Thursday, 25 November 2021
Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021 on Second Stage. I thank Members for facilitating the debate on this very important Bill. We just completed Report and Final Stages in the Seanad earlier this week. Over the course of its passage through that House, Senators were very much engaged with the subject matter of the Bill. The debate was lively, constructive and detailed on all aspects of the Bill. I welcome that. A number of amendments were made during Committee and Report Stages in the Seanad which I was happy to accept. These will enhance the Bill. I will go through some of the amendments that were made in a little bit more detail later.
As the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach will be aware, in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, a commitment was made not to extend the strategic housing development, SHD, planning arrangements that were introduced under the previous Government's Rebuilding Ireland action plan beyond their legislative expiry date, 25 February 2022. Furthermore, in the recent Housing for All action plan, which I published in September, action 12.3 commits to the introduction of a new planning process for large-scale residential developments, LRDs, to replace the previous SHD arrangements. I am very happy that this Bill delivers on both of these commitments.
Most significantly, I am very happy that this Bill delivers on a commitment that this Government and I have made to restore decision-making to our local authorities. That is something I have always believed in. I have always believed that is a much more appropriate place for decisions to be taken. Underpinning that is the reinstatement of the primacy of local area and local development plans. That is very evident in this Bill. We are bringing planning back to the local level. The provisions of the Bill will also restore the two-stage planning process for large-scale developments with decision-making for such proposals returning to the local planning authority in the first instance, with the possibility of a subsequent appeal to An Bord Pleanála.
In addition to the benefits of returning the primary decision-making function for LRDs to the local level, the reintroduction of a method to appeal to the board should assist in reducing the number of judicial reviews against LRD planning decisions compared with the number taken under the SHD arrangements, where a judicial review in the High Court was the only appeal mechanism available. It is urgent that we pass this Bill because it is crucially important that we transition to decisions being made at a local level and restore the two-level planning process as soon as possible. That is why we need to conclude this Bill within the next ten days or so, allowing this system to take over from 17 December. I should have said that this Bill was passed unanimously in the Seanad without dissent. There was good debate from all sides of the House, both Opposition and Government.
I will now address the main contents of the Bill. Following discussions in the Seanad, the Bill now contains 18 sections, which I will turn to in a little bit more detail. The primary provisions are contained in a limited number of sections, namely, sections 3, 8 and 17, with supporting provisions for these arrangements contained in the other sections. Rather than go through every single section individually, I will instead outline the key elements of the provisions of the Bill. I am happy to take any questions so that we can move forward to the next Stage. The proposed new arrangements retain some of the positive elements of the SHD arrangements including the mandatory pre-application consultation on proposed developments between the developer and the planning authority to tease out issues prior to the submission of a planning application and the mandatory decision timelines, which provide greater certainty with regard to the timeframe for planning. These timelines are mandatory and will be brought into this Bill. The new arrangements will comprise three stages: pre-application consultation, planning application stage and an appeal stage, where required. Such appeals will be made to An Bord Pleanála.
I will turn first to the pre-application consultation stage, which is primarily detailed in section 3 of the Bill. This will involve two steps. The first is an initial, more informal, pre-application consultation on the proposals between the developer and the planning authority, as is already mandated for projects of this scale under section 247 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. This will be followed by a formal request for an LRD meeting by the developer. This will require the submission of fairly detailed initial documentation in respect of the proposed development. Planning authorities will be required to hold such LRD meetings within four weeks of the receipt of the meeting request and then to issue an opinion on the proposal within four weeks of that LRD meeting. The pre-application process will therefore take a maximum of eight weeks. The LRD opinion issued by the planning authority will set out whether the documentation submitted by the developer constitutes a reasonable basis for moving to the next stage in the process by way of submitting a planning application. It will also identify any issues that need to be addressed when subsequently submitting that application.
Drawing on the SHD arrangements, this new LRD pre-application consultation is intended to improve the quality of planning applications submitted subsequent to the pre-application process in respect of large-scale housing developments and reduce the need to request further information in respect of such applications.
The second stage of the LRD process is the planning application stage. The new LRD arrangements will rely on the existing section 34 planning application process and will require planning authorities to determine the LRD planning application within eight weeks of receipt of that application. There will be limited scope for requesting further information, as I have indicated. The need for such requests should be limited anyway because of the more detailed pre-application process, the details of which will be set out in supplementary regulations. Requests for further information have, in the past, resulted in considerable delays in determining planning applications. The new LRD arrangements are intended to front-load the consideration of a range of issues at the pre-application stage, as I have said, thereby reducing the need to request further information at the planning application stage, streamlining the decision-making process.
With regard to the third stage of the process, the appeals stage, which is provided for in section 7 of the Bill, the board will be required to determine LRD appeals within a mandatory 16 weeks of receipt of the appeal. Again, the scope to request further information will be similarly limited.
The mandatory timelines for the three stages of the LRD planning process, which have the potential to be almost as time efficient as the SHD arrangements they are replacing, will streamline the overall decision-making process, thereby providing greater clarity and certainty with regard to timelines. To help ensure adherence to these mandatory timelines, a penalty payable to the developer will apply to both the planning authority and the board. The penalty for the planning authority will be three and half times the application free or €10,000, whichever is the lesser. The penalty payable by the board for late decisions on LRD planning applications or appeals will be €10,000.
I should also mention one important difference from the outgoing SHD arrangements. The new LRD arrangements will allow for up to 30% of the gross floor space of the proposed development to be available for commercial or other uses rather than the 15% cap in place under the SHD arrangements. This change acknowledges that such developments, particularly in our cities and on our inner-city brownfield sites, tend to require a greater mix of residential, commercial and other uses in order to take into account the differing needs of inner-city areas. This allowance is for up to 30% and will make the LRDs in such inner-city urban areas more economically viable.
In line with the principle of compact growth, more residential development is required in urban areas. This change in the scope of the arrangements is intended to facilitate greater development of brownfield sites in those inner urban areas than might otherwise be the case. We all wish to see more development and compact growth in our cities, and particularly on brownfield sites. This Bill will assist in doing that.
The Bill also proposes some transitional arrangements in respect of the expiry of SHDs and their replacement by the new LRDs. I will address two scenarios under the transitional arrangements. First, developers with projects already in the SHD system that have already received an opinion on their proposals from An Bord Pleanála on the commencement of the Act will have 16 weeks from the commencement date to submit their applications to the board. Second, developers that have already commenced the SHD process by requesting pre-application consultation with the board and are awaiting an opinion on their proposals on the commencement of the Act will have 16 weeks to submit an SHD application to the board from the date of receipt of the pre-application consultation opinion from the board. In both scenarios, the board will then have a further 16 weeks to make a determination. These are fairly standard transitional arrangements that generally apply when changing from one planning system to another. It is important to note, however, that for large housing development proposals which have not commenced the SHD process on the date of the commencement of the Act - with the co-operation of this House, I intend that commencement date to be 17 December - any such future development proposals for large housing developments will be required to go through the new LRD process. Consequently, it is intended that this 17 December date will effectively mark the transition date from SHD to LRD arrangements.
A further provision in section 6 of the Bill will be subject to some discussion here and was subject to some discussion in the Seanad. This section amends section 50A of the Planning and Development Act 2000 to provide that any party to a judicial review challenge may apply to have a High Court judgment referred directly to the Supreme Court, bypassing the Court of Appeal. As I said in the Seanad, there is good rationale for this streamlining provision, which, once introduced, will have the effect of significantly reducing the time for disposal of litigation and enabling relevant projects to proceed earlier than otherwise would have been the case.
I will now summarise some of the amendments I accepted in the Seanad. There was an extensive debate on several aspects of the new streamlined planning procedures. Amendments were proposed and discussed by all sides and those discussions resulted in my acceptance of several key amendments to the pre-application stage of the LRD process, which concerns section 3 of the Bill, during the Seanad Committee and Report Stages. These changes are now incorporated in the Bill before us, which has been improved as a result of those amendments.
I will briefly outline in more detail the amendments I accepted. First, some concerns were expressed regarding the making available of documentation at the planning application stage, relating to the previous LRD meeting or opinion stages. Having considered the discussions in the Seanad, the Bill now includes a provision whereby the planning authority shall keep a written record of any third-party consultations held prior to the LRD meeting and attach a copy of such a record to any subsequent planning application. Furthermore, the Bill now provides that the LRD opinion issued to the developer at the end of the pre-application consultation stage shall be made public when the LRD application is made.
Second, some concern was also expressed about the omission of the obligation that a developer should provide a statement at the pre-application consultation stage as to how the proposed LRD has had regard to the local area plan and-or the development plan. Originally, I had intended to provide this requirement by way of regulations. We had a good debate on this matter in the Seanad, however, and what we are doing in this regard reinforces the recognition of the primacy of the development and local area plans. I was able to accept an amendment with this revised wording on Report Stage in the Seanad. These enhancements to the provisions reflect what we are trying to achieve here, namely, the restoration of a streamlined, two-stage planning process for large-scale housing developments, while also facilitating open, transparent and meaningful participation by the public in the overall process.
I also brought forward an amendment on Report Stage in the Seanad to provide that the housing strategy prepared by the local authority shall take into account the need to ensure that home ownership as a tenure type is provided for and estimated in its housing strategy. This provision is significant because it provides for the first time in planning law that home ownership shall be recognised and factored in as a specific tenure type in the drawing up of local authority housing strategies. That is another commitment we made in our Housing for All plan and another important step towards putting home ownership, in particular affordable home ownership, back within the reach of thousands of people. We have underpinned that and used this Bill as an opportunity to do it. Therefore, for the first time in planning law, home ownership is recognised as a form of housing tenure.
The Deputies will agree that this Bill contains a number of fundamental and important legislative features. Again, one is the restoration of the two-stage planning process for large-scale residential developments, with the primary decision making responsibility returned to the local planning authorities, in the first instance, thereby enhancing local democracy, and rightly so. We are also enhancing public participation in the local decision-making process, with members of the public now having two opportunities to provide input into the process, namely, at the planning stage and the appeal stage. We are also retaining positive elements of the SHD arrangements, namely, the mandatory pre-application consultation and the statutory and mandatory decision making timelines to provide certainty.
All these aspects are aimed at facilitating speedier decision making in the planning system for much-needed housing supply. While we want to improve our planning system and the access and input that people can have regarding planning applications, we must also look at the context and the why and when of introducing this legislation in the middle of a housing crisis. We must also streamline our planning processes to deliver homes for our people. The increasing number of judicial reviews in the SHD process arose because people felt they did not have a say during the early part of that process. I believe in local democracy and local public input into the planning process, as does the Government, and that is why these changes are significant and I want to ensure they are in place from 17 December.
I look forward to hearing the contributions of all Deputies to this debate. As I said, I took on board suggestions and amendments offered in the Seanad and I am very open to listening in this House. We will also have the Committee Stage of the Bill next week. I thank Deputies for their attention while I briefly outlined the main provisions of the Bill, which I believe are significant. This legislation heralds the end of the SHD planning process. We are ending it earlier than was provided for. I look forward to this debate and the Committee and Report Stage debates next week.
Sinn Féin is clear in its support for good-quality, affordable and well-planned homes. We support this Bill, despite some of its flaws, which I will outline later, as it repeals the SHD legislation. That legislation was undemocratic and undermined democratically agreed local and city and county development plans. It also reduced public participation and led to an increase in legal challenges, as has been outlined.
The SHD model being repealed by this legislation, which Sinn Féin opposed when it was introduced by the former Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, was a throwback to the developer-led planning of the Celtic Tiger days. We are still paying for that developer-led planning today in the form of poor planning decisions, poor-quality developments, a lack of quality public open spaces and a severe lack of public services, particularly public transport infrastructure. It is also worth noting that the previous legislation failed to achieve its objective of helping to increase the provision of housing. According to the Dublin Democratic Planning Alliance, DDPA, consisting of civic society groups, of the 70,866 units for which permission was secured through the SHD process, only 10,711 have been commenced.
Some developers are getting very rich by flipping land on which planning has been granted.
The other issue worth noting is that section 28(1)(c), the ministerial directive, opened the floodgates to material contraventions of development plans. This provision, as the Minister will acknowledge, annoyed many people in our communities, including many councillors who spent months diligently working through the county development plan with planning officials, consulting the local community and democratically deciding what they believed was a sustainable plan for their counties, only to see that work, effort and time utterly wasted as a ministerial directive rode roughshod over those democratic decisions. I welcome that the Government has finally seen sense in scrapping this legislation. We said it would not work and we were right. Sinn Féin proposed an alternative, namely, the provision of statutory timelines for decisions from planning authorities.
While we support this legislation, we have five key concerns. We will introduce amendments on Committee Stage to address them. The first is that there is no provision in the legislation for public participation at pre-planning stage. It is best practice to involve the local community early when planning decisions are being made. I listened on the way in to the House today to a discussion on wind farms. That everything is decided before wind farm plans go to the community causes a lot of concern.
Some 90% of the judicial reviews involve material contraventions of city and county development plans. All local authorities are currently being reviewed and must align with the national development plan. They are reviewed by the Planning Regulator. There is no reason cases in the future should involve material contraventions. Sinn Féin does not believe there should be any restriction on local authorities seeking additional information on planning decisions. If they need more information to make a sound planning decision, there should not be any impediment to this.
We oppose the leapfrog provision in section 6. The Minister has not satisfactorily made the case as to why this provision is in the Bill. It has nothing to do with residential development. We suspect it was inserted for other reasons relating to large infrastructural projects. It would be great if the Minister could be honest as to why this is section in the Bill.
The transitional arrangements in section 17 are problematic. This section effectively extends the SHD provisions into next year and possibly beyond if there are any legal challenges. If applications already in the pre-planning process get approval to proceed to full planning before 17 December, when this replacement legislation is due to be enacted, developers will have until April to apply. For applications not yet in pre-planning, provided developers submit pre-planning applications before 17 December, they will have until June 2022 to submit their applications.
It must also be noted that despite the promises made in the programme for Government to end SHD legislation, with a deadline of the end of this year, there is a concern that many communities will still see inappropriate developments being brought through SHD planning processes well into 2022. If there are legal actions, we may even see some in 2023. This is not acceptable. I believe it is in some ways a trick to delay the removal of the co-living legislation, thereby giving developers ample opportunity to benefit from the delay. We are seeing the same here today.
Sinn Féin intends to submit amendments that would remove the undemocratic powers the Minister has to issue mandatory planning guidelines to local authorities. These powers were introduced by a previous Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and were used twice by another former Minister, Eoghan Murphy, to bring us co-living, build-to-rent and mandatory heights. For example, just outside Blanchardstown village a developer proposed a co-living development for a suburban street. It was opposed by residents who wanted homes for families on the site. It was also opposed by Fingal County Council planners. It was one of the strongest rejections of a planning application I have ever seen from Fingal County Council planners. Even An Bord Pleanála's inspector opposed it, yet the project was given permission. It would cost the residents tens of thousands of euro to fight this decision in the courts. Many communities do not have those resources. The big developer and big money win out.
As a councillor, I supported a Green Party motion in our county development plan proposed by the now Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, that no development in our village should be allowed over three storeys. Since the disastrous ministerial order contravening development plan heights, we have had several SHDs in Clonsilla where build-to-rent apartments of up to nine storeys were proposed along the protected Royal Canal. Thankfully, they were rejected by An Bord Pleanála. Communities in Clonsilla will be very disappointed to see that the developers will be given another bite of the cherry in 2022.
SHDs, co-living and material contraventions of the development plans were undemocratic. They undermined local city and county development plans, reduced participation and confidence and led to an increase in legal challenges as people rightly believed that this was the only route they could take that would ensure their voices were heard. I urge the Minister to take on board the amendments that have been proposed by Sinn Féin.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. As a Deputy for Dublin Bay South, I have seen first-hand the terrible impact the SHD legislation has brought to local communities. Thousands of build-to-rent apartments and co-living units have been developed across the city with little or no regard for affordability or integration into the local community. They are just another cash cow for international vulture and cuckoo funds. Affordability, community and sustainability could not be further from their minds.
I welcome that the Government has finally decided it is scrapping SHD legislation. We must be clear about the realities of the SHD process. It is deeply undemocratic. It has provided a method to bypass democratically agreed city and county development plans. It has reduced public participation and led to an increase in legal challenges. It is a throwback to the developer-led planning days of the Celtic tiger. At the time of the introduction of SHDs, Sinn Féin warned the Government against the process and proposed an alternative but it refused to listen. Sinn Féin was criticised for opposing what we were told was the way to deliver housing quickly. How wrong that assertion turned out to be.
It is a shame it has taken this long for the negative effects of SHDs to be recognised by the Government parties and their supporters. Recently, one SHD has been given the green light to fast-track plans for 112 apartments, of which 56 will be one-bedroom and 56 two-bedroom apartments, in Irishtown, Dublin 4. They are going to be shoehorned into a very small site. The scheme results in the introduction of a six-storey development in an area defined by two and three-storey houses. The indicative prices are €540,000 for a two-bedroom apartment and €400,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. I do not know many people who can afford those prices. They will probably be bought by some highly paid executives in the big high-tech companies the Government has welcomed into the country. Not many ordinary working families in Ringsend or Pearse Street will be able to afford them, that is for sure. Where do these families go when they are pushed out? They end up moving to the outskirts of the city or beyond. This breaks up the community and dislocates families. Residents of Ringsend, Pearse Street and Irishtown are very proud of their community, and why would they not be? They have built an amazingly strong community. Unfortunately, Government policies do not support the community. They support the big tech companies and vulture funds.
In the inner city the residents face serious challenges. The Government invites in the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, tech companies whose establishment pushes up the price of homes, putting them out of the reach of working people. It is great to have all the new jobs, absolutely, although very few of the middle and upper management jobs will go to the local community. I acknowledge that Google is working on community engagement but the other companies are not even making an effort to support and engage with the local community.
On top of these high-tech companies pushing up the price of homes for the community, Government policies are supporting the vulture funds, which also squeeze residents and push up the cost of homes to rent and buy. Residents in Pearse Street, Ringsend and right across the inner city are being squeezed by Government policies. Sinn Féin would make the likes of Amazon and the other high-tech companies and vulture funds pay their share and give residents in Pearse Street and Ringsend a break.
The expense of the sites and apartments means the Part V public housing allocation will not be on site and often will not be in the community. The Part V homes must be delivered in the community.
The legislation needs to be changed to ensure Part V homes are delivered, at the very least, in the community. The most high-profile example of Part V homes not being delivered locally concerns Capital Dock. The Part V homes that were to be there were delivered in Mount Argus. Although this is great for the Mount Argus community, it is not the way it should be. Residents in Ringsend and Irishtown have to put up with the disruption from building works. They are happy to do that, but the least they should have is something positive out of this and homes for their children. That is not unreasonable to expect.
We need to see housing developments that are well planned for effective integration into the community. We need to see good-quality, genuinely affordable homes that are designed with families and long-term tenants in mind. We need residents to shop locally and use local sports clubs. We need housing developments to be places where communities can grow and develop. It is our town too, and we have to develop a city that reflects the needs of the community.
While this Bill is a step in the right direction, there are several concerns and shortcomings – one being that there is no provision in it for public participation at pre-planning stage. The input of the local community must be a cornerstone of any policy on planning. Developers can talk to the planners, which is understandable and right; but equally, residents must have access to planners. It needs to be easier for residents to access planners. Residents need to be given the tools to engage with planners because trying to understand the planning process can be extremely difficult. Residents need support in this regard, and the playing field needs to be levelled. The local community must be given an avenue for its voice to be heard. Time and again, we have all seen where a lack of meaningful consultation with the local community led to tension and hostility to change. That is understandable.
Ninety percent of the judicial reviews of SHD planning applications involve material that violates the city and county development plans. How is it that we allow SHDs to override our local development plans? Local development plans are put together by councillors and council management with the best interest of communities in mind. The plans are then democratically agreed upon. We cannot continue down the path of eroding more and more local government power. In that regard, this LRD legislation is a good step in the right direction. Local development plans must be in line with the national development plan. They are reviewed by the planning regulator to ensure they are all in line. Therefore, there is no reason that future cases should involve material that violates local development plans.
We are also concerned that when it comes to local authorities making planning decisions, there should be no restriction on local authorities seeking additional information. If they need more information to make a sound planning decision, there should be no obstruction. We need to be providing local authorities with the support and resources to make the best planning decisions possible, not putting obstacles to finding additional information in their way.
We have strong concerns over the lack of clarity regarding the leapfrog provision set out in section 6 of the Bill. We need clarity from the Minister on the reasoning for its inclusion. It strikes me that the provision has nothing to do with residential developments; rather, it is being inserted for the benefit of large infrastructure projects. Therefore, we must ask why the provision is in the Bill.
I also have strong concerns over the transitional arrangements set out in section 17. This section effectively extends the SHD provisions into next year, and possibly beyond if there are any legal challenges. If applications already in the pre-planning process are approved to proceed to the full planning stage before 17 December, when the replacement legislation is due to be enacted, developers will have up to April to apply. Some applications will remain in the circumstances I describe until October, with the possibility of legal action late in 2022, and possibly 2023. This is nothing new. When we consider the delay in the introduction of planning restrictions on co-living developments, we see developers have now been provided with ample opportunity, long after the expiry of the SHD legislation, to benefit from it. Section 17 effectively extends the SHD provisions into next year, and possibly beyond if there are legal challenges. While we support this legislation, we will be raising concerns on Committee Stage.
Like my colleague the Labour Party housing spokesperson, Senator Moynihan, I want to give this Bill a cautious but qualified welcome. Any initiative designed to expedite the development of much-needed homes across the country, especially in urban areas where demand is high, is welcome. We would all agree on that. The theory was that the SHD legislation passed by the previous Oireachtas was going to do the devil and all. It sought to create an environment where homes could be developed at scale and in a more efficacious timeframe than was traditionally the case. In the then Minister’s wisdom, that meant an innovation that got those dastardly councils out of the way and allowed developers to go straight to An Bord Pleanála. Ultimately, the legislation passed by these Houses meant the only recourse available to citizens to challenge or appeal against a flawed application, an unlawful decision or a decision that may have gone against the city or county development plan, or that compromised process, was to undertake a costly judicial review. This was never right. The system, as we pointed out at the time, was always going to be beset by problems. It rooted out an established cornerstone, or at least the appearance of democratic oversight, in the sense that local authorities were in essence bypassed or pushed aside from the early stages of the process, or at least the process we previously knew and that was well established. Fairly perfunctory consultation took place at area level with elected members of the council, and their views were canvassed and submitted to An Bord Pleanála, which made determinations on applications. The arrangement had all the hallmarks of a system and legislation that were rushed and not thought through properly. It seemed to us to be a charter for developers to railroad through some wholly inappropriate developments. That turned out to be correct in many cases.
There have been some successful judicial reviews pertaining to SHD developments that were initially approved in my constituency, specifically in the south Drogheda part of east Meath. I recall criticisms of those who pursued their democratic right to seek a judicial review of a project or decision; in truth, they were absolutely entitled to take such cases under our Constitution, as I hope we would all agree. The courts, nine times out of ten, backed them up.
Bad law and a failure to be faithful to, or comply with, established environmental laws always have to be called out regardless of the circumstances. We must not just decide to set aside laws passed in this House or give anyone, even if he or she is building much-needed homes, a free pass because we need those homes. The law should always be upheld; end of story.
The SHD system was overrun with problems from the get-go. The SHD review in 2019 stated clearly that the rate of building was less than what might have been anticipated given that the process was designed to make it easier for those who have the capacity and resources to build at a large scale to do so. Its legacy has also meant the development of a lot of inappropriate projects, including a disproportionate number of build-to-rent developments. Most egregious of all was the way in which so many sites that were good to go were sat upon by developers to take advantage of the developer-friendly system. They sit back and watch the value of their zoned land, with full SHD permission, climb in value all the time.
What should have accompanied the SHD laws were strong use-it-or-lose-it provisions. The legislation should never have been used to exploit land and to simply watch its value grow as it was allowed to lie idle. That was a slap in the face for the hundreds of thousands who want and need a home to buy or rent privately on good terms, or those who are looking for a home to secure through their local authority. We have to learn the lessons from the flaws we witnessed in the SHD system and ensure they are applied to the new LRD system.
We also need to include other measures that the Government is only now belatedly considering in respect of interventions in the housing system. To be fair, many of the lessons of the operation of the SHD system have been learnt and applied in the context of this legislation and the regulations that will come our way when the legislation is enacted. We must make sure that if and when projects are built under LRD, developers are forced to move away from the practice of keeping homes empty to drive up rental costs and keep them artificially high. As the Minister will know, Senator Moynihan, Labour's housing spokesperson, has identified schemes where you can look into the windows and see the plastic covering still wrapped around furniture. Those schemes are not far from here. That is an utter disgrace and illustrates part of the problem we have with housing supply, land and property hoarding in this country. It is beyond urgent that the State counterbalances the kinds of pro-development laws we are considering here with the need to disincentivise land hoarding and other activities, which we know are happening day in and day out, to inflate the property market.
We need to see the zoned land tax introduced. It is provided for in the Finance Bill and it is way past time that it was introduced. We would have liked to have seen it become operational well before its stated commencement date. We have argued consistently for a vacant homes tax, as the Minister will know, but it still has not been legislated for. We are told the new local property tax registration process is collecting relevant data but, in truth, it should not have been beyond the ken of a sophisticated, modern EU State administration to collect those kinds of data in another way. The truth, however, is that the political will just was not there.
We should also focus on the scourge of dereliction when we talk about property and the requirement to develop homes. Nowhere is more affected by this hideous phenomenon than the historic core of my home town of Drogheda, which the Minister knows very well. The levels of dereliction and vacancy of fine old Georgian properties, poorly maintained unique Dutch Billy buildings and the fine old warehouses around the centre of the town, which hark back to our industrial past, are simply shocking. The national planning framework policy is to prioritise the development of urban brownfield sites for compact growth, and I support that. That is the sensible, smart and sustainable thing to do. There is, however, an onus on us to understand why these existing buildings are vacant and derelict and who owns them and to implement a strategy to bring them back into use, not just to regenerate our towns and cities but also to provide decent homes where people want to live. This point relates directly to the Bill. We spend an awful lot of time in this House, as do officials in the Minister's Department and the Minister himself, properly so, ruminating as to how we can get more homes built. It is the biggest social and economic challenge of our time. However, what is the strategy to revisit the structures and buildings we already have, specifically the buildings that are unoccupied and could be brought back to use? Prioritising that would be the sound and sensible thing to do.
A start would be, for example, to measure the scale of the problem by embarking on considerably more town centre health checks undertaken by the Heritage Council. I know that the Minister's Department resources the Heritage Council, but I find it very difficult to get information from the Department on the resources being made available. The Heritage Council is under serious pressure. It wants to undertake these collaborative town centre health checks to get a clear picture of problems of dereliction, vacancy and so on in our town centres but, in my view, it requires additional resources. I therefore ask the Minister to clarify today if he can - if he does not have the opportunity today, he might correspond with me - and let me know precisely what that relationship is and how he plans to resource the collaborative town centre health check process. I accept that there is a commitment in the programme for Government to do that, but commitments are one thing and funding and resourcing are another.
The kinds of interventions we are talking about in this new legislation which, as I said, we in the Labour Party cautiously welcome, need to be accompanied by a much more holistic approach to the provision of housing more generally. Planning law has to guarantee balance and the delivery of appropriate development. My colleague, Senator Moynihan, has noted that a significant number of SHDs under the current legislation are student accommodation and build-to-rent. The return of councils to the heart of the process may lead to better outcomes, better balance and more appropriate housing in meeting the reality of local needs, not simply what developers might want. That would also mean improved standards for multi-unit, high-density apartment block developments. That means more floor space, balconies and decent open space and, even in build-to-rent developments, provision for owner-occupiers.
I welcome the fact that local authorities will essentially now be back in business in respect of these large-scale developments. It was a real mistake to set aside the traditional local authority function in considering large-scale planning applications. We are all the worse for it. The SHD experiment, by and large, has not worked. It has not even met the initial expectations set out for it. One thing I very much welcome in this legislation is the provision for a better pre-application process to enable proposers of developments to get things right. That is crucial. The function of local authority members will, I think, be crucial as well. I also welcome the provision in the legislation to allow for appeals to An Bord Pleanála. That is only right and fair. At the end of any process, propositions and determinations can be examined by the courts to be tested or if they fall foul of the law. It is important, however, that there is a proper function for An Bord Pleanála, as we have always understood, to make determinations on appeals and, crucially, that there is a clear timeline. That is really important to provide the confidence proposers of developments need to understand that their developments and proposals will be taken seriously and that there is a very clear timeline towards which everybody works to ensure that proposals get over the line and, crucially, are properly examined by the appropriate authorities, by which I mean the local authority and, subsequently, An Bord Pleanála.
This is an important day for the many people who come to our clinics because often they are on two sides of the development coin. On one side are the many people who are looking for and who need housing, often in very difficult circumstances, and on the other side are communities concerned about the impact of planning and development on their area. The solution for one side is met by ensuring we bring on a solution for the other. That is what this Bill does.
It is significant that we are ending the SHD process, which did not deliver housing and did not deliver for communities. The previous Government left planning and provision to the market. It is very clear that a new Government with a new Minister has resulted in new policies and that all the measures we have brought in, not only to ensure public housing on public land but also to increase the obligations of developers on their own private land, have outlined the commitment of Fianna Fáil in particular and our colleagues in the Green Party and the impact we have had on Government policy. I say to the people out there who voted in the last general election that when you vote, your vote is converted into change.
That change happens in this Chamber with new legislation and by a new Government, and that has happened here today. The strategic housing development, SHD, process is at an end and will not be extended. I say to those people that the concerns you had were listened to by me, by my colleagues and by the Minister.
The commitment to use public and private lands for the delivery of housing is very important because there is no one solution. There is no one way that we are going to deliver homes and communities. Of course we are going to need affordable housing and an affordable purchase scheme, which was brought in by this Government for the first time in a decade. We will need the cost-rental scheme, which has been brought in by this Government after just 18 months, when other parties in opposition who were in government failed to introduce a cost-rental scheme.
We will need more social housing and we must make sure that this social housing is in mixed communities. I represent the areas of Ballymun and Finglas, which have big estates that were built in the 1960s that did not have the tenure mix, the income mix or the services and facilities that they should have had. It took decades for those communities to recover from that. Housing was provided but it was not a mixed community. This planning process will ensure that those new communities are delivered. This is because the planning process restores the local authorities as the first port of call for the assessment of these applications. This is crucially important. As the Minister has said, when councillors and communities are denied their opportunity to assess planning applications they have no option but to go on to judicial reviews. I saw this in my community in Glenhill and in Santry. Communities felt that not only was the planning developer-led, what was being delivered was also developer-led. The developments were delivered by institutions for buy-to-let. That was a real error because it meant that communities had no stake in what was being delivered. The needs of the persons coming into a Deputy looking for housing were not being met by the projects being built in their communities.
It is not only about public sites, affordable rental, affordable purchase and social housing: this Government has taken on the developers with regard to private sites too. We have doubled the obligation on developers for social and affordable housing. We have brought in a new vulture fund stamp duty tax. I hear some Opposition parties speaking about that, but they were actually in government when the vulture fund budget was introduced.
On private land, the owner-occupier guarantee is also significant for two reasons. It restores to local authorities more powers. For decades, central government has taken powers away from local authorities but this Minister is giving powers back to local authorities. This will ensure that the local authority planners take into account private homeownership as part of housing objectives and priorities. We are aware that homeownership and people who have a long-term stake in a community are very important in the community because it means that they can invest in the community infrastructure and networks. Anybody involved in community development knows that asset-based communities are there because the assets are the people in those communities. With homeownership and long-term tenancies, people are able to do that and not be afraid that they will have to move on after five or ten years. This is what the Minister has done with the Bill.
We have ended SHDs and we have brought in as a priority in housing needs assessments that homeownership would be something, which is an owner-occupier guarantee as the Minister has said.
Many politicians sometimes use the fact that people object to a particular development as a stick to beat them. I am not comfortable with that and I will tell the House why. Sometimes there are genuine reasons why a person should vote against or object to a development. It may not be the right fit, it may not have the right mix, or it may not be the right delivery for that area. I find it very difficult, however, when politicians do not do it for those reasons and do it for political reasons.
I was particularly disappointed this week with regard to a site in Dublin city that has been empty for 40 years. That site was purchased by Dublin City Council in 1977, which was the year I was born. A deal for 850 homes was rejected by the two Opposition parties sitting here today. Some 850 families could have lived in those homes. The deal was significantly better than the deal proposed by Sinn Féin in 2015 or the deal proposed by Sinn Féin in 2019. When people vote against a deal that is better than the one they proposed on two occasions, Members on this side of the House are going to start asking questions. Does the Opposition really want the housing crisis to be solved or do they just not want us to solve it? Does the Opposition not recognise that things we are doing will make life better? It may not happen in the five years we are in government, and maybe not even in time for the next election but in time, these measures will improve things, and they will be improved for decades to come.
In this Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill there is a welcome move to rebalance the situation. We all recognise that. It brings the local authorities back into play, which was one of the big criticisms everyone had of the strategic housing development process, which was the previous arrangement in place. Local communities everywhere want to be able to at least have a say in what is happening in their community. This is not to say that they should be blocking or stopping plans or have a right to prevent genuine projects that work well and fit well into an area.
We need large-scale and we need residential developments, particularly in our large urban areas where there are huge housing problems. I have a big issue, however, with the direction of travel in all of this. Housing is out of reach of people not so much due to availability, which is clearly a big problem and we do not have enough houses being built, it is the affordability of housing and the fact that the vast majority of people cannot afford to buy a house. We seem to be going in the direction of many other European countries with large-scale corporate entities owning vast amounts of rental properties, which they rent out on short-term leases, possibly for two or three years or as long as the contract lasts in one of these high-tech companies, and then it flips over, and another person moves into the property. While this model may be in operation in parts of Germany, France and other countries, it is not the model we have in Ireland. Up until ten years ago more than 70% of people owned their own home. That was a very positive thing because it meant that the wealth a person accumulated over his or her lifetime accumulated in that home. It was not paid off to a landlord somewhere. If a whole community is renting, the corporate land entities are getting wealthier and wealthier off the backs of ordinary working people. That is a bad model and I do not believe we should be going with that model. I fear that the legislation brought in here by the Minister and the direction of travel of the Minister's Government with regard to that, supports that particular model. The Minister needs to prove to us all that he is prepared to turn around and change and that he will provide homes that ordinary people can afford to buy in order that ordinary people can have a sense of future in their own communities. It is one of the problems we have. I meet people regularly in Dublin city who say that their children have gone to college, have worked hard, have got the degrees and decent jobs, but that they cannot afford to live in the city where they were born and reared. Many of these people are emigrating from Ireland to other parts of the world simply because they cannot afford to live here because of the high costs. The Minister is aware of this. I am not telling him anything he does not know already, and in fairness the Minister has acknowledged this. Acknowledgment, however, is not enough. We need policies, and not just policies that will create a difference in years to come, as Deputy McAuliffe has said. We need policies that will make a difference now. We need to ensure that this is delivered. While parts of this legislation are certainly welcome, there are issues within it that need to be dealt with. Amendments will be put to it, which hopefully the Minister would be prepared to accept, to deal with some of the shortcomings I believe are in the Bill.
I welcome the confirmation from the Minister that there will be time allocated by the Government to facilitate this on Committee Stage next week, and that it will move on to Report Stage and Final Stages the week after that in Dáil Éireann. I welcome that and it is important. I am aware that considerable time has been given to this Bill in the Seanad, but it is important that there is time allocated in Dáil Éireann also, not least given the history of planning legislation. It does deserve sufficient scrutiny. I will be tabling a number of amendments and I look forward to the engagement on that, which is a very important part of the process. While amendments are not always accepted, at least we can get an understanding as to why they are not accepted and why the Government believes its approach is the correct one. There is something to be gained from that in the context of the process.
I take issue with one thing that the Minister said in his earlier remark about ending the strategic housing development, SHD, process early. Many people feel that is not the case. There was a statement from the Minister earlier in the year that the SHDs would come to a conclusion this October with the final planning applications happening in December. Many people I know in local communities involved in planning issues were under that impression. That has not happened and I do not think that everybody would accept that it is ending early. In fact, under the transitional arrangements in this, it will go well into next year and could well be going into next summer. There will be a potential cost in a rush of applications and possibly more poor decisions that could have detrimental effects for years to come.
I will address a couple of issues in respect of this legislation. First, I can fully see the logic in the penalties payable by the local authorities or An Bord Pleanála if they do not meet the timeframes. One of the key things that arose at the joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government, and Heritage when we were doing the pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill and was raised by everybodywe consulted, be it planners, the Dublin Democratic Planning Alliance, or the County and City Management Association, was they all expressed the same concern about this legislation on whether there would be enough resources such as planning resources to deal with it. This was the concern across the board. There is a strong view that there are deficiencies in forward planning resources in local authorities in that they do not have enough, but there is also much concern about dealing with planning applications. I want to flag that now.
One of the other issues that arose during the pre-legislative scrutiny was about continuing to have a role for local area committees or municipal districts in the process.
I note the Minister’s comments on pre-planning, where he said that it is intended to frontload the consideration of a range of issues at the pre-planning consultation stage. That makes complete sense and is a valuable way of doing things. The more that is frontloaded and teased out at that point and resolved, the more likely that planning applications will be successful and the quicker we will have much-needed housing delivered and on stream. Issues can be teased out at that point which reduce conflict.
When it comes to large-scale residential developments, many of the issues and the problems that need to be resolved often come from knowledge that is held within the community. I think, in particular, of a strategic housing development in my local community where there was much local knowledge about problems relating to the site that could have potentially resulted in landslides and problems of real substance in actually trying to build there. The local community had that knowledge but the developer did not, nor did their various consultants, engineers or planners. That only came through late in the process and because there is no ability for local communities to give that knowledge in the pre-planning process, it is missing from it. I appreciate that there are genuine reasons why the Department and the Minister may not want to go down that route because of the resources that it might involve as we do not want anything that would create more time or would burden local authority planners with extra work which would slow the process down. At the same time, not being able to get that information at the start, and the fact that the local community will not even be aware that pre-planning or that sort of consultation is going on, is a potential gap. Perhaps there is some way that does not create too much of a burden or any delays that would be able to get at least some of that information out about particular sites and areas where this could be resolved early on.
I remember when I saw the current Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, at one of his first council meetings and he had an excellent motion about looking for transparency at the pre-planning stage of the process which I was very impressed with. I would love, however, to see those principles around transparency. I appreciate it will be published later on but there would be benefits for communities to that being made available at the early stage.
I have concerns about section 6, which has been referred to as the leapfrog section relating to access for justice. It would be very useful and helpful to receive a detailed explanation as to the justifications around that.
I also have concerns on the question of additional information which were well flagged during the pre-legislative scrutiny process. The County and City Management Association, in particular, made the point - to be fair it has great expertise and experience in this area and is not in any way an overly critical group and only makes comments in a very careful and considered way - very strongly that the additional information stage is often where issues are resolved. I agree with the association on this. I have seen this in many larger planning applications where the planning or local authority comes in with additional information, flags things with the developer-applicant that need to be sorted and corrected, and because they are corrected and sorted at the additional information stage, the developer-applicant goes on then to get a planning permission rather than a refusal. The association was very strong in saying that if that process is overly curtailed, it will lead to more refusals. I, therefore, urge caution there as I appreciate the wish to have this streamlined but if that is tightened too much, it would be counter-productive.
I will go through the sections and then I will make some other more general comments about the disaster that the strategic housing development process has been.
First, I should, of course, say that it is very welcome that decision-making is being returned to local authorities. It should never have been given to An Bord Pleanála, which, by its nature, is an appeals board. Having that process where the only way to access an appeal was through a judicial review was a disastrous process and should never have been done and it is welcome that is returning back to the local authorities. This will be a gain for everybody, for planners, applicants, communities and people who need homes. We will have more homes with better planning and more sustainable communities as a result.
I have concerns about the existing SHD applications, the transitional arrangements and how long that will go on for. I also have a concern that this Bill will do nothing to address the very regressive section 28 guidelines that were brought in by the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, which effectively allowed the undermining of development plans and ultimately led to increases in land speculation and costs. It is my strong view that it undermines the delivery of housing in areas of prime location by effectively creating the situation of planning applications and permissions that are unviable. Due to the heights and densities allowed - I am in favour of increased heights and densities where appropriate - which can go so high and dense, it can actually make development unviable. I will give an example of this later to illustrate this point.
On section 3 of the Bill regarding a new section 32 in the principal Act, I have talked through the need for early consultation with communities and the benefits of that in reducing conflict together with the need for transparency. I will just briefly flag also that I have concerns about the language in section 3 as it does not follow the UN guidelines on gender inclusive language. It is very welcome that the Taoiseach and the Ministers from time to time give very strong and positive statements about the need for gender inclusive policies in Ireland which I respect and welcome. We should be following through, however, in ensuring that our legislation does likewise. The language is completely unnecessary and I have submitted a couple of amendments to address this. I appreciate that is not the main thrust of this Bill but, nonetheless,I have to say this.
I have concerns, as I have with all legislation, about the scope for the Minister to make regulations without the approval of the Dáil.
I have already made my comments on section 4 on additional information. The wording in the Bill seems better to me than was originally signalled. I am concerned, however, about how much it could be curtailed.
I have a particular concern that section 5 could potentially go against the principle of use it or lose it, on which the Minister has been very strong both since taking office and in opposition. Specifically, I am concerned that it may curtail the ability of planning authorities to consider other matters where a permission has already been granted. It goes back to the point I made earlier about instances where excessive development permissions, to the point of unviability, have been granted through the strategic housing development process. It will probably take some time to see the full extent of that but, where excessive permissions that are simply unviable have been granted, there must be an ability, if further applications on the same sites are submitted to the local authority, for the latter to consider whether the permissions previously granted are viable or are holding back the delivery of homes and the completion of communities. I have considerable concerns that section 5 goes against that principle and will curtail local authorities by not allowing them the flexibility to deal with such situations.
I have already dealt with section 6. On section 7, I must take issue with comments by members of the Government and with the relevant provisions. I certainly agree that owner-occupiers need to be respected in terms of the housing delivery and planning mix, but to suggest that this only applies to traditional houses and duplexes and not apartments is a cause for concern. The Bill mentions houses and duplexes but not apartments. The good news is that I have put in an amendment on this point, which I hope the Minister will accept. I am coming to his rescue on this critically important issue. We cannot accept a provision in legislation that home ownership is specifically about houses and duplexes and not apartments as well. Given the increase in smaller households, people rightsizing and the move towards more compact development, we must allow for supporting home ownership in apartments. I hope the Minister accepts my amendment.
I have outlined my concerns regarding the transitional arrangements set out in section 17.
I want to make a few general comments on the SHD process, which has relevance to the Bill and the measures I have discussed. One of the things SHDs have done is allow for increased heights and densities, as well as land values, to such an extent that they make delivery unviable in certain places. That is a principal concern I have. As I said, I support greater densities and heights, especially near public transport, but it must be done on a reasonable basis and with a realistic prospect of delivery. I will give an example from my constituency. It is one with which the Minister is very familiar as he probably passes by the development in question on a daily basis. Excellent infrastructure has been put into Clongriffin, including a DART station. There is a shovel-ready site in the heart of the development, right by the station, for 1,823 homes to be delivered, some of which were granted permission under SHD applications. It is a very good location on the edge of the traditional Dublin city suburbs. It has been rezoned for housing for the best part of two decades and the first phase of the development was occupied more than 15 years ago. The people who moved in then expected the development to be completed long before now, as well as what should be the town centre, in the area around the DART station. Under the SHD process, the heights and densities permitted have increased ever further. I have no issue with reasonable heights and densities, as I said, but in this instance we are looking at permission being granted for buildings of up to 17 storeys. That is well in excess of anything along the quays, in the docklands and elsewhere in the city centre or, indeed, almost anywhere in Ireland. The National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, which holds the loans, has indicated by way of replies I have received to parliamentary questions that it considers this and other developments to be, in effect, unviable.
My concern with the Bill is that it will not allow the local authority, if further planning applications come in to correct what I consider in this case to be a planning mistake. What is happening is that NAMA and the developer are looking to flip the site, with the lands and associated permissions on sale for €50 million. The only possible way the development could be made viable is by way of an investment fund buying it for build-to-rent schemes rather than for home ownership, which the Government says is its focus. It could only possibly be viable for an investment fund if the high rents such a fund would be seeking were underpinned by the State through housing assistance payment, HAP, provision and long-term leases. The site will possibly deliver high rents and high returns for investment funds but it will not deliver the kind of community housing of which we are all in favour. It may be the case that, for years to come, because of these excessive and speculative planning permissions granted under the SHD process, the housing will not be built because the permissions are not realistic or viable. This area that has been left undeveloped for two decade will remain undeveloped. The people in the community, who deserve to have the development completed, will not see that happening. Children will grow up, go to college and still be walking through what is, in effect, a ghost town around the DART station. This is all happening in the middle of a housing crisis. The people in that community and the people who need housing deserve to have the area completed. It is highly questionable whether SHDs have helped at all in this case or have, in fact, played a destructive role.
I appreciate that I am unpicking the decision-making being done by An Bord Pleanála but it is relevant to this Bill. If we do not have a balance in terms of achieving viable planning permissions that can be developed and delivered, we will continue to have delays in completing communities and delivering housing. Without the guidelines under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, being overturned and without local authorities being given the power under this legislation, if further planning applications are submitted, to correct planning mistakes that were made under the SHD process - my reading of the Bill is that it does not allow for this - we will continue to have the same problem.
It is worth considering research that was done into the SHD process and how it was lobbied for very strongly. A research paper by Dr. Mick Lennon of University College Dublin and Dr. Richard Waldron of Queen's University Belfast, entitled De-democraticising the Irish Planning System, details interviews with a number of politicians, decision makers and lobbyists. A lobbyist from Property Industry Ireland said the following in reference to his meetings with the then Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney:
We went in and met him. And we met four times over about six or seven weeks... And he went through what his vision was for the Irish planning property system. And we gave him our recommendations and they took it lock, stock and barrel and stuck it into the new housing bill.
That is a direct quote from the person who lobbied for the SHD legislation that was brought in by the previous Government, which has been disastrous and which is, correctly, being removed now. I have no issue with the property industry or developers having a say in legislation but they should never have that level of influence.
I thank the Minister for his briefing on the Bill, which was considered and constructive. I truly welcome the abolition of the strategic housing development scheme, which was a programme for Government commitment. A core tenet of our democracy is a robust, transparent and democratic planning system that allows for genuine public participation to bring about good planning solutions in a timely prescribed manner. From my 30 years of experience in the planning system, speeding the process up will put unneeded pressure on an overworked system and lead to problematic planning solutions. Currently, pre-planning applications are far exceeding the statutory timelines for consideration, with applicants waiting more than double the expected time. I have had personal experience of that in recent years.
The SHD scheme has failed on many levels. It took democracy out of our planning system, which ultimately led to unsustainable developments that materially contravened local development plans. The only recourse that could be taken by the public in that backroom system was to action judicial reviews, and anyone who disputes these actions is questioning a person's right to be heard in our democracy. That is why I feel so many have been actioned, albeit at great expense to the people and communities concerned.
The initial aim of SHDs was to fast-track housing delivery considering our housing crisis, a laudable aim which has sadly failed. It failed to deliver the housing we were in critical need of. Based on the figures given to me by the Department, only 29% of applications granted permission commenced or were completed. We conducted our own research across Dublin, Cork and rural local authorities, which showed the normal planning system had a far higher rate of commencement than the SHD scheme - up to 50% higher in Dublin - despite the fact the SHD scheme was to be considered successful if it hit an 80% commencement rate.
At the heart of the issue with SHDs is the fact that they created a development-led system with no genuine engagement with the local community and local government. Those best placed to make decisions on local developments were blocked from the planning process and had to resort to costly mechanisms to appeal decisions by An Bord Pleanála. It is, therefore, crucial that we do not in any way replicate the SHD system in a new large scale residential development scheme, and I believe the Minister is in agreement with me on this.
I have grave concerns about this Bill. It continues to allow material contraventions to county development plans, where An Bord Pleanála can overturn local authority decisions under section 37(2) of the Planning and Development Act, something I believe An Bord Pleanála is using beyond its real purpose. As a former councillor who has worked tirelessly alongside colleagues to ensure all of the needs of the local community are encapsulated in development plans, I cannot stand behind a planning system that will undermine the work of local authorities and councillors, and the community behind them. I have tabled a number of amendments to improve this part of the Bill and I invite the Minister to perhaps consider strengthening regulations to guide An Bord Pleanála not to undermine existing county development plans.
Another concern I have with this Bill is the limitations around requests for further information, which fetters the discretion of local authorities to request the further information they require. The planning system is very well designed and, from my experience, it works. Shortening this process for large scale developments is problematic, and I can outline why this is the case through the SHD scheme. Where an application is fast-tracked, when a local authority does not have time it will condition the development. These conditions can hold up the commencement and the negotiation happens post permission instead of within it. Essentially, the can is kicked down the road outside of the application process, which puts more pressure on planners. I understand there is huge pressure on planners. The CCMA said in a committee meeting that it did not think there was a problem, but it appears that there is. I hope the preplanning process the Minister has discussed will mitigate the new provision of limiting requests for further information. Complex large developments require more consideration.
I ask the Minister to give careful consideration to my concerns about the Bill. Having fought hard to get rid of the SHD scheme, it would be a great disappointment and unacceptable if the Bill, or parts of it, replicated the failed SHD scheme. I understand we are in a housing crisis. However, the decision of An Bord Pleanála to allow particular developments where they do not meet development planning goals from national to regional to local plans will leave the next generation without local facilities, school access and public transport to work. Measures need to be in place so that we create communities and not unsustainable sporadic housing blighting rural Ireland and suburban communities.
The Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021 replaces the strategic housing development process with the introduction of a new planning process for large-scale residential developments. There has been widespread criticism of strategic housing developments not least from the Minister's party councillors who have brought forward or supported motions at council meetings all over the country to criticise the policy and call for its abolition.
The death of strategic housing developments is a welcome U-turn from the Government, but unfortunately it is to be a slow death. Due to the overly generous transition period in the Bill, the flawed SHD planning legislation will be with us through most of 2022, with the process opening for planning applications until June 2022. Some applications will continue until October, with the possibility of legal action late into 2022. This comes as no surprise.
When forced to reverse its pro-developer, anti-worker and anti-family policies, the Government allows enough time for developers to squeeze the last few drops from the gravy train. In the same way as the Government delayed the introduction of planning restrictions on co-living, it has now provided developers with ample opportunity to benefit from the SHD legislation long after it has expired. This is bad policy and poor governance. Sinn Féin submitted amendments in the Seanad to halve the timelines. Unfortunately, they were rejected by Government parties.
The Bill introduces a three-stage large-scale residential development process, consisting of a pre-application phase, an application phase and an appeal phase. It also contains an amendment to section 50A of the Planning and Development Act 2000, allowing for any party to a planning appeal to apply to have it heard by the Supreme Court under judicial review, bypassing the Court of Appeal. This provision is intended to reduce the length of time it would take to dispose of litigation and is to be welcomed.
Sinn Féin submitted amendments on Committee Stage in the Seanad and intends to do so again. They would remove the undemocratic power the Minister has to issue mandatory planning guidelines to local authorities. The powers were introduced by the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and were used twice by Fine Gael's Eoghan Murphy to bring us co-living, build to rent and mandatory heights. Sinn Féin also introduced proposed legislation to repeal these powers and subsequent guidelines on decisions. These matters are best decided by local government. Councillors' powers have been eroded for far too long and their mandate and local knowledge must be respected.
I will open with an appeal to the Minister, and I hope his answer will be "Yes". We had a deadline of 11 a.m. today to submit amendments, before the Bill had even passed Second Stage. We were able to table quite a few amendments, but this is not fair. I have raised this at the Business Committee. We need more time to put forward amendments following a debate. Having listened to the debate so far, at least two further amendments have occurred to us. We should have the right to submit them. It is not acceptable.
There should be proper scrutiny of the Bill on Committee Stage. We need to strike down the SHD legislation which has failed. While we have to meet the deadline of 17 December, that does not require riding roughshod over proper Committee Stage consideration of the Bill. It certainly does not mean that we should be tied to a deadline for Committee Stage amendments before we have even completed the Second Stage debate and heard the Minister's response. I ask that there be some latitude to submit amendments following today's debate. I hope I will get a positive response.
The strategic housing development planning process was a failure, and that is why we are all agreed that it has to go. That is what this Bill is about. Why was it a failure? It was a failure because it did not deliver the housing that we need to address the housing crisis. It most certainly did not deliver affordability in the small amount of housing it did deliver.
It completely alienated local communities, tied housing development up in a series of legal challenges, rode roughshod over local democracy and proper and sustainable planning and it facilitated speculation and hoarding by profit-driven developers. The figures for SHD approvals speak for themselves. Of the 210 SHDs granted, only 72 were developed. Some 24,000 homes were approved and only 8,700 homes were commenced. It is clear that in many cases this is a direct result of speculation. Deansgrange, which the Minister's colleague, Deputy Devlin, should concern himself with, as should all Deputies in our area, is an example of what needs to be addressed. It is an SHD that was granted a few years ago. The developer got SHD approval for a nine-storey development overlooking Deansgrange cemetery and across the road from small, one-bedroom cottages. The developer sat on it for two years and recently flipped it. Nothing was built, of course. That is what was going on and what it facilitated.
How did all that happen? How did we get it so wrong? We got it wrong because there were, frankly, ideological assumptions. We are often accused of ideology on this side of the House but, of course, ideology permeates every party. One of the ideological assumptions that is completely misguided, but which we hear trotted out repeatedly, is that the reason we do not have this, that or the other housing development is those nasty objectors, and that if there was just a process that allowed the developer to get around these nasty objectors, we would have all the housing we need and resolve the problem. This is an idea that very much chimes with private developers, who were facilitated by the SHD, got a special process of their own, got lots of grants and delivered hardly any housing, none of which was affordable. Let us start by recognising that we were had on that argument. As to learning the lesson from that, and I am not sure what the Minister is signalling-----
Okay, and I will get on to the Bill, but we have to learn the lessons from what we did wrong in order to get this Bill right. That is my point, because the Government is still trotting out that the problem, and the reason we do not have the housing we need to address the housing crisis and affordability, is all these terrible objectors. I am still hearing that, and it is just not true. The facts bear it out in respect of the SHDs because the developers got their own special process and the nasty objectors were pushed aside. They got the grants and the process did not deliver. It facilitated speculation. The lesson to be learned is that private developers will say absolutely anything to get a planning permission to increase the value of the site and to facilitate their profit taking, which very often involves hoarding, speculation and flipping properties. Let us learn the lesson about listening to the lobbying of these private, profit-driven property developers.
Second, it was premised on another ideological assumption - it is textbook neoliberal economics, but a load of nonsense - that if we increase supply, the price will drop. That is just not true. It does not matter how many economic textbooks say it because one need only look at the experience of this country. We had record levels of supply; at the height of the Celtic tiger economy there was three times what we have now. Did prices, rents or anything else drop? No, they continued to rise all the time. That is what happened. If we do not learn that lesson, we will not bring forward the legislation necessary to deal with the problems we face. It is not just me, Karl Marx or whoever saying it. The head of Tuath Housing Association said recently at a conference that we need to get rid of the "red herring" that if one increases supply, the price comes down. He is absolutely right. It does not.
The problem is that these private developers have no interest in the prices going down. If they are the dominant force in setting the legislative agenda and the policy and in controlling a large part or most of the output in the housing sector, they will never, ever increase supply to the point at which their profits go down. That is what happens when property prices and rents go down. Why on earth would they do it? They will not. Can we please learn that lesson? Then we might have the wisdom to develop the necessary legislation to facilitate proper, sustainable development and the level of output to deliver the affordable housing we need to address the housing crisis.
The Minister says we should move on to the legislation and what is in it, which is the end of the SHDs. No, it is not. Consider section 17. First, we had to push it out after the announcement in July that it was going to be the end of October. Then we had to push it out a little further. Now we have created another out for the developers if they can get in the pre-planning application meetings and requests. Then we can push it out further into next year. Why are we doing that for a process that has patently failed? We should not allow any more of this process to continue. It has done zilch - zero. In fact, it has exacerbated the housing crisis and is often linked to the speculation and so forth I spoke about, the profit taking or, indeed, deals with local authorities over extortionate costs for leasing back properties and the builds-to-rent that cost an absolute fortune, inflating the housing assistance payment, HAP, bill and the rents ordinary people have to pay. We need to cut it dead and there should be no get-out clause. We have tabled amendments to that effect.
What else do we need? I agree that at the pre-application stage we should deal with all the potentially relevant issues. That is fine if it helps to move things along, but there must be consultation at that level with the stakeholders, the local communities and so forth. The beginning of wisdom is to listen to ordinary people. They are not the enemy in delivering housing. What they want is sustainable development of their areas and they want housing that their children and community can afford. They do not want development that is going to be extortionate in cost and that will only facilitate money making. People are also very aware that just letting things be developer-led in the first place can lead to the type of catastrophic consequences we saw with the economic crash in 2008 and 2009, so let us understand the wisdom of local communities.
When talking about student accommodation we should have a condition for even consideration of this new special process. The point I want to make is that we are replacing the special process developers got with SHDs with a new special process. It is a better special process. It has to take cognisance of the local county development plans, which the other process did not, and so forth, but it is still a special process for them. I am not really sure why a special process is justified at all. Surely one of the things we have learned from all this is that the question of them getting planning applications was not the block. Much as they claimed it and much as the awful objectors were blamed, have we not now learned that it was not blockages in the planning process that were the problem in delivering the amount of housing we needed and the affordability that ordinary people need to afford that housing? It begs the question: why do we need a special process for them at all? The real problem is that they are only going to build when it is profitable for them and we have to short circuit that. That would be primarily done by the State delivering a large enough amount of public and affordable housing on scale so that they do not control the sector, control the rents and control the prices.
In fact, they are put under pressure by the scale of public and affordable development to actually drop their prices because that will force them to drop their prices. I heard today from officials in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council that it could be the end of next year before the development in Shanganagh, which was supposed to have been on site by the end of this year, gets going with the famous LDA, which is extremely disappointing news.
I will tell the Minister what my answer is. The private developers that successive Governments have insisted must in some way be involved in this process could not bear it if there was a large amount of housing in my area built at affordable prices of, for example, €200,000 because it would be very hard for them to sell stuff up the road for €400,000 if that were happening on scale. It is obvious that is the case. The way to drive down property prices and the cost of rent is by the State doing it regardless of the consequences for those private developers. It needs to be done on scale and quickly, but it needs to be done in consultation with local communities and within the principles of proper sustainable planning and development.
If we are talking about any permissions under this new regime for student accommodation which we desperately need, it should be in consultation with the local college communities. The first people we need to talk to are the student union representatives, the college authorities and, most particularly, the students to find out what sort of a student accommodation they need and whether such a planning proposal offers them the sort of affordable accommodation they need. If there is any case at all for a special planning dispensation for private developers, it should be linked to affordability. What is the point of giving them a special process of their own if the result is not accommodation well below the completely unaffordable market prices? I do not see the case for it. Why would we give them a special process if we end up with rents of €2,500 or €3,000 a month, or property prices of €400,000 or €500,000? What is the point in facilitating that? There is absolutely no point. It is actually counterproductive.
While I accept this is some improvement on the SHD process, any special process they are given, even if it is an improved process, should be conditional on the affordability of what is delivered. The whole point in addressing the current housing crisis is delivering for people where the market has failed. We need to intervene with legislation and other measures in order to deliver for the people who have been failed consistently. This legislation should be conditional on all those things.
The Minister referred to landlords being able to rent out student accommodation outside academic term times. At an absolute minimum that should be amended to the academic year. A landlord should not be allowed to tell a student to get out on 17 December because they want to rent it out for Christmas for short-term lets during holidays or something. We need strict provisions so that landlords cannot exploit change-of-use provisions to turn what was supposed to be a strategic housing development to meet a real need into use for something completely different.
The requirement for a minimum of 70% of housing is good, but it is followed by "or other such percentage as may be prescribed". Does that mean it could be less than 70%? No way should that be allowed. I do not see the case for that discretion and it should be deleted. Similarly, on the different uses for the 30%, there needs to be close consultation with the local communities to ascertain what they want. I heard the Minister speak earlier. I take his point that we need the services, retail outlets, coffee shops or whatever it might be. However, what is needed should not be entirely or even mostly dictated by what the private developer thinks they can make money from with the development, but what members of the local community think they need when a new housing development is going ahead in their area. Doing that would allow for much more buy-in from the local community for significant new developments in an area.
It is critical that developers are required to provide-----
It must be a meaningful Committee Stage.
The point made by Deputy Nash about dereliction is absolutely right in the current circumstances. We should use the opportunity to do something about dereliction. I was shocked by the findings of a new report about the level of dereliction in Dún Laoghaire. The amount of dereliction on the main street in Dún Laoghaire drives people insane. We were put out of the office I had on the main street in Dún Laoghaire on the basis that it was being sold to somebody else. It was very difficult to find the new owner. We went to the new owner and asked if we could rent it out but were refused for whatever reason. That was two years ago and it is still lying empty with not a sign of movement. That is typical of what is going on. The upper storeys of that building are perfectly suitable for residential accommodation if the money were put into it.
Radical measures need to be taken to ensure that is simply not allowed. Refurbishing the derelict property that is already there has far less impact on the environment, CO2 emissions and so on. However, people are sitting on it for speculative and other reasons. There are no excuses in the case of the office we tried to rent back. It has a new owner and yet it is lying empty, as are apparently 350 properties on the main street in Dún Laoghaire, a figure I could not believe. Measures to address that problem should be included in this legislation because it is an absolute emergency.
We will support the legislation, but we will be tabling amendments and I hope the Minister will take them seriously. I hope he will give us time to put in more amendments and have proper scrutiny of this vital legislation on Committee Stage.
The problem that confronts me here is to combine my loyalty, affection and respect for the Minister as a colleague with the criticism which he knows I have of the previous process. One of the previous speakers suggested this was a U-turn in Government policy. As a Fianna Fáil Deputy, I can say this is not a U-turn in Government policy. This is Fianna Fáil putting its stamp on seriously flawed Fine Gael policy. It was stitched into the programme-----
We did not support it, actually. It was stitched into the programme for Government. I wish we had outlawed SHDs from the start. However, this legislation appears to do it. I was concerned that a Government press release about its legislative programme and what it was prioritising for autumn term - I welcome that this Bill has been prioritised - stated that the legislation would see a streamlining of the SHD process. We need to be very clear; that was Government language. This cannot be streamlining of the SHD process which not only must see an end, but needs to be seen to terminate. It is a seriously flawed process.
That is one of the most significant points I want to make.
The Minister would not be bringing forward this Bill if the previous legislation had not failed or been seen to fail. I do not want to be tiresome about it but I represent a constituency and one of the lessons I have learned, and which I am sure the Minister has learned, is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in housing legislation. The Minister represents a constituency substantially larger than mine and it probably has much more land with development potential. I am not underestimating the impact of SHDs in Fingal but I know that in Dublin South-West, the SHDs essentially result in developments being shoehorned into what are, by and large, existing and settled residential areas, riding a coach and four through county development plans and local area plans.
As my constituency colleague, Deputy Duffy, stated earlier, I have seen first-hand that objections cannot be categorised as a case of "not in my back yard" or "NIMBYism". Some of the applications are obscene and offensive in how they ride roughshod over county development plans in terms of density and height with no regard for impact on traffic or great provision for amenities except on the site that the developer proposes. They have no regard for the wider need of amenities that the developments will necessitate.
There is a classic example in Citywest, with a local area plan in 2013 that envisaged a particular scale of residential development. All of this was overruled. The latest planning permission was for 13 storeys and we cannot even get 13 storeys in the city. The permission has no library, community centre or Garda station and it is an example of multiple SHD decisions, all build to rent, granted in the Citywest area, with more in Tallaght.
The SHD process became so sullied that developers are probably disinclined to enter into it. I suspect that contrary to what I feared, which was that when the end was flagged there would be a plethora of applications being steamrolled through. However, the process has been so sullied, challenged to such a degree and with outcomes denigrated that developers will be slow to use the SHD process. What has been the result? Democracy will always find a way. There is a ridiculous scenario, with residents having to hold cake sales on village greens and open spaces in estates to raise funding for judicial reviews. That was never intended to be the case.
I welcome and acknowledge the work the Minister has done, particularly in listening to his colleagues whining meaningfully and sincerely over the past 18 months about having a decent process that is transparent and involves the local authority. It should have democratic input along with transparency. This is vital and local communities kicked back because they were forced to use the judicial review process. What has happened? This delayed developments that otherwise might have found their way, with amendment, through the planning process. The units are not in the ground now and it could be a year or two before they are in the ground so they will come into the ground in a much more expensive manner.
I say to the Opposition that the phrase is "it does what it says on the tin". My colleague, the Minister, knows I opposed the programme for Government on a number of grounds, specifically those relating to the SHD process. That concern has been taken on board. I wish SHDs could have been ended earlier. This is a failed Government policy and a different Minister should be here to take the abuse; the current Minister should just be launching these new proposals. I am sorry the current Minister must take the continuous abuse in this regard.
I say to Deputy Boyd Barrett that the Minister is ending SHDs and it was a commitment in the programme for Government.
It was a Fianna Fáil commitment in that regard. I have heard the Deputy speak passionately about this and I acknowledge that he supports such action. There are a few amendments I would like considered as well but the bottom line is that an unsuccessful, disastrous policy is being brought to an end by a Fianna Fáil Minister with responsibility for housing. The House should at least acknowledge that. We made a commitment and we are following through on it. I hope what comes after represents a much more democratic, transparent and public-friendly model that people can buy into and feel their voices are heard. I believe it will. People should believe they can influence developments that take place in their communities and beyond.
The introduction of strategic housing developments was a cause of major concern and anger in the community. Local authorities have been bypassed in the planning process for large-scale developments of 100 or more units and also with large-scale student accommodation. This has led to a less than democratic decision making process in large-scale planning applications, with local residents being forced to make a submission on a planning application for an SHD directly to An Bord Pleanála. Effectively, residents' hands are tied by the planning process for SHDs. If residents are not happy with the decision by An Bord Pleanála after the submission, there is only one remaining option, which is to appeal the decision by seeking a judicial review in the courts. This is a complicated and expensive process for residents but one that favours developers.
The Minister has indicated it is his intention to end this flawed process in the coming month. It should never have been introduced in the first place. The previous Government introduced the SHD process and the Minister's party supported these measures. In government, instead of ending the process immediately, it was extended to February 2022.
I have concerns with elements of this Bill. Under current legislation, developers previously submitted plans in contravention of both city and county developments. Despite this, An Bord Pleanála has allowed projects to go ahead. This Bill fails to address this possibility, which is a real concern both for me and residents of my community. Of considerable concern is the lack of clarity around section 6 of this Bill, which amends section 50A of the principal Act, bypassing the Court of Appeal and going directly to the Supreme Court. Will the Minister explain the reasoning behind this? What are the long-term objectives of including this provision in the Bill? Going directly to the Supreme Court and bypassing the Court of Appeal creates enormous obstacles for the ordinary resident and appears to favour the developer disproportionately.
It is also clear from the Bill that SHDs will continue to be part of the development process for a considerable period. It is obvious developers will rush in with a plethora of applications in the time left to them. This will, in effect, extend the SHD process into the future. This should not be allowed to happen if the intent of the Bill is to stop the current use of SHDs. Sinn Féin will put forward amendments to address these and other concerns.
I am pleased to be part of this debate, which is about amending large-scale residential planning and development. I hope what the Minister proposes will streamline the planning process, which is required if we are to affect the current lack of supply in starter homes in the country.
I welcome the Minister's decision to dispense with the strategic housing development policy. As the Minister knows, where schemes were applied in regional towns and villages, some of the configurations are largely unworkable in market terms for many developers and certainly for buyers of homes. In my city of Waterford I can think of two schemes applied for under the SHD process where the density guidelines bear no relation to what buyers are seeking or the previous draft or approved development plan. Where the subsequent high-density scheme is approved there would be no first-time buyer demand or even demand from property real estate investment trusts or other investors.
I raise the issue, as others have, regarding the timeline and the process to dispense with SHDs. The Minister has allowed for a significant window for pending applications for those who make new applications. Given that decision, has the Minister considered any review process of the SHDs that are to come his way in the coming weeks?
I welcome the greater influence this Bill will give to local authority decision-making. This is a good development and I hope council executives and their planners will listen carefully to the views expressed by local authority city and county councillors, who know more about the housing demands on the ground than do even the planning departments. They are speaking to constituents every day and have a good feel for where local authority development should take place in the future.
I also welcome the Minister's announcement of a two-stage pre-application process. This will allow for greater transparency, as the Minister has highlighted, before any formal application to planning is made. I welcome the proposed reference timelines for applications, considerations and the granting of appeals. I note the Minister potentially will put tariffs on not alone the local authorities but the developers. In my experience, these delays are mainly at local authority level and not with the developers but we will see how that goes. The Minister's decision to increase the 30% commercial floor cap on large strategic housing developments or residential developments is probably a positive measure in terms of the viability and the financing of those developments. All in all, the Bill has merits. It appears to streamline the application process for large-scale residential developments. This should be a positive development and hopefully it will give back greater powers to the local authority to be actively involved again in planning considerations and design alterations.
I wish to speak on issues beyond the Bill's scope that are presently impacting the housing sector and the housing supply, some of which have already been touched on by a number of Deputies. Affordability is becoming a key obstacle to people owning their own home, be that a first-time home or a second-hand home purchase. I note the VAT rate of 13% on a new home build, starter home or any home that is to be built, about which we have previously spoken. When one considers mortgage costs on top of that, it is a net cost of about 17% over the life of the build to the buyer. We are trying to give supports to first-time buyers. Will the Minister consider a form of VAT rebate to first-time buyers over a year or two years after the fact? They could short-term finance it in order that the price would not be reflected in the sale price and developers would not be taking it. However, a huge amount is being taken. More than 30% is being taken in Government tariffs and development fees and levies of all new house builds. This is a huge amount of money to first-time buyers when the affordability component is now becoming so difficult.
Another area I have raised before is the cost of housebuilding materials. In this country, they are probably between 20% and 30% more expensive than in the European market. As a member of the EU - with open borders and all the rest of it - we should have fairly equal prices of building materials but that is not the case. One can go to Poland and load up a container - leaving out the container cost - to ship and land materials here at a cost of up to 30% less. Surely, we need to look at whether there are cartels in the building materials space? Are anti-competitive practices happening that are sustaining these high material costs? I understand there is significant demand and that the supply chain has been interrupted due to Covid. Despite all that, however, there is significant price gouging going on in the marketplace at present.
I refer to the issue of rural density and one-off housing. While the Minister and the Planning Regulator have probably shared a different position to this publicly, the Minister needs to clarify the position on the future of rural one-off housing. We are talking about trying to retain, develop and sustain rural communities. At the same time, we are giving the message to people who have access to land in the rural community, such as a son or a daughter of a farmer, but who do not have a relationship with the land or in other words, they are not getting their livelihoods from the land, while living in the community, they are not entitled to a build a house. Some of those farmers might have ten acres or 20 acres. Those people are the lives of future communities. It is not fair to push them into areas they are not from and force them into potentially high-density builds in other rural villages. Will the Minister give clarification to councillors throughout the country as to where his thinking falls in this regard?
Another area about which the Government has not done enough is in respect of developer finance. It is only a matter of speaking to developers to understand the difficulties they encounter in getting build finance and the strictures put on them when borrowing large amounts of money. One of those is the 30:30:30 rule, whereby a developer who goes into a pillar bank to borrow money is told that he or she will be given money for one third of the development. When that is developed and the houses are sold, and when everyone has been paid, the pillar bank will then give the developer the next third and then the subsequent 33%. The problem with this is that building development does not work efficiently in that way. Developers on a large-scale building project want to bring all their people and materials and everything on to the site and to build without interruption. That is efficiency. We have not done enough in stimulating the banks. There are a number of large-scale developers in this country who are giving building finance to smaller developers. This is simply because they understand the marketplace and are prepared to risk money that the pillar banks are not. That is also putting a cost on the end product. This is something for which there could be some financial instruments or otherwise introduced. There must be some way to interdict this activity.
Beyond that is something that we are all aware of, namely, the funding of Irish Water. Many potential housing application schemes are not feasible to a large degree because of the cost of accessing rural and wastewater treatment facilities. Developers are being levied with these costs. I spoke to the Minster some time ago about a housing development in Waterford where the developer was asked to pay the full cost of an upgrade of sewage ducting in a scheme where further schemes would follow on. No amortisation was provided for the schemes that were to follow. He was to pay it all upfront and anybody else who came in afterwards would benefit. That is not sustainable but to my knowledge, that has not yet been addressed.
That is no problem.
I ask the Minister and Minister of State to look at the issue of adequate and proper funding of Irish Water. It is a significant disruption at present to the development of housing in this country, particularly to smaller scale rural developments.
Another area that others have touched on is the availability of skills, particularly the wet skills such as blocklaying and plastering. I am a member of the Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and we have been discussing the possibility of extending work permits for people with these trades from Europe despite the fact that, Covid restrictions aside, we nearly have full employment in the construction sector. We cannot get people into these skills who have left the sector and gone back to work. We do not seem to have an avenue on which to coax them other than talking about apprenticeships. The problem with apprenticeships is that there is no good message about them in the construction sector, despite the fact that an experienced blocklayer today could earn up to €2 per block in a day in which he or she might lay between 200, 300 or 400 blocks. There is a good income to be had and yet parents are telling their children to go to college and get a low-level degree that will qualify them for what? Further low-level employment into the future. We must recognise and start a communications programme about how construction is a valid employment sector in this country. Throughout Europe and the United States, construction has always been a really good sector to work in. However, for some reason in Ireland in recent years, we have failed to convince the youth that this is an area of opportunity they should explore.
The Department also needs to consider a formula to get all the utilities and regulators together to streamline the combined activities in home delivery. A builder at present has to engage with Irish Water, ESB, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, HomeBond and a whole plethora of other agencies and professionals, from each of which the builder is depending on a licence application or a regulation approval before he or she can go on to the next one, and this is extending the whole delivery timeline.
It also adds costs for the developer, which he or she subsequently passes on to the buyer of the home. The requirement for one certificate to come before another is absolutely throttling the provision of housing. Something has to be done in this regard. These are simple processes. As usual, we in this country are killing ourselves with regulation. Builders are inundated with problems such as all of this regulation, the lack of finance and the amount of time things take. I spoke to a property developer today who told me that he has to purchase land four years in advance for future housing schemes he wants to develop. He has to get the purchase and the legalities out of the way before dealing with the financing and making the planning application. When he has the finance in place, he can build the houses and get them sold. It is a pretty easy process to understand but the timeline is the problem and we are doing nothing to refine it to any degree. I broadly welcome what the Minister has announced with respect to these large-scale residential developments but there are other things we could be doing to try to help the smaller builders in particular.
I will say one final thing, which has been touched on in the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. We have to find a way to stop a certain activity. The word "stop" is not the right word because it is a free market but I am aware of investment firms buying houses in Waterford as they come up on the second-hand market. People are being priced out of the market. They have no way to compete with that kind of money. I do not know how to solve that problem but we must solve it. Some 150 years ago, we were a nation of people who paid to be tenants all our lives. All our ancestors did so. We never owned our own property. In the last 50 years we came to have ownership of property but we are now again going to have absentee landlords throughout the EU and the US. We must do something to stop this. At the end of the day, people's homes are their castles. I believe it is people's right to own property in this country. We need to do more to see to it that happens.
I welcome the opportunity to examine the Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021. I thank the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and his officials for their work on this Bill and for bringing it before the House. I will be supporting this important change in legislation which ends the era of strategic housing developments. This was a key commitment of the programme for Government and I am pleased to see it being implemented by the Minister. I agree with the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach. His own experience in Dublin South-West mirrors my very similar experience in my own constituency in Dún Laoghaire with regard to SHDs.
The Bill introduces a new planning process for large-scale residential developments, LRDs, which will replace the existing strategic housing development process. Crucially, the reforms in this Bill will restore the power to make decisions on large-scale residential developments to city or county councils in the first instance, thereby providing greater transparency and clarity and improved public participation in the process. The Bill passed by the Seanad introduces a provision that local authorities must ensure that owner-occupied housing is provided for as a tenure type and that the number of such units is estimated in their housing strategies. Next year, €4 billion of Exchequer funding, supplemented by Land Development Agency funding and Housing Finance Agency lending, will be made available to deliver 9,000 new-build social homes and make 4,130 homes available for affordable purchase and cost rental.
The Bill introduces a new planning process for LRDs to replace the SHD process. The SHD process, provided for by the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016, allowed for certain large-scale applications to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. The new process is envisaged to take place at local authority level with a mechanism to appeal to An Bord Pleanála. This is quite similar to the traditional planning process. The introduction of the LRD process gives effect to the commitment in action 12.3 of the Government’s Housing for All strategy. It introduces a three-stage LRD process consisting of a pre-planning phase, an application phase and an appeal phase. The reforms will restore the power to make decisions on large residential developments to local authorities in the first instance, providing greater transparency and clarity and improved public participation in the process, which is crucial.
A large-scale residential development is defined as a housing development of 100 or more units, student accommodation comprising 200 units or more, or a combination of the two where the threshold is met for either element. The Bill also contains an amendment to section 50A of the Planning and Development Act 2000, allowing for any party to a planning appeal to apply to have it heard by the Supreme Court under judicial review, bypassing the Court of Appeal stage provided for under the current system. This provision is intended to reduce the length of time it takes to dispose of the litigation and is a welcome change. The Bill will also provide certainty and stability to the construction sector by retaining some of the positive elements of the existing arrangements such as mandatory pre-application consultation, the quality of applications submitted and decision timelines.
Delivering on commitments in both the programme for Government and Housing for All, the new LRD arrangements will involve three stages. The pre-application stage involves two steps. The applicant will first be required to seek standard pre-application consultation as currently mandated for developments of this scale under section 247 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. The second step entails a mandatory eight-week consultation phase with the local authority resulting in the holding of an LRD meeting and the issuing of an LRD opinion as to whether the proposals constitute a reasonable basis for submitting an application.
The application stage involves a standard application, to be made to the city or county council, with a mandatory eight-week timeframe for decisions. On the appeal stage, the decision of the planning authority may be appealed to An Bord Pleanála, in which case the board has a mandatory 16-week timeframe for decisions. That is new. The Bill also proposes a number of transitional arrangements relating to the expiry of the SHD arrangements and their replacement by the new LRD arrangements.
I welcome the ending of the SHD process. The legislation was deeply flawed, undermined county development plans, rode roughshod over local democracy and failed to deliver housing. The new LRD process will ensure future applications have regard to county development plans, many of which councillors across the county have worked on or are working on. This will fulfil the need for democracy in this process. The LRD process will ensure a more appropriate process for large-scale applications. This is welcome. I hope it will deliver housing. I will be supporting the Bill and I look forward to hearing from the Minister regarding reasonable amendments such as those allowing councils to seek further information. Perhaps, in his closing remarks, the Minister will confirm whether councils can seek further information in the process. Will applicants still be required to provide drawings, plans and other information through a specific dedicated website under the LRD process or will it be for the councils to provide that information on their planning websites?
To go back to the points raised by my colleagues, it is important to remember that the SHD process was meant to accelerate the processing of applications. It probably did that but how many of those applications actually came to fruition? I am thinking about a specific case in my own constituency, in Carrickmines, where planning permission for a 22-storey building was granted in the middle of what is, in theory, a residential area. It would have been far greater in height than any other proposed building, whether residential or otherwise, in that area. We need to look at the heights, the mix and the facilities. The Cathaoirleach Gníomhach himself spoke about facilities in respect of SHDs. We need to look at what is provided around these proposed developments. We need units to be developed. That is for sure. However, they have to be appropriate for the area with regard to their scale, their size and the amenities they offer. In moving away from the SHD process, the Minister and his officials have heard the genuine concerns of the people over recent years since the SHD process was brought in in 2016. Many of the changes being proposed today are very welcome and will be welcomed by members of the public engaging with the various processes and applications.
We welcome this legislation and will support it because it brings to an end the flawed SHD legislation. We need a decent framework for large-scale residential builds but let us be clear; unfortunately, strategic housing developments will be with us into 2022. That has already been put on record, particularly by a number of my colleagues. We will propose amendments in that regard on Committee Stage. We also have difficulties with the changes being proposed with regard to the judicial review process. We have not had an adequate explanation as to the reason for these changes.
We all accept that there is a planning problem across the board. We welcome that a review is being undertaken by the Attorney General. There will be a need to streamline this planning process to allow it to work in the modern age. We are aware of the difficulties being experienced by the Office of Public Works, OPW, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, National Broadband Ireland, NBI and other agencies in trying to undertake major infrastructural projects.
In addition, this process can fall down at all ends, in that many of those outfits can also fail to do what they should be doing from a community interaction perspective regarding consultation and even pre-consultation scenarios. We need as much as possible, therefore, to build this aspect into a framework and then ensure that there is best practice and due diligence in planning. We must get a sensible system in place for planning that works for everybody involved.
We have a pile of anomalies that we must deal with in the planning system. Eventually, we must see the results of the review of rural housing. We must also have a straight conversation regarding that aspect, because every local authority takes a slightly different angle and all the political parties sometimes split on where they stand on the issue as well. A proper discussion has never been had about that issue, and nor has a roadmap or a framework emerged from this place. That must happen. Multiple anomalies exist throughout many local development plans by now. The cart has been placed before the horse, and that is the usual thing we do here.
When talking about planning, what is consistently raised with me is the idea of permeability. We all accept the desire to facilitate a world of active living. I have seen many circumstances, however, where a developer, or whomever, has been forced to build what is regarded as permeability and connectivity but all it does is create a rat-run that produces problems with antisocial behaviour and difficulties for the Garda. Councillors then have to beat themselves up from the perspective of trying to ensure that they can get some of these features extinguished. That is a difficulty that we must deal with.
We have had a long conversation on how to deal with the supply issue and we are also aware of the rental issues. We support this Bill but several issues remain outstanding. I have dealt with and will continue to deal with the Minister to address the issue of maintenance. He has put forward proposals concerning potential retrofitting of buildings, dealing with housing maintenance issues and possible regeneration schemes. We have a particular issue in the Louth County Council area regarding the age of the housing stock. It is an issue that must be dealt with as soon as possible.
I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. It may seem strange for a rural-based Deputy to be speaking on this legislation that will mainly apply to Dublin and the other cities around the country and that will be unlikely to have an impact on rural areas, at least not at this stage. As Deputies in the House, however, we all have an input into the decisions made for the whole of Ireland. The ending of the strategic housing development planning arrangement is welcome. There is no doubt about that and it has been welcomed right across the House. The question, though, is what is going to replace that process and this is important.
The Department has stated that the strategic housing development arrangements were intended to speed up the planning process for large-scale housing developments on land already zoned. It seems clear from the contributions made here that it did not seem to lead to the delivery of any extra houses but instead seems to have led to a market in the flipping of sites. We must get to the point where the political process stops seeing developers as a solution to the problems, because that is not the case. Developers are about maximising profits and that is what they have used the process for. One of the major objections to the way that developments were decided concerned the lack of a way for communities to have an input into the process at an early enough stage to have their views heard.
The report of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill is a good document and highlights many of the problems in this legislation. The section on community involvement is telling in respect of the attitude of the Department concerning community views. The Department, noting that community consultation should be taking place at the development plan stage, shows a complete lack of understanding regarding development. In an ideal world perhaps that would be the case, but planning applications deal with a particular site in much more detail than a county development plan. As the report finds, in practice, for many local communities, planning issues only become a reality when they are faced with a planning application. There is, of course, also the idea that development plans are basically aspirational and it is hard, at times, to get people interested in them.
It is only, therefore, when an application is made that the reality hits of a potential development being under way, and then people start to focus on the development itself. Interestingly as well, someone said earlier that most applications are for variations on plans, as developers use the planning system to get planning permission that increases the value of their land. In that case, then, the community would not be aware of these applications, even if it had been heavily involved in the county development plan process. That aspect must be examined and community involvement must be included.
It is right that it was stated by the committee that it would be of significant benefit to planning applicants and local communities if the proposed legislation contained a requirement for a certain level of public consultation to be incorporated in the pre-planning consultation stage. It is interesting that the committee referred to such a requirement for public consultation to take place as being of use to the applicant as well. I agree that the whole system, ultimately, would be improved by the addition of community involvement in a formal consultation process at the pre-planning stage. It would mean, eventually, with proper consultation being in place, that the planning process could be shortened and applications could move on without problems as well.
I will, therefore, be submitting amendments on Committee Stage to have proper community involvement included in the planning process that would meet the requirements of the legislation and ensure that the communities hosting these developments will be part of the process. It is vitally important that they are included and are a part of the process. If we can achieve that through this legislation, that would be something in itself.
I also welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and that I have more than the usual two or three minutes as well. The Acting Chair might not like this, but I am going to quote him. He said that the SHD policy was an unsuccessful and disastrous policy. I welcome those words. It was clear. I will move off the personal now, but I must add that he also said that Fianna Fáil had never supported the policy. Actually, it did for four years during the confidence and supply agreement. It had full confidence then in the Government that went with this policy. Therefore, I welcome that this Government is now reversing the SHD policy. I do have some issues regarding the minutiae concerning student accommodation, in respect of the provisions only applying to the academic year. In addition, I am concerned about the issue of public consultation, as commented on by Deputy Pringle in respect of the issues raised by the report of the committee. It is well worth looking at them. Some of them have been taken on board in this proposed legislation, such as that concerning the local authority members, while others have not.
When I have the chance, I always point out that the courts have always praised ordinary people for their role in the planning process, notwithstanding the comments made from the top to the bottom of this Chamber. Those comments have come from the Taoiseach himself, as well as the Tánaiste, regarding serial objectors. I have never found that in my 21 years, this year, as a councillor and a Deputy. I have never met serial objectors. That does not mean that there might not be one or two. I have not, however, met them. I have met people who are concerned residents and people who take on the enormous challenge of fighting the system by paying the requisite money and meeting the cost of participating in the system in that way. For doing that, they have been thanked and recognised by the courts. References are made to the trinity, namely, the developer, the local authority and the individual or community. Therefore, I would like to dispel that myth of the serial objector. Turning to An Taisce, it is usually used as a battering ram. It has done great work, as have other concerned people who have repeatedly brought to our attention the damage being done to the environment by uncontrolled projects
I return now to the comments made about this being a disastrous policy. I wish the senior Minister was present because the previous action plan for housing and homelessness was brought in in July 2016 with the support of Fianna Fáil. Key pillars in that plan were intended to address homelessness, to accelerate social housing, build more homes, improve the rental sector and utilise existing housing. None of that has been achieved. More than five years later, we are now talking about a new policy to deal with the housing crisis. The housing crisis did not emerge overnight. In going through my notes, I came across a paper from Professor Patrick Drudy from 2002, which is almost 20 years ago now. He was putting the problem in perspective then. We are often accused of ideology but it is totally on the side that looks on housing as a commodity to be traded and that profits are made on.
That is an ideology. It is neoliberalism. That was captured by Professor Drudy from Trinity College back in 2002. In a different light, back in 1999 my first public speech was down in Kerry at a Labour Party conference in respect of a housing crisis. Here we are 23 years later and it is the same thing. It has just intensified. I brought this publication down to give the Minister a break. It is the previous action plan. I also want to put another myth to bed. The Minister of State, Deputy English, has repeatedly said that there is a misunderstanding about the housing assistance payment, HAP, and that it is not a long-term solution. I will quote from page 48 of the plan that was brought in by the Minister of State and his colleagues in July 2016:
"Accelerated Roll-out of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) Scheme. The Government’s long-term vision is for rent supplement to be replaced with the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) for households with a long-term housing need, although rent supplement will continue to be available for [those in short-term need]."
It goes on to expand on how that will work as a long-term solution. The consequences were that applicants were taken off the waiting list once they went on HAP. Different local authorities and members took a different view on that and had to fight ridiculous battles. At one stage in Galway, it is probably still the case, we had two lists. We have the social housing waiting list. The Department might take note of this because it is how we get tangled up in rows when we do not want to at all. We also have a parallel list, a sort of limbo list, for those on the HAP. They are on a separate list but they are being treated the same, apparently. We do not know the rights of the person on HAP because according to the Government's policy they are adequately housed and removed from the waiting list. They are just some of the contradictions.
I always go back to the city I am from to try to put things in perspective. So bad is the housing situation that a task force was set up. I have lost track of when, but it was a number of years ago. I have never seen a report published. I have followed it. I was going to say religiously but I might choose a better word than that, to get the minutes. The minutes I have now are from April. It did not meet again until maybe September and those minutes have to be approved. The last minutes I have are from April. That task force has met for over two years now, maybe three, and we have never had a report. I would have thought a housing task force was to assess the nature of the crisis in Galway which in my opinion is worse than Dublin, and give us a report, an analysis and actions. That has never happened. I refer to what it did say. I welcome the Bill. It is putting the power back to where it should never have been removed from, that is, the local authority. The question is: how it is going to be resourced? This has been raised repeatedly. It is one thing to bring in legislation and another to determine how it is going to operate and be resourced. In respect of the Galway social housing task force, the minutes from the meeting of 21 April show that both chief executives highlighted the need for additional staffing resources in order to have the capacity to deliver on their social housing programmes and the range of infrastructural services required to facilitate such developments. I know the Minister takes a particular interest in Galway and has spoken to the Galway housing task force. It was agreed that two staff members would follow this matter up directly with the local government. The Minister might confirm whether that has happened and what resources have been put in place. The Minister must forgive me if I believe nothing because today we have a letter dated 23 November from Galway County Council telling all of us about a resolution-----
Iontach. An bhfuil beart déanta ag an Aire maidir leis an litir mar tá siad ag gearán faoi seo le fada an lá agus is easpa airgid agus maoinithe atá i gceist leis? Nuair a bheidh an t-am ag an Aire, beidh sé in ann teacht ar ais chugam
Go hiontach. Tá an litir anseo agam agus is é an rud is tábhachtaí atá le cur in iúl don Dáil ná an rud atá istigh sa litir nó an t-ionchur.
It begins: "A chara. We refer to previous correspondence to you from the chief executive." We must bear in mind that there is an acting chief executive for a very long time. I might come back to that as well, as to what the policy is from the Government. As outlined in the chief executive's letter, there are a whole range of methods and indicators that could be used to compare how Galway County Council fares relative to others. It goes on to tell us that in terms of the distribution, it would require an additional allocation of €10.8 million simply to give Galway County Council an equivalent share to its comparator local authorities. A resolution was passed that in view of the failure of the Department of Finance to provide sufficient funding to Galway County Council to provide a proper level of services within the county, a signed letter by all elected members outlining the shortfall would be produced and so on.
Go hiontach. Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an Aire agus is é an pointe ata á dhéanamh agam ná go raibh orthu an stró seo a chur orthu féin chun a chur in iúl dúinne go bhfuil easpa airgid agus acmhainní i gceist le fada an lá i gContae na Gaillimhe. Is í sin an fhadhb agus an pointe faoi láthair.
We go back now to policy and ideology. For a long time, and I have always said this, we have been accused of ideology. I do not have an ideology. I am a practical, pragmatic woman who believes in justice. We cannot have a just society if we do not have homes. If we treat a house or home as a commodity, we are lost. We need a policy where we treat it as a basic ingredient of a civilised society. I welcome the Bill. It is a step in the right direction. However, it was brought in as part of that ideology that housing is a commodity. It is now being condemned by Fianna Fáil. I would hope that Fianna Fáil will also condemn the previous housing policy that it supported and, more importantly, give me an analysis of how it failed in the four or five pillars that it had and of the failure to bring in the 47,000 social housing units that it promised. It was going to do that when it was really privatising the service with HAP which is now more than €1 billion.
Let us look at the situation in Galway city. In November 2021, the Simon Community has been locked out of the market. In Galway city and suburbs there are no properties available within HAP limits. There has been a little progress in Galway in respect of the building of housing units, which I welcome. It is small and starting from a very low base. The major policy remains HAP. If the major policy remains HAP but people cannot get any premises, we are in serious difficulty in Galway. Galway city suburbs have no properties available within the HAP limits. Galway city centre has one property available within HAP limits for a couple with two children. There is nothing for single people, couples or couples with one child. HAP is the only policy. Where do they go? Nationwide, in nine out of 16 areas surveyed there were no properties available within standard or discretionary rent supplement HAP limits. Nearly 73% of all HAP properties are located in Dublin. There were 190 properties available within HAP limits, which is a 79% decrease on the 906 that were available in June. I could go on with all of these figures. The language used in Galway when I was a councillor was that it was the only game in town. HAP is the only game in town and here we have the consequences of that. I refer to daft.ie, and daft is an appropriate word when we are talking about housing and daft policies, one after another. According to that website, rents in Galway increased 8.3% in the year to quarter 3 of 2021. Rents in Galway county rose by 18.8%, almost one fifth, in the same period.
I hate throwing out homelessness figures. The Minister knows it is an obscenity to have the number of homeless people we have. When I walk to the hotel at night I see at least three to seven people. The difficulty for me is that I am actually walking past these people. What am I doing as a Deputy and what is the Government doing? What is happening to us as a society and as so-called civilised human beings that we are tolerating this and accepting it? It is being normalised.
I refer again to Galway city and the housing task force and what is within its control.
I acknowledge there is a shortage of staff. If the task force is to be given extra responsibilities, which is to happen under this legislation, the Minister will have to spell out clearly what additional staff he will provide.
I asked for an update on the number of empty properties. Officially, there are 89 houses owned by the city council that are empty. These include four-bedroom, three-bedroom, two-bedroom and one-bedroom semi-detached houses. Time does not allow me to elaborate, nor would elaboration serve any purpose. Does the Minister know what is missing from the statistics? What is missing is the date on which the houses became empty. At one time, our quarterly reports stated when houses became empty, why they became empty, why they were empty for so long and the action needed. Now we have reduced the amount of detail. As the crisis worsens, the amount of information lessens. I will hand it to the Minister. This is a matter I have brought to his attention. It is an obscenity to have so many houses empty. I know, as a Deputy, that the figure is not the total figure. Straight off, I can think of three houses that are not included, so a conservative estimate is that there are 100 empty houses in Galway. Does the Minister know the answer from the city council? I have the greatest of respect for the staff on the ground; they do Trojan work. This may not be so much the case regarding the management. For the staff, as they are moved around from section to section, I have the greatest of respect. We are told the number in question is a tiny percentage of the overall housing stock. That is the answer we get rather than a sense of shame and embarrassment, or an urgent desire to say it is intolerable. It was intolerable before Covid, it is intolerable during Covid, and it is intolerable after Covid. There should be a turnover time of a maximum of three to six weeks in a city with a housing crisis and people who have been waiting on the list since 2002.
Regarding Galway city, there is no master plan based on the common good. There are individual plans with different names but no master plan for the common good in a city with banks of land, at Ceannt Station, the docks, Sandy Road and other places. The city development plan states the developer will be helped with a plan, but the authorities do not have the resources to have their own master plan.
Since Deputies – this is my opinion – rejected the proposal to amalgamate the two councils, the two councils have been punished. The county has been punished with a lack of resources and a scenario in which there has been an acting county manager for a very long time. One acting manager went to Mayo to a permanent job, and we now have another acting one.
All in all, I welcome this legislation. It was part of a flawed ideology and policy that unfortunately continues with the new plan, which is based on the market providing as opposed to having the State i lár an aonaigh.
I welcome this important legislation. It delivers on a key programme for Government commitment not to extend the current fast-track planning arrangements for SHDs. The new planning process for LRDs will replace the SHD provisions. I welcome this. The new process will ensure the delivery of housing developments of 100 or more homes, both public and private. That is so important.
We all know we need a sustainable housing system. The reforms in this Bill will restore decision-making powers concerning large residential developments to local authorities in the first instance, providing greater transparency and clarity and improved public participation in the process. I am a firm believer in communities having a large role to play in this matter because, as the Minister knows, all these developments affect everybody.
In my home town, Carlow, we are so delighted about the Technological University of South-East Ireland. We are going to need a supply of houses. This will be a major issue. I have long called for local authorities to be more included in the decision-making process.
I want to talk to the Minister about affordable housing. While I welcome this Bill and believe it is important and a step in the right direction, I believe there is an issue with the lack of supply and also with affordable housing. I am aware that the Minister is committed to addressing these but believe it is so important that we work on them. So many people come into my office who do not qualify for local authority housing. They cannot get a mortgage from a bank or building society. We need to give them a chance to have an affordable home. I ask the Minister again to address this.
Supply is an issue. A company called CarlowBuild delivers prefabricated homes at an affordable price. This is genuine innovation. The company is positioned to deliver homes efficiently and affordably to alleviate the Irish housing crisis. I do not know whether there are other companies doing what CarlowBuild is doing; there could be. The company builds modular houses from steel components. They are produced in-house. The company's system has secured National Standards Authority of Ireland approval. It has secured all the approvals. The work is of top quality. The company can build a house in 11 days. I have spoken to the Taoiseach about this. I will welcome the Minister to Carlow in December. We have some housing estates that I know he is going to open, which I am delighted about, but I ask him to visit the company in question. It is important and could be part of the solution. I am aware the Minister is committed to addressing this matter.
I noticed that Carlow was not mentioned by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in its recent request for builders of social housing. I note that a letter sent to local authorities in Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Galway, Kilkenny, Westmeath, Meath, Wicklow, Kildare, Louth and Laois asking builders to consider offering homes with planning permission, on which construction has not yet commenced, to local authorities under an advance-purchase turnkey arrangement. I welcome this but ask that Carlow be included. The Minister knows me well enough to know my views because I talk to him regularly about Carlow and Kilkenny, but particularly Carlow, where I feel we need to be included. I ask the Minister to investigate this and revert to me. It is important. We, and Deputy Darragh O'Brien as Minister, are making the changes that people are looking for. I realise it has not been easy and that there is a housing crisis, but we are taking the first steps to make the required change. I know the Minister is doing that. We need to make more changes. I really welcome the Bill.
I welcome the Minister. The joint committee carried out extensive pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill and produced a report, which it submitted to the Department. It got a response back on the recommendations, some of which were accepted, some of which were partially accepted and some of which were not accepted at all. The committee is willing to proceed to Committee Stage if time is available for it. The members will be willing to work with the Minister on it.
I am not going to carry out an autopsy of SHDs; this has been done plenty of times today. What is significant to say is that this is the beginning of the end of SHDs. It was negotiated in the programme for Government that we did not want to continue with the SHD policy. Instead, we have introduced the LRD concept, which is committed to in the programme for Government, as negotiated by the parties.
I asked at a meeting of the committee why we need a fast-track planning system at all. One reason for my doing so was that when we were giving planning permission for significantly more houses than we are building now, we did not have such a system. From 70,000 to 80,000 house permissions were being issued per year. Therefore, we know the planning system is capable of operating at this level. That is why I asked why we need a separate channel for larger-scale developments. I understand some of the reasons but also question some of them. The reason I question some concerns the development plan process. The development plan has been described as a contract between the people, the local authority and the councillors who create it. It is a contract covering how an area will develop. Often what we get at a development's application stage is conflict with communities. The first time communities really take note of what is going on is when they see a drawing, the height and the density. They express concern. I do not believe I could ever say I was contacted by a constituent who was delighted that a load of housing was going into his or her area; it just does not happen like that. People have concerns about traffic, the construction stage and insufficient school capacity. There can be a myriad of reasons for concern.
Some of them are legitimate and some are not and it is always best to be honest with people when expressing one's views on planning applications, whether they are unpopular or not.
The development plan process is a two-year process. I think we could get more out of development plans by applying principles of master planning in certain circumstances such that we do not just have a map coloured yellow or red for residential, mixed use or whatever it might be, an aspiration as to what we should do and zoning objectives, with a developer then coming along and pushing for a little more. That is what developers do. That is their job. Public representatives, especially councillors, are there to defend our development plans. We are going through a process of reviewing the guidelines on development plans. As for future planning, we should consider the introduction of master planning, especially in larger towns, where we are likely to see these large-scale residential developments.
I welcome the expansion in the Bill of mixed-use development, accounting for 30%. It fits really well into the vision we have for ten-minute towns and 15-minute cities, where we will have that mix of retail and employment and other options. That is a positive move in the Bill and I welcome it.
I am concerned about the planning resources at local authority level. I have heard others express that view and it was expressed on Committee Stage by both witnesses and Members. I am talking about introducing master planning at development plan stage. It is a lot of work for our forward planning teams just to go through the normal two-year development plan process without introducing another layer onto it, but I think it would be positive. We have to resource our planning services at that forward planning stage so it is clear in people's minds what they can expect from their communities. When something is built, it is there for two or three generations and can have a real legacy impact on an area and an immediate impact where it drains resources or where there is competition for services because adequate services have not been provided and all we have done is supply the necessary services such as water in, sewage out and roads. We need to add more of those services that make these developments places where people want to live, that is, homes and communities rather than just a number of houses on a map.
As for the planning services, there is considerable pressure on our local authority planners at development management stage and consent stage because planning has become extremely complex and there is also environmental law and planning law. We are now going through a process of reviewing our entire planning code and system, which is absolutely needed. When I look through the planning Acts, there have been so many amendments to them over the years that they are really hard to follow, so that is a really positive move that we hope to address sooner rather than later. Our planners have to assess these large developments and there is complexity to that because flood risk assessments need to be carried out and there are often Natura impact statements or environmental impact assessment statements. Housing needs assessments will be brought into the process now. In my constituency, Wicklow, in Greystones, especially, and Bray, we have seen a lot of these SHDs applied for. I know the resource strains that puts on the local authority and I know the time pressures under which local authorities operate. Under this LRD legislation, when that final meeting is sought, notice has to be given within four weeks and the opinion then has to be issued four weeks after that. I am concerned that that will put further pressure on our planners. The decisions they make have to stand up to scrutiny. We have seen that in judicial reviews. The decisions they make at that point have to stand up to the judicial test if it ends up at that point. I want to see them act in a timely manner but I do not want to see excessive pressure put on them. The case may then end up with An Bord Pleanála, and the decision-making of An Bord Pleanála is another area I would like to look at at some stage because lately we have seen some decisions that I would question. Of course, with every planning decision people will have different views. I have been involved in planning applications in respect of which the decision went the way I thought it should, in which case you are happy with the planning system. It always depends what side of the decision you are on. We need to look at overall decision-making in An Bord Pleanála. Perhaps I will raise that at a later stage.
I thank the Minister for outlining the Bill, which is a really important one. It provides for the replacement of the fast-track planning system, the current SHD process for certain large housing projects. The new large-scale residential development process proposed by the Bill consists of three stages: pre-application, application and appeal. It proposes procedural appeal changes intended to reduce the length of time by which cases delay decisions and, ultimately, delay houses.
When we discussed the Bill in the Oireachtas joint housing committee at pre-legislative scrutiny, something really rare happened. There was a moment of cross-party unity and that does not happen too often on that committee. On that day, however, no matter our political persuasions, we sat in that committee room and expressed frustration with the current SHD process. That sentiment has been echoed in the Chamber today.
I was a county councillor on South Dublin County Council for almost a decade and SHDs were a cause of frustration for me. Councillors often viewed them as a way of bypassing locally elected representatives and development plans and public representatives and residents' associations viewed the appeals mechanism of judicial reviews as unattainable, unrealistic and unaffordable. In South Dublin County Council I saw at first hand the resourcing issues there when it came to planning issues, whether it was enforcement or decision-making, and the frustration caused at every level by the slow delivery of houses. That is why we needed a system such as the SHD system. SHDs were introduced to accelerate housing. They delivered a fast-track way of getting a decision on a planning application for a large development. However, judicial reviews slowed many down and 138 sites remain undeveloped despite their planning grants.
I therefore welcome the sunsetting of SHDs and this new legislation, which I hope will accelerate the delivery of housing supply while respecting local democracy and the views of residents. I welcome the strict time limits associated with each of the planning phases and the fact that the timeframes for consultation remain the same. It makes sense that pre-application can be used to iron out issues rather than ending up in further information requests, which ultimately just cost more time and delay housing.
If the Minister will allow me, I will mention today's breaking news that the Central Bank has cleared the way for banks to take part in the Government's shared equity scheme for first-time buyers. This means that prospective first-time buyers in places such as Lucan, Clondalkin, Newcastle and Rathcoole will be able to avail of a shared equity scheme for new build homes that will see the State take an average 20% equity stake in the cost of a home, with a mortgage to be taken out on the remaining cost. For many people this represents light at the end of the tunnel. It means an affordable pathway to owning their own new build, their own home. It will unlock the potential that exists in granted planning applications that lie idle, where homes should be, where young couples and families should be starting the next chapter of their lives, in their own home, right now.
We have heard from Opposition politicians comparisons between this scheme and the UK scheme. They are right that the UK scheme was not perfect. That is why we have learnt from it. That is why we are targeting our measures at the people who need support. That is why we are targeting our measures in the places where homes are needed, such as here in Dublin, where rents are sky-high and people my age cannot afford to buy their own home without our help, without this intervention. The reality is that we have learnt from the UK experience and are building on it. That is what makes our initiative a better deal for our young people. I commend the Minister on that because his actions will empower my generation and my constituents to aspire to own their own homes. I know the Minister could do with a rare moment of cross-party support on that too. If we were to work together towards a shared goal of creating housing for all, things would happen an awful lot faster.
Our collective aim must be to solve this housing crisis and to get people into homes. No politician's efforts should be focused on exploiting the housing crisis for political gain and delaying housing that is so desperately needed.
As I have said time and again, people do not need unrealistic silver bullets. They need action and they need homes. The Affordable Housing Act, Housing For All, and this Bill will stimulate the delivery of homes and increase affordability. That needs to be our goal.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward the Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021, which I very much welcome. Given the comments made here earlier on the crisis, it is important to understand that yes there is a crisis in housing and we have faced difficulties over the past number of years, but there have been good news stories too. The reason we have such an increased demand for housing is because more than 400,000 new jobs were created between 2012 and 2019. We also had the situation of trying to respond to the demand when most of the major builders were in NAMA. There was also a huge issue around access to funding. Previously, builders would get money from banks where they could build 100 houses, but now the same builders are only able to get sufficient funding to build 20 houses at a time. There was also a problem with regard to local authorities which just did not have the capacity to take on the projects themselves. Over the past number of years, the Department has made sufficient amounts of money available to local authorities to build. Some local authorities have been very good in reaching targets and others have not been so fortunate in reaching those targets.
I very much welcome this Bill in the context of the consultation process where clear timelines are set out under large-scale residential development, LRD. Once the request goes into a local authority that meeting must be held within four weeks and an opinion must then be issued within four weeks thereafter. One of the biggest problems we have had with the previous late legislation was that the course of appeal was through judicial review. The difficulty with judicial review is the whole process of judicial review. I am aware that the Attorney General is currently looking at that whole area. I am familiar with one case, for example, with a lay litigant that is now going into year 21 and into the third judicial review. This is not in relation to planning, it is in a different area of law. It has been 21 years in the courts, from the Circuit Court to the High Court to the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeal and back around. This is not what the courts system was set up for. In fairness to the courts, they are trying to deal with the issues, making sure that people have adequate time to deal with the issues, making sure there is appropriate consideration of all the legal issues that are raised, and also that a fair judgment is delivered at the end of the day, be it for the person who is taking the action or in favour of the respondent in the case.
The Minister has introduced a provision whereby an objection will bypass the Court of Appeal in the context of judicial reviews. In fairness to the Court of Appeal, it is extremely efficient, from my own experience, and it does set clear timelines in relation to matters coming before it.
Section 6 of the Act will amend sections 126 (a) and 126 (b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000. I am aware that it is the intention to speed up the whole process if it goes into legal proceedings, but the whole problem is that the Supreme Court also has other demands on it and there is no guarantee that this will indeed speed up the process.
In addition there is also an issue in that the Supreme Court can hear a case but it may take some time for it to deliver a judgment because it must examine all of the documentation submitted to it. I was dealing with a recent matter in the Court of Appeal where more than 2,500 pages of documents were submitted. This gives an idea of the complexity of some of these issues, and especially when one is dealing with planning and the detailed reports that are produced by the experts in the area. It takes some time for all of that to be analysed and looked at and also to look at the legal issues.
On planning and development, there is one indication about confidence in the market with the announcement this week in Cork of a proposed development in the order of €350 million. This will be a combination of office development, residential development and a rehabilitation hospital that will have facilities for 130 beds.
When considering planning, we need to ensure that we put in all of the services at the same time we are building residential units. I am not sure that we have done well on this in Ireland. I was at the recent official opening of a community centre where the local community did all of the work in putting in a new facility in an area where more than 130 houses were added in a very short time. Some €130,000 was allocated under a sports capital grant and the whole project cost some €450,000, but only €10,000 was given by the local authority. Yet, the local authority would have collected quite a large amount of money from the developer when the housing was being built. Should we look at this whole process?
I know a person working in the building sector in Edinburgh, and over there they must build the playgrounds and extensions to the schools at the same time as the housing is being built. I wonder whether Ireland has sufficiently joined-up thinking around all of the other services that are required with housing development. This is especially relevant when considering large-scale housing developments and asking whose responsibility it is to put these services in place. The local authorities collect a substantial sum of money in planning charges, but those charges are not ring-fenced for that area, even if one could come back into an area 20 years later. For example, there is one area in my city where 1,050 houses were put up in the 1990s. When we went back to build a community centre, nobody wanted it on their front door and everybody objected to it. We never actually got a community facility built because it was never in the plan from day one. This is why we need more robust planning around services. It is extremely important and we need to work on this.
It is not just about commercial facilities. It is also about sports facilities, facilities for young children, schools and medical facilities. These facilities should not be put down in the corner out of everyone's way where it may not be immediately available to young children and families and where it might take ages to get there. We need to look at this issue in the context of planning. We need to look at how an area might not benefit from the planning charges.
I also want to touch on the issue of the whole housing policy in Ireland by looking at other jurisdictions. I spoke recently with a person who had invested in Germany, buying nine apartments for €450,000. This person did not have to do any of the fitting out of the apartments, which is all done by the tenants. The tenants get a 20 year lease and they put in the bathrooms, kitchens, curtains and so on. The tenants may be able to borrow €25,000, for example, to do the fit out. The tenants have a guarantee of a 20 year lease with five year rent reviews and they can renew the lease again after that. Ireland should start to look at this model to give certainty to people who might find it difficult to get onto the property market no matter what provisions we make.
It also allows for the infrastructure to be put in place quickly. We should examine this similar options in other jurisdictions where the landlord does all the maintenance and provides everything, from kitchen tables to chairs and beds. We need to take a wider view of housing.
It is important to have greater co-ordination among local authorities on delivering, from the day a site is identified to when it is finished. We need to look at that again. The whole process is far too slow and we need to ensure we can deliver local authority housing in a timely manner and ensure people on the housing list are provided with appropriate accommodation in the fastest time possible.
I welcome the Bill. It is the way forward in dealing with this matter. I warn, however, that it does not stop the judicial review process. We need to reform that process, in particular, the making of ex parteapplications to the High Court without the consent of the respondent. All parties should be notified before the application is submitted. That would be one way of dealing with that issue.
I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill forward. I look forward to it being passed.
It is interesting to hear a succession of Fine Gael Deputies welcoming this Bill without a word about the damage their colleagues did in recent years through the introduction of the whole SHD nonsense and the related planning changes in respect of mandatory guidelines. There was not a word of apology for destroying many parts of Dublin city, in particular, and creating what will become the ghettos of the future, namely, the high-rise, low-quality apartment developments that litter our cities. There is a need for an apology, in particular from some of the Minister's predecessors, such as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, who I do not believe has appeared to discuss the Bill today. It needs to be accepted that a lot of damage has been done and the previous Government got it wrong.
Many people are talking about housing policy and the housing crisis. Planning and housing are inextricably linked. A good land use policy is needed, at which point it can be decided how to develop housing. In the past seven or eight years, we have seen our reasonably decent planning framework and context being ripped up and put in the bin. That is what has happened since 2015. One would wonder why this is happening. Why can we not solve the problem of the housing crisis? Why is this Government and why was its immediate predecessor determined not to make housing affordable? Why were any schemes that were introduced designed to subsidise developers rather than drive down the cost of housing?
The fundamental problem we have with housing is that it is too expensive. We need a Government policy which will drive down the cost of housing. Land, of course, is the key issue in that context. At no point has this Government or the previous one taken on the issue of the role of land. We know that the normal rules of supply and demand do not apply when it comes to housing because it is land that makes the difference. We have developers throughout the country, but especially in the Dublin area, hoarding land and controlling the supply. That is what determines the high cost of housing and the fact that it is so far beyond reach of most people who are on any kind of average incomes. There is the assumption that the bank of mum and dad, as we were told by the previous Taoiseach, will step in. The average cost of housing now requires people to have almost multiples of the average household income.
One would wonder why this is the case. Why have successive Ministers not addressed the housing problem and made housing, a key element of people’s lives, affordable? The only explanation is that it is not actually politicians who are determining housing policy. We know that is the case. If we take lobbying register, as Eoin Burke-Kennedy of The Irish Timesmade clear just last month, the "property industry and its army of lobbyists do a great job of bending the Government’s ear." We know that is the case and Mr. Burke-Kennedy provided the evidence. He noted that whether "it is the planning code, apartment standards or help-to-buy schemes, they campaign vigorously behind the scenes." His report states that according to the State’s register of lobbying, the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, this year alone - less than ten months at that time - had made 61 representations to government on housing. That is just incredible. They have the run of this place. We see their representatives sauntering in here.
Will the Acting Chairman ask the Minister to behave himself for a short while?
There were 61 occasions on which the CIF lobbied this Government on housing. Who is actually calling the shots here?
Not only that, Irish Institutional Property, whose members include property firm Cairn Homes and IRES REIT, the biggest landlord in the State, has made 18 representations to government. It lobbied the Government on 18 occasions. The Minister will be familiar with the problems associated with this kind of approach where developers, landowners and investment funds are calling the shots and dictating housing policy. Coming from north Dublin, the Fingal constituency, he will also be familiar with the damage that was done in the past in this area by some of his party colleagues down through the years who let the developers write policy and determine what happened in relation to planning. We paid a big price for that. There is a general perception that that was in the distant past but it is quite clear, given the level of lobbying that is going on, that it is still developers, landowners and funds that are determining housing policy. That is the only way to explain how this Government and the previous one utterly failed to address the housing crisis. These people are in the Minister’s ear. It is they who get attention, not the people who are struggling to try to get affordable housing. Those facts cannot be disputed.
Will the Minister please allow me my time?
Returning to the Bill before us, it is good that we are getting rid of what was a disgraceful initiative introduced by then Minister, Deputy Coveney, to completely disregard the role of local authorities and local councillors, ignore city and county development plans and ram major developments through at the behest of developers. The SHD process was about ignoring local and democratic views in what constituted the good planning and development of areas and ruling out the opportunity for an appeal. People had one shot at it and it was An Bord Pleanála that made the decisions.
If the applicant did not like the decision, it was tough luck and the only option was to go with a judicial review. We know the majority of judicial reviews that were taken were upheld, which underlines that this was dreadful legislation.
Much has been made of the fact the Minister is now proposing to undo that legislation and restore the two-stage planning process. There is no doubt this is a welcome development but he should not for a moment suggest it will solve the problem of poor planning and development, which is driven by developers. We need to look at the real problem. On the surface, it looks like it is the SHD process, and it is certainly problematic and has squeezed out local opinion. In fact, the real problem is the mandatory planning guidelines that were introduced over recent years by successive Ministers with responsibility for housing and planning. The Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, allowed for national planning guidelines to which local authorities and An Bord Pleanála had to have regard but which were not mandatory. In 2015, the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, introduced mandatory guidelines and that was the start of the rot in regard to good planning and development. Irrespective of the views of local authorities, local communities or An Bord Pleanála, the guidelines were mandatory for the latter. Irrespective of what that body felt was right in terms of good planning, it had to observe the national guidelines because they were mandatory. In 2016, this problem was added to by the then Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, when he introduced the SHD process. The SHDs started to operate in 2017, under the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy, and, in 2018, the latter further reduced apartment standards and introduced new building height guidelines. In addition, he introduced the build-to-rent policy.
As a result of these measures, the planning framework that has existed over recent years is based on a system whereby no regard is given to city and county development plans or the view of local planners, who know their area best, and little regard is given to the views of local communities. An Bord Pleanála was mandated to remove height limits and reduce apartment standards, which was the most egregious element of the changes to the planning laws. In the case of regular, general developments, up to 50% could be made up of one-bedroom or studio apartments, and up to 100% in the case of build-to-rent schemes. Has anyone ever heard anything like it in terms of planning standards? There was no limit on the number of small, shoebox apartments that could form part of a development. No criteria were set down for what would be a good mix in terms of different apartment sizes to cater for different household sizes and what would constitute a good social mix. The consequence is that we now have 100% build-to-rent schemes, 100% transient populations and 100% ruling out of any option for people to buy an apartment. It is very clear from the situation in Dublin that it is not possible for anybody to buy a new apartment. They are all part of build-to-rent schemes. That is the result of the scandalous planning decisions that were taken over the past six or seven years.
Let us look at the mandatory guidelines that cover the whole area of apartment standards. We now have very small apartments, not much bigger than a disabled parking space.