Wednesday, 23 November 2016
Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016: Committee Stage
On a point of order, I wish to note that we have only just now received the groupings of amendments. I have been checking my e-mail all morning and they only just arrived now in our e-mail accounts. It is really unsatisfactory, to say the least, that we have only received the groupings at this time when we have been doing a great deal of work on the Bill. I want that to be noted. I believe it is quite unfair that the groupings should come to us so late.
On the same point and because of what has just been said, perhaps the Acting Chairman might provide us with some support. We did not get an opportunity to examine which amendments are going to be discussed with each other. As a result, the Acting Chairman might talk us through it a little bit slower than normal.
Okay. As a brief overview, there are no amendments to sections 1 and 2. Amendment No. 1 is being discussed on its own. We will then discuss amendments Nos. 2 and 3, which are being taken together. I fully appreciate that Senators have received the groupings late. We must ensure that groupings are issued in good time in the future. Their points are duly noted. Is it agreed to proceed? Agreed.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Is maith an rud é go bhfuilimid ag brú ar aghaidh leis an reachtaíocht seo mar tá géarchéim tithíochta sa tír, ach tá cuideanna áirid den Bhille seo ag cur imní orainn. We are happy that a Bill is coming forward and that some of the issues in the housing sector are being addressed. However, we have some very serious concerns regarding parts of this Bill. We look forward to teasing out these concerns with the Minister.
A worrying provision relating to the strategic housing developments and proposing the fast-track planning procedures for residential developments of 100 units of more and large-scale student accommodation projects of 200 or more bed spaces is contained in Part 2. The Bill will also place a statutory requirement on An Bord Pleanála to report back in 16 weeks. One of the problems we have with this provision is that it appears the Government is tampering with the planning laws in order to facilitate these new developments. We do not feel that the Minister has provided a sufficient evidence base for this proposal. We would like him to clarify where the evidence is which shows that this is a good way to proceed. We do not feel that the Minister has demonstrated either that the move will not undermine the good planning and further alienate communities from the planning process by taking it out of the hands of the local authorities. We are unconvinced that better solutions were not considered, such as facilitating a greater use of pre-planning engagement with local communities. We are also not convinced that planning delays are the main reason housing projects are being held up. We would like to find out more about the evidence for that.
Our concerns are echoed by organisations such as the Association of Irish Local Government, which has issued quite a number of notes in this area that relate to the general role of the local authority planning function, the centralisation of the planning function, the role of An Bord Pleanála, the recruitment of technical planning staff, public engagement in the planning process, etc. We can discuss those elements further. The Minister might offer his initial thoughts on this and the evidence that this is a good move.
I thank the Minister for coming before the House today. On Second Stage, I asked the Minister a specific question. In his opening address, he used a timescale of two years or 24 months repeatedly, obviously to emphasise, in his opinion, the delays in the process. I asked the him to provide the evidence for that, just as Senator Ó Clochartaigh has now also requested it. I have the transcript of that debate. I was obliged to leave at the time because I had to receive a deputation that evening, as I told the Minister, but I went back over the transcript in the interim. I saw nothing from the Minister's response that actually explains what evidence there is to support his position.To me, this is an attempt to solve something, but it is the wrong way of going about it. During the recession, planning applications decreased massively. Local authorities that might have been receiving 1,500 planning applications each year saw that number reduce to a trickle. Naturally, staff were redesignated within local authorities and some planning staff left local authorities. Now planning staff are coming under pressure as housing applications start to come in again. Even though the Minister and his predecessor have made financial provision for the recruitment of technical staff, those positions have not been filled in many local authorities. At the moment, we have a dearth of staff in planning offices. Rather than putting staff back into local authorities, the Minister, with the approval of the Cabinet, has decided to set up a new strategic planning unit within An Bord Pleanála in anticipation of the next round of planning applications. I think that is the wrong way of going about it. The staff should be beefed up at the local authority level.
When I spoke on this Bill on Second Stage, I placed a strong emphasis on the need for the local knowledge of the members of local councils. As I look around the Chamber, it strikes me that at least half of the Senators who are present are former councillors. Now that someone else has sat down, perhaps I cannot say that the vast majority of us are former councillors. I will explain how the relationship between councillors and planners works. Councillors are able to talk to planners and planners are able to talk to councillors. Even if one was not dealing personally with the case under discussion, one might have local knowledge of the area. All councillors receive calls from planners who want to know whether there might be some situation that is not apparent on an application in a certain area. They offer their support in such circumstances. That will be completely lost under this Bill. The Minister has said that provision will be made for discussions with councillors at local level. The problem is that this will possibly be written into the code, but it just will not happen. Again, we will have a pulling away of democracy at local level. When people wonder how a 300-house development came up in an area, their elected councillors will tell them they had nothing to do with it and it is a matter for An Bord Pleanála. As I said on Second Stage, ancillary facilities such as takeaways could be attached to such developments even though that might be contrary to what the local councillors provided for in the development plan when the area was being zoned. The big problem is that members of local authorities will have no control over what goes into these areas.
On Second Stage, Senator Boyhan raised the case that was made by the Association of Irish Local Government. I support that case, which is that local councillors are elected to deal with issues at local level, rather than to hand responsibility for such issues to a centralised body like An Bord Pleanála. The biggest development ever seen in this country was Dundrum shopping centre. That did not go to An Bord Pleanála because those involved in the preplanning phase of the development went through the application with a fine-tooth comb. They looked at it upside down and inside out until the planners, developers, residents and all the people affected by it were satisfied. The idea that big council developments will automatically be satisfactory because they will go through the councils to An Bord Pleanála does not stand up. Equally, the assumption that is being made with regard to planned developments of more than 100 units does not stand up. Developers will build smaller numbers of units because of financial constraints.
I would like to mention another situation that has happened across the country. I will mention as an example a housing development of 100 units that was built but with zoned land behind the estate not being built on. The people who bought the 100 units were led to believe that their houses would be the only development in the estate. Two years later, the developer came back and looked for permission to build another 200 houses behind the houses that were already built. Nothing could be done about it. This behaviour is going to go on and on. I suggest we should tackle the number of planning applications that are pending at present. I understand that planning permission has been granted for 43,000 units in the Dublin area. I am open to correction in that regard.
Okay. I stand corrected. If we were to tackle the reasons those permissions are not being moved on, we would deal with much of this problem. We all know that people are waiting for the turkey to get fatter. I think this issue is being approached from the wrong angle. This proposal is an attack on local democracy and a charter for developers. The developers are rubbing their hands in glee because of this measure, which I oppose. As I said on Second Stage, I welcome many of the other sections of the Bill, but I totally oppose this section because I think the Minister is going about it the wrong way. I do not think it will do anything to fast-track what has to be done to meet the housing need that exists in this country, as we all know.
There have been many debates on the housing crisis in this Chamber, the Dáil and local authority chambers around the country. We all acknowledge and recognise that there is a housing crisis in this country. In my view, crisis interventions are required. This Bill is just one of the interventions that are being made by the Minister and the Government. I have said previously that the Government is doing everything in its power through legislation, the provision of funding and other initiatives to try to kick-start the construction sector so that it can provide social and private housing to those who are most in need. I have the utmost respect for Members of this House, especially those who have served on local authorities, as I did for over eight years. I have a fundamental belief in the primacy of the mandate of local elected members. I recognise the opportunity for local authority members to tease out some of the issues or concerns around this Bill. As a former councillor, the Minister can explain this. I know he has engaged with many local authority members from around the country and their representative bodies, including the Association of Irish Local Government, which I commend on its strong submission on this Bill. That is the way it should be. I understand the concerns being expressed.
I understand this Bill will ensure that housing is only built on lands that are specifically zoned for residential purposes by local authority members. I ask the Minister to clarify this on the record of this House for once and for all because the power of zoning is one of the primary reserved functions of local authority members. Can he clarify for local authority members that An Bord Pleanála, or any other agency for that matter, will not be given any additional powers to grant permission for housing in areas that are not already zoned by local authority members? The fundamental point is that this is the fundamental power that local authority members have. I ask the Minister to clarify that this is not being diminished in any way. In fact, it is probably being enhanced because under this legislation, An Bord Pleanála will be able to grant permissions in respect of zoned lands only. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong in my belief that before now it was possible for An Bord Pleanála to grant permission in respect of lands that might have had a different zoning. This is one area he might address.
It is important for us to debate the issues that are of concern and listen to local authority members, who are the closest public representatives to the ground in our democratic system. Many councillors understand that we need some kind of positive and proactive legislative measure to try to kick-start large-scale housing, primarily in larger urban areas. We should honestly admit that much of this legislation will probably not apply to three quarters of local authorities in this country because they do not have the required demand for large-scale urban development. One of the mistakes we made in the past was that we allowed large housing estates to be built in small rural areas where there was insufficient need or demand for such housing. The Housing Agency is doing a lot of good work to analyse the demographic changes, the types of houses that are needed and where those houses are needed. I expect An Bord Pleanála, which I recognise is an independent agency, to utilise that information in terms of whatever permission is granted.
Before I conclude, I would like to assuage some of the concerns of local authority members, who are responsible for adopting county development plans and local area plans. Zoning plays an important part in that function. If a large-scale development is to happen in a local authority municipal area, I believe there should be some opportunity for the elected members in the municipal district to engage with the executive, possibly at the preplanning stage under this legislation, so that the elected local authority members in the area can let their views be known on the record.This would in turn form part of the report to be submitted back to An Bord Pleanála. I believe this would address many of the concerns that there be a genuine engagement with local authority members and the executives of local authorities before a proposal is referred to An Bord Pleanála for decision. We could move towards such an approach. I am interested to hear the Minister's views in that regard.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for his engagement to date. I have taken on board what Senator Coffey said, but the Minister is here now. This is his opportunity to perform, to prove himself and to deliver on pre-consultations and engagement with councillors, Senators and Deputies. It is all very well to talk about what we will deliver and then to be told, as we approach the door of this Chamber, that the Minister is not in full agreement. If the Minister is not in agreement, he argues his case on the floor of the Seanad. If we are unhappy, we argue our case with the Minister. Many councillors are tuned into the webcast of this debate because they are aware it is taking place. They are concerned, and rightly so, and they will not apologise. I am a former county councillor. I know the planning process intimately. A former member of An Taisce, I have been involved on both sides of the planning process. There is an area in the middle where we must get compromise and agreement.
I will not come in here and bellyache and then do something contrary to what I have said. I will not oppose this section of the Bill. It is my absolute intention to support it. In this section we propose to give legislative effect to the action plan for housing and homelessness. The Minister has outlined in the action plan a requirement for 47,000 houses. There are five pillars and 84 key objectives in the action plan, and the Minister was brave enough to put timelines on them. Some of them have slipped, not all through his fault, but no doubt we will catch up. We look forward to the next quarterly report. The Minister has already given us a report on the deliverables of the plan. However, we have a housing crisis. It is all very well coming into this House, a council chamber or anywhere else to talk about a crisis. If we have a crisis, we must do something about it. The crisis did not arise yesterday. The Minister is very well aware, as is Senator Coffey, of the dynamic and the problems that have faced housing for a number of years and of successive Governments that buried their heads in the sand. I acknowledge that the Minister is doing something. The action plan might not all go well but it is a start and a positive. It has a timeframe and deliverables. We as politicians will be failing if we do not haul the Minister back through the Seanad and the Dáil and ask questions about what is and is not happening.
I have said it to the Minister before and I say it now on the record of this House. He will be open to criticism that this is an undemocratic process because it does not engage with people. Local councillors represent people. The Minister is aware of the Aarhus agreement and the obligations to engage with communities and citizens and recognise their elected representatives. He is aware of the Supreme Court case in which Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness found that a county development plan was a binding contract with the people. That is it. Everyone has a legitimate expectation to go into his or her county hall, of which there are 31, look at his or her county development plans and see the map-out and the plans for a whole range of envisaged services and infrastructure. That is everyone's right. People have the right to consult. They have the right and expectation to have some comfort in the knowledge that planning will evolve as per a county development plan, subject to most things being right, such as money, resources, planning applications, economic prosperity and development.
What are the criticisms of the Bill? I want the Minister today, or during this process in the next few days, to come some way towards demonstrating that he has met people and tried to address some of their amendments, even if it be a slight adjustment of an amendment. I do not want to hear Ministers coming in here and not listening to very basic matters. I set out originally with 16 amendments to the Bill; today I have two. On some of them I was reassured by the Minister's officials - I will not go into it now - that they could be dealt with through regulation. The Minister needs to explain that at some point today. Elements of the Bill will be dealt with such as, for instance, the fees. Who pays the fees? What fees are to be retained by the local authority in the course of an application? I have spoken to a number of senior planners across the country in the last few days. They have a concern that they will lose revenue because of planning applications. However, the Minister can address that today and tell us whether that is the case.
Regarding Senator Coffey's remarks, An Bord Pleanála has contravened, and continues to contravene, county development plans, which is within its right. The Minister has enormous powers to make directions regarding county development plans. Senator Coffey would be fully aware of that from his previous position in the Custom House. We might talk about a county development plan as being supreme. Let us face it: what are councillors? They do not have direct input into making planning decisions but by golly, they are the guardians and custodians of a county development plan. That is fair. The House should remember that local government was enshrined in our Constitution by a referendum of the people. That is clear. We recognise constitutionally the role of local government, the right to engage and the right to represent diverse communities with different and conflicting opinions. My concern is with An Bord Pleanála.
The Minister could do two or three simple things, which I will tease out when we come to the relevant sections. For instance, he accepts and acknowledges that local councillors have a democratic mandate. They have vast experience locally. He could, for instance, decide that elected members of councils would not be charged any fee to make an observation to An Bord Pleanála regarding the planning applications that come onto the system. I call on the Minister to make this decision. I do not do so to give politicians favourable advantage. I do not suggest such a provision for Senators or Deputies; I only suggest it for county councillors in recognition of their special mandate. I also suggest that a special statutory meeting of the local authorities take place. It should be statutory so the public can attend the meeting. Most council meetings are now broadcast by webcast, although the public galleries are still open. It is a public process. We must be careful about the quasi-judicial functions of planning because lobbying legislation is in place, and rightly so, to which we would have to have regard. We must tick the boxes of openness and transparency. The Minister could, in this legislation, empower and direct county managers and chief executives of councils to have a public, open, statutory council meeting only to brief the elected members on the proposal that they will submit to the board. I am not suggesting a long, protracted meeting with long minutes that need weeks and months to approve, amend and change. That is too archaic. That is why I am not suggesting that. I initially suggested that the approved minutes be submitted. It is too archaic and is too long a process; it goes on and on. It is not easy to get 40 councillors to agree on what they said and did not say. It is more important that the Minister allows a statutory council meeting to take place.
Finally, the Minister should look at the planning fees again. This is about openness and engagement. They are currently €20 to a local authority. I do not know what the Minister will tell us or what he is in a position to tell us today about the regulations. At this juncture, I wish him well. I want to support the Bill but I also want him to demonstrate in this process in Seanad Éireann that he will support some of the reasonable, well-articulated and well-argued amendments. He needs Members' support in this process. I do not think anyone in this Chamber, Dáil Éireann or any council chamber does not want to address the housing crisis. The Bill is only one aspect of it. The Bill is weak on openness, transparency, accountability and the recognition of the legitimate mandate that elected representatives have. Let us not have rushed legislation. Rushed legislation is bad legislation. It is interesting to note that within a relative few days of his publishing the Bill, the Minister has tabled a substantial number of amendments. I do not know from where they have all come. Am I to believe they are part of his engagement process or am I to believe that they are tweaks by the public service to put matters right? In any case, there are a lot of amendments for a Bill that has only been published a week. I look forward to engaging in the entire process.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I think we all look forward to the debate ahead. I will not speak extensively on this section. We will have an opportunity to contribute on some of the proposals. As my colleague, Senator Boyhan, said, I hope the Minister will be open to considering some of the amendments which have been tabled and, notwithstanding the desire to move forward speedily on this, will engage with them. Very constructive proposals have been put forward in the amendments. For example, the Minister himself recognised the fact that there are 28,000 units outstanding at the planning permission stage already. We have constructive amendments to ensure that if we introduce these new processes, they will lead to actual building and delivery of units. We are all keen to see that we not only open the door but also ensure there is action and movement through it.We will come to the matter when we debate our amendments.
I recognise that this legislation is part of the bigger picture. Given the concerns that we have heard from citizens, it is important that the Minister makes it clear again where it fits in. The one key strong strategy that everybody has consistently identified is the need for more and better social housing. Even though the section does not deal with the issue, I want the Minister to address how the legislation fits with the commitment to build more social housing. Let us consider county council developments, county development plans and land that has been zoned as residential. Given that strategic frame, how can we ensure that the appropriate land is made available for social housing development? I want to hear the Minister's initial plans for same. A vastly increased amount of funding is needed for social housing. How can we ensure that landbanks for social housing are not used solely for commercial development? These pieces fit together and I would like to hear how he believes we can strengthen this aspect.
The availability of social housing is of huge public concern. The Minister has made considerable strides to commit to a 30% increase. Over the next two, five or six years the demand for social housing will increase due to demographics. I hope there is a massively increased commitment made to social housing in terms of the landscape that will be shaped by the new approach to planning permission. My party has not tabled amendments on the matter and I am happy to hear the Minister's thoughts on how he will address it.
The year stipulated in the legislation is 2019. We take it on trust that the Minister intends this as a temporary measure that will expire at that point. That is why we have reflected the date in some of our amendments. I note that the date can be extended to 2021 by order of the Minister. I ask that he commit to holding a constructive debate on the extension of the date. With something new, it is important that Senators who are close to and work with councillors contribute to the debate. I am not referring to myself because I was not elected by councillors. We must learn from the measure as we move forward. We should be consulted about extending the date.
I wish to express two more concerns. We are saying that the provision will only apply to land that has been zoned for residential development. I note that the under paragraphs (c)(i) and (ii), there are provisions whereby other non-residential uses may be part of strategic developments. Let us bear in mind the county development plans, it is important that the Minister reflects on how the provision will work. How does this fit in with ensuring that county development plans are reflected? There may be a strong case for child care or other facilities in developments.
Lastly, when we discuss deep strategies later let us remember that it involves recognising the diverse needs of the population. I hope that the Minister will support and accept our amendments. I also hope that he ensure that strategic developments are deeply strategic. The definition has set out the strategies using numbers. We must consider the quality and kinds of housing and that it serves all of the population. I mention that because we have tabled amendments that refer to people with disabilities.
I look forward to further debate of this section and to moving on to the next section. I would appreciate if the Minister clarifies the points that I have raised.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As I travelled here this morning, I listened to the radio in my car and learned that two people in Dublin become homeless every day. That statistic puts matters in context for us. We must ensure that we pass this Bill. We have a duty to the people of Ireland to ensure that they are not homeless. The responsibility lies with the Minister and with us to ensure that the legislation is enacted as a matter of urgency.
I have massive issues with the county development plans. As Senator Coffey said, the Minister spoke to local authorities and different bodies but I do not believe that he has consulted enough to convey what is meant by the new housing emergency plan. I attended a local authority meeting a fortnight ago at which different aspects of the legislation were discussed. However, the councillors present were unaware of half of the provisions. This led me to believe that there is a lack of information about the plan. As I have said on several occasions, we must convey the information to councillors.
I wish to state that the plan is good. Fianna Fáil has tabled six amendments that I shall address individually.
The biggest issue facing local authorities is unfinished housing estates and unspent bonds. I know that the issue will be dealt with in the Bill but the Minister must ensure that there is enforcement at every housing estate that is built from now on and that bonds are spent. These estates are a nightmare due to discrepancies in items that range from lighting to footpaths, railings and fences. The Minister must not allow this situation to arise.
I shall not waste the Minister's time as we have a lot to get through today.
I commend the Minister on the work that he has done to date. He took the poisoned chalice and by God has he run with it since. He still has a lot more to do and, therefore, needs our support. That is what I intend to do as far as is practicable.
One does not need to have been a county councillor to understand the legislation or what the Minister is trying to do. Yesterday, my colleague, Senator Ó Clochartaigh, raised the issue of homelessness in my home city of Galway. Every town and village in Ireland is now plagued with homelessness. The Minister is not a magician but he has taken a fair crack at solving the problem and Senators must assist him, as far as is practicable.
The amendments tabled by Senator Boyhan and I deal with the charges imposed on councillors who make representations about planning. We want the associated fees abolished. The provision will put local democracy front and centre, as do all of our amendments. We have tried to facilitate the Minister as best as we can. We have also borne in mind the people who operate at the coalface in every town and village because they must face their constituents with decisions that are made. It is not unreasonable to request that a formal council meeting on a statutory footing should be held to brief local authority members. It is more than likely that we will not push a vote on the matter. If, however, the Minister does not accept our proposal, we will table an amendment on Report Stage. We will continue to do so until such time as we have completely lost the battle.
I shall not reiterate what previous speakers stated. We support the Minister, as best as we can, and ask him to be reasonable. I urge him to take our suggestions on board, as far as practicable, and to promise regulations where regulations suit the issues. I will not be opposing section 3 and I will support the Minister in respect of it. Let us see if we can find ways to work through the various issues together.
I welcome this important Bill. We are in the kind of emergency situation that places an onus on us to pass the Bill as fast as we can in order to tackle the current housing crisis. Section 3 covers a period of three years with a possible extension of two years. The provision applies to housing developments that are comprised of over 100 units, which is not the normal size of a housing development. The Cork county development plan was based on nine master plans and catered for developments comprised of many 1,000 units. This legislation is important in the context of large-scale developments.
Cork has one strategic development zone. Such zones play a part in ensuring we have enough housing units to tackle the housing crisis.
This new legislation follows on from the strategic Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2006.The latter was introduced to cater for major projects and led to requests for planning permission literally going straight to An Bord Pleanála. It worked effectively and we are tweaking and changing it. One of the key aspects of that planning Bill was that it allowed the Executive and councillors to have a submission made through a public meeting. It worked very well. I worked in that process and I saw it go through my own local authority in Cork on two separate occasions. With what is being proposed, we are not reinventing the wheel but we are trying to ensure larger housing developments can be fast-tracked and we can get them delivered at a faster rate. I hope the Minister will take into consideration the 2006 legislation that worked effectively, with Members having an opinion on that Bill. That process worked well and we can follow it with this Bill.
I will try to be brief. Lest there be any misunderstanding I put on record again that I welcome the Minister and what he is trying to do. If there was an inference, and I am not saying there was, that because we do not agree with everything in the Bill, we do not want to solve the housing problem, nothing could be further from the truth. We might be approaching the issue in a different way.
I am trying to pick up some threads where we can find common ground on this specific issue. In his closing remarks the last day the Minister stated that the idea that local councillors have no role is not the case and there is no reason the procedure that exists in local authorities whereby controversial planning applications are referred to a committee for discussion, with planners getting feedback from democratically elected councillors on how they look at planning applications, cannot happen during the pre-planning consultation process. He indicated that ultimately the planners make recommendations on planning issues and, of course, councillors make decisions on zoning issues, local area plans, policy considerations and a series of other issues, including the county development plan.
Senator Coffey commented earlier and if we could take out counties with cities, which are Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Galway and perhaps some counties in the midlands with a high population, there would not be too many of these applications. On the previous day I used the example of Fingal which had 800 applications made in the first eight months of 2015, but of those only seven applications had in excess of 100 units. We are not talking about many of these applications as we speak but if building is ratcheted up, perhaps we will see it.
This is a suggestion from the Minister, but could he not put it in the Bill as a statutory requirement because it would assist the concerns of councillors, and which I have on behalf of councillors, as well as the concerns of ordinary people who do not want to see a sleight of hand? The word "developer", unfortunately, has become a bad word but there are many good developers. I worked with many good developers over the years who built necessary social and private housing. The word has become associated with bad things that happened, so when people think about developers, they believe something underhanded is possibly being done. I ask the Minister to put the issue of large multi-unit developments on a statutory footing, as this might assist or assuage the concerns that I and others have about democratic input at local level being pulled from the system as proposed.
I thank the Seanad for really co-operating in trying to facilitate the movement of this Bill quickly through the Houses. I am determined to try to get this legislation finalised and enacted before the end of the year in order that when we start next year, we will have a series of new systems that can deliver more efficiently than current systems.
The focus so far in the discussion has purely been on the changes for the process around making a planning decision for large-scale units. It is one relatively small part of a much bigger plan that is focusing on multiple different areas. The Rebuilding Ireland plan has a specific process around looking at how we finance projects and there is a specific proposal around how we look at infrastructure deficits. There are also specific proposals around how we insist on mixed tenure developments in trying to build much more vibrant and diverse communities. There are strong sections on disability and so many other issues from the many strands of the housing and homelessness challenges we now face.
All we are doing here is recognising that some of the response requires legislative change. Therefore, when people say this is not going to solve the housing crisis, we know that of course it will not. It is not supposed to do it on its own. It is one contributing factor to solving one of the issues, namely, the delays in getting certainty around a planning decision. That is all. I do not want to overblow that as a silver bullet to solve all our problems because it is not. I am sure we will have plenty of more debate in this House on social housing, a rental strategy, the planning system and some of the other issues we are dealing with in this legislation. All this does is prioritise the legislative change that comes out of the strategy that we published and launched last summer that is rolling out in delivery terms. We have already had our first quarter update in terms of meeting the targets we are setting and we are pretty much on schedule for everything.
This is important and I do not pretend it is not. I can give some evidence as the Senators' colleagues in the Dáil asked me about the evidence for introducing this. I asked for and received from An Bord Pleanála the timeline around decision-making for large-scale planning decisions this year. I got it a couple of months ago. There were only 15 decisions by An Bord Pleanála on applications with more than 100 units at that point, although there have been a few more since. That represents the vast majority of applications for more than 100 units. Although it is true there are some examples of large-scale planning applications that do not go to An Bord Pleanála, the vast majority do. The average length of time it took to get a decision from pre-planning consultation to final decision was 78 weeks.
We are talking about how to build enough houses for people. We are looking at what happened last year. There were 12,500 houses completed last year and 6,000 of those were one-off houses in the countryside. Of the other 6,500, a very significant percentage were examples of unfinished housing estates and apartment complexes being completed. We are probably talking about somewhere between 3,000 or 4,000 new houses being built in total in the entire country. At a time when we need to be building approximately 30,000 units, we are building approximately a tenth of that number. That is the extent of the problem we are trying to solve through multiple strands, policy changes, funding proposals, legal changes and so on. If we can bring more certainty to the planning decision in terms of timelines for large developments, it will become easier to finance them. Timelines and uncertainties around planning decisions are a big factor in the financing of projects. This is not a charter for developers or anything, but that is a fact. If somebody is building more than 100 houses, we are talking about multi-million euro financing, and to put that in place, certainty in getting decisions on planning is essential. That is the feedback we are getting.
We want to encourage more ambition for the likes of student accommodation.There are probably 10,000 student accommodation places in the pipeline, either in planning, being prepared for planning or under construction. We probably need 30,000 between now and 2019. How do we get that moving faster? A streamlined timeline for how we get those decisions would help. It is a case of getting some more certainty and urgency into the supply response. That is the context in which I am trying to operate.
Second, how do we ensure we are not undermining the quality of decisions, which is very important for some people here too? In an effort to solve a problem let us not cause another problem by making bad decisions. That is why this legislation is, if anything, protecting zoning for large housing decisions. My understanding, and I will happily stand corrected, is that An Bord Pleanála, if it chooses to, has the power to grant a planning permission for a residential property on land that is not zoned for housing if it has good reason to do that, consistent with national strategy or other factors that it must take into account. In this legislation it is specifically precluded from granting a planning application for a residential development unless the land is zoned for housing. There is no rush job here. This involves putting in place a process that makes the right decisions, gives certainty about zoning but makes sure that we have timelines and statutory pressure on the system to make decisions.
Are we bypassing local democracy? I met representatives from the Association of Local Government, AILG, a couple of hours ago, with Senator Coffey. They were speaking at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and I wanted to take the opportunity to talk to them and reassure them. I think we did give them some reassurance.
The Senators should listen to what we are trying to do. We will introduce an amendment next Tuesday on Report Stage, which is very similar to the amendment the Senator will move later. We can tease out why there need to be tweaks and so on. We will require chief executives during the pre-planning consideration process, which is a statutory nine-week period, to inform and consult councillors on large scale planning applications going through this system. It will also impose an obligation on planning authorities to incorporate the view of councillors in their final report. If there are problems with that let us hear them and argue them out. The reason I do not have an amendment today is that I wanted to tease these issues out and we can finalise them on Tuesday. That is what moving from Committee Stage to Report Stage involves.
There are several things that I assured councillors of and I want to assure them again today. First, when they make decisions on zoning they will not be undermined by this legislation or process. They will have an involvement, if they choose to, in the pre-planning consultation process and they will be able to make observations and objections if they want to when the formal application is made to An Bord Pleanála as well. There is a role for councillors, if they want to get involved in having their say on applications that are moving through the system.
Most planning applications will not go through this system. Most will be for five, ten, 15, 40, 70 or 80 housing units in different parts of the country, many in and around the Dublin area. We have not seen large scale developments of the quantity we need in the areas where we need them on lands that are zoned. We need to try to encourage that quickly. There is no point having a special development zone, SDZ, in Adamstown that can accommodate 4,000 housing units if we are building only 150 houses a year, when we need a more ambitious approach. There is no point having an SDZ in Cherrywood that can accommodate 7,000 housing units, if we are not moving on it. There are multiple examples of that around the greater Dublin area.
We are now moving on those sites and those developers are saying that I am giving them the certainty and they will back it up and start delivering. Two or three weeks ago we launched 23 “pathfinder” sites which we will prioritise to work with local authorities and developers to deliver 60,000 housing units across the country, not just in Dublin. In the next four years there will be 30,000 housing units on those sites. Doing that involves a combination of infrastructure, financing, planning decisions, SDZ master plans, proper negotiation around mixed tenure. Some get significantly more than the 10% social housing that is required under Part V because it makes sense for everybody to do that. We will be moving on projects such as O’Devaney Gardens which will have 30% social housing and finding a way to finance that and so on. We know that planning decisions for large residential developments take too long. That is having a restrictive influence. It is not stopping it but it is restricting it.
There are many sites that already have full planning permission, between 27,000 and 28,000 around Dublin. Many, however, have problems. We are addressing those problems through financing, infrastructure, a vacant site levy and all sorts of other things. There are sites zoned for housing that do not have planning permission. There are developers who want to go ahead and develop on them. We need to try to put a system in place that will bring certainty and encourage them to be more ambitious than they otherwise might be. That is essentially what this element of the legislation is about.
In terms of the social housing provision element, which Senator Higgins raised, many of those pathfinder sites have a big social housing element but in respect of some of the broader planning applications if a developer can deliver bigger projects he can deliver more social housing too. We do not have the luxury of maintaining the status quoand just tweaking it.
We have sanctioned almost 500 extra staff for local authorities, the majority of whom are in place. They are engineers, quantity surveyors, planners and architects who can speed up planning decisions. We are beefing up An Bord Pleanála by seven or eight people. One cannot compare beefing up An Bord Pleanála to deal with an extra demand here with increasing the staff in 31 local authorities. They are two separate issues. It is not one or the other. An Bord Pleanála is anticipating that it might get 50 applications next year under this new provision. It wants to make sure it can manage and streamline that process efficiently. It is not a silver bullet but it is an important part of the overall mix. I ask people to work with us on it. We will introduce amendments and try to support amendments when we can. Sometimes even though I agree with the sentiment in the wording of an amendment I might not be able to accept it without getting legal advice first. That is why we will be back here on Tuesday, to finalise some of those issues.I hope I have answered most of the questions that people have raised.
I wish to respond to a few brief points the Minister made. Of course we know that it involves much more complex things; we all know that. I wish to make reference to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service's Bills digest, which is fully impartial. It is an interesting document. I spoke to the Minister's officials when they were briefing us last week and they were not even aware of the Bills digest. The Senators are aware of it because it has been circulated to all of us. It makes for really interesting reading. This is a complex problem and there are many different strands needed to address it. However, it is not a new problem. I am not in the blame game. Senator Coffey would be very familiar with housing. He is an expert in it. The Senator was in government for many years and, as a Minister of State, had special responsibility for housing.
I wish to address a few issues that the Minister touched on. I absolutely agree with him on the strategic development zones. The Minister mentioned Cherrywood, which has capacity for between 7,000 and 9,000 units, depending on how it is all structured, which is really exciting. He makes a very good and valid point. However, let us not compromise, undermine or be perceived to compromise or undermine a strategic development zone that was approved by the Cabinet of the day. Ultimately, a strategic development zone must be approved by the Cabinet. There are strict criteria laid down for these zones. It went through a very long public consultation process.
The Minister can contradict me if he wants, particularly as I would be interested to hear if there is a different view. My understanding is that it is provided for in the legislation that, effectively, landowners and developers who find themselves in strategic developments zones can actually apply to vote for this fast-tracking process. I have no difficulty with that. However, I wish to lay a clear marker for any of them who are observing these proceedings and becoming excited because we cannot water down the strategic development zone objectives in any way in respect of approved zones. Of course, it is open to Government to amend a strategic development plan. That has not happened yet but it might. I do not wish to pre-empt anything. I see great potential, particularly for the zone in Cherrywood in the context of public transport in light of the fact that it is the responsibility of a local authority that built six houses last year despite having a housing waiting list with 6,000 people on it.
I wish to address two or three other issues. The Minister did not mention a waiver for planning fees for elected members regarding their engagement, in the context of this specific process, with An Bord Pleanála. Perhaps he might comment on that matter.
It would be very helpful during this process if, when he cannot deal with the amendments, the Minister might discuss - as we go through them - which elements can be covered by regulation instead of by amending the legislation. I say that sincerely. I know there is a lot of complex regulation in this area. I am delighted about the Minister's reassurance that there will be no deviation and that the board will not be permitted to contravene the development plan. That is what the Minister has said and I am delighted with his comments. There is a section relevant to that matter. Believe it or not, however, under the legislation the Minister is granted powers to contravene a development plan. He has reassured us in respect of that matter and all we can do is hold him to what he said. He has come before the House and informed us as to what is the position. I welcome that.
I wish to discuss the income that the local authorities currently receive in respect of major planning applications. The fee would be substantial if one approached a council with a plan for 200 houses. There would be a lot of planning fees attaching. Are these going to be retained by the planning authorities? The Minister might address that at some stage. There is a concern around whether these fees are going to be transferred to An Bord Pleanála. I know that it needs money to operate. The Minister spoke about strengthening the capacity of local councils. He told the joint Oireachtas committee that he had approved the appointment of additional planners, architects and engineers. However, I spoke to three local authorities in respect of which he has done this and they all asked from where the money to fund it will come. It is easy for the Minister to approve appointments but who is going to pay for them? From where will the money come? The Minister will rightly say that it is the responsibility of the local authorities. However, there are some local authorities that are not in the same financial position as others.
I hear what the Minister is saying in terms of strengthening the position of planners and providing the capacity to employ more people. There will be additional work and there has also been an upturn in the economy in any event, thanks be to God. That will create further demands.
The Minister might clarify the issue regarding local councillors. The Minister says he wants to strengthen them. No one is trying to push them out of the process. Will he consider no fee for an elected representative who wishes to make a representation, observation or comment within his or her functional planning authority area to the board? It could be a positive comment, it does not always have to be a negative one. They may not be against something but they may wish to write to the board expressing concern.
The Minister knows that it is impossible to collectively articulate the views of councillors. Councils are bigger than used to be the case. There are 40 councillors on many councils. How can the views of 40 members be articulated? A stenographer would be needed for eight hours. The record of proceedings must then has to be amended. At every council meeting, the minutes have to be brought back in order to be proposed, seconded and amended. It is a very long process and it will delay matters rather than fast-tracking them. I know the Minister does not like fast-tracking things and that occurred to me the other day. This Bill smacks of fast-tracking, however. On every second or third page, there is evidence of that. I am sorry to go on about this particular issue but I believe it is important.
I listened very closely to the Minister's evidence and I have it listed here. There were 15 decisions made by An Bord Pleanála on developments in excess of 100 units. The average length of time it took to get a decision was 78 weeks. There needs to be a further breakdown of that figure. Anecdotally and evidentially, the biggest delay in any planning application, whether it is for one unit or ten, is in the further information phase. Unless we have the statistic that breaks that down to show how much of the delay of the 78 weeks was based on the requirement by the developer or developers to provide further information, the evidence the Minister provided does not mean a whole lot. That is the first point I will make. Obviously, it was provided to the Minister by An Bord Pleanála and he can only relay information of which he has been made aware. We need to go behind the figure of 78 weeks and scope the detail of the 15 cases to discover the reason for the actual delay in each case. I am a betting man and I would have a fair punt with the Minister that the delay was with the developer more often than it was with the system. That is my first point.
Although the Minister has not agreed to introduce an amendment, he has said, in the context of the consultation with councillors, that he is not going to bypass local democracy and that the comments of councillors will be included in the report that will go to An Bord Pleanála on any big decisions. The Minister then spoke about staffing levels. He said that there will only be seven or eight extra staff in An Bord Pleanála at a cost of €1.4 million. I presume that includes the cost of resources for the staff as well. My understanding is that the staff employed by local authorities were taken on across the board and not just in planning offices. The Minister is doing everything possible to speed up this process. I say that in a genuine way. However, with the greatest of respect, I cannot understand how he cannot see the logic of doing this at local authority level and avoiding An Bord Pleanála in the first instance. Fifteen applications went to An Bord Pleanála and eight of those were in Fingal. Roughly, across the local authority system, as the Minister said, we might be looking at 100 of these applications in a year.
Fifty next year. Okay. Let us say two per local authority. Why can these not be dealt with by one or two specialist members of staff within the local authority? In that way, we could forget about this whole process of fast-tracking through An Bord Pleanála. The evidence that the Minister has provided needs further scoping. I will not say that it does not stand up because that would not be fair. However, it needs further scoping to stand up. Secondly, I believe that this job can be done at local authority level without having to set up this new structure and without the impression being given, correctly or otherwise, to the general public and to counsellors that in some way democracy is going to be affected by this move. I am prepared today to grant the Minister to introduce an amendment to deal with those issues on Report Stage. If the matter is put to a vote by other people, I will have to make my decision at that stage on my opposition to this.I want to be helpful here. Senator Boyhan stated this is the place to tease it out. That is what we are here for. I will leave it at that.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for his contribution and the discussion on a number of the different areas. Some important points are being raised. I note the Minister stated he had a discussion with the AILG, even though it was a ball-hopping scenario. I wonder did it change its position during that conversation on what it has said previously. For example, on the general role of the local authority planning function, the association has stated that people are entitled to appropriate standards of utility and design in their houses, which are best decided through the transparent local authority planning system, that its members have seen too many examples of where rushed building programmes have left lasting social problems, that the proper planning of housing provisions begins with consideration of location and ensuring, depending on the scale and nature of the development, that there is proper provision of facilities such as schools and public transport, and that the local knowledge of county and city councils is an invaluable asset in ensuring co-ordinated provision of housing and the necessary support services.
When it comes to centralisation - this links in to what Senator Landy stated - the AILG notes that all local planning authorities have statutory planning timelines of 16 weeks which must be adhered to in all cases, including an eight-week period for a decision on an application following validation of the application, a further four-week period if a request for further information is made and a final four-week period for grant of permission if no appeal is made. The association states that while it accepts that delays in the planning process may arise, it is of the opinion that these delays can often be on the part of the applicant who has a statutory six-month timeline for replying to requests for further information. In order to help speed up the timely delivery of planning decisions by local authorities, particularly in respect of large residential developments, the association proposes that this period should be shortened to no more than a three-month period to reply to requests for further information. It is putting the onus back on the developers to come back more quickly. I wonder whether the association has changed its position on that or did its representatives intimate that to the Minister today?
The association also states that in order to help eliminate any time delays within the local authority planning system, it would also propose a mandatory time-bound pre-application consultation process at local authority level. This pre-application consultation could mirror the proposal detailed under head 4 of the general scheme of the Bill, including the preparation of a report by the planning authority on the application following this consultation process. The association states this would help to assure applicants that once their application is lodged with the local authority, it would be dealt with in a timely manner. What are the Minister's thoughts on that and would he agree with the association? The Minister met the association and had a conversation with its representatives but has their position vis-à-visthis document changed?
It is also important to note the Minister stated we need to move quickly and must ensure that we get planning permissions in place. It is my understanding that there are 26,000 planning permissions outstanding in Dublin alone. The Minister suggested that to shorten the timeline makes it easier to finance. It would strike me that the 26,000 outstanding planning permissions would point the finger in a different direction, that there seems to be lethargy on the part of the developers to move ahead and build the houses based on the planning permissions they have already got through the local authorities through the traditional process or that the banks or financing institutions are not giving them the funding to go ahead with the projects. The Minister mentioned that we need to be building 30,000 houses. As it is, there are 26,000 permissions outstanding in Dublin alone. Why are they not moving ahead? Is changing fundamentally the planning process the right way to be going? It would not appear that the lethargy is on the part of the local authorities. The local authorities have statutory timelines they must adhere to and they seem to be doing that. It would seem, from anecdotal evidence, that it is the developers who are holding the progress up.
On the 500 extra staff sanctioned, I note the Minister's use of the word "sanctioned". It is easy to sanction extra staff but, as Senator Boyhan has asked, how many of those are in situ? Is it an issue of funding, if they are not in situ, and who will be paying for those? If the Minister could possibly address those issues as well in his response, I would be grateful.
It is an interesting debate. I have two or three points to raise with the Minister.
It is extremely important to ensure this Bill does not become an avenue for speculation. One of the features towards the end of the so-called Celtic tiger was where there were a lot of developers getting planning on sites and flipping them overnight. Many of the builders who came in and bought those sites were cowboys. This legislation is about the building of houses. It cannot be about speculation. The following are the questions I want to ask the Minister. Are there limits in the Bill? If a developer goes for planning to An Bord Pleanála on a strategic site, are there limits in place to ensure that these houses will be built? One cannot have a situation in which the developer sits on the site for any length of time with no houses built or instead flips it over to someone else who has not got the planning on the site and who may not be the type of person one wants to build that development. As the Minister is aware, it is not only about the site but also is about who will build the houses. I, and probably everyone else if he or she is being honest, have seen sites that were flipped over by developers and some of the individuals who built on those sites have been disastrous. The purpose of this legislation is to fast-track the building of homes. What control mechanisms are in place to ensure that if planning is given by An Bord Pleanála, the houses will be built quickly and to ensure that whoever gets planning on this will build the houses instead of flipping the site over to someone who will sit on it where one is into the realm of speculation?
It would be extremely important to ensure that this legislation does not have the unintended consequence of encouraging the rezoning of land where land that is currently not zoned for residential use for whatever reason finds its way into being rezoned and then the owner applies.
I welcome the legislation. I very much see the purpose of it. The Minister designated a site in Limerick as being one of the national sites. I very much welcome that the local authority would have an input. My understanding of the way the legislation will work is that there will be a pre-consultation period with the local authority and residents and others will still be able to submit objections to An Bord Pleanála. Is there a way that they could feed into the pre-consultation phase process that the local authorities are required to carry out? Maybe it is in the legislation. I merely want to be certain so that what one will have is the local authority with pre-consultation and a feed-in reference with the local councillors and local residents so that when their submission goes to An Bord Pleanála, there is a rounded and built-in review process under way and local people can have their input.
Senator Landy's concern seems to be based on the fact that he thinks I am having a go at local authorities for their delay in making decisions. As it happens, that is not what this is about. There is as big an onus on developers here as there is on the system to make decisions. If developers do not have their work done before they go to a pre-planning stage, they will not get very far. We can no longer tolerate the practice of a poor developer going in with a poor proposal on zoned land, where, effectively, local authority architects and engineers end up having to redesign the project over months of consultation, because we need to have a much better, much higher-quality application ready for consideration in the first place. I have stated bluntly to developers, whether at CIF conferences or wherever, that the onus is now on them. The State is responding with a streamlined decision-making process which maintains the integrity of decisions but also gives certainty around timelines for those decisions. However, their role in this is to significantly improve the quality of applications from day one. Otherwise they will get thrown out and we make no apologies for that. Half-assed planning applications for more than 100 housing units or more than 200 student accommodation units do not deserve to get serious consideration anyway, as far as I am concerned.This is not a criticism of local authorities per se. It is about changing the system and everybody's input into it, from developers to putting an onus on local authorities to have a statutory period of pre-planning consultation which will essentially result in a local authority making a recommendation as to whether an application should be granted before it goes to An Bord Pleanála. This would have a major influence over the final decision, I suspect. Local authorities have real power here. Planners will make recommendations and observations, and councillors will have the opportunity to make observations. Let us not forget that they are not planners. However, they may comment on other related issues that deserve planning consideration.
If we were to instead take the approach some people have suggested and just concentrate on streamlining the decision-making process at local authority level, the reality is that the vast majority of these would be appealed and go to An Bord Pleanála anyway. While I accept that it would improve it, even if we had a guaranteed eight-week decision-making process at local authority level every time, which is virtually impossible, by having more staff and better systems, we would still be going to An Bord Pleanála. Although An Bord Pleanála has an 18-week timeframe in which it is expected to make decisions, there is no statutory requirement. The statutory requirement will be in the legislation. We are trying to condense the decision-making process while ensuring the right decisions are made.
We are putting much more of an onus on developers to do the key work that needs to be done before the pre-planning consultation begins. Developers will have to engage with local authorities before they ask for a formalised statutory pre-planning consultation to ensure they are ready to begin the process before they ask An Bord Pleanála to trigger the statutory timelines. This is a change for the better for developers. It is a temporary change for the local authorities, councillors and An Bord Pleanála for the next three years to try to ensure the housing delivery we are likely to see anyway over the next ten years happens sooner rather than later. That is all. If it is viable to build houses on zoned land, we want them to be built next month and next year rather than in three or four years' time.
Another good point is the question whether the provisions of the Bill that allow for an automatic renewal of planning should apply to developers who get planning permission to build more than 100 houses through the process. There is a proposed amendment on this later. Until this debate, we had thought we should apply the same to everybody. However, there is a fair argument that the whole point of this is to get things moving fast. A Senator made this point. If somebody takes advantage of a streamlined system to get a quick decision and then decides to sit on it for five or six years while property prices increase, we should not tolerate it. As Senator Kieran O'Donnell said, this is about getting houses built and facilitating it. It is about getting the right kind of houses of the right density, quality and design built next year rather than in five or six years' time. I will give a very strong signal to developers that the State is doing its bit in streamlining a decision-making process, and their job is to build the houses once they get through the system. If they do not, their planning permission will not be renewed without going through the process again. In five years' time, we are unlikely to have the fast-track process in place. The incentive will be there to get on and build the houses. We will talk about it in more detail later.
I do not intend to continue to ask the same questions. I will ask once more. We did not get clarity on the evidence provided by the Minister for An Bord Pleanála. How exactly will councils have input? Will it be as suggested in the amendment, in which the Minister indicated he might accept input via statutory meeting? I welcome the fact the Minister met the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG. I also understand there was no commitment at the meeting from either side. Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh asked the question.
I was going to follow up on it. The Minister was drawn down a different alley. I wondered about the AILG's reaction to the conversation this morning and the extra staff sanctioned. Apart from the 26,000 outstanding planning permissions, is the blockage not at the other end with the developers who are not moving? How big a development is envisaged? What is the biggest development that could be envisaged under this new planning process? There is a massive need for student accommodation. Recently, NUI Galway was granted planning permission for 400 units close to the campus. I have seen a development plan for NUIG into the future that envisages up to 10,000 units on adjacent sites. There was a little consternation locally about the 400 units in one space. It was not huge consternation, given that people are very aware of the issues of having an extra 400 units with, probably three to four students in each of them. If planning permission were given to such a company to build up to 10,000 units on a site in this area, there could be serious problems and a local authority would need to have an input, given the pressure it would put on local infrastructure. There is traffic chaos as it is in Galway, and it would add to the traffic issues. There would be issues about the types of people and some of the students. Would crèche facilities be provided as part of the overall development? If there were parents, including lone parents, there could be an impact on local schools. I imagine there would be a number of large-scale projects, given that a number of international companies are examining the student accommodation market in Ireland with a view to investing in very large-scale projects. Any large-scale project of this nature would need to have a very full discussion with all the local authority representatives, given that there would be consternation in local communities around it.
I am a little confused by some of the questions. How many local authorities have received large-scale housing plans of more than 100 houses in the past ten years? Carlow has not had one in 15 years and, like many other local authorities, would love one. I represent councillors, given that I was a councillor for 20 years. This larger planning scale will not affect most rural counties. The confusion is unreal. The Minister should be coming here and saying the scale will work for ten particular local authorities and that it will not affect other areas. He should tell us we are going to try fast-tracking, although it is not a word he likes. That is the area the Minister should address. Instead, everybody is talking about local authorities. I understand. All rural local authorities in small counties would love to be able to say a builder was going to come in and build 100 houses, but it is not realistic and it is not going to happen. The problem is the lack of information from the Department to the local authorities.
We have had this for three years. People need homes and we must build them. The Minister is right. We need to move it now. We must work with the local authorities and the councillors. Given some of the questions being asked here, I have to wonder where the Senators are coming from.We need to move on this. We need to make sure that by 2019, we have houses built for people. As I have said, two people a day are becoming homeless. We need to get this sorted. Many questions have been repeated today. As a former councillor, I understand how important the councillor's role is. However, most local authorities will not be affected by this. I am disappointed that the Minister and the Department did not come here with the figures so that they could say where this is going to happen. Although this will apply to local authorities, my local authority has not had a development of this kind for 15 years. I would love such a development and so would everybody else. I do not know whether the Minister can give a commitment that builders will come into local authorities and build over 100 houses quickly. I would welcome such a commitment. I would be delighted by it, but is it realistically going to happen?
I am certainly never going to take the AILG for granted. I outlined some of our thinking to the AILG. I believe it is consistent with what a number of people have been saying. I told the AILG that we would try to introduce an amendment. I did not give an exact wording, but I gave the spirit of the amendment we want to introduce on Report Stage. We will talk about it later when amendments are under consideration. The AILG will have to decide whether it is happy. Certainly, I would not like to say the AILG is now happy and we can move on. It has asked us to consider changes in the broader planning system that would be helpful. We are looking at reviewing the planning system as a whole. As some Senators have said, the broader planning change will be far more relevant for the vast majority of local authorities in this country.
Just one housing estate has been built in County Galway, which Senator Craughwell knows well, in the past seven years. The estate in Oranmore was the only one to be built in the second largest county in Ireland in that time. I do not think the estate in question was over 100 units. Maybe I am wrong in that regard.
The point I am making is that we are trying to improve the pace of delivery by changing the system in a fairly fundamental way for a temporary period. We are trying to get movement in the system. That is all we are trying to do. We will have a separate planning Bill. A planning Bill that is before the Dáil on Second Stage at the moment will set up a new planning regulator to make sure the right decisions are made. We will have independent monitoring of that, as recommended by the Mahon tribunal. We will debate that legislation in this House when it comes in.
All we are talking about today is a proposed response in parts of the country where the potential exists to start delivering larger-scale developments to meet very pressurised housing demand. It is clear from what the Central Bank has done today that it recognises the need for its regulations to change. It is changing the deposit requirements that apply to first-time buyers. I am glad that its thinking is similar to our thinking when we introduced a tax rebate change in the budget to benefit first-time buyers. The Central Bank has put its finger on the core pressure point. The Government put its finger on the same point on budget day.
The core issue that is inhibiting first-time buyers who want to apply for a mortgage to buy a property is the ability to accumulate a deposit to apply for such a mortgage. That is essentially what the Central Bank is saying today and that is what we said on budget day.
The core issue here is that we must get builders building on the scale we need to start making a positive impact on the supply deficit. This is one of the many things we can do to help the process. I take the point that planning permission has been granted for 27,000 or 28,000 units in Dublin. Some of the reasons those sites are not moving relate to finance, infrastructure and speculation. We need to intervene in all of these areas to try to get those sites that have planning permission moving. There are many examples of zoned land where developers want to move ahead and can afford to do so. We need to get that process moving quickly. Have I missed anything?
Yes. I gave an example. The breakdown of the 15 individual applications, in terms of the timeline for each segment, is available. If one looks at it, one will see that it is shared across the system. Some of the delays have been caused by requests for further information. A delay on the part of the developer is potentially just as likely as a delay on the part of the system. The new system for statutory periods puts pressure on developers as well as the State system of decision-making. That is the whole point. It is not one-sided. This is not about saying the State has to do everything to give developers planning decisions. Developers will be put under significant pressure to comply with the statutory periods that are now in place. There will be a cost to that. There will be a need for professionalism in those applications. The kind of sloppy applications that take forever to get a decision will be thrown out. That is the point I am making. This is not a criticism of local authorities. This is about changing the system to provide for timelined decisions, thereby putting a little more pressure on everybody. That is all it is.
I do not think anybody is trying to drag the debate out. It is important that we get time to tease out some of these genuine issues. The Minister chose an unfortunate example when he mentioned Oranmore because there are still issues around the development in question and a development adjacent to it. This example points to the reason we need the input of local authorities and councillors when decisions are being made. The developers who got into difficulties and left a large hole in Oranhill have now come forward to say they are looking for a different planning permission in an adjacent area. If they are to be able to circumvent the local authority scenario and go straight to An Bord Pleanála, the local knowledge of councillors will not be available to bring to bear when a decision is being made on their planning application.
I think that is the crux of what we are trying to decide. I am not convinced that we will speed things up very much. I also raised with the Minister the issue of how big a development could be. A number of years ago, we might not have envisaged that a large international corporation that builds student accommodation would come into Ireland wanting to build thousands of units. I do not think it is beyond the realms of possibility that this could happen now. My understanding is that some third level institutions would like this to happen because they have land banks available. Will there be an upper limit on the size of a project of more than 100 units that may be brought forward under this system? I know we are focusing on developments of just over 100 units, but I know there are plans for this type of corporate development and this type of scenario.
Yes. There would be significant concerns about the impact a large development of this type would have on the broader fabric of Galway city, for example, especially in light of the existing infrastructural pressures in the city.
The first thing I would like to say is that the idea of formal applications going directly to An Bord Pleanála is not a new one. It is already permitted in the case of large strategic infrastructure like an incinerator, a road or a hospital. The children's hospital project is going straight to An Bord Pleanála.
Sorry, Minister. As he is aware, there are plans to renovate the Seanad Chamber. I will be recommending to the OPW that it should do something with the echo that is coming from one end of the Chamber. The Minister will continue without interruption.
Basically, we are extending on a temporary basis the principle of getting An Bord Pleanála to deal with big applications. The reality is that they are likely to end up with An Bord Pleanála anyway. We are talking about a streamlined system. I think the question that has been raised about a proposal to regenerate or change an entire quarter of a city by means of a new development plan or a new strategic development zone is a fair one. Senators might be familiar with the docklands site in Cork or some of the student plans in Galway city, where there is huge pressure. Most of the private rental market in Galway is driven by students.There is an onus on a local authority to put a local area plan in place and perhaps to designate or ask for designation around an SDZ to work with developers. An Bord Pleanála is anxious to make the right decisions here and I expect that if there was something on the scale of 10,000 student accommodation units, or even 3,000 or 4,000, there would be a public consultation process involved in the decision. In most of the normal residential applications, there will not be a formal public consultation process because that would make it impossible to make a decision in 16 weeks. If there was an exceptional application in terms of scale or controversy or something like that, An Bord Pleanála could go through an extended period of time that would include a formal public consultation process, which is something we are used to anyway under the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act. We would not need to do that for most of these applications because most of them will be housing applications on land zoned for residential housing. It should not be that controversial. It should be about getting the design and density and all of the other aspects linked to good planning decisions right.
I have answered most of the questions and if we can move on, perhaps we can deal with the individual issues as they come up with the amendments.
I have to get to my feet again to ask the question. Will the Minister bring forward an amendment on Report Stage to deal with the inclusion of the councillors in the consultation process? Will it be a statutory consultation process? I need clarity on that point. I apologise if the Minister provided it while I was absent from the Chamber.
The Minister is being transparent and it is all very helpful. We are all very familiar with the critical infrastructure applications and fast-tracking to the board. We all understand it. That is not a problem. The point the Minister seems to be missing is the right of citizens to engage in the process. I have previously put in observations to a strategic infrastructure development board and I had to put my hand deep into my pocket to pay the board fees. I was involved with an oral hearing with the board. It took it a year and a half to make a decision. That is the famous board in which the Minister has all the confidence and expectation. I was an elected representative and I constantly had to put my hand into my pocket to make views known. That is the reality of it. That is not right and proper. It is not open or democratic engagement with a quasi-judicial planning process. I have no problem going on the record and paying a fee but not the mad fees the board is choosing. That is the important bit.
Let us deal with the Bill before us. This is a fast-tracking process. I have no difficulty with what the Minister is trying to achieve but there is a democratic deficit. It is the right of Johnny the citizen to say he wants to make his view known on something that impacts on his home, local school or community centre. Under the scheme, he will not have the right to go to the local authority and will have to go to the board. If he is unhappy with the board, he has no right of appeal. The Minister and his officials keep coming back and saying there is the judicial review route. Judicial reviews cost a lot of money, and the substantive issue is not judicially reviewed; only the process can be judicially reviewed. It can deliberate on whether the system has erred or strayed in process but not on the substantive issue of the development.
Let us deal with the Bill before us. This is a fast-tracking process. I have no difficulty with what the Minister is trying to achieve but there. There is a democratic deficit. It is the right of Johnny the citizen to say that he wants to make his view on something that impacts on his home, local school or local community centre known but he doe snot have the right to go to the local authority under the scheme and he now has to go to the board but if he is unhappy with the board he has no right of appeal. The Minister and his officials keep coming back and saying there is judicial review. That costs a lot of money. The substantive issue is not judicially reviewed; only the process can be judicially reviewed. It can deliberate on whether the system has erred or strayed in process but not on the substantive issue of the development.
The point is the Minister is not addressing that. He has not addressed the democratic deficit of the elected members in any of his responses. That is the weakness in it and it is the real criticism. The Minister is the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. Local government is part of the Minister's remit. He should be enhancing the competence of local government in its broadest sense and giving the citizens the right to engage at virtually no cost. That is the issue at stake here. They will have to pay a fee, which the Minister has not clarified. He said he will do it by regulation or next week. That is fair enough. I am patient and I think it is reasonable to ask the Minister to go away and think about it, but the Minister knows what he is going do. There will not be any great surprise. The Minister does not need until next week to share what he will do with us on that issue. The deficit is the real core issue. When someone puts a microphone in front of the Minister in the next few days, he will have to be able to stand over the process as democratic, open and transparent, and one with which citizens can engage. It will not do to say the Minister has had legal advice from the Attorney General and he cannot share it. This is the Parliament and we are asking the questions. That is what I want to hear the Minister say. I want him to tell us and reassure us on how he will strengthen and address the democratic deficit in this process. That is the real issue I am trying to hammer home.
I responded to the issue earlier when the Senator raised it. He is looking to hit home on it and that is fine. The Senator wants to emphasise the point. I have spoken to many councillors about this issue. I took the opportunity to meet informally with representatives from AILG today. I have also spoken to LAMA about these issues. We are looking at bringing forward a Bill. I have to get a legal draftsperson to make sure its wording is legally sound but I wanted us to have the debate today so we could get a full assessment and have a conversation around how best to do that from a policy perspective. I suggested earlier that during the nine-week statutory process of pre-planning consultations and consideration, councillors would be formally involved. The engagement would be part of the formal process and the results of that engagement would be part of An Bord Pleanála's consideration when they are considering the Bill.
On the issue of fees, which the Senator has also raised a number of times, one of the recommendations from the Mahon tribunal was that fees should be reduced significantly or they should be zero. The other planning Bill I referred to earlier is about implementing in law the Mahon recommendations on the planning system. We will deal with the fees issue there. I take the point that people who are democratically elected represent the viewpoint of communities. If they have an objection or observation to make during the planning process, we should certainly look at the cost of it and it should not be prohibitive. We will look at that in terms of whether we waive it altogether or look at something very small. I will come back on that perhaps when we are dealing with it later on.
We are trying to deal with the issues the Senator has raised. I am not the kind of Minister who wants to just bypass local government. People talk about bad decisions that were made and bad consequences, such as Oranmore. I do not know the details of that but it was the current system that delivered those decisions. The current system is not immune from mistakes either. The current zoning and planning processes have both made mistakes and caused damage to communities, which was added to by an implosion of the property sector and the banking sector on top of all of that. We are learning lessons from that and we are changing the planning system. That will be done in time as we do a review and we will have legislation on the back of that process. We will not rush it.
This is a different thing. It is about trying to get movement in the housing market because we desperately need it. Many people, as some of the Senators will know better than most, are living on the streets because of it on nights like last night and tonight. Some Senators are very concerned about that. We put measures in place to make sure that anybody who was exposed to rough sleeping last night or who will be tonight will be taken into a shelter to get out of the cold weather. We are working with NGOs, voluntary organisations and the system to make sure it can happen. Many of the shelters are taking in more people than they normally would. They are taking on extra staff beyond what they normally do to make sure we respond in a compassionate way to the risks that people face because they are homeless in weather like we are experiencing at the moment.
On the issue of fees, the Minister said he will look at that. Where a local public representative is making an appeal or querying a planning application, we must accept that they are not doing it for the good of their health. They are doing it for the citizens they represent. It would be a huge comfort to Members of the House if the Minister were to say he would make it zero for a local authority member. As my colleague, Senator Boyhan said, we are not looking for it for Senators, Deputies or anybody else but the local councillor who deals with the people all day, every day. I see the smile on the Minister's face and I will take that as a positive reaction.
I welcome what the Minister said about the rough sleepers because it was raised yesterday on the Order of Business and has been raised by others, so that flexibility is very important.
The Minister mentioned the strategic developments. I know other elected representatives would be dealing with communities which have had major issues with the consultation process and I appreciate the Minister's statement that for larger developments there might be a need for a consultation process. I am not sure if that is in the legislation at present but we might need to look at putting something concrete in the legislation to ensure that-----
That is the point I was going to make. There have been a number of infrastructural developments in our area, some relating to decisions about wind farms. Local communities are up in arms because they felt that the consultation process was not adequate. Another issue arose in our area about a greenway on which there was a consultation process but people felt it was not adequate and not everybody was put on notice of that or made aware of it. There is huge pressure on communities in that type of scenario in that they are told the development is essential and that it has to be forced through even if it is detrimental to certain people in the communities. I want to put that on the record.
I am not convinced by the Minister's argument. I will not press the amendment but I will oppose the section based on the arguments we put forward. I am sure it is a political disagreement but we believe the case being put forward to bypass that democratic scenario where the councillors have an input into the process is not the pressure point. There are other issues and we would like to keep that democratic role for the local authorities.
- Victor Boyhan
- Paddy Burke
- Ray Butler
- Jerry Buttimer
- Maria Byrne
- Lorraine Clifford Lee
- Paudie Coffey
- Martin Conway
- Gerard Craughwell
- Mark Daly
- Aidan Davitt
- Maura Hopkins
- Gerry Horkan
- Colette Kelleher
- Terry Leyden
- Tim Lombard
- Gabrielle McFadden
- Michelle Mulherin
- Jennifer Murnane O'Connor
- Catherine Noone
- David Norris
- Kieran O'Donnell
- John O'Mahony
- Grace O'Sullivan
- Ned O'Sullivan
- Brian Ó Domhnaill
- James Reilly
- Neale Richmond
- Keith Swanick
- Diarmuid Wilson
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 7, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:“(2) An application for a strategic housing development under this section, other than for the alteration of an existing planning permission granted under section 34, may not be made by a prospective applicant who holds a planning permission for over 100 housing units for which a commencement notice has not been submitted to the relevant planning authority.”.
The amendment provides that a developer who holds permission for a development of over 100 housing units that has not been commenced may not apply for fast-track permission under this section. The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government has calculated there is outstanding planning permission for 27,000 units, as we heard yesterday, although the Minister today stated the figure was 28,000 for projects that have not commenced. Developers sitting on one or more existing planning permissions should have to start building those projects in order to be able to avail of fast-track planning.
Essentially, it is ludicrous that 28,000 potential units are sitting out there. There is a housing crisis and people are sitting on their hands by not developing these projects. We are talking about the urgency of the issue and the developers must get their hands out from under their bums and start building as soon as possible.
Yes and I am seconding it. I hope the Minister will also be amenable to supporting the amendment as it is practical. We spoke earlier about the concerns and obstacles to large-scale planning development and how strategic projects were not happening. It is very important for us to be clear that we are not simply looking at answering a wish list from the construction industry. I am sure that is not the intention of the Minister. If there are to be large-scale developments but if there is an absence of them, it is not entirely to do with planning and planning simply is not the issue. The facts belie that because, as the Minister indicates, there are 28,000 outstanding planning permissions.
This amendment is extremely practical, indicating that we cannot be dependent on the construction industry and its whim to turn on or off the building of houses in Ireland. Currently it very much seems that the industry is setting the agenda. It decides if it will build and is trying to set the rules around how and when it will build. If this Bill has the serious intent of delivering long-term solutions and large-scale housing developments, it must have both elements; it must demand something from the construction sector as well.
Thanks to research from Deputy Burton, we know that many people in the construction industry are not paying tax at the very reasonable 12.5% level because they are using methods similar to those used by others in America, including the recent very high-profile case, to write off their current profits against previous losses. We know that between the construction and financial services there was in 2014, for example, more than €1.2 billion written off as taxes not to be paid because they could be written off against previous losses. The construction industry is not contributing in the way it should be in tax terms. Many of the major actors in the construction industry have been building elsewhere in the recent period and it seems that at times we are almost at their mercy when it comes to building in Ireland and whether they will be happy with a certain level of profit. The citizens of Ireland, both those in vulnerable housing positions and those seeking to buy, do not have recourse to such tax measures. The citizens of Ireland do not have the leisure to wait and see if they can get 10%, 12% or 15% profit on their endeavours. There is a significant number of people in Ireland working at a loss or to break even on their lives. We want to help those people.
We have been supporting the Minister moving forward in this planning area but we want him to add a robust message to the construction industry that all those who seek to avail of this new planning structure - fast-tracking, if that is the label to be attached to it - should not be allowed to do so while they sit on planning permissions for up to 28,000 units in Dublin alone, as we have heard. Any construction company or developer wishing to avail of this should have to demonstrate good faith and that they will act on a planning permission. The proposal is very simple in that a commencement notice must be submitted to the relevant planning authority for any outstanding planning permission for 100 units or more before an application under this section and this proposal can be made. This must be unarguable if there is seriousness on all sides of society, including the construction industry and developers. It is about stepping up to the collective challenge and let the developers show good faith by filing commencement orders relating to outstanding large-scale projects. It is not about every house in Ireland. They should begin building right away, even without having waited for the new orders to come through.
This is a very reasonable proposal and I would like the Minister to indicate if he can support it and we can send that message. If he cannot do so, I would like to know the reason. I cannot see any reasonable argument against this amendment.
I welcome the Minister to the House. This is an excellent amendment and it is very logical. Why should a developer who has stockpiled 100 units and not even put in a commencement order for them be given another planning permission before he or she has even started the process for the first 100 units? That would be idiotic. Let the developer get the first 100 started before he or she gets permission to start applying for another planning permission. It is similar to the case in north County Dublin where a builder has been implicated in the pyrite issue. It has left many families absolutely devastated, but having applied for permission for another development, the developer got it. That was before he made any remediation for the houses that were improperly built under his direction. How can it be justified that somebody with permission to build 100 houses and has done nothing about it can be given another planning permission? It is wrong and I will vote for this amendment.
I would like some clarification from the proposers. I hear what they are saying but I will be the devil's advocate. We have a housing crisis and, if I understand it correctly, this amendment applies to an extant or current planning application for a number of units. If the new legislation is given effect and permission can be fast-tracked, would such a party be permitted to put in a new application? Will somebody clarify that?
I am open to correction but what happens if a new application is received that is, if I dare say it, a better application with higher densities, for example? That would facilitate more units on a site. What happens if the new application is good and addresses concerns about the shortage of houses? We would need to stand back from that. I am not a planner but there are a number of applications-----
I will conclude. We must be careful. In principle I support the amendment but I would not like this to block better applications with higher densities and good-quality units. I urge us to be cautious. I would like to hear from the proposers about their intentions, as well as the Minister and his officials. We should look to throw more light on this. I would not like to jeopardise a better planning application with higher densities in an appropriate location that ticks the appropriate zoning boxes.
The Senator is not entitled to answer unless I call her. I am in the Chair. I ask Senators to behave themselves. Did the Minister indicate? The Senator is out of order. The Senators at the back of the Chamber should have manners.
The Senator is out of order. I have made a ruling. We will hear the Minister. The Senator will have another opportunity to contribute after Senator Ó Clochartaigh. I have speakers listed. The Minister should take his time and be patient.
Regarding the clarification, I understand the difference between what the amendment actually states and what is perhaps a misinterpretation. My understanding of what the Senator seeks in this amendment is that unless somebody wants to make an application to alter an existing planning permission, if he or she has planning permission for more than 100 units somewhere, he or she cannot apply for a new development somewhere else.
I offer a word of caution: not every site that has planning permission has the same viability in terms of the ability to finance it and access it from an infrastructure and cost perspective. Planning applications may have been granted on what are now seen as flood zones or flood plains or whatever. We need to be careful. I absolutely agree with the sentiment that we want to get people moving and that if people are speculating and sitting on sites for which they have planning permission - for example, the 28,000 that a number of Senators quoted earlier in and around the greater Dublin area - we want to get them moving and put as much pressure on them as we can. However, depending on the site, some are viable and some are not. Even still, and in some parts of the country, it is not viable to build a house at the moment, certainly in the minds of many developers, because house prices are still significantly below where they would have been when the planning permissions were given. That is not the case in Dublin or Cork. Senators should not shake their heads at this.
I accept that there is frustration in this regard, but we also need to deal with the facts of the situation. There is a reason housing development is now starting again, there is a reason there is a significant increase in planning permissions and commencements, particularly around the Dublin area and some of the other urban areas, but there is also a reason we are seeing virtually no house building apart from one-off houses in other parts of the country. The point is that some planning decisions were granted that are not on sites that are viable at the moment, for local authorities as well as private developers. We need to acknowledge that. The core issue is that if there is a zoned piece of land on which it is suitable to build houses and if building right now is a viable proposition, we need to get the site moving as quickly as we can. That is what I am trying to do anyway. If there are developers or builders who are able to borrow and put that business case together to build both social and private housing, we need to encourage that process.
We should agree on the point made in amendment No. 4, also in the name of Senator Higgins, that if we give people planning permission through this new mechanism and they do not build, we should not allow them provision for an extension after five years. The point is to try to get the system moving quickly. If developers do not respond to the mechanism, given the benefits to them of the new system being introduced, and if they do not deliver on a commencement notice and start to build, after five years the planning application, like virtually every other planning application in the country, should not be eligible for renewal. There is therefore a distinction between the two matters.
Once developers benefit from this new system, they need to get moving on construction and putting together developments. If they do not, they will have to go through the process all over again, and this system probably will not be in place in five years' time, so they will have to go through a much longer system. However, I would not like to see any case in which a developer has a site that has planning permission but, for whatever reason, is simply not viable at the moment because the developer is waiting for a road to be built or a gas pipeline to be connected or there are some waiver issues - there are many reasons they may not be developing - and that that developer, which is ready to go on another site, cannot get through the planning process. I do not disagree with the frustration I know is there, but I think there is an unintended consequence of the amendment of which we need to be wary. That is why I do not propose to accept this amendment, even though I propose to accept the principle of amendment No. 4. I just need to check the wording of it with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. In principle, I am happy to accept amendment No. 4, but not amendment No. 1.
My reading of the amendment is that it would prevent an applicant who already has permission for the development of more than 100 units from applying to the new fast-track process without first commencing work on the existing planning permission. I think the thrust of the amendment and what it seeks to achieve is laudable, and we will probably support it. Senator O'Donnell made a very good point in the previous debate that we want to build houses, not fuel speculation. There has been a huge amount of speculation over the years. I think that is what this amendment seeks to address, that developers may look at this new process, say to themselves that there is money to be made here, work on the development of a number of planning applications but then try to sell them off to the highest bidder or bring in a builder who will ensure the most profit for the speculator. That is the danger that has been envisaged in the amendment, and that is the loophole we want to make sure is closed before the legislation is passed.
The Minister talked about bouncing a ball earlier. I bounce the ball back to the Minister and ask him whether he agrees with the thrust of what is trying to be achieved in the amendment. We have spoken about the 28,000 applications that have been sat on. Some of them may be in areas that are not viable at the moment, but I imagine quite a lot of them, since they are all in the larger Dublin area, would be viable. How many of those are speculator-led or developer-led applications that were passed and are being sat on for the developer to make a bigger profit envisaged in the future? We are trying to avoid that happening again and avoid a developer-led market again in that scenario. Will the Minister therefore take on board the essence of what the Senators are putting forward in the amendment? How can the Minister try to encompass this provision into the legislation being brought forward?
I thank the Minister for his considered response. His clarification was the same one I had wished to make to Senator Boyhan. This is not about planning applications; it is about existing planning permissions, that is, those that have gone through the 78-week process, as described, and have been through all the loopholes. These are situations in which there is no question but that permission to build has been granted. I appreciate some of the Minister's concerns about this but I believe that it is still fundamentally important.
I would like the Minister to consider potentially coming back on Report Stage with an amendment of his own in this regard. While there may be cases such as those the Minister has described, we need to be clear about what we are talking about when we talk about "viable". Clearly, to a large extent, these situations are viable because they were granted planning permissions. If there has been a further development in the case of a flood plain, that is a particular issue. If there is a gas line that is waiting to come through or a road to be built, they may be key issues, but it seems we are talking about "viable" simply in terms of the level of profit that can be made.
If we are serious - and I believe the Minister is - about housing, we need to be absolutely clear that, unfortunately, profit alone cannot be the main driver, the main consideration and the gift that must be offered up in order to have reasonable housing and accommodation. The Minister spoke to the reason houses had not been built and that they are being built now, that is, the profit incentive. In the future we may well not have secure public finances. We live in an unstable world. We cannot build our plan simply on a limitless degree of profit in terms of construction companies setting their own agenda completely in what they regard as sufficient motivation to build. Nobody is saying that developers must build if they will make a loss, but let them weigh up the advantages, which the Minister has rightly said are given and afforded to developers in this legislation, and the opportunities to build and fast-track planning proposals, to invest and to seize this moment as the moment when they can build and sell.That should come with the cost of the kinds of other planning developments we need around the country which have planning permission. There is a reason our housing industry failed and much of that is because of speculation. The reason we are in the situation we are in now is because there was an absolutely untrammelled, speculative approach to housing based on the idea that the market, solely, would provide. I hope the Minister's measure will provide balance. He is working with the providers but it should be clear that his fundamental responsibility is not simply their financial returns; his core responsibility is to ensure we have the housing supply we need. This is an opportunity to leverage our power as legislators to ensure we see movement because speculators have been drip-feeding development in parts of the country. They are waiting to decide when they feel motivated to build and that is on the back of the hardship of citizens. We would be very happy to work with the Minister to bring this forward in the limited time available to us. Perhaps the Minister could table amendments to address the hoarding of planning permission under speculation and, for example, he could put forward a definition of "viable" and have it incorporated into the considerations of the planning process. We are not talking about a huge number of developments here, only developments of 100 units or more. These are the large-scale actors. If we are talking about companies that are putting forward new proposals they must be companies that are valid and viable in that sense as well. It sends a very strong signal and it is not unfeasible or unreasonable. I would like the Minister to consider working with us to see how the goal we have set out might be achieved and how the Minister feels his concerns could be addressed in an amended version of this amendment on Report Stage.
The Senator's amendment is a good concept. When I read it quickly at first, I presumed it pertained to the particular site on which one was looking for planning permission. Otherwise, for me it would not have made a lot of sense. The Senator has fleshed out the point about builders who have a site. I could name a whole pile of counties but there is no point in alienating any more people in my life so I will not do that.
They are selling three-bed semi-detached houses in several counties surrounding mine for perhaps €50,000. The cost of building those houses before paying levies or putting in infrastructure is a minimum of €150,000. That is a minimum. We want to get houses built and people in them. That is the problem. Senator Higgins's sentiment is dead right. I fully agree with it but when I read the proposed amendment quickly I presumed it pertained to a particular site. There could be some smart alecs, as the Senator alluded to earlier, who claim there were not enough units on the site or it was not viable. Those guys need to be cut out but we should not tarnish everyone with the same brush. We will go back to relying on the bigger builders that have come through this crisis. They probably bought lots of sites in places where it is not viable, for example, because they were piggybacking on other sites. This has to be modified if it is going to work.
Killarney diplomacy - would that President-elect Trump had the Leas-Chathaoirleach's gift. I will reply, through the Chair, to something my colleague and friend, Senator Davitt said, that there were a number of buildings on the market for €50,000 that cost €150,000 to build. I cannot understand why they are not snapped up. They are extraordinary value.
Why do people not want to live in them? Perhaps they are built in the wrong place or on flood plains. If so, they should be just bloody well demolished. They should be gotten rid of if they are in that condition. It is a tragedy to think that something that cost €150,000 to build cannot be disposed of at €50,000. That is a really chronic situation.
I was impressed by the Minister's reply. It was clear and thoughtful. Has the Minister come across any evidence of hoarding or of people keeping planning permissions dormant so they can put them in when there has been a big gazump in the market? That is wrong. When the Minister says it is not a viable situation and they are not economically feasible, how often is that the situation? Could I suggest a possible amendment that the Minister might consider on Report Stage? It is quite simple. In page 7, between lines 21 and 22 to insert the following, "where there is evidence of hoarding" before the words "an application" because that would deal with the situation. It means that if the authorities have evidence that a builder has been deliberately hoarding permissions and not acting on them, then he or she should be prevented from making use of the Bill. That is a reasonable amendment to the amendment. It keeps the thrust and intention of the amendment but it targets it a bit more specifically at people who the whole House feels should not be included in this process.
I am inclined to support my colleagues, Senators Higgins and Grace O'Sullivan. I am aware of a site not too far from my home where the developer held back the last seven houses and has recently put them back on the market with the price increased by €100,000. These were houses costing €700,000 which have gone up to €800,000. It was a smart move - a couple of weeks and he suddenly made a massive killing. I also have personal knowledge of the forward buying that took place during the madness of the noughties, if one wants to call them that. People who never put a brick on top of a brick bought large sites, got planning permission on them and then flipped them on. The flip-on was where they made serious money. The amendment tabled by Senators Higgins and O'Sullivan acknowledges that those kind of people simply cannot exist. The effect of the proposed amendment would be that if one buys a site and gets planning permission on it, one must commence development before one looks for planning permission somewhere else. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. I hope we do not have to put this to a vote. I hope the Minister will reflect on it and come back on Report Stage with something that would meet the sentiments of the amendment.
The other thing is the definition of viability. I do not know how the Minister defines viability. His view of what is viable and my view of what is viable may be very different. I could have sites in one part of Dublin and I will leave them because there is not enough profit in them but if I go over to the other side of Dublin I can buy 100 sites and make a serious killing on it. There is huge merit in this amendment and perhaps the Minister will reflect on it before Report Stage and see if he can bring something back to meet the requirements of the two Senators involved.
On Senator Norris's point on hoarding planning permissions, if there is an instance around the country where there are multiple cases, the local authority should put pressure on the developers to move the developments on.In the context of viability, the Minister spoke about infrastructure, roads and so on. In the Dublin area alone, there are said to be 28,000 units. That is a huge number so there must be some viability. We need to get activity going as soon as possible and anything the Minister can do to expedite that would be welcome. We tabled this amendment to expedite matters in order that we might get as many units as possible.
I understand the frustration. Senators referred to viability. I am not the one who determines that because viability is essentially determined by the marketplace. If houses are being built, there is viability. If they are not being built - and regardless of how we define viability - there is a problem. That is how matters have stood for quite some time. For those Members who were not here earlier, I repeat that 12,500 houses were completed last year, some 6,000 of which were one-off houses in the countryside. Of the other 6,500, almost half related to unfinished housing estates and apartment blocks being finished. Only 3,000 to 4,000 new houses were completed last year throughout the entire country. Three quarters of the way through the year, there were just 15 applications to An Bord Pleanála for planning permissions for developments of more than 100 units. This was despite the fact that there is a need to build approximately 30,000 units per year. We are at about one tenth of the way towards where we need to be.
There are many indications that things are being ramped up and activity is commencing. I am delighted that people are now talking about building large numbers of starter homes on the outskirts of Dublin for first-time buyers that will cost between €200,000 and €300,000 each. It is the first time in a decade we have heard that kind of talk. What I am trying to do now is ensure that we continue to swim with the tide as it starts to move in the right direction, as opposed to putting obstacles in the way of getting outcomes. Essentially, this means building new houses in the right locations at the right price and of the right quality.
Nothing irritates me more than people sitting on sites for the purposes of speculation, which is purely about a profit grab, increasing margins by forcing everybody to wait and allowing more pressure to build up in the property market to drive prices up further. That said, however, we have had many conversations with local authorities, developers and stakeholders in this sector who refer to genuine obstacles to being able to build and open up sites. That is why we are committing €200 million to an infrastructure fund - most of which will be spent in Dublin and the greater Dublin area - in order to get viability on these sites by having the State take some of the infrastructure cost relating to opening them up. We know there are some viable sites that should be up and running soon. These are not owned by builders but by speculators. They are owned by funds that are buying them because they know we have a pressurised market which is becoming more pressurised by the month. Prices are going up and they are looking to buy, to speculate, to sell and to make a profit. If possible, we need to get those entities out of the sector and the industry.
There are also people who have been through bankruptcy and who are now setting up new construction and development companies, and trying to come back into the market and raise finance for projects. Some of them have sites and some do not. Some of those sites are more financially attractive than others in terms of getting the finance to be able to move ahead. Most of these projects need financial backers from outside their own companies, whether that is through the conventional banking system, equity funds or other types of funding partnerships. What funders will look at is financial returns in terms of the ability to be able to sell houses to pay for the funding of projects. These are the realities that people do not like talking about but they are still the realities.
My job is to ensure that we get affordable houses built at reasonable prices and that people are not speculating and hoarding land. Undoubtedly, some hoarding is taking place in Dublin. I look forward to introducing a vacant site levy so that people who are sitting on sites and doing nothing with them will have to pay a levy linked to the value of those sites. Before Report Stage on Tuesday, I will look at how we can incentivise and encourage people to move on to building when they get planning permission, sooner rather than later, with both a carrot and a stick. However, there are dangers to linking it to the potential viability or potential funding capacity on a separate site they may own. That is all I am saying. We are all trying to achieve the same thing here, which is to get zoned sites moving. If we look at the increased activity that is happening, what we want to do is encourage and accelerate that rather than put obstacles in its way.
My judgment on this, for what it is worth, is that we will end up with an unintended consequence from an amendment that has been tabled for all the right reasons. I need to caution against that. I am happy to have a discussion on this again in a few days but, as it is proposed at present, I think there are probably more problems than solutions attaching to the amendment.
I wish to raise a related point which I also raised yesterday on the Order of Business. Canada has introduced a levy for people who have empty properties, not necessarily sites. I wanted to mention this to the Minister, who I am sure is aware of it, because it would encourage people not to have empty units. Local councils would potentially be included in that so there might be a speeding up of the reuse of empty units throughout the country, especially in Dublin.
I agree with the Minister, who makes a lot of sense and who said he would return to this matter on Report Stage. Developers and builders have been the most demonised people in this country in the past six or seven years. They have all been categorised as the one group. While there were some people who abused the system, the vast majority of them have been demonised by the public and the press. They have lost confidence-----
Senator Norris may well laugh but why is there no development taking place? The developers and builders have lost confidence. The ones who got into trouble lost their properties and their homes. The vast majority lost everything. The vast majority of their properties are in NAMA or with vulture funds or the banks. The ones who were lucky enough to escape and who may have sites have no confidence to recommence building. I met five builders who told me that, in order for them to build, the minimum cost would be €170,000 per house. They cannot get that price. These are the sums they have done in order to go to their bank managers to make proposals. It costs €170,000 because of planning fees, architects fees, VAT and costs relating to sewerage, water, roads, footpaths, public lighting, etc. Unless builders are guaranteed they are going to get a minimum price, they will not take the gamble, even if they have sites.
The Minister is correct. We have to give confidence back to the house-building market. While there is a good market for commercial building, the vast majority of house builders and developers got burnt. They have lost confidence in building and none of them want to build. That is why we saw just 13,000 houses built last year, 6,000 of which are in rural areas. We have to give confidence to this market. I fully agree with the Minister, who said he will return to this issue on Report Stage.
The builders got burnt but they did a pretty good job of burning the rest of us while they were at it. In the context of homes and all the rest, I am not going to lose any sleep over people like the director - I think his name was Dunne - who bought a house in Ailesbury Road for €86 million without even seeing it because his wife said that €86 million was what she would like to pay for it.There was a kind of madness around the place. I do not apologise for excoriating these people. They were dreadful.
They lambasted the situation. Of course many decent small and medium-sized building firms were caught up in this catastrophe, but I will not waste my tears on somebody who handed out €86 million for a house he had not seen. If he lost his home, he asked for it. That was the price of him: €86 million.
As part of the Minister's ruminations on this for the next section of the Bill-----
As part of the Minister's ruminations, will he consider my suggestion to insert before the amendment the words "where there is evidence of hoarding"? That would target the amendment specifically at the people whom we do not want to see given these permissions. Does the Minister see flaws in such an approach? It would allow for a degree of discretion in whether to grant these applications and would exclude the very career capitalists who wait for the maximum profit that can be squeezed.
Some cities, regions and countries have considered vacant property taxes or levies. Some people may raise an eyebrow when I tell them that there are, according to the CSO, 40,000 vacant residential properties in Dublin tonight. There may be people in sleeping bags in the doorways of some of them, although I hope they will be in shelters tonight. We have a huge opportunity to bring vacant properties back into the system, which is why we have considered a series of well-funded proposals in the housing strategy to get councils to buy up vacant properties, to get the Housing Agency to buy up properties and to incentivise people to bring vacant properties onto the rental market. However, it has all been a carrot approach so far. It is a big step essentially to tax somebody for inactivity on a property he or she owns, and there are property rights issues and so on linked with that. It is an interesting point and one which we should consider, but I do not want to raise a concern or expectation surrounding it today.
Hoarding can be defined in many ways. A person may own a site and have received planning permission to build 120 houses outside Castlebar ten years ago because property prices at the time made that an attractive business proposition. Property prices may have collapsed by 50% in the meantime but they are now slowly increasing. If it is to be considered hoarding that such a person holds on to a site and planning permission in the hope that the market may improve to make it a viable proposition at some stage in the future, I do not think we should punish him or her for that.
However, in the case of a fund, whether one calls it a vulture fund, an investment fund, an equity fund or whatever, buying up a site for which planning permission has been granted, knowing that it is at a significant value today but is likely to be at an even higher value in a year or two years, even though if a builder owned the site, it would be viable for him or her to start building tomorrow, that is a different situation.
Therefore, we may well get into dangerous territory if we start trying to define hoarding and if politicians decide what is and is not a viable proposition on a site. That is a somewhat dangerous space in which to be. The House should consider what it costs us to build social housing. I can think of a number of social housing projects where the houses, excluding land, have cost us €170,000 or €180,000 to build, whereas in many parts of the country we still talk about three-bedroom semi-detached houses selling for €70,000 or €80,000. We have a broken housing market at the moment, and we must recognise that. The one thing we need to ensure in this legislation is that we do not make a bad situation worse in some parts of the country, including Dublin for that matter.
I take on board Senator Norris's sentiment. The Government will think about the proposal and see if we can put something in the Bill that attaches a consequence to someone who receives planning permission in respect of a site if he or she does not move on the site. In other words, we want people in this new streamlined planning system who want to build straight away to benefit from the system, not people who seek planning permission now with a view maybe to selling on the site in five or six years' time. I will consider the ways in which we might be able to work towards that objective.
However, the consequence of the Senator's request would mean that reasonable developers who want to get on with planning and building houses on a site which they have purchased and which has zoning would be prevented from doing so because they happen to own another site that is less attractive or for which they cannot get finance for whatever reason. That would be unnecessarily restrictive, and I think it would have a consequence that we may not want, even though I totally take on board the frustration about the matter.
I will speak briefly on the amendment and then say how it stands. I recognise and appreciate the Minister's engagement. In his contribution he moved somewhat ahead to amendment No. 4, which we will discuss later and which addresses the consequences for those who seek planning permission under these measures. I appreciate the Minister's willingness to engage on that amendment and hope that will expedite our discussion about it.
Amendment No. 1 does not look to the future regarding those who access planning permission through this new process. It urges us to use this moment, that is, the legislative moment and opportunity when the cards are in the hands of politicians - it is for politicians to decide - to leverage some action on the part of those who may, as the Minister has so eloquently described, be waiting for an ideal level of profit and may have a site that is financially viable for a builder but are waiting for it to give a greater level of return. While there are measures for the future in amendment No. 4, to address current speculative land holding, I urge the House to use this moment.
The Minister raised the danger of politicians deciding viability. I suggest there is also a great danger if we leave it solely to the market to decide viability. If we do so, the fact is that profit, be it for a speculative fund that may never have set foot in Ireland and may never have any intention of doing so or for anyone else, will be explicitly the main determining factor. We need a balance in this regard, and I urge the Minister to work with us to find it.
A valid concern was expressed that the outstanding planning permission might be in another part of the country. Perhaps the Bill could be amended to look to where there is outstanding planning permission on viable sites in the same local authority area where the new fast-tracked planning permission is sought, using whatever definition we have for viable sites, and there are objective considerations we can bring in to determine that. Such a constraint would ensure it is not a matter of whether it is located in a greenfield site that was bought at a certain point but that we are talking about building houses to address the same identified needs in the same identified areas that we are trying to target through this strategic development. That is maybe a narrowing of our proposal which would give it a much more targeted focus. It does not serve anybody if there are sites for which planning permission has been granted in areas that are strategically important and where people want to live but which sites are still taken out of the picture, and I think the Minister knows that. We are happy to withdraw the amendment at this point but we reserve the right to reintroduce it on Report Stage.While we reserve the right to reintroduce it on Report Stage, we also hope to have an opportunity to work constructively with the Minister and others across the House to tease out and take responsibility for the decisions we make, as politicians, to ensure the best possible outcomes, not for one particular industry but for citizens. Rather than press the amendment, we will reserve the right to reintroduce it on Report Stage and move forward on this matter. I look forward to speaking to the Minister on amendment No. 4.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 7, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following:“(3) An order referred to in subsection (2) may only be made subsequent to an independent review of the operation of this Chapter to include a public consultation process, any such review to commence not later than July 2019.”.
The suggestion that we discuss amendments Nos. 2 and 3 together is a good one. This simple amendment differs from amendment No. 3 in that it proposes an independent review. The Minister has repeatedly stated before the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and also in this Chamber that the legislation is subject to a sunset clause. It is, to paraphrase him, a temporary little arrangement to get us over a hump, namely, the crisis in housing. I suggest an independent review of the operation of these provisions. In this regard, Deputy Grace O'Sullivan and I are not at loggerheads with the Fianna Fáil Party, which has proposed a departmental review. I do not believe in departmental reviews because the Department should not be the jury and jury in its own cause. This would not make sense given that the Bill was initiated in the Department. In saying this, I am not being critical of the Department, which is made up of good public servants. They too must be part of the review.
I do not want Members to bellyache later if problems arise and they have declined to support the amendment. This is an opportunity to have an independent review of the process by 2019, which is a reasonable proposition. The review must be tight and concise and consult all stakeholders, including county councillors, chief executives of local authorities, executive staff members of councils, An Bord Pleanála, which is a critical part of this process, and officials in the Department. It is only right and proper that the Minister have an input also.
The review should produce a report to be presented to and discussed by the Oireachtas. This process will involve a learning curve and the review is an opportunity to learn. Unforeseen issues will come to light in the first few applications made under this legislation. It is reasonable, fair and sensible to have an independent review of the scheme commencing in 2019. This will give everyone an opportunity to examine the scheme and learn from the first three years of the process in terms of how to improve and change it.
I have no doubt the scheme will be extended. If it is a success, the Minister will make the case either to extend or make it permanent. We cannot predict that far ahead in terms of politics because the political dynamic three years from now will be wholly different. It is incumbent on us, however, to provide for a review mechanism. This is a reasonable proposal and I appeal to Fianna Fáil Senators to meet us halfway on it given that they are also proposing a review. I believe we can agree on the need for an independent review as opposed to a departmental review.
I concur with the previous speaker. We sought a review through the Oireachtas but also one which was independent through local authorities and citizens. At the end of the day, the scheme will operate until 2019 and if it is successful, it will be great for people who need homes. We have discussed planning, an area in which many mistakes have been made over the years. It is important that the fast-track planning mechanism which will be in place until 2019 is reviewed at its conclusion and that everyone participates in that review.
The biggest issue we have is enforcement and additional staff will be required for this purpose. The biggest issue facing local authorities is enforcement in housing estates, from lighting to footpaths to works that need to be done.
I hope the Bill is passed because many people are unable to find homes to rent due to a lack of supply. We need to give this legislation a chance until 2019 when we will find out if it has been successful. It must be a success because two families are becoming homeless every day, which is uncalled for. Lack of housing is a major issue and the Seanad has a duty to ensure there is a sufficient supply of housing. The scheme must be reviewed at the need of 2019 and the review must involve Oireachtas Members, local authorities, councillors and communities. We must be able to decide if the scheme has been a success.
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Táim an-bhuíoch de as an am a thógáil.
I reiterate that we have issues in principle with this section which we outlined to the Minister previously. It is essential to have an independent review of the new mechanism. An issue arises with the amendments to the extent that one proposes an independent review, while the other calls for a departmental review. My instinct would be to go for an independent review.
The Minister has not made a sufficiently robust case for leaving local authorities and councillors outside strategic planning. I will not regurgitate the arguments we made on this issue. Sooner rather than later, however, we may see evidence that a role for local authorities will need to be built into the legislation.
In principle, it is very important to review legislation regularly, particularly legislation such as this which will be crucial in the provision of housing nationwide. My instinct tells me that an independent review would be the best approach but I am open to persuasion on the matter.
I fully agree with Senator Boyhan on the need for an independent review to measure the development of the plan and the legislation. Without such a review, we will be at nothing. We must measure not only whether the targets have been achieved, but also whether they have been achieved in the best way possible. An independent review will help deliver information for the public and avoid concerns that there is some form of bias at work. Independence will provide an element of fairness and this type of review would differentiate itself from one involving authorities that may be implicated in the process. I support the amendment.
I have a brief query. Will the levies and planning fees revert to the councils in which they are raised? For argument's sake, if the planning permission is granted in County Westmeath and 200 units are provided directly under the new system, would the local council receive the revenue raised through the levies and planning fees?