Wednesday, 15 November 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State for coming to deal with this Commencement matter, as it comes under his Department. I have been concerned for a long time that Housing for All is not as dedicated to rural housing as it should be. While I appreciate that incremental changes are happening they are not fast enough and in my view are not dealing with some of the blockages that are there. When it comes to developers who want to build quality housing schemes, I have examples all over my constituency where developers are prepared to invest to build houses but they are constantly being knocked back on the basis that the wastewater and sewerage systems are not up to standard. I do not know how we are going to deal with this because it will cost billions to upgrade wastewater schemes but it has to happen. There are many facets to addressing the housing crisis. Rural Ireland has a huge role to play when it comes to helping to address the housing crisis.
If we can build houses in towns and villages in rural Ireland, it will be a far better balance in terms of work-life balance, geographical balance and the urban-rural balance and so on. There are rules and regulations, sometimes for good reasons, but there is a lack of common sense in their implementation. In County Clare - and I am sure it is the case in many other constituencies - there is a situation whereby nobody is entitled to build houses on a national secondary road, no matter what, even though there are some scenarios where it just does not make sense to adopt that policy. We are going to have to look at a situation where we give planners a bit more flexibility in that regard. We also have to look at areas where there is particular pressure to ramp up the provision of wastewater and other supports and services. We should be in a position to grant more planning permissions to people in these areas. Of course, there are systems under pressure, but we are under pressure with a housing crisis as well.
Within Housing for All there needs to be a much greater focus on rural Ireland, and a much greater focus on bringing derelict properties back into back into use. The Croí Cónaithe scheme has been hugely successful and I welcome the announcement yesterday by the Department that it is going to allow or facilitate council loans for vacant properties. That is welcome and is a common sense approach. However, much more needs to be done when it comes to escalating the number of homes that are built in towns and villages. Also, we all have to face up to the fact that there are not going to be as many shops in towns and villages as there used to be, so we have to make it financially viable and attractive for people who may have had a shop to convert it into residential accommodation. We also have to look at the whole issue concerning fire officers and people living over the shop. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country lived over the shop for decades. Now we are in a situation where the upstairs area in probably 80% of the retail units in towns and villages in rural Ireland is vacant. They could easily be brought into use. What we need is common sense but what we really need is a much greater focus in the whole area of rural housing as part of Housing for All.
I thank the Senator. As the Senator may be aware, updated rural housing guidance are currently being prepared by my Department. He speaks very well about the challenges but there are fantastic opportunities out there now. The updated guidelines once issued will expand on the high-level spatial planning policy of the national planning framework, NPF, and in particular on the national policy objective 19 which relates to rural housing. This objective makes a clear policy distinction between rural areas under urban influence on one hand, which we want to discourage, such as all areas under community catchment of cities, towns, centres of employment and structurally weaker rural areas where population levels may be low or in some cases declining. This policy objective is also aligned with the established approach whereby considerations of social or economic need are to be applied by planning authorities in rural areas under urban influence. The new guidelines will replace the current rural housing guidelines which date from 2005, and enable county development plans to continue to provide for housing in the countryside based on the considerations detailed in the NPF while balancing this with the need to manage development in certain areas, such as areas around cities and larger towns and environmentally sensitive areas, in order to avoid overdevelopment or ribbon development which is leading to negative commuter patterns and undue pressure on services for local authorities. Due care is being taken to ensure the updated guidelines will not conflict with fundamental EU freedoms, comply with EU environmental legislative requirements and have due regard to decisions of the European Court of Justice. Having regard to these complex considerations the guidelines are subject to legal review and ministerial approval, following which it is intended that they will be published for a period of public consultation.
Both current and future planning guidelines will continue to allow existing county development plans to provide for rural housing. In the meantime however, the NPF objectives together with the 2005 guidelines, enable planning authorities to prepare and adopt local development plan policies for one-off housing in rural areas. The draft sustainable and compact settlement guidelines published in August 2023 include policy in relation to the planning and development of settlements. The draft guidelines state that rural towns and villages should be grown at a rate that is appropriate to the service and employment function of the settlement and based on the capacity of the infrastructure. The Senator mentioned wastewater infrastructure and I will get to that shortly. The guidelines also note that the planning authorities should promote and support housing that offers an alternative to persons who might otherwise look to construct a house in the surrounding countryside.
Historically there has been a strong tradition of rural housing construction in Ireland, with approximately one-quarter of all delivery nationally for the past 30 years falling within this category. That is significant. Rural housing continues to be an important component of new housing delivery with an average of 4,000 to 5,000 new rural dwellings being built annually. CSO data on new dwelling completions for 2022 show that of the 29,851 new dwellings completed, 4,743 or 16% were single, one-off dwellings in rural areas. In April this year the Government approved additional measures under the Housing for All action plan to incentivise the activation of increased housing supply and to help to reduce housing construction costs. These included the introduction of temporary time-limited arrangements for the waiving of local authority section 48 development contributions and the refunding of Uisce Éireann water and wastewater connection charges. These new measures are intended to help boost the delivery of housing supply, including in rural areas by addressing cost and viability issues, with a view to ensuring that the housing delivery targets set in Housing for All can be met. In addition, the Department of Housing Local Government and Heritage’s multi-annual rural water programme is delivering improvements to water services, including wastewater, in areas of rural Ireland where Uisce Éireann water services were not available. The programme provides capital funding aimed at improving the quality, reliability and efficiency of rural water services infrastructure. I can confirm that the framework for the new multi-annual rural water programme 2024 to 2026 will be published in the coming weeks. I will come back in a moment in regard to Croí Cónaithe.
I thank the Minister of State for a comprehensive review. I am glad to hear that the guidelines are being examined again. The Minister of State understands the issues. It often annoys me to see buildings that used to be shops, shoe shops, clothes shops, etc. just closed up. Truly they could be turned into homes.The amount of vacant commercial property in small towns and villages around the country is terrible when people could be living in these properties. The problem is that turning it back into use is unviable and unattractive because the guidelines and fire safety requirements are over the top. We need to get people into homes. It is a waste of commercial property such as shops and closed pubs. Thousands of people could live in these units if we went it about it properly and eased up on the red tape.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Senator. I was instrumental in bringing the town centre first policy into the programme for Government. Critically, as I look across the country and travel, I see many fantastic premises such as 19th and early 20th century buildings that could be brought back into productive use. This is why the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage introduced an easing of planning restrictions regarding above-shop premises and the renovation of pubs for living. A lot is happening. You can see really good examples in towns across the country but it is not happening at the scale that is required to provide the capacity to those towns and villages to grow. The water and wastewater infrastructure is a critically important part of it. This is where is investment in the small town and villages growth programme through Uisce Éireann. The Government is frontloading significant funding to Uisce Éireann.
Separately, we need to use innovation. With the Heritage Council, I will bring in more architectural officers in every local authority. This is hugely important because these buildings need to be brought back into use using heritage and regeneration. We need to respect the heritage of the towns they are in. There is significant potential in existing stock in our towns and villages and we want to see that realised.