Seanad debates

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Planning Issues

10:30 am

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, to the House. Page 112 of the Housing For All document talks about extending planning exemptions to 2025 to complement Town Centre First objectives, "We will review and extend the regulations that exempt certain vacant commercial premises, such as 'over the shop' type spaces, from requiring planning permission for change of use". It puts the timeline of quarter 4 of this year beside the objective.

I have been raising this issue since my election to the Seanad. It was one of the very first issues I raised on the floor of the Seanad. The changes that were introduced by the Minister of State's predecessor with the same portfolio, the Minister of State, Deputy English, in February 2018 to exempt certain classes of commercial premises from the requirement to seek panning permission if the building was to be utilised for residential use was a very welcome move.The aim of the exemption was to add much-needed housing stock while also maximising the use of vacant and underutilised spaces. I have seen evidence of it working in my own city of Waterford where more than 20 housing units have been delivered via this planning exemption. Many more, however, could, and should, have been delivered with the use of this exemption if it had been extended to former pubs. I do not believe it was ever the intention of the Minister of State or his officials to exclude former pubs from the planning exemption but the issue lies in the fact that pubs are not a particular class of building covered by the exemption. Pubs, in fact, do not have a particular class, to my knowledge.

While I understand that some local authorities have been using a liberal approach to the regulations, there is no doubt that an issue will arise down the line if and when the owner tries to sell the building as they were not be in compliance.

Article 6 of the planning and development regulations, 2001 to 2019, exempts certain changes of use, including change of use from use as a public house to use as a shop. Article 10(6) permits a change of use from a shop to a residential use. However, I understand that to avail of this particular exemption, it has to be considered that the premises was in use as a shop for a period of 12 months, which is counter-intuitive and would again add to delays when we are trying to speed up delivery here. Logic suggests that someone should be able to go from a pub directly to residential use without establishing that intermediate retail use.

As the Minister of State will be aware, Waterford has been to the forefront in bringing derelict and vacant properties back into use under the repair and leasing scheme. Some 50% of all repair and leasing units in the country have been delivered in my own county and I compliment the team at Waterford City and County Council and the owners of properties who have engaged with the scheme to bring these properties back into use.

This exemption needs to be extended to pubs because I have examples in the past 12 months alone of people who have been looking to deliver units under the repair and leasing scheme to Waterford City and County Council and have been stuck in a planning process of six, eight or nine months while attracting large development contributions for bringing back a pub into residential use. The owner of the shop, however, on the other corner of the street directly facing that former pub can deliver its four units without the need to go to the planning process. I know that this is something that the Minister of State is looking at and that as a Government we are committed to doing more in this space to bring former derelict and underutilised spaces back into use but I ask him to expedite the extension of this exemption to pubs without delay.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and I acknowledge his work in this area because he has been consistently bringing this matter to the forefront of our Department since his election to the Seanad.

By way of background, the Planning and Development (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2018 which came into operation on 8 February 2018, provide for an exemption from the requirement to obtain planning permission in respect of a change of use of certain vacant commercial premises, including vacant areas above ground floor premises, to residential use. This measure was aimed at facilitating the productive reuse of qualifying vacant commercial buildings as homes, while also facilitating urban renewal and the bringing on stream of increased housing supply.

The 2018 regulations were due to lapse on 31 December 2021 but this deadline was extended to February 2022 arising from a Covid-related extension of planning timelines last year. The Government and I recognised that to resolve the housing crisis, we need to give consideration to every viable and sustainable option at our disposal, including converting existing vacant commercial premises to residential use. Current measures to facilitate this include, as mentioned by the Senator, the repair and leasing scheme, which was introduced to assist property owners in bringing vacant properties back into use for social housing purposes, and the buy and renew scheme, which supports local authorities in purchasing and renewing housing units in need of repair which can then be made available for social housing use.

The recently published Housing for All - a New Housing Plan for Ireland includes a further number of new measures to help revitalise towns. These include a new local authority-led programme to help local authorities buy or compulsorily purchase 2,500 vacant homes in their areas, which can then be sold on the open market, with a view to ensuring those homes do not remain vacant. The croí cónaithe (towns) fund will be delivered by local authorities for the provision of serviced sites for housing to attract people to build their homes and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties, enabling people to live in small towns and villages in a sustainable way.

Housing for All further commits to reviewing and extending the 2018 regulations that exempt certain vacant commercial premises from the requirement to obtain planning permission for change of use to residential purposes to the end of 2025. This review is currently under way in my Department and will be completed by the end of the year. This review is looking at a number of potential amendments, including the provision of an exemption for the conversion or pubs to residential use, which could be made to the current regulations.

A notable feature in recent years, as the Senator mentioned, is the number of pubs that have closed, particularly in rural towns and villages, which is impacting on their vibrancy. While the idea of exempting the conversion of pubs to residential use may initially seem positive, we are taking a few considerations into account in this regard, including the size, location, the zoning of pubs and what exemption thresholds might be applied in this regard. My Department is currently working on a detailed review of this proposal with a view to feeding into the draft regulations, which it is intended to submit to the Oireachtas for approval shortly.

It should be noted, however, that under section 262(4) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, legislative proposals on exempted development require the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas before they can be signed into law.

Once again, I acknowledge the Senator for raising this important issue. We will be in a position to bring forward draft legislative proposals, including the extending of the timeline, and scope, as alluded to in his contribution, of the current 2018 regulations, to the Oireachtas shortly.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and I welcome him to the Chamber, as always. I ask the Senator to respond to him and he has one minute to do so.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. We all know that this is about speed of delivery and removing roadblocks. In my experience of dealing with this scheme, particularly the repair and leasing scheme, this is one such roadblock. Former public houses in Waterford city have been transformed and they have people currently living in them. It is a great success so I ask the Minister of State when those regulations are being revised not to set any sort of onerous threshold on people being able to bring former pubs back into use for residential use. We all know that there are former pubs in every town, village and city , many of which are derelict and are a blot on the landscape of an area. I cannot think of any better use if those buildings could be utilised for housing purposes at this time of housing need. I ask the Minister of State to expedite this matter, as I know he is committed to doing so, and I hope that the regulations will allow for the liberal use of the exemptions. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank both the Leas-Chathaoirleach and Senator Cummins again this Commencement matter. It must be very workable for everyone to achieve a balance in our towns, villages and cities, as the Senator has referred to in Waterford, to ensure that we can bring vacant properties back into use. I have not had sight of the finalised review as of yet but I am in full agreement with the Senator that it should allow for the bringing of commercial premises, such as pubs, into residential use.

I do not believe that anyone in Government wants any onerous, difficult conditions that have to be met to do this because the figures speak for themselves in the challenge we have to address in getting vacant properties back into use. We do not want to put any impediments in people's way to deliver that.

I acknowledge the great work that has been done in Waterford in having such a share of the whole country in the repair and leasing scheme and the way in which the Senator's own local authority, together with him, are working proactively with developers to try to bring vacant properties back into use as sustainable tenancies for all in the community. I acknowledge that great work and thank the House.