Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 November 2023

Vacant and Derelict Buildings: Motion [Private Members]


10:30 am

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I move:

“That Seanad Éireann:

acknowledges that: - 57,206 properties are vacant according to local property tax returns, census estimates are much higher at 166,752, not including 66,135 seasonal holiday homes;

- the compulsory purchase order (CPO) process is cumbersome, expensive and takes too long to have a significant effect on the vacancy and dereliction we see in our towns and villages;

- there are 12,827 people living in emergency accommodation according to the latest figures from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage;

- many communities face a dearth of shared public and community facilities such as community meeting spaces, creative work/exhibition space, and facilities for young people;

- there is a significant deficit in the number of construction workers available to undertake extensive retrofitting and regeneration projects;

- the delay in assessing home adaptation grants means that some housing can be unnecessarily left vacant when waiting; recognises that: - the State ought to play a core role in the renovation and repurposing of vacant and derelict buildings for housing and community use;

- the renovation, retrofitting and repurposing of vacant sites and buildings requires extensive investment, technical knowledge and significant labour that can only be executed by local authorities;

- local government is under-resourced and under-funded with respect to acquiring new vacant properties and renovating, repurposing or retrofitting existing vacant State- owned properties;

- the Government has implemented a vacant homes tax which has failed to go far enough to disincentivise vacancy; calls for: - reform of the compulsory purchase process to make it easier for local authorities to CPO vacant buildings to bring back into use for either housing or community use;

- a mapping exercise to be carried out to gather a comprehensive picture of all State, semi-State and local authority-owned buildings and sites to identify their current use, if any;

- a dedicated, and simple renewal fund for local authorities for the purpose of bringing back into use vacant and derelict buildings in their local authority area be established;

- each local authority to publish a maximum timeframe for assessing the home adaptation grant;

- the implementation of a timed ‘use it or lose it’ rule on undeveloped sites/or buildings with planning permission, thus tying the development of land within the local authority area with the condition of that development, the punitive action being compulsory purchase of the property by the local authority where the owner has failed to undergo the development of the site within a given time period;

- the inclusion of further construction and conservation skills as qualifying skills for the purpose of obtaining the Critical Skills Employment Permit to supplement the deficit in construction workers and specialists in conservation; and

- a guarantee that construction apprentices are afforded at least the national minimum wage to act as an incentive to undertake a career in construction.”

I will share my time with Senator Sherlock if that is agreeable.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming in. As I did during the debate on Housing for All last week, I acknowledge the good work being done by Government in this area, particularly relating to individual grants. However, much more can be done by the State particularly by local authorities relating to the compulsory purchase order, CPO, process. Vacancy and dereliction is a housing issue but it is also an urban renewal issue. In every city, town and village in Ireland there are vacant spaces that blight our community, with the census estimating that there are more than 170,000 vacant sites in Ireland. We see it every day in urban centres including villages where there are undeveloped sites that are not only an eyesore but are a waste of valuable land. Those sites could be transformed for use within those towns and villages. That could be for housing use but also for community spaces, some of which we are very much lacking. It is a symbol of how much we have neglected our urban and town spaces that we have let private developers and landlords hoard spaces and operate off their own accord without the needs of community in mind.

I was a member of a local authority for 11 years. At one stage, on the basis that it would be developed, Dublin City Council sold a vacant site on the corner of Dolphins Barn to a developer who put in an application for housing, which we all supported, and then left it sit there vacant for the next seven years. The local authority got itself into knots trying to get back a building that belonged to it, which it had sold to the developer on the basis that it would develop the site. It took us a long time to get it back and now it is set to be used for the community, potentially as a library, arts and cultural space.

Something has to give with that. Local authorities are floundering in the face of it. They do not have the power or the resources to acquire, renovate and retrofit these sites to renew our communities. The CPO process is cumbersome and expensive and it takes too long to have a significant effect on the vacancy and dereliction we see in our towns and villages. There is a dearth of community and creative spaces for young people while we sit and look at these beautiful buildings falling further into dereliction. While vacant home grants and dereliction grants are very much welcome, they are for individuals. Some of the buildings that require intervention need technical and conservation expertise. They need people who know how to do this.

The vacant homes tax has not gone far enough to address vacancy. In the face of a national housing crisis these measures are paltry. With 60,000 households on the social housing list and 13,000 people homeless across the country, it is untenable that we are allowing this to happen. Local authorities need to take a more proactive approach to bringing these buildings back into use. There is a dearth of community and residential spaces. It is very hard for local authorities to take sites back into ownership. Even when they have them in ownership, local authorities ignore them and let them fall further into dereliction again.

In my village of Chapelizod in Dublin, there is a beautiful old schoolhouse building, which then became a butcher's shop. For the past couple of years, I have been urging Dublin City Council to put a CPO on it. I know that will take years to happen. Even when the local authority gets it, the funding will not necessarily be there and it will not be a priority for the council. I know that because the local authority owns another site directly across from that and it has done nothing with it in recent years.

It is good that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is in this chair because he knows the problems we have had with the Iveagh Markets, for example. It was a local authority-owned site and it is an amazing building that is on the record of protected structures. It was given to a publican who has not developed it and the local authority has ended up in the courts or ended up in negotiations over the past five years with them. With that particular site, I sat there and waited for planning permission to lapse on it before I moved a motion on the area committee to get the local authority to try to take it back into ownership. We then waited again for things like Sundays, Christmas and everything else to be taken into account. Even when that was passed and the city manager committed to trying to take it back into ownership, we have been stuck in mediation with somebody who is refusing to do anything with it and has threatened to take both the State and the local authority through the courts as that building has got worse and worse.

Tonight, we are proposing a wider set of measures to tackle vacancy. It starts by restoring the power to our local authorities and resourcing them for the purpose of undertaking the serious and extensive retrofitting, renewal and renovation of these projects.So many towns and villages need the lights turned back on and they need to take action on vacant buildings but it is complicated and expensive and it requires a specialist knowledge that individuals do not have. Local authorities should not just see this as part of their housing remit but their urban renewal remit.

We want to review and streamline the CPO process and hopefully we can do that as part of the forthcoming planning Bill, which we have not seen in detail. This could be done by introducing a use-it or lose-it rule on undeveloped properties with existing planning permissions in order that local authorities have the mechanisms to pull long-term vacant properties into public ownership, like that site I talked about in Dolphin's Barn. We also need to expand the qualifying skills for the purposes of attaining employment to include essential construction and conservation skills. We are all aware that there is a crisis within that sector. It is difficult to get builders and people with specialist knowledge and we need to incentivise people to do construction work.

We know this is a large and extensive undertaking but it is a necessary one in the face of our decaying urban centres and rural villages. We are asking the Government to allow local authorities to play a greater role in tackling vacancy and dereliction in order that we can turn the lights back on in our towns and villages and can build an Ireland that works for all within our urban and rural centres.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I second the motion. I thank the Minister of State for taking this motion. I thank my colleague, Senator Moynihan, for all the work she has done as housing spokesperson for our party, the Labour Party, particularly in fighting dereliction and vacancy. While we need homes built across this country, we also know that a mass amount of properties are being wasted and could be brought back into use. Across every street and road in our urban villages, inner city and towns - in Dublin and across the country - there are sites that have lain undeveloped for years. Houses are boarded up and left to rot and buildings are run down and we have to ask how this has been allowed to happen.

We know there are 12,000 vacant houses and commercial properties across Dublin, and over 3,000 properties vacant between the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal. These are not homes that are vacant because someone is renovating, the person is in a nursing home, it is for sale or it is for rent. These are empty buildings that have lain untouched and all the while we have a desperate need for homes, community amenities, childcare, artist's spaces and other uses in our communities. We have these figures because An Post's subsidiary GeoDirectory and Tailte Éireann go to lengths to ensure that the data exclude the categories I spoke about there.

Why do we have this situation? Why is the Government tolerating this when we know there are nearly 13,000 people in emergency accommodation? We know that rental availability is at an all-time low, there are all too few houses to buy and we have a tortuously slow social housing building programme. There is a vacant homes tax in place but at the low level it is set, does the Government believe it will be enough to spur property owners to do the right thing? For the vacant sites that lie across this country, thousands of which have planning permission for homes, what is the Government doing to ensure that this construction gets started? At the end of last year there were 42,000 uncommenced planning permissions across Dublin.

The Minister of State will probably say there is lots of building going on across the country, and I have no doubt that there is, but when I cycle around the areas that I am most familiar with, in Dublin 1, Dublin 3, Dublin 7, Dublin 9 and Dublin 11, I see sites that have had planning permission for a considerable period of time and have yet to be built. These include the Denis Mahony site on Glasnevin Hill; the site in Glasnevin where Daneswell Place is; Addison Park next to the Botanical Gardens; and the site of the proposed Lidl supermarket in Ballybough. These sites have had planning permission for a substantial period of time. We do not have proper use-it or lose-it provisions within Irish planning or housing law to ensure, that if developers and owners do not develop within a period, the State can go in and buy up those sites.

We have to ask about the money that is being thrown at dereliction and vacancy. Will that be enough to solve the problem? The schemes the Government is talking about and proposed, which are welcome, need a willing seller. We know that in many instances the reality is much more complicated. In far too many cases the land hoarders, interminable legal disputes, contested wills and forgotten properties have all been tolerated, all because of some mistaken notion that property ownership is sacred in this country. Despite the cost to our communities of dereliction and the fact that vacancy and dereliction are depriving people of homes and community amenities, there is a notion that the owner is king.

I am not a lawyer but from all the lawyers I have listened to, there is no basis in Bunreacht na hÉireann that housing ownership has to take priority over everybody else's needs, particularly when that property is being wasted and not put to use within our communities. What is more, as I understand it there is a report sitting in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, conducted by the Law Reform Commission, about how the State and local authorities can intervene in a more timely and less costly manner to take over derelict properties. Despite the many pages of the planning and development Bill that we will see go through this House over the coming weeks and months, no space has been found to take on board those recommendations.

Every week I cycle past Aldborough House on Portland Row in Dublin 1. It is one of the last Georgian mansions to be built in Dublin and the home of the first theatre on the island of Ireland. It has lain derelict and decaying over the past two decades. It is a massive and hulking presence in the middle of a disadvantaged community and one that is crying out for housing, childcare and artist's facilities and community amenities. Yet, neither the State or Dublin City Council have tried to take over this building. We have an owner that we believe will try to hold out and hold the State to ransom. The owner will certainly try to extract too high a price from the State. Aldborough House represents all that is wrong with our CPO system and we need to radically overhaul it.

We need to see an end to the long and drawn-out notice-to-treat procedures. We want to see CPOs conducted by vesting order procedure and that this procedure be changed in order that the purchase is completed within 12 months and that the price is determined by the valuation tribunal so it is a transparent process. We want to see that, where the owner cannot be found, which often happens, the acquiring body lodges the compensation with the High Court in order that the price is frozen in time and kept there for a period of years. We have to overcome the outrageous situation and deterrent to many local authorities whereby if they CPO a property and the owner comes on the scene at a later date, not only does the local authority have to pay the value of the property at the time but it must also pay the uplift, which is the value of the money the local authority put into the property in order to make it habitable. With these changes to CPO laws, we can begin to realise the dreams of communities that would no longer have to tolerate dereliction and vacancy and the owner would get a fair price.

The other key point we want to raise is that there is a pattern, which Senator Moynihan touched on, of the colossal amount of money we have seen local authorities in this country spend on stabilising properties they do not own and have not been able to reap the value from in recent decades. There is an example that Senator Fitzpatrick and I will be well familiar with on 19 and 21 Connaught Street, in Dublin 7. Two fine houses there have been vacant for as long as many people in the area can remember and in 2009 they were put on the derelict site register. Dublin City Council had to go in and spend money on those houses to try to stabilise them and to protect the other houses in the area. By doing that, the houses were no longer derelict so they had to be taken off the derelict site register and did not qualify for CPO. We have to fast forward a number of years before the houses fell into disrepair again and were put back on the derelict site register. Then Dublin City Council went and compulsorily purchased those properties. We are still waiting for those properties to be developed but we believe they will be.In all of this process, which has gone on for 15 years, money has been wasted by Dublin City Council on those houses and there has been a lack of opportunity to house families and individuals. There is so much wrong with our laws and with the local authorities' attitude to vacancy and dereliction. It is in the power of the Government to make sure there is a real change and that these houses are brought back into use very quickly. It takes time to build houses but houses that are vacant and derelict can be turned around in a much quicker period of time. We need the Government to take it seriously.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome back to the House our former colleague Billy Lawless, a very distinguished Member of the House from 2016 to 2020. He is very welcome home. I hope to speak to him in a few minutes. It is great to see him looking so well and he is very welcome back.

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I commend Senator Moynihan and her colleagues on tabling the motion. I have said many times, and I will say it again, that the fastest and most sustainable way to increase our housing supply is to reuse the built properties that are already connected to the water and electricity, and are in our communities beside shops, schools, churches and every other meeting place that communities need. I hope the Government will be supportive of the spirit of the motion if not its specifics.

I do not believe any Government, certainly in recent history, has done more to address vacancy and dereliction than this Government. I say this as somebody who has spent a long time on Dublin City Council. Senator Sherlock mentioned Nos. 19 to 21 Connaught Street. I dedicated the best part of my time on Dublin City Council to getting it to put them on the derelict list. It then took them off the list and I worked to get it to put them back on it, with regard to dangerous buildings, derelict sites and vacant sites. It was tortuous. It went on over 20 years. These properties are fine Edwardian redbrick homes. It is scandalous. It is a dereliction of Dublin City Council's responsibility and duty, and its privilege to be the housing authority for our capital city, that it has left these buildings unoccupied, not refurbished and not renovated. These are one tiny example.

Up the road we have Baggot Street hospital. It is owned by Dublin City Council. What is it doing with it? What is the excuse?

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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It is waiting for the fire.

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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Exactly, it is waiting for the fire. It is not funny; it is scandalous and completely unacceptable. In this context I supportthe motion.

Where I take more hope is what we have witnessed in the past 12 months. I argued very hard in my party for the Croí Cónaithe grants to be available for derelict properties. They have been a spectacular success. More than 5,000 applications have been made already. They give people an opportunity to take vacant and derelict properties and return them to being real habitable homes. The grants are transforming communities throughout the country. They are taking properties that are already connected to water and sewerage systems and making them homes again.

I commend the Government on the vacant property tax. This is also something on which I pushed very hard. We were told it could not be done. We were told it would not work. The opening lines of the motion are about the various numbers. We have wasted so much time at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage speaking about whether the number of vacant properties is 50,000 or 166,000. It does not matter; whatever the number is it is too many. What the vacant property tax is doing is creating for the first time an actual database that is verifiable. We can quantify properly for the first time the level of vacancy and unoccupancy, and we can be reasonable about the properties that are vacant for only a short period of time. Not only was the vacant property tax introduced but in the budget it was increased to five times the original amount. We should not be looking to penalise people. We should be looking to empower people to put their properties into productive use and give them an opportunity to make a contribution.

All vacant properties are unique with their own history and story. Some of them have mini-sagas. There can be family disputes or inheritance disputes. There can be all manner of issues. There can be mental illness involved. I have come across many different scenarios. We need to encourage, support and guide. The provision by the Government of vacant housing officers in all 31 local authorities means somebody in each local authority is on the ground and knows what is going on in the community. That person is familiar with the properties and can support local authority members and the general public. Grants and funding have been given to local authorities so they can be easily accessed. The application process is simple so the funds can be drawn down and the houses returned to use. All of these measures are welcome, positive and constructive and they are addressing vacancy and dereliction. More than 5,000 properties have already applied for the funding and will be accessing it. The target is to be doubled for the next year.

The motion calls for funding for public buildings, community centres and other public spaces. The urban regeneration fund of €1.5 billion will go towards restoring the fruit and vegetable market in St Mary's Lane. It will go to Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square. It will go to the public domain on Mountjoy Square. Urban regeneration funding is funding for local authorities.

I agree with Senator Moynihan that our local authorities need to be more ambitious. They need to put more energy behind it. They need to stop stepping back, using excuses and shying away from what is an enormous opportunity for each local authority to actively and positively regenerate their areas of responsibility.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan for also being here for the motion. This is an area about which I am very passionate. I have been involved in countless projects in County Waterford with the goal of bringing vacant and derelict properties back into productive use for housing purposes.

As Senator Fitzpatrick said, the joint committee has spent a lot of time discussing this issue and coming up with proposals. Many of these have been implemented in recent years by the Government. The commercial to residential use exemption from planning has been introduced. It was extended to former pubs which had not been the case until last year. It is delivering more homes for individuals and families.

We introduced the repair and lease scheme, which has worked exceptionally well in County Waterford. In fact, 50% of all repair and lease units in the country have been delivered in Waterford. I looked at the most recent statistics. Unfortunately there are still five local authorities in the country that have failed to deliver a single unit under the repair and lease scheme. This year only 20 of the 31 local authorities delivered in the repair and lease scheme up to the second quarter of this year. I hope this improves. When the chief executive officers and local authority director of services were before the Oireachtas joint committee I asked each of them why they were not delivering under the scheme. One of the reasons they cited was that €60,000 was not enough. The Minister of State and his colleague the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien increased it to €80,000. In my book there is no excuse for any local authority not to deliver under the repair and lease scheme.

We also introduced the vacant property tax, which has been increased to five times what it was. It is a case of using the carrot and stick approach.What has worked well in Waterford, which has managed to reduce its vacancy level hugely? It is a good example case. It was the local authority, the estate agents, the local contractors, the owners of properties and members of the public all working in a collaborative fashion in order to identify properties, make them aware of the schemes - such as repair and lease, and buy and renew - and using the stick of the CPO where necessary. The Minister of State’s own county has done huge work in terms of CPOs. I asked officials these questions at the Oireachtas joint committee. It has done them under the Derelict Sites Act as opposed to the Housing Act. It is much quicker, to speak to Senator Sherlock’s point, to get that vesting order and work through the process through the derelict sites legislation. You put the notice on the door - which I see in Waterford all the time - you notify them that the property is on the derelict sites register, you then go with the CPO notice and you get a vesting order very quickly as opposed to through the Housing Act, which can take a considerable amount of time.

I do not believe there is actually as much of an issue with the CPO process as is put out there. To assist that, we have put €150 million of a fund in place for local authorities to reduce and eliminate the risk associated with the CPO process. Heretofore, if a council decided to go with a CPO, the council was at the financial risk if it was contested, ended up in court and all of the rest of it. Now there is a revolving fund of €150 million across all of the local authorities that they can draw on. When they get the property into ownership, they can either do it up under the buy and renew scheme themselves or they can sell it on to the private sector, recoup that money and put it back into the fund to move on to the next one.

A huge amount of work has been done by Government in this space. Can we do more? I honestly believe that the mechanisms are all in place now. It is a case of local authorities doing the work on the ground to tackle those issues. Some are doing an excellent job and others leave much to be desired. That is the bottom line. It is not a case of passing the buck from Government, rather it is just some local authorities have grasped this nettle and run with it and others have, frankly, run away from it, which is unacceptable. In order to tackle this issue across the country, it takes all levers of the State. It takes the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage putting the mechanisms, schemes and funding in place. However, ultimately, on the ground, it is about the local authorities using all of those levers in order to bring properties back into productive use for housing, which is what we all want in this House, right across Government and the political divide.

I commend the Minister of State on the work that has been done. The vacant property refurbishment grant, which was referred to, on top of all of that is the icing on the cake, to be honest. It has given people that had a property but not the financial wherewithal the firepower to be able to do something about it. I am not shy in saying that if somebody is not using all of those carrots and the suite of measures been put in place by the Government, they should be taxed on it or the property should be subjected to a CPO. We have put those measures in place. I hope nobody will suggest that schemes and measures have not been put in place by the Government because, frankly, there have been a huge variety of them. I commend the Minister of State and his colleagues on the work they continue to do.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As a preliminary point, this problem has been here for a long time. I have been writing about it in various newspapers for ten years. I am glad to hear what was said by Senator Cummins about Waterford and I am glad that Senator Fitzpatrick is so upbeat about the improvements she sees there. However, the simple fact is we are not doing enough. We are simply not doing enough. Waterford is a beautiful city and there is a beautiful heart to that city. However, Dublin is a disgrace and Dublin City Council is a disgraceful organisation. It presides over dereliction itself. It owns vast swathes of derelict and rundown property yet it does nothing with it. It is paralysed. Somebody said that Dublin – I think it was Joyce – was the centre of paralysis. Dublin is the centre of paralysis when it comes to urban renewal. I pass by, I think, a 2-acre site by the canal at Clanbrassil Street virtually every day on my way home from work. It is clearly in need of being built on. It is derelict. The simple fact is that a family owns it and one member of the family just wants to sit on it. That is the situation and as things stand, that will happen.

Senator Cummins is right. We need a system of vesting orders. We should effectively abandon the old CPO system because the bureaucrats of Dublin City Council just could not manage it. Connaught Street is a great example. They just simply cannot manage it. They are frightened of it and cowardly when it comes to it because it gets bogged down in the courts and all the rest of it. I know we are talking about the country at large and I know we are talking about how in many towns and so on there are individual derelict sites which local authorities could, if they were inspired to do so, do something about. I know that.. However, I am talking about urban renewal in Dublin and I do not believe the people in those two monstrous structures in Wood Quay have any intention of spearheading urban renewal in the city of Dublin. I do not believe they do. I know where their priorities lie. They issued a statement yesterday saying they do not propose consulting communities about traffic arrangements any more. They will try them out and that will be the consultation. They will try them out for a while and then see what happens. That is a priority. Kayaking was a priority for one particular denizen of those buildings. Cycling is a priority. However, building a beautiful city is not a priority of Dublin City Council. Full stop, it is not.

There is a way around this, which is to set up an agency or a commission that could just go down a street and say that the following housings are derelict, underused or falling into dereliction and serve notices, effectively. It is not that weeds have to be growing out of them but they are needed for urban renewal. This is the point. If there is the vesting system in relation to derelict sites, that is one thing. However, if you have non-derelict land right beside a derelict site and proper planning would involve redeveloping the whole thing and giving a lease to a developer of the entire block, the mere fact that in the middle of it there is a non-derelict house or building – one building that is not derelict propped up with wood on either side – means you have to go to the Housing Act to get your power to purchase it. We cannot simply say to somebody who has a pub going in the middle of a massive area of dereliction that we are taking their house and throwing it in with the derelict land and we will vest it in the local authority.

I do not blame some of the people I have accused of cowardice when it comes to the legal system because the CPO system is massively overcomplicated. However, I take the point that was made that the planning Act that is now coming through simply does not address this issue at all. It is pathetic that it does not. We need agencies in our major cities - I think local authorities should handle it in smaller towns and villages – that actually engage in envisaging what a street or area could look like and positively plan to make that area beautiful. There is no real planning in Dublin city. If I own a site, I can apply for permission, effectively, to build what I want on it and as long as it conforms to planning zoning and is not appallingly ugly, I can put it up. Nobody will ever ask me how this will fit in with the redevelopment of a local community. Nobody ever really decides to look at a whole area of substandard urban land and say we need to knock down 20 houses to make this area beautiful again and we will have to do something like that. In the beautiful parts of Dublin such as the great estates like the Pembroke, Meath and Gardiner estates, they were built by people with the power to grant building leases and who had the plan and could say that Merrion Square will not have two-storey houses on one side and six-storey houses on the other. I am not advocating for the return of the gentry. All I am saying is that everything beautiful in our urban heritage comes from the exercise of entirely different commercial and planning laws compared to what is now the uglification of our cities. I take the positives from what Senators Cummins and Fitzpatrick said but look at Dublin; it is a disgrace. Dublin City Council is a disgrace. Its priorities are all wrong. Its powers are not adequate and it does not have the desire to build a beautiful capital city. As long as that is the case, we will have not merely the visually ugly but the run-down, deprived feeling in the north inner city in particular, which gives rise to the many problems with which we are all dealing. I support the motion and what the Labour Party is talking about. It is a very valuable contribution. Let us do something more about it and not just say everything is fine in Waterford. Everything is awful in Dublin.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome Deputy Costello and his guests to the Public Gallery. I hope they enjoy their visit. Speaking of the gentry, I call Senator Warfield.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I thought Senator McDowell was going to call for squatters' rights as a means to address the crisis in vacancy and the housing crisis but that would not track with his ideology. I thank the Labour Party Senators and I welcome former Senator, Billy Lawless. He was a great advocate for Irish America and the Irish diaspora. He is very missed here.

I thank Senators Sherlock, Hoey, Moynihan and Wall for bringing forward the motion. We all agree, in the midst of a housing crisis, that if there are 50,000, 60,000 or 165,000 houses vacant, that is a disgrace. Homes on every estate across the highways and byways of our country are lying empty as people struggle to get on the housing ladder. I may as well come to the defence of Dublin City Council as it has gotten such abuse. It was reported on 9 November by Olivia Kelly in The Irish Timesthat vacant Dublin City Council houses will remain boarded up due to funding cuts, according to an official. Senior council officials said Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage funding for refurbishing empty properties was "constantly coming down". I thought funding was no obstacle in addressing the housing crisis but according to Dublin City Council and a senior engineer-----

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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That is a fair point but what about the €20 million it was going to spend on the kayaking centre?

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I am not here to defend that initiative. The council's 2024 budget will be presented to councillors. It includes €10 million for houses or flats vacated by tenants but not in a condition to be re-let. That is a drop of €15 million on the 2023 budget and a drop of €25 million on the year before. I would welcome a Government response to The Irish Timesarticle last week.

I also question the figures for the vacant property refurbishment grant. We hear great things about it but in the 18 months since the scheme opened, just 21 refurbishment grants have been drawn down. I would welcome the Minister of State's response to that. Sinn Féin has long called for an effective vacant homes tax. When the Government announced it, we broadly welcomed it but it has failed.

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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Seriously, Senator Warfield, come on.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I have the floor. It has failed to achieve what it set out to do, which was to disincentivise the hoarding of empty homes. If it is to bring about cultural change, the tax must be set higher at a time house prices continue to rocket.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I join my colleague, Senator Sherlock, in thanking Senator Moynihan for her considerable input into what we consider, as all Senators have said, the important Private Members' motion we are discussing. A lot of emphasis has been put on Dublin for obvious reasons. For someone from a more rural area who travels through a lot of rural areas to get to Dublin, I do not have to travel very far through towns, villages and even coming into Dublin to see dereliction and vacancy. That is what this motion is all about. That is why we are asking the Government to tackle it. I will go into more detail. It has been said that almost 13,000 people are availing of homeless services. Concerning the figure for vacant premises, whether it be 50,000, 60,000 or 160,000, as Senator Fitzpatrick rightly said, it is a lot easier to turn them back into family homes than to start building on greenfield or brownfield sites. The motion asks the Government to ensure that whatever figure it is, be it 50,000, 60,000 or 160,000, every effort is made to ensure those properties become family homes.

Emphasis has also been put on community facilities. To be fair, the European funds, etc., were mentioned but many of the people with whom I deal have never heard of them or of what is available for conversion. The Senator can look at it whatever way she wants but we go through many towns and villages in my county and others. They are crying out for youth and community facilities, exhibition spaces, etc. Derelict buildings in the middle of these towns and villages would be ideal for that if people would work and ensure we could return them to such. One of the biggest problems with derelict buildings is ownership. The vacancy tax is proposed to identify ownership but the name over the door could be there for 40, 50, 60 or 70 years and it is very hard to identify the owner. It is a problem I have seen and dealt with over many years in trying to pinpoint ownership. I know the tax was brought in for that purpose but I hope it will address the issue once and for all.

The CPO process was mentioned and a change or streamlining of the process has been requested. There are issues in that regard, which everyone must accept. When a sign goes up on a derelict house, it is misleading for some, unfortunately, and there are issues when an owner comes out of the woodwork at the last minute. That has happened to some of the local authority officials to whom I have spoken. It needs to be addressed in streamlining the CPO process. A big issue I want to address is what happens in local authorities. Much mention has been made of them. An emphasis is needed on local authorities ramping up what they do. I compliment Waterford City and County Council. Several people who visited recently complimented Waterford but in other places I am familiar with, including Dublin city, there is dereliction. There is the forgotten town and village, which the Minister of State will have heard of, where people look at the dereliction and nobody does anything about it. They are asking for, as we do in our motion, a ramping-up whereby each local authority would use the various methods mentioned by Government parties and additional methods to ensure these vacant properties become family homes and community facilities.That is what needs to happen. Senator Cummins mentioned that some local authorities are not addressing the various issues he raised, while others, including mine, are very good at doing so. However, that does not excuse the Government from being responsible for local authorities overall. We should be emphasising that we need to bring all ships up. We need to ensure all local authorities are given the necessary funding and the vacancy officers, which they already have, but they must also be given town regeneration officers. Some have town regeneration officers but others do not. This is what needs to happen.

When I talk to local authorities, I note there is an issue with clerks of works. When a local property is identified, somebody is sent out to look at it and prepare tender documents. Some local authorities have access to this facility and some do not. In the overall package we are asking the Government to provide, it should be ensured that each local authority has a clerk of works to prepare documents on vacancy and that the costs are met.

An issue arises over what happens when a tender document is prepared, because we are still using the same framework used for housing maintenance. That brings in another issue, namely, that of apprenticeships, which we have mentioned before.

In my time left, I want to raise an issue that is part of the document and that I have raised with the Minister of State continually over the past two years, namely, that of the housing adaptation grants. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, dealt with a Commencement matter on this two years ago and I was told a report would be prepared on housing adaptation and housing grants for older people. We still have not seen that. There is a huge problem in each local authority area. The grants would address some of the dereliction we have seen. The grant is very good and does what it says on the label but unfortunately local authorities are struggling. More important, tenants applying for and using the grants are struggling because building and heating costs have gone through the roof. Many local authorities have recently reduced the amount of money available and the grant itself. They are waiting for the report, which has been on a desk somewhere for two years. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, to comment on that. Other Senators and Deputies have asked about this recently. The grant can make a difference.

The bottom line, which was mentioned at the start of this debate and agreed by everybody, is that we want to see the lights turned back on in every town and village, not just Waterford but also Dublin, our capital city, and all the towns in between that can be seen when travelling on the M9 and M7, to ensure they are not forgotten and are fit for purpose, with family homes and also community spaces.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Labour Party for tabling this important and timely motion. It is using its Private Members' time. We have had much discussion about this matter. There are four members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage here. The committee completed a very substantial work on urban regeneration in May 2022. To be fair to all the Members here, they played a very active part in that. There was unanimity among us. We all live in villages, towns or cities. Senator Cummins is fiercely committed and has majored on this in terms of Waterford, and rightly so. Waterford, as Senator McDowell said, is a beautiful city, not least because of its medieval quarter, yet it has vast potential for people to live in it. In Athy, a town I know very well, there are parts in absolute dereliction. This is not altogether an issue for the local authority; it also has to do with some of the owners, absentee landlords and various others. Dún Laoghaire, which was one of the finest commercial towns in the country, has much dereliction and is experiencing the same problems. Therefore, there are multifaceted and complex issues. These entail determining who owns buildings, whether those owners can be contacted and whether they are prepared to engage meaningfully.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell. I acknowledge that he, too, is fiercely committed. He has his own challenges in Limerick city and some of the towns and villages on its perimeter. He is tasked with and challenged with addressing the issues of planning and local government, and he is very experienced in this area and knows a lot about it. As a starting point, I ask him to examine the report and its 26 recommendations. There is consensus among those of all parties and none on these recommendations. One of them is that the Revenue Commissioners be assigned responsibility for the collection of a derelict sites levy, to be ring-fenced to meet local authorities' legal costs and establish a one-stop shop for refurbishment. It is recommended that local authorities be adequately resourced to enable them to effectively administer and collect a vacant site levy. Clearly, however, this has not happened to the extent we would like. Therefore, there are challenges, including in respect of vacant site officers. City and county councillors have a major role to play as they know the territory very well and feed a lot of the information to the local authorities, as do Deputies and Senators.

We all want to see the necklace of villages, towns and cities linked up. They all have unique architectural qualities and some have the constraint of being in architectural conservation areas. Many have protected structures. I welcome the support of the Minister of State's Department in the form of funding for protected structures. It is not enough but clearly we have many other priorities. There is a desperate need for cash in the health service, we have issues with childcare, there are pupils who cannot get schools, and there are children in school buildings that have water pouring in. I acknowledge there are many demands on the Exchequer but, if we are to address housing, we must reinvigorate and rejuvenate our villages and towns. We have got to get people living in them. We need living cities, towns and villages.

This brings me to my constant request for the rural housing guidelines. While there is a place for one-off rural housing, which the Minister of State understands, he seems somewhat constrained in publishing his draft guidelines. I call on him again to do so. If we make our rural towns and villages attractive, we will encourage people to live in them, such that they will be near their farmland or rural enterprise. There is a balance to be stuck. While we have got to do up our towns and villages, get people living in them and prioritise addressing dereliction through very attractive tax breaks, we must also realise that towns will not survive without commerce, business, enterprise, employment, funding and all the things that go towards making up a vibrant rural economy. I want to support rural communities. There is a balance to be struck in that people may, by necessity, have to live on one-off sites. That must be addressed, clearly with the caveat that there are environmental issues concerning sewage, water and all the other things. Many would choose to live in rural towns like Kilcullen, Athy, Monasterevin and Portarlington, which are very attractive places to live, but they need the support.

I commend the Labour Party on this motion, which I believe is timely, but let us not pass a motion here today, walk out and do nothing. We need to see a timeline and a definite commitment. I look forward to hearing about this. I ask the Minister of State to mention, in wrapping up, the joint committee's report and recommendations and determine whether we can at least track the delivery on some of the key asks, which are important and have broad political support in both Houses.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, to the House. I invite him to make his contribution.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chair. Former Senator Billy Lawless has left the Chamber. Billy was a valued colleague. As a Member of the last Seanad, I am aware of the contribution he made.

I have tried to listen to the debate from the start. There were quite a few contributors. Senator Moynihan introduced the motion and Senators Sherlock, Fitzpatrick, Cummins, McDowell, Warfield, Wall and Boyhan also contributed.

To digress slightly and address Senator Warfield, I see the Wolfe Tones are retiring. They formally announced they were stepping down.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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That is the old Wolfe Tones.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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We wish them well.

I will touch on a couple of matters. We are not opposing the motion. We believe that in respect of much that is in the motion, work is already under way. As Senator Cummins has said, we welcome the debate on the subject, particularly since the publication of Housing for All and the vacant home action plan last year. On a practical level, I am calling to local authorities almost one by one - last week, I was with Dublin City Council - specifically on the area of dereliction and vacancy. I have asked all local authorities to set up dedicated units specifically to deal with dereliction and vacancy. Some local authorities are very proactive and others are slow, but they are all going into that position. We have told local authorities that if they require additional resources to tackle vacancy and dereliction, they should make an application to the Department. We want applications and will consider any application. We have given funding to local authorities that have applied.

I find a contrast when I travel around. Some local authorities have adequate staff in this area and others do not. Some have dedicated teams. Every local authority has a vacant homes officer. Depending on the size of the authority, it may also have a town regeneration officer. Those authorities that are effective have teams and technicians involved. They go through the derelict sites legislation, which is far easier to work from. I accept that the CPO legislation is cumbersome but it is workable. Local authorities are using it. Limerick City and County Council is using CPOs. It has a revolving fund. It is already ahead of the €150 million in urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, funding we have provided. That €150 million is spread among all local authorities to eventually bring back 4,000 units. We want those local authorities to roll it over two and a half or three times. They buy units and sell them on, we hope to first-time buyers or for other uses. We want, in particular, first-time buyers because we want people to come and live in these units. The funding is there.

Senator Warfield referenced the Croí Cónaithe scheme, for which we had an initial target of approval to bring back 2,000 homes by the end of 2025. We have upped that target to 4,000 homes. There are 5,100 applications for this relatively new scheme. Some 2,500 of those applications have been approved. The number paid out to date is only 41. It is a slow process but, by definition, the work takes a period of time. Why is the Croí Cónaithe scheme working? It is a simple, straightforward scheme. For a house that has been vacant for more than two years and was built pre-2008, an applicant will automatically get €50,000, which can be applied for through the local authority. If the house is deemed to be derelict, the applicant will get a further €20,000 on top, to bring the amount to €70,000. Furthermore, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants will be available. We upped that grant from €30,000 to €50,000 for vacancy and from €50,000 to €70,000 for dereliction. We have extended the scheme so that people can rent those houses if they do them up. I strongly believe that schemes must be kept simple. When we were looking at enhancing the Croí Cónaithe scheme, our discussions involved further complexity and I would not allow at. Schemes must be straightforward. We want people to look at the Croí Cónaithe scheme and think they can buy a house that is vacant and do it up with a grant of either €50,000 or €70,000, and perhaps a bit more on top.

For the CPO scheme as it currently stands, every local authority now has a vacant homes officer. Some have applied for additional resources. If local authorities want to ramp up and are serious about it, I ask them to apply to the Department.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has announced that the local authority home loan scheme has been extended to houses that qualify under the Croí Cónaithe scheme. I apologise. It has been extended to cover units that are unhabitable. Up to now, houses had to habitable. They could be second-hand. Equally, they could qualify for the Croí Cónaithe scheme. CPOs are happening. We are always looking to strengthen. When I came into the role and travelled around, everyone was saying the CPO legislation was unworkable. That is not the case. Look at the local authorities that are making it work. It can work; local authorities just need to understand the legislation. Senator Cummins made reference to the fact that Waterford City and County Council is doing a good job. It is a leader in respect of the repair and lease scheme. Local authorities should all be asked to do a workshop with Waterford City and County Council because it understands the use of CPOs. There is expertise there. In many cases, local authorities should interact with Limerick City and County Council on dereliction. It has set up this revolving scheme.

Reference has been made to the Land Development Agency, LDA. We want to maximise delivery of social and affordable housing on State-owned land through the LDA. We want the agency to get into various spaces. The register of relevant public lands is available on the agency's website. It shows the extent of all relevant public lands.

On social homes, we have given funding to bring back voids. We want over 2,300 units brought back this year. Over €30 million has been granted in funding. We want to see those houses coming back quickly. If there are issues in local authorities whereby those properties are not coming back, I ask them to let us know. At the end of the day, it is about following up.

Reference was made by Senator McDowell to activating lands. The residential land zone tax was introduced. We have deferred it for a year because there are matters we need to resolve in that area. We are bringing in the land value sharing tax. The vacant site tax is in place. There is also a vacant home tax.

On scaling up in the construction sector, it is perhaps overlooked that more than 22,000 units have been completed this year. We are going to exceed our targets this year. We exceeded our targets last year and will do so again next year. There is momentum in all areas at the moment. More than 5,100 units are coming through under the Croí Cónaithe scheme alone. That scheme has been up and running for a relatively short period. The extension of the scheme has been in place for an even shorter period. The scheme allows people up to 30 months to complete. One cannot expect that grants will be paid out overnight, but 2,500 applications have been approved.

On the construction sector, we are encouraging innovation and modern methods of construction. There had been an 8% increase in construction sector employment by the end of quarter 2. More than 170,000 are employed in the sector, which is significant. We provided €67 million in investments in apprenticeship schemes in the most recent budget to allow craft apprenticeships to continue to grow from 13,000 last year to 16,000 next year. The construction sector's capacity to build at scale is increasing. Under the action plan for apprenticeships, we have a target of 10,000 apprentices per annum by 2025. We have increased the vacant home tax from three times to five times the local property tax charge.

Reference was made to vacancy data. Depending on where they are reported, the figures are different. However, the momentum is towards reduction. That is a common thread. I want to brief Senators on the data available on vacancy rates nationwide. Data on vacancy are available from a number of sources, including the Central Statistics Office, CSO, GeoDirectory and local property tax returns. Different definitions, parameters and methodology are used in each case. The preliminary findings for the 2022 census provided a figure of 166,000 vacant homes, representing 7.8% of the housing stock.GeoDirectory classified 81,712 dwellings as vacant in quarter 2, with a national vacancy rate of 3.9%. It is the lowest residential vacancy rate ever recorded by the GeoDirectory residential building report. Revenue analysis of local property tax estimated that 57,206 properties, or 3.2%, were indicated to be vacant by their owners. While there are different levels of vacancy according to the different data sources, the overall trend is downwards; vacancy levels are reducing. The reasons for vacancy are complex. I remain confident that the suite of measures in vacancy and dereliction are working.

Senator Wall spoke about bringing older vacant units back into use and I am in favour of giving that as much priority as building new properties. In many cases it is just as good value. In many cases people who are looking to buy a home can buy a second-hand home more cheaply, not always but it is an option and we want to give people options. Second, it regenerates areas, whether they be urban or rural. There is no geographic limitation. The Croí Cónaithe scheme was originally only for towns, but it has been extended to villages, cities and rural areas.

Senator Sherlock mentioned the vacant homes tax.

Senator Moynihan spoke about the €150 million URDF. Its objective is that the local authorities buy vacant properties, turn them around and sell them for people to live in.

Senator Cummins said some of the schemes are slightly cumbersome, but they are working. The grants have gone up. Other local authorities need to plug into the level of expertise on the repair and lease scheme that Waterford City and County Council has.

Senator McDowell referred to Dublin City Council. I have asked the council to increase the number of people it has to deal with dereliction and vacancy and to put in applications in that area.

Senator Warfield spoke about the Croí Cónaithe scheme, which I just dealt with.

Senator Wall spoke about housing adaptation grants. We have given additional funding this year to any local authority that has looked for it. There are two aspects to this, the provision of funding and the level of the grants. We have given additional funding to many local authorities that requested it this year. If Senators know of local authorities that want additional funding, they should tell them to apply to the Department. We are looking at a review that was done before I was appointed. We are in negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform to try to get increases in the limits. I hope to bring that to conclusion reasonably quickly.

Senator Boyhan has referred in the past to the report of the joint committee. We value the work of the committee and take it on board.

The Department will consider the full contents of the Labour Party motion. We welcome it. We always try to add value, so we will consider it seriously. We have already implemented measures in many of the areas. Compulsory purchase orders are a good example of a system that is working. If a local authority says it cannot make it work, I do not buy it. I urge any such local authority to talk to the local authorities that are making it work. Ultimately, this is about practicalities. If a system works, we have to drive on. It is incumbent on everyone, including Ministers, Ministers of State, Members of the Oireachtas and stakeholders such as the local authorities, to work with the systems that are in place. Can they be enhanced? Absolutely, they can, over time, but we also have to deal with the issues now.

As I said, the Government does not oppose the motion.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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It is good to see general agreement around the issue of dereliction of vacancy. The motion does not detract from the good schemes that are in place, but focuses on ways in which the system can be improved. When we go around our towns and cities, we can see the urban renewal that is needed. While the Minister of State says the CPO process is working, the Law Reform Commission says it is not. It has proposed ways to streamline the CPO process and make it easier. Those recommendations should be taken on board and adopted in the planning and development Bill through Government amendments. It is worth looking at the simple changes in procedures the Law Reform Commission says are needed.

Equally, the derelict sites legislation is not working and the Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Matthews, has stated clearly that it is not working. He proposed good Private Members' legislation from the Government's side of the House which includes ways to make the derelict sites legislation work more effectively. These things always need to be updated.

The simple fact of the matter is that while some local authorities - I was going to say how good Waterford City and County Council is on the repair and lease scheme - are using schemes well, that is not the case for all local authorities. Local authorities need to put effort into this. The EU URDF is available and has been good in some respects but local authorities and State agencies are sitting on land. We all know it is there. A mapping exercise is key to this as the question of who owns a site comes up all the time. Sometimes a site is in private ownership, but a few times I have been surprised that land, including land with houses on it, that I thought was in private ownership turned out to be owned by the State. Some State agencies do not even know how much land they own. Deputy Bacik received a reply to parliamentary question which included a list of sites and cottages owned by one State agency, CIE, but there are sites I know it owns that could become habitable homes that were not included on that list. That is not the fault of the person who compiled the list. The agency simply does not know the extent of its lands. It took me approximately two years to find out that the Prison Service, of all organisations, owns a large vacant site at the corner beside Kilmainham Gaol. The service did not even realise it owned the land. That is a problem. We need to do a mapping exercise of State-owned land. When the refugee crisis hit with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in 2022, one of the things that should have been done is a mapping exercise. The councils, including Dublin City Council, do not know the extent of the land they own either. That is important.

We welcome that the Government does not oppose the motion and ask it to look at some of the key areas it mentions, such as carrying out a mapping exercise, and at the Law Reform Commission's proposal and Deputy Matthews's proposed legislation on derelict sites. Dereliction and vacancy are an urban renewal issue. There is simply no reason, with the money, expertise and technical knowledge we have, that all local authorities cannot be exemplars in this. We are reliant on individuals, some of whom are excellent and some of whom are not.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Before I put the question to the House, I welcome guests of Senator Conway, Pat and Anna Beary, to the Public Gallery. They are cousins of the Senator.

Question put and agreed to.