Planning and Development (Strategic Housing Developments) (Amendment) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2019 and for that purpose to amend section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 in relation to ministerial guidelines, to restrict section 4 of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 to applications received on or before the coming into operation of this Act in respect of strategic housing developments and to provide for related matters.

Members from all parties are well aware of the serious problems caused by the weakening of planning laws over recent years. The decline in standards began in 2015, when the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, greatly reduced the minimum size of apartments. It continued under the succeeding Minister, Deputy Coveney, who oversaw a fast-track strategic housing development, SHD, process for large projects, which was essentially drafted by construction lobbyists. That was followed by the decision of the next Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to remove height limits and, with them, the discretion of planners regarding building size. Taken together, these changes have amounted to what can only be described as a developer's charter.

There were two purported reasons for the changes, namely, to boost supply and reduce prices. That has not happened. Instead, all that has been achieved is lower-quality housing at greatly increased prices. Of the 110 SHD projects in the Dublin region that have been granted planning permission since 2017, construction has started on fewer than 30% of the sites. Developers' reticence to proceed from planning permission to construction was evident even before the pandemic. In fact, a use-it-or-lose-it provision to stop developers hoarding planning permission was supposed to be introduced by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage last year. It has not materialised. It should be noted that where local residents have been in a position to take judicial reviews of SHD projects, a majority of those reviews have been upheld.

The weakening of planning laws has had a hugely negative impact on local communities, including in my own constituency, particularly in Santry and Finglas. The SHD process has squeezed local people out of the planning process, leaving them with no choice but to take on a judicial review and all the cost, hassle and time-consuming work that is involved in doing so. The changes represent a sustained attack on the planning process. They make a mockery of development plans and local area plans, the purpose of which is to respond to local circumstances and need. They undermine the efficiency and transparency of the planning process. The centralisation of the planning process and planning decisions is a worrying trend. These changes have very much impacted on local decision-making, with local councillors and planners being sidelined. The reduced apartment standards and unrestricted heights are clearly designed to facilitate build-to-rent apartments to be bought up by real estate investment trusts, REITs, and investment funds, as well as expensive long-term leasing deals with local authorities, which are now becoming all too common. There are huge prices to be paid for that in the future.

We have seen a move towards a situation where the sky is the limit when it comes to the height of apartment blocks. Smaller apartments equate to more profit for developers and we are seeing one-bedroom units and studios accounting for up to 50% of developments. People will never see apartment living as a long-term option without proper standards for space and storage and better outdoor facilities. As it stands, the SHD process has been a success at only one thing, namely, boosting the value of developers' sites. It has not been a success when it comes to the provision of housing stock.

At what point will the Government admit these interventions in the market have failed utterly? The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has signalled the strategic housing development process will come to an end in February next year but he seems to have no idea what will replace it. Today I am offering him a helping hand.

This Private Members' Bill seeks to undo the damage caused by those interventions over recent years. The Social Democrats want to address the housing crisis not with shoebox apartments priced out of the reach of ordinary workers but with high-quality, affordable housing that promotes sustainable communities.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

As this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.