Thursday, 18 February 2021
Land Development Agency Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy.
We are discussing the new Land Development Agency Bill 2021, which will open the door to privatisation of public land. Arguably, this may open the door to the largest privatisation in the history of the State. The only example I can think of that might rival it, and time will tell, is the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, where there was a €43 billion sell-off. The Tánaiste said some time ago that the launch of the Land Development Agency was comparable to the launch of Aer Lingus and the launch of the ESB in the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those instances saw the establishment of State agencies. I have criticisms of both, but they provided good employment and a service to the people of the State over many decades. The Land Development Agency is the opposite, if anything. This is a quango that will open the door to mass privatisation of public land banks.
Under this legislation the control over land banks and the disposal of assets is taken out of the hands of elected councillors, which is an extremely anti-democratic move, to facilitate privatisation. The Minister will object and undoubtedly will say that 50% of the housing built on those lands will be affordable. He was only forced to concede the 50% under the pressure of public opinion. The original plan was for less than that. However, the Bill does not define what is affordable. Is it a percentage of a person's income? It does not say. In practice, at present, affordable housing in the State is calculated on the basis of market prices minus, for example, €50,000. That is far from affordable for young people, the low paid and many middle-income workers. A tiny percentage of the new housing on these lands will be social or council housing, despite the fact there are tens of thousands of people on the social housing lists throughout the country. A large portion of the housing built on these lands will be for profit at the full market rates, which is completely outside the scope of the ordinary worker.
I will look at the example of what will happen at the Cork docklands. This is public land. There is the old Ford site, the ESB marina sites and the lands at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Kent Station, the National Oil Reserves Agency, Marina Park, Camp Field and Tivoli docks. These are public lands and they should be used for public housing. It is planned to build 25,000 new homes over a period of 20 years. This should be housing for people, not for profit. It should be 100% social and affordable housing. There are thousands of people on the Cork City Council and Cork County Council housing waiting lists who would benefit from that. There are many workers on the average wage, low paid workers and young workers who would benefit from genuinely affordable housing, in other words, cost price or close to it. Instead, there will be housing for profit. It will be housing at full market rates and housing at so-called affordable prices, which in reality are unaffordable for the majority, with just a sprinkling of social housing.
We will not be able to get to the bottom of what is happening because the designated activity companies in partnership with the speculators will not be subject to freedom of information legislation. That is a disgrace. We will fight tooth and nail against the measures in this Bill.
We are pro-housing, but housing for people not for profit.
They say a leopard never changes its spots and Fianna Fáil does not change its character. It has always been, and remains, a party of the big developers and big builders. We have three proofs of that this week alone. First is the ESRI research which confirms what the left has said about the supposed affordable housing schemes, that their effect will be to push up house prices to make houses even more unaffordable for ordinary workers and to line the pockets of developers. Second is the Government's drive to re-open construction, putting construction workers and the wider community in danger and prolonging the lockdown as a consequence. Third is this legislation, which represents an attempted mass giveaway of public land. The Land Development Agency is nothing other than the mass privatisation of our public lands through the backdoor. It completely wrecks the very limited local democracy that we have. Currently one of the very few powers that elected councillors have is that they can veto the sell-off of public land. Now that is to be scrapped and instead the power to sell off lands will be handed to an unelected and ultimately unaccountable bureaucracy. It is a recipe for dodgy dealings outside of the public eye, not subject to the regular Freedom of Information scrutiny. I have no doubt that if the Government manages to push this Bill through, the LDA will be at the heart of major national scandals in the future, just like NAMA was.
All of this is in order to provide cover for what will amount to massive handouts to big private property developers whose interest this Government politically represents. This privatisation agenda should be rejected. Public land should not be handed over to developers, it should be used to build public and genuinely affordable housing for all.
Looking at how the LDA will work, under the proposed legislation, it can do a survey of public lands and pick and choose the most potentially profitable lands it wants. At that point, its task is to develop this land however it sees fit, including handing it over to private for-profit developers. In fact, it is instructed to avoid what the legislation refers to as "undue segregation on the basis of social background". Anyone who has been around long enough to hear and know Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael's anti-social housing mantra knows that that is a code phrase for privatisation of public land by pushing anti-social housing. It is telling that in the mandate there is no mention whatever of social housing. The Government is moving away entirely from the building of social housing, council housing, towards public private partnerships. The plan is for lucrative contracts to be given out to private developers. We will see more O'Devaney Gardens-type plans with private for-profit houses built on public land but these are likely to be even worse, with the LDA not subject to the same public pressure as councillors.
The community of Moyross in Limerick recently saw first hand exactly what the LDA is like. It seems it intervened recently to try to overturn long existing plans for the area which had been demanded by the community but the LDA felt it knew better. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said he wanted to bring it in "for the best interest of the Moyross area" and did not seem to care what the actual residents thought. The result was outrage among the community with the Moyross Residents Forum decrying this as a coup and the local priest writing a stinging letter accusing the LDA and the Minister of a massive betrayal. After the uproar it seems the Government has retreated somewhat but there is still talk of part of the land to be given over to a private hospital as part of the development of the area. Working class communities do not need another white knight with some plan developed over the heads of the residents or some privatisation scheme; they need democratic, community control and public investment to build public homes on public land.
I welcome the Land Development Agency Bill and thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien for his work on it and the former Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, for all he did previously. We can all agree that housing is one of the most pressing emergencies facing the country. This Bill offers real opportunity to deliver the affordable homes that we so desperately need. This year we will see the largest investment in housing in the history of the State. This is a huge opportunity to make a real difference to people of my generation.
The investment from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, of up to €1.25 billion coupled with the potential to borrow another €1.25 billion, is very significant. It gives a potential €2.5 billion of spending. That’s not just a great statement of intent but a real show of real financial backing. The LDA is the Government putting its money where its mouth is. The fact that it is being given such wide-reaching compulsory purchase order, CPO, powers means this will be a body with teeth.
Yesterday the Minister confirmed his intention for the LDA to use its CPO powers to purchase primarily private lands, for site assembly purposes, through agreement with private landowners. This is something which should be welcomed by parties of the left, because it takes power from developers, uses land that has effectively been frozen by stagnation and delivers homes for people who need them. However, cynically, there has been no welcome. I welcome the Government’s commitment to delivering sites as soon as possible and getting people into affordable homes as quickly as possible.
As we are all aware, one of the biggest issues facing the housing market has been the chronic lack of affordable housing. This was the number one issue in my constituency during the last election and is the number one issue for people my age. In fact, the housing market and affordability issues have created a situation where the average age of first-time buyers is now 35 years, a whole decade older than in the 1980s.
I know first-hand from my own friends and constituents in Dublin Mid-West that the lack of housing is a serious worry and creating serious anxiety, particularly in the areas like Lucan and Clondalkin. Everyone deserves a place that they can call home and, crucially, a home that they can afford. The biggest roadblock to progress is often ideology but for the 4,000 people on the South Dublin County Council housing list and those caught in the rip-off rental trap, ideology is irrelevant, what they want is a home to call their own. The Land Development Agency Bill has the potential to deliver that. It will allow us to transform idle State-owned land sustainably into thriving communities and provide affordable homes through affordable purchase and cost rental schemes.
Last year the Simon Community recommended that Government intervention was needed to tackle the shortage of homes, stabilise the housing market and keep families in their homes to stop the flow into homelessness. I believe that this Bill will help us address each of these problems. We must make the most of State-owned land that is currently unused or under-used. This Bill does that. It sets out to make sure that State-owned land which is determined as appropriate for housing development does not lie idle in the middle of a housing crisis.
I also welcome the commitment to building sustainable communities for future generations by adhering to best environmental practice. In the context of the global climate change crisis it is so important that the Government puts an environmental focus on new developments and an eco-slant on all our policies. Our housing crisis requires resourceful and creative solutions and I think this Bill will deliver on both.
I will address some of the points made by the Opposition today and yesterday. First, it is important to note that the LDA will deliver a minimum of 50% affordable housing on public land in addition to 10% social housing. Second, I am pleased that the LDA’s commercial activities will be subject to the Freedom of Information Acts and the plan is also to incorporate it under the lobbying register to ensure full transparency. Listening to the last speaker, one would be forgiven for thinking that was not the case. Third, while it is correct that there is no one size fits all definition of affordability, either in the Bill or in reality, it is critical to understand that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will set the definition of affordability by local authority area, on a case-by-case basis.
While it is important that we future proof this Bill we also need to be realistic about whether it will be moved off balance sheet. It is vital that sites are bought at a discounted price. That is the way we will ensure they are developed at a truly affordable rate.
I welcome the Minister's commitment to ensuring that the Land Development Agency, LDA, will pay the affordable land value, not the full market value. I would like to see us further explore how to achieve the best possible price. The LDA will have first refusal on all State land. That is critical to ensuring that public land remains public land. I appreciate that the market value must be in keeping with EU state aid requirements but it is vital that the LDA is able to purchase sites at a rate that is truly affordable to the agency, the taxpayer and, ultimately, the homeowner.
The Land Development Agency should be set up to ensure that it is able to purchase State land at the most affordable rate possible. Doing that would mean giving people my age and those caught in the rip-off rental trap a realistic prospect of owning their own home.
I am deeply concerned about certain aspects of the Minister's proposed LDA. We are told that it will help tackle the housing crisis but at what cost and who stands to benefit? Similar arguments were once made about the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA. The LDA has disconcerting shades of NAMA, which is a State-sponsored body with a commercial remit offering great benefits to industry participants but large costs for those with housing needs. That sounds like NAMA. There is low transparency as key aspects are not subject to freedom of information, FOI, or the Regulation of Lobbying Act as it shrouds its actions behind a supposed need to get the best deal for the taxpayer. Again, that sounds like NAMA. It is inflationary in terms of house prices due to the requirement for the LDA to buy land from public bodies at full market value even if it has a lower existing use value. If we swap the words "public bodies" for "private developers", that sounds like NAMA. The likelihood of conflict of interests arising because the absence of a cooling-off period will allow a revolving door permitting LDA employees to gain valuable insider knowledge which can be leveraged if they move to industry. Again, that sounds like NAMA.
If people are beginning to develop a sense of déjà vu, we can hardly blame them. It is often said that past performance is not always a perfect guide to future performance, but it seems clear to me that this is likely to be a case of history repeating itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce. I am also deeply concerned about the removal of powers from local councillors once again. We know that local councillors play a crucial part in and understand areas and their needs. Why take those powers from them?
Average homes in Galway city today cost €317,000, an 8.6% year-on-year increase, making Galway the second most expensive county in the country. People are crying out for affordable homes across Galway city. For many, the concept of owning their own home is merely a dream, but there is a good way and a bad way of doing that. Sinn Féin has outlined a clear policy on how to deliver those homes without lumping massive amounts of public money into another State agency that is unaccountable.
The LDA is developing the 4.5 acre Dyke Road site in Galway which will be transformed into mixed use development with a strong residential element. Housing is needed, and welcome, in Galway. We have been told that this housing will be largely affordable in nature, but if we look at what the LDA defines as affordable, it is housing below the prevailing market price. I hardly need point out to the Minister that the current average of €317,000, which is unaffordable for most people, would technically be below market value next year if the current inflationary trend continues, and it is set to continue, especially given the shared equity scheme. It seems that when it comes to house prices for developers and banks, the boom times are getting "boomier". That is quite an achievement on the part of this Government.
I am sharing time with Deputies Canney and Tóibín.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the Chamber to bring the Land Development Agency Bill before us. We can all argue on the finer points but in general terms the direction of travel with this Bill is reasonable because it will most likely involve an acceleration of the roll-out of housing across the country. Everybody in this Chamber agrees that we need houses for the next generation. There are massive housing pressures and this Bill is at least part of the solution.
In his column in The Irish Timesat the weekend, David McWilliams put it best when he said that housing is such an important issue, it was the issue in the last five general elections and it is likely to be the issue - the dominant factor - in the next general election. There is a reason for that. For all the disruption they cause, pandemics come and go, but this housing crisis will persist unless we do something about it. The Bill before us today is an attempt and has a strong possibility of at least addressing some of the core issues, because if a person has no home, he or she has no hope. It is a precondition to progress, both professionally and personally.
I have points to make on the legislation. The first relates to putting the Land Development Agency on a statutory footing. Whatever people's views are on the operations of the Land Development Agency most reasonable people would agree it is a good idea for the State to have a land development agency. It is a good idea to have a register that is established and maintained by an agency that has a strategic and long-term view of the way we use our public land because, let us face it, our people are our most important resource but our land comes second. It is very important that we maximise that utility and leverage that asset for what it is. I very much welcome that the Land Development Agency will be put on a statutory footing. I appreciate it already exists but this gives it a much stronger basis because it is included in primary legislation. To be honest, I am surprised it has not happened yet. Having land registry is very important because it provides proper information and visibility for decision-makers in respect of the existing land banks. If there is poor information, one will make poor decisions regardless of how good a decision-maker one is.
The second point relates to transparency and accountability. As this will be a powerful agency it is important that the appropriate safeguards, checks and balances are in place. As a general rule this legislation has got it right in that it achieves that balance. First, the agency is under media scrutiny. It is subject to FOI, which is welcome. It is subject to very intrusive audits by the Comptroller and Auditor General. From a parliamentary supervision point of view it is subject to reporting to the Committee of Public Accounts and any committee in the Oireachtas. Through Leaders' Questions and other forums it is subject to scrutiny from the entire Dáil in plenary session, if necessary. From an accountability and transparency point of view, therefore, the structures in place are good safeguards.
This may be a minor point but I was on the website last night researching this contribution and the sites the Land Development Agency is currently working on are clearly laid out. There is nothing to hide in that regard. There is ample transparency. The checks, balances and safeguards in this legislation are a positive feature.
The third point relates to the funding stream. It is also welcome that €1.25 billion from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is being used to develop housing. We know that housing is holding back our economy, our society and our people. I cannot think of a better investment from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund than housing so I welcome the fact that €1.25 billion is being ring-fenced for that. It is also welcome that the Land Development Agency will have the option basically to erase debt, with the approval of the Minister.
It may be deliberate but there is no mention of the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg. The Minister of State might comment on that in his closing remarks or subsequently in correspondence from his office. Is it envisaged that the Land Development Agency could tap into the extra funding resources from the European Investment Bank to expedite and accelerate the building of homes in this country?
I would also welcome that if it could be done.
As a general rule, I am against compulsory purchase orders but I recognise their utility in very limited circumstances, particularly in urban settings. Most people in the Chamber are aware there is land hoarding, with prime sites that could be used for housing in potentially lucrative or select sites across cities in the country being hoarded. Compulsory purchase orders are at least an option for the Land Development Agency to use if it is deemed necessary. I am reassured to see that at least this is not regarded as a first option, which will always be voluntary agreement. Compulsory purchase orders will be used only as a last resort. I am also reassured to see the Land Development Agency will require a court order before a compulsory purchase order can be enacted. The balance is right in that respect.
The next point I raise is very important and it concerns the collaborative structures. The Land Development Agency will set up collaborative structures with local authorities, Government agencies and Departments, which is really important. The local authorities have been very successful across the country, particularly in my constituency in Kildare, as well as in Laois and Offaly in rolling out social housing in the past couple of years. I would like to see local authorities remaining in the driving seat. Any support from the Land Development Agency should not amount to an executive function. The local authorities should be maintained in the driving seat if at all possible.
These are the five points I wanted to make about the legislation but I have some other points on the Land Development Agency itself. The first may be close to the heart of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, as it relates to two sites currently being developed by the Land Development Agency. One is in Naas and one is in Mullingar, and both those sites are former military barracks. I have a bit of a history lesson. In 1998, the military was basically evicted from Devoy Barracks in Naas. It was thrown out with six weeks of notice. Hundreds of troops were accommodated at the barracks, as well as the Army apprentice school. The Army is still reeling from the loss of that school and all the accommodation lost in Naas. Similarly, in 2012, when Columb Barracks was closed, again with very short notice, all the troops moved to Athlone. Many military personnel and their families lost accommodation in the barracks.
My preference is that both of those sites be used for military purposes but I recognise the reality that they are currently slated for accommodation and social housing. In light of the specific history associated with the sites and with military housing and accommodation being such an emotive concern, what are the Minister's thoughts about giving the housing units on the sites to military families on the social housing list on a preferential basis? It would go some way to assuaging the anger still being felt in the military community because of how they were treated over 20 years with regard to the Devoy Barracks and Columb Barracks.
My final concern relates to military accommodation and housing in general all across the country and particularly in the Curragh Camp in my constituency. The Curragh is a lovely place full of lovely people but it is the most derelict town in the country. It is a town and there are two primary schools and a secondary school there but the camp is falling down. It really needs proper investment. I would be grateful for the Minister of State's thoughts on how he sees the Land Development Agency entering into a service level agreement or a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defence so the agency could provide additional funding through the Department or on its own to provide military housing for military families within the military perimeter of installations. Baldonnel airbase and the Curragh Camp are cases in point.
It is really important to provide military housing and this practice is repeated across the European Union. If soldiers and their families are accommodated on base and an emergency kicks off, troops would be on location and would not have to get into their car to drive 100 km before they can get to their colleagues. These are all the points I wanted to raise and I thank the Minister of State for his time. If we get some clarification on how the military housing matter could play out, we can take it from there.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Land Development Agency Bill. I have concerns about it, none more than my belief that the agency will become a provider of houses in the cities and suburban areas but it will not do much for constituencies like Galway East. I also have reservations about taking power from councillors, which is anti-democratic, so we must consider its impact.
When I speak about my constituency and housing, my first argument is that the private housing market is dysfunctional because developers cannot build houses at a price where they are affordable for the people who need to buy them. Most people who tried to build houses in my constituency are looking for the local authorities to buy the entire scheme, as it is the only way they can get it sold on. The underlying reasons must be examined.
In Athenry we have a significant number of housing estates without proper sewerage systems. In 2019, a former Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, opened an extension to the waste water treatment plant. The idea was that a piped network would be put in place immediately so that all the town could be serviced. I was told during the week by Irish Water that this will not happen until 2024, which would be five years later. There are sewage treatment plants in estates, which were built on a temporary basis and that were to last for five years. They have been there for 12 years and will be there for 17 years. It is an environmental time bomb that will go off.
I also raise the difficulties being experienced in Craughwell, Corofin and Abbeyknockmoy, which applied to the Department for funding under the developer-provided infrastructure scheme. The applications were refused on the basis of a further review being required. In Athenry funding was provided to connect two housing estates to a sewerage scheme but after it was discovered the pipework does not exist, the money must go back to the Department.
In any town or village in my constituency it is not possible to get planning permission for a scheme with a private waste water treatment plant. It is impossible to get planning permission within these villages or towns for houses with septic tanks. Such applications have been refused by Galway County Council and An Bord Pleanála. There is also a move to disallow people from building in rural areas, meaning the only place people can build in Galway now is in the city, Oranmore and a few other places that have the benefit of a municipal treatment plant. This is what is causing problems so it is time for us to examine such matters. People are coming to me from an estate in Athenry to tell me the sewerage systems are not working and the tanks are full. The houses are adjacent to the Clarin river so when we see fish lying on their backs dead, we will have a big environmental concern. The same could happen with the River Clare outside Corofin. We will then be wondering what happened.
I know Irish Water is concentrating efforts on the main centres and the Land Development Agency will do the same. We must have a reality check and look at the cost of building a house, including from where we see additional costs. There are planning and development fees and levies. There are utility connection charges, which are extraordinary. There are building and environmental regulations, among others, and these are good in that they mean good quality properties are built. They are nonetheless adding huge cost to the construction. There are heating and airtightness guidelines and then there is the large tax take by the Government from the construction sector.
The Land Development Agency may do something in some parts of the country but it will not solve the problem. This debate should be a wake-up call and we must consider how to get the private housing market back on its feet. I am not trying to pander to developers. Although people complain about them, developers are currently not building private houses because there is nobody to buy them.
We cannot rely on the State to provide them all. I am asking for this to be looked at in a proper, coherent fashion, so that we can start to deliver housing in a proper way.
I want to raise a specific issue. It relates to something the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage said in recent days. His statement in respect of homeless deaths in this State was tone-deaf. It was an incredible statement for the Minister to make from a political perspective. It was also an incredibly cold reaction to the sad fact that 79 people died in homelessness, in Dublin alone, in 2020. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong, but it appeared that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, tried to undermine the seriousness of this shocking figure by suggesting that some of these people may have died in traffic accidents while they were homeless, and as a result, were included in these figures. It seems that the Minister was doing something that his predecessor sought to do by trying to change the statistics, rather than rectifying the situation affecting people on the ground.
The fact that the report the Minister sought only came after we, in Aontú, raised this issue in Leinster House is also shocking. It is also shocking that the Minister in charge was not blown out of the water when looking at those figures and the increase in the figures over the last while. There was no human reaction on the part of the Minister when he noticed that the figures for 2020 had skyrocketed by July. By July 2020, the number of people who had died in homelessness was already higher than in the previous two years. That this did not motivate the Minister to decide to hold an investigation into what was happening is also amazing.
I became extremely concerned about the high numbers of deaths among homeless people back in July. I requested a breakdown from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. The breakdown showed that the peak of the death rate coincided, believe it or not, with the Dáil voting on whether or not to give Ministers of State a pay rise. I think the Minister of State will accept that there is something deeply tragic about the fact that 79 homeless people died in Dublin in 2020, and the peak occurred while the political establishment in here was lining its own pockets.
The deaths of these people were not caused by traffic accidents. If the Minister responsible is in denial mode, it is very hard to see how we can really get to the kernel of the problem. I will provide examples of some of the people who died. A young woman in her 30s appeared to have tragically taken her own life. Another woman, aged just 19, died in emergency accommodation managed by a private operator. A young man in his 20s was found dead while sleeping rough, having been released from prison the day before. A man in his 30s also appeared to have tragically taken his own life. These are no road traffic accidents. These are homeless deaths. Those who died are real people, not statistics to be moved around on a sheet in the hope that it will reflect better on this Government.
I repeatedly raised the practice of the local authority in Dublin of refusing assistance to people who are not natives of Dublin, while at the same time, NPHET was advising these people not to leave Dublin because of Covid-19. The Minister pleaded ignorance on this issue right up until "RTE Investigates" exposed the situation. The Minister of State can argue about the figures for 2020 and what happened to those people, but the sad fact of the matter is that the 2020 figures are radically higher than those for 2018 and 2019.
I want to raise my voice in concern at the Government practice of selling off or giving away public land to private developers on which to build houses. Why is it happening? Why can the State not build houses on those blocks of land, or at least commission the housing agencies to operate in this sector? It is not because of a lack of skilled workers. It is the same pool of skilled workers that is used to build private and public housing. Is it because of funding? The truth of the matter is that this Government has not exhausted the European Investment Bank funding for social housing. Housing is the ideal investment for the European Investment Bank because it pays back over the years.
When I submitted a series of questions to my local authority, I found that during the summer 130 council-owned properties in Meath were vacant. At the same time, 1,168 people had applied for homes, but only 440 of them got homes. How can 700 people on a local authority housing list be turned away at a time when there are 130 vacant homes in that area?
I thank the Minister of State for bringing this Bill to the House. The Bill has gravely concerned me over the past year, considering its potential negative outcomes for society. However, I also welcome its potential to assist in the mitigation of our housing crisis. The two points on which I wish to speak are public housing and public land, and the removal of councillors' voting rights.
I must begin by stating that we are in a housing crisis. Therefore, it is without doubt that the primary remit of the LDA should be to provide public housing on public land. It is on the record of the Dáil that I have previously contested that the State must not be complicit in profit-driven housing models. Its objective must be to lower rental costs and make homes affordable to those who are currently locked out of the property market, paying exorbitant rents or living at home.
Coupled with this legislation is the Affordable Housing Bill 2020, which provides the mechanisms to pursue the creation of sustainable communities through cost-rental, social and affordable purchase homes on public land. Earlier this week, I asked a question at the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I asked how many cost-rental homes we should be building every year to lower rents. The Housing Agency replied that the number should be in the order of 2,000 annually, and both NESC and the ESRI said that multiples of this number would be required. This is the solution put to us by our national experts in relation to lowering rent costs. I wholeheartedly agree with them.
At a recent briefing, the LDA projected that it will build in the region of 2,000 units a year over the next six years. That being the case, I urge the Minister of State and the Department to heed the direction of our national experts to deliver 100% LDA public housing through cost-rental, social and affordable homes. This will show the country that we are serious about providing affordable homes in this crisis.
I am also concerned, to say the least, about the bypassing of local elected representatives through the removal of section 183 when it comes to LDA development. We lost our town councils in 2014, and now another strike is being made against local democracy. I will find this action very hard to vote for. As a councillor, I can recall how much power is concentrated in central government. The Green Party has always advocated that this power should be distributed to give local government autonomy through its local representatives, who are best placed to communicate local knowledge and the complexities of their communities. I will pursue this issue because it is most concerning to me.
I would like to believe that the LDA, local authorities and councillors can negotiate on this issue and come to agreement to build public housing on public land. I would also like to note that the LDA is currently operational in the Central Mental Hospital site in Dundrum, where there is growing frustration about its approach to community groups. It is felt that the LDA is treating the public consultation phase as a box-ticking exercise, and groups would appreciate more meaningful engagement and collaboration.
To recap, the Green Party welcomes this Bill to tackle our housing crisis. The Minister's proposal of 100% public housing on public land in Dublin, however, calls for the retention of local democracy and councillors' voting rights.
It is an ambition of many people in my area to own their own homes. It is a reasonable and decent ambition. However, it is increasingly difficult for those on ordinary incomes - engineers, teachers, nurses or those who occupy similar roles - to realise that ambition. Not only is it difficult to get a deposit together when renting, but the prices are moving further and further out of reach.
People want to live and work locally in their own communities. They do not want to have to move some distance away to be able to afford a home.
I am glad that a Fianna Fáil Minister is taking steps to deal with this issue and give people a chance to own their own home. The Bill takes a three-pronged approach to housing provision, encompassing cost-rental accommodation, where people can rent at more affordable rates, affordable housing, where people can own their house outright, and shared equity, where the State takes an interest in the house. While it is the smallest portion of the overall plan, I want to highlight the shared equity aspect because it is giving people throughout the country a chance to buy their own home. It is important that people should be able to use the scheme to build their own home or, if necessary, to buy an existing house. As I said, the Bill is also focused on the provision of cost-rental accommodation and affordable houses.
Initially, these provisions will be directed towards the larger populations, where there is the greatest demand. However, I hope that will not be done at the expense of people in the rest of the population being excluded. As I said, people want to be able to live and work locally in their own community and not have to move long distances for an affordable home. It is hugely important that the schemes extend beyond those larger settlements as quickly as possible in order that the widest range of people across the country can access them.
Welcome features of the Bill include the proposals for enhanced Oireachtas committee accountability and the freedom of information aspects. Those are very welcome arrangements in respect of the LDA. The affordability provisions are also welcome, as is making sure that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. There needs to be flexibility in that regard because affordability in Dublin, for example, is very different from affordability in County Cork or any other part of the country. I also welcome the Part V social housing requirements that will apply to the schemes. While much of the focus is on the first-time buyer, it is welcome that the Minister is looking beyond that and that a limited number of other groups, such as separated or divorced people, will also be able to access the schemes. That is very positive.
Teastaíonn ó dhaoine le bheith ábalta tithíocht a fháil ina gceantar féin, i measc a bpobal agus teacht uirthi ar phraghas réasúnta. Is dúshlán mór é do dhaoine nach féidir leo an deposit a chur le chéile agus toisc go bhfuil sé fíordheacair de bharr na praghsanna ag ardú. Is maith an rud é go bhfuil an Rialtas agus Aire de Fhianna Fáil ag dul i ngleic leis seo agus ag leagan amach plean chuige sin. Fáiltím roimh sin.
I have huge problems with this Bill and it should be rejected. If media commentary is to be believed, many Fianna Fáil Members also have concerns about it. I urge them, too, to reject it. The provisions regarding the LDA and the designated activity companies, as outlined in the Bill, are a bad idea. The professed objective of the LDA is to drive strategic land assets and use public lands to build affordable homes. My fear is that the enactment of this Bill will have the opposite effect when it comes to constructing affordable homes. The aim may have been to address the delivery gap regarding the provision of affordable homes but the outcome will be the privatisation and giveaway of desperately needed public land. That land has never been needed more than it is now to address the housing crisis we are facing.
Some of the proposals in the Bill are quite extraordinary and will serve to undermine local democracy. Fianna Fáil and the developers really cannot help themselves. It is outrageous that the powers of councillors can be bypassed when it comes to the sale of local authority sites to the LDA. At a time when the pending election of a directly elected mayor in Limerick is trumpeted as something that will close the democratic deficit, we are creating a deficit by enacting this Bill. Powers are to be stripped from the people who know the particulars of local areas. That is wrong. Instead, local authorities should be properly funded in order that they can build quality affordable houses. Councillors are voted in by the people and many of us in this House have served time on local authorities. I ask colleagues to imagine elected councillors being told that they have no say when they suspect that public lands that are being sold will not be used to best serve the public interest.
The LDA is not equipped to deal with regional housing systems. Public land should not be used for the construction of market-price homes. The agency will pay market prices for the land purchased, which will drive up the prices of homes. That is obvious. The definition of "affordable" contained in the Bill is meaningless. A price that is a euro less than the median house price will be considered affordable. It is just not realistic. For somebody on a lower income, the stars will really have to align for them to be able to avail of one of these not so affordable homes. None of this is great news for those seeking housing but it is a wonderful opportunity for developers and equity investors to make major profits off public land.
I am sure colleagues will recall the recent campaign by residents in Moyross to ensure a critical regeneration project, the Coonagh-Knockalisheen distributor road, will be built in full. As part of that campaign, residents met virtually with the Minister for Transport on 22 January. During what has been described to me as a disastrous meeting, the Minister discussed conversations he had with the LDA regarding what was best for Moyross. This was a new and concerning development as it was not something previously mentioned to the community or any local representatives. The Build Our Road campaign has said that the LDA has since confirmed that it did not consider plans regarding the community in Moyross. I am curious to know what discussions were held between the Minister for Transport and the LDA in regard to the Coonagh-Knockalisheen project and I have submitted a freedom of information request in that regard.
If we want to fix the housing crisis, we need to build local authority homes like the one in which I grew up. If we want to provide homes that are genuinely affordable, this Bill should be rejected. If we want to maintain democracy at local level, the Bill should be rejected. This is too important and radical a change to be passed without scrutiny. The fact that the Minister did not send the revised Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny leaves us wondering whether he wants to get it right or just get it done.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak in this debate. When the Bill was first introduced, I thought it might be a good idea. However, having looked at the proposals in it, I think it will be a disaster. As previous speakers said, it will suit the developers. A huge hoarding of land has gone on since the last housing crisis and economic bust and that is all there.
I want to speak about Tipperary. We have lost everything in Tipperary. We have lost all our town councils, including the members who served there, some of them on a voluntary basis. All they got was their costs. Those councils were a huge asset to all the towns that had them. We in south Tipperary were amalgamated with north Tipperary. In fact, it was a takeover, as I call it, not an amalgamation, and south Tipperary was left devastated and plundered. We kept Cromwell out of Clonmel but we could not keep the people from north Tipperary from coming down and taking away our roads, services, planning and everything else. They took the whole lot to Nenagh. I have nothing at all against the people or town of Nenagh but what happened was totally unfair. Where the borough council previously had a budget of €15.1 million for the town of Clonmel - one of the finest boroughs in the country - we now have a pittance of maybe a couple of hundred thousand euro, if we are lucky. We are left fighting for the crumbs to maintain the town's infrastructure. It is nothing.
Getting back to land, Tipperary County Council has land that is abandoned in every town and village in the county. People were prosecuted in the past for having land with buachaláin or thistles on it, and so they should have been. Even the motorways are destroyed, with the land adjacent to them and the slopes alongside them being left to go quite wild. The council has land everywhere in Tipperary, in every town, including Carrick-on-Suir, Kilsheelan, Clonmel and Ardfinnan. Tipperary town has nearly a good-sized farm with the land that is there. All of that land could be built on by local authorities. We do not want another agency, because agencies become quangos. We know some of the famous names who did not know whether they wanted to go for mayor of Limerick or to be head of the LDA or whatever else. We do not need another agency to take away more powers from the elected councillors. We also have the 2040 plan, which is devastating rural land, and the many other new agencies that were put in to deal with people when they are trying to draw up their county development plans. We have agency after agency and most of them are useless, toothless and fruitless because they do not do what they were set up to do and instead become self-serving.
We must let the county councils build the houses, as they did in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when they had no equipment and no big machinery. I do not know what is wrong now that we have to get so many reports up to Departments, where they stay for six months before going back to the county council and then back to the Department again. It is a merry-go-round of pushing paper and nothing being built when we have a steep housing crisis. We do not need a land agency and I will not be supporting this Bill. I do not know what my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group intend to do but I certainly will not be supporting it. It is enabling another quango.
Mention was made of CPO provisions. A CPO is certainly necessary and useful for some road developments and other very necessary projects. However, as I said, we do not want to give too much power to this quango and take away more powers from the county councils. The elected members of those councils are the eyes and ears of the public.
I wish the new Ministers well but I am not supporting the development of this agency. We need to empower the councils again and give them funding. We need to give more funding to the better ones that spend the money because some are very lethargic in spending it. We need to build council houses. There are waiting lists everywhere.
Another issue is that a Part V project can be abused. One was abused in Nenagh, where 60, 70 or 80 acres were available. A number of houses have been built on the one little green area in a housing estate and the matter is now in the courts. It should not be happening. People in estates want to keep their green areas. One would not mind if there was no more land available but there are 70 acres available on the outskirts of the town serviced by roads and everything else.
We need a means to empower local authorities to build infrastructure and have sewerage capacity in all villages and towns. One can talk about zoned land and everything else but if there is no sewerage system, one cannot build teach amháin. One cannot build any house. Eighty percent of the villages in my county are without proper sewerage and storm water infrastructure. This must be addressed. Some of the schemes were developer led and they worked out fine, and some did not because the planners did not enforce the planning conditions. There is a lot of blame that can be cast on many people but I do not believe the panacea and cure are a land development agency with a CEO and a plethora of trappings. The first thing it would have would be a big office with a plaque on the wall. There would be quite expensive furniture. The Government should stick with and support the people who want to build the houses. If people want to build houses themselves in the country, they should be allowed to do so.
Tá áthas orm deis a fháil labhairt ar an mBille seo agus ar na fadhbanna a bhaineann leis a chur in iúl. Whether this Bill turns out to be significant in the good or bad sense is one thing but it is clear that the powers it will confer on the LDA are enormous: the regulation of relevant public land to develop and regenerate the delivery of housing and to develop and manage housing on that and other land; to enable the agency to provide services to local authorities in order to assist in the performance of their functions relating to housing; to provide for the acquisition by the agency of relevant public land, including by means of granting it first refusal on a proposed sale; and to provide for the compulsory purchase of the land by the agency. Each of these provisions on its own could easily absorb an entire day's debate in this Chamber. The constitutional issues with respect to the compulsory purchase order, CPO, alone will raise significant concerns, especially in rural Ireland. I raised these concerns last April when the previous Government's proposal on CPOs for agricultural land became clear. I said at that time that if it were implemented, it would certainly undermine and endanger any efforts to maintain financial viability through farm expansion, and I also called it a land grab. These concerns were amplified by reports that the CPO proposal would seek to implement key recommendation from the Kenny report of 1973, which states, "It should be possible for local authorities or government agencies to 'CPO' farmland for house building, by paying the landowner agricultural value plus a 25% 'top-up'." However, it is disingenuous to make the claim that farmland is property like any other and that it must be subjected to the restriction of constitutional property rights that are currently allowed in law. This is to ignore totally the plain reality that farms and farmland are, in the vast majority of cases, also homes, which enjoy additional constitutional protections. The Minister may recall the suggestion in this regard by the Master of the High Court, Mr. Justice Edmund Honohan, in 2016. He recommended that the State use of CPOs to buy back residential properties that were sold to vulture funds. At the time, Mr. Justice Honohan pointed out that legislation could be introduced so the properties could be purchased for the same price for which they were sold. I do not recall any legislative rush to limit the rights of vulture funds equivalent to that which now pertains to farmland. The rights — indeed, the birth rights — that farmers enjoy to maintain control of their land must not become collateral damage in the race towards this Government's creation of a new land agency.
I will not be supporting the Bill because I have serious concerns. Local authorities should be given many more powers and funds because they are doing great work.
There is also the issue of one-off rural housing. What powers will the LDA have with respect to this matter? Rural housing is a major issue. The Government and its predecessor talked about depopulation in rural communities. Is it any wonder that there is depopulation when people cannot build houses on their own land? This must be addressed by the Government. Rural Ireland is suffering ongoing discrimination and it is being impacted negatively. People should have the absolute right to build a house on their own land and remain within their own community and parish. I hope the Government will have the goodwill to try to resolve this ongoing matter, which is causing great distress among rural families.
As far back as June 2019, I was calling on the then Minister responsible for housing, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to provide an immediate timeline for the publication of the new rural planning guidelines. We are aware that a working group was established to review and, where necessary, recommend changes to the 2005 planning guidelines on sustainable rural housing. I hope these guidelines will be published and that they will be fair to rural families who are being discriminated against in terms of one-off housing.
Like the previous two speakers, I will not be supporting this Bill to set up a land development agency. It is democracy kicking democracy in the teeth. The past two Governments have been doing this. The current Government is continuing to take basic rights away from local councillors. Rights were taken from the town councillors. Former Minister Phil Hogan stood over their demise. It has turned out to be a disaster. Even though it was meant to be turned around under different programmes for Government, this never happened.
The general focus is on Dublin but the Government needs to focus again on housing. We have a housing crisis. My constituency, Cork South-West, has simply been abandoned in respect of social housing. Places such as Bandon, Kinsale, Skibbereen and Bantry are affected. People ring me in my office every day of the week pleading with me to address this. Many of them are very genuine and would love not to be looking for social housing; they would love to be able to consider a serviced site, perhaps. Such sites have proven to be successful in certain areas.
The agency is going to be set up no matter what happens and the Government will railroad it through. Is it going to focus on serviced sites? I saw them in places such as Schull, where many young families set up. It is good for the communities and schools in the locality. Unfortunately, an awful lot of people need the banks and certain Government agencies to work with them. They may not need a social house. An affordable site would be a great start for some if the banks worked with them. They would build their own houses.
A major issue arises regarding planning permission. Down my way, young people looking for planning permission face massive hurdles. They are trying to get a start in life but hurdles are put in front of them. These hurdles are very unfair, such as the one requiring residency in a place for seven years. I am not referring to environmental considerations, which are important, but to nonsensical rubbish put in front of people just to block them.
When an authority does grant permission, it gets a massive contribution for the local roadway. Despite paying planning fees, residents come back to me and tell me their local road is in an appalling state with potholes and that not a brown cent has been spent on it. Funding has dried up for the local improvement scheme. My brother is a councillor in west Cork and he is absolutely worn out, as am I, from filling out local improvement scheme forms so a little funding might be made available so people can do up the roads to their homes and other buildings, including in Goleen, Skibbereen and Castletownbere. They are refused because the funding has dried up. The same applies to the community involvement scheme.
We must give more powers and funds to councils to take over ordinary housing estates. This has been done successfully in many places in west Cork but now funds have dried up. The people of College Grove estate in Clonakilty contacted me recently.
They have been trying hard for so long to get their estate taken over by the council but they have been refused. The excuse is always given that there is no money in the pot. That is the unfortunate situation in Clonakilty There are also issues with Irish Water and major development issues in west Cork. People want areas like Kealkill, Goleen, Ballinspittle and Ballydehob to expand but sewerage systems have to be developed.
I will refer to one fabulous development in Enniskean that would be a game-changer for people of the Ballineen-Enniskean area and which has the support of GP Wood, the Carbery Group, the Ballineen-Enniskean Association and St. Mary's GAA Club. These organisations want to grow and develop their community. The Carbery Group and GP Wood give employment to hundreds of people but their workers cannot get a house or build in the locality. There is a fabulous development ready to go but it cannot start because there is an issue with the sewerage system. It is the same in Ballinspittle, Goleen, Ballydehob and anywhere one speaks about. Another 14 houses that were meant to be built in Kealkill cannot go ahead because of a sewerage issue. It is time to wake up. We have outdated systems and the Government wants to take power from local councils, which will make things worse. The county development plans need to be reviewed. In County Cork, in certain areas where 20 or 30 houses are allowed, people have been unable to get planning for the past five or ten years.
Setting up another agency is wrong. I do not agree with it and I will vote against it. The powers need to be with the local politicians, the councillors who were elected on the ground, and I will continue to support them.
I have been a building contractor all my life. When the Land Development Agency, LDA, was launched in 2018, it was to have two functions, namely, to manage State lands strategically to ensure they were being put to the best use, and to deliver 150,000 homes over 20 years. Those are the functions the agency should have managed.
As I said, I have been in construction all my life. I have been a local councillor in the Adare-Rathkeale district. We also have the Kilmallock and Newcastle West districts in our rural area. If the LDA gets this through, it will destroy rural areas because the LDA will not look at areas that have poor infrastructure.
I spoke recently about a housing estate being built in Hospital, County Limerick. While 15 of the houses were able to connect to the local sewerage system, the other six had to connect to a private sewerage system. What we will see is that the LDA will look at areas that have sewerage infrastructure. The last agency that was set up was Irish Water and we can see what happened with that. It was an absolute disaster. When the council was looking after the water system, there were no issues. One might as well try to get through to the President as try to get through to Irish Water to get anything done. Water infrastructure was in big trouble. The LDA, if it takes over, will forget about rural areas. The 2040 plan being introduced will stop houses being built in rural areas. I was born, grew up and have raised my family in a rural area. I and my family, friends and relatives and anyone in the community should be allowed to build in our own area.
Is somebody talking in the background? I can hear feedback.
I can hear it up here.
If the LDA has the right structure, it will cover rural areas where there are currently poor water and sewerage services because they are at capacity. Oolagh has no capacity and people cannot build a house in the area. People in Askeaton have been waiting 30 years for a sewerage system. How many Governments have promised this in the past 30 years? Raw sewage is being pumped into the Shannon Estuary. This is what we are up against.
On the other hand, if this role is given to local authorities, it gets buried in paperwork and everything goes around in circles. The Bill is not right. It must cover all areas and show where the investment will be in rural areas, towns and villages to make them sustainable. We are entitled to infrastructure as much as people in cities are. Towns and villages could become self-sustainable if the proper infrastructure were put in but the LDA will not do that. It will only go where there is existing infrastructure and it will forget about other rural areas.
Everyone is entitled to their culture. Everyone is entitled to live within their culture. We have had that right for generations. People, whether they grow up in a farmhouse, cottage or any part of a rural area, village or town, should have the right to come home and the infrastructure should be put in place by the Government. Unless there are guarantees that this Bill will provide equally across the board for all areas, towns and villages, I cannot support it because the same will happen as happened with Irish Water. Infrastructure is being pushed into the cities. The Government wants water to run to Dublin. Why not pay Limerick for it? We have no problem with that but the Government will have invest in our infrastructure if it wants our water. It is the same with land development. If the Government wants this Bill to pass, why not invest in rural areas and bring all counties with it, regardless of whether they are in an urban or a rural area? That is what I am looking for and for that reason, I will not be able to support the Bill.
I thank the Minister of State for attending to discuss the Land Development Agency Bill. The Bill is a proactive attempt to tackle the housing crisis we face in this country. It is clear that we need to build more houses and that increasing the supply of houses in the market in an affordable manner is the optimal approach to dealing with the housing crisis. The Land Development Agency Bill represents an opportunity to undertake strategic land assembly and fully utilise State lands to build affordable homes and sustainable communities in line with the best environmental practices. In general, the proactive approach to dealing with the housing crisis is welcomed. However, we must ensure that this agency will be the most efficient use of public money, both in terms of utilising local authority networks currently in place and prevention of potential misuse of funding. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Yesterday, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, reported that greater increases in incentives for people to buy will most likely increase the price of housing due to the low level of supply in the country. It is imperative, therefore, that we pursue mechanisms to increase supply but not at any cost. We must learn the lessons of the past. Growing up in Ireland, I remember seeing ghost estates across the country, places with no amenities, transport infrastructure or green spaces. Often, housing developments were left incomplete. We must ensure we do not end up with ghost estates again. Strategic planning is required to ensure that any development will have the necessary public infrastructure in place. We want to provide people with homes and communities, not just houses with no life or purpose. We cannot allow circumstances to arise again where communities suffer from social deprivation, there is little opportunity to succeed or get on in life and people get stuck in a downward spiral. Mixed tenure housing, where there is a range of different cost types of housing available, is the best way to ensure we create an inclusive and tolerant community.
I welcome the change to the affordability clause. The Bill will provide that, where public lands in urban centres of over 10,000 persons are being developed for housing, there will be a requirement to use a portion of land to provide a minimum level of affordable housing. This affordability delivery requirement will also be taken into account when valuing land for sale to the LDA, thereby reducing the cost of the land and allowing for cheaper homes. The Bill reflects a base of 50% in terms of the affordability requirements, increasing from the 30% set by the previous Government and taking into account the programme for Government's commitment to affordable housing and the ability to vary up and down based on housing needs.
We need to take the issue of affordable housing seriously and I hope this legislation will be a proactive step in the right direction.
I thank Deputy O'Connor for being so generous with the time shared. I am not sure if Deputy O'Donoghue is still in the Chamber but I was taken by his remarks on water going from the Shannon region to the Dublin region. I am sure he will look for a similar level of gratitude for local property tax going from my home area to regions across the country. We have balance in this country and it is extremely important to acknowledge that.
It is extremely important to acknowledge the balance provided in this legislation, which I welcome and, of course, support. I am grateful to the Minister of State for bringing it to the House and for the opportunity to raise a few points.
The key issue that has faced all of us over the last number of years is the ability to deliver affordable public homes for people who need them, and to deliver them now. If we look at the history of development in this State, we can obviously learn lessons. We can see what can be achieved when it is driven. I fundamentally believe the ability to deliver those affordable new homes that are so badly needed across every part of our beautiful country is at the heart of this legislation.
What is really crucial in this legislation, when it revamps and looks again at the agency, is that we look at what it has done so far. We should look at the opportunities and learn from the processes in place. In the heart of my constituency in Dundrum, the former Central Mental Hospital site is being developed by the Land Development Agency to provide up to 1,300 much-needed homes for that community. That process is under way. It is definitely at the pre-consultation stage. It is really crucial with any proposal to develop an area of a townland, that real and proper engagement is started, and not just engagement for engagement's sake. I am grateful to the project leads in Dundrum for being so open with me and other elected representatives in the area, be they councillors, Deputies or Senators, when they are in the area. The community that is there already needs to be at the heart of it.
I simply do not go in for a NIMBYism. If we want homes, we have to build them somewhere. However, the best way to deliver homes - family homes, real homes - is, of course, with the buy-in of the local community. The processes available to the Land Development Agency need to be strengthened. I mention the ability for a community not just to feed into seminars or webinars, which they are doing at the moment, or to have their voices heard but what they say needs to replicated and responded to in the plans when they come out.
We have a crucial development in Dundrum to provide high-density, good quality affordable homes. It is much needed and, as I said, the issue came up at every door during the general election more than a year ago. We must make sure, however, that those homes are fit for purpose and that common sense is applied when it comes to open space but also when it comes to community facilities. One thing we need to learn from other developments from, perhaps, a couple of decades ago is that one cannot simply build homes first and then think about the community requirements afterwards, that is, school places, childcare, recreational places and at harnessing the power and potential of existing nearby communities, whether local football clubs, schools and much else, to drive that new development and cohesive community spirit.
I ask the Minister of State to bring back to his Department and the teams at the Land Development Agency the idea that they need to be truly reactive to residents. I am sure that if they are, these new developments provided for under this legislation will be wholly beneficial to society, not just to those people who are lucky enough to get homes of any nature in this area and, crucially, those who will be living beside those homes and who will benefit from those additional community facilities. With that, I am delighted to support this legislation.
I have many concerns with this proposed Land Development Agency legislation, primarily the pushing of a misguided housing policy pursued by this and previous Governments. It is a policy based on private markets and housing developers being given the responsibility of solving the State's housing crisis. This is a continuation of a flawed assumption that the interests of private developers driven by profit will ever align with the interests of working families who want and need an affordable home to live in with security and comfort, whether they are homeowners or renters. Indeed, for those currently paying excessive rents, those struggling to buy an affordable home and the thousands of homeless people, it is obvious that this and successive Government strategies are failing. Those they are failing most are those most in need. It is hard to imagine how during a housing crisis of this scale and a global pandemic, when we desperately need public, social and affordable housing, the Government will take the precious public land we own, which could be developed for a purpose that best suits those most in need, and sell it to private developers.
The fact local elected representatives do not need to give consent is not only an attack on democracy, but it is downright insulting to those who have been democratically elected to those positions. This is a mechanism of stripping local councillors of their right to have a say in respect of the best use for public land in their constituencies. However, it also removes from those local representatives the obligation to represent the views of local communities; the people they are there to give voice to.
In my constituency, a group that desperately needs a voice when it comes to the Land Development Agency is that involved in Columb Barracks, Mullingar and Connolly Barracks in County Longford. A group established with the purpose of identifying public land for development has some merit. Such an idea could allow us to identify land to get the maximum amount of use for resources while ensuring that we provide decent, comfortable and affordable homes for families. However, that is not what this is. This proposal is yet another attempt to let the market fix the problem with the real potential of it being the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, part two. Just like the shared equity scheme, the Land Development Agency will exasperate the housing crisis. Such schemes seem to be the calling card of this Government. Things will get worse for those most in need and better for the developers and the banks that finance them. Things will absolutely improve for the vested interests in this country and groups that hold sway over Fine Fáil, Fine Gael and now the Green Party.
I only have ten minutes. For the record, we need to clarify what was said by a previous speaker about the property tax in Galway. When his party decided to bring in a property tax, €12 million was collected from the people and the equalisation fund was sent to Ms Angela Merkel. That was decided by a person he supports. On top of that, the water he drinks, the gas that keeps him warm and the electricity that keeps the lights on in Dublin all comes from rural Ireland. The sludge that comes out of the septic tanks and goes to treatment plants is spread in rural Ireland. Above all, most of the brains that run the country are from rural Ireland. We will just clarify that to start with.
First, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. At the moment people trying to buy houses must look at them on a video. No more than the Minister of State or anyone else, when we are on video or on television, we probably look a bit better than we really do. I ask that on 5 March we let those people and young couples who are buying houses into those houses. Only one or two of them are going into the house and walking around at any one time. They are not going to spread the virus around the place. I ask the Minister of State to allow that.
Second, I ask that we do not have someone from NAMA or something similar on this Land Development Agency. I support the Land Development Agency in principle and provided it works in a certain way. I will be very clear about that. We need take the brains from the private sector to spearhead it, although let me be very clear, not on big salaries but paid based on output and delivery.
Before one can deliver houses, however, there is one company that needs to deliver, that is, Irish Water. If one does not have infrastructure for water, roads and electricity going into a site, one will build absolutely nothing. There are 135,000 units around this country owned by the State. Unfortunately, many of them do not have a sewerage scheme or road infrastructure. If that is not provided, we are in trouble. That is the reason for a properly resourced Land Development Agency with the proper people in place.
The Department has had ten years and it has not delivered. It has been an unmitigated disaster. City and county councils have been depleted for the past ten to 12 years.
For God's sake, would someone bring in a bit of common sense? The inside of a three-bedroom, four-bedroom or two-bedroom house in Galway, Donegal or Dublin should be the same. There should not be five geniuses sending papers around to each other and deciding to put a different design in one. The inside of a two-bedroom, three-bedroom or four-bedroom house can be the same in every county. The facade on the outside is the only thing that has to be changed to comply with planning.
When I talk about affordable housing, I am talking about a three-bedroom or four-bedroom house that is €200,000 to €250,000 in Dublin, not houses at the figures of €400,000 that I am hearing. A couple would not be earning enough together to afford that. In this procurement process, are we going to let another conglomerate builder in with a big announcement that it will build 500 houses? If we are shrewd about it, if there are 500 houses to be built on an estate, we will let in a small builder and ask him to build ten houses. We will provide the roads and sewers in so that all the builder has to do is bring the pipework out to that and when that builder has those ten houses built, we should let him on to the next ten houses. We should put in five or six different small builders, not this big conglomerate that can screw the Government day after day for more costs that have been overlooked in the drawings. They will screw the Government. We can see what is going on with the children's hospital and the type of contract that is in place there. This can be a way to help the smaller builders to deliver on their budgets, not to go through a procurement process and decide that just because a contractor does not have such a high turnover, to say goodbye to him and leave him out of the process.
One worrying issue was brought up earlier on, namely the smaller towns around rural Ireland, in particular, in this famous Ireland 2040 framework that we are talking about. They have to have sewerage services under the county development plans now. Unfortunately, a decision was made by the previous Government that the community sewerage schemes would be scrapped and that these communities would have to tie into Irish Water. Well, just live in rural Ireland. There are some places in rural Ireland where communities ran the water for years and Irish Water was not required. It is a good job it was not required because it could not cater for all that had to be done. In those small towns, if they do not have the services, they will no longer be zoned under the Government's plan - and correct me if I am wrong - which will leave ghost towns and undeveloped towns right around the smaller rural areas. I am asking the Minister of State to remember this and to give those communities the opportunity to go back.
We need a lot of houses built fairly rapidly. I would encourage - and I have said this to the Minister - that the buildings that need to be built should be allowed to go ahead and the current stop on building needs to end on 5 March for the simple reason that we need houses. We also need the infrastructure, be it the shop that is being built or the other stuff that is being built. In fairness to the building sector, it has been pretty good in complying with all the different regulations. It is rather unusual to see someone building a shop down the road in a rural area being stopped, but someone coming from Northern Ireland is able to finish council houses on the Border and multinationals are working away on sites because they can get around the regulations. I ask the Minister of State to open construction sites to those sectors but, above all, to the couples that are trying to buy houses should be allowed to see the inside of the houses for God's sake.
I have spoken to the Department and I am expecting a briefing on some of these matters in the coming days. We need to make sure that if we are setting up an agency, it is not a talking shop, another cosy cartel or a front for the Department that has not delivered for ten years, and that it is not going to be a disaster. That is the one thing we have to watch for. We need to put in the proper people. We must poach people who have a proven track record at delivery. We must not put in every Tom, Dick and Harry. If that is done properly, the LDA should be able to deliver houses at an affordable rate, both to the local authorities and to young couples who are working around this country and who badly need housing. I am waiting for my briefing and I support this in principle. I want somebody to take this by the scruff of the neck. I do not want to see someone who had a cosy job somewhere else just going in for the sake of it. This should be a team with their sleeves rolled up and ready to go.
Another issue that is causing a major problem around this country is when builders apply for planning permission for developments of more than 100 houses, they have to go directly to An Bord Pleanála . Damn it but I have monitored the situation around Dublin over the past three months and 1,500 houses have been stopped over bats or some other thing that An Bord Pleanála has dreamed up in these areas, such as shadow. Shadow is another matter that is blocking developments. If we keep going down this road of allowing objections, it will block everything.
I expect to get more information from the Department. As I said, I support the agency in principle but if it is not put in place in the way I am saying, then it will work out to be another quango.
I am glad to get the opportunity to contribute to the debate. However, as I sit here listening to the contributions, I wonder whether we should be debating this Bill because the LDA will do nothing to solve the housing problem in this country. That is not what I think it is intended to do anyway. I think it is intended to open up housing land to the private market and to private developers. It will be good at doing that because that is what the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage wants to achieve. We are all talking about housing, housing development, how we need to get housing built and what can be done about it but the agency will do nothing on that. It will just set up another quango so that local authorities will have to deal with it as well.
The best thing we could do to make housing work in this country is to fund local authorities to provide houses. That would be the biggest problem solved right away. Local authorities have been denuded from having the ability to develop housing. It is also interesting the way they are established, set up and run. The local authority county managers do not want to piss off the Department so the county managers will sit back and they will not develop any houses because they know the Department does not want them to develop houses but that it wants the private sector and housing agencies to develop house so the county managers will say and do nothing because they do not want to piss off the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications because it controls approximately 85% of the money the local authorities gets. The Department, therefore, makes sure the local authorities can do nothing and the managers are happy to go along with that.
The councillors are happy to go along with it because they do not have any say in anything. They have no role as such. That is the problem with our local authorities and that is the reason we spend so much time in the national Parliament talking about the provision of houses in local authorities. It should be the job of local authorities to provide the houses and that is where it should be done. What should happen is that the Department should simply give Donegal County Council, for example, €30 million to build houses. What happens, however, is that the Department tells Donegal County Council that it would like to get proposals from it for housing developments. The local authority staff then look around to see what land they have and scratch their heads. They then decide to buy some land because it does not have any land and, therefore, it cannot put any proposals. Three or four years pass, the council buys the land, devises the scheme and submits it to the Department. It sits waiting then for the Department to decide what it will do with it.
The Department will to and fro with the local authority for maybe a year and look at what is needed, and there will be tweaks here and there on the planning. Then maybe the funding will come and the local authority will build the scheme. The local authority will then have no land for the next scheme. That is what happens with this circus we have. I believe the Department should say to the local authority that there is a certain amount of funding and that it should make sure it spends it properly in developing the scheme. The Department should have a watching brief on it rather than deciding on everything the local authority does. Then one might have some responsibility and we might deliver houses in this country.
In the overall scheme of things, the Government is not interested in delivering local authority houses for people who need them. The Government is interested in the delivery of houses by developers in the private sector. That is where the Government is coming from. The whole focus of the Government's thinking on housing is wrong. The reality is the Government is thinking about how developers can get work and how we can deliver work to developers, not how we can deliver houses to citizens. If the Government took the view that its role is to deliver houses for citizens, this would be a completely different discussion and we would not even be discussing a land development agency Bill. That is my reaction to the debate, what I have been hearing and what has been said by other Members in relation to this Bill. I think it misses the point.
The LDA is a quango. The great Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Party idea is to set up an agency to do the work that is already being done or should be getting done by local authorities around the country. In 2020, Donegal County Council opened four social housing developments. It had been more than a decade without building social housing in my constituency, not because of a lack of ability to develop or anything like it but because of a lack of funds made available.
The LDA has been in existence since 2018 but this Bill will dissolve that entity and provide for the transfer of its assets, functions and staff, etc., to the new agency. The agency will establish - wait for it - a register of relevant public land. The agency will report periodically to the Government on public land which may be suitable for housing or urban development, and it will also assist local authorities in the performance of their functions relating to development. Groundhog Day was 2 February. It is certainly here again today.
Opposition Deputies, local authorities and front-line civil society groups are blue in the face from saying for years that the Government must provide the necessary funding to local authorities to build affordable housing on public-owned land. My blood was boiling when reading this Bill, the explanatory memorandum and the relevant documents. Section 14 of the Bill sets out the process for local authorities to request services from the agency. A ministerial direction may have to be made and there will be terms under which the agency's services will be provided. This is exactly what our failed housing system needs - more bureaucracy. It is vitally important that we have that. That allows the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to keep a tight fist and control on the spending of money. That is what this is all about.
The board will be made up of five to ten directors, all of whom are to be appointed by the Minister. Section 22 of the Bill provides for the disclosure of interests of board members, staff of the agency or a subsidiary designated activity company.