Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Housing Provision

10:30 am

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this Commencement matter. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, was unable to attend due to prior commitments in his schedule but I appreciate the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, taking this Commencement matter. What I am proposing is a sensible, proactive and reasonable measure which would increase the supply of smaller homes to enable individuals and couples to right-size into them. The Housing for All policy document commits the Government to, "Increase the housing options available to older people to facilitate ageing in place with dignity and independence, including policies and operational supports for older people considering right-sizing to smaller housing homes". It goes on to state that there will be a specific focus on the delivery of housing which is appropriately sized and in line with age friendly and universal design principles.

Naturally the policy position around right-sizing will be optional. Unfortunately many scaremongering narratives seem to take hold when discussing this topic, which can be emotive for some people and understandably so. Nobody will be forced to move homes but incentives may become available which would make it financially attractive for some to do so. That being said, not everybody is interested in the financial side of things. I have spoken to many older individuals and couples in recent times who have told me they are ready to right-size because the house they are in has become too big for them to manage and maintain but they cannot find a suitable smaller property to move into. This has the impact of not being able to free up larger housing stock for families.

One of the barriers which has been brought to my attention by two builders in Waterford is the density requirement, which is being rightly requested by planners in line with national policy. Waterford has been designated as one of the five main centres for 50% to 60% population growth out to 2040 and much of that will result in compact development within the outer ring road. However, 35 units to per hectare is not always conducive to the delivery of appropriately sized housing schemes that are specifically geared at older persons. That is why I am asking for a circular to be issued to all local authorities to inform them that the density requirements can be relaxed for land zoned for residential use when purpose built housing for older persons is being proposed.

I also want to acknowledge the Trojan work done by my Fine Gael colleagues, including former Minister of State, Jim Daly, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, for their work on the development of the Housing Options for Our Ageing Population policy document. That policy acknowledges that as people age, their housing needs are likely to change. It states:

A key principle underpinning the Government housing policy is to support older people to live in their own home with dignity and independence for as long as possible. The aim is to ensure that older people will have greater choice by developing a range of housing options that are suited to their needs, so they can plan ahead and, insofar as possible, choose the right home for them.

However, in order to achieve those goals we have to look at giving specific guidance to local authorities to relax the density requirements where such proposals are forthcoming, particularly for our urban areas. I hope that request can be acceded to.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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On behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It is important to clarify that current planning guidance seeks to ensure that the diverse needs of our society are catered for by facilitating a greater mix of housing typologies. This includes a choice of accommodation types for older people. It is a key objective of Government to encourage a shift in the pattern and format of future development towards more compact urban growth to support proper planning and sustainable development and to address climate change. Compact growth is the first national strategic objective in the national planning framework and the national development plan.

Guidelines on sustainable residential development in urban areas were originally published by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2009 to build on density guidelines that date back to 1999. This is to enable more sustainable patterns of development, also taking into account the critical need to ensure the availability and choice of housing, including for older people as the Senator said. The efficient use of urban land, existing service amenities and infrastructure and issues such as traffic congestion, competitiveness and public health also need to be taken into account.

In terms of the issues raised, it may be helpful to set out some key information. Guidelines require net housing densities of more than 50 dwellings per hectare in central urban areas and 35 or more dwellings per hectare in larger towns, especially those close to cities and in the suburban areas of cities. Achieving 35 dwellings and over per hectare is essential to cater for the needs of a more diverse range of households, including smaller households such as older couples trading down or younger people who may wish to live in apartments, thereby creating choice and flexibility for people to continue living in their communities as their housing requirements change. The guidelines also provide scope for densities below 35 dwellings per hectare, especially in smaller towns and villages. To emphasise this, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage issued a circular to all planning authorities early this year to provide clarity on the interpretation and application of the guidance and to enable lower residential densities in certain circumstances. This is in advance of issuing updated density guidelines that will address sustainable residential development in urban areas and which is progressing in the Department. Updated guidelines will allow for a greater range of densities and housing typologies relative to context and location. This is to provide for greater diversity in urban and regional contexts as elements of the housing building sector have tended to remain focused on the more traditional housing formats, rather than developing new products tailored to changing demographic needs.

Providing a range of housing options is a Government priority and for older people who are committed to ensuring that they are supported to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible. This is in line with the vision for an age friendly Ireland in which older people can live long and healthy lives, participate in their communities and have a range of housing options and health supports available to them to make this possible. Housing for All, launched earlier this month, targets the delivery of more homes of all types for people with different housing needs. The housing needs of older people are specifically addressed in several actions in Housing for All.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge that densities of below 35 per hectare are permitted in smaller towns and villages and I welcome that circular the Department issued. The point I am making in this Commencement matter is that 35 per hectare is not conducive to attractive housing units for older persons. I am talking about the likes of a group scheme of 15 bungalows with shared garden areas and community spaces that are managed by a management body. I know from speaking to constituents that these are the type of developments that older individuals and couples want to move into but we have to address the density requirement.Otherwise, all the visions and policy documents in the world will not result in units on the ground. I acknowledge that in his reply, the Minister of State said the Minister is advancing updated guidance that will enable a broader range of density and housing types. I understand that he has also met the Office of the Planning Regulator regarding this matter. I ask that updated guidance be issued to local authorities on this issue for urban areas without delay because it takes time for units to go through the planning process. If we want to see older people downsizing and having the option of rightsizing, we must facilitate that change.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I will bring to the Minister the Senator's concerns that a density of 35 dwellings per hectare is not conducive to the provision of housing for older persons. We need to provide a greater choice of housing types for older people in their communities. This includes new typologies that tie in with compact growth objectives to address the efficient use of urban land where services and supports are available.

The Senator rightly said that the current density guidelines allow for more flexibility in many circumstances. This has been clarified by the circular. The Minister is advancing updated guidance relating to a broader range of density and housing types. This is one of the many actions arising from Housing for All. As the Senator said, hopefully we can address the housing needs of older people. This can be another key to ensuring we can deliver under Housing for All.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Cummins for raising this important issue. Unless we build these facilities, we cannot downsize in the first place. They must also be attractive enough for people to want to move into them.