Thursday, 18 June 2015
I also welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, to the House and commend him on his work, particularly in recent weeks, in the brief relating to housing and the new legislation on urban regeneration. He came in with a swagger of a Munster champion and I hope we can sort that out in the next couple of weeks.
This is a very serious issue. I attended a forum on rural development with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, last week and this was one of the biggest issues that arose. It concerns the blight of derelict sites on rural towns. Right across the country, we can see that businesses have closed and people have left houses for one reason or another. In many cases, these buildings have been left to go to rack and ruin. There is legislation in place, as the Derelict Sites Act has been there for a long number of years. The theory is that owners are contacted if property is not in good stead and may be required to pay a 3% levy of the value of the property on an annual basis. As I understand it, that money is supposed to go towards putting the property into a safe and aesthetically favourable state.
This is one of the biggest bugbears for community groups involved with the Tidy Towns competition and which show pride in their own areas. These derelict sites continue to be relevant as places will lose points in the SuperValu Tidy Towns competition on an annual basis. These problems are highlighted almost on an annual basis in some towns but nothing seems to be done. In my own town, I am sad to say, there are a number of such sites, and some locations are very badly affecting the town aesthetic. The local community development group in Carrick-on-Suir has taken it upon itself to put a face on some sites by painting them to take the bad look away. The Minister of State is probably familiar with this as he is only down the road. The work has been fantastic.
There is legislation but it does not appear to be used by local authorities. When we ask about these sites, we get a story about the issue being with the legal department but, frankly, that is not good enough. We need to start representing rural towns for business and tourists, particularly in areas where we are not strong from a tourism perspective. We must make it attractive for people to come here. In areas with strong tourism, such as Killarney, there are very few derelict sites. Those local authorities seem to know the value of tourism and are active in ensuring that these problems are dealt with.
It was brought to my attention that one of the biggest offenders in this respect are local authorities, which may own many properties because they have bought them over years. They are allowed to do this under the legislation. Who polices the local authority? The private citizen would pay the 3% levy to the local authority, which is meant to use it wisely to deal with this issue. If the local authority owns the property, who is looking after the authority? Will the Minister of State consider this as the urban generation legislation, taking in vacant sites, goes through the Houses of the Oireachtas? It has started in the Dáil already and the Minister of State might accept an amendment in this House on the matter. It is a very serious issue and there is no ombudsman to which the local authority must answer. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.
I thank Senator Landy for raising this matter, in which I have a deep interest. The Senator is quite correct to bring a focus on derelict sites to the Seanad, as they are a blight on our towns and villages. Local authorities have a statutory responsibility to deal with them. From my own knowledge, having been a member of a local authority for several years, there is nothing worse or more frustrating for community groups, such as the Carrick-on-Suir community group the Senator mentioned, which are working hard to improve their towns and the appearance of their community, than to have a derelict site right in the middle of their town or village. It is unacceptable and local authorities have a statutory role to deal with such sites.
Section 9 of the Derelict Sites Act 1990 provides that it shall be the duty of every owner and occupier of land, including a statutory body and a State authority, to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the land in question does not become, or does not continue to be, a derelict site. In this connection, the term "statutory body" includes local authorities, harbour authorities, vocational education committees, as well as State boards and bodies established under any statute. Section 10 of the Act further places a specific obligation on local authorities to take all reasonable steps to ensure that any land within their functional area does not become, or continue to be, a derelict site.
For the purposes of the Act, a derelict site is defined as: any land which detracts, or is likely to detract, to a material degree from the amenity, character or appearance of land in the neighbourhood of the land in question because of the existence on the land in question of structures which are in a ruinous, derelict or dangerous condition, or the neglected, unsightly or objectionable condition of the land or any structures on the land in question, or the presence, deposit or collection on the land in question of any litter, rubbish, debris or waste, except where the presence, deposit or collection of such litter, rubbish, debris or waste results from the exercise of a right conferred by statute or by common law.
Local authorities have substantial powers under the Act, including powers to establish a register of derelict sites in their functional areas; requiring owners or occupiers of sites to take specific measures which the authority considers necessary to address the dereliction within specified time-frames; to acquire a site by agreement or compulsorily in certain circumstances; and to impose an annual derelict sites levy at a rate of 3% of the market value of a site on registered sites in urban areas or other areas prescribed by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to be an urban area for the purposes of the Act.
As required under section 8(6) of the Derelict Sites Act 1990, my Department requests each local authority to submit, on an annual basis, its derelict sites register in respect of the previous calendar year. The most recent information held by my Department in this regard covers the year 2013.
Under section 8(5) of the Derelict Sites Act, a copy of the derelict sites register for any local authority can be inspected at the offices of that authority during office hours. I would encourage members of the public to look for this register and create awareness in communities, which would put the pressure on local authorities to ensure they are pursuing these derelict sites.
For the information of the Senator, my Department has compiled a report which I will provide to him, summarising the information returned from local authorities in respect of 2013. This report addresses, on a county-by-county basis, the number of derelict sites on the records of each local authority; and the amount of levy collected on an individual local authority basis. By way of summary, the report indicates that nationally there were 1,755 derelict sites on the local authority registers on 1 January 2013; 143 new sites were added to the local authority registers during that year; and 187 sites were removed from the local authority registers during 2013, which left a total number of 1,711 sites nationally on the local authority derelict sites register.
Information is not held in my Department on the number of sites on the respective local authority registers, which are in the ownership of local authorities, or how these sites are treated under the Derelict Sites Act. The administration and implementation of the Act at a local level is a matter for the respective local authorities and I have no function in this regard.
The Senator has made a very pertinent point regarding local authority-owned lands and I share some of his concerns. Elected members have a mandate to represent communities and I would urge local councillors to ensure that those lands owned by their authorities are put to beneficial use if at all possible. This is something I feel strongly about in terms of urban regeneration. The Senator has mentioned that the Bill will be coming before the Seanad shortly, at which time there will be further opportunity to debate these issues.
I thank the Minister of State for his very strong and forthright response. He served as a member of the local authority in Waterford for many years, and I served with him on a regional authority. We are very familiar with this type of situation. The Minister of State is not just knowledgeable in theory but also in practice.
I am dismayed to find out that in 2013, only 44 derelict sites were dealt with - in other words, removed - in the entire country. I was surprised to discover that some local authorities have zero derelict sites on their books while other local authorities have up to 250 or more, of which they are removing something in the order of four or five per year. That is not good enough and I ask the Minister of State that this week, he would, through his office, make as much known to the responsible officials in the local authorities.
Volunteers in every community up and down the country, particularly at this time of year, spend hours and weeks of their own time getting ready for the tidy towns competition. The same thing knocks them every year and we can do something about it. I will deal with the Minister of State when the legislation is introduced in the House. We will see if we can put something stronger in it then.
It is quite evident from the register that some local authorities are far more proactive in pursuing derelict sites than others. I share Senator Landy's concerns in this regard and will undertake to write to local authorities to bring a new focus on pursuing derelict sites within their areas.
Local authorities need to be ambitious for their areas. Voluntary community groups are already ambitious but they need the support of the local authorities, which have the statutory power to deliver what needs to be done to deal with derelict sites. I urge local authorities and elected members to ensure that it happens.
With the economic recovery now taking place, proper planning and sustainable development require us to ensure that we have regeneration in our town centres and villages, rather than looking again for the easy option of urban sprawl and the greenfield site. These are serviced sites with public services already paid for by the taxpayer. Somebody has to grasp the nettle to regenerate them.
In terms of the social housing strategy, I urge local authorities to come forward with proposals for social housing solutions that will integrate into the villages and towns we are speaking about and can utilise derelict and vacant sites. We can do a lot if we are proactive in that regard.