Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 March 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Regeneration Projects

1:00 pm

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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It would have been great to have the Minister for housing in, but I am sure he is very busy. This relates to upstairs living. I ask the Minister what has been done to achieve the programme for Government commitment to ensure underused building stock in small and large urban centres is brought into use. Specifically, what progress has been made under the Town Centre First policy commitments to bring about the living above the shop measures?

When we were forming this Government I was involved in the programme for Government negotiations around rural development. One of the specific wins we, in the Green Party, got was the Government commitment to getting people back living in our towns and villages and specifically keeping the shops alive downstairs while having people living upstairs. Some three and a half years in, we have not done that. We said we would need to look at the fire safety regulations because they are the prohibitive factor cost-wise and they are designed around new builds rather than older, heritage buildings, as the Minister of State knows. I ask the Minister what we have done. We do not have specific data on upstairs living potential. All the upstairs space between the canals in Dublin could accommodate 4,000 apartments. The CSO does not ask the question, which is a pity as we do not have the clear data. All a person needs to do is to go through any town, village or city and look upstairs to see blocked-out windows and nobody living there.

This is something we got in the programme for Government. The Green Party fought for this. I remember being in the room and fighting for the wording, so it would be very specific, namely, Live Above the Shop measures. Despite this, we do not see anything happening around making the regulations any better. Not only that but the joint Oireachtas committee on housing worked on that and its Chair, our colleague, Deputy Matthews, brought forward recommendations in May 2022. That report stated that "the value of 'living over the shop' is ... also about the effect it has on town centres".It also brings people back. It is not just about creating homes, which is the number one challenge we have in Ireland, but it also brings vibrancy and life back into the towns.

We are not dealing with it properly. We are not looking at it from a perspective of how derelict housing officers are just looking at whole housing being derelict. They are not looking at dereliction upstairs.

I know anecdotally from friends of mine who have tried to do up old buildings that it costs them an arm and a leg to get all the regulations done and if they want to have two uses, they have to do it all twice. I see people who thought they might be able to live upstairs and have a shop downstairs have given up and are now converting the downstairs into a home. It is deeply concerning because in a housing crisis where there already is built structure, the carbon footprint, costs and all that is much lower if an existing building can be done up that has services, is in a town and people do not have to drive there. We all think the one-off housing thing is putting pressure on the landscape but if we are not giving people an alternative, what choice do they have but to build one-off houses all around Ireland? I cannot blame them for wanting to do that if we do not give them other choices.

There were many good recommendations. They suggested a single national platform to be created to integrate, compile and effectively organise existing and future data on vacancy and dereliction and basically a one-stop shop to get certificates. The amount of money charged for certification is insane and it has to stop.

We did great on the Croí Cónaithe fund and that is brilliant. It was a big green win for us. Some 240 people in Clare have got it, which is fantastic. However, if they take an old building in a town or village, they can only live in it; they cannot have a shop. We want retail in our small towns and villages. We are not all driving to cities all the time. It is a no-brainer.

Last, in respect of our derelict housing officers, the numbers do not reflect the amount that actually are there. I urge people to contact their local derelict housing officer to tell them about derelict houses they find. There is a form, which is embedded deeply and very hard to find, on council websites. It is called a complaints form, which it should not be. One can fill it out and let the derelict housing officer know where these empty buildings are, of which there are thousands everywhere. There are 43 in my parish alone.

What is happening? We got it in the programme for Government. Three and a half years later, what have we done to get people living upstairs again?

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Before I call on the Minister of State, I welcome Ned and Mary O'Hara. Ned is a former general secretary of the Irish Postmasters Union and did great work over the years. He is very welcome to Leinster House. I hope he and Mary enjoy their day. They are guests of Senator Carrigy.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I thank Senator Garvey for raising this issue. I certainly recall those programme for Government discussions. I brought the town centre first policy. I tried to replicate it from the Scottish experience. It was a critical component of the programme for Government, as is tackling vacancy. The programme for Government commits to examining ways to ensure that unused or underused building stock in urban centres can be made available for much-needed housing. As Minister of State with responsibility for heritage, I see this as I travel the country. I see 19th-century building stock, probably 100,000-plus buildings, that are pre-1922 that have amazing potential right across our towns and could meet an awful lot of our housing needs.

Initiatives we have taken to bring such properties back into use include extending exemptions for certain vacant commercial premises, including over the shop spaces, and making it easier to convert these properties to residential use. The scope of the exemptions has been extended to include public houses.

The town centre first policy was launched in February 2022 to tackle vacancy and dereliction and breathe new life into our towns. Town regeneration officers have been appointed and 26 town centre first plans, produced by town teams, were launched at the national town centre first day on 28 February 2024. Additional funding has been announced for a new round of TCF plans and a range of national and local support structures have been established.

Regarding the area of commercial vacancy, while measures under the town centre first policy will go towards enabling towns to tackle commercial vacancy, my Department has also convened a working group to assess and make recommendations related to the potential for the development of vacant commercial properties for housing. It is anticipated the working group will submit recommendations to the Minister in quarter 2 of 2024.

Building on the programme for Government, Housing for All sets out a suite of measures to address vacancy and make efficient use of our existing building stock in urban and rural areas. The vacant property refurbishment grant was launched by my Department in July 2022. It provides support of up to €50,000 for the refurbishment of vacant properties, including over the shop residential units.A further €20,000 is available where the property is derelict. Uptake and feedback on the grant have been very positive, with more than 6,700 applications received and more than 3,800 applications approved. Grants are now being paid out as work is being completed. I see this as I travel around the country.

It is amazing to see some of the beautiful premises being brought back into use. To support the bringing of underused properties back into use, my Department announced funding of €150 million for local authorities under the urban regeneration development fund, URDF. This is specifically to acquire long-term vacant or derelict buildings, residential and commercial, in URDF eligible cities and towns for use or sale. This funding will also support the compulsory purchase order, CPO, activation programme which my Department launched in April 2023. An activation programme requires a proactive and systematic approach by local authorities, including the use of powers to acquire compulsorily unused and underused properties and bring them back into use. An overall target of 4,000 has been set for properties to enter the programme in 2023.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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While it is not the fault of the Minister of State, the lines from the Department do not answer the question. They are telling me things I already know. It is an insult to somebody who is passionate about this and fought for it in the programme for Government to have a civil servant tell me stuff I already know. I know about the Croí Cónaithe scheme and the CPO grant, which resulted in two houses being bought in County Clare. The reply is not good enough in a housing crisis.

I specifically asked what was being done to help people. The regulations should be simplified so that people can live above a shop. There is talk of wanting to bring commercial vacancies down. The best way to do that is to make it easier to live above a shop. The answer I have been given is a waste of time. The Department did not answer my question, which could not be more specific. Specifically, what are we doing about being able to live above a shop so that it is commercially viable to have a place downstairs and to live upstairs? Whether the building is owned or rented, if there is dual purpose accommodation we can help sort thousands of buildings all over this country and bring life back into towns. The answer provided is an insult. I already know all the information it tells me.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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The one-stop shop idea is a good one. Separately this year, through the Heritage Council, we are funding the roll-out of architectural conservation officers in counties that do not have them. That is hugely important because these staff play a vital role in animating many of these properties back into use.

The living city initiative, which focused on issues with accessibility, was a significant learning experience. Many premises with a shop at ground-floor level do not have a separate door into the upstairs or residential part of the building. Looking at those opportunities on a town-by-town basis and given the resources being put into local authorities, particularly vacancy officers, there is an opportunity to try to work with premises owners or people who are considering buying a premises, so they can bring them into full occupancy. As the Senator said, retail is changing dramatically, to the point where retail centres are moving out to the periphery. We should look at that full approach.

A fantastic piece of work was done by Alison Harvey who led the collaborative town centre health checks. It got all the data people were looking for in the participating towns, including Sligo, Dundalk, Tipperary town and other places. It provided data on vacancy rates both in retail and above-shop premises. We need that data. I agree with Senator Garvey and I will take back to the Department her call for a much more integrated approach to support people buying properties and encourage local authorities to be leaders in this by buying premises in town centres that they can reuse for social housing.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for taking Commencement Matters this afternoon. We know he is busy and, as always, we appreciate his time. He is a frequent visitor to the House.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 1.49 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 2 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 1.49 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.