I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, to the House and welcome the opportunity to speak on the Urban Regeneration and Housing Bill. This legislation will make three important changes that should improve our urban environment, increase the supply of much need housing and enhance the quality of life for citizens. These changes are the introduction of a vacant site levy, reduced development contributions and changes to Part V provisions for social and affordable housing.
At the height of the Fianna Fáil housing bubble in 2006, almost 90,000 houses were built in a single year. After the crash that inevitably followed the bubble, less than 10,000 houses are now being built each year, resulting in a considerable shortage. We went from a situation where an unsustainable number of houses were being built, often in the wrong place and of the wrong type, to a situation where not enough houses are being built. This legislation will help to address this situation and begin to return the housing market to a more stable footing.
For too long, prime sites in our cities have been left as unproductive empty lots that attract dumping and anti-social behaviour. These sites should be supporting economic activity that would benefit the local community and wider economy. Instead, some owners have elected to leave these sites neglected in search of a bigger personal profit down the road, whatever the cost to the community. This problem became more widespread in recent years when the bottom fell out of the property market and values decreased. While there is no disincentive for an owner to leave a site vacant for many years, this has a negative impact on the local community and on the economic and social development of the city. Dublin City Council has identified 151 vacant plots of land and 131 sites with derelict buildings that are zoned for development, but which have been left as a blot on the landscape. Many of these sites are located in my Dublin Central constituency. The introduction of a vacant site levy will encourage the owner to develop the site or to sell it to someone who is prepared to develop it. That we are introducing legislation that will deal with this issue highlights the fact that legislation should be reviewed on a regular basis. The original derelict sites levy legislation was introduced in 1990, a quarter of a century ago. We need to examine such legislation on an ongoing basis to assess its effectiveness. That legislation had not been effective over the past years and we now need to tighten up on the situation considerably.
We currently have an enormous shortage of housing and we need developers to build more homes. While the vacant site levy can be seen as a stick to encourage development, the changes to development contributions proposed in this Bill can be seen as a carrot to encourage developers to build houses. It is essential that developers are required to pay development contributions towards the public infrastructure that benefits the development. However, as we are now faced with an acute shortage in housing, it is appropriate to reduce this burden on the developer to facilitate the building of additional homes. Many local authorities have already reduced development contributions for future planning applications, but this legislation will enable local authorities to apply the reduced development contributions to developments where planning permission has been granted but development or part of the development has not started.
I also welcome the changes to the objectives of a development plan in respect of regeneration. The new objective will provide that the development and renewal of areas in need of regeneration should be for the explicit purposes of preventing adverse effects on existing amenities; urban blight and decay; anti-social behaviour; and a shortage of habitable houses or of land suitable for residential use or a mixture of residential and other uses. There are a number of areas in Dublin Central and many other parts of Dublin City in need of regeneration. One of these areas is the docklands. Under the urban renewal programme set up following the 1986 legislation, under the existing Custom House Docks Development Authority at the time, later the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, there was to be regeneration of an economic and social nature. However, the social nature was not provided. It is vital that when we have regeneration, we do not allow it to be simply economic regeneration. That is what has happened in the docklands to date and that is why we have major problems of social deprivation in areas such as Sheriff Street.
Part V provisions were supposed to provide social and affordable housing as a requirement of planning permission for housing developments. It is important there is wider community benefit from these developments as it is the community infrastructure and the granting of planning permission that gives these sites their value. However, while Part V provided 5,721 units between 2002 and 2011, a nine or ten-year period, its potential was never fully realised. Hundreds of thousands of houses were built yet that is all Part V was able to deliver. It was a meagre response, and it is clear the developers were driving a coach and four through the provision. This legislation will remove the option for developers of making cash payments instead of providing social and affordable housing units, which is extremely important.
While the legislation maintains the legal provision for affordable housing, it cannot be implemented without a further ministerial directive. I appreciate the prioritisation of social housing, but there remains a significant number of people who are not eligible for social housing who cannot afford their own home. It would be preferable to include affordable housing as an option at this time, even if the majority of the houses provided are for social housing. We have reduced the requirement from 20% to 10%. The legislation will also reduce the amount of social and affordable housing to be provided in developments from 20% to 10%. The great strength of that is the provision of certainty. There will not be an exemption and cash payments in lieu will not be an option, which was a provision of which the developers availed previously. At the same time, it will result in a reduction in the quantity of social and affordable housing. It might have been more desirable for the reduction in affordable housing to be 5% and to retain an element of affordable housing as well.
We should not forget that there is an entire category of people that can be easily lost between social housing and those who are in a position to purchase their homes themselves. The local authorities and the Government were always cognisant of that fact, and always put in support mechanisms to ensure that cohort of people would be supported in order to enable them to purchase their own homes. That was done in the past either through affordable housing, shared ownership, the provision of a grant by the Department and the local authority providing mortgages. It is almost impossible to get a local authority mortgage at present and it is very much a last resort. We must not forget that particular cohort of people as well, because if we do, we will create a situation whereby the number of people looking for social housing will increase because they do not have the supports to get on the property ladder. With the imposition of a cap on the deposit requirement it is extremely difficult for young couples in particular to get a deposit together in order to get a step on the property ladder, acquire a mortgage and engage in the purchase of their own home.
In the past we saw how developers did as much as they could to avoid either providing affordable housing in the first place or having it in a prominent location. As in London, they did their best to use the "poor door” whereby affordable housing is tucked away in a corner and is out of sight and out of mind. Worse again, as we have seen in the docklands, the affordable and social housing element of developments were put on the long finger until the project neared completion and then did not happen at all either due to a lack of funding or ability to complete the project. All of those factors have resulted in the current situation whereby there is an acute shortage of social housing. We must always be cognisant that whatever measures are put in place to protect the delivery of social housing are effective and in operation because the one thing of which we can be sure is that developers will do their damnedest to get around those mechanisms if they possibly can.