I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Second Stage of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 to the Dáil today and I thank Members for facilitating the debate on this very important Bill. As the provisions in the Bill are quite important, I am anxious that it would be enacted by the end of the year, if at all possible. The Bill only just completed Report and Final Stages in the Seanad earlier this week. Over the course of its passage there, Senators were very much engaged with the subject matter of the Bill, with lively and constructive debate on all its aspects.
There were a number of amendments made to the Bill during the Seanad Committee and Report Stages, particularly around the planning provisions in Part 2, which I feel enhance the Bill. I will touch on these later in my contribution. Amendments were also made to Part 3 which relates to the Residential Tenancies Acts. A small number of these were Opposition amendments which the Government opposed. I am examining these with the assistance of the Office of the Attorney General. In some cases, a small amount of redrafting may be required to align the amendments with the language of the Bill generally. However, one of the amendments does require legal advice. I hope to be in a position to resolve any issues arising during the passage of the Bill through the House. In the same way, I look forward to debating the Bill in this House and hope we can positively and constructively work through all issues that are raised.
I do not think anyone will disagree that the current housing supply shortage situation is one of the most urgent and pressing challenges currently faced by the Government and the country, with significant impacts on all forms of housing tenure - social, private and private rental. The Government’s commitment to ending the housing shortage and tackling homelessness is clearly evidenced and underpinned in the Government's Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. The action plan includes two specific pillars which are about building more homes and improving the rental sector. In this regard, the action plan includes a number of innovative legislative measures to increase housing supply rapidly and reinforce the rental sector. The main purpose of the Bill before us is to give early effect to and underpin these measures, which I will now outline. Following the Seanad discussions, the Bill now contains 41 sections over five Parts, which I want to turn to in some detail.
Part 1, covering sections 1 and 2, contains the normal standard provisions dealing with the Title, collective citations, definitions and commencement. Part 2, which comprises three chapters, relates to amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000 and is a substantial element of the Bill. Chapter 1, covering sections 3 to 19, inclusive, deals with strategic housing developments and proposes the introduction, for a limited period, of new streamlined planning processes in respect of large-scale housing developments comprising 100 housing units or more or 200 or more student accommodation bed spaces. This will allow planning applications for such developments to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. The new fast-track planning procedures will apply for an initial period of three years until the end of 2019, with the possibility to extend that period by a further two years until the end of 2021 to coincide with the timeframe of the Rebuilding Ireland plan. Under the new procedures, An Bord Pleanála will be required to complete pre-planning application consultations on proposed developments with the concerned developers and the relevant local authority within a maximum period of nine weeks. It will subsequently be required to make a final determination in respect of planning applications for concerned developments within 16 weeks of receipt of the planning application. This will potentially result in planning decisions for concerned large developments within 25 weeks of commencement of the pre-application consultation, as against the current two-stage planning process which can, in certain circumstances, take up to 18 months and even up to 24 months from initial design stage to securing ultimate approval.
We had a long debate on this element of the Bill in the Seanad. I know Sinn Féin opposed it and had its reasons for doing that.
We have made some changes since then. We have listened to the concerns of councillors in particular and have produced an amendment to ensure that in the pre-planning process, which involves local authorities assessing an application in detail over a nine week period, directly elected councillors will be involved in that process in terms of getting a full briefing on the proposal, its consistency with local area plans, zoning decisions and so forth. This whole process will only apply to zoned land, that is, land that councillors have voted to earmark for housing. The issues then are those of density, design, community development, open spaces, infrastructure and all of the other elements which planners have to take into consideration. Concern was expressed that we were somehow bypassing local authorities or local councillors and we have moved to address that concern and reassure people.
It is also clear from the legislation that local authorities will be able to make a recommendation to An Bord Pleanála at the end of the nine week consideration process. The views of councillors, if they have been expressed, can be part of that submission. We have proposed amendments which go beyond what was previously contained in the original draft which allow local authorities, through their planning departments, to also be able to make recommendations around the conditions of planning. That will, of course, influence the final decision of An Bord Pleanála to grant or refuse permission.
This is about streamlining the decision making process to provide more certainty in terms of timelines but it very much involves local authorities giving detailed assessments and recommendations. It is a little bit like granting planning permission which then gets appealed to An Bord Pleanála, whereby the original planning permission is considered by An Bord Pleanála in a defined process. This is not as radical a change as some people believed it to be. It is, rather, a streamlining of the process. On the basis of the consultations we have had, I believe this will make a big difference in terms of incentivising developers to opt for larger scale developments and to increase the housing supply at a more rapid pace than may otherwise have been the case. It will also be a significant help in the context of financing many of the big projects because there is a direct link between the ability to secure finance for a project and obtaining a planning decision.
Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, in particular, has been asking for evidence that there is a problem in this area, so I looked at the statistics. I asked An Bord Pleanála how long it is taking to make decisions on applications for developments of more than 100 units. The statistics are about six weeks out of date now but they show that there were 15 applications with An Bord Pleanála at that point in time and the average length of time for a decision was 78 weeks. We are now talking about putting a system in place that can be just as robust in terms of the assessment but which will take only 25 weeks. Given the pressure we are under to increase housing supply, particularly in high-density developments in the city centre, it makes a lot of sense to streamline the decision making process for a temporary period until we have a more normalised and balanced housing market.
As mentioned, there was extensive debate in the Seanad on a number of aspects of the proposed new streamlined planning procedures. Amendments were proposed and discussed on all sides which resulted in my acceptance of a number of key amendments to this part of the Bill during the Seanad Committee and Report Stages. These are now incorporated in the Bill before us today and the Bill has been improved as a result. I will briefly outline the detail of some of the amendments we have taken on board. First, some concerns were expressed regarding the perceived diminution of the role of local government and elected members in the new procedures for large scale housing developments as I have already said. To address those concerns, the Bill now includes provisions whereby on receipt of a planning application for a large scale housing development, the planning authority will notify the local elected members of the application at an early date. It will then outline the detail of any such proposed development to the elected members at the next meeting of the local area committee or municipal district. In addition, the Bill also enables the views of the elected members on any such development to be reflected in the chief executive's report to An Bord Pleanála on the proposal. These new provisions, which I accepted in the Seanad, are aimed at enhancing the involvement of elected members in the new procedures, giving them an opportunity to have an input into the process and to represent the views of their constituents in accordance with their democratic mandate. I also said that I would look at the issue of fees that councillors would have to pay to An Bord Pleanála if they wanted to object to an application for planning permission. I will deal with that matter in separate legislation which is currently working its way through the system.
Second, there was much debate around the mechanisms to extend the operation of the streamlined planning procedures beyond 2019 if considered appropriate. Following the Seanad discussions, the Bill now proposes that prior to the end of the first three year period and no later than 30 October 2019, the Minister of the time will review the operation and effectiveness of the strategic housing development provisions. A report on the conclusions of that review will then be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas, with no extension of the operation of the provisions being possible before the review report is so laid.
Finally, section 42 of the Planning and Development Acts currently allows for an extension of the duration of planning permission where either substantial work has been carried out during the original planning permission period and certain other conditions apply, or work has not commenced and certain other conditions apply. In light of the Seanad discussions, the Bill now includes a provision restricting the extension of planning permission in the case of large scale housing developments only to situations where substantial works have been carried out during the original planning permission period. The extension of planning permission in respect of large scale housing developments will no longer be allowed where the developer sits on the planning permission and where no works have been commenced or undertaken during the period of the initial planning permission. These enhancements to the provisions reflect what we are trying to achieve here, which is to bring forward the provision of housing supply for those that urgently need a quick response. If a developer obtains planning permission through this new, streamlined system, he or she will not get an automatic renewal in five year's time, as would have been the case going under the normal system. If developers get planning permission, they need to get on with building; otherwise, they should not be submitting planning applications under this new streamlined system. We are not going to allow speculation, whereby developers come through a streamlined system, get a decision in 26 to 28 weeks and use that permission to flip on the property at a profit, nor are we going to allow them to sit on the planning permission for a number of years, assuming that they will get an automatic renewal. The whole point of this streamlined system is to get sites moving across the country - sites for large scale housing developments which are badly needed in many parts of the country and particularly in the capital. Ultimately, as I have indicated, the new streamlining procedures are intended to provide greater certainty for developers in terms of the timelines for decision making, while also facilitating the earlier provision of much needed housing supply and helping to address the current housing shortage.
Chapter 2 of Part 2 of the Bill, covering sections 20 and 21, proposes to introduce new screening arrangements for the conduct of environmental impact assessments, EIAs, in respect of certain types of works, including emergency flood relief works, with the aim of further streamlining the process for the undertaking of such types of works. This came about primarily as a result of a conversation with the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney. We are trying to progress flood relief projects more quickly. If there is no good reason for carrying out an EIA, then long periods of time should not be spent doing one. It is as simple as that. It is a pragmatic measure which is robust from an environmental perspective because where an EIA is needed and justified, it will happen. However, there are certain types of development that could move very quickly and which should not be delayed.
Chapter 3, covering sections 22 and 23, relates to further amendments to the Planning and Development Acts.
Section 22 provides that a second extension of duration of permission may be granted by a planning authority in the case of a housing development comprising 20 houses or more in circumstances where the authority considers that a further extension is necessary to enable the development to be completed. This will remove the requirement to go through the planning process again and expedite the completion of the housing development in question, but it needs to be consistent with current area plans and so on.
Section 23 relates to new streamlined procedures to be followed by local authorities under section 179 of the Planning Act and Part 8 of the planning regulations. The Part 8 process relates to the bringing forward of local authority own-development proposals, including those relating to social housing, local roads, fire stations, libraries and so on. Most local authority own-development proposals are generally approved by the elected members fairly quickly. However, some delays can be encountered on occasion regarding social housing projects as a result of local opposition. Under the current provisions, no maximum timeframe is set for deciding on development proposals of this kind under the Part 8 process, which is the major cause of some of the delays encountered. Consequently, the Bill proposes a number of amendments to the existing section 179 provisions, including the setting of a maximum timeframe of 20 weeks for the determination of local authority own-development proposals by the elected members, thereby providing greater certainty in the progression of such development proposals, including the earlier delivery of social housing in particular. The decision-making will still be with councillors but they will have a timeline in which to operate. Obviously, this will place the onus on a chief executive and his or her planning team to make sure they work in a timely manner and convince the councillors that it is the right thing to do.
Part 3 of the Bill, covering sections 24 to 39 and the associated Schedule, relates to the rental sector and provides for amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts. We are all very aware that there are acute pressures in the rental market and we had a very useful and informative debate in this House yesterday on the pressures on rents, in particular, but also on issues regarding security of tenure. These pressures are driven by a number of factors, including rising demand, a lack of supply and the high costs that indebted landlords face in servicing their loans. The problems in the rental sector constitute one of the most significant issues facing us today and they are an absolute priority for this Government. That said, there is no doubt that the difficulties in the rental sector are part of a bigger problem. Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis in terms of shortage. The problems caused by high rents reflect, and are reflected in, the other issues facing the housing market, namely, not enough homes for first-time buyers, increased demand for social housing and unacceptable levels of homelessness. While many factors contribute to these problems, the one common to all is the prolonged and chronic lack of supply of new homes.
The Bill implements the commitment in pillar 4 of Rebuilding Ireland to bring forward legislation to amend the Residential Tenancies Acts for early enactment. One of the most significant proposals to be introduced in the Bill is to be found in section 30, which provides that where a landlord proposes to sell five or more units within a single multi-unit development at the same time, the sale will be subject to the existing tenants remaining in situ. The purpose of this amendment is to prevent a future recurrence of situations where large numbers of residents in a single development have had their tenancies terminated simultaneously. This amendment was the subject of much debate in the Seanad and the original figure of 20 dwellings was reduced to five on foot of a Report Stage amendment tabled by the Opposition. I am in the process of taking advice on this change and may need to come back to the House on it if it makes sense to do so. I do not believe we should try to bring small landlords into this category because we will disincentivise people from remaining in the landlord market if we do so. That is why we had suggested, in the changes proposed, that the figure should be ten rather than five, but we can discuss that on Committee and Report Stages.
Section 31 further improves security of tenure for tenants by providing for the abolition of a landlord's right, during the first six months of a further Part 4 tenancy, to terminate that tenancy on no stated grounds. This is an important amendment and one that has been welcomed both by those working with tenants and those working to prevent homelessness.
Sections 33 to 37, inclusive, provide for a number of other early actions which will enhance the Residential Tenancies Board's enforcement and dispute resolution powers, including accelerated dispute resolution timeframes.
As committed to in Rebuilding Ireland, the provisions in the Bill will be supplemented by a new rental strategy, which I intend to launch in the coming weeks with a view to delivering a mature and stable rental sector providing a true balance between the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. The provisions in this Bill are a fundamental part of that overall process.