our first concern is that the Bill seeks to address a problem that does not exist. I would dispute that it is the planning system that is holding back housing development across the country. The evidence is clear. The Irish Planning Institute has estimated that planning permission has already been granted for 33,000 units in the Dublin area, with a further 7,000 in the planning process. This indicates that the planning system has not failed in terms of delivering permission to build. It is the problems in our financing and development sectors that need to be addressed. The State also needs to start developing if we are to overcome the housing crisis.
There is further evidence that this Bill seeks to address a problem that does not exist. As I understand it, 88% of the planning applications made in the Dublin city area are approved within eight weeks. The national average is approximately 67%. In Dublin city, where the crisis is greatest, there is no evidence that the planning system is crucially holding up development. If one talks to people involved in the system they frequently say that the reason a delay occurs is often because a developer submits a permission to test the waters and then subsequently makes changes to it. It is not the local communities or local councillors who are holding things up but the developers who are submitting planning permissions which have not been fully thought through, in respect of which the communities have been consulted and are ready to go. We all know that the key issue here in terms of the shortage of housing is the number of vacant units.
It just goes back to the central argument we have been making in recent weeks on the housing issue, namely, that it is all carrot to the development and construction industry and no stick. We need a balanced approach. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government and its predecessor did not proceed with the site value tax proposals we had set up in our time in government. There was a problem with the immediate introduction of the tax in that the Land Registry did not have an accurate picture of who owned what. We asked the Department of Finance to fix the problem and start doing land registration work to find out who owns what. The process was started and I understand the work is now done. The Minister of State may correct me on this if I am wrong. The work would allow us to introduce a site value tax. It would put pressure on developers across the board to use existing property and development sites in an effective and efficient way. That would be the best planning tool. It would be a neutral signal to the whole market that it should be efficient in the use of land and quick in development, rather than just sitting on sites that are not being used although they may be zoned correctly.
With regard to targeting specifically sites that are left vacant, I cannot understand why we did not test the constitutionality of proceeding more quickly. I would love to see a Supreme Court decision assessing whether we always have to be so cautious in looking after the needs of property owners as opposed to accounting for the public good that would arise from development.
My broader concern is that this is a serious further undermining of the strength of local government. I had the privilege to be a councillor for the Rathmines-Rathgar ward in Dublin City Council. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding jobs I have done in politics. Even since I left, powers have been taken back in respect of waste and other areas. We are doing it here again. The small details and changes should be noted. The manager has to come back on any proposal related to public consultation within eight weeks. That is fine but councillors are given only six weeks. If the council meeting is at the wrong time, they may have no time in which to make any contribution to the process. This undermining of our local government system is not characteristic of a clever planning approach. We need to strengthen local government by giving councillors responsibilities and putting it up to local authorities to deliver the housing we all know is needed. By thinking we can put councils to the side, we will continue on the approach we have taken, which involves an overly centralised system that does not result in ownership of development, particularly of our cities, which is what we need to get right. If there is no ownership at local council level and councillors are not involved in the process from the start, even if one is giving permission for big developments, how can we get the other parts of the jigsaw right?
Senators Grace O'Sullivan, Alice-Mary Higgins and Victor Boyhan and other colleagues in the Seanad tabled a number of very valuable amendments to the legislation. We seek to make it better in the process. I hope the Minister of State will be open to accepting amendments and will listen to those with a real interest and experience in how local government and housing works. It is not opposition for the sake of it here; we are speaking out of the deep desire to get housing and planning right. I do not believe this Bill takes us in the right direction.
In the short time available to me, I will address in the main the residential tenancy aspects of the Bill. The Bill is a pretence. It purports to give protection to tenants when properties in which there are existing tenants change ownership. Cruelly and grotesquely, it provides that where a landlord can get 20% more money with vacant possession in the sale, the tenants must leave. It also provides that if apartments are sold in lots of under 20, the tenants have to go. I understand that this number has been reduced to under five by a Seanad amendment. However, 80% of tenants evicted from apartments are evicted by landlords with under five rental properties. In a word, the Bill continues the cruel system under which tenants are evicted when rental properties are sold. The Government continues to put the rights of property owners over the right to home. It is fast-tracking evictions in the Courts Bill, which is also before this House. The largest single group among the homeless has previously been in private rented accommodation. This Bill will ensure that this continues.
I will be proposing the amendment suggested by Focus Ireland, the homelessness charity. The amendment provides tenants in buy-to-let properties will continue in residence despite the sale of the property in all circumstances. Focus Ireland, the leading charity working with homeless families and those facing homelessness, says up to 20 families are becoming homeless each month simply because their buy-to-let landlord has been forced to sell by his or her bank. This means that 40 children every month are losing their homes and joining the record 1,200 families who are already homeless across the country.
Along with escalating rents, these evictions are one of the leading causes of family homelessness. There are hundreds, if not thousands, more families waiting to face the same trauma. According to the Central Bank, there are a further 15,000 buy-to-let mortgages that are more than two years in arrears. Whether they know it or not, all tenants in these properties are at risk of eviction. Other countries have found solutions to this. Just up the road, in the North, banks that repossess a buy-to-let property are prohibited from evicting the tenant. We must do the same. If the Focus Ireland amendment is passed, the grotesque escape clauses in this Bill enabling eviction of buy-to-let tenants will fall.
I will also be proposing the formal declaration of a housing emergency by Dáil Éireann. This would put the right of families to a home above the property rights of vultures and other landlords. Landlords and the Minister for Finance would then be unable to block a halt to convictions and be unable to block a halt to rent freezes by citing a qualified right to private property in the Constitution, which is of course subject to the public good. The Government itself has formally certified the continuation of a financial emergency as recently as June of this year to enable it to continue with pay and pension cuts under FEMPI legislation. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, has said that a housing emergency exists. My amendment would formally declare that to be the case. The Taoiseach has asked the European Union to relax the provisions of the EU fiscal treaty to enable borrowing to build social housing but he has not declared a formal housing emergency at home. Of course, the European Union knows the Irish Government is only going through the motions because a housing emergency has not been declared. I noted over the weekend that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, called on the European Union to give flexibility under the fiscal treaty at the EU Finance Ministers' meeting. He and the rest of the Government can now show they are serious by formally declaring the housing emergency. It is time for an end to pretence and hypocrisy. We must halt evictions for mortgaged and rented properties as a first step in tackling the housing emergency.
Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin. This old Irish adage means that there is no home like one's own home. It is particularly pertinent at this time of the year. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing more emotionally affecting in this job than a constituent who makes contact with one desperately seeking help to find a home or put a roof over his or her head and the heads of his or her family. There are too many people in this country who cannot find suitable, affordable housing, and there are too many under constant strain, not knowing where they and their family will be living for the foreseeable future. We have a crisis on our hands. That much is clear but the Government has a plan to deal with it and rebuild Ireland. This Bill will help to put the plan into action. We have identified the tackling of the housing crisis as our top priority in office. We have a Minister who takes his portfolio very seriously. The Rebuilding Ireland policy document has been widely heralded as the most comprehensive strategy to ensure housing supply that a Government has ever produced in this country. We know the five pillars: address homelessness, accelerate social housing, build homes, improve the rental sector, and utilise existing housing stock. Therefore, I am very happy to see this Bill brought before the Dáil. It will facilitate the implementation of the strategy and help Ireland build more homes in the long term.
There is clearly a problem with the housing market, however. This has been identified and it is being addressed by the Government.
Ultimately, we need more houses. For those who cannot afford suitable housing in this inflationary market, they need this problem to be addressed immediately. Long-term strategies are well and good, but people need homes now. Therefore, it is heartening that the Government is introducing this Bill which will allow for the rapid delivery of major housing projects and puts the vision of the Rebuilding Ireland strategy into practice. Since the Bill will go a long way towards addressing an urgent need, I am happy to support it, although I have some concerns that I will mention.
We are already seeing the Government's efforts beginning to bear fruit. The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government's figures show an annual increase of one third in the number of houses being built in the first nine months of 2016. In combination with the launch of the help-to-buy scheme in the budget, this is a major achievement for the Government. The Bill will allow fast-track decision-making processes, which a number of Deputies have alluded to, build on current successes and facilitate the delivery of more homes at an accelerated pace. The Bill will allow the Government to reach its ambitious targets to increase the annual number of homes built to 25,000 while delivering 47,000 homes through social housing. It will help to accelerate further the building and delivery of the affordable homes that we urgently need.
In my constituency of Dublin Rathdown, I recently attended the official opening of Cromlech Close with the Minister. In the Kiltiernan-Glenamuck area of my constituency, the Government is in the process of delivering 2,000 much needed, quality homes through Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
I have some concerns over the nature of the process to be employed in the Bill's implementation. We need to deliver affordable homes and the Bill will allow us to do so at an accelerated pace. However, it is important that local concerns are not neglected. This matter has been mentioned by a number of Deputies. The bypassing of local authorities to fast-track the process has caused concern for a number of constituents and residents' associations that have contacted me. There is a number of sites in Dublin Rathdown where Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's local expertise is seen by many as invaluable in ensuring that local needs are met in the making of planning decisions. For example, we are in need of facilities to care for older people in Dublin Rathdown, but Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council was able to apply its local knowledge and expertise to reject recent plans to develop a nursing home at the Badger's Glen site that would not have been fit for purpose. I will outline the reasons.
Similar concerns have been voiced about developments on Deerpark Road and elsewhere in Mount Merrion where residents are concerned that proposed developments, such as that of the Union Café, will significantly alter the character of their community. The lack of parking, recreational areas, sewerage, water pressure, open spaces and emergency access must be taken into account. Such developments are not feasible.
We need more homes, particularly in Dublin, but it is important that we bear in mind the needs of existing residents and communities when planning new housing developments. A balance must be struck between providing homes on the one hand and overdevelopment or overcommercialisation on the other. Urban environments do not have the dispersed settlements that planners have available to them in rural communities.
I am encouraged by how the Bill provides for a nine-week mandatory pre-application consultation involving the local area planning authority, whereby there will be consultation with local authorities. The Minister of State should ensure that this is communicated adequately. Local authorities will continue to have a role in the planning of large housing projects.
Will the Minister of State reassure my constituents and me that local knowledge will be taken into account in the fast-track process envisioned by the Bill and that local concerns will be duly considered, particularly in urban areas?
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this debate. Everybody from both sides of the Dáil recognises there is a housing crisis. To put it simply, there is a lack of housing stock, be it new or second-hand. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has made excellent progress to date and is the first to admit that much more needs to be done.
The Bill has a number of main provisions, including more fast-tracked planning in respect of certain developments, a further extension of existing planning permissions, amendments to Part VIII in respect of local authority-owned land, changes to the requirements for an environmental impact assessment on proposed developments, amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2015 and making provision for the Housing Finance Agency to lend to higher education institutes for the purpose of providing student accommodation. I wish to address each of these provisions individually.
I welcome the proposals on fast-track planning in respect of certain developments. As matters stand, the majority of large housing planning applications are appealed to An Bord Pleanála. It makes sense that, in order to accelerate the process, these planning applications should go straight to An Bord Pleanála. Instead of there being a two-stage process, there will be a single-stage one. In real terms, the Department estimates that the total process of obtaining planning permission can be reduced from 77 weeks to 25. This will be a major improvement and will factor into houses being brought to market more quickly. Some stakeholders have reservations about this provision. However, if the planning process is streamlined, it will be to the overall benefit of all involved.
The Rebuilding Ireland strategy committed to extending certain planning permissions that had already benefitted from one extension for a further period. The Bill's second provision tackles this commitment in respect of permissions already granted for 20 or more housing units. This provision will facilitate the early delivery of housing by removing the requirement for a developer to re-enter the planning process.
The Bill will further fast-track the delivery of housing units through the amendments to Part VIII in respect of local authority owned developments. The new provisions will mean that a local authority's own development proposal will take place at a maximum of 20 weeks from the time of public consultation. This provision will make the process more efficient, with the net effect being housing units delivered more quickly.
On a recent visit to Dundalk, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I met the CEO of Louth County Council, Ms Joan Martin, and members of her staff. During that meeting, she outlined the situation in Louth. There are 710 vacant properties in Dundalk and a further 758 vacant properties in Drogheda. An innovative pilot scheme developed by the council under the guidance of Mr. Joe McGuinness, director of services, has already seen approval for 24 vacant properties acquired under compulsory purchase orders. Of those, two have been allocated to tenants, seven are being reburbished and 15 are at survey and tender stage. I have been calling for this innovative approach for the past eight months and I am delighted that it has proven so successful. Surely the nearly 1,500 vacant properties in County Louth present an opportunity to reduce the housing list with ready-made homes in established neighbourhoods.
During our meeting with Louth County Council, it was outlined that it had the potential to deliver more than 3,300 housing units under the local infrastructure housing activation fund. These units are planned to be delivered in Newtown and the northern environs of Drogheda and Mount Avenue in Dundalk. Louth County Council has 25 schemes at various stages of approval that will deliver almost 550 housing units in the next three to four years. The council has other substantial lands, but significant loans are attached to them. This issue needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The Minister is supportive of innovative solutions, possibly including a public private partnership, in order to free up the lands and the corresponding debts attached to them while delivering much needed housing stock.
The next provision in the Bill that I wish to comment on is the new screening arrangement for certain types of works to determine whether environmental impact assessments need to be carried out. The Bill provides that an application can be made to the planning authority, before making a planning application, on whether a proposed development is likely to have a significant effect on the environment. The main benefit of this provision is that we would be in a position to fast-track planning applications and as a result deliver much needed housing immediately.
The amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts are ones that I welcome with caution. The measures to provide more security to tenants are welcome. We must prevent a situation whereby large numbers of tenants in a single development are evicted at the same time, such as happened in Tyrrelstown this year. We must protect tenants more. We need to extend the definition of "landlord" to include receivers and lenders in respect of the repossession of a property. A tenant should not lose his or her basic rights just because the landlord is in financial difficulty.
I also welcome the provisions to improve the operation of the Residential Tenancies Board.
The speeding up of the dispute resolution timeframe, the reduction in the number of members on tribunals and the restructuring of the administration process will improve the experience of those in the private rented sector, including tenants and landlords. One area about which I am concerned relates to the amendment to allow an order of possession to be made by the District Court. I am concerned that this will simply lead to a speeding up the process of securing the vacation of dwellings. We must protect the people who will be subject to those provisions. I propose that a robust system be put in place to protect those who are affected. For example, a protocol that would allow information to be shared between the Residential Tenancies Board and local authorities could be introduced in order that local authorities would be alerted when tenants do not vacate properties due to the fact that they have not secured alternative accommodation. During pre-legislative scrutiny, the Department acknowledged this scenario and indicated that it would examine all possibilities.
I wish to briefly comment on the proposed new provisions relating to the Housing Finance Agency. I welcome the fact that it will be able to lend to higher education institutes for the purpose of providing student accommodation. Institute of technologies, such as the Dundalk Institute of Technology, DKIT, will now be able to access low-cost funding for the purpose of student accommodation and that will have the knock-on effect of freeing up valuable housing stock in places such as Dundalk.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for the efforts he has made to date in tackling the housing crisis. It will not be solved overnight but I firmly believe that the plans he has and the actions taken to date will go a long way towards solving the housing crisis, which came about as a result of the disastrous economic policies of the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government.
Before commenting on the Bill, I wish to raise a couple of issues. One of these relates to planning permission, in particular for people who want the opportunity to protect their properties. It is unfortunate that the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, has just left the Chamber. I live in County Wexford, a constituency with a substantial soft shoreline. People there are losing their properties, which are falling into the sea, but because the area is a special area of conservation, SAC, or natural heritage area, NHA, the National Parks and Wildlife Service prevents them from protecting their property. This is a real problem and something should be done about it because the situation is unfair. I must speak to the Minister of State about Kilpatrick in north Wexford where some people have had their access routes washed into the sea. They cannot gain access to their own property and they are relying on the generosity of neighbours who allow them to drive 4X4s across their gardens. They are prevented from doing anything about the situation, which is particularly unfair. The Bill could allow people to facilitate emergency works to protect their properties.
In the time available, I wish to focus on affordable housing. Previous speakers referred to those who have the capacity to purchase houses but cannot do so because properties are too expensive and to people who are in the social housing spectrum. The large numbers of people who occupy the middle ground appear to have been forgotten. The average industrial wage is €33,000 and when one factors it up by 3.5 times in the manner specified by the Central Bank, the total amount is €100,000. People on that level of income have no prospect of buying a house. They are left to rent forever. It is a large coterie of people. If one adds a second person on a similar income and factors up the numbers, one arrives at a total of approximately €175,000. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland puts the cost of building a standard three-bed semi-detached house in Dublin at €330,000. The numbers do not add up. We must do something about this matter, particularly in the context of the coterie of people in question.
I do not wish to repeat what others have said. I am determined that we do not ignore the people to whom I refer, who should be given the opportunity to purchase their own properties. In the past, local authorities very successfully provided sites for them. The charge for the site was €5,000 and then the local authority went to the market and got a house built for X amount. It is possible in areas outside Dublin to get a house built for €170,000. We might have to reduce the size of the house but that is possible because families are not as big as they used to be. I am not talking about reducing the quality or design of homes. In the past, the average home was 1,100 sq. ft. for families with three or four children. There is nothing wrong with reducing the size of such a property to 900 sq. ft. for families comprising two adults and two children. There would be a reduction in cost commensurate with the reduction in size. We should consider taking such an approach. Nobody should take what I say to mean that I am advocating a reduction in standards of house building. I refer to houses that are well-designed internationally. A house of 900 sq. ft. is big enough for a family of three. The alternative is not to give them an opportunity to ever purchase, which would be wrong.
The reason I am so determined in respect of this issue is because we have left those people behind. There is nothing in the plan to help them to obtain affordable housing. Given that the average industrial wage is €33,000, we could provide houses for €175,000, which would include the site and which would make housing affordable for the group of which I speak by reducing the levies and the tax take of the State from a property. The calculation at present is that the State takes 35% in tax on a property. I do not believe those who need a property most should pay the same level as those who are capable of buying their own property. The State could intervene in a very positive way. I gave a paper to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, but it was not acted upon. The Bill provides an opportunity for the Minister to act and I would be most grateful if the proposal could be considered.
One other issue I wish to raise - it was also raised in the Seanad - relates to properties with existing planning permissions. A very valid point was made about allowing planning permissions to be extended whereby people could sit on them and allow the market to increase and then take the opportunity to get a larger profit by selling their properties. That is not what I am talking about. Some developers are not in a position to get money from the banks in order to build. In cases where sites are paid for, banks are giving approximately 60% and the remaining 40% comes from own funds or equity funds, which charge 15% interest. Many developers are not prepared to build because the margin is too low. What I am calling for is an extension of planning permissions in order to allow developers to get access to funding that might not be available now.
I also ask the Minister to consider situations where planning permission has been given for the development of a single house. If those permissions are still live, I am of the view that they should be extended for another two to three years. That should be done. We do not need planning applications to reduce in number or to run out of time, which can very easily happen. What I am suggesting was done in previous planning legislation and it could be done in this Bill. I urge the Minister to consider that.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. We must look at what is happening in the courts. I am delighted that the Courts Bill 2016 has been somewhat derailed in terms of the change of jurisdiction from the High Court to the Circuit Court because all the Bill will do is speed up evictions, including those relating to buy-to-let properties. The latter are still people’s homes. We heard earlier that those people should be protected. We must start at the beginning and protect people in their own homes. The Circuit Court and the county registrar’s list are simply not working. They are not fit for purpose. They take no consideration whatsoever of individual families that will lose their homes. They constantly bring them back, either before the registrar or the Circuit Court and they continue the trauma and damage that is being done to families in this country by threatening their homes and by allowing the banks to continue to threaten them.
The local authority does not have the means to respond to the numbers being threatened with repossession. We should stop it through legislation and prevent families from losing their homes. We did it with all of the larger accounts and transferred them to NAMA. Why can we not set up some sort of agency that will take over the mortgages that have gone wrong, keep people in their homes and allow them to work it out? Why do we allow vulture funds to come in here, clean up on our tax arrangements and, again, threaten small businesses and families in their properties? It is not acceptable. We are crying crocodile tears in respect of this Bill if we do not address the kernel of the problem, which is what I have just outlined.
Alongside that problem, there are those homes that have been repossessed by the banks. I think the number is somewhere in the region of 400 for Bank of Ireland, mainly centred around Dublin, all of which are empty. Ulster Bank has repossessed somewhere in the region of 500. Again, they are all still empty. If we have a housing crisis, why are the banks allowed to leave those houses empty without enabling the local authorities or the voluntary sector to purchase those houses and to put tenants into them who are waiting to get a roof over their heads? It is simply a crazy situation. We are told by AIB that next year, it will have about 6,000 cases that will be coming down the line in respect of repossession. Bank of Ireland has told us that the repossession cases will increase dramatically in 2017. This Bill is looking at the process to allow planning permission to be granted more quickly. Have we learned nothing from Irish Water or the HSE? The minute there is a problem, we think of something major like a major agency - another quango - or more legislation to deal with the problems. Why do we not look back to the county councils? I have listened carefully to every speaker here. All of them have complimented their own councils, identified sites and asked for action on them. The only thing that is short in respect of the delivery of housing by councils is the fact they do not have the money.
The council lists are being massaged. There are those who cannot go on the list but who cannot raise a loan. In my opinion, they are in need of housing. There are those on the HAP scheme who are thrown to some ruthless landlords who will not look after their property. There are those on the RAS scheme or rent allowance who suffer the same plight, are facing no standards and poor accommodation and are wondering when they will have secure accommodation.
Like others here this evening, I can pick out three different sites in my constituency that would adequately house homes and care for the elderly. Those sites are owned by the HSE. There are existing buildings on those sites that could be refurbished and re-presented as living units within a setting that provides care for the elderly. There are vacant houses in counties nationwide that for some reason, councils fail to bring to the letting stage because of some notion that they need all sorts of things done with them. I have seen vacant houses in my constituency that were vacated for some reason or other but are ready to live in and yet the local authority will board them up and allow them to be damaged beyond belief when it will cost a fortune to repair them and not let them. Somebody has to ask them why because every county has a chief executive officer. These people are paid well and have enough staff and yet they do not deliver in the context of the crisis we face. We can look to the banks for a solution to some of these problems because they have the houses. We can look to the courts and the legislation surrounding that to keep people in their houses. It is my firm belief that if we insist that county managers, or CEOs as they are now known, do their job, we will have sites that will be developed.
My fear about this Bill and An Bord Pleanála is that it bypasses local input from councillors and people who know how these developments can happen. There is nothing that can replace local knowledge. We must ensure the development of houses fits into the area for which it is planned, that it does not infringe on the rights of other residents in that area in respect of size and dimension of the properties and that we have good planning. There is no better way to safeguard that than to have it locally focused. The danger is we will now attempt to reduce the size of apartments or else build them to the minimum standard that is required. It will be up to councils and community activists to ensure the future tenants of these properties are protected because there is nothing as bad as imposing a development for quite a number of houses on an existing site in a city or urban area where there are no facilities. All the discussions I have heard have centred around the provision of housing. We must be extremely careful about the quality of those houses and the manner in which they are planned and there must be council input into those housing proposals. There is nothing strange about that. If you look back to the 1950s when most of the local authority houses were built, they were built well, were provided with green areas and were accessible to urban areas and they worked. Many large families were reared in three-bedroom houses. Many parents had 11 children in a three-bedroom local authority house. We have to go back to arranging our construction and the delivery of houses around the sensible notion that you can have houses built by local authorities in the local area and put through the local councils with the local councils being made responsible for them. What is so wrong with that?
A key feature of this Bill is the introduction on a temporary basis of a fast-track planning procedure for residential developments of 100 units or more. This would allow for applications of such developments to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. It is believed that this change will lead to a substantial reduction in the length of time for the completion of the approval process for large-scale housing developments. In practice, the vast majority of large housing planning applications are already appealed to An Bord Pleanála, which has been making the final decisions on these proposals.
It is also important to recognise that under this Bill, members of the public can still make submissions relating to large housing developments. During the mandatory nine-week pre-application consultation period, members of the public can raise concerns with their local authority. If a member of the public makes an observation at this stage, the ordinary charge of €20 will still apply. I hope I am reading this correctly.
It is to be hoped that the board will have the capacity to deal with the additional planning applications and meet the 16-week statutory guidelines for disposing of applications during the consultation phase, as outlined in this Bill. I raise this issue because staffing levels at An Bord Pleanála are approximately 25% below 2008 levels and its income is 22% less than it was eight years ago. However, Fianna Fáil supports this change as one of a series of measures which are necessary to drive the much needed increase in housing supply.
Last year 12,666 new homes were completed in the State. This highlights the extent of the current supply shortage when we consider that the ESRI has estimated that in the coming years an increase in output to a minimum of 25,000 new home completions per annum is required to meet demand.
The absence of an adequate supply has led to significant increases in house and rent prices, thus placing considerable pressure on the living standards of households throughout the country. In this regard I welcome the commitment in the Government's Rebuilding Ireland action plan to deliver an average of 25,000 units per annum over the period of the plan.
While Rebuilding Ireland begins to grasp the scale of the housing emergency, ultimately the Government will be judged on its ability to deliver on the commitments set out in the action plan. The lack of supply has had significant implications for the private rental market which has seen substantial price increases in recent years. As a result many individuals and families on modest incomes have struggled to meet the cost of rental accommodation. This has led to a changing profile of those presenting as homeless with many households that would normally have their accommodation needs met through the private rental sector at risk of homelessness.
In respect of the rental sector, I welcome that the Bill provides for an enhanced role for the Private Residential Tenancies Board. It is to be hoped that the expanded powers for the board will facilitate an accelerated resolution process in instances of disputes between landlords and tenants.
In the last two decades the rental sector has become an increasingly important element of the Irish housing system. At a national level, 20% of households are renting from a private landlord. However, at 34%, the percentage of households renting in Dublin is considerably higher than the national figure. In the view of a number of experts, an effective housing system depends on a larger role for the rental sector into the future. This must be based on greater affordability and security of occupancy for tenants. I hope the Government's rental strategy to be announced next week provides a clear roadmap in this direction.
Fianna Fáil has repeatedly stated that rent inflation in Dublin and other urban centres is severely impacting on disposable incomes, pushing people into homelessness and posing a risk to our economic stability and competitiveness. Therefore, rent certainty measures are required to reduce the unsustainable rent inflation of recent years and increase security of occupancy for tenants. The Fianna Fáil policy on rent certainty centres on a rental index based on a five-year historical average of rents in each local authority area. This would help to prevent the excessive rent inflation that we have seen in recent years.
Some of the recent proposals on rent certainty made in the Dáil, albeit aimed at increasing security, would likely have the effect of discouraging supply. It is important that any measures to increase rent certainty are sensitive to some of the rather particular features of the Irish rental market. These include the preponderance of landlords who own a small number of properties and the considerable amount of encumbered buy-to-let mortgages among such landlords.
It is important that measures aimed at increasing security of occupancy for tenants do not undermine efforts to expand the supply of rental properties. In a report published last year, the National Economic and Social Council suggested that making mortgage interest fully tax deductible when rental income is being calculated could encourage the increased supply of private rental accommodation and enhance security of occupancy by incentivising landlords to offer long-term or indefinite leasing arrangements.
Given that the housing emergency is in large part a problem of inadequate supply, it is essential that there is a considerable increase in social housing provided by local authorities and approved housing bodies as we have done in the past. In my constituency of Dublin Bay North, the effect of this inadequate supply is apparent from the fact that there are over 6,000 applicants on the waiting list for social housing.
There have been some crucial changes in the profile of housing provision in recent decades which have important implications for the current crisis. In 1975 a considerable proportion of the overall housing completions, 33%, came in the form of social housing provided directly by local authorities with the remaining 67% delivered by the private market. By 2005 there had been a substantial shift away from social housing provision, with the private market accounting for 93% of overall housing delivery.
In this environment it is unsurprising that the Irish Council for Social Housing has stated that social housing stock in Ireland, at 9% of overall stock, is low compared with the EU average of 17%. A lack of building by local authorities, combined with an over-reliance on provision by the private sector, has contributed to the current shortage of supply. In this context, I welcome the commitment in the Government action plan to provide 47,000 units for social housing between now and 2021. This will see local authorities partaking in substantial social housing construction for the first time in a number of years.
Given the reduced social housing output in recent times, it is encouraging that there is a renewed acceptance that providing housing for those in need is one of the State's most basic responsibilities. However, in light of the very limited output on the part of local authorities over recent years, additional staffing and expertise may be required to drive the substantial increase in output.
The Bill gives legislative effect to a number of the key proposals contained in the Government's Rebuilding Ireland action plan which was published earlier this year. While I welcome many of these measures, ultimately the Government will be judged on its ability to deliver on the commitments set out in its plan. It is incumbent on elected representatives across the political spectrum to vigorously pursue solutions to the current housing emergency.
I know that my time is limited, but I appreciate Deputies Haughey and McGuinness giving me some time on the issue.
Santa Claus is just around the corner, but sadly many children are worried about whether he will know where to come this year. That is because so many families are living in hostels and hotels. We all know that Santa will know where to come, because he is the master of everything.
It is unbelievable that in this day and age we cannot bring some sanity to this situation. As Deputy McGuinness said, when the country had far less we could solve problems far better. I do not believe the provisions of the Bill will solve any problems. I know the Minister of State, Deputy English, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and everybody else genuinely want to solve this and are working hard to try to do so. However, I do not believe fast-tracking house builds will work.
In my constituency many houses have been vacant for a long period. I do not understand why banks take families to court to put them out of houses, and two or three years later the houses are falling into disrepair. We have people on housing lists everywhere and families put out on the roadside and having to get accommodation through the local authority. I do not believe this fast-tracking will work. At the end of the day we will have to go back to the local authorities and let them do what they used to do over the years, namely, build the houses and house people in them.
I think the Minister of State, Deputy English, will agree that planning in rural areas is becoming very prohibitive. I will give one example. I know a couple in their late 50s living in an old two-storey house. Because of rules and regulations laid down by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government in recent years, those people who now want to replace that house with a bungalow on the same site are not allow to do so. At this stage in their lives it makes sense for them, but they are not allowed to do it. These are the types of situations that arise. We cannot allow them to develop and must nip them in the bud. That type of prohibitive planning does not help the situation at all.
I have much more to say about flooding, etc., but I will have to avail of another opportunity to do that. I again thank my colleagues for sharing their time.
Tá áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an mBille seo. In general we welcome some aspects of the Bill and what it attempts to do. For example, Part 2 Chapter 3 of the Bill, dealing with miscellaneous constructions and amendments to the Planning and Development Act, allows for streamlining of existing arrangements for approval by local authorities of their own development proposals, including proposals for social housing projects and infrastructure servicing for both public and private developments.
We welcome this aspect. The strengthening of the Part 8 planning process used by the local authorities for council housing will prevent planning delays. We have, however, concerns about tampering with the planning process to speed up so called delivery. Consultation and pre-planning should be four to six weeks and this Bill will bypass the planning process. Part 2 of the Bill, relating to planning and the development of strategic housing developments, will introduce a fast-track planning procedure for residential developments of 100 units or more and for large-scale student accommodation projects of 200 or more bed spaces. This proposal to fast-track private planning developments by bypassing local authorities and going straight to An Bord Pleanála is a profound change to our planning system. An Bord Pleanála is not the same as a local authority. The inclusion of a greater use of pre-planning engagement with local communities and residents is essential. My colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, said in the House last week that the Government has not provided an evidence base for this proposal, nor has it demonstrated that the move will not undermine good planning and further alienate communities from the planning process. The problem with this provision is that it appears the Government is tampering with planning law in order to facilitate a few developments in certain areas.
Part 3 of the Bill proposes an amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 but this does not go far enough and an opportunity was missed. Sinn Féin has categorically stated many times that the Minister missed an opportunity to amend the Bill and insert rent certainty provisions. The provisions contained in the Bill are weak. Couples and families who are working in good jobs come into my office in Dublin north west, yet they cannot afford to keep up with rent increases at the moment and are now in danger of becoming homeless. The consequences of these continual rent increases are not trivial and affect everyone who is dependent on the private rental sector for accommodation - the middle income working families who cannot afford to save to buy a home, the low income families who are paying up to 60% of their disposable income on rent and the students whose numbers increase every year - with fewer properties available to meet this growth. The situation is such that many parents have to decide between paying rent and covering increasing back to school costs. In some cases, families are being made homeless because of an inability to pay the rising rents or to secure rental accommodation.
With the number of children now in emergency accommodation, it is clear that household poverty is increasing. The Government must recognise that rent certainty is key to alleviating the pressure on these households. Sinn Féin brought forward a Bill last week that would have provided rent certainty for landlords and tenants alike but this was rejected by the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties. Our Bill would have linked rent increases and decreases to the consumer price index, which would have provided some stability for the market. The Government’s housing action plan offers little hope for those in the private rental sector, other than a vague pledge to commission a White Paper to be included in the plan. For example, the proposal to strengthen tenants' rights in developments of more than five units - the Tyrrelstown amendment - is weak. The overwhelming majority of those living in the private rented sector will not benefit from this change. This means that those families at risk of homelessness due to buy-to-let properties being repossessed by the banks will continue to be at risk of homelessness. The tenants who are managing to pay these high rent prices have little or no security of tenure. As it stands, the property can be sold from under them at the whim of the landlord. A report by the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC, on local authority inspections of rented accommodation shows that 55% of properties inspected were substandard. The sale of any rented property should not lead to the termination of a tenancy. Section 34 of the Residential Tenancies Act should be reviewed to remove sale as a justification for the termination of a tenancy in any case where the property is in the ownership of an institutional landlord or where the landlord in question works as a property professional. The strengthening of the powers of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, is welcome as long as it is properly resourced to carry out the additional functions as required.
Last year, the previous Government promised to deliver 500 rapid build housing units with 134 of them to be built before last Christmas. Unfortunately, we have only got 22 so far this year and we are told more will be delivered throughout this coming year. While I accept that will happen, it is at far too slow a rate. I know problems are being encountered with communities and objections and all sorts of problems being thrown at us, but we must be ready for them and overcome them. The cost of the 22 units in Ballymun, at approximately €205,000 each, excluded the cost of the land which belonged to the local authority. Underground services were also available there. The cost of those rapid builds was way over the top and we could have built ordinary houses, although I will not dispute that rapid build houses are a very high standard. The rapid build houses we are about to build - some have started in Cherry Orchard and in Finglas - cannot be delivered quick enough. It certainly is very slow. We will not have them available until the second quarter of next year.
We are in an emergency with 130,000 people on the housing waiting lists, almost 6,400 people who are homeless and over 2,000 children living in hotels without cooking facilities. They are in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. They have nowhere to go. Many of them must leave their accommodation in the morning and come back in the evening. We have chaos when it comes to families. Children's rights should be protected much more. It is an example of how we have let our children down. They have had to manage in hotels, with no rooms of their own and no place to play. They are literally under a curfew in many of these hotels.
Homeless people are still dying on the streets. The last Government promised that the homeless crisis would be totally solved in 2016. We now have a massive crisis which is even worse and it is, unfortunately, getting worse and but for the volunteers out there, delivering meals and looking after the homeless on our streets, there is absolutely no doubt that we would have even more deaths on our streets. Single males and females who are now on the Dublin City Council waiting list will be looking at waiting for ten or 15 years to get a place. It is just impossible now for a single person on the housing list, never mind the families who are on the list. Some people with large families are being told they could be ten or 15 years on the housing waiting list. This is how bad the crisis has become and how bad it is hitting our society. We judge a society by how we look after our people and house them. We are not doing it and it is not working. Something radical is missing in the approach of this and the previous Government.
With regard to local authorities and the fast-track planning process, revenue will be lost to local authorities by fast-tracking, doing away with the local authority process and going straight to An Bord Pleanála. If An Bord Pleanála makes a decision that needs judicial review, what citizen can do that? They would not have the money to access the judicial review process and this is what we are talking about. That is the only point in the process that would be left to them. The Minister of State has said that these measures would end up being temporary, but it is very clear that they could end up being permanent. We are in such a crisis now that it is going to continue into the foreseeable future.
We will end up with a permanent system that has been messed around and a planning process that has been changed. It would not be to the benefit of many cases to tamper with planning permission.
One of the biggest issues we have when dealing with housing is the procurement process, which needs to be accountable and speeded up. We need to find a mechanism to speed up the entire procurement process. The State needs to build social and affordable housing. We constantly rely on the private sector, which is where our downfall is at present. We are waiting for it to come up with the 10% under Part V. We will never get on top of the crisis while we are dependent on the private sector. It is possible to look at a situation where the State hires companies or building firms to build social housing and pays them a fee to do so. This is a possible way to look at it but we need to get down to build the houses ourselves.
The aim of the Bill is to speed up the planning process, but tampering with planning, particularly when it comes to local authorities, is dangerous and we need to be very careful about this. I am disappointed that Part V has not been mentioned and we have not revisited it with regard to the 10%. Previously we had a provision for 20% social and affordable housing. There were other provisions with which I did not agree, and I welcome the changes in other areas, but while there is flexibility in this regard, 10% is a very low starting point. We need to get real. We have an emergency and it is not getting any better. It is quite obvious that it is continuing, and despite all the measures put in place by the Government, we still have a serious emergency.
While we oppose the Bill in its current form, and we will table a large number of amendments, we accept there are good measures in it.
Earlier this year, the country was horrified at the mass evictions attempted by a vulture fund at Tyrrelstown in Dublin and a receiver at the Eden estate in Cork city. One of the stated aims of the Bill is to prevent this from happening again, and a section of the Bill is becoming known as the Tyrrelstown amendment. The Bill's original proposal was to reduce the maximum number of evictions that a landlord could carry out at one time to 19. When the Bill was debated in the Seanad, three Senators, Senators Colette Kelleher, Lynn Ruane and Alice-Mary Higgins, tabled an amendment which was carried, which reduced the figure from 19 to five. Press reports seem to indicate the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is not satisfied with this and is considering proposing on Committee or Report Stage that the number be increased from five, perhaps to ten. He is quoted in the press as saying in this regard that he does not believe we should try to bring small landlords into the category because it would disincentivise people staying in the landlord market if we do so. The Anti-Austerity Alliance believes the amendment proposed by the Opposition Senators was a modest proposal because 70% of tenants in the State live in properties owned by a landlord with four properties or fewer and would receive no protection from the measure.
Next week, we will move First Stage of a Bill to come before the House on Second Stage in January, entitled the anti-eviction Bill. The Bill will contain a proposal to outlaw sale as a grounds for eviction. Of course the landlord should have the right to sell a property, but with our Bill the tenancy as well as the ownership of the property will have to be transferred. Our anti-eviction Bill will also provide for the circumstance where a landlord states he or she needs vacant possession of the property in order that a relative might move in or move back in. To deter abuse of this reason for demanding vacant possession, the Bill will state this can and should only be done if six months' rent is paid back to the tenant by way of compensation, and in the case where a tenant has had occupancy for five years or more, one year's notice will need to be provided to the tenant.
The Bill under debate provides for the deletion of a second six-month grace period for a landlord to evict. Under current law, a tenant with six months' occupancy is classed as having a Part 4 tenancy and is considered to have a four-year lease backdated to the date the tenancy commenced. Under current law, landlords can evict in the first six months and again in the six months immediately after the expiry of the four year lease. What the Bill under debate proposes represents an improvement but still falls short of providing proper security for tenants. This is because under the Bill a landlord cannot evict if the proper notice is provided in the run-up to the expiry of the four-year lease. The anti-eviction Bill we intend to move in the House next week will provide a tenant with Part 4 leasing rights after not six months but two months, and will make the Part 4 leasing rights indefinite. In other words, it will end the right of the landlord to evict in the run-up to the expiry of the four years.
We hear a lot in debates on housing, and in the debate on the Bill, that attention needs to be paid to the question of supply. We agree with this, but not in the way in which the issue is posed from the Government benches. In one year 90,000 houses could be built, as they were in 2006, and it would not necessarily reduce rents. The assumption it would is based on crude neoclassical economics where an abstract law of supply and demand is crudely applied to housing as if it always applied in all circumstances. In fact, the only thing that will reduce rent is a supply of affordable housing and not just supply of any old housing, because what the market will supply if it is left to its own devices is unaffordable overpriced housing and rent. This is what happened with the supply during the housing bubble and what will happen again if the Government repeats history by endlessly bleating the mantra of supply as the solution to all housing problems. Relying on the invisible hand of the market to solve the rental crisis will not work because the invisible hand does not exist. What is needed is a massive new supply of affordable and social housing, and the State taking responsibility for building social housing on a very significant scale would be necessary to tackle the rental crisis.
There are many problematic aspects to the Bill and I have outlined some of them. I am sure there will be many, many amendments on Committee Stage. Although there are some positive aspects to the Bill they are mainly quite cosmetic and do not deal with the real issues. If our and other progressive amendments are not accepted on Committee Stage we will seriously consider voting against the Bill on the grounds that it does not get to grips with the housing crisis. We will see what happens when the amendments are put.
I find it ironic that the Minister tells us this Bill is an essential ingredient in the plan to tackle the worst housing crisis in the history of the State. The Minister claims the Bill will address the key problems which have caused the housing crisis. What are those key issues and what are the solutions? The Government states that if this Bill goes through it will fast-track planning processes so that developers will not suffer delays. It will streamline the role of local authorities and elected councillors so that developers do not suffer undue delays in planning. It will extend the length of planning permission given to developers and fast-track and streamline environmental impact statements. It will empower the Minister to take up to €420 million from the local government fund. It will place a slight delay on vulture funds or landlords evicting 20 tenants at a time, or ten, depending on what the Minister finally decides, and we are told that the great gain for those of us in the private rental sector is that the landlord will no longer be able to evict for the first six months or any subsequent Part 4 of the tenancy, but can still evict every four years for a multitude of reasons.
So this is the solution to the housing crisis but the problem is that none of us believes that these things are the cause of the housing crisis. We do not have 140,000 families in housing need because developers face delays in planning permission. Does anyone seriously expect us to believe that, or that 6,000 people are homeless because of the need for environmental impact assessments? We do not have record evictions and repossessions, rent rises and the threat of further evictions because locally elected councillors have a say in the planning process. We have a crisis in the housing market because we have a market in housing. As in every market the priority is profit for developers, builders, estate agents, bankers, financial companies, corporate landlords, REITs, vulture funds and equity funds and we have a crisis because of the refusal of this and other Governments to build publicly funded and local authority housing on a need basis. We have a crisis because of the refusal of this and other Governments to countenance the idea of controlling rents and strengthening the rights of tenants, rights which go right back to the Land League two centuries ago. We will not solve this crisis and will, in fact, continue our reliance on the market, with blind faith in the same market that got us here. All the other reasons given by the Minister for the housing crisis are nonsense; it is our reliance on a housing market that has got us to where we are and we will not confront the vested interests of those who are making a fortune out of that market.
I like the writer Naomi Klein very much. She is a Canadian journalist who has written some very insightful things about economy, climate and crises in the world. One of the things she famously said, in The Shock Doctrine, is that every elite in the world knows how to use a crisis. As the saying goes, "one should never waste a good crisis". Even when the crisis is engineered or caused by the policies of the elite within the market system, the elite still knows how to use that crisis. By God, the elite in this country and the Government are using the housing crisis to force through a serious wish list for developers and corporate landlords. There are tax breaks, tax-free incentives for landlords, tax breaks for vulture funds and cheap funds for developers. There has been a cut in the standards for apartments for developers and we are fast-tracking development and handing over public lands to developers for nothing. We have cut the numbers of social housing that must be provided in private developments, right down to 10%. We will go to heaven and back to ensure that developers and landlords achieve the level of profits they need in order to get them to build and rent.
Finally, as in every crisis we are not just presented with false solutions that go nowhere in trying to deal with the actual problem. When we ask questions about the proposals we are shouted down and accused of standing in the way of the solutions. Various Ministers and others have been scathing of anybody in any community who questions projects because of their concerns over the housing crisis. If residents question the closure of a community hall or the bulldozing of a park they are accused of NIMBY syndrome by people whose own record of concern for the housing crisis is dubious and leaves a lot to be desired. One cannot question the logic of modular or rapid housing or a development that might provide housing if it gets in the way of some other community facility. The hypocrisy is sickening and the people in working-class communities who refuse the property rights of developers by trying to protect a facility in their area are lambasted for doing so.
The AAA-PBP wants massive investment in local authority-owned and built housing. We want to see rent controls and an end to evictions at the behest of vulture funds and landlords and we want public lands in the hands of the public. We want the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, O'Devaney Gardens and the Oscar Traynor sites on the northside to be used to provide 100% public housing and that will not be done by this Bill, or by this Government.
It will be of no surprise to the Minister that we will table amendments. We will point out that rent controls are viable, as they are in most civilised European cities and even in the United States of America. We will state that we need to stop evictions and have to fund local authorities to build the good quality, high standard housing that is needed in each area for the elderly and for families. These measures are possible but the political will is not there and this Bill will represent another failure to deal with the housing crisis created by a market in housing. It will join the failed strategy of the previous Ministers, Deputy Alan Kelly and Alan Shatter, to speed up evictions, to put people in homeless situations and to provide profit through all sorts of tax mechanisms which enriched the very few who represent the housing market. We need to solve the housing crisis by the provision of public housing because nothing else will do it and this Bill will fall short.
If the Minister of State wants to debate this in public with me I will have a debate at any time. Whether he likes it or not, I understand the industry. It annoys me that the people in this Government who make the decisions around the supply of housing do not seem to understand it. They do not even seem prepared to talk to the people who do understand it.
I want to give credit to a few people who have been putting some very sensible ideas into the public domain in recent times, namely, Mel Reynolds, an architect who runs a builders' blog, and Cian O'Callaghan, Linda Fox-Rogers, Enda Murphy and Gavin Daly from the University of Maynooth geography department. Mel Reynolds did a graph for me, starting from 1975, showing the number of completions and the cost of housing which shows that, in actual fact, they go together. The notion that if we increase supply the price will go down cannot be backed up by history because history says otherwise.
There is a reason for it. There is a major barrier, in that it is not profitable to build housing for people on low and moderate incomes. It becomes profitable only if they are allowed to borrow huge sums of money or if the Government helps in some way.
At one time, the Government helped out in housing by investing in the social housing stock and supplying social housing. Sadly, for too long the Government has given up that tack and gone a different way. Now, we incentivise developers to build. This year and last year, despite all the best evidence, we decided to reduce the size of units to make it more financially attractive for developers to build. This year, we brought in a first-time buyer's grant, which was also designed to incentivise developers, given that it was going to drive up the unit price . Then, the Government got the Central Bank to reduce the deposit required to qualify for a mortgage from 20% to 10% of the price. This was also going to incentivise developers and drive up prices. Now, we are going to reduce good planning outcomes in order to do the same. You could not make it up. It is nonsense.
Yesterday, I read a brilliant piece written by Daniel Bentley, editorial director of the London think tank Civitas. It is about the housing market in England and it is identical to the problems we have here. It looks at the history of how England has run into trouble in housing for the very same reasons we have run into problems here. It is worth putting on the record:
There is a paradox in modern housing policy ... The aim of rolling back the state from housebuilding has turned its role from one of subsidising supply into that of facilitating ever greater amounts of spending power, making housing unaffordable for so many.
Margaret Thatcher recorded in her memoirs that, by the mid-1980s, "everything in housing pointed to the need to roll back the existing activities of government". She also felt that, in terms of building, owning, and managing housing stock, "the state should be withdrawn from these areas just as far and as fast as possible".
In truth, the decline of council house building was already under way by the time Mrs Thatcher came to office. But she accelerated a process which saw annual local authority output fall from 154,000 homes in 1967 to the low hundreds during the New Labour years. The consequences of this have been far-reaching, and are at the core of today’s housing crisis.
Not only did housing supply go into terminal decline, as is often noted, but the subsequent dependency on private sector housebuilders for new homes encouraged governments to permit – and increasingly to actively promote – the accumulation of purchasing power in the for-sale market. This weakness among policymakers for stimulating effective demand has been disastrous for affordability, and is engendered by the simple fact that private-sector developers are only able to build as many homes as people are ready to buy.
This much is obvious and has always placed a natural limit on private-sector output, which is why for most of the 20th century it was topped up by publicly funded building. It is a straightforward question of market absorption: more buyers means more new homes, fewer buyers means fewer new homes, and in the absence of a major public housebuilding programme, the effects of the cycle are reflected in the ups and downs of total output.
In this context, the answer to an under-supply of new homes appears always to be to increase people's ability to purchase them. But there is a further complication, which is that those new-build homes must also be purchased at or above current market prices. This is a function of the residual land value model, in which the price a developer pays for a site is worked out from how much they think new homes can fetch on the open market (minus building costs and the developer's margin). The result is that developers can never afford to sell their homes below current market prices.
This means that housing supply rarely places any downward pressure on prices, while builders are constantly yearning for more demand in order to keep output going. Governments, desperate to increase supply without funding it directly, have usually been happy to oblige – even as prices have raced away from earnings. The housing market has thus become subject to an enormous increase in effective demand over the past half a century, with little if any effort ever made to contain it.
The process began with the liberalisation of credit, which started in the early 1970s but really took off in the 1990s with the relaxation of loan-to-value multiples and the introduction of buy-to-let mortgages. This last point played a central role in the expansion of the private rented sector as landlords bought three million homes between 1990 and 2015, an entirely new source of demand in a for-sale housing market which was until the late 1980s the preserve almost entirely of owner-occupiers [or social housing].
Developers do not want to build, given that there are better things to do with their money. Due to the margin they would like to have, there are better ways of making money. Do you know who would like to build? I am tired of saying it here. People forever think the developer and the builder are the same person. The builders would love to build. However, the pillar banks are practically closed to builders. The builders are not seeking to make astronomical money turning over a profit on one unit. A builder would be happy to make €5,000, €7,000 or €8,000 clear profit per unit. The developer is a different animal. The developer is an investor. Developers are investing in commercial property in this town, given that it is lucrative to do so at the moment.
We have an amazing city for rental in the commercial and housing markets. In fact, it is out of control. Only three cities in Europe are deemed less attractive for investment in property. That is an amazing fact. What are we doing about the fact that the developer still does not have a huge appetite to build all the houses we want? We are just throwing carrots at the developers. We are reducing regulation, introducing financial measures to drive up prices and encouraging young people to buy. Allowing a young couple to get a mortgage with a deposit of just 10% rather than 20% of the price is almost like a trap into debt for the best part of their lives.
The Government has a few options. It can encourage builders into the game by organising finance for them. Where will the money come from? Over and over we are told that the State cannot borrow all this money on the books at less than 1%, given that to do so would break EU rules. I recently read a report by Mr. Seamus Coffey of the Fiscal Advisory Council. He said the ongoing debate around capital for housing had featured regular reference to the idea that our fiscal rules in some way prohibit additional capital spending. He said it was not true. He said €2 billion of additional spending had been announced in the past nine months and said, if we so wished, it could have gone to housing. He said we could have increased overall spending by even more if we had raised sustainable tax revenues to fund it. He said we chose to use neither of these for additional funding for housing, although it was possible within the rules.
I saw answers from the Minister last week in which he admitted that a three-bedroom house in the Dublin area could be supplied by a local authority for less than €210,000, with all services included, ready to go, from start to finish.
In the countryside, that figure is below the €160,000 mark, which is a fact. I have seen the figures lately for Wexford in respect of a few projects that are coming on stream. The average price of supplying a house through the local authority in Wexford is going to be under €160,000, including services. When I hear the Government tell us about the wonderful idea of NAMA supplying 20,000 units which will sell for approximately €330,000 each, I do not know what planet it is living on. Why would the Government allow NAMA to supply 20,000 houses at €330,000 each when even the local authorities in Dublin can supply a house for €210,000? I do not know the answer to that or understand the Government's thinking. Is there a rationale behind it? We will not even go into how NAMA will do it, the deals that will be done behind the scenes, how questionable that whole organisation is at this stage and what builders will be working for it. Will it be the same fellows it looked after through the NAMA process? It will hardly be the fellows that it shafted.
This is nonsense. Why will the Government not make the local authorities fit for purpose to deliver the housing? If they are not fit for purpose at the moment, why do we not make them fit for purpose? If they do not have the personnel to make it happen, address it. No one has asked them to build the units. That was never going to happen. For a long time now, they have employed builders. If they come up with a project to build ten or 20 houses, they ask X number of builders to price it and usually give it to the lowest tender. It will be keenly done. They probably need extra architects, engineers and surveyors within their own ranks but even if they cannot get them, people could be employed to do that work. I do not see why the local authorities would not be able to recruit their own staff, however. After that, the State should borrow this money at less than 1% and invest in infrastructure. The notion that one should invest in crucial infrastructure is hardly rocket science. Of course, it makes sense. We are not even close to investing at the average European rate in terms of crucial infrastructure. We are way behind. In fact, the experts would say we were running to stand still because we are looking at an investment per annum in infrastructure which, to the best of my knowledge, is around the €4 billion mark. The fall off is actually around the same in terms of depletion. In fact, we are running into trouble. The State must take a different approach to investment in infrastructure. There are huge problems around the construction industry and the way we supply housing, but we are not addressing them. It is as if we do not want to know how it should be done. If the Government relies on the private sector and developers to solve the housing crisis, it will be waiting for a long time.
The Bill looks at problems around planning. Planning is not the problem. An Bord Pleanála issued a report in the summer which stated that the number of appeals for housing developments received over the past two years had remained low with 35 cases of the 30-plus units in 2014 versus the peak of 568 in 2007. This is not the big problem. Planning is not the problem. Why would it be? There are permissions to beat the band already given in Dublin. There was nothing to prevent building except for a lack of interest. They are controlled by developers who have better things to do with their money at the moment and while they are waiting, the value of the land and permissions on which they are sitting is growing by the day. They would have to be off their heads to start building. It makes sense to them to wait. The Government is giving them an incentive to do so. It has never dealt with the elephant in the room which is the taxation of landbanking. When the crisis came in 2007 and 2008, anyone involved in the building game could have told one that the biggest problem of all was landbanking and the manner in which the whole industry got out of control because of the price of land. One had a small number of people in control of a huge amount of potential development land and they sat on it for as long as they liked. They were able to demand what they liked for it when it suited them.
We are not in a very different place today. They are again sitting on land. As the Government brings in more of these measures, little bits of it will trickle out. They will probably sell the land here and there rather than develop it themselves because that will be more attractive. I reckon it is currently more attractive to developers to sell land now that these nice incentives have been brought in for them. These incentives are for the developer and nobody should be fooled into thinking that they are for the people of Ireland who are in need of houses. No one should be fooled into thinking that the people who are crying out for houses will be able to buy one of the Government's NAMA houses. They will be too expensive. The only explanation I can find for the approach the Government is taking is that it has sold its soul to neo-liberalism and does not want to move away from it. Its approach is 100% neo-liberal. People with experience on the ground and academics who have done the research are saying we must do things differently. The private sector will not supply the Government with houses when and at the price it wants. The State must start to build its own houses on its own land.
This is the first major Bill to give effect to the Dáil's response to the housing crisis. As such, it must be welcomed even though its provisions will have to be monitored closely as to its overall purpose, which is to reduce radically the timescales involved in the planning of housing developments. The ultimate solution to the housing crisis is obvious but difficult to achieve; a significant increase in the supply of housing units. A significant barrier to rolling out the massive increase in builds is the unnecessary and bureaucratic delay caused by the current planning framework. A national emergency like the housing crisis demands that we remove the barriers that delay the construction of housing units.
These are emergency measures and I welcome that this is reflected in the time-limited structure of many of the provisions, with 2019 being the current expiration date. This sunset clause is subject to extension by the Minister and Government of the day until 2021 should the need arise. However, any such extension must be based on hard evidence. The Fianna Fáil amendment enshrines that the extension of emergency measures will be contingent on a comprehensive review of the policy and the involvement of Parliament in its scrutiny.
The Fianna Fáil amendments on residential tenancies contain a constructive yet impactful suite of measures designed to give greater certainty and protection to tenants, while recognising that more than 90% of Irish landlords own three properties or fewer and are, in many cases, involuntary landlords. They are not professional landlords and are, in many cases, under massive pressure themselves.
The most effective system of tenancies worldwide is one that involves larger and more institutional investments in the rental sector. We need to transition to that model in a controlled way to protect tenants and the vast majority of landlords, who are also fellow citizens and who never intended to be in this position.
Fianna Fáil will not demonise any sector or pitch one vulnerable group against another. In that context, the reduction of the so-called Tyrrelstown amendment from 20 units to five will offer secure occupancy for more tenants, and this is only right.
We have to remember that for the tenant, the property in question is his or her home for which he or she is paying. The retention of a tenant's deposit where landlords are in receivership is also addressed by our amendment. Further amendments will be introduced by Fianna Fáil which will further enable tenants to remain in their homes with confidence about their future development. The core of our amendments and support for the Bill lie in learning from the lessons of the past, and we will provide practical and measurable yet impactful policies to aid the Government in tackling the housing crisis.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, I know we will deal with the Bill and amendments next week, but I would like to take this opportunity, if the Minister of State will allow me, to be somewhat technical about a number of items I would like to bring to his attention in advance. I wish to assure that this is done with a view to helping him and his Department to provide answers and allow the Bill to pass all Stages next week, if possible.
I note a preplanning stage with the board includes the local authority and is a nine-week process. Section 5 seems to suggest that a separate preplanning process has to take place with a local authority before the next step. I am not 100% sure about this section, but that is how I have read it. If that is the case, even though it is clearly stated in the Bill that there must be a meeting within four weeks, the outcome will not be time bound and there is no end date to the process, if I am reading the section correctly.
Section 6(5) refers to a four week process. I may be conflicted about the meaning, but I do not think I am. If that is the case, there is a problem because the first date of public consultation with a local authority involves what I understand to be the board and the local authority planning process, but section 5(4) refers to the details of the preplanning process with the local authority. I am not sure what the process will be. I have been told it is a nine-week process, but my reading of the Bill seems to suggest that there will be two preplanning processes, one with a local authority and a second with the board and local authority, prior to the submission of an application to the board.
I refer to material contravention and the strategic housing development in regard to material contravention. I have reservations about this, as do most people. We all know material contravention contravenes a local area plan or a county development plan which has gone through a statutory process and statutory public consultation process. Does the amendment clearly state that a development of 100 houses or more that materially contravenes a plan can get planning permission? That is what I understand, from my reading of the Bill. I have some reservations and concerns about that.
I refer to the environmental impact statement or the appropriate assessment for a European site. Having gone through a nine-week process, additional information will then be requested in terms of whether reports or impact statements need to be carried out. Each county development plan has done some appropriate assessment on the environmental and Natura sites within the document. It should have been clear from the start whether this is required. We should not have to wait until this section to find out whether it is needed. Another 16 -week process has to be gone through to arrive at a solution.
Having gone through a nine-week process, I am not sure whether there will be written confirmation that an application is suitable to be submitted to the board directly for planning permission. There is a clause that states if the application is not up to standard, it will be back to square one. I hope that someone will not have gone through a nine-week process only to be told that he or she will have to go back to the start again.
As I said, I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, which met today. If the debate is not finished today, I ask the Minister of State to give us an extra 24 hours to submit amendments, as was requested at the committee meeting. I do not know whether the Minister of State will facilitate that request.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I will discuss some of its provisions but also broader issues that will help in the delivery of jobs and rural development, which is a significant issue nationally and, more specifically, in the north west.
I commend Focus Ireland on its campaign that involved 40,000 e-mails being sent to Members on behalf of the 20 families who become homeless every month and the 15,000 households who have buy-to-let landlords in arrears of more than two years. I have responded personally to each and every person who has contacted me from every corner of my constituency and advised them, as I do now, that Fianna Fáil is tabling amendments to the Bill to enhance security of tenure and occupancy for tenants. These amendments will remove the ability of receivers to evict existing tenants from rented properties that have been repossessed. They also include a provision that where banks or vulture funds appoint receivers to rented properties, they should be required to take on all of the legal responsibilities of a landlord, including those relating to Part 4 tenancy obligations, maintaining the property and the obligation to return a tenant's deposit in full.
I welcome the new fast-track planning procedure, and any risks associated with it can be overcome if carefully managed. The rationale for the new planning procedure comes from the fact that at the current time the vast majority of large housing applications are appealed to An Bord Pleanála. Most often, the board upholds the local authority's decision.
Under the new procedure, developers who want to build developments comprising more than 100 units will be required to engage in an extensive preplanning consultation process with local authorities for the first time. This must be completed within a prescribed period of 16 weeks. It is important to note that this process will not impact on the ability of third parties or local authorities to raise objections or make appeals.
It is important to note that the proposed changes do not have an impact on the democratic role of councillors in setting local area development plans and county development plans. Any decision by An Bord Pleanála adheres to the objectives and zonings set out in those plans.
Local authorities will continue to be the primary decision-makers for planning permissions for developments of fewer than 100 units. Given the deficits in housing supply throughout the country and the persistence of historically low levels of construction activity, especially for multi-unit developments, we have to take any measures we can to help to get the market moving.
While we support the amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act, some amendments are required to enhance security for tenants in the private rental market. The Bill does not deal with the serious issues raised by the Tyrrelstown case, in that receivers and lenders are not considered to be landlords under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. At the current time, lenders or receivers may seek to summarily evict a tenant without giving him or her notice as required under law. Our amendment removes the ability of lenders or receivers to summarily evict a tenant. It proposes on page 3, after line 27, to insert a new section to the effect that receivers appointed to mortgage properties and lenders who have initiated repossession proceedings are regarded the landlords in relation to existing tenancies and, where appointed, the receiver of the property shall be under the same tenancy obligations of landlords as specified in Part 2 of the Residential Tendencies Act 2004 and associated regulations. This amendment ensures that where a bank or vulture fund appoints a receiver to a rented property, it should be required to take on all the responsibilities of a landlord. Receivers would have the exact same obligations as landlords to existing tenants under Part 4 of the Residential Tenancies Act, such as provisions relating to the security of tenure, the maintenance and upkeep of the rented property and the obligation to return a tenant's deposit in full.
I refer to a matter I raised in the House in October with regard to an objection to a planning application to An Bord Pleanála made by An Taisce, a body that has received €6 million in State grants over the past five years.
Quite honestly, while it has a role to do what it does and to look after our national heritage, I do not think objecting to an application by an enterprise which currently employs 14 people and could employ a further ten is part of its function, particularly where the objection is on whether a road is suitable for extra traffic. I am disappointed by the situation. Nor am I saying anything here behind anyone's back. I have made my views very much known to the relevant people. I think it is disgraceful. The Minister of State is from a rural area. He knows what 14 jobs means to a rural area and he knows what 24 jobs could mean. That is what we have lost.
I am sorry to say that the board has since refused permission for this business to expand. In its decision notice it stated, "It is considered that the development proposed to be retained would interfere with the character of the landscape, and would endanger public safety by reason of traffic hazard." The decision notice further stated:
Provision is also made for supporting rural communities through facilitating sustainable activities or uses in rural areas. Section 4.1.4 of the development plan supports industry and enterprise locations in Sligo City and its satellite towns, as well as in key support towns and other settlements. Policy provision is also made in Section 4.1.4 for development that needs to locate near a natural resource, as well as in Section 4.2 in relation to rural development and enterprise policies, including specific provision for rural resource-based enterprise.
In my view, there is no more rural based an enterprise than a vegetable business.
Given I have the time, as background, this application was made to Sligo County Council more than a year ago. After much discussion and debate, permission was granted. An Taisce and another objector appealed the decision to An Bord Pleanála and the board raised certain issues and refused permission. These issues, which related to landscaping and the colour of buildings etc., were subsequently addressed by the applicant, at massive expense I might add. The man reapplied and Sligo County Council again granted permission, but An Taisce objected, this time alone. One of its objections related to the road. What does An Taisce have to do with the traffic safety of a road? This related to a business that has been in the same place for 25 years, so it was not going to cause much extra traffic. There are no big lorries or anything like that; perhaps one a day at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. An Bord Pleanála again refused permission.
I do not know why An Bord Pleanála sends an inspector on a 300 mile round trip to investigate a planning application twice, only for faceless people in ivory towers who, at the stroke of a pen, can take a decision that may affect many people for possibly the rest of their lives, to ignore the inspector's recommendation that permission be granted. It is absolutely disgraceful. Furthermore, this man has no recourse except to the High Court, but he cannot go to the Circuit Court, never mind the High Court. This also needs to be examined. Decisions are being made that affect people who, if they want to get redress, have to go to court. They cannot afford to go to court. There should be some body in place that these people can go to, explain their situation and at least be seen to get fair play because at the moment they are not getting it.
Although there are some positive aspects to it, this Bill is not a solution to the housing crisis. It will significantly intensify the crisis because the solutions proposed in it, by and large, are not based on evidence or any comprehensive analysis of the causes of the existing crisis, which amounts to a national emergency. Without proper analysis, we are proceeding down the same road that caused the crisis without having learned any lesson.
The Bill further reduces the powers of local authorities in planning matters and in the provision of social and affordable housing. This is an issue that is extremely serious of itself and a matter to which I will return. However, we are doing it in response to submissions and lobbying from powerful sectors and in further reliance on the principle or philosophy that the free market will provide. This principle or philosophy has not only utterly failed us by failing to provide homes - note I use the word homes - for our people but is the policy that caused the crisis in the first place.
As I sit in the Chamber and listen, having listened on other days too, I note the narrative that is being shaped, but the narrative is not being shaped in my name. The narrative is that local authorities, bad planners, An Bord Pleanála, objectors or An Taisce are the causes of our crisis, but the cause of our crisis is simply that we did not build enough houses. The local authority was not provided with money so that there would be a balance in the market. We need both the public and the private sector. Rather than face reality, we construct a narrative to justify a Bill that is a developer's charter. Even worse, this will intensify the crisis.
More specifically, the national housing emergency - I call it that and I noted Deputy Seamus Healy called it that earlier on - has arisen for many reasons. There has been the failure by successive Governments to provide funding to local authorities for what is now a period of almost ten years. There has certainly been eight years of no money. For example, the last time Galway City Council built a social house was in 2009. I have repeatedly stated that in this Chamber. The last time we built a house was in 2009. We got quarterly reports on a regular basis. The fault did not lie with the planners or the councillors. We bought the land, zoned it and approved Part 8 schemes, but each time we sought funding it was not given.
The quarterly report dated 10 October 2016 tells us that 4,720 households, somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people, are on a waiting list in Galway city that goes back to 2003. Interestingly, when a parliamentary question was tabled on the up-to-date figures, the reply contained figures for 2013. The Minister of State might double check what is happening in terms of figures. The report is dated 10 October and those figures are rising.
The second reason for the crisis was the failure of third level institutions to plan proactively for and build student accommodation. According to the Bills digest we received from the Oireachtas Library, the Higher Education Authority in 2015 estimated that there was an unmet demand for 25,000 bed spaces which was having an impact on the private rental sector. That is my experience in Galway. The authority stated that those shortages were most acute in Dublin, Cork and Galway. The National Economic and Social Council estimated that in 2015 there were 9,000 student households renting in the private sector. The number will have gone up considerably since then, thereby adding to the crisis.
A third reason for the crisis is the systematic reduction of planning, engineering and housing staff at local authority level.
The fourth reason, which I have mentioned already, was the utter reliance on the private market to provide homes, which it spectacularly failed to do, but which this legislation utterly fails to recognise and acknowledge and which will actually worsen the situation.
A further reason for the crisis is Government policy. A fundamental change was brought in by the last Government. A person on a waiting list is no longer entitled to a social house. This has been a fundamental change in policy that was brought in by the Labour Party and Fine Gael and one that is being continued by this Government. A person no longer has a right to a house, regardless of how long he or she is on a list.
From 2003 onwards, in Galway city, people on the housing list have been entitled simply to social housing support.
What we now have is what is known as a housing assistance payment. People who have been on the housing list in Galway city since 2003 received letters today informing them that they have no choice but to sign up to the housing assistance payment and come off the waiting list. When I highlighted this issue in my previous life as a local councillor, I was informed by various party councillors that I was telling lies. I will be the first to apologise if I am wrong but I am informed, as are the applicants who receive the letters, that there is no choice but to go on the housing assistance payment scheme and that those who do so must come off the housing waiting list. The best that can be done for those in receipt of the payment is to be placed on a transfer list. This means someone who has waited from 2003 until 2016 for a home must come off the waiting list.
A further reason for the crisis is that, with the housing assistance payment, more and more people are being forced into an unregulated private rental market without any security of tenure. Into this frame came the National Asset Management Agency. To take a local perspective, I have not seen a single social dividend from NAMA in Galway city. On the contrary, the former Corrib Great Southern Hotel, which has a convention centre and many bedrooms, lies empty next door to the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, while the latter struggles to provide accommodation for its students and the housing crisis in the city continues. It is a scandal that this hotel, which was owned by the State until 2007, remains empty.
The former Anglo Irish Bank building in Galway city also lies empty. Commercial accommodation located beside the private bus station remained empty for a long time, although it and the Corrib Great Southern Hotel were sold to developers in recent years. Mystery surrounds the building that once housed Anglo Irish Bank. One must ask how we can have so many empty commercial buildings and hotels when people are sleeping on the streets of Galway and elsewhere. There is no escaping the answer to that question. It is, as Deputy Wallace stated, because Government Deputies have sold their souls to neo-liberalism. That is, without doubt, what has happened.
I believe it was a Fianna Fáil-led Government which introduced the land aggregation scheme that was subsequently pushed by the previous Government. The scheme has become a complete mystery, with no reference to where the land held under it is or to where it has moved. Obviously, the land in question remains physically in the various counties but legal ownership has been transferred to a body in Dublin. This was not mentioned. How many acres of residential zoned land are held by this body somewhere in Dublin?
Significantly, the Government, in the text of the Bill, refers to providing housing units, rather than the provision of homes and communities. The Bill fails to integrate its proposals in any meaningful way with existing policies, for example, integrated public transport policies or smart travel. The Government has failed to provide the House with an analysis of what is owned by the city councils and local authorities, including Galway City Council, and how much land is held under the mysterious land aggregation scheme.
The powers of local authorities have been significantly reduced, leaving them with only a consultative role. The value of the public consultation process in respect of city and county development plans has been undermined. Most significantly, the role of members of the public in the planning process has been reduced. This is notwithstanding the fact that judges have repeatedly pointed out that the public's role in the planning process is crucial and that members of the public are the eyes and ears of the local authorities in respect of planning transgressions. Judges have gone so far as to refer to members of the public as part of the planning trinity, consisting of the developer-applicant, local authority and members of the public. What the Government is doing in this Bill is further excluding the public from the planning process. While I welcome the decision not to increase the €20 fee for submissions on planning applications, I deplore the Government's failure to take this opportunity to abolish the fee and actively encourage citizens to take part in the planning process.
I note the concerns expressed by the Irish Planning Institute in its letter to the Minister. I fully share these concerns which I propose to briefly outline. The institute states that with regard to the pre-application discussion at local level, it is unclear how the discussion and decision making at board level will operate in practice. It points out that the proposal further removes communities from their respective local authority and development plan. This, combined with the stated aim of reducing the use of oral hearings, is also of concern to the Irish Planning Institute, particularly in light of Ireland's obligation under the United Nations Convention on Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Aarhus Convention. Having refused to sign the convention for a long time, the Government is now completely ignoring it. The Aarhus Convention clearly states it is vital to encourage rather than reduce public engagement and community involvement at all stages of the planning process.
The Irish Planning Institute also refers to the danger of overemphasising the provision of numbers of housing units and repeating mistakes of the past. It points out that this is not a numbers game and we should be discussing the creation of homes and communities. As I indicated, the institute refers to the failure to integrate with existing transport policies. It points out that the planning system cannot and should not be made the scapegoat for failures in the housing market. It also notes the lack of evidence used in making the decision to remove planning applications for projects involving more than 100 housing units. There is no evidence that moving decisions in such cases to An Bord Pleanála will speed up the process. In desperation, the Irish Planning Institute emphasises the need to ensure that planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála are adequately staffed. I note that a survey carried out by the institute indicated that the number of planners in planning authorities decreased by one third between 2006 and 2015.
The Bill proposes to make cheaper finance available from the Housing Finance Agency to third level institutions. I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether this refers solely to universities or is the institutes of technology sector included. This step has been taken to address the unmet demand of 25,000 bed spaces to which I referred. My concern is that while it is a good idea to provide cheaper finance to build student accommodation, no conditions are imposed to ensure accommodation for students is provided at an affordable level. It is amazing that cheaper finance can be provided to build student accommodation but that it can not be given not to ordinary citizens who want to build homes.
On the change to moving orders for possession in specific cases to the District Court, I note Threshold's concerns that this amendment will speed up the process of securing vacation of dwellings. While this may be a welcome development in terms of efficiency and reducing costs, it will have the most unfortunate effect of leaving more people homeless.
While I welcome the limited steps taken to introduce security of tenure and the decision to reduce the threshold in respect of the so-called Tyrrelstown amendment from 20 units to five units, these changes do not go anywhere near providing security of tenure in a market where the policies pursued by successive Governments have forced an increasing number of people into the private rented sector. The Bills Digest of November 2016 cites a daft.iereference to the rate of rental inflation, at 11.7%, as being the highest ever recorded. The figure has since increased.
The utter failure to analyse the reasons behind the housing crisis, and this Bill, will intensify the housing crisis. The city and county development plans will be in danger and under threat. The fast-tracking of applications is not based on evidence and, in my opinion, is unnecessary without evidence being put before us.
I recently received a letter from a man who, with his wife and two small children, has been renting for seven years and was recently furnished with a rent review which proposes an increase in their rent from €1,100 per month to €1,500 without any consultation. This person is a professional and his wife is a trainee professional. They were struggling to meet the original rent, child care costs, high taxes and travel costs and they are now living with fear and uncertainty as they cannot afford the proposed increase in rent. Rents in Galway have rocketed and they cannot afford them and they fear they will be out on the streets. This is having a huge affect on them mentally and physically. It is not my way to refer to personal letters but it is important to do so at this point to try to personalise the many facts that I have outlined. I am not sure if it is worth appealing to the Minister of State, Deputy English, or the Government to pause and ask questions as to what actually caused the housing crisis. The Government needs to stop scapegoating and repeating a narrative that suits its own purposes. We are not here to be negative. My aim is not to condemn the Government but to highlight issues, one of which is the housing crisis which I have seen worsen since I was first elected as a councillor in 1999, which is 17 years ago. My first speech in 1999 was on the rising cost of housing, which cost has continued to rise unabated in the past 17 years, unfortunately.
At the risk of boring the Minister of State I reiterate that the main reason for the rising cost of housing is the utter failure of the local authorities to build houses in Galway and throughout the country because of the utter failure of Governments to provide funding. I do not accept the reason given that it was too expensive to build or that the Government did not have the money to do so because during all of that time it gave money under various schemes to private landlords, including the rent supplement scheme, which was supposed to be a temporary measure. It has now become the housing assistance payment, which is permanent, with applicants in Galway city being told it is now the only game in town. All of this time Governments had money but they chose to give that money to the private market.
I am not here to demonise landlords. They have an important role to play in the provision of affordable housing and rented accommodation. However, this must always be balanced with direct provision by Government through the local authorities. Instead of bypassing the local authorities the Government should be resourcing them to build on the land they purchased at huge cost.
I will try to respond to as many questions as possible. I am conscious that Committee and Report Stages will be taken next week and we will have another opportunity then to address many of the issues raised.
I thank Members for their contributions this evening and last week. There was also a lengthy debate on Report Stage of this Bill in the Seanad, during which many of the concerns expressed here were dealt with and we also took on board some amendments. We are not suggesting that this Bill is the full solution. It is only part of the solution. We are all agreed that the real solution is to increase the supply of housing and, in particular, to increase social housing provision. Those who say that the solution is not to be found in increased supply are wrong. I was surprised to hear Deputy Wallace and others say that increased supply will not solve the problem. Six or seven years ago, from 2008 to 2014, rents across many towns were half the price they are now because there were many vacant properties and there was no shortage of accommodation. In the areas surrounding Dublin, including Wicklow, Kildare and Meath, it was possible to rent a property for €700. The cost of renting in these areas now is €1,200 or €1,300 per month. Supply is an issue and so increased supply will help to resolve the housing crisis. What we need is a combination of social and private housing. We accept that, and this strategy seeks to address both. The changes proposed in this Bill will help increase supply of social and private housing. As I said, we will have an opportunity to tease out these issues further on Committee Stage.
One of the reasons for the introduction of the fast-track planning provision, which is temporary, is to try to encourage those who own sites and land and are in a position to build houses to do so now when we need them rather than in seven or eight years time, although I accept it will be 2018 or 2019 before any houses will be ready. We are seeking the reactivation of sites in the near future rather than in the long term. Different approaches are being taken in this regard. Many people referred to carrot, sticks and levies and so on. A site levy will come into force in 2019. Based on advice from the Attorney General, owing to the Constitution, it cannot come into effect until then. We are required to give people due notice that they will be taxed for inactivity on sites. We are prepared to take another look at that provision with a view to strengthening it, if necessary. The matter is currently being examined by an urban renewal group, of which I am chairman. My officials and I are prepared to look at the possibility of increasing the amounts in question. Regardless of that, the site levy cannot come into effect until 2019.
The aim is encourage construction through reduced planning timeframes and other incentives such as infrastructural funding in order to encourage activation on sites in the near future. That is our sole aim in terms of the planning changes. The aim is not to remove powers from local authorities. Like Deputy Connolly, I was a councillor for many years. I agree with the Deputy that there has been a housing crisis since 1999. Councillors are involved throughout the planning process and what is provided for in the Bill relates only to zoned land. The issue of material contravention does not arise. However, I will check that. The land concerned must be zoned land before the process begins. I will have that issue clarified for the Deputy. If we need to tighten up the wording in that regard, we will do so. This issue was discussed during debate on the Bill in the Seanad. The process relates to zoned land only. Material contravention is an issue for councillors. As I said, this process relates to zoned land. In my view, in terms of the planning timeframe, currently councillors do not have a direct role in relation to planning applications. They can make representations and can raise issues with a planner officially or unofficially by way of telephone or at a meeting, but there is no formal setting within which they discuss large-scale planning applications, although I always believed they should be able to do so. When I was a councillor, we asked that we be allowed to do that and we did it for a while but because most people did not put the time into it, the system did not work. In terms of the process now being introduced, following nine weeks of consultation and during the four week period during which the manager must make a submission, there will be an opportunity for a formal council meeting to discuss an application. I will have that clarified for Deputy Casey. As I understand it, there will be a nine week consultation process following which the manager then has four weeks within which to make a submission on behalf of the local authority. During that period, there is an opportunity for councillors to have a formal discussion and have their views recognised and put forward in the submission. This opportunity is not available currently. Councillors will have a greater say in planning of a large-scale nature in that they will be able to point to situations that need to be addressed. This will strengthen the process. The aim is not to take away local authority powers, rather it is to fast-track planning temporarily for a number of years.
The Fianna Fáil amendment calls for a review after three years. We also discussed that issue in the Seanad. We agree that there will be a need for a full review of this process before any decision could be made to extend it for a further two years. If all goes well, there may not be any necessity to do that. If it is beneficial and it is working and it needs to be continued we will consider extending it for a further two years. I can assure Deputy McGuinness, who expressed concerned about this, that this process will not be permanent. I do not propose to go over many of the issues already covered by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in relation to the Part 8 process. In regard to the delivery of social housing, as things stand, there is no cap on the timing for a Part 8 process, be that in respect of housing or infrastructure such as a road or a bridge. Part 8 could go on for years. That is not satisfactory either. We need the Part 8 process to work quicker, faster and in a more streamlined line to deliver social housing, which is the purpose for which it is generally used.
This Bill is capping that timeline, which is welcome. It should strengthen the position of those who really want to deliver social housing. I sometimes question people's commitment to social housing in some local authorities, but certainly not in Galway. In some areas, the system has been abused and dragged out without end. That is not good enough. This House, in the budget just gone and in the commitment in Rebuilding Ireland, has committed €5 billion in taxpayers' resources to deliver social housing and the infrastructure to make it happen, in addition to other housing. We added 50% to the budget for housing a few months ago. However, if we cannot fix the processes for delivering social housing, we cannot spend that money. The objective is to sort out the process to get the money spent as quickly as possible.
In respect of the Tyrrelstown amendment, there is some protection for people in a development with five units, as it now stands. The figure originally proposed was 20.
There is a rental strategy to be published in the next week or two that will deal with all the issues on rental raised tonight. I will not go back over them all. We discussed them at length in the Seanad and I have no doubt but that we will be doing so on Committee and Report Stages. The strategy will deal with many of the concerns people have over rent. We are committed to this matter and we recognise that there has to be a proper rental strategy to give tenants greater security and service, make renting more of an option and increase investment in rental property. Despite the best intentions expressed here and the view that the State should provide all social housing, we are not in a position to do that. The strategy should see approximately 130,000 units being built over the next four or five years. We call them units because all types of housing are included. We do not have the money to build all the units and we should not do so. Apart from not having the money, we do not have the necessary capacity in the system. I have no doubt but that the combination of private and social housing, and various forms thereof, is the right way to address this. If one decided tomorrow to proceed entirely using social housing, one would not achieve the objective. The idea is that, over the timeline of the strategy, or over the next four or five years, we will build the capacity in local authorities to deliver social housing. The commitment is to deliver 47,000 units over the next five years and to be in a position thereafter to deliver about 10,000 per year, which is the position we were in once and where we should be. If people want to go further thereafter, that will be fine too. However, it is not possible to switch it on overnight.
The capacity of local authorities to deliver social housing has been eroded, and this was the case well before the construction crisis. We have decided to rebuild capacity and put money behind this. That is a joint decision of the Houses. Some €5.5 billion in taxpayers' money is a lot of money to drive a social housing agenda. We have been very clear with all the local authorities that it is real and that all parties in the House have committed to this at a minimum. Others want to do more and that is fair enough, but everyone is agreed on the minimum. We have explained to local authorities that the money is available and that they should make their plans for social housing, make long-term plans and have a pipeline of projects for 2018, 2019 and 2020 to build on what is done in 2017. In the past, the local authorities were told to do that but the money was pulled away. That will not happen now because the House is in full agreement that we have to tackle this issue. The strategy is an ambitious one to rebuild social housing capacity but it is appropriate and correct. We can add to it down the line if necessary. The strategy will certainly deal with the current crisis.
Members referred to the social housing waiting list. The updated figures are being compiled and they will be published in the next six or seven weeks, or even sooner if they are ready. We have never hidden any figures here. That is not what we are about. We are about using the statistics and figures to address the problem. The Department, Minister and I published the figures on the homeless, those in emergency accommodation and rough sleepers. The figures are published every month and are not hidden away. We are dealing with this and not trying to hide from it. We will not hide. The plan is a very open and transparent one that seeks to address the problems and create solutions.
The HAP is a solution for many. Some like that but not everybody on the social housing list, numbering 4,000, 3,000, or 2,000 in Galway, would take a social house tomorrow if they got one. Quite a few are happy with HAP and some would prefer a social house. The HAP might offer a solution for the next two or three years while we catch up with supply.
It is not a case of having no choice. HAP is one of the many solutions. There are approximately 23 or 24 housing schemes and HAP is but one. It has been very successful in some places. It does not prevent the recipient from working or increasing his income. Some of the older rent assistance schemes prevent one from going back to work or from bettering oneself. HAP has been designed to address this. The recipients are not being put off a housing list. They are still on a transfer list, which is the housing list. People have come off HAP and have taken a social house. They are quite entitled to do so if their number comes up and if they are next on the list. That is a local administration issue. HAP is part of a solution that, in my view, will work quite well. We will need more housing supply to be able to use HAP. We are committed to social housing and HAP is another solution in this regard.
Deputy Pat Casey raised a couple of issues. On the environmental impact statement, I will have to check the details. I am not sure about the question so I will check and clarify for Committee Stage, or even before it. I dealt with the issue of the material contravention. The Deputy wants to table amendments. What was his other question?
That is up to the Ceann Comhairle. We are agreed on facilitating an extension until Friday but the Ceann Comhairle is the boss in these matters so I will bow to him. I will not take up any more time. Many more issues were raised. We will deal with them on Committee Stage.
Deputy Connolly asked about student accommodation. It is a matter of making money available to those in question. At the moment the system is limited to universities. There is an agreement in the programme for Government to include institutes of technology. We all desire this.
Most of the other questions were quite general in nature and have been addressed in some of the speeches. They will certainly be addressed on Committee and Report Stages. The Bill is to strengthen our position to deliver housing.