Seanad debates

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am sharing time with Senator Sherlock.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House. I hope we can have a respectful and robust debate on the planning and student accommodation crisis. The student accommodation crisis is affecting students throughout Ireland. Third-level education is becoming less accessible every year because of continual rent increases and hikes in the cost of living. Owing to rent increases and a lack of suitable accommodation, young people are staying in hotels with no access to proper cooking facilities, often having to get up in the middle of the night to commute for hours for a 9 a.m. lecture. Students from low- or middle-income backgrounds will be completely locked out of third level education away from home because of the cost of high rents.

In 2017, the Government published its student accommodation strategy to tackle purpose-built student accommodation and the lack of it. It sounded good, but the strategy borrowed heavily from the Fine Gael approach to housing, that is, that the private sector will provide and prioritise the provision of luxury high-cost student accommodation rather than affordable student accommodation. The only tangible mention of affordable housing in the strategy was confirmation towards the end of it that Part V of the Planning and Development Act, which relates to social and affordable housing, did not apply to purpose-built student accommodation. For the property developer or investor the attraction to student accommodation was that standards were lower than for apartments and there was no requirement to provide the 10% social and affordable housing. Some of what was built was of good quality and was an enhancement of what were previously derelict sites. That was welcome, but I had never been convinced that the intention on the developer side was to provide student accommodation in the long term.

In my area, there were applications to close what had been promised public spaces, followed by applications to turn the student accommodation into tourist accommodation for the summer term, from May to October. When co-living briefly became the favoured planning route for developers, Point Campus was granted change of use from student to co-living accommodation. For somebody who represented one of the areas where so much student accommodation was being built, there was a glaring contrast between the large number of student accommodation applications being submitted as compared with applications for apartments even though we are in the middle of a housing crisis. Like the ghost estates that blighted this country during the late 2000s, it had the feel of a speculation bubble. These luxury student accommodation complexes boast facilities such as cinemas, bowling alleys, 24-7 gyms and rooftop terraces. One of the complexes in Dublin 8 that applied for change of use was advertising rooms starting at €305 per week, which amounts to €1,200 per month. To put that in context, the SUSI grant for those not living near college is €3,025 per annum or €252 per month before the student eats, travels or buys a book. What good was a pool table or a rooftop terrace bar when students did not have enough money to put food on the dinner table?

The real purpose behind what was happening became clear as student accommodation providers took the opportunity of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, even though there were hints of it happening previously. In my area of Dublin 8, The Tannery on Mill Street applied for a temporary change of use on the basis that Covid had impacted the number of international students attending third level. This was despite that at the time Government had made an additional 2,000 places available to compensate for the drop-off. Incredibly, the developer argued that the tourism market was recovering, unlike the student market. This was just as we were entering a level 3 lockdown.

Another Dublin 8 provider applied to change student accommodation into tourist accommodation for the academic year 2021-22 once students were returned to campus. Councillor Darragh Moriarty and I submitted an objection arguing that this, as in the case of the Mill Street application, created a bad precedent. In another part of the city, Uninest was allowed to convert 571 student beds into tourist accommodation. The Minister belatedly responded to the outcry on this issue by issuing a circular to planning authorities with guidance on dealing with change-of-use applications. The circular issued to the planning authorities was and is weak, vague and full of get-out clauses. For example, it provides that developers should be able to demonstrate that there is no longer a need for such use in the area in question. For an area like Dublin 8 where, along with Dublin 1 and Dublin 7, a large amount of student accommodation has been built over the past number of years, there is no large student population or institution and, therefore, a case could be made that it is not needed in that area. Why then allow so many to be built in that small area?

This Bill seeks a ban of 15 years on the conversion of purpose-built student accommodation to residential or tourist accommodation. We also do not want to see lower standard co-living by the backdoor. There needs to be a clear line in the sand on this issue. Developers need to be told that they cannot game the planning system to make greater profits elsewhere. If the demand is not there at current prices, the student accommodation providers should reduce their prices. It is not the responsibility of a planning system to underpin a high-yield business model. Long term, we need to base our response to the student accommodation crisis in the reality of life for a student, which includes making sure that the options we provide are affordable for those expected to be in full-time education and reliant, as some of them are, on the SUSI grant. That means cost-rental student accommodation. It can be done with third level institutions or student unions set up as approved housing bodies, AHBs, but the accommodation must be local to the colleges students are attending and it must be affordable. I hope Government Members and the Minister of State will support my Bill because this is an issue on which we should all be united. Student accommodation needs to remain as student accommodation. We should not allow developers to game the planning system when it does not suit them.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber. I thank my colleague, Senator Moynihan, for bringing forward this important Bill. I am sure the Minister of State, like many us, has not been immune to the many stories in recent weeks of students finding it near impossible to get accommodation and of students having to undertake arduous commutes to college simply because they cannot find accommodation for the academic year.In certain parts of the country there is a very serious shortage of affordable accommodation, let alone student accommodation. Some of those issues will not be resolved overnight, but there are issues particular to Dublin that we believe can be resolved overnight. That is the purpose of our Bill today. When we heard students telling us about their experiences, we went to the effort of ringing a number of local student accommodation facilities in the Dublin 1 and Dublin 7 areas. It was galling to discover that in the likes of Ardcairn, Dominick Street and Dorset Point there were vacancies and the prices ranged from between €240 to €253 per week. To put that in perspective, the 100% adjacent SUSI grant - Senator Moynihan spoke about the SUSI grant - would not even cover three months in one of these facilities. While the latest increase in the grant in the budget is welcome, it would not even cover one extra week. We have students crying out for affordable student rooms in this city and all the while there are purpose-built student rooms lying empty.

The key question that must be asked is why we have not seen a fall in prices to meet student demand. The reason is that we have repeatedly seen decisions made by Dublin City Council and An Bord Pleanála to grant permission to student accommodation operators to let their accommodation to tourists and for other uses. In Dublin 1 and Dublin 7 right now we have 987 student rooms that can potentially be rented for short- to medium-term use until May 2022. It is worth quoting from An Bord Pleanála's inspector report of February with regard to one of these applications:

The applicant has stated that the operator of the site has recently received enquiries from key workers, construction workers, recent graduates and interns who have been struggling to find suitable short-term accommodation in Dublin at reasonable cost. The applicant sees the current proposal as a way of meeting the identified present need.

Addressing the concern that allowing student accommodation to be used in this way would interfere with or damage hotels and those truly offering tourist accommodation in the city, the inspector suggests that this type of accommodation "provides a different type of offering for visitors and tourists alike" and believes it would not "have a significant negative impact on the existing hotel or other tourism accommodation stock". There we have it. If that is not co-living by the back door, I do not know what is.

According to a report published by planners from Dublin City Council on 30 July last:

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly reduced the need for student accommodation and therefore, the [Dominick Street] development will remain vacant for the academic year unless an alternate use is established ...

The Government announced on 15 June last the wide-scale return of students in September and October 2021. The Minister, Deputy Harris, spoke about 200,000 students going physically back into college this academic year, and yet we have planners relying on Covid-19 to justify a request by student accommodation operators to change the use of student accommodation facilities. When we look at the circular that came from the Government; the holes that are in government, as we would see it; and the ignoring of the reality of student demand, we believe there has to be a legislative intervention. It is simply not acceptable that student accommodation operators and their owners can use the planning system to cushion themselves against future losses.

On a wider point, there are real questions to be raised about the purpose and intent of the planning system to shape communities for the long term. Do we really want to introduce so much flexibility into the planning system that we have little or no assurance as to the use of a building 12 or 24 months after it opens? The question we must ask about this temporary conversion is this: what is temporary? In a number of facilities in Dublin 1 and Dublin 7, applications have been made on at least two occasions to have a temporary conversion. The goalposts have shifted each time. First it was because they could not meet the construction schedule in time and had missed the start of the academic term. Then it was because of the supposed severe drop in student demand. God only knows what the next excuse will be when they want to apply next year. Is the Government prepared to stand over the planning system as it currently stands? Are we going to allow operators and investors to change the use of buildings at a relative whim?

I would like to reflect on my own experience. When I came to Dublin 21 years ago as a college student, there was a serious student accommodation crisis. I lived in a rundown old house in Ranelagh where we paid below the market rate. I was lucky. I was living on the grant, my part-time job and small support from my parents. It was the only place I could afford. Many of my friends were living in cramped accommodation. One group had to take a penthouse in the IFSC which was grand because their parents could pay, but so many other parents, including my own, could not. Are we going to entrench that divide between students who have financial backing and those who do not? That is what this student accommodation crisis is really about. Time and again we talk about the very high share of college graduates in our workforce but what kind of educational outcomes do we expect if people are forced to commute to class for very long hours or to stay in a hotel or on somebody's couch? What are the conditions that are going to be conducive to students surviving college and doing well?

We heard today from the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, which we have met over many weeks now, that there are very real fears that people are going to leave college because they cannot secure accommodation. Students might be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed in the two decades since I came to Dublin to go to college. However, there has been a significant change. Senator Moynihan referred to the 2017 report which identified the need for purpose-built accommodation, and we have had that purpose-built accommodation built in this city. In the area where I live in the inner city there were concerns at the time that we needed to see more residential accommodation and that was a legitimate concern. However, there was also a realisation of the fact that with our brand new and amazing Grangegorman campus and our proximity to the city centre and to Dublin City University, we also needed to have student accommodation. What people are not prepared to accept is that these facilities would now be changed to some other use.

We would like to see the Government support this Bill. We believe there is an urgency to this legislation. Places cannot be built overnight. This legislation could be progressed very quickly. We hope that the Government does the right thing and supports the legislation.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I welcome this Bill and commend the Labour Party, particularly Senator Moynihan who has been passionate on this subject. There is no question but that there has been a tremendous shortage of student accommodation. None of us has been untouched by parents contacting us. As there are Members of the Seanad from all over the country, we get a good flavour of the demands and the needs in the city. I also commend the original vision of responding to the foreseeable crisis on student accommodation while having a view of Dublin as a city where students live and bring energy to the city. That is a great vision for the city so it was right to set up a system to induce the building of student accommodation in the city centre. I had a problem with where it was built. In the Dublin South-Central constituency, there was a particular overconcentration of student accommodation at a time when there was, as there continues to be, a huge demand for residential accommodation for the local community and others wishing to live in the area. There seemed to be a disproportionate level of building of student accommodation in the area. I would challenge how An Bord Pleanála permitted this, at times, and how its planning process did not seem to give due regard to the development plan. I welcome the recent legislation, which has come through pre-legislative scrutiny in the housing committee, to address and arrest that non-adherence to the development plan and to the view of the city council.From that point of view, we are moving in the right direction.

A long number of years ago at this stage, in 2001, I was involved in building supported social accommodation in Dublin city centre. As an organisation taking a major leap of faith in the provision of supported sheltered housing, we had a fallback plan. In the worst-case scenario, we could convert the accommodation into a hotel. It was all individual self-contained units of accommodation or studio apartments with a view to housing young people coming out of homelessness. In the worst-case scenario and it all went pear-shaped, which it did not, that was our fallback because it was a major step of faith. It never came to pass and the accommodation never needed to be converted into a hotel. That particular facility is very successfully run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to house people. The hotel use was never needed but it was certainly a cushion to have the possibility of change of use as a girder to underpin our step of faith into something that was very big. We were setting up a housing association and changing a charity. We were not people of major means and were relying on a lot of Government funding. Even in that context, we knew that if we ever needed to change use, we would have a difficulty in that there would be a major clawback of funding and supports, if we ever went down that commercial route.

I welcome the concept at the core of this Bill, which is that we set up a bespoke system to encourage investment in student accommodation, because it is needed. However, it strikes me as peculiar that we have, as Senator Moynihan cited, a reduction in the number of international students, which is true, while at the same time we have a major outcry for accommodation from domestic students. This disparity and unbelievable situation are being put forward by developers, while at the same time the cost of their accommodation is so prohibitively expensive that it is out of the reach of most families where there are students.

Do I agree developers should be blocked from being able to change use? Yes, I do. I also understand there needs to be some sort of mechanism for a cushion when we develop accommodation. Every time the Minister of State is in the Chamber, I always reference the housing needs and demands assessment, but there is a need for metrics to decide. The metrics can come through, and be supported by, the colleges. There is a means of gathering the metrics of student accommodation needs. We also need to examine, through some sort of survey within the colleges, if there should be change. Students in other countries get the opportunity to move out of home at earlier ages. Should we be supporting and looking at that? Should we have some sort of task force within the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science that looks strategically at how we support students and whether Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, is enough. I know the Minister, Deputy Harris, is bringing forward a review, but these are all things we need to address within that.

It is not okay for developers to benefit from an accelerated planning process, tax benefits and all those associated inducements to get them to build and then, suddenly, within a year or two or less, in some instances without anyone ever occupying one of the rooms, they get to turn around and change the use. That is not okay. We need to arrest that rather aggressively. I understand the Government is not opposing this Bill, but we need to arrest that. I also understand there is a retrospective provision within the Bill that just will not work in law.

I looked up the advertisements today and there is huge availability. We have students crying out for affordable accommodation and yet there is this huge availability because it is overpriced and too expensive. One wonders has it been pitched at that level to oblige a situation for change of use. We need to stand against that.

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House for the second time today. We will be charging him rent next. I commend Senator Moynihan and the Labour Party and I support their Bill, which is very welcome. It deals with one aspect of the student housing crisis but it is an important one. The proposal in the Bill to restrict the possibility of changing purpose-built student accommodation to short-term lets or short-term holiday lets is one I am glad the Government is supportive of. It is a proposal we need to progress.

I am a parent of third level students so I know the demographic very well, warts and all. I met with the Union of Students in Ireland. I commend it on the work it has done, not just in recent times. Since the Government was formed more than a year ago, it has engaged very constructively and the Government has worked with it and taken on many of its suggestions. I have spoken to third level students outside of my constituency of Dublin Central, where for the past ten years it has been very hard and very galling to see, as others have mentioned, new buildings being built to a very high standard and quality, animating and putting into productive use what were derelict sites. It is, however, so detached from the local housing need and so devoid of any consideration of it, in addition to being out of reach of the students it is supposed to be serving, that it is very hard to accept it. It is something I have complained at length about.

On the pressures, Senator Sherlock mentioned there was a student housing crisis 20 years ago. There probably was and I am not disputing that, but what has made it so much worse this year is the undersupply of housing over recent years, the unaffordability of these purpose-built operated units and the Covid pandemic. Where families would previously have offered digs, because of Covid, that option has either been reduced or removed entirely from the market. That is compounding the crisis. I welcome what the Minister of State and the Government have done in terms of the €600 million in rent support payments and the direct supports for students with the increase of SUSI and hardship grants, which are very important. The work the Government has done in reducing the upfront payments for students and the 28-day notice period is very important, as is the money that has been given to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to ensure the rent caps are legally enforced and inspections are taking place, and to local authorities for inspections.

Housing for All will deliver over the next number of years, with €20 billion assigned to it and 300,000 homes as a target, but it will take time. I will draw attention to the commitment given in Housing for All to allow technical universities to use the land available to them to reduce the cost and to deliver not-for-profit, purpose-built student accommodation. That is very welcome and it is important we support all the third level institutions to use the facility they have been provided with to access funding through the Housing Finance Agency and start to deliver purpose-built student accommodation at a not-for-profit point.

In the short term, has the Minister of State met with the CEO of Dublin City Council? I appreciate that the applications that have been made for change of use concern a small number of developments, but whatever the number is, it is unacceptable if they are being granted. Has the Minister of State met with the CEO of Dublin City Council and will he advise us on what he is saying on that?

The circular has been issued and that is very important. The tax treatment, which was mentioned, that was in place, originally required that students came from a list of predefined third level institutions before it would apply. Is that being enforced and will Revenue supply us with information on that? The vacant property tax this Government has committed to and that will be delivered through Housing for All should apply to any of these purpose-built student accommodations that are priced at a point way beyond our students. I do not know if the Minister of State can speak about that, but it is important.

The work we have done on Housing for All to ensure the housing needs assessment will be completed by the end of November by each local authority needs to be respected.Manners need to be put on these developers and operators. They need to either reduce their prices and make their properties available or we need to tax them for that vacancy. It is immoral to have a student housing crisis in our cities when there are purpose-built, vacant properties available to them. I know the Minister of State has also met with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I would be interested if he could update the House on the Minister's initiatives in this respect.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. This is a simple, one-issue Bill which deserves support from any Senator who has a genuine interest in solving the student accommodation crisis. It would prohibit, for 15 years, any application for the change of use of student accommodation to either residential accommodation or to a hostel, hotel or any other kind of tourist or short-let accommodation. As the Bill is drafted, this would also prevent such accommodation from being used in any kind of Airbnb-type letting arrangement.

I imagine most people would be amazed to hear that no such provision exists in law. The construction of student accommodation was, in times past, encouraged through the use of a generous tax incentive under section 50 of the Finance Act 1999, which was repealed in the wake of the property crash. In view of that tax break, it is surprising that no prohibition on a change of use of such accommodation back into residential units or hotels was introduced as a kind of quid pro quo. Although, I presume there was some kind of claw back provision in place to recover the tax forgone, if the use of the development was changed. If this was the case, it is a prime example of the short-sighted and often developer-led focus of planning policy during the boom years. What we wanted and need - then as now - was a good supply of student accommodation and not additional tax revenue.

There is a student accommodation crisis in our four largest cities which needs to be tackled urgently and prohibiting the conversion of existing accommodation is surely a very small step, but one which must be taken. The crisis has been exacerbated by the wider housing shortage, but the Covid pandemic also hit many students who were the victims of some very sharp practice from landlords on the refund of rent and deposits as a result of the pandemic. One of the landlords who attempted to gouge money from students was one of our third-level institutions, the University of Limerick, which only repaid €3.5 million in rent to students for accommodation they could not use due to Covid after several weeks of being publicly shamed in the media.

I have raised this before, but I would be grateful if the Minister of State could tell us whether there are measures which might be put in place to assist students who find themselves in such a position in future. Sinn Féin pressed a Private Members' Bill in the Dáil on this issue last April but the problem has not been, or begun to be, remedied by Government legislation in the interim.

I take this opportunity to raise two other connected issues. Can the Minister of State please comment on the story from Limerick in recent days about Focus Ireland outbidding Limerick City and County Council for the development of a number of houses? Reports stated the developer said rising building costs meant it could not fulfil the contract with the council and only a new contract with Focus Ireland at a higher price would allow the development to continue. It is a strange world indeed, if housing charities are in a stronger position than local authorities to purchase houses or commission their construction. I would be grateful if the Minister of State had a comment on that.

I will also mention the vacant site levy and the plans to phase this out. I proposed amendments, as the Minister of State may recall, to various housing legislation earlier this year which would have introduced an element of self-assessment into the application of the existing charge, to increase the revenue generated and reduce the widespread avoidance of the levy. At the time, when the Minister of State did not accept my amendment, he said the Government was looking at a way to improve the situation. I acknowledge that commitment has been met. The budget has proposed a new 3% zoned land tax which will be phased in over a three-year period. I am somewhat sceptical about how this will work in practice. Is this new tax not just a rebranding of the vacant site levy, while simultaneously cutting the rate from 7% to 3%? I am also sceptical about the two- to three-year phasing in of the tax.

All of that said, I am glad to see a willingness to change the vacant site levy because it was virtually useless in how it operated in practice. I hope this new tax will free up land for development, including student accommodation. I welcome and support this legislation.

Photo of Frances BlackFrances Black (Independent)
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I am delighted to be here to speak in support of this Bill. I commend Senator Moynihan and her colleagues for their work on this important and pressing issue. The words "housing" and "crisis" are intimately intertwined in Ireland and often they appear inseparable, but they are not. We can do better on housing across the board and the Bill, as introduced by the Labour Party, will go some distance in alleviating some of the pressure in the housing market. There is little doubt the housing crisis we are experiencing is unprecedented. It is a crisis affecting people in every corner of the country and every part of Irish society, but we know it is disproportionately affecting those with fewer social, cultural and economic resources than are available to many others.

Housing is more than just a roof over one's head and it frustrates me that the conversation around housing is often reduced to that. Housing is a reflection of who we are and where we stand in society, but it also shapes who we are and where we stand. Education is more than what is taught in classrooms and lecture halls, especially further and higher education; it is a reflection of who we are and where we stand. Education provides an opportunity for us to discover the person we are and the kind of person we want to be. It provides an opportunity for us to build friendships and networks that can support us throughout our lives. It provides a ladder through which people can overcome the barriers placed in front of them by their social class and family circumstances.

I have been disappointed in recent weeks to hear stories from Irish colleges and universities about young people struggling to find affordable accommodation which is proximate to their place of study. We have heard stories of young people commuting from one end of the country to the other to attend their classes and lectures; stories of young people living in hostels and hotel rooms because they cannot afford to live anywhere else; and stories of young people not being able to pursue their dreams through education because they cannot afford to live away from home.

I live in a part of Dublin that has seen huge numbers of purpose-built student accommodation built in the past few years, alongside an influx of hotels and aparthotels. Very little, if any, residential accommodation has been built in recent times. The local community was sceptical about the nature of this development and all short-term accommodation that would see people passing through the community, as opposed to integrating into it.

Despite these concerns, much of the development was welcomed as being an investment in the local community. Students bring vitality and energy to an area and support local businesses. Much of the land had lain derelict for decades and any development was to be welcomed and, perhaps, the purpose-built student accommodation, PBSA, would relieve pressure on the private rental market and free up some of the housing stock for other renters in the area. However, as the accommodation was being built, one had to wonder for whom exactly it was being built. Advertising billboards for the student accommodation advertised cinema rooms, bowling alleys and roof gardens overlooking the city.

Then the prices were advertised, ranging from €250 to €350 per week. It became immediately apparent this accommodation was not developed with most students in mind. Instead, the accommodation was marketed at wealthy international students who many of our third level institutions have had to attract in recent years to plug gaps in funding. While this strategy may have been profitable pre-pandemic, the past 18 months or so saw the few students who occupied the accommodation leave, with many of the PBSAs lying vacant and inactive, just like the brownfield sites on which they had been built.

In 2015, the Higher Education Authority advised there was a deficit of 25,000 student beds in Ireland. The 2017 national student accommodation strategy was devised to tackle this problem and the construction of PBSAs was prioritised in local development plans.Developers licked their lips at the prospect of building lower standards of accommodation in smaller units, all the while gaining planning priority and yielding higher profits. Dublin now has around 9,000 or 10,000 PBSA rooms, most of them concentrated in Dublin 1, 7 and 8.

I am thankful we have legislators like Senator Moynihan and her colleagues in this House bringing attention to issues like this. This Bill, if enacted, could have an immediate effect on the student accommodation and housing crises. It is important we give it all our support and move it expeditiously through both Houses.

While the circular issued by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage ought to be welcomed, it does not prevent the future change of use of PBSAs to a sufficient extent. The Bill, as introduced by the Labour Party Senators, is important as a result, as it prevents the change of use of student accommodation for a period of 15 years post construction. This would be a strong piece of legislation and could change the trajectory of the housing crisis in Ireland, especially as it relates to students.

In choosing not to address the student housing crisis specifically, we are facilitating the creation of another barrier to entry to further education. This is very problematic as it makes education the reserve of the fortunate. Access to high quality education ought to be the birth right of everyone who grows up in Ireland, not just those who can afford to access it. We need to remove barriers, instead of erecting them. I call on colleagues in both Houses to support the Bill, which will go some distance in achieving this end.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte ar ais go dtí an Teach roimh an Aire Stáit. Sinn Féin will support the Bill and I am speaking on behalf of my colleague, Senator Warfield, who could not be here and wanted to speak on this issue because it is of great importance to him.

We are absolutely behind the proposal to restrict applications for the change of use of student accommodation and commend the Labour Party Seanad team who tabled the Bill. Student accommodation is defined in legislation. It is defined in section 2 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended by section 13 of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016. Student accommodation "means a building... used to accommodate students." It is not for use as permanent residential accommodation or as a hotel, hostel, aparthotel or similar type accommodation. However, use as tourist or visitor accommodation is permissible outside the academic year. These are the grounds on which permission is granted for student accommodation.

This Bill will ensure no application can be made or granted for a change in use of student accommodation for 15 years after the completion of a student accommodation development. I listened to the debate on Sinn Féin's renters' motion in the Dáil last night and the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, said approximately 40% of students who rent accommodation do so in purpose-built student accommodation with 60% in the wider private rental market. If 60% rent in the private rental market, it follows that there is a huge need for student-specific accommodation that is, most importantly, affordable for students. For this reason, I fundamentally believe there should be no change of use of student accommodation that has been or is yet to be developed. Students are protesting over a lack of student accommodation and affordable accommodation. All the while, purpose-built student accommodation is being turned into more lucrative tourist accommodation.

People can see all the wrongs happening around them. They see cultural and social spaces being knocked in favour of hotels or high-grade office space that currently sits empty. The potential loss of The Cobblestone pub is the latest example of the hollowing out of this city. Not only can people not afford the rent to live in this town, its cultural life is being strangled in favour of the next big investment opportunity for developers.

The only way we can be sure of stopping the loss of student accommodation is to insert in the legislation that no change of use can take place for 15 years after the completion of that development. It is a fair recommendation and a sensible approach. To think a developer can be granted planning permission for a change of use because its investment has not yet paid off makes a mockery of our planning system and a joke of our communities. As usual, the Government's response to date has been light touch and ineffective. It is afraid to spook developers or interfere in the market. It is not enough for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to issue a circular reminding planning authorities of the critical need for purpose-build student accommodation. Does he not think those authorities are aware of that need? They have been granting permission for expensive luxury purpose-built student accommodation for years.

We have to amend the legislation and this Bill is the vehicle to do that. This is simple: we need to keep student accommodation for students. If a change of use is allowed, we are facilitating high rents for developers by allowing them to change to whatever the most lucrative type of housing is. This is not in the interests of ordinary people or the communities where these developments have been built. It is madness. If we are all on the same page, let us use the tools of legislation. That is why we are here as legislators, to stop it.

I commend the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and students across Ireland who have made their voices heard very loudly on this issue. Students and their unions should be treated with respect when they engage on these issues and are not deserving of the sarcasm we have seen over recent weeks. They deserve the respect of the people who so-called represent them in this city.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I support the legislation and thank Senator Moynihan, in particular, and the entire Labour Party group. Students are another cohort of the population who are victims of the housing crisis. Costs are so high that students and their families are hard-pressed to fund accommodation, when they can find it. Other students commute vast distances to college. I know that is the case in the west of Ireland. In many cases, they sleep on couches during the week to carry out their education. Clare Austick, the president of USI, has come from NUIG and is passionate and speaks well on this issue. She states that, while there is much talk about barriers to education, one of the greatest access issues at the moment is accommodation. It has become a barrier to many students, especially those who do not live in the cities and towns of their chosen third level options. Housing availability and cost act as a constraint to many sections of our population but perhaps one of the most worrying is the effect that is having on our young people. Commuting is onerous, inefficient and, importantly, it reduces the third level experience of our students, who can no longer partake fully in college life as they might have done and expand the realm of their experience beyond course work. Covid has had a devastating impact on our young people but as normality begins to return, the housing crisis will continue to negatively affect students in terms of financial hardship, mental health and their ability to flourish.

It is extremely worrying that planning permissions for change of use have been granted by planning authorities to reduce the number of units available for our students. The recent circular from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage should help to address this. The Government has introduced or promised a number of initiatives to help students, including increasing SUSI grants, thresholds and student assistance fund, promised legislation for technical universities so they can access Housing Finance Agency funding and new laws regarding deposit and notice periods for students. We know demand is set to rise so this needs to be a central priority so our young people are not curtailed at this crucial period for their future success. The projections are a rise of 30,000 students between 2014 and 2024. Change of use permission is specifically addressed in the national student accommodation strategy. It can only happen if a student need is no longer there.

The Bill raises another important issue regarding our planning authorities. We have seen An Bord Pleanála is willing to give planning permission for the likes of co-living developments to go ahead despite a Government ban on this type of accommodation. An Bord Pleanála has said it has granted the permission where planning applications were before the board in advance of the Government ban. Even still, the rulings seem to fly in the face of Government policy. Independence in the planning process was an important step forward in Ireland, given many of the political corruption controversies we faced in planning in the past.However, independence of decision-making is not meant to be divorced from Government policy. Are planning authorities to be allowed to fly in the face of national policy in the name of independence? What, if any, cognisance, do they take of the explicit changes in Government policy, which we have clearly laid down? This is why we must examine whether legislation is the appropriate way to do this. An Bord Pleanála and local authorities must heed the circular but they could, and should, have heeded the student accommodation strategy before that. Many people are asking how we are we supposed to solve the housing crisis if our planning authorities are becoming a law unto themselves. Government policy is clear. How do we ensure it is carried through?

What we have laid down in the affordable housing Bill is the principle that houses should be more than houses; they should be homes. This includes the community around them and who all of us want living around us. We would much rather it be young people rather than people who come for a week or a few days adding to that lack of community. We must have intergenerational communities and this includes our young people. I very much support this Bill.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I support Senator Moynihan for bringing this Bill before us. It is very important to give the support that has been given throughout the House given its importance to our student population and how we treat those who are the future of our country. As my Labour Party colleagues said, we have a crisis in student accommodation but it is one that did not need to happen. I am glad the Government is not opposing this Bill, which would stop developers using the loopholes they are using at the moment to convert purpose-built student accommodation to accommodation for tourists thereby creating a crisis for so many of our student population.

What is happening here is having a knock-on effect throughout the country as students are left with no option but to continue to live at home and commute to college. In many cases, students are paying the equivalent of Dublin rents to commute but they are losing out on college life due to the lack of accommodation near their colleges. Over the past number of weeks, my office has been inundated with stories from students who are paying a phenomenal amount to commute to college. This should be good news for them from one perspective in that staying at home gives them the opportunity to save. However, the problem is that train stations such Portarlington, Monasterevin, Athy, Kildare town and Newbridge are outside the short hop zone and students cannot use their Leap cards. One student from Monasterevin contacted me to say he is paying €20 in train fares and €7 in bus fares per day to get to college so instead of saving, he is paying more than €100 per week. He might as well be staying in Dublin, if only he could get the accommodation to do so.

The delay in the first instalment of the SUSI grant is also have a significant impact on students who are commuting. A student from Newbridge told me recently that she is paying €288 for a monthly ticket to Dublin. Under the SUSI grant, she is due €320 but this has not yet kicked in so she is already out of pocket and the year has just started. In a year where seasonal work was interrupted to an unprecedented degree, students deserve better than this. Before the pandemic, SUSI grants were not enough to cover the basic costs of living and the delayed payment is adding to the financial worries of families at this stressful time. The budget included the welcome introduction of the youth travel card but it seems as if this will take some time to get up and running and will not help these students at this particular time who find themselves paying so much for staying at home while losing out in such an important year in their college life.

What has been created for many students this year is a perfect storm just as so many of them are coming out of the nightmare of the past two years. I have spoken to many parents and students from the towns of south Kildare who are forced to travel at massive cost or bunk in with other students in overcrowded accommodation because of the greed of some. Some have told me that the accommodation available previously to them and their fellow students is simply no longer there and the search had to go on and on. Of course, this crisis is not helped by the words of some in authority who should know better. Student-specific accommodation should be for students, not for some developers to move the goalposts at times convenient to them and then profit on the back of those changes.

Developers have applied for more than 1,000 students beds to become tourist accommodation. This is simply not good enough. Students from all over the State are struggling to find accommodation. It is easy to see where the problem is when one hears that purpose-built beds are being taken out of the market for students. This Bill will ensure that students and their families have the choice, and, as important for so many given the current constraints in SUSI grants, affordable accommodation. Our students deserve more and it is about time we recognise their long-term value to this country. It is time to stop rewarding others with short-term gains at the expense of our students, who are our future.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Members for the debate and the genuine views expressed by all. I also thank the Labour Party for bringing this important Bill before the House and acknowledge the work of Senator Moynihan in association with her party colleagues. As has been outlined by her, the primary purpose of this Bill is to restrict the submission of change of use planning applications in respect of student accommodation developments where such proposals relate to change of use to permanent residential accommodation or a hotel, hostel, aparthotel or similar visitor or tourist accommodation. The Bill further provides that such restriction on the submission of change of use planning applications shall be for a period of 15 years from the completion of the development.

While the Government is not opposing this Bill primarily and absolutely in recognition of the difficulties relating to student accommodation and the need to further address this issue, I have a few reservations regarding its content. The Bill seeks to operate retrospectively by imposing restrictions on student accommodation planning permissions that have been granted. This is not possible as legislation can only be applied prospectively. The Bill also undermines the neutrality of the planning code along with other key principles underpinning it, including the right of an individual to submit development proposals for consideration and have them assessed in a fair and transparent manner while it also predetermines the outcome of any such planning applications to be submitted. I also have concerns about the restriction of the submission of student accommodation change of use planning applications for a period of 15 years from the completion of the development. Such restrictions would apply irrespective of any change in circumstances relating to the development concerned and would thereby be an infringement of the rights of the property owners concerned to respond to any such change in circumstances and could be open to legal challenge. There is no question that like virtually all sectors of the economy, the student accommodation sector has been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Students have had to operate remotely from home and off campus for a considerable period, thereby impacting on the demand for and use of student accommodation complexes in turn impacting on their viability and business model. This has led to the submission of some planning applications for change of use of student accommodation facilities to residential or hostel-type use on a temporary basis.

However, with the return to campus-based delivery of higher education, this situation has changed and matters are returning to normal. Notwithstanding the changed scenario, my Department responded to the situation relating to the submission of change of use planning applications by issuing a clear circular in September requesting that when considering student accommodation change-of-use applications, planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála satisfy themselves that there are compelling non-Covid-related grounds to grant permission for any such proposed change of use while demand for student accommodation remands high. In effect, change of use from student accommodation to tourist accommodation or other purposes, either temporarily or permanently, should not be granted unless the property owner can adequately demonstrate that there are compelling reasons for doing so. It is considered that this approach, which is aimed at maintaining the maximum availability of accommodation for students in designated student accommodation facilities, addresses many of the issues underpinning this Private Members' Bill at this point in time. However, should there be any further change in circumstances, my Department will reflect on the situation and come forward with further responses, as appropriate, including any further legislative changes that may be required.

The recently published Housing for All action plan recognises the need to create a long-term sustainable housing system for all of Ireland that will benefit all those seeking affordable and secure accommodation, including the growing student population.My Department is working closely with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to deliver on this commitment.

It is also worth noting that the fasttrack strategic housing development, SHD, process in terms of planning arrangements, had resulted in the granting of permission for just under 14,000 student bed spaces in the past three or four years with many of these developments having already been completed. In this regard, the development of on-campus purpose-built student accommodation can help in alleviating pressure in the wider private rental housing market.

Universities have developed significant numbers of student accommodation units in recent years through borrowing from the European Investment Bank. There are now provisions for our technological universities to avail of such borrowing. The Government will support technological universities that pursue this development of purpose-built student accommodation where such need exists through the appropriate funding or financing.

I thank Senator Moynihan and her Labour Party colleagues for bringing forward this Private Members' Bill. I thank them for continuing to shine a spotlight on this very important issue of student accommodation, which we all share and we all will do our very best to resolve in any way we can in the coming weeks and months.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I will direct my comments to the official who wrote that speech rather than the Minister of State because the reply includes a number of quite troubling aspects.

The first aspect is that putting a limitation on somebody's right to develop property probably infringes on his or her right to private property. The reply effectively says that planning does not matter and that planning laws do not matter.

The student accommodation that has been developed is set down in the student accommodation guidelines that were issued in 2016. Included in that are very different standards of accommodation than normal accommodation. There are different standards in terms of transport, lifts, bed space, balcony space and shared space. Also, student accommodation providers got tax breaks in previous years, although not in recent years. I have no problem with saying that if standards have applied for 15 years then there should not be convergence.

The circular is not very clear and is quite watery. I can pick a couple of holes in it and I imagine that certain student accommodation providers will do so. I am very disappointed that the Government has decided not to progress it or at least amend it in such a way that would make it more workable rather than rely on a fairly weak circular.

There are certain people, particularly people in Dublin 1, 7 and 8, who have warned about this situation for a long time. I tabled this Bill last March and way before the controversy over the student accommodation crisis blew up because it was very clear to me at a really early stage that this was the game that developers were playing.

Planning should be about good sustainable planning and not support a business model and viability, which the Minister of State mentioned in his speech and reply. That is a fundamental problem with how we approach planning in Ireland. We always look at it from the developer's perspective. What developers are doing here is trying to promote a very high yield business model because even though Members are all quite well paid most of us would struggle to pay €1,200 a month for a small studio one-bed with shared facilities and one can imagine how students would struggle to pay that.

I ask that the Minister of State looks at putting this matter on a legislative framework rather than relying on the circular. I believe that the circular will be abused in the years to come because I have always thought that applications to build purpose-built student units would be abused and that has come to pass.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 26 October 2021.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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Tomorrow morning at 10.30 a.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 21 October 2021.