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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 1

Planning and Development (Protect Social Housing) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank the Minister of State for arriving. I know he had other plans, but such is life. This is a Bill to amend the Planning and Development 2000 and to repeal section 97(3)(b). The Bill arises because of the scrapping of height guidelines by the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government in 2018.

There are a number of strands leading to this Bill. First, under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, each private developer must provide 10% social housing under the rule commonly known as "Part V". Second, the scrapping of the height guidelines by the previous Minister with responsibility for the environment in 2018 creates a lacuna in the legislation. Third, any site that is 0.1 ha or smaller is exempt from the requirement to transfer units to the local authority for housing under Part V. Small sites which were just for developing up to ten homes were and are exempt from providing public housing. This Bill is not about going after the family home, a second home or even a small builder building a few homes. It is about stopping developers taking advantage of the gap in the legislation. I have a question which the Minister of State might answer later. If there is already an exemption for small developments of fewer than ten homes, why was there also an exemption based on the area or footage of the ground? This Bill will remove this exemption by deleting section 97(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

We realised there was a gap in the legislation when planning permission was granted for the development on York Road in Ringsend of a seven-storey apartment block. Having been granted permission for seven storeys, the developer then reapplied for planning permission to change the build to a 15-storey apartment block with 48 new homes and no public housing. The second application for 15 storeys was rejected, but if it had been granted the developer would have been exempt from making the 10% contribution to the local authority for public homes. If the new plans had been given the go-ahead, this would have set a dangerous precedent for the development of the area, likely to be replicated elsewhere throughout the city and in other urban areas and built-up settings. It should be noted that the approved application for the seven-storey development has not even been started. The developer has not gone near it.

The main reason the 15-storey application was blocked is the huge campaign that was organised by residents, Shay Connolly, Orla Murphy and many others. They engaged with residents, knocked door to door and let people know what was happening. They mobilised and held public meetings outdoors in the park during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a campaign that was successful and engaged people. It was really positive. People were interested and it was great to see the energy that campaign brought. This building would have been as high as Liberty Hall, towering over artisan red-brick cottages. It would have been, effectively, a Trojan horse for developer-led development in Ringsend. It would have allowed developers to build higher and higher along the river front of the Liffey and up to the quays. The campaign raised great awareness within the community of the issue of developer-led developments and the need for the community to be active, aware and mobilised. That is certainly what happened.

This development would be very much out of character with the street, where the average homes are red-bricked artisan one-storey dwellings, next to a school. These small artisan dwellings would have been towered over by a 15-storey block. Many other sites are building fewer units, yet they make a contribution through Part V. The loophole has understandably angered the local community. Ringsend is an area that has a considerable need for social and affordable housing, as is the case in communities across the inner city. Two and three generations of families are living in two-bedroom and three-bedroom flats and towering beside these families a developer is trying to avoid his obligation to provide public housing. It is rubbing salt into the wounds.

The community has developed and worked on this area to make it fantastic. It is an attractive area with parks, sports clubs and community facilities. Developers are now swooping in on the back of the fantastic work the community has done over the years to make Ringsend an attractive area in which to live. These developers are going to maximise their profits and avoid doing anything for the community. They will avoid it like the plague. All they want is to maximise their profits. This developer is a prime example of this mindset, and will just make money for the investors. The developer will promote and market this development using all the facilities the community has fought hard to build over the decades. At the same time, the developer is avoiding providing housing in the area, which has a real need for social housing. The amount of three generations living in a single house in Ringsend is phenomenal. It is not inconceivable that a developer with 0.3 ha could divide the site into three smaller parcels using different shell companies and build 120 homes and still be exempt from the 10% contribution under Part V. Stranger things have happened.

Ringsend must have a local area plan developed or the area will continue to have developer-led housing and community development. The residents' community development group made a submission to the development plan which outlined a vision for Ringsend and a vision that other communities can aspire to. Across the inner city many working families are being locked out of home ownership. The cost of a one-bedroom home is now €442,000 in Ringsend. It is absolute madness. Ordinary people, families and workers are expected to pay that. They just cannot afford it.

They are being pushed out of their communities and pushed down the country.

The cost of building a unit at the new glass bottle site is between €400,000 and €500,000. The development has stalled because Roadbridge has gone into receivership, but that is a separate issue. These will not be affordable to ordinary families. These homes will be occupied by the vulture funds and the well-paid staff of the high-tech companies. There are many high-tech companies and they have thrown a lot of shade at the local community. In other areas in the inner city, developers are looking for small plots of land and will be going higher and higher with the price. At the same time, they will avoid the provision of social housing.

The high-tech companies are coming into the inner city and require homes for their staff. The lack of housing and the cost of what is there is a big disincentive when trying to attract staff. They are investing in property and this is pushing up the prices of homes, putting them out of the reach of ordinary workers and families. I would not be surprised if they were not looking at a site for future development to house their staff. It is natural. This is what they have to do, it is what they are being allowed to do and it is what they are being encouraged to do. This is understandable but it has a huge knock-on effect on what is traditionally a working class community. This community has been neglected for years and is now being squeezed out as a result of Government policies that give free rein to the big high-tech companies. Government policy allows the high-tech companies and the vulture funds to work hand in hand to come in, buy up properties and drive working families out of the area.

Affordability is an issue. If the gaps in legislation we have identified are not sealed, as is the intention behind the Bill, developers will be able to avoid providing any public housing. The numbers on the social housing list are increasing daily. Without public housing, these communities will become increasingly fragmented. Flat complexes in inner-city communities have been neglected for decades. Look at the conditions in the Pearse House, Macken Street and Whitefriar Gardens complexes. It is unbelievable that families are allowed to live in these conditions. They are hard-working families who have worked throughout Covid. They are expected to live in these conditions. There are rats, raw sewage is overflowing and there are lighting defects. It is dangerous to live in many of these flats, and it is just not right. This neglect has to be reversed. Our inner-city communities deserve better and our city deserves better. Developers will be able to slip through the fence and avoid providing housing on small plots of land unless the Bill is passed. This is not only an issue in Ringsend; it will happen throughout the city and the remainder of the country unless the gap in legislation is filled. This Bill would fill that gap.

I thank the Deputies for their opening remarks. The Government will not support this Private Members' Bill which seeks to make changes to the exemptions that exist in relation to Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. The primary objective of Part V is to ensure an adequate supply of housing for all sectors of the existing and future population. In this regard, Part V allows local authorities to purchase a percentage of land at existing use value, which is less than the enhanced market value, and use this land for the provision of social and affordable housing. The Part V requirement is currently 20% for social and affordable housing, with a minimum of 10% to be used for social housing. Section 97(3) provides an exemption to these Part V requirements for residential developments of four or fewer dwellings and sites of 0.1 ha or less on application to the relevant planning authority.

The Private Members' Bill, if enacted, would remove the land area exemption. A small number of sites in urban areas consisting of five or more dwellings have been Part V exempt because the relevant site was smaller than 0.1 ha. It seems it is the Deputy's intention to correct this perceived anomaly via the proposed Bill. Part V requires that a specified percentage of any land zoned for residential use be made available for social and affordable housing. However, section 97 of the 2000 Act provides that an exemption to this can be made for developments consisting of four or fewer houses or a development of houses on an area of land of less than 0.1 ha. The Private Members' Bill, if passed, would remove this land area exemption entirely.

It is acknowledged that a small number of sites in urban areas that consist of more than five houses have been Part V exempt. As the Deputies know, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Daragh O'Brien, recently made a series of changes to Part V of the Planning and Development Act, through a series of amendments under the Affordable Housing Act 2021. This was in line with the commitments made in the programme for government and the recommendations made by the review of Part V carried out by the Housing Agency. Principal among these amendments was the increase of the percentage contribution from 10% to a mandatory 20% for social and affordable housing. A central consideration in drafting these amendments was to legislate for increased social and affordable homes for those people and families who need them while at the same time maintaining the conditions that would not impact negatively on the delivery of these homes.

The exemptions to Part V contained in section 97 of the Act exist for the same reason and were not considered for change as part of the Housing Agency review. Their purpose is to ensure the continued delivery of much needed homes. If small developments and sites were subject to the same 20% Part V contribution as larger developments, it would make a great many of them unviable and so negatively affect supply. The reasons very small developments can become unviable relate in large part to the cost of inclusion of social and affordable homes in addition to the already high construction costs that arise. These additional construction costs arise from machinery restrictions in small infill sites, the stabilisation of existing adjoining buildings and conservation issues, and they can be substantial.

Furthermore, the Government is committed to achieving compact urban growth to make our towns and cities more sustainable and more attractive places for investment and for people to live and work. We need to encourage this type of development. Along with transport demand, higher densities and shorter travel distances will also reduce energy demand and use overall. This is increasingly pertinent now against the backdrop of the increasing cost of living and increasing energy costs in particular. Multistorey and terraced buildings in close proximity require less energy and make renewables-based systems of energy distribution, such as district heating, more feasible.

The national planning framework targets a significant proportion of future urban development on infill and brownfield development sites within the built footprint of existing urban areas. The framework acknowledges that creating more compact development in Ireland has traditionally been more difficult to achieve, but in light of our climate change commitments and the need to reduce carbon emissions, it seeks to encourage much more use of smaller, infill sites for development and for housing in particular.

The national planning framework is specific in these intentions and national strategic outcome No. 1 states that Ireland will need to deliver a greater proportion of residential development within existing built-up areas of our cities, towns and villages. There will also need to be a new focus on infill development, integrated transport and promoting regeneration and revitalisation of urban areas, pursuing a compact growth policy at national, regional and local level. A range of objectives in the national planning framework seek to deliver at least 40% of all new homes nationally within the built-up footprint of existing settlements, with at least half of all new homes that are targeted in the five cities and suburbs of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford within their existing built-up footprints. At least a further 30% of all new homes are to be targeted within the existing built up footprints of settlements other than the five cities and their suburbs. Furthermore, national policy objective No. 11 states that there will be a presumption in favour of development that can encourage more people and generate more jobs and activity within existing cities and towns.

The priority must be to develop these smaller sites which can meet the national planning framework’s objectives and the only way to do this is to provide the policy framework and the conditions to incentivise development and not to stifle it. Removing this exemption could have unintended consequences and potentially prevent smaller, residential sites being developed, particularly in our cities, towns and villages. In urbanised settings these sites are already serviced making them ideally placed for development. It is well known that the lack of suitable serviced sites is one of the main obstacles to housing delivery. This is at a time when we need to be consolidating our towns and cities to create a sustainable pattern of living and working. We must build up and not out, and use what we have within urban areas. Not achieving sufficient density in the town centre means that such towns will become more spread out and car dependent, with negative implications for tackling climate change and for promoting and sustaining public transport.

Housing for All is the most extensive and ambitious action plan for the delivery of social and affordable housing in the history of the State. It brings a coherent and consistent whole-of-government approach to housing policy, to ensure the delivery of housing supply is sufficient to meet demand at a price level that is affordable, accessible and sustainable. A key focus of Housing for All is to ensure that those who wish to purchase a home have sufficient location choice. This is particularly the case for the core of our cities, towns and villages. Housing for All provides for the launching of a programme of compulsory purchase orders to bring vacant units to the market for sale, as well as activating unused State-owned properties for this purpose. This would include underused sites in town and city centres that could be used to yield new housing.

With this in mind, we launched the town centre first policy last month. It provides a co-ordinated, whole-of-government policy framework to proactively address the decline in the health of our towns across Ireland and support measures to regenerate and revitalise them and address vacancy and dereliction. Key to this will be the reuse and redevelopment of smaller infill sites in urban areas. Addressing vacancy and maximising the use of existing housing stock is a primary objective of this Government and a number of measures are provided for in the town centre first policy to address vacancy and dereliction.

Housing for All highlights new funding initiatives such as the Croí Cónaithe fund which is expected to provide funding for serviced sites in towns and support for the refurbishment of vacant properties. This would be in addition to the potential new European regional development fund, ERDF, funding for urban areas, which is still in the process of being finalised. The Croí Cónaithe fund will be delivered by local authorities for the provision of serviced sites for housing to attract people to build their own homes and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties.

The Part V exemption included in the amended 2000 Act is a key tool in supporting all of these measures. It facilitates the development of very small brownfield sites and in turn creates new homes, builds economic activity and reduces social decay. While the deletion would marginally increase the capture of Part V units in dense urban locations where brownfield and infill development on sites of 0.1 ha or less takes place, it is important to note that the locations where these developments occur is limited to a very small number of urban areas where viability remains a significant issue in delivering supply.

I am going to do something slightly different, which is to reason with the Minister of State on the basis of his better nature and knowledge of the planning system. Without any disrespect to him, the speech he has just read out does not deal with either the substance or intent of the proposed Bill. That is not his fault. He was not able to be here because he was at another engagement and so did not hear the proposer's speech. However, the speech he has been given by his officials completely fails to understand the core objective of the Bill. I genuinely appeal to the Minister of State to explain why there is merit in the proposition and, because this is his direct responsibility as Minister of State with responsibility for planning, I ask him to go back to his officials and have a conversation to see whether what we are trying to achieve here can be accommodated in some other way.

As the Minister of State knows, Part V of the Planning and Development Act was passed in 2000. Back in 2000, there was a reason for there being two exemptions to Part V, these being based on the number of units and the size of the piece of land. Back then, a piece of land of that size could only yield a certain number of units because there were strict requirements in county development plans with regard to the number of units per hectare. The kind of circumstance that has motivated my colleague, Deputy Andrews, to bring forward this Bill was not only not possible back then, but it was not even conceivable. People did not think about building very tall buildings on very small and narrow plots of land, so such developments are now exempt from Part V for no good reason.

As we know, some good things and some bad things have happened since them. A good thing is the element of the national planning framework that seeks compact growth. This is one of the issues in the area of planning on which we agree with the Minister of State. We need to see higher density mixed-use developments in our urban centres, particularly in the kind of constituency Deputy Andrews represents, which includes the area of Ringsend. Our buildings are therefore going to go up. My preference is for mid-rise, high-density, mixed-use developments. Others would like high-rise developments and so on. However, there is no doubt that smaller plots of land are going to yield larger numbers of units. If that is done in the right way, it will be a really good thing and we should all be positive about it in our engagements.

The specific problem that has arisen in Deputy Andrews's constituency that he is seeking address is that, for the first time, a very small plot of land is going to be used to develop a mid-rise or possibly even a high-rise scheme with a very large number of units. It is viable and will be exceptionally profitable for the developer. That is the way the world is. That developer should have Part V units in that development. In this changed context, post Eoghan Murphy's mandatory ministerial guidelines on height and when it is now possible to build mid-rise and high-rise buildings on very small plots, including a plot of 0.1 ha in the case Deputy Andrews mentioned, the Government has to rethink whether some of those developments should involve a Part V requirement.

This is not about small plots of land in small towns and villages that are going to yield small numbers of units. There may be a much better way of crafting Deputy Andrews's amendment that the eminently more qualified people in the Minister of State's Department could easily draft and present as a Government amendment but it is not acceptable to develop 20, 30, 40 or 50 units on a piece of land of 0.1 ha without a single Part V unit among them. That is the core of this Bill. Anybody who knows the history of Part V - and the Ceann Comhairle is probably the only person in the room who was in the Oireachtas back in 2000 when that Bill was introduced by his Fianna Fáil party colleague, the then Minister - will understand that the purpose of Part V is to ensure there is at least some level of social mix in all developments barring the very small.

Why is this important? First of all, it is important because we have a social housing crisis. There are currently 60,000 households on our local authority housing waiting lists. There are 60,000 households in receipt of housing assistance payment on short and insecure two-year private rental tenancies subsidised by the State. There are just under 20,000 households receiving subsidies through the rental accommodation scheme, which involves four-year tenancies. Therefore, there are currently 140,000 households that need social housing. That is not including the 7,000, 10,000 or 14,000 households that come onto the social housing lists each year on average. From this year to the end of this Government's term of office, if it lasts the full term, it is going to add 40,000 real social homes to the stock of housing owned by local authorities and approved housing bodies. The Government is only scratching the surface with its current housing plan. Earlier, we had a debate on the need to increase the provision of Housing First to tackle the issue of homelessness among single people. Every single unit of social housing, particularly in the urban areas of Dublin, could help to take somebody out of emergency accommodation or, in the context of the debate we just had about the high rate of mortality among single homeless people, could potentially save somebody's life. Whether it is ten, 20, 50 or 100 units in the city, it would be life-changing for the individuals who would access them.

The Minister of State is right that the Government has increased Part V provision to 20% although he forgot to mention one absolutely crucial detail, which is that it only applies on land purchased after the enactment of the legislation, that is, after 2021. All of the land purchased before, which will be the subject of the planning permission applications to be made this year, next year and probably the year after that, will only have to have 10% Part V provision. We will have that argument another day. However, there is a need for the Government to revisit this provision.

One could ask why the review of the operation of Part V conducted by the Housing Agency did not spot this issue. I believe it is because such development did not happen during the period of time when the review was done. To the best of our knowledge, there had not been any planning applications like the one Deputy Andrews has identified. While there have only been a very small number of such applications so far, Deputy Andrews also pointed out something very important in his opening speech, which is that there is nothing in the law to prevent somebody acquiring a piece of land bigger than 0.1 ha and then separating it out, creating separate designated activity companies and submitting separate sequential planning applications that, if granted, would leave each development exempt. That is completely legal under the current arrangements.

I am not asking the Minister of State to support the Bill. Clearly, he will not do so and we will not waste time on a fool's errand. I know he will do his best to defend the position of the Department in his response to my remarks. That is fine. That is his job and I respect him for doing it. However, I will ask him to think very carefully about the proposition. Is it appropriate for a developer to be able to build a development of seven to 15 storeys with two, three or four units per storey on a small site in an inner urban area like Ringsend while not having to provide any units under Part V?

I acknowledge the Minister of State for making contact with me before this debate because he was unable to attend the earlier debate. That was a very welcome intervention but I want to bring that debate into connection with this one in the following way. Far too many single homeless people are dying while accessing homeless services. There is a set of complex reasons for this. It relates to how homelessness, addiction, mental ill health and, in many cases, poverty overlay one another. There is a need to tackle all of these issues. In the report we were discussing earlier, which was produced by Dr. Austin O'Carroll for the Dublin Region Homelessness Executive two years ago, one of the things Dr. O'Carroll said was that the single most important intervention is increasing the provision of Housing First. The Government is increasing this provision from 200 tenancies a year to 250 but we need thousands of them.

It may not be worded in the way it is in this Bill, but if some reform were made with whatever wording, it could mean that in Dublin city alone, particularly given that we are looking for many one-bedroom units for Housing First, over four or five years we could end up with several hundred additional units on top of the Part V units we are already getting. That would be life-transforming for the individuals in question.

The Minister of State is a decent person. We engage regularly at the committee. We have our disagreements but we also have our agreements. I think we have established a relationship at this point. On areas where we can find common ground we try. After this debate is finished and he has said the things he needs to say, he should sit down with the officials and ask if there is a set of circumstances, a certain height of building or a certain number of units on a site of 0.1 ha where it would become appropriate for the Part V provisions to kick in. He can come back to us when it is appropriate with an amendment that does not have the unintended consequences he or his officials feel this one has but also does not have intended consequences of an updated exemption that means that today people can build very tall buildings on very narrow sites without any Part V requirements. I believe that is a very reasonable proposition. I know the Minister of State is a reasonable person and, therefore, my appeal might have some impact on him talking to the relevant officials and coming back at a later stage. The problem raised by my colleague, Deputy Andrews, is genuine.

I apologise that I missed the start of the debate. I was in the middle of a planning advisory forum meeting and I had to depart from that because the Dáil schedule accelerated.

I do not come in here to defend things just for the sake of doing it; I need to believe in it in the first instance. That is core to me as a politician. The Deputy has cited a specific example that is unfolding before his eyes. If this proposal were enacted without any due diligence, it would have an effect on the entire country. We will need to have a look at that. I will undertake to talk to the Housing Agency in the first instance because it conducted that wide-ranging review of Part V, which was well debated in this House at the time. Many allegations flew around from left, right and centre about submissions and whatnot. I will engage with the agency and I commit to coming back to Deputy Ó Broin on the matter. I understand the point he is making about scale or if it relates to a sequential development. I will raise those issues with the Department.

Unfortunately, I cannot accept this wording because of the consequences it would have across the country based on one specific example without due diligence. I think that is a reasonable response at the moment. I undertake to come back on that.

I agree with everything Deputy Ó Broin said. It is very disappointing and the residents in Pearse Street and Ringsend will be equally disappointed. The Minister of State listed off a range of measures, but he did not say what the negative unintended consequences of the Bill would be. It will protect communities. The application in Ringsend was for 15 storeys and there were going to be 48 units on a site of 0.1 ha. Five of those units should have gone to public housing. That means five homes lost and five families on the housing list who will miss out because of that exemption. The developer clearly sees it as a loophole. No one is saying the development needs to be stopped. Someone developing 40 or 50 units should make their contribution to public housing as set out in the law for everybody else.

As the Minister of State knows, the housing list is getting longer every day. It is not about stopping development. At comment was made to me recently about this Bill. The individual said it is getting harder to build. This is not about stopping anybody from building. It is not about going after a small developer building three or four units. This is this is about the developer who sees an opportunity to drive a wedge through a loophole in the law. I ask the Minister of State to explain to me how closing this loophole would have negative consequences for other communities. I cannot see that.

I ask him to give some indication as to what those negative consequences would be if this were deleted. There is already an exemption for people producing three, four or five homes. Why do we need to have an exemption for somebody developing on 0.1 ha? The studies were done before the guidelines. In 2018, the then Minister, Eoghan Murphy, scrapped the height guidelines and developers can now go as high as they like. It will be like having Liberty Hall in the middle of Ringsend, towering over the artisan dwellings and the one-storey cottages. It is completely inappropriate. The developer was going to sell this particular development on the back of all the hard work the community has done. That will be replicated throughout the country.

I find it hard to see any unintended consequences. I again ask the Minister of State to point them out. The developers are taking advantage of the hard work of volunteers in the community. This Bill would close a loophole in the legislation that needs to be closed. Like Deputy Ó Broin, I ask the Minister of State to come back with something else to close the loophole.

As there are no other speakers, that concludes the debate.

May I not come back a second time?

No, the Deputy may not.

We cannot say anything, can we not?

Members could agree to change the rules. Does the Minister of State want to come back in?

I have already made my contribution. I will report back; I cannot do any more than that. As I have said, I need to have due diligence on a change like that for one specific example. Oodles of bad laws have been made by making a national change as a result of one specific example. I just need to look at it more thoroughly. I think that is fair.

The Minister of State will come back.

I always come back. I am not going away.

Question put.

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time next week.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 4.38 p.m. go dtí 2 p.m., Dé Máirt, an 29 Márta 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 4.38 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 29 March 2022.