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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 29 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 2

Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 2) Regulations 2022: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the following Regulations in draft:

Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (Number 2) Regulations 2022,

a copy of which has been laid in draft form before Dáil Éireann on 23rd March, 2022.

I welcome the opportunity to present these proposed Planning and Development Act (Exempted Development) (No. 2) Regulations 2022 to the Deputies today. They are aimed at amending provisions in the principal Planning and Development Regulations 2001 concerning development that is exempt from the requirement to obtain planning permission.

Under the Planning Acts, each House of the Oireachtas is required to approve draft planning regulations relating to exempted development by way of positive resolution before they can be made by me, as Minister of State.

As the Deputies will be very much aware, the Planning and Development Act 2000 (Section 181) Regulations, which were enacted in March 2020, currently ensure any temporary facilities required to respond to the Covid-19 emergency can be developed, without the need for planning consent, for the temporary period of the emergency. These facilities include hospitals, isolation units, step-down facilities, testing centres and vaccination centres.

The duration of the 2020 planning regulations is linked to Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 and as such will expire on 31 March 2022, when this Act ceases to have effect. When the 2020 planning regulations expire, the exemptions provided for will no longer apply, and any developments listed in the Schedule will become subject to the normal provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

Community testing centres and community vaccination centres have been and remain an ongoing cornerstone of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Accessibility to these centres for people living around Ireland is an ongoing necessity and ensures people can access these fundamentally important services.

Notwithstanding the expiry of the main Covid-19 emergency response legislation, the Department of Health has confirmed the HSE is required to continue to operate testing and vaccination centres in the months beyond the end of March. The proposed Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 2) Regulations 2022 will replace the existing Planning and Development Act 2000 (Section 181) Regulations. The replacement regulations are more limited in scope and relate to vaccination and testing centres only.

The draft regulations amend class 20 of Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the principal planning regulation to allow the HSE to temporarily use specific existing public building as public vaccine and infection testing centres without having to apply for change of use planning permission. Following consultation with the HSE, the buildings to which this applies comprise schools, colleges, universities, training centres, social centres, community centres, non-residential clubs, art galleries, museums, libraries, reading rooms, sports clubs, stadiums, gymnasiums, hotels, convention centres, conference centres, shops, Defence Forces barracks, light industrial buildings, airport operational buildings, wholesale warehouses or repositories, local authority administrative offices or any structure normally used for public worship or religious instruction. I am advised the HSE aims to ensure people have access to a testing centre within a 45-minute drive of their residence, a figure which is currently in excess of 90%. The inclusion of a broad list of buildings in the Schedule will facilitate the continuation of the HSE's Covid-19 vaccination and testing programmes without interruption. It is important the HSE can provide access to testing centres in as many locations as possible so that, if needed, people have access to them as close as possible to their homes.

I point out that the draft regulations do not propose to provide a blanket exemption. The following specific conditions or limitations will apply to the proposed exemption. The change of use is limited to a period of up to 12 months, and the exemption only applies to a change of use for the purposes of preventing and alleviating the risk to public health posed by the spread of specific infectious diseases listed in the Infectious Diseases Regulations 1981, for example, Covid-19.

It is proposed that the draft regulations will expire two years following commencement. If a further use of buildings as testing or vaccination centres is anticipated after the two-year period, the normal planning application procedures for change of use should be followed. In addition, any change of use will be subject to general restrictions on exemptions set out in the planning Act or regulations. For example, the change of use shall not be exempted if an environmental impact assessment or an appropriate assessment is required.

I commend these draft regulations to the House. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies. Given their importance and the benefits arising from them, I very much hope the regulations will receive approval from the House.

I thank the Minister of State. Sinn Féin will be more than happy to support these draft regulations. It is an eminently sensible proposition from the Government. By way of a response at the end of the debate, if the Minister of State has time, or, if not, by way of correspondence with the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, it would be useful to clarify whether the purpose of the regulations is to continue to facilitate those facilities currently availing of the exempted development regulations passed previously or if there are any plans to have new facilities. That will not change our mind in terms of supporting the regulations, but it would be very useful to know.

I commend our planning authorities, the HSE, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and approved housing body voluntary homeless service providers for the very speedy way in which they took these exempted regulations previously, in particular in terms of ensuring the very vulnerable homeless population in our urban hostels were kept incredibly safe during Covid-19. I want to bring one category of exempted development to the attention of the Minister of State and I would like to make the case for him and his officials to consider facilitating the permanence of those facilities when these exemptions expire.

One of the particular innovations of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and the HSE were facilities known as medical shielding units for people who were single and homeless and generally in congregated settings. Not only were people moved out of congregated settings during Covid-19, they were put into very specific bespoke facilities because they were at an even higher risk of contracting Covid and possibly because of other underlying conditions that would have had serious consequences. In these facilities, people were not just congregated into their own rooms but additional medical facilities were also provided. That is why they are called shielding units. What is really interesting is that not only did the units provide greater protection from Covid-19 for the people who moved into them, in recent conversations I have had with some GPs supporting those individuals, they have noticed a remarkable improvement in all aspects of their lives. Their mental health, addiction management and general sense of well-being has improved enormously. There is a strong case for those facilities, in particular, to be made permanent if possible.

I fully support a standard change of use planning application if, for example, an environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment is required. That is probably not the case for these facilities. I am raising this issue because it might be something the officials could consider, rather than those facilities having to go through a formal change of use process in a year or two. If they did not require an environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment and instead some other mechanism was still in existence to deal with that, it would be eminently sensible. Sinn Féin is happy to support the proposition in front of us and will continue to work constructively with the Minister of State on these or other necessary emergency measures while we are still living with Covid-19.

On behalf of the Labour Party, I will be happy to continue to support these particular exemptions, the reasons for which are very clear. I agree with Deputy Ó Broin that elements of the exemptions in terms of planning regulations and law may need to take on a degree of permanence. I know there is an ongoing discussion within the Department, and across society and the country more generally, regarding vacancy rates in town centres and villages throughout Ireland and how we can bring more vacant commercial properties back into use for residential purposes.

Any Government that is serious about revitalising our towns and city centres would look in closer detail at the kind of exemptions that might need to be provided to make it easier for a change of use to transform vacant commercial properties into residential use. I looked at some figures earlier. The Minister of State will know commercial vacancy rates hit their highest level in nine years and there are many reasons for that. In total, there were almost 30,000 vacant commercial units dispersed across Ireland in quarter four of 2021. Many of those units could provide decent, affordable and appropriate housing for people throughout the country on council housing waiting lists or who want to buy properties.

As the saying goes, we often only manage what we measure. One of the best ways of measuring vibrancy of our urban centres is through the Heritage Council's collaborative town centre health check scheme. For quite some time, I have asked why the largest town in Ireland and my home town, Drogheda, where I live and which I represent, has not been included in the collaborative town centre health check scheme to date. It is the intention of the Heritage Council to do that, but I believe funding for the scheme is not available and it needs to be. We have serious issues with dereliction and the provision of housing in my constituency, especially in Drogheda and Dundalk.

It has the highest rate of commercial vacancy in County Louth, with nearly 20% of properties lying empty. One of the reasons we could establish that was because of the collaborative town centre health check proposition. That is something we want to do in Drogheda, Ireland's largest town, but we have not managed to do it yet. We need resources to do so.

I am taking this opportunity to speak more generally about planning exemptions, how the system can innovate and how we can think a little more laterally about bringing vacant commercial properties back into use for citizens who need them to have a decent roof over their heads and to revitalise town centres. I know the Minister of State gets that and it is something on which he will wish to focus. I ask him to elaborate on that in his response.

As I stated, the Labour Party is happy to support the continuation of these exemptions. They are in place for obvious reasons and we will continue to support them for as long as they are needed.

As regards the points raised by Deputy Ó Broin, these regulations can be interchangeable in terms of existing properties or new properties the HSE may require within the two-year period for discharging its functions in respect of Covid-19. On the other specific issue he raised, relating to permanency, it is absolutely the current intention for this to be temporary and emergency in nature.

As regards the remarks of Deputy Nash, vacancy is a significant issue and I absolutely get that. That is why through our town centres first programme we are aiming to have all the vacant homes offices established full-time within the local authority network, in all 31 local authorities, by quarter 2 of this year. We have increased the funding by 20% to make that a reality. Many of the vacant homes officers are sharing tasks with other services right across the local authority and that dilutes their sense of purpose in terms of the work they have to do.

Obviously, the Housing Commission is doing a significant body of work relating to the Constitution and property rights within the State. That is a key focus that will be worked on. County Louth has an exceptional record in terms of compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, for vacant properties and bringing them back into use. It is one of the leaders in the local authority network. I understand the balance of risk and where the risk lies in terms of a local authority issuing a CPO for a property and even putting it onto the derelict sites register which we are trying to reform through this process. I await what the commission will say. We are trying to use the carrot approach by ensuring we have funding to unlock the potential of these properties. It is to be hoped that Croí Cónaithe will this year provide a mechanism involving a call to provide a grant for the owners of these properties to bring them back into residential use. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is working diligently to make that a reality this year because it will be very important. When you have a stick in the background, it is important to try to bring people with you. We are trying to achieve that.

As regards the specific regulations, I reiterate that specific conditions or limitations will apply to the proposed exemptions. These are that the change of use is limited to a period of 12 months and the exemption only applies to a change of use for the purposes of preventing and alleviating the risk to public health risk posed by the spread of specific infectious diseases listed in the infectious diseases regulations 1981, including Covid-19. It is proposed that the draft regulations will expire two years following commencement. If further use of these buildings as testing or vaccination centres is anticipated after the two-year period, the normal planning application procedures will follow their course.

I thank Deputies Ó Broin and Nash for their co-operation in bringing these regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.
Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 4.34 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 4.42 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 4.34 p.m. and resumed at 4.42 p.m.