Wednesday, 16 December 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
National Planning Framework
I sincerely thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting my Commencement matter and welcome the Minister of State who has come here to respond to my question.
I previously served as a county councillor in Meath and, therefore, realise how vitally important clarity is for everyone in the formation and execution of housing policy and development plans. I seek clarity for the public who need housing, for the elected councillors and for the chief executives of the 31 local authorities that form and execute housing policy in their respective local authority areas.
Undoubtedly, there is a clear and pressing need for more housing to cater for the people who currently live in Ireland and those who emigrate to Ireland. Increasing supply, apart from anything else, could have a dampening effect on increasing house prices and alleviate affordability to some extent. What is not known is precisely how many housing units will be needed over the coming decades and whether there are ceilings or strict parameters on the number of units that each local authority may build. Reliable, accurate data on population trends and demographics is vital for ensuring that the number, type and location of housing units suit the evolving needs of our growing population. There does seem to be conflicting data and estimates as to the exact number of housing units that will be needed to meet demand over the coming years and decades until 2040.
The national planning framework states, "Annual housing output will need to increase to 30,000 to 35,000 homes per annum in the years to 2027", and will be subject to monitoring and review. I welcome the publication of the report by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, entitled Regional Demographics and Structural Housing Demand at a County Level. The report contains expert opinions on the trends that feed into the targets of housing units that will be needed. Section 5.6 of the report is interesting in light of the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic. Between 18,000 and 20,000 units only will be completed this year on account of the cessation of construction during lockdown. However, the report notes that the pandemic could ease pressure on housing demand.
A particular concern of mine is the Dublin region and surrounding counties known as the commuter belt. The ESRI report outlines different scenarios of population growth. Its baseline scenario predicts that regions of the east and midlands are expected to experience the fastest population growth and will capture the majority of the total expected population growth over the period from 2016 to 2040 of 55.6% or 500,000 people. This evidence points towards the need for more housing to be built in the east and midlands. Contrary to this urgent need, I am aware that some local authorities have dezoned lands that were zoned for residential development, and that includes Meath and Kildare. This includes the so-called post-2019 land. Such dezoning has been done contrary to the policy contained in the spatial strategy whereby land zoned for development would not be subsequently dezoned. Can the Minister of State comment on the matter? Can he call on local authorities to ensure that they do not dezone land that will be needed to meet demand in the future?
On 1 December the Minister of State, or another Minister of State from his Department, was present to discuss the national planning framework when it was clearly stated that "the national planning framework does not either remove one-off local needs planning for rural houses or impose rezoning or de-zoning population caps". It seems that local authorities have received conflicting information on the number of housing units to be delivered in the future. I hope that the Minister of State's answer to my question will eliminate uncertainty about these policy matters.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter and providing an opportunity for me to clarify this very important position.As the Senator is aware, there is an urgent need to increase national housing supply to meet existing housing demand to the greatest extent possible in the shortest time possible, while also accommodating projected national housing demand likely to arise as a result of future population growth. Anticipated population growth is projected to be around 1 million people by 2040. The national planning framework, NPF, sets out a spatial strategy to accommodate that level of population and related housing growth over the next 20 years. In particular, the NPF seeks to ensure more balanced regional development led by the growth of Ireland's five cities and five identified regional and cross-Border drivers. It also aims to ensure that a greater proportion of housing demand arising in Ireland's cities and towns can be accommodated within and close to those cities and towns and thereby avoid sprawl into surrounding counties. The NPF is explicit that, rather than focus on seeking additional housing development in locations that have been subject to rapid development and require infrastructure and services to further catch up, some locations should include planning for a greater focus on deficits, such as targeting greater employment and the needs of existing communities, as well as housing.
More broadly, there is a need to encourage increased housing output nationally to meet NPF targeted population growth in the years ahead, especially over the next decade. To assist in the preparation of individual city or county development plans over six-year timelines, an NPF roadmap circular was issued to all planning authorities in 2018, setting out targeted population growth for each county to 2026 and 2031. These targets remain valid. To build on this work, earlier this year my Department commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, to carry out independent research into structural housing demand in Ireland to 2040. The ESRI research report was published earlier this week and further develops the population projection model that was used for the NPF. What the ESRI work is telling us is that factoring in existing housing demand, together with future projected demand, will require annual average national demand for just over 33,000 new households per annum to be met over the next decade. To meet this average over the period means that there is a requirement to substantially increase national housing output from the current estimated 2020 level of 18,000 homes to 20,000 homes.
Achieving projected levels of population and housing growth in accordance with the NPF will require an increase in annual average housing output in almost every local authority area in Ireland, also recognising that there are some local authorities where recent levels of housing supply are close to or exceed annual average NPF targets. These mainly comprise commuter counties adjoining Dublin, as articulated by the Senator, and are currently meeting a proportion of the very high levels of housing demand arising in Dublin, which is not being met by new housing within the existing city area.
To facilitate convergence with the NPF development scenario, we will enhance the alignment of public investment with NPF objectives to stimulate urban brownfield and public transport-led housing development at scale in Dublin and the other cities, including measures to encourage accelerated regional city growth and balanced regional development.
In the coming days, the senior Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will issue a circular to all 31 local authorities with guidance required for NPF targets and new ministerial guidelines that describe a housing supply target methodology for development planning, to be issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act, as amended. This circular and guidance will reflect the balanced approach necessary to ensure the six-year local authority planning cycles, while converging towards the preferred NPF scenario, can also reflect both the capacities to increase housing delivery and actual levels of housing output on the ground in the near term. It is also critical to meeting national housing supply targets during the next phase of activity and output and will form an essential part of Ireland's economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
I thank the Minister for his response and I will try to respond in one minute. The original projections of the ESRI for the population were developed using best practice. The input assumptions of the adjustments made by the Department for policy-based intervention are questionable. It should be noted that the migration assumptions used were and continue to be far below the historical data as observed by the CSO since 2016. The ESRI baseline assumed a net inward migration figure of 8,000 people per annum from 2016 to 2021, rising to 12,500 people thereafter. The reality has been of the order of three or four times that figure over the period to 2020. In the past four years, a minimum of 85,000 people do not seem to have been accounted for. There is a discrepancy in the ESRI report and the press release issued over the weekend in the media, which referred to a figure of 33,000.
I welcome the Minister of State’s acknowledgement that the national planning framework will require an increase in annual average housing output in every local authority. Will he clarify to which cities he is referring? Do they include Drogheda in County Louth, which has been seeking city status for the past five years? I welcome the circular the senior Minister will send out to local authority chief executives in the coming days. They certainly need to know exactly what is happening as unfortunately there is no certainty in that regard at this time.
I will certainly do that. I thank Senator Keogan again for her response.
The national planning framework was underpinned by the key actors in terms of the methodology in devising population growth and the ESRI was central to that. The NPF is a roadmap for the delivery of planning and sustainable growth in our country over the next number of decades. Central to that, and this is clearly mapped out and articulated in the NPF, are our five cities and growth centres. There is significant capacity for growth in the regions, with 50% of growth to take place outside the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, ERMA, region. There have been significant pressures, as the Senator noted, in the greater Dublin area. We will immediately - I hope to do so this week - clarify the ESRI report through the circular that will issue to all 31 local authorities, which will make the pathway very clear.
It is clear that we need high-quality homes but we also need them in the right places. That is key to the work we are doing in the Department.