Dáil debates

Thursday, 13 July 2023

Dereliction and Building Regeneration Bill 2022: Second Stage [Private Members]


5:20 pm

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I never underestimate or take for granted the absolute privilege it is to stand in our Oireachtas and propose changes to legislation. I want to thank my research team who worked on getting the Bill to this stage with me, namely, Darragh Mowlds, Kate Ruddock and Bríd McGrath. I would not have got this far without them.

The Bill seeks to amend the Derelict Sites Act, the Building Control Act and the Planning and Development Act. I introduced the Bill in the context of wanting to create more homes in our towns and villages in order to make the process a little bit easier for refurbishment and change of use in respect of many of the vacant and derelict building stock we are all familiar with in our towns, villages and cities. In the past three years there has been considerable Government action on this area. Over the years there is always talk of addressing dereliction and vacancy. I remember back in the 1990s when the concept of living over the shops on Capel Street was proposed. The difficulties that existed then in converting vacant stock to residential use still exist.

I want to run through some of the highlights from a presentation we received recently from the dedicated dereliction and vacancy unit in the Department. Just yesterday we saw a significant announcement of €150 million for our local authorities to give them seed capital to acquire derelict or vacant buildings, to compulsorily purchase buildings or to purchase them voluntarily without having to impose compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, to develop those buildings for whatever use they see fit, sell them on or create residential units. We have a vacant homes officer in every local authority now, tasked with the duty to work with people who have vacant or derelict buildings, show them the pathway, negotiate it through and talk to them about all the grants that are available. We have set a target in Housing for All for the compulsory purchase of buildings. The target is about 2,500 by 2026. The money that was announced yesterday and the work we are doing to streamline the CPO process will absolutely help local authorities. We can hold up local authorities like Limerick and Waterford as exemplars. They have been doing this for quite some time and can show other local authorities how it is done. We have put that capital in place for them now.

The vacant homes tax was introduced in the budget last year. While I really welcome the vacant homes tax and it was one of the key recommendations from the housing committee's report on urban regeneration, I still think the tax is too low. I am comforted by the fact that the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery, and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, said at the time he would review it. I suppose it is in the early stages, and we can review it. We have amended the fair deal scheme as well to make it a little bit easier for people who have relatives in a nursing home or care setting to put that house back out for rent.

Croí Cónaithe has been a real success. It was announced this day last year; it was certainly announced last July. We offer €70,000 for somebody who wants to refurbish a derelict property or €50,000 if it is just a vacant property. People can add the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grant to that, which will give them possibly another €25,000. As a result, there is up to €100,000 available to those who want to refurbish vacant or derelict buildings. We have brought in planning exemptions as well, to make it easier. Those who want to register a change of use from certain types of buildings into residential use they do not have to go through the planning process. We brought those exempted regulations in last year. We have also extended the repair and lease scheme to provide extra funding. It has been successful in many areas including Limerick and Waterford, again. No doubt the Minister of State will take credit for Limerick. Eighteen local authorities have developed an app to identify and condition-score vacant buildings. We get it right down to granular detail as to whether these buildings are vacant but habitable, or vacant but uninhabitable and in need of a lot of work.

That is real progress and it needs to be acknowledged. However, there is still a regulatory process that acts as an impediment or barrier despite all the funding and support that exists. We need to address something in the regulatory process. That is why I introduced the Bill. It proposes to amend the definition of what constitutes a derelict site. We propose to change the register of derelict sites to include more information, and the powers for local authorities to compulsorily purchase a site and to inform the Minister. We set out a change to the prescribed areas where the Derelict Sites Act applies. We also seek to change the Building Control Act to relax the regulatory process. When I say this, I do not mean a reduction in standards in any way. It is to try to provide a more streamlined approach. We are also seeking to amend the Planning and Development Act to add a number of exempt developments to Part IV of that Act.

In the Bill, we are expanding the definition of "derelict site". At the moment, a derelict site is defined as something that detracts visually from a street or that is unsightly. People often go out and slap a bit of paint on these buildings. We have often seen the fake windows and doors that are drawn up. That really does not do anything. The building is still derelict and does not bring any real benefit to society. We seek to include buildings where doors and windows are permanently blocked, where the site has not been adequately maintained or is damaged such that it needs repair or where it has been disconnected from power and water for a period of more than two years. That might not mean the site is derelict, but what it says is that this is a building that is about to fall into disrepair through lack of heat and not being used.

We are also seeking to change the register of derelict sites. We wish every local authority to have an online facility so that it is easy to spot all the sites on the derelict sites register. We seek to modernise the notification method, similar to a planning application where one can put up a site notice or use online or much more modern methods of identifying a building. We are also seeking that where a site has been put on the derelict sites register and is there for more than two years, the Minister is notified and can track and review how the CPO streamlining and capital funding have been working.

I have made provision for it in the Bill, because in a Private Member's Bill we cannot suggest a tax, but I think the derelict sites levy would be much more beneficial if it were a tax. The local authority would still identify and would still compile the register but we would put it to Revenue to collect the tax. We have seen that work well with the local property tax.

The powers to acquire the site are also included in the Bill. It also seeks to amend where currently the Minister has to set out the areas where the Derelict Sites Act works. We suggest that it should be any town, village or settlement boundary. We would all be familiar with settlement boundaries within our county development plans and local area plans. It means we are not going after abandoned old mills and farmhouses in really rural areas. That is in Part 2.

Part 3 relates to the Building Control Act. This is to address the regulatory barriers that exist. I want to thank three very experienced architects for their expert assistance with this aspect, namely, Mel Reynolds, Orla Hegarty and Eoin O Cofaigh. They advised me on framing this and have advised other Deputies in the past who were trying to proceed with a Private Member's Bill along these lines.

Essentially, we are trying to introduce a streamlined process here whereas at the moment, aside from the planning exemptions, separate processes have to be gone through to get fire certification, Part M disability access and certification and, in some cases, a conservation report if it is a protected structure. I do not seek to change that at all but I do seek to try to streamline that process.

This works in other jurisdictions. I have called this a town centre first application and I have given it that name because it is a Government policy at the moment to try to focus on our town centres, to try to bring life and living back to support rural and urban town centres and local businesses, to create more footfall in those towns, and to make better use of the services that exist in those towns so that we do not have to keep expanding into greenfield areas. For many years, our planning process was that we just kept expanding outwards and outwards. We know the result of that is long commutes and that transport emissions are probably going to be the biggest challenge we will face in climate, so we are trying here to consolidate our towns and to bring a little bit of focus back onto them.

I introduce three new exempted developments into section 4 of the Planning and Development Act. I call them (m), (n) and (o) because they follow (l) in section 4 of the Act. My proposal here, and I am open to amendments on this and to working with the Minister and the Department on it, is similar to the position in the North, just over the Border, where you can bring all your fire, accessibility and planning drawings into the planning office, go through a much more streamlined process in a much shorter period of time and at a much more reduced rate, and get your permission to develop. I know from speaking to many people, and it will be remembered there was a documentary on "Prime Time" not so long ago where people talked about this, that the barrier is the cost. I can get my drawings done up for design, building and tender processes, get my fire cert, but fail the accessibility cert, and all of that then goes to waste and I am back to square one. This Bill is to try to address that and make it a little bit easier. I know everyone in the House wants to see that and none of us wants to see these empty buildings in our towns and villages. These are the thoughts of people living in these towns and villages, where the lights are on at night and people are out on the streets, about bringing that life back to our towns. I believe everyone would like to do that. I know the one-stop shop can work. I am not stuck on calling it a town centre first application but it is the name I gave to this.

I want to stress again the issue of standards. This morning in the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, we discussed the difficulties with mica and pyrite in a number of counties and in the west. We were also looking at the defects to apartments. I understand people being apprehensive about changing building regulations, but the technical guidance that goes with our building regulations is huge and voluminous and it is very difficult for somebody to wade through that. I suggest we create a more streamlined technical guidance document for these types of buildings that are two, three or four storeys or up to 10 metres in height so that we do not have to stick so strictly to the modern standards that are there and we accept that, in some of these cases, these buildings have been in existence for 100 or 150 years and are serving people very well. To have to strip those buildings out completely and try to apply those very modern standards is onerous and difficult, but as long as we have independent inspection and we do not reduce the standards that exist there, I believe this will work.

Part of this would be to ensure there is independent certification and inspection and that there would be absolutely no self-certification here whatsoever. Taking all those things together: the fact we all know we have to do this - this is climate action as well as housing action - to get that life back into our towns and villages, to acknowledge there is a difficulty in the regulatory process, and to acknowledge we have the will within the Department, because I know at the moment we are doing public consultation, which possibly is finished, on Part B of the fire regulations so that we can build more with timber, and I know there is a working grouping being set up at the moment to look at building with timber, even though there is all this action, all of these supports from Government, all of this funding, and there is the desire to do it, I very much stress that if we do not address this regulatory process, I do not believe we are going to achieve what we want to in respect of dereliction and vacancy. The other thing to say then is, if somebody does not want to go through this streamlined process, it is not the only way, and he or she can still go back to a normal section 34 planning application.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this Bill and I thank those present for being in attendance tonight also. I am aware it is the final session of the Dáil term before the recess so I thank all for their attendance.

5:30 pm

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I wish everyone a good break. This is the final session of a very busy term.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Government on this Private Members Bill. Dereliction is an area which falls under my remit as Minister of State in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The Bill is entitled the Dereliction and Building Regeneration Bill, which has been brought forward by Deputy Steven Matthews, who is also the Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I can confirm the Government has agreed not to oppose the Bill, having regard to the well-intentioned spirit in which it has been introduced and the underlying objectives it is intended to achieve, which we all want to do, which is to bring old buildings back into use for people to live in.

I want to go through this Private Members' Bill in a technical way because the Deputy has raised technical points, and it proposes to provide for the identification, management, restoration and bringing back to use of derelict and vacant buildings and to simplify and expedite the planning and building control approval processes in this regard. While the underlying objectives of the Bill are aimed at expediting the processes for the bringing into use of vacant and derelict buildings for residential purposes, thereby assisting in increasing housing supply and facilitating urban regeneration, which is in line with the objectives of Government housing policy, Housing for All, I have to record at the outset that we have some concerns as to how these objectives are to be achieved under the Bill.

As Deputy Matthews is no doubt aware, the Government already has a comprehensive package of measures in place to address vacancy and dereliction, including many of which he has referred to. These include the town centre first policy, which is no doubt the reason the Deputy had gone with that name for the application to be made under the Bill, which aims to combat vacancy and dereliction and breathe new life into our town centres with a targeted investment programme underpinned by substantial funding from a number of funding streams, including the rural regeneration and development fund and €150 million from the urban regeneration and development fund, which has been made available to local authorities to acquire vacant or derelict properties and sites for reuse. We have just announced in the past two days that €120 million of that has been allocated and that various amounts have been allocated to different local authorities to bring vacant and derelict units back into use by those local authorities. The fund is there and has been pioneered in Limerick City and County Council whereby, under the current scheme, local authorities will bring existing vacant and derelict units back into use by purchasing them, bringing them back into use and selling them on for people to live in in areas with a population of more than 10,000 people. This covers large towns and cities. That would then become a revolving fund for the local authorities to continue to do that work.

The second major Government initiative in this area is the provision of step-by-step guidance to local authorities on acquiring properties compulsorily. Deputy Matthews made reference to the fact we have set targets for local authorities to bring units back into use.

There is then the vacant property refurbishment grant scheme, known as the Croí Cónaithe scheme, which provides €50,000 towards the refurbishment of vacant properties for occupation as principal private residences, and €70,000 for the refurbishment of derelict properties for this purpose. We set an initial target of 2,500 applications for this scheme, and already 2,800 people have applied. It works because it is a straightforward scheme. If a property is vacant for more than two years, the owner receives €50,000 and that the building must have been built pre-2008. These are the only requirements. If the property is derelict, the owner receives another €20,000 on top. Furthermore, if there is a retail unit on the ground floor, so long as the units overhead have been vacant for more than two years, they qualify for the €50,000 but will not qualify for the €70,000 because these buildings are not derelict. One of the great successes of this scheme is its simplicity. It is something I feel very strongly about and I would have argued for us getting that extra amount for the €30,000 to €50,000 range and for the €50,000 to €70,000 range.

Our next policy initiative in this area has been the introduction of planning regulations exempting certain vacant commercial premises, including vacant spaces over shops, from the requirement to obtain planning permission for the change of use to residential accommodation. To date, this has resulted in the notification of more than 2,000 housing units being brought into use.

To supplement the change of use exempted development regulations that I have just mentioned, we have published the bringing back homes manual, which provides property owners, members of the public, local authorities and those involved in the construction industry with clear practical guidance on the refurbishment of existing buildings for residential use and how current regulatory requirements that apply to common existing building types can be met. I have spoken about the introduction of the Croí Cónaithe towns fund, which is being delivered by local authorities for the provision of serviced sites for housing - it is the serviced site element that is most important - to attract people to build their own homes on such serviced sites and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties. Straightforwardly, there is a grant of €30,000 towards reducing the price of a serviced site in towns and villages. We want local authorities to do that, as well as introducing a number of other measures. I am confident that these measures, all of which have been introduced under Housing for All, will have their desired effect in addressing vacancy and dereliction and making more efficient use of our existing housing stock.

While acknowledging that this Bill is very well intentioned and generally reflects Government objectives in this area, as I have indicated, we have a number of concerns. Deputy Matthews has brought forward something here that certainly warrants further discussion. Many of the elements will add to things but we have concerns about certain areas. The proposal to dispense with the requirements of the building control regulations relating to fire safety certificates and disability access certificates, which are fundamental elements of the building control system to protect the health and safety of people in and around buildings, is a key concern. We believe this proposal would weaken the strengthening arrangements put in place in 2014 for the control of building activity in response to the widespread failures that had previously, and indeed, more recently, occurred. A further concern around building control relates to the proposal to exempt the issuing of a certificate of compliance on completion, which would effectively negate confirmation that the design and construction of building work has been verified by means of an inspection plan by a registered construction professional. This would be a backward step in ensuring development works are properly inspected and monitored as they are being progressed in line with the building control requirements.

In addition to building control, a number of concerns also arise in respect of the planning-related elements of the Bill. First, the Bill proposes that development relating to the subdivision of any existing building of up to 10 m in height to provide two or more dwellings be exempt from the requirement to obtain planning permission. This provision is in clear conflict with the Planning and Development Act, which provides that any such development is a material change of use, about which the Deputy will be well aware, requiring appropriate consideration by a planning authority through the planning application process, particularly around the protection of a residential amenity of neighbouring residents and other similar critical considerations.

Second, the introduction of a town centre first application process for the change of use of all non-residential buildings would amount to a new alternative consenting process operating in lieu of the normal planning application determination process. While the details of how this new planning process would operate are largely unspecified, it would likely have significant resourcing implications for local planning authorities which would, in effect, have to manage two separate and independent application processes when they are already overburdened and under-resourced. The Bill goes into some detail on that but not with regard to resourcing.

Finally, the timing of the Bill is of concern. As Deputy Matthews will be aware, the biggest planning Bill in recent history is expected to be published in the autumn. We are expecting that Bill to come to the Cabinet at the end of August and to come to the House for Second Stage in September.

While we are not opposing this Bill, it has certain deficiencies, as I have outlined. We say that, dare I say, in a positive way and not a negative way because we agree with the general thrust of the Bill around bringing vacant and derelict units back into use. As mentioned, my Department is already doing a lot of work in this area and I would prefer to continue with the existing initiatives to tackle vacancy and dereliction that are already in place and are proving very successful.

Deputy Matthews raised a number of points in his opening statement. Regarding the derelict sites register, I want local authorities to put sites on the register but ideally we want them to come off it and those sites to be developed. That is the key aspect. It is not just a numbers game; it is about bringing sites back into use. There is a provision in the Bill for the Minister to instruct local authorities to acquire derelict sites through CPOs. That is there under existing legislation. It has not been used but it is something I am considering using. What we really want is a streamlined process. We have brought certain things in around converting commercial units over shops to residential with no requirement for planning where there are fewer than nine units. That is a positive development. We have brought in the Croí Cónaithe scheme, which is a very straightforward scheme to operate.

As the Deputy acknowledged, we have set up a dedicated vacancy unit within the Department. More particularly, we want each local authority to set up dedicated vacancy units within their local authorities, which they are now doing. We have given vacant homes officers to each local authority but if individual local authorities have further resourcing needs, they should make an application. We have given €140,000 to Cork County Council alone this year to take on four additional staff in that area because it has a specific need. It is done very much on a needs basis. We want to see the councils developing sites for people to be able to live in towns and villages. We have a town centre first plan and a town centre first office. We have dedicated town centre first officers in local authorities. There are 26 because it is done per county. They are putting plans together to develop their towns with plans coming into our Department as we speak.

Ultimately, the thrust of Deputy Matthews’s Bill is something we agree with. It should be much easier to bring a derelict or vacant unit back into use than to build a new one. It has major advantages with regard to climate change, aesthetically in terms of how it makes a town or village look and more particularly in terms of cost. As the Deputy says, there is up to €100,000 available for a derelict site with €70,000 from Croí Cónaithe and more than €24,000 from SEAI grants. We want people to go into that space. We are way ahead of our targets for Croí Cónaithe. The key thing is that we have concerns around some of the areas of building control and not going through the normal planning process. We want that to be streamlined in terms of pre-planning.

Those are my initial comments on the Bill. I look forward to making comments at the end of the debate as well. I thank Deputy Matthews for bringing forward the Bill. I will elaborate further as I hear comments from individual Deputies and their views on the Bill. It is good to see Bills like this coming forward for discussion. We have concerns about certain aspects but there are elements of the Bill that we will take on board as well.

5:40 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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We have 30 minutes for debate. Members may take up to ten minutes, but if that happens we will not get everybody in. I ask them to be mindful of that. We have four or possibly five speakers. I call Deputy Bacik.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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I will keep my comments briefer then. I commend Deputy Matthews on bringing forward this Bill. I am delighted to support it on behalf of the Labour Party. As Deputy Matthews says, it is an honour to be able to bring forward Private Members' legislation in this House. It is something many of us have felt inspired in doing. I want to acknowledge that. I also commend him on his vision of a more streamlined process to tackle dereliction and vacancy. All of us are in favour of that and of his town centre first vision.

I think we would all be in agreement that derelict sites and buildings are haunting our cities. They are the ghosts of once-used homes and buildings left to fall into decay and disrepair.

We know the phrase "ghost signs" when we see those old shop signs on buildings. Well we have ghost homes everywhere across our cities and towns that were once in use and have fallen into disrepair. At a time of chronic housing shortage when over 12,400 people are homeless, when we see spiralling rents and queues around the block for apartment viewings, vacancy and dereliction should offend all of us who want to see an end to the housing crisis. Vacancy and dereliction are antisocial behaviours. Allowing buildings to fall into disrepair that could be used for homes is antisocial behaviour. Policies that enable or facilitate houses and sites to fall into dereliction are antisocial. Again, I think we all agree on that.

We know that official figures on dereliction and vacancy are somewhat contested. The Government's own vacant homes action plan identified about 166,000 vacant homes in January of this year, which is 7.8% of housing stock. We know that about 37,000 homes have become vacant since 2016, which is scandalous in itself. Hardware Association Ireland has done some really good investigate work on how to designate vacancy and, crucially, the level of vacancy that can be tackled and how many homes can be brought back into use. That is really important.

In his response to Deputy Matthews's Bill, the Minister of State spoke about initiatives being taken by the Government to address dereliction and vacancy. Certainly there are many initiatives coming out of the Department. I do not think anyone would deny that. One housing provider said to me that the three words that sum up the Minister's housing policy are "initiative, initiative, initiative". The problem is the lack of implementation, action and results. We are just not seeing results on tackling vacancy or indeed on delivery of homes. I am conscious the Government announced another fund this week for vacancy. This is on top of the vacant homes plan announced in January, yet another initiative. The difficulty for many of those seeking to provide homes, including social and affordable homes, or to build homes, is that the lack of detail and quite often the cumbersome red tape surrounding different initiatives has had the effect of creating uncertainty around the delivery of homes. That is a real issue the Minister needs to address. People who are in the business of providing homes need greater certainty as to how these measures will be implemented. For example, it does not help matters when the Minister promises the planning legislation mentioned by the Minister of State. We were promised that we would have that legislation this summer but this has not happened. I know it has been put back to the autumn. We were promised that legislation for the first refusal scheme for those renters who are facing the awful prospect of eviction following the lifting of the no-fault eviction ban would be with us before the summer recess but it is still not with us and we understand it will not be with us until the autumn. The delays, uncertainty and red tape are certainly not helping in the delivery of homes or the implementation of measures to address vacancy.

Deputy Matthews's Bill has some very commendable proposals within it that seek in a practical and creative way to tackle vacancy. His proposal that the derelict sites register be subject to online publication and that there would be a duty to notify the Minister after two years on the derelict sites register along with the strengthening of local authorities to CPO vacant and derelict buildings are all really important measures that could and should be taken up by Government.

Regarding current Government policies on dereliction and vacancy, we know there is a vacant homes tax. The Labour Party welcomed that. It is self-assessed at three times the local property tax rate. There is also a derelict sites register and derelict sites are subject to an annual levy but the derelict sites register is really lacking in any sort of reality. Just walking around my constituency of Dublin Bay South, we all know there is dereliction and vacancy on almost every street and yet when I look at the derelict sites register for Dublin City Council, I can identify only 12 properties in Dublin Bay South that are on it. There is a real difficulty with how we implement policies on dereliction. Policies may be there that are very positive and constructive but how do we implement them and ensure enforcement? How do we ensure that local authorities have the capacity to pursue and take action against dereliction? How do we ensure that speculators are not simply sitting on properties waiting for the value to go up?

The Labour Party has been putting forward creative and constructive proposals such a "use it or lose it" rule regarding uncommenced planning permissions on vacant property. We should be capable to taking action against that. The five-year period is too long. It encourages speculation. Let us look instead at reducing that to three years. Let us take action against those 30,000 live residential planning permissions across the Dublin City Council area that should be activated. Nobody is penalised for sitting on them and failing to activate them. Let us look at creative measures that can be employed to tackle vacancy and dereliction.

There is huge concern in my constituency about the failure to deliver social and affordable housing and nowhere is this more the case than Poolbeg and the Irish Glass Bottle site. I marched last week with the Irish Glass Bottle Housing Action Group in Ringsend. This group wants to see homes built. These are residents are actively seeking the building of homes and the delivery of up to 900 social and affordable homes promised on site and are desperately disappointed by the slow pace and the reneging on commitments to deliver on those social and affordable homes. There is uncertainty surrounding the delivery of so much and uncertainty around the Government's plans to tackle dereliction and we need to see more action and more results.

5:50 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I thank all the staff for their support and professionalism throughout this term. The need to streamline the CPO process has been mentioned. This is really important because the process is not user-friendly, certainly not in Dublin City Council. Limerick was mentioned as being an exemplar in terms of dealing with derelict sites. Dublin City Council is particularly poor at dealing with derelict sites. I know of five units very close to here that have been empty for years. The entire street is effectively empty. It is in an area where there is the possibility of very high rents. They are building up to ten or 11 storeys everywhere around it yet on Townsend Street, which is not too far from here, there are four or five units that are lying derelict. There is no life in the street and it takes down the energy of the street.

When I first looked at the Bill, I saw the words "dereliction" and "regeneration" and thought it would be really welcome to see a discussion on the neglect, dereliction and need for regeneration of Dublin City Council flat complexes. We are talking about dereliction. Dublin City Council has neglected the residents of these complexes and social housing across the inner city to a criminal level. Examples include rats, flooding, raw sewage being pumped out on to balconies, the lack of cleaning, bins and the bin storage not being maintained properly and the lack of estate managers. Dublin City Council's neglect of inner-city Dublin is criminal. If private residences were in the same condition, there would be outrage, laws would be brought in and there would be debates here but because it involves Dublin City Council tenants, they are treated really poorly, which is very unfair.

I was once in Leo Fitzgerald House, which is not too far from here. When you go up to the top balcony, it is like a prison with the spikes and barriers. It is horrendous. There are 200 flats in Markievicz House and right on the corner of that development is a site that has been derelict for years and is the source of rats that are plaguing residents in one part of Markievicz House. Dublin City Council should have three estate managers.

At one stage, there were no estate managers dealing with the flat complexes. Of course, there is going to be neglect because they are not putting the resources in or the proper management that identifies these issues and does something about them. People being allowed to live in these conditions is completely unacceptable. It is not just in the very heart of the inner city. We are talking about flat complexes in Rathmines, Beech Hill in Donnybrook, in Ringsend and on Bishop Street. While we are talking about neglect, dereliction and regeneration, a couple of years ago it was announced that there would be regeneration of Pearse House. The redevelopment of this is glacial and it is unacceptable that people are allowed live in these conditions and in this uncertainty. Five or six years ago, St. Andrew's Court, again very close to here, was proposed for regeneration and redevelopment. It was proposed that it would be knocked and rebuilt. A private developer has built 21 apartments, which he finished two years ago, and there are people living in them. The council is still faffing around with plans for regeneration of that site.

I criticise the council but ultimately the buck stops with Government and with the Minister. The Government has neglected those living in the inner city. I would be more than happy to accompany the Minister of State to any of the flats and show him the conditions. There is a young woman who had breast cancer who keeps her flat spotless and yet there is raw sewage coming out of the pipes and running down her balcony. There are condoms, hair and wipes all coming out onto the balcony and that has been going on for nearly a month. It is like the council just does not care; it really just does not care. It says it will send someone out but you will never see them. If someone does come out, they say they will be back, but they do not come back. This young woman has gone through enough. That is the way most tenants are treated. They are treated abysmally and then they are expected to pay extortionate rents in some instances. What do they get for it? They get neglect and dereliction. That needs to be addressed.

I have raised this issue many a time. I have looked to raise it at various levels here and to have a debate around dereliction of the flat complexes and of the inner city. We are all talk about the need for a revitalised city. We are not going to do it if we do not have decent accommodation for those living in the inner city.

I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach. I know I went off tack but I hope everybody enjoys the recess.

6:00 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Thanks Deputy and the same to you.

Photo of Patrick CostelloPatrick Costello (Dublin South Central, Green Party)
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For me, the most fundamental section in this Bill is section 3 which redefines what a derelict site is. Any of us who have had the pleasure of serving on a council are perhaps familiar with how frustrating it can be to try to get a house onto the derelict sites list. We will never get it off the list if we do not get it on and getting it on is that lever to deliver. The story I tell frequently is of three houses in a row in my council area, all of which were boarded-up. They were all boarded-up with steel, dilapidated and covered with graffiti. Of these three houses in a row, only one was on the derelict sites list and that was the one in the middle that had a hole in the roof and a tree growing out of it. A house has to have a giant hole in the roof and a tree growing out of it to be considered derelict. If a house being boarded-up, empty, and covered in graffiti is not bad enough to get on the derelict sites list, then there is a fundamental problem with the definition. It is excellent to see legislation being proposed to improve that because we need to get houses on that list to be able to use that leverage.

In the absence of local government reform, we find many areas where the council's ability to operate is curtailed by a circular from the Department. The existing legislation is broad and vague and that is part of the problem. What would help the local authorities is a circular from the Department helping to define the dereliction under the current legislation. It is very broad and perhaps what would help is a set of guidelines saying this is what a derelict site is and this is how it should be assessed. What should go in that circular? Section 3 should go into it. It is a well-drafted section that significantly improves the definition of dereliction so that we can begin to tackle this urban rot. It is not just a rot that is eating away at our communities. These are houses that could be housing people. They cannot be ordered for compulsory purchase until they get on that dereliction list. Let us get the houses on that list and let us amend the definition to get them on it. Until we pass this legislation, which is something we should do, I hope the Minister of State can consider using the power of the ministerial circular to use the criteria here to amend the definition as operated by authorities.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I ran for election first in 2014 in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and one of the issues on which I ran was that there were 100 vacant properties along the main street and in the town of Dún Laoghaire. I looked into this problem and later on I became the chair of the corporate policy group in the council and I was able to effect the budget. What we found was that people were making a strategic decision to leave property empty. There were some commercial property owners, sometimes institutions, which decided that if they did not find the right tenant, they would leave their property empty for a while or for a couple of years and this had a very damaging effect on their neighbours. The street was beginning to look like it was gap-toothed. A person could be trying to run a business and the businesses on either side of them were vacant, were bringing down the tone of the area and were creating an atmosphere of dereliction.

We did a number of things. First, we took positive action and offered, for example, a shop-front renovation grant or a rates holiday if a vacant shop was brought back into use. The second thing we did was to use some element of stick and a negative thing. Up to that point, owners could get a refund on their commercial rates. If properties were empty for a while, we began to reduce that refund. Effectively, we were taxing people who had vacant commercial property and very quickly things changed around. The quantity of vacant properties in my area fell by 80% over a number of years. The town is now much more vibrant and that obscenity of seeing empty properties all over an area, where there is a shortage of property, began to disappear.

This applies to residential property as well. We need both carrot and stick. We need incentives for people to put properties back into use. As the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, said, we have this vacancy grant, which is €50,000 for a vacant property or €70,000 for a derelict property. On top of that, a person can get up to €27,000 on the retrofit grants. Therefore, there are big incentives to do up a property that is vacant. At the same time we need to have some type of negative action or tax on somebody who chooses to leave a property empty and that is why we have the vacant property tax at three times the normal property tax on top of the existing property tax. This combination of incentives, both positive and negative, is going to bring back vibrancy back to our towns and villages. It worked in Dún Laoghaire. If it can work in my town, it can work in other towns as well.

I commend Deputy Matthews on bringing forward this Bill. It is great to have this conversation. It is more than a conversation because there are a lot of actions happening as well. I look forward to seeing this Bill on Committee Stage.

Photo of Brian LeddinBrian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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First, I commend my Green Party colleague, Deputy Matthews, on bringing forward this Bill. It says something that it is a Green Party Deputy who is introducing this Bill. It speaks to the seriousness that the issue is taken by our party. It also says something that so many Green Party Deputies have turned up to speak on this. It is something we are very serious about in our party because we want to see our towns, villages and our cities, and the buildings in them, brought back to life. It is no surprise that Deputy Matthews brought the Bill forward because he is certainly one of the hardest working and most serious Deputies in this Chamber. I think colleagues will agree.

I acknowledge the work being done by the Government and of which the Minister of State spoke. Very significant work is being done by this Government to address dereliction and this Bill will supplement that work. The Minister of State is very serious about the issue also.

He mentioned that in our own home city of Limerick, so much good work is being done to address dereliction. Limerick is actually the standout local authority in the country, but perhaps it is the exception that proves the rule, and it is fair to say that local authorities across the country are not doing the level of work that we are seeing in Limerick. It is not all good in Limerick either and, at the risk of a Limerick lament, there have been some notable examples of dropped balls there, and I will refer to a few very sad losses of architectural heritage. Dereliction and heritage go hand in hand, sadly, and many old heritage buildings have been lost, are being lost and will be lost unless we implement the kinds of measures that are laid out in this Bill. I agree with Deputy Costello that if the Minister of State could seek to address some of them in the short term through circulars to local authorities, that would be a very positive move.

Curragower House was only down the road from where I live and it was demolished overnight. It was a property that had stood on the banks of the River Shannon for more than two centuries. Bizarrely, it was not on the derelict sites register, nothing was done about it and, ultimately, it was levelled. There was a beautiful building at the top of Thomas Street, which the Minister of State will have known, and which was levelled to provide three or four car parking spaces. It had the very unusual Dutch Billy façade that was prominent in Limerick city, and there are very few remaining examples. I inquired about Limerick Boat Club, a wonderful sporting institution in our city. The roof of Limerick Boat Club blew off in the storm of 2013 and the club was very frustrated in getting help from Limerick City and County Council. The council did not put that on the derelict sites register at the time. To commend the people in Limerick Boat Club, they raised funds and put a new roof on the beautiful building, which was built in 1870, and it is now a working boat club again and a gem in the heart of Limerick city.

Others have spoken about the importance of embodied carbon. The Minister of State said earlier that the most climate-friendly building is the one that exists. We have to look at our buildings through that lens, figure out how we put a value on our existing buildings, support those who own them and press local authorities so we get the renovation of these buildings in our towns, villages and cities. There are thousands and thousands of them and so much work to be done.

While it is outside the detail of this Bill, something we should discuss is the power of good public realm investment to stimulate refurbishment and renovation of our derelict building stock. I spoke earlier today with the Tánaiste and asked for his support for major investment in Limerick's medieval spine, from King John's Castle all the way up to St. John's Hospital. The Englishtown and Irishtown of medieval times were built around Nicholas Street, Mary Street, where my constituency office is located and where the old town hall of Limerick was in the Middle Ages, Broad Street and John Street. They are in a very dilapidated state. We have to acknowledge there is real value on those streets. We have to lean into it and invest in the public realm. Maybe we could do this through the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF. It is remiss of the local authority that it has not sought to do so because it is a huge opportunity for our city. As this Bill goes through the Houses, we might see how we can link in investment in the public realm because that has a very positive effect on stimulating refurbishment of our old building stock.

I again commend Deputy Matthews on bringing forward the Bill. It is incredibly important to be here on the last day of the term, late on a Thursday. Unfortunately, many of our colleagues have gone home but this is a very serious matter. I hope the Minister of State can support it in the short term but also as it goes through the Houses.

6:10 pm

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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Once again, I thank the Deputies who made contributions. I will take them in turn. Deputy Ivana Bacik made reference to the general level of vacancy. We have commissioned all local authorities to come up with surveys of vacant units and to appoint the vacant homes officers do this. We expect to have that major body of work towards the end of the year.

Second, in keeping with the contributions of the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, and Deputies Costello and Leddin, we are currently reviewing the Derelict Sites Act. In the interim, we will prepare a circular for the local authorities on the interpretation of what a derelict site is. The Deputies will appreciate that I am going around to local authorities and there is certainly a different interpretation in different local authorities. We will try to bring focus so there is a degree of consistency. We want to bring as many buildings and sites as possible under the derelict sites register and we very much want to bring them back into use. We commit to doing that. We are also doing a broader review of the Derelict Sites Act itself, which is very important.

Deputy Andrews raised a number of issues with the CPO process. Although people could say the CPO process is cumbersome, it is working. I am always reluctant to park something to achieve perfection. We have something that is working. I speak to the local authorities and I know they are doing a range of things. However, they are all moving to a space where this is becoming a priority and they are setting up specific vacant homes units. The CPO process is working. I would hate the message to go out that it is unworkable because it is not. To change it would require a long time when we need action now. If Deputy Andrews has issues with particular circumstances regarding local authority housing, he should come to me and I will follow up with Dublin City Council.

Deputy Costello made a specific request that we would put out a circular to give guidance to local authorities specifically on what could be regarded as a derelict site. I commit to doing that.

The Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, made reference to, dare I say it, his case study of Dun Laoghaire. That is highly effective and it is something we are doing in Limerick as well. Yes, there is a carrot and a stick. We want to bring derelict sites back into action and, clearly, a manifestation of that is to get more derelict sites on the registrar. If we identify a site and that person will bring it back into use tomorrow, that is the most important thing of all.

Deputy Leddin’s point on embodied carbon makes absolute sense. I want to give clarity on the point about URDF funding and the public realm. Up to now, the calls have been about the public realm. In this specific third call , which we have just announced, Limerick alone is getting €9 million, which is the second-highest funding outside of Dublin. That is about bringing vacant and derelict units back into use. We want the local authorities to lead on this. Limerick council is already doing this and we want it to use CPO powers, if required. In many cases, when the local authorities are using CPO powers, they cleanse the title. Given there may be no known owners of the site still around, those proceeds come straight back into the council and they then have a revolving fund. We are looking at approximately 4,500 properties nationwide. We want the local authorities to go in with existing buildings that they may own but, equally, they can identify other properties that are in a derelict state, purchase them and bring them back in.

We want people to sell those properties on to people who are coming to live in city and town centres. This is not only about bringing buildings back into use, but about bringing people back into centres as well. The next round will be in the public realm. I am a big believer in the idea that we have to get people living in our cities again. Deputy Leddin is interested in that as well.

Limerick Boat Club does great work on the ground. It got a sports capital grant.

I commend Deputy Matthews on introducing this Bill. We have concerns about elements of it, but we are supportive of its broad thrust. We look forward to getting many of these measures under way in line with the Derelict Sites Act. The Deputy raised certain issues, for example, the online component. The large-scale development planning Bill will be published in the early autumn. I look forward to working with the Deputy, not only on the points he raised, but also in his role as Cathaoirleach of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

6:20 pm

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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Before I close, on behalf of my colleagues and everyone else in the House, I thank all of the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas for the incredible work they do. I mean everyone, from the restaurant staff to the porters, from the ushers to IT staff, from facilities staff to those in the Bills Office and the secretariat. Without their work, we could not do our work, and it is important to acknowledge that before we finish.

It is always good when a Deputy introduces a Private Members' Bill to hear the words "Not opposed", because it means there is a pathway forward, although I acknowledge some of the concerns that the Minister of State raised.

Regarding the Derelict Sites Act, the derelict sites levy is not working. We have the figures, so we know the levies that are applied and the collection rates in local authority areas. I believe it probably runs at less than 10%. People will say that the levy accrues on the site, so when the building is sold on, the levy will be paid on, but that does nothing for the street on which that derelict building exists. I know I cannot introduce a tax via a Private Members' Bill, as that is something for the Minister for Finance to do, but if this charge were to be a tax rather than a levy, we would get a greater reaction. This is not to say that our initial action on an empty or derelict building should be to lash a tax on it. Rather, it should be to engage. The Minister of State acknowledged this and we have put many measures in place to encourage engagement, for example, vacant homes officers and the range of grants, subsidies and supports that I listed at the beginning of the debate and that the Minister of State echoed.

Regarding the concerns raised, I will reiterate that there would be no relaxation or reduction in standards under this Bill. We are all concerned about fire safety, in which respect there must be no diminution in standards. Under this Bill, there would be the same detailed scrutiny, assessment and interrogation of the drawings of an application as happens currently at separate stages, but it would all be done in a single process. I realise that, as the Minister of State pointed out, trying to do this would put resourcing pressures on local authorities. While all of these steps are already taken within the local authority, they are taken at separate times and through separate processes. It is a question of trying to bring the three processes together so that someone applying with the intention of bringing a building back into use will see a quick turnaround. In order to do that, the applicant would still have to adhere to the building regulations and the good and strict standards that we have in place. The people scrutinising the application would be highly qualified and have expertise in the matter. As set out in section 11 of the Building Control Act, the Minister can appoint such people.

I referred to the technical guidance documents. I believe there are approximately 12 of them and many of them have to be waded through in order to undertake a simple change of use or refurbishment - Part B on fire regulations, Part M on accessibility, Part L on energy, Part K on stairways, Part J on energy and heat, and Part E on sound.

The good thing about introducing legislation is that we have various Stages. After this Stage, we will undertake detailed scrutiny, hopefully at the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, where we can tease out concerns and meet the challenge that we are all united behind. Everyone who has spoken has agreed that this is something we must do.

The Bill would not reduce standards. Its purpose is to make the process a little simpler. We have put the financial encouragements in place and, through the vacant homes tax, we have applied a bit of a stick. If we were to introduce a derelict sites tax, it would be another stick. However, we cannot provide funding and force people to do something only to leave them trying to wade through an onerous process. That would be fair. To complement everything we are trying to do, I want to streamline the process by bringing it from three separate processes into a single one.

With that, I thank the Minister of State and the Chair.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I join my colleagues in thanking the Oireachtas staff. I thank Mr. Terry Sheridan from the Department for being present. It is very late. I also thank the ushers and everyone else who is involved for the phenomenal work they do. I wish them all what I hope will be a good summer.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate Deputy Matthews.

I thank our Dáil clerks, our committee clerks, our ushers, our audiovisual staff, our IT experts, our catering teams, our cleaning teams and everyone else in this building. On behalf of all Members, I thank all of our staff who do such incredible work for Deputies here in Leinster House and in our constituencies. Many will think we are finished for the summer, but we all know we will be very busy in our constituencies drafting policies and legislation.

That is a wrap, folks.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 7.08 p.m. go dtí 2 p.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 20 Meán Fómhair 2023.

The Dáil adjourned at at 7.08 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Wednesday, 20 September 2023.