Wednesday, 2 October 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
The fast-track planning scheme, the strategic housing development scheme, has not delivered and is not delivering faster housing construction and it has de-democratised and undermined local input into our planning system. In an academic paper emanating from UCD and Queen's University, it is revealed that a group of developers essentially captured the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, and got him to include this initiative for a new planning procedure in the legislation. Developers co-operated with this research work. The developers met. The Minister rang them when he heard about the idea and he met them. They said that they gave him their recommendation and he took it lock, stock and barrel and put it into the new housing legislation. This is what is in the paper itself. Dr. Lorcan Sirr of Technological University Dublin makes the point that it shows how little strategic thinking went into approving the strategic housing development process. A national Fine Gael politician commented on the research that given Fine Gael's predisposition to the market as the best way to solve the housing problem and as a principal policy objective, it was predisposed to this type of initiative. Alarmingly, one experienced architect told the researchers that from a developmental perspective, one of the great benefits of fast-track planning schemes is that they allow one to circumvent the development plan of the city or the county. Essentially, one can apply for a material contravention by the back door and that is a serious issue.
Maybe the Minister took the developers in good faith, as many in the House did. However, research by Killian Woods of The Sunday Business Postdemonstrates that the fast-track planning scheme has not worked. No construction has commenced on more than 10,000 units that already have planning permission, which represents two thirds of all units that got permission. No construction has commenced in 47 of the 64 large housing developments granted fast-track permission. No construction has commenced on quite a number approved in 2018. Crucially, numerous sites with planning permission are currently advertised for sale. It seems the scheme has been used to get large-scale planning permission with a view to selling it on. That was not the intention. Half of the firms that received planning permission through the strategic housing development scheme in 2018 have not filed intent to commence construction.
Is the Taoiseach concerned at how naive the then Minister was and how his initiative lacked any strategic thinking within the Department underpinning it? He took on board lock, stock and barrel the developers' proposals and did not put in adequate protections. Does the Taoiseach accept that it has not resulted in faster construction of housing and that the combination of this measure with many of the high-density elements of the planning framework for 2040, with the reduced standards for apartments, is leading to a lopsided development landscape where co-living and build-to-rent is now the dominant preferred model? That is what is happening in our cities. Will the Government revert to greater local engagement and inputs and prevent, with legislation, this scheme from facilitating material contraventions of local development plans by the back door, which was never the original intention of the Oireachtas?
I thank the Deputy for the question. This policy and proposal was developed by Deputy Coveney when he was Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government in consultation with his officials. It is entirely reasonable that he would consult industry too when making a policy decision. The intention and idea behind it was to fast-track the planning system to make sure that builders who want to build houses that people need to buy, rent and live in could get planning permission more quickly. Instead of having to go through a two-step planning process of applying to the council, getting permission and then possibly having an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, if a builder was going to build 100 apartments, houses or homes, or more, that builder could go straight to An Bord Pleanála, thereby skipping one of the two steps. The idea behind that was to speed up the planning process to get planning permission more quickly and for houses to be built more quickly, therefore having more homes for people sooner. I thank Deputy Martin and his party for voting for the legislation that allowed that to happen. He neglected to mention that.
This proposal was put forward by Deputy Coveney when he was Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government but it would not have been possible without Fianna Fáil's support for the housing policy, which I recognise.
I am not sure if the figures I was given yesterday were authenticated or not but they indicated that approximately 16,000 homes have received planning permission under this fast-track planning process. Some 6,000 of those are either built or being built. Approximately 10,000 have yet to commence but they may yet commence in the next few months or the next year. There is always a time lag when building new homes or apartments. It does not just happen. One has to apply for planning permission, then go out to tender and then the home needs to be built and is occupied. That figure of 6,000 could be 7,000 to 10,000, or even higher, in the next couple of months. It is important that we assess policy changes since they are not always right and it is appropriate after two, three or four years to look back and see whether a policy was effective or not.
One has to consider the counterfactual, that if the builders had gone through the old process, through the council and An Bord Pleanála, and ask if the commencement rate would be any higher. Deputy Martin is assuming it would but has no evidence to back that up. He cannot assume it would be higher. If it is in the interests of landowners or builders to secure planning permissions to increase the value of their land, they can do that under the old process too. They can just as easily go to the council and get planning permission from 100 or 150 houses and still not build on it. It is reasonable to look at the counterfactual when considering whether a policy change or initiative worked, not just at what has happened. It is indisputable that there has been a considerable increase in the level of housing construction in the last years. Three or four years ago, almost no new homes were being built in Ireland. Some 20,000 new homes are now being built every year, with 45,000 new homes built since I became Taoiseach. We need to keep increasing that number towards 30,000 or 35,000 a year.
The Taoiseach has been in government since 2012, not just since he became Taoiseach, and he needs to take responsibility for that period too. The bottom line is that it has not resulted in faster construction. I have produced research. It is not my research but research from UCD, Queen's University and The Sunday Business Post, for which Killian Woods did much work to identify what got planning permission and what did not commence. Half of all developments that got planning permission in 2018 have not commenced. The whole purpose was to get construction up and running quickly-----
I read the Minister's speech on the day and I have reread it. He rang the developers, all excited, and they came in. They gave him the plans and he took them lock, stock and barrel. That is what they tell the researchers.
Quite a number of them told that to the researchers. The Minister accepted their proposals lock, stock and barrel. Some Fine Gael national politician who is very involved in housing told them that is the Fine Gael way, that Fine Gael believes in the market and that the market will solve the housing problem. It has not solved it and homelessness is far worse since the Taoiseach became Taoiseach than with anybody else before that. The core point is that the county plans and city development plans are serious planning frameworks. They are being circumvented by the back door. Material contraventions have a bad name in this country and we are now facilitating them more easily than before through a back door mechanism.
The Taoiseach should be producing the alternative evidence, not just telling us to consider the counterfactual.
The Taoiseach should have that evidence. This was raised yesterday by Deputy Boyd Barrett. I accept that the Oireachtas acted in good faith but we were wrong and we should now go back on the decision and revert to the local authority model. Builders on the ground have told me that they never had a problem with timelines under the local authority model but that capacity in An Bord Pleanála was always an issue. This issue needs to be revisited. The Taoiseach cannot remain in denial all of the time. He must listen to good quality research, whether it comes from academia or journalists, which points out failures in something which the Oireachtas, in good faith, believed would work but which, unfortunately, has not worked.
I thank the Deputy. As I said earlier, it is entirely reasonable to look back on a policy change after three or four years to see if it was successful or not. We know that 16,000 homes were given fast-track planning permission through this process.
I need to study the research but I have not seen whether the authors looked at a counterfactual analysis or at whether developments that went through the old process commenced at a faster rate. The Deputy is right to point out that I have been in government since 2011 but he has been in Government too. Let us not forget that. Let us not forget his party's record when it comes to housing. We know Fianna Fáil's record on housing.
We had a seven-year period during which almost no new homes were built in this State. There should have been approximately 200,000 houses built during that seven-year period, but none was built. That is why we have a housing crisis.
-----mica, pyrite, hundreds of thousands of people in negative equity, hundreds of thousands of people in mortgage arrears, and hundreds of thousands of construction workers forced to emigrate. That is his record.
Last year's crime figures make for very sobering reading. Right across the country, people are experiencing big problems with criminality and anti-social behaviour. People in towns and villages across rural Ireland live in fear of burglary and break-ins and this, in turn, has a devastating effect on community and family life. Knife and drug crime is now a daily concern and, indeed, a daily reality for people living in our cities. It is very sad that encountering crime has become normalised for so many of our citizens. It is not too much to ask to be able to walk safely down one's street or to be able to sleep soundly in one's bed. It is not too much to ask that young people can go out to enjoy themselves at night and come home safely.
All of us have the right to go about our business and our lives with a basic sense of security. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree. I will reflect on the realities of Dublin's north inner city. The figures reported today show that the crime rate for this area is five times higher than the national rate. As the Taoiseach knows well, the north inner city is home to the very finest of people, families and communities. They certainly do not deserve to be afflicted with, or to be worn down by, criminals and anti-social elements. The people of the north inner city should not have to constantly fight for the ownership of their communities. They should not live with the scourge of criminals who thrive on the misery and fear of families. I want to be very clear; crime is not unique to Dublin nor the north inner city. One only has to pick up a local newspaper in any part of the country to understand how crime impacts communities in every single county.
These figures raise very serious questions in respect of the resourcing of An Garda Síochána and raise serious questions of the Minister for Justice and Equality and of the Taoiseach, as Head of Government. It is clear that the north inner city deserves much better and that we need a more proactive approach not only in that part of the city, but right across the State. The Government cannot simply turn away. We need to agree that there is no acceptable level of crime anywhere. I am sure that when the Taoiseach saw these figures today he was just as shocked as I was. I am sure that he is as sincerely concerned for families in the north inner city as I am. Concern, however, will only go so far. We now need action. There are things the Taoiseach could do now, in the immediate term, that would help this community and others.
Why are we still waiting for the reopening of Fitzgibbon Street Garda station? It is still closed despite being sited in the area that has a crime rate five times higher than that of other areas across the State. Why was the north inner city community policing forum, which was the go-to place for the community to engage with An Garda Síochána, closed down last June? Will the Taoiseach commit to reopening this forum without delay? Will he tell us now when Fitzgibbon Street Garda station will be reopened?
I thank the Deputy. It is worth acknowledging that we live in a country that has a relatively low crime rate compared with other developed countries and we are fortunate to do so. In large part, that is down to the excellent work of An Garda Síochána every day of the week. Were it not for An Garda Síochána, we would not live in a country that has a low crime rate. I agree with the Deputy that there is no acceptable level of crime. I know the north inner city well. As the Deputy knows, I worked there for a period. I have visited on many occasions and still visit regularly. The area is full of great people and good communities. These people do not deserve to ever be victimised by criminals in their communities.
A British Prime Minister once said that the best policy approach to crime is to be tough on the causes of crime and to be tough on crime itself. I agree with that philosophy. When it comes to being tough on the causes of crime, we can see a key initiative being undertaken by the Government in the north-east inner city. It was started by my forebear, Deputy Enda Kenny, and subsequently continued. The Deputy has welcomed the initiative, with which she is very familiar. It is a really good example of how Government, Government agencies and local authorities can come together to target an area of deprivation to help prevent future crimes.
We also need to be tough on crime, however. That is why, under my leadership since I became Taoiseach, An Garda Síochána has become better resourced than ever. Some €1.7 billion is allocated to An Garda Síochána every year, which is the biggest budget it has ever had. We have restored Garda recruitment with hundreds of extra gardaí being added to the force all the time. We are investing in vehicles, equipment and ICT and, led by the Garda Commissioner, we are reforming the organisation to ensure greater civilianisation to allow more gardaí to be on the street, where people want them, rather than in administrative positions behind desks. That is all under way and I am sure we will see demonstrable results.
With regard to the Deputy's specific question about Fitzgibbon Street Garda station, the Government has committed to reopening the station as part of the plan for the north-east inner city. I do not know why it has not been opened yet or what the timelines are, but I will find out and get back to the Deputy. I will do the same with regard to the policing forum.
I agree with the Taoiseach that it is not only about zero tolerance for crime and criminality but also zero tolerance for poverty, exclusion and the scourge of addiction. On that point we agree. It is beyond explanation that we are still waiting for Fitzgibbon Street Garda station to be reopened when it is located in the area with the highest crime rate in the State. Frankly, it is beyond belief that, in June, the Government closed the community policing forum in an area with a crime rate five times higher than the average rate in the State. The Taoiseach may say he is pulling out all the stops and doing all he can, but people and families living in the area with the highest crime rate - five times the State average - see a Garda station in the heart of this area that is still closed. They know their community policing forum was closed down as recently as June.
Therefore, I want the Taoiseach to provide more concrete explanations and, more important, more important solutions. We need a date for the reopening of Fitzgibbon Street Garda station. We need to know that the community policing forum will be reopened. Anything short of that will, to the ears of the families of those living in the north inner city, sound very much like rhetoric and crocodile tears. It will add nothing to their sense of safety and security in their home area.
May I say, just before the Taoiseach responds, that-----
The Government has committed to reopening Fitzgibbon Street Garda station. I do not know the reason for the delay. I will find out and get back to the Deputy in the next 48 hours. It will be reopened. It is not the opening of Garda stations that reduces crime, rather it is gardaí on the streets. The number on the streets has increased not only in Dublin but also all over the rest of the State. It will continue to increase for as long as this Government is in office and I am the head of it.
I will check the position on the community policing forum. The Deputy's suggestion was that the Government somehow closed it down. I can guarantee that if there were a Government decision to close down a community policing forum, I would know about it. Therefore, it was not a Government decision. I will find out who closed the forum and why, and I will get back to the Deputy on it.
I will stay within my time allocation, as is normal. The Comptroller and Auditor General has analysed the cost of the bank bailout in his annual report for 2018. The Taoiseach will recall, as will the House, that my party opposed to the bank bailout, which was supported by the Taoiseach's party, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. The cost of the bank bailout, set out by the Comptroller and Auditor General, was €64 billion. This year, many years after the bailout, gross voted current and capital expenditure together, or everything we spend on vital infrastructure in hospitals and schools and on social protection, is €66 billion. The amount we gave to bail out the banks is almost equal to that. The figure of €66 million is the amount we voted in this House this year to run every Department of State and everything we will spend on buildings and infrastructure. It is truly a staggering sum of money. We will get a portion of it back through dividends and from the sale of bank shares. However, the Comptroller and Auditor General estimates that the net cost to the people of Ireland will still remain at €45 billion, with a recurring cost of between €1.1 billion and €1.3 billion every year to repay the interest on the money borrowed to bail out the banks. Bank of Ireland required a smaller bailout and has repaid the taxpayers' investment in it. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General concludes, however, that none of the other banks will repay the money given by the people of Ireland. At the same time, the banks are profitable and there is pressure on the Government to remove the cap of €500,000 on bankers' pay. I hope and believe that the Taoiseach understands that most people would find any such suggestion repulsive.
The Comptroller and Auditor General's report suggests that we need to introduce new ways for the banks to repay the money the people put into them. In our budget proposals, which will be published tomorrow, we will suggest a modest increase of the bank levy to recover an additional €250 million. The levy is currently scheduled to end in 2021, which clearly cannot be tolerated. Does the Taoiseach agree that the banking sector owes a huge debt to the people and that we, as Members of the Irish Parliament, should demand that the banks continue to pay through levies until the debt and interest are fully paid back to the people?
I absolutely agree with the Deputy that the banking sector owes a huge debt to the people but he might be getting his history a little muddled. With respect, he is confusing the bank guarantee with the bank bailout. It is indeed the case that his party opposed the bank guarantee. There were two bank bailouts, however. There was the bailout carried out by Fianna Fáil when in government with the Green Party, namely, that relating to Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide. We will never see that money again because the institutions in question were dead and should not have been bailed out. I opposed that bailout and so did the Deputy's party. There was a second bank bailout, namely, that relating to Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland. Not only did the Deputy not oppose this, he supported it. He was the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform at the time and probably signed the cheque. That was the bank bailout he actually supported. It happened when the Fianna Gael–Labour Party Government was in office; that is a fact. That bailout was correct because Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland are functioning, surviving, living banks. It made sense to save them. They were the pillar banks of the Irish economy at the time. It was necessary to protect people's savings and to continue to have banks that could lend to business and issue mortgages.
As the Deputy pointed out, Bank of Ireland has already repaid all the money the State put into it. I believe that Allied Irish Banks will do this also. How will it be done? It will be done through dividends being paid to the Exchequer. That is happening through the bank levy, which the Deputy mentioned, and also through the sale of shares. Already, 25% of Allied Irish Banks has been sold and that has brought billions of euro back for the Exchequer. In due course, and at the right time, the rest will be sold also. That will enable us to recover the money that was put into Allied Irish Banks. The bank bailout of Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland made sense and the money will be recovered. Unfortunately, the money involved in the shameful bailout of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide will never be recovered.
That is when the indebtedness of the banks was put on the back of the taxpayer. The Taoiseach can grimace as much as he likes but that is the reality. Many regret the decision. As we know, the State was under pressure from the European Central Bank because of potential contagion but the decision was wrong. The Taoiseach confuses it with the recapitalising of the banks that were then in public control. There was no going back on that. We needed to recapitalise the banks or the banking system would have collapsed. The problem now is how to recoup the money. We may have debates about the history but we must ask how we can recoup the people's money? The Taoiseach is stating that we are going to get it back but the Comptroller and Auditor General says otherwise. He says there will be a deficit of €45 billion. I am asking the Taoiseach a very straightforward and simple question. Does he believe all the money invested by the people of Ireland into the banking system should be recouped? The levies should be maintained until the money is recouped. Does the Taoiseach agree that the cap on bankers' pay of €500,000 should remain?
I am of the view that the cap on bankers' pay should remain in place. I have said that previously. We have recovered all the money from Bank of Ireland. We will in time recover all the money from Allied Irish Banks. It will not be possible to recover the money that was put into Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide because those institutions were dead. I do not believe anyone will ever know for sure whether the decision to guarantee the banks on the fateful night in question was right or wrong. One should bear in mind why it was made, however. It was to protect the deposits and savings of the Irish people. Those banks were bust; they were empty. Had it not been for a guarantee-----
I did. I am explaining the decision now. Those banks were bust and the consequence of the guarantee was to protect the savings of Irish people and Irish businesses. In countries where a different course of action was followed, such as Iceland and Cyprus, it was not just the bondholders who lost their money. Savers did also. That is what would have happened here.
I too want to raise what I believe to be the scandal of the strategic housing development scheme. I raised it with the Taoiseach yesterday. We put in a submission to the review weeks ago calling for the scheme to be scrapped.
Before the summer, a People Before Profit motion calling for the scheme to be scrapped was passed by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. This motion was proposed in light of Bartra's absolutely disgraceful strategic housing scheme in Dún Laoghaire, which involves 210 units of little box rooms with fold-out beds but no social or affordable housing. Our opposition to this scheme has now been confirmed by the revelations in an article in The Sunday Business Postat the weekend and by the studies carried out in UCD and elsewhere. It has clearly emerged that the strategic housing development scheme was dreamed up by developers. The Minister who put it forward needs to explain how it is being claimed by developers that he took their plans on board - lock, stock and barrel - and stuck them into the housing Bill. It is now clear that this scheme is nothing more than a licence for property speculators to speculate, to hoard land, to flip land and to print money. It is not delivering what the Minister promised when he introduced the Bill. He said it would deliver housing to address the housing emergency that has developed after the Minister's eight years in government.
We all know the sins of Fianna Fáil and of those who put money into bailing out the rotten and toxic banks, instead of putting it into housing and other public services and forms of infrastructure. We are now paying the cost of that. We need answers. Is it the case, as the developers are claiming, that this Bill was dreamed up by them for them? It is enriching them, while failing to deliver the affordable housing that is needed to address the housing crisis. Two thirds of the houses or apartments that have been approved under this scheme have not commenced. Some of them are for sale. In such cases, it is absolutely clear that properties are being flipped. When planning permission is provided under the fast-track strategic housing scheme, the value of the asset held by the property developer is inflated. This encourages the developer to flip it on and make a lot of money. We know that speculation and hoarding by developers is rampant at the moment. The Minister has said that the delivery of housing has improved, but all the experts are saying we need 35,000 housing units at this stage if we are to catch up with the deficit. We are nowhere near that, but we have the scandal of this scheme failing. Rather than building public and affordable housing on public land, which is what some of us have been asking it to do for five or six years, the Government is continuing to expect profit-driven property speculators to solve the housing crisis when all they are doing is exploiting it.
I think I answered this question yesterday and today. Perhaps I can elaborate a little on what I said earlier. The purpose of the strategic housing development scheme is to speed up the planning process. If somebody wants to build an apartment block or a housing estate, there is a two-step process. When one submits a planning application to the council, people can make observations on it. The decision that is made by the council can be appealed to An Bord Pleanála, and the whole process happens all over again. The idea behind the strategic housing development scheme is a sensible and logical one. It allows somebody who is building 100 homes or more to skip one step in the process and go straight to An Bord Pleanála. The purpose of it was to fast-track the planning process to cut weeks or months off the time it takes to build new homes. That is the intention behind it. As the Deputy has pointed out, some 16,000 new homes have been granted permission under the scheme. Some 6,000 of them are under construction. The other 10,000 homes are not yet under construction, but they could well come into construction over the next year.
The Deputy is making two assumptions that may not be correct. First, he is assuming that if the developers had gone through the old two-step process, somehow these dwellings - homes, houses or whatever you want to call them - would be under construction. He is assuming that, but he does not have evidence to back it up. Second, he is saying that landowners and builders use the fast-track planning process to get planning permission for their land in order to increase its value. That may well be the case, but they could have done that anyway through the old process of applying to the council and getting permission for 150 units, thereby adding to the value of the land. The two assumptions made by the Deputy are not backed up by evidence. The Department has carried out a review. When any new policy decision is made or any new scheme is launched, it is sensible to review it after two or three years to see how it is going. In the coming weeks, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, will be in a position to bring the review that has been carried out by the Department to the Cabinet and to make it public.
We have proposed a solution. We have called for the scheme to be scrapped. We have pointed out that nothing in the scheme guarantees that there will be any - any - affordable or public housing, as we witnessed with the Bartra proposal at Eblana Avenue with no social and affordable housing but box rooms. The strategic housing development application at Cross Avenue in Blackrock involved apartments that would cost €1 million each, in effect. This would be completely unaffordable for the local authority, even if there was 10% social housing. What is the point in that? What is the point in giving fast-track planning permission for housing which, even if it is constructed, is totally unaffordable and totally unsuitable, does nothing to address the housing crisis and may not even deliver social housing? There is no point in doing that. When the Government introduced this legislation, we were told it would help to address the housing crisis. That was the central context and was why people did not oppose it at the time. Now it is becoming clear that it is not doing that.
It is not delivering housing at all in many cases. There is evidence that sites are being sold on after planning permission has been obtained. Rather than delivering affordable housing, this scheme is facilitating flipping, speculating and hoarding. We are calling on the Taoiseach to scrap it because it is being used and abused by property speculators. The Government must start do what we called for all along, even at the time of the legislation, namely to build public and affordable housing on public land on the scale that was done in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The Government seems to claim it cannot be done in the 21st century. We do not believe the Taoiseach. The developers are telling the Government what to do.
I thank the Deputy for his follow-up question. This fast-track planning process has already resulted in 6,000 new homes being built, with another 10,000 to come. They are some of the 45,000 new homes that have been built since I became Taoiseach.
There is already a one-step planning process for social housing. It is called Part 8. It is not necessary to bring in a one-step planning process for social housing because that already exists and has existed for many decades. Only private housing had to go through the two-step process. There is a one-step process for social housing, and it is called Part 8. We are now well into the biggest social housing programme in decades. We are doing what the Deputy called for. We are adding approximately 10,000 new units to the social housing stock every year.
Having come from a base of almost nothing, we are now up to over 10,000 every year. The vast majority of them are new-builds by local authorities and housing associations.