Derelict and Vacant Sites Bill 2017: Second Stage

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

I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, who has been in the House for quite a long time.

The Derelict and Vacant Sites Bill 2017 is designed to address the issue of empty, derelict and undeveloped land being held inactive and unused across the country, at a time of unprecedented crisis in the housing system. Developments in recent months such as the occupation of Apollo House, have shown us the strength of feeling on the idea of prime land and buildings sitting empty in areas of high demand. Public anger continues to rise in the face of land hoarding by vulture funds, leaving investment land undeveloped all over city centres, while new builds further expand the sprawl of cities and towns. At the same time, homelessness figures are rocketing up, with over 7,000 homeless for the first time in Ireland. The Government’s approach in the Rebuilding Ireland programme is to do what it can to incentivise supply, which is to be welcomed, such as the provision of new units and support schemes that make it more attractive to get stock into circulation, but it is also very problematic when it involves tax breaks that simply serve to raise prices, particularly in urban areas.

The Rebuilding Ireland programme has as its fifth pillar utilising existing stock. It states that there are 198,358 vacant properties around Ireland, yet we have 7,000 people without a home to call their own. Between July 2014 and December 2016, there was a 234% increase in child homelessness, according to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures. This is nothing less than a national crisis and scandal.

The situation is not normal. For once, expert advice seems to be united on this matter. We need stronger action to get derelict sites around our towns and cities back into use and for vacant land that is undeveloped to be put into action and developed in areas where strong demand is met by inadequate supply. Fr. Peter McVerry has stated the significant level of vacant properties in Ireland is a unique feature of the housing system. Simon Communities and DIT’s Dr. Lorcan Sirr have stated vacancy rates in Irish housing are about twice as high as should be expected. Yesterday, the Housing Agency, a Government body, released its National Statement of Housing Supply and Demand 2016 and Outlook for 2017-18, in which it affirmed that greater attention needs to be paid to the issue of vacant housing. The Simon Community and Focus Ireland, with other civil society groups, academic and housing agencies active in the area, have been in touch conveying the importance of stronger action.

Dereliction has other consequences beyond just homelessness. Unused buildings with wooden hoardings in their windows degrade urban spaces, damage the sense of community space and are simply an eyesore. They can become a focus for crime and drug use, and a source of environmental and even aesthetic degradation as they fall apart through lack of care. Senator Jennifer Murnane O’Connor raised the issue of illegal dumping and other aspects of dereliction when this matter was discussed at last week’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. These sites are a burden on our already overburdened local authorities, and they contribute nothing but a dark air of misery to the streets, roads and estates they occupy.

Vacant sites are a similar detriment to town life. Undeveloped land that is simply sat on, whether it be for understandable reasons, is not socially fair at a time when not enough areas are available for development in urban areas where there is strong demand. This, in turn, forces our already severely sprawling cities, in particular Dublin, to advance outwards into their greenbelts. This exacerbates the existing problems of dispersed communities, lack of public service provision in health, education and more and the attendant transport issues that are already causing such problems for the capital and other major towns.

A staggering 28,000 planning permissions in Dublin remain uncommenced, something of which the Minister is well aware. Across the country, the total number of vacant sites is almost 200,000, as mentioned previously. In some cases lands had the benefit of tax incentives, yet still have not been built upon. The Government’s existing plans are not adequate to deal with the scale of the problem. The previous Government took welcome measures in initiating the process of a register for vacant sites, to match the existing register of derelict sites. It also mandated the levying of a site tax from this register to come into operation in 2019. At 3%, the derelict and vacant sites taxes are too low to act as a true incentive. The vacant site tax will also only apply to areas larger than 0.05 ha, an area a little larger than a basketball court, and will exclude a large number of sites around the spaces where new development is most needed. The Bill which I have proposed with my colleagues in the Seanad Civil Engagement group aims to tackle these shortcomings. Our group has been working together since the beginning of the Twenty-fifth Seanad on the issue of fairness, provision and security in housing. In doing so, we have focused on being open to working with the Government, Opposition parties and other Independents in trying to get the best solution for these problems.

I am entering into today’s debate in the same spirit of openness and compromise. With that in mind, I commend the Minister and his office for being so open to consultation and debate on this Bill. I am relatively new to the Chamber and politics in general, but I appreciate and acknowledge the open manner in which his staff have worked with me on the Bill..

It is my belief the Minister is doing his best on the matter of tackling homelessness. While he and the Civil Engagement group and the Green Party may not always agree on the best way to proceed, I know that his conviction is sincere. It is my belief he has similar goals to those outlined in the Bill but is constrained by legal and departmental advice and party politics. I hope he might consider that the Bill is not huge and that the issues in it are not solely the property of me or anyone else. Whatever happens today, the pressures will remain to be dealt with by Fine Gael councillors, as well as those of Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Green Party, Independents and others.

The Bill is essentially an amendment to the current Government's plans and contains a number of small independent parts. It would remove the minimum site size from the current legislation, which would bring far more vacant sites under the scope of the legislation; increase the rates on vacant and derelict sites from 3% to 5% with increasing penalties for every subsequent year a site remains derelict or vacant after being designated as such; create a transparent process by which derelict sites are added to the register; ensure vulnerable people like those in respite houses or care homes are not affected by levies; move forward the implementation of vacant site levies by two years in order that they would apply from mid-2017 onwards; and ensure that businesses involved in dealing with land cannot avail of a 0% or low vacant site levy due to negative or low equity. The Bill also explicitly states that a derelict or vacant site can be compulsorily purchased by local authorities. We have included an amendment recommended by Focus Ireland that would stop people being evicted from a tenancy if their house is subject to an investment mortgage. This applies only in the case in which the property was bought solely as a non-primary private residence.

On the issue of a public register for derelict sites, greater transparency is needed to ensure that the current situation in which a property can have some paint applied to its window and no longer be considered derelict is amended. This is clearly a nonsense and makes a mockery of the current register. It has to be amended. On the matter of compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, of vacant land, just this week, even the UK Tory Government announced that it will allow local authorities to CPO land in order to tackle the huge problem of land banking. This is not a radical measure and is already partially in existence in current legislation.

Some have expressed concerns about empty family homes in rural areas. This Bill is carefully targeted, as are the Government plans, to apply these levies only in areas where demand for housing is high and where there is insufficient provision of social and affordable housing. We have no interest in taxing for the sake of taxes. We want useful land back in circulation. This is a common sense proposal, not an ideological one. Others have stressed the constitutional concerns and the challenges posed to the private property protections that so often interfere with attempts at action in this policy area. I understand these arguments and that they constrain any member of the Cabinet that is bound by them. I remind the House, however, that we were previously informed that any limiting of the rate of increase in rents would be unconstitutional, yet, as of December, we have such measures, as proposed by the Minister. Such reconsideration is welcome and I hope to add to the pressure for such a move on vacant and derelict sites by tabling this Bill.

The Minister cannot push the boundaries of the legal advice he is bound by and takes. I understand he is constrained by it. We can have these debates about the balance between the need to respect private property and the need to serve the public good, and we can do it in a transparent fashion. Considering the scale and severity of the challenge we face regarding housing in Ireland, if this Bill were to pass in its current or modified form and were to be challenged in the courts, so be it. That is what the courts are there to do, that is, protect the Constitution and set out the parameters of the law. It is our job to focus on doing what we can to improve the lives of all our citizens, particularly the more vulnerable.

There have been concerns expressed to me on the issue of the tenancy protections in this Bill, particularly from Fianna Fáil colleagues. I am grateful for their forthrightness on this issue and emphasise that no part of the Bill is entirely sacred. My colleagues and I in the Civil Engagement group remain open to co-operation and consensus building on the Bill, if only it would be allowed to proceed to Committee Stage, the most appropriate stage for legislation to be considered in depth.

In the meantime, this issue is not going away any time soon. Voting the Bill down would be to keep any such legislation off the agenda for a further six months. As some Senators already know, my office assistant is the great grandson of the great patriot and land agitator, Michael Davitt, Mr. Ed Davitt.

In the time of Michael Davitt's youth, rates of homelessness and destitution in an Ireland far more populated than it is today stood at 11,000 people. Can we stand by and watch as the Ireland of today faces homelessness of almost the equivalent size?

I thank the Minister for coming in again. He has had a long session with us today, but we are delighted that he is here to hear us out. I am delighted to second this Bill which I believe accelerates measure and improves existing housing policy at a time of a national housing crisis. The Bill will improve the cities and towns in which we live. Above all, it will make a real difference to the thousands of people who desperately need long-term decent homes in which to live out decent and ordinary lives.

There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a catastrophic housing crisis. I was just reading about a family with a child with autism which is being evicted. One can imagine the trauma in that family home tonight. Nationwide, there are families living in bed and breakfast accommodation, young people sofa-surfing and men and women who have spent all their adult living in homeless hostels and emergency shelters that have become the only homes they men know.

At the end of December 2016, there were 7,148 men, women and children in emergency accommodation across the country. At the end of November 2016, there were 142 people without a place to sleep in Dublin city. Rough sleeping in Cork increased ninefold in the four years from 2011 to 2015 from 38 people to 345 people. Ordinary families, young children, single people, renters, people in mortgage arrears, people in the repossession courts, people with the roof over them sold on to or by vulture funds or speculative landlords, people with mental health problems and addictions, Travellers and those wishing to leave congregated settings - they are all in housing crisis. All need long-term homes and need them now. This extraordinary housing crisis requires an extraordinary response. The Minister knows and has demonstrated through the actions he has taken that we need to act swiftly and surely with measures that will kick-start the use of derelict and vacant sites. While I appreciate the good work done to date, in particular the Rebuilding Ireland plan, we need to go further and act faster. The Bill addresses both dereliction in towns and cities and the scandal of empty properties.

As a policy intervention, the Bill proposes five things: to increase the derelict site levy from 3% to 5%; to create a publicly accessible register of these derelict sites; to restrict termination of tenancies in buy-to-let dwellings; to remove the minimum size restriction for the vacant site levy; and to bring the levy into effect sooner, by the end of 2017 instead of 2019. These are clear and sensible proposals that will change how land owners view and treat derelict and vacant sites. Thousands more people could be living in city and town centres if we tackled dereliction.

When Dublin City Council audited vacant and derelict sites in central Dublin, it counted 282 sites making up 61 ha of land. That is nearly seven times the size of St. Stephen's Green. That is a huge area of unused land. Turning such sites into homes would go a long way to addressing homelessness in Dublin city and county.

In a submission to the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government Dr. Lorcan Sirr from DIT and others noted that the vacancy rates are twice what should be expected. The 2016 census revealed that we have 198,358 vacant housing units, excluding holiday homes and derelict buildings. It is shocking that we have 7,000 people in emergency accommodation and almost 200,000 vacant houses. In the town where I grew up, on the main street in Macroom, there are 210 vacant properties according to the 2016 census, including the six-bedded home in which I grew up. There were ten of us in the family. That is a huge number of properties for a small town. The 210 houses could be homes for people on the social housing waiting list.

Dereliction is also having a big impact on the face and character of towns and cities. Buildings are literally falling down. Shop fronts are rotting and there are empty spaces and eye sores. These sites have been forgotten about and completely abandoned. Our Bill makes it clear that a local authority may use compulsory purchase orders to buy such vacant sites and turn them into homes.

There is a fantastic group of mostly young people in Cork city, acting under the banner of Reimagine Cork, who have taken it upon themselves to clean up derelict sites. They have created a mini park on Kyle Street and repainted shop fronts on North Main Street. We should not leave it up to volunteers to ensure the character of our cities and towns is preserved. Owners need a push to use these sites. We need to remind owners of their responsibilities. We need to empower local authorities. We need to ensure there is an adequate penalty for leaving sites vacant and derelict and the Bill provides it.

We need to remind ourselves of the impact this legislation will have on people. Over the course of last year, there were over 2,500 children homeless and living in emergency accommodation. These are children with nowhere to play. The Minister has children and knows every child has the right to play and should be able to do so. The children have no place to call their own and are moving from one bed and breakfast establishment to another. Young lives are stuck in limbo, thus compromising their education, well-being, mental health and life chances forever.

All over the country there are empty sites without homes, homes without people and people without homes. The actions we have proposed in this Bill will help change this. When I worked for Cork Simon, with local authority support and CAS funding we bought up derelict sites in the city centre and turned them into lovely city centre flats. I often meet a man who made his home in one of those flats. He was a victim of institutional abuse and was a street drinker. When I met him, he had stopped drinking after a near-death experience but at that time his only home was the emergency shelter, where he had been living for ten years. This lovely man is now sober and fit and has a job and home. I meet him occasionally on his bike or doing ordinary things like going shopping for vegetables and fruit in the English Market. This man's life has been turned around because he has a home of his own, and one of Cork's derelict sites has also been given a new life. I recently passed it. It was freshly painted and the brass door knocker was all shiny and polished. It was unlike some of the adjacent sites, which were dark, depressing, dangerous, vacant and derelict.

The Bill will give greater security to tenants living in buy-to-let properties. If a house was bought as a buy-to-let property, there should be no reason a tenant should be affected if it is sold to another investor. Up and down the country, families, couples and single people are being evicted simply because one investor has sold the property to another. Owing to the impact of the housing crisis, home ownership has gone out of sight for many people in their 20s and 30s. My daughter is one of those who live in fear because her landlord in Dublin is about to sell the property in which she lives. That is no way for people to have to live. These people deserve more rental security and this Bill provides just that. To sum up, this Bill will enhance and intensify housing policy and existing powers. It will improve the places and communities in which people live, help to end homelessness and have a real impact on people's life chances, as in the case of the man to whom I referred, the child with autism who is being evicted tonight and even my lovely daughter. It will help us to get out of this unprecedented housing crisis. I urge my colleagues from all parties and none to take up these good ideas and support the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to debate again what is a very important issue for all of us. We all acknowledge and recognise that the considerable housing challenge remains a challenge. Both the Government and Opposition will be measured by how they respond to it. I recognise the genuine intent of the proposers of the Bill and the concerns of both Senator Grace O'Sullivan and Senator Colette Kelleher, whom we have just heard. The two Senators have been practitioners at the coalface. Senator Colette Kelleher has been involved in Cork Simon for many years. I recognise also the intent of the wider Civil Engagement group. It is important that Senators propose legislation and debate its pros and cons proactively. I welcome back to the House the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, whom I know is passionate about tackling this considerable crisis.

In general, we must examine the context of our current position. We must also take into perspective the dysfunction we have seen not only in our wider economy but also in the housing sector specifically. Access to credit has been a considerable problem for many families over recent years. There has been a broken lending system. Even when people are in a position to obtain credit to regenerate property they own, they find the banking system is not lending at a normal rate just yet. Builders, whom we require so much if we are to have sufficient housing capacity, are only finding their feet. This is an issue. When one speaks to builders, they say they are only now returning to building. The capacity to build has been seriously limited by the factors I have outlined.

As the system and wider economy normalise, we will begin to see a recovery in the housing sector. I share the genuine concerns of the proposers of the Bill and commend the genuine commitment of the Government to the Rebuilding Ireland programme. There are a number of pillars addressing various aspects of the housing challenge. There are numerous schemes aimed specifically at addressing the housing deficits. The policy is now in place, as is the strategy, and an unprecedented budget has been committed to in order to deliver on the strategy. We now need support across various sectors to deliver on the strategy and to do what is required and asked for in the Bill.

Unfinished estates comprise a good indicator of the rate of progress. When I was Minister of State, I worked on this issue and chaired a special committee that included all the stakeholders, including officials from the Department, local authorities and NAMA, in addition to other representatives. At the time, there were over 3,000 unfinished estates throughout the country that could have provided housing in a normal economy. Unfortunately, owing to the factors outlined, including those associated with builders, property owners and the lending system that was so dysfunctional, many sites remained derelict for many years. The good news is that considerable progress has been made on finishing the unfinished estates. Responsibility transferred from previous owners, who were possibly not in a position to finish the estates, to local authorities, voluntary housing bodies or private owners, who have now finished them. The number has been reduced from thousands to hundreds and there is daily progress in this regard. In our own respective local authority areas, we can identify the estates that were unfinished, derelict and dangerous but in which families are now living.

Let me turn to the Bill and the matter of derelict and vacant sites. The previous Government identified the issue of derelict sites, and the current Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, is continuing the work in that regard. The matter was legislated for through the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2016. I was involved in bringing much of the legislation through both Houses of the Oireachtas. There was deep scrutiny on Committee Stage. The points raised in today's Bill by Senators Grace O'Sullivan and Colette Kelleher were raised at that time also. I can now share with the House that when I was Minister of State, I wanted quicker registration of vacant and derelict sites and a higher sanction after registration. As I am sure the Minister will outline, however, the legal advice of the Attorney General had to be listened to. I agree that the derelict and vacant stock on the streets of cities, towns and villages has considerable potential. There is no doubt but that it is logical to tackle this stock before we start building on greenfield sites throughout the country.

The reason it is logical is because services such as sewerage and water already are provided in urbanised areas with serviced lands. There is no disagreement with the argument that we need to unlock the potential of these sites. The problem is the fact we have a Constitution that contains property rights. Whether we like it, under the Constitution as a free and democratic State, landowners and property owners have property rights. The Attorney General's advice at the time, about which the Minister can go into more detail, was that any provisions in new legislation must be fair and balanced. If a person owns property, there must be a fair and balanced approach if that property is to be impeded on in any way that might affect the owner's right. If a site is identified, and there is existing legislation under the Derelict Sites Act, that can be dealt with through the local authority system. Where there are vacant sites in areas with a strong housing demand, according to the advice of the Attorney General, there are legal risks associated with imposing sanctions on those sites without due recognition and a fair and appropriate period of time to allow the owners of those sites to either regenerate or dispose of them in an appropriate way. We are all agreed that we need to bring these sites back into beneficial use as soon as possible.

I also remember accepting an amendment from Deputy Mick Wallace in the Dáil where the original proposal was to have larger sites that could be registered under this legislation. We reduced it to 0.05 ha. The feeling was that there are a number of urban streetscapes of smaller size with the potential to be brought back into use. It is something the Minister could look at and if possible, amend that part of the legislation. If not, I know he will outline why that is not possible.

It is all about what we do now to deliver on the ambitions of the Rebuilding Ireland strategy. We all have a role in that regard. This House and the Lower House have played a role in debating housing legislation. We also have a role in making sure that Rebuilding Ireland is delivered. The appropriate bodies are the housing authorities, which are the local authorities supported by voluntary housing associations and the NGOs, which play a very important role. There is nothing stopping these bodies, particularly local authorities, identifying these sites of potential in their local authority areas. There is nothing stopping them under existing legislation from notifying landowners that they intend to add the sites to a register of vacant and derelict sites and that a sanction will apply from 2019 onwards. I hope this notice will stimulate and motivate landowners to put those sites to use.

The funding, policy and legislation are in place. It is about delivery. It is about all of us supporting the Minister in his efforts and supporting local authorities, NGOs and voluntary housing bodies to get these houses built because it does take time. It takes planning, tendering and building before families can move in. I know - I know that the Minister is committed to this - that many of the projects are under way. I hope to see, and I think we will see, the numbers of homeless people falling dramatically once the projects are delivered, the doors are opened and the keys are handed over to the families who so badly need them.

I congratulate the Senators behind the Bill. There are some flaws in it and I will go through them. However, the Bill is a start and the Minister needs to address it. While there are elements of the Bill with which we agree in principle, the Bill is flawed. It is also poorly drafted and we believe it could be in breach of Standing Order 178. It is clear that it would have the effect of imposing or increasing a charge on the people. We believe the Bill is defective legally and constitutionally. While it was unfortunate that the Labour Party decided in 2015 to delay the introduction of the 3% levy until 2019, the attempt to retrospectively apply this levy to properties would be a breach of fundamental citizens' rights.

There is a little confusion. We have the Derelict Sites Act and the Derelict and Vacant Sites Bill. Local authorities have the power to do up a derelict site. The issue is the timescale, which is not addressed. A derelict site or vacant or derelict property can be an eyesore. The biggest issue is antisocial behaviour, including the dumping of rubbish. The main issue the Minister is not addressing is the health and safety aspect. There are so many properties that have gone on fire or have been marked by antisocial behaviour. They are constantly being reported to local authorities but there is no legislation. Before Christmas, we were able to address the quick build of the 100 houses in respect of the bigger cities. Legislation needs to be introduced to address derelict and vacant sites so that local authorities can stop all this antisocial behaviour and address health and safety concerns. This issue really needs to be addressed and I am asking the Minister to deliver on it.

Census 2016 revealed the existence of almost 260,000 vacant properties homes. A total of 2,751 vacant units belonged to local authorities. That is unacceptable. In fairness to the Minister, I know that he is addressing meetings and saying money is available, but if he does not address the 2,751 vacant units belonging to local authorities, it will defeat the purpose. I would really appreciate it if he would address this issue.

Fianna Fáil has proposed introducing the empty property grants scheme to encourage owners to lease properties to approved housing bodies or directly to local authorities. Similar schemes are in place in the United Kingdom and have been very successful. I am asking the Minister to pilot such a scheme in order that we can address this issue. Rural Ireland is not being addressed. I understand we have a housing crisis in Dublin and the Minister has always been focused on it and on the bigger cities. However, vacant properties, the lack of local authority housing and lack of supply are also issues in rural Ireland. If the Minister could address vacant properties, which number nearly 3,000, all over country, it would mean that nearly 3,000 families would be taken off the local authority housing list. The Minister should try to sort out some legislation in order that these vacant properties are not left as eyesores. When two or three properties in a housing estate are boarded up, one cannot find out who owns these properties. One goes into the local authority but it does not know. The properties are either in NAMA or have been repossessed by the banks. The Minister needs to put a system in place in order that the local authorities have the staff to make sure every vacant property or site is registered in order that if Senators, councillors, Deputies or members of the public want to find out who owns a house two doors down from them because it is an eyesore associated with antisocial behaviour, they can do so. At the moment, they cannot get these answers because nobody knows who owns these properties. On St. Patrick's Day, we all get ready for parades. If there is a derelict site in the middle of a town that is an eyesore, it takes from the focus of the town when one is trying to bring in people. Will the Minister address these issues? These are the small things that he is forgetting. I know that he is doing his best and that there are so much that he needs to address but he is definitely falling down on these issues in rural counties and other areas.

In respect of tenant security, the Bill proposes removing of the sale of the property as a reason for ending a tenancy where the property has been bought with a buy-to-let mortgage. There is no doubt that the blanket approach in the Bill of completely removing the right of a landlord with a buy-to-let mortgage to use the sale of the property as a ground for terminating a tenancy could be discriminatory and unconstitutional. Removing the right of the landlord to purchase his or her property with a buy-to-let mortgage would fall most heavily on small landlords with one or two properties. Many landlords have distressed mortgages. It would not touch landlords who can afford to buy an investment property without taking out a mortgage.

In addition to creating widespread uncertainty in the rental market, completely getting rid of sale as a reason for ending tenancy, as the Bill attempts to do, could stall the turnover of rental properties owned by smaller landlords, many of whom are involuntary landlords who are not making a profit or are often in arrears or negative equity. Fianna Fáil supports in principle the removal of sale as a reason for ending a tenancy and we are working on measures that would provide greater security of occupancy for tenants which are compliant with the constitutional protection of property rights and do not create widespread market uncertainty.

Accountability is very important. Now that money is available, it is important that it is put to proper use for everybody, including the homeless, people in need, landlords and tenants, in particular those who might have to move. I ask the Minister to put the money to use and to ensure the most vulnerable in our society get what they deserve.

I thank the Minister for spending so much time with us this afternoon. I appreciate it, as do other Members of the House.

I thank Senators Grace O'Sullivan, Colette Kelleher, Lynn Ruane, Alice-Mary Higgins, Frances Black and John Dolan for taking the time and trouble to set out their arguments. It was very interesting that Senator Grace O'Sullivan made the point she is happy to modify the Bill and consider changes. She is coming here with a suggestion, which is more than many others have done. I appeal to Senators to give the Bill a chance-----

-----and allow it to return to the House. There is no point in Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor saying "absolutely" unless her people can deliver.

I agree with parts of it.

That is fantastic. I thank the Senator and look forward to Senators on all sides of the House supporting the Bill through one more Stage. There are many Stages but let us get to the next Stage. I do not want the Bill to be killed tonight. I hope the Minister will reflect on it. It is reasonable. It is important that we have and encourage debate.

In essence, the proposals set out seek to remove the minimum site size from the legislation, which would bring far more vacant sites under the scope of the legislation; increase the rate of vacant and derelict sites from 3% to 5%, with increased penalties for every subsequent year the site remains derelict or vacant after the designated date; and create a transparent process in which derelict sites are added to the register. It also speaks about moving forward the implementation of the vacant site levy for two years in order that it will apply from mid-2017. It also seeks to address issues regarding the compulsory purchase by local authorities of vacant sites.

Private sites, as well as public sites, are derelict and vacant. Those who attended the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Planning, Housing, Community and Local Government last week heard from a number of delegates who came before it. It was a shocking indictment of local authorities that people could come before the committee as delegates and share statistics, which I will not bandy around because I want to keep the message simple, that hundreds of real estate units and land in local authority hands are vacant. This is at a time we have a housing crisis in these local authority areas. I am seriously coming to the view we need to check the capacity, commitment and enthusiasm of some local authorities to tackle this full on. I do not doubt for one minute the Minister's commitment to Rebuilding Ireland. I do not believe anyone in either House doubts his absolute commitment to see it through.

I took the time to read a number of the audits from the local government auditing service carried out by the Department. It is another day's work, but I would like to see this changed as part of ongoing local government reform. We must deal with what we have. The local government auditor of a number of local authorities expressed serious concerns - this is all on the record and on the Department's website - about a number of local authorities which failed repeatedly to comply with the digitised property asset register. It is hard to believe there are local authorities in the country which do not have properly digitised records of their property register. These are public assets, public land and public money. This is at a time we have a housing crisis. As part of the debate, I ask the Minister to take this on board and ask the officials in the auditing service to provide him with a list of the local authorities which have failed consistently to carry out this work. The local authority chief executives state they do not have the necessary resources. That is disgrace at the time we are looking for property assets and looking to avail of any property we have in local authority areas. I raise this because it is an important issue.

I also want to speak about private sites. I go directly to people and ask them what are the problems. I am told by local authority chief executives that local authorities do not have the money. They are most reluctant to engage in compulsory purchase orders. They state they do not have a pool of money set aside to pay for them, and that there is a lot of litigation involved with the possibility of constitutional rights to property issues being raised, and they do not have the stomach for it. They have not done it. I will tee up a parliamentary question for one of my independent colleagues in the Dáil this week to ask the Minister some of these questions because they are so important. We need to see a register, in tabular form, for all local authority areas of what property they acquired in the past three years, for how much and what process has been initiated. I will undertake to do this tomorrow because it is an important piece of scrutiny with regard to local authorities.

We have spoken about small sites. The Bill is attempting to address issues with infill small sites which are also critical. It is not unreasonable to fast track and bring forward to 2017 some of the measures. It is important. I have spoken about Rebuilding Ireland and I am committed to the Minister's objectives in this regard and the various pillars. It is a multifaceted approach. The Minister has spelled this out and it is the dead right policy to follow.

Yesterday, I went to Ellis Quay and compliment the Minister because it is an amazing hostel. It backs onto Aaron Quay and we had a walk-through of the entire development and met many of the people who live there. They are very happy, which is great. It is a good story and I urge everyone to go and look at it. Most importantly, the people living there are happy and feel safe. A number of people said they had a bed to come home to and they are guaranteed a bed for the next six months. We heard about the one to one supports, and all the team building and access to social services. It was very impressive and I thank the Minister and salute all those involved. When we left with some of the people from the Peter McVerry Trust, we were waiting for a taxi to return to Leinster House to do our work. One of the people living in the house asked us to look across the road at Aaron Quay and the back of Smithfield. We were told there are three or four sites there. A woman told us she has been living on Aaron Quay Terrace for 50 years and one of the sites has been empty all of that time. We really do have a crisis, but here we are with the three buildings directly opposite the hostel derelict for years and no one seems to want to do anything about it.

I am sympathetic and supportive of the Bill and thank its proposers. I hope it will be passed on Second Stage because it would be important. I ask the Minister to take on board the issue of the register of every local authority and make a commitment that he will ask them if he can - I know that they are under other pressures - to make a commitment to file within three months with the Department a register of all their assets. I also ask the Minister to examine other assets which may be in the hands of Departments or State agencies.

That is under way.

A full audit of all State-owned land is being undertaken.

That is great and let us see it. We need to share this information. I have also asked about lands available as part of the redress schedule on which the Government signed off and received commitments from religious orders. We have not yet seen a schedule. I look forward to seeing it. Another parliamentary question will be tabled this week on this matter. These are all issues we need to keep pushing. I am not having a pop at any one. We are all committed to it. As no one has a veto on this issue, we will all put in our tuppence.

I thank the Senators who have spoken to the Bill. I look forward to the Minister's response. We need to see more information on the register of assets of local authorities, which are under the Minister's watch.

I thank the Minister for his long session in the House today.

I commend Senators Grace O'Sullivan, Colette Kelleher and others for bringing forward the legislation. As outlined, the Derelict and Vacant Sites Bill 2017 proposes to amend three existing Acts.

These are the Derelict Sites Act 1990, the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 and the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016. I support the very good intention of the Bill. Although I understand the intention of the Bill is to address the current deficit of vacant sites and to incentivise developers to provide much needed housing, there are a number of pitfalls in the Bill, on which I will elaborate but which can perhaps be got around. I will support the moving of the Bill to the next Stage if that is deemed to be appropriate by the Minister, but in regard to the proposed amendments to the Derelict Sites Act 1990 and the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015, any proposed measure impacting on private property owners must be subject to detailed consideration and scrutiny, as Senator Paudie Coffey outlined, based on the constitutional rights in respect of property. The amendments suggested in the Bill run counter to the legal advice received during the development of the vacant sites levy provisions, thereby increasing the risk of constitutional challenge and being found to be unconstitutional, while also undermining the existing statutory provision.

Furthermore, the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 produced provisions for vacant site levies. However, this process was extremely complex. These complexities were a result of the constitutionally protected rights of property owners arising from the proposal which accordingly required the provisions to be appropriately balanced and fair and that they be reasonable and proportionate, having regard to the objectives which the legislation sought to achieve.

During the development of the provisions for a vacant site levy, the Attorney General specifically advised that the levy should be limited in its financial amount and the size of the properties to which it could be applied, that the rate of levy should not exceed the 3% rate applicable to derelict sites since 1990, that the higher the rate of levy applied the greater the risk that it would be subject to legal challenge and held to be disproportionate and that sufficient time should be allowed before the coming into operation of the levy to enable affected property owners to regularise their affairs. Therefore, the Bill, despite the very good intentions, in instances such as increasing the applicable rate and size of properties goes against the learned advice and guidance of the Attorney General, to which Senator Paudie Coffey alluded.

On the proposed amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act, the recently published strategy for the rental sector sets out a range of measures under the headings of security, supply, standards and services, which are aimed at addressing issues affecting the supply, cost and accessibility of private rental accommodation. As we all know quite well by now, the subsequent Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 enacted just prior to Christmas gives legislative underpinning to certain of the measures in the rental strategy, including rent pressure zones, the extension of duration of tenancies from four to six years, and the limiting of landlords rights to terminate ten or more tenancies at the same time. It is my understanding the security of tenure proposals which this Private Members' Bill seeks to address were fully debated during the passage of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 before Christmas.

Having been the subject of amendments put forward during the progression of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016, the proposals are adequately addressed in the consequent Act. Therefore, it could be considered that any legislative changes at this early stage after its enactment, apart from presenting potential legal challenges in terms of the need to maintain an appropriate balance between the legal rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants, may risk undermining stability and confidence in the rental sector and thereby negatively impacting on existing and future supply of rental accommodation.

I raised this issue with the Minister a few weeks ago and I am very sympathetic to the thrust of the Bill. It is clear that there is a housing issue in Ireland, of which everyone is acutely aware, and I can understand the motivation to push landowners to develop on their properties. As I mentioned previously in this House, Vancouver City Council recently approved a tax on empty homes. This move had a similar incentive behind it, namely, to free up empty properties and make them available to potential residents. The tax which is the first of its kind in Canada has been introduced to combat its housing crisis and is expected improve Vancouver’s rental vacancy rate by persuading owners - in a punitive manner - of thousands of empty apartments and houses to put them up for rent. Will the Minister ask his officials to keep an eye on this and to perhaps consider it - perhaps it is already on the radar - to see if it is something that we could introduce here?

Although I understand the intention behind the Bill, we must take into consideration its various pitfalls but there is a lot of good in it. It proposes to amend considerably complex legislation which, in some cases, has already been analysed and scrutinised. However, as Senator Victor Boyhan said, if certain changes could be made I would be agreeable to it, but I will be guided by the Minister on it.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá mé thar a bheith sásta go bhfuilimid anseo arís ag plé na ceiste seo. Is dóigh gurb é seo ceann de na crua-ceisteanna atá againn sa tír seo i láthair na huaire. Ba mhaith liom tréaslú leis an ngrúpa sibhialta a thug chun cinn an Bille seo arís eile. Tá sé fíorthábhachtach go gcoinneofaí an cheist seo i lár an tábla oibre atá againn.

Chuaigh mé féin ag cuartú figiúirí le deireanas maidir leis an méid suíomhanna díomhaoine atá i nGaillimh. Tá sé fíordheacair teacht orthu. Sin ceann de na forálacha atá sa Bhille seo a gcuirim fáilte faoi leith roimhe. Is é sin go mbeidh sé i bhfad Éireann níos fearr teacht ar an eolas seo.

The Senators proposing the Bill alluded to Michael Davitt in their opening comments. I think Michael Davitt would be appalled if he was still alive to see the situation in housing and homelessness in the country, on which I am sure the Minister agrees with me. I broadly welcome this Bill. Section 3, providing for the availability of a register of derelict properties, is particularly timely. In my area of Galway there are currently officially 15 vacant or derelict sites, but I had to find that out by looking it up on a local media site. If I want official council figures, I have to turn up in person and review the maps in the council building . The need for transparency is obvious.

Housing and homelessness are issues that affect everybody. This week we saw the effect that figures can have on the public perception of the crisis in the health system. They also tends to dictate the form and speed of the Government’s reaction. I am sure that if there was an accessible and standardised form of these figures that the public’s attention would remain focused on what has been staring us in the face every day, before we even begin talking about new builds and acquiring new land.

The site of the former Irish Glass factory has been lying idle for well over a decade. In that time we have gone from boom to bust and back to where we are now. The recent sale of land at RTE was another missed opportunity to provide for social housing. Many people found out that there was land lying derelict for the first time when they heard about the sale after the fact.

In Galway there are 15 registered derelict sites. They include the former Corrib Great Southern Hotel as well as properties in Ballybrit, Newcastle, St. Helen’s Street, Ballybane and Dominick Street. In the light of the housing crisis, it is vital that these sites are considered for upgrade or for alternative use as soon as possible. In the 2017 draft annual budget, Galway City Council allocated more than €25,000 for derelict sites, yet this seems to be mostly covering securing the properties against vandalism and anti-social behaviour. About a year ago at election time, I was around the old Connaught Laundry site and some of the people living in the area adjacent to that site are suffering from the awful affliction of antisocial behaviour due to the fact the site is derelict and is being abused.

Section 4 is essentially revisiting an amendment that was tabled to the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016, which passed through here before Christmas. It is supported by Focus Ireland and many other advocacy groups. It was rejected by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in a vote in this House. They now have another opportunity to reflect on the gravity of the crisis, even after the launch of the Government’s rental strategy, and decide whether they are now in favour of protecting tenants from arbitrary eviction or not. If they do not, at least the public will begin to see a pattern as to which side Fianna Fáil is really on. The blue button brigade or the abstainers will have to show their true colours.

While there may be advice from the Attorney General, of which the Minister gave some description on Committee Stage of the previous legislation, we have not seen it. I welcome Senator Paudie Coffey giving us a certain insight into what he was told was the position when he was a Minister of State. However, the Attorney General is not always right. The question then is whether we believe it is the right thing to do. I think Senator Paudie Coffey alluded to the fact that he felt this was the right and moral thing to do, but the advice was pointing in a different direction.

If it is, let us do it and see if a landlord takes a case. We can then test whether it is unconstitutional. If it is proved to be unconstitutional, we can consider changing the Constitution. Otherwise, we could ask the President, in whom I have faith, to consult the Council of State. He could then refer any legislation passed by these Houses to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality before it is enacted. That loophole could be tied off as well and it would keep everybody happy because there seems to be a general consensus that the thrust of the legislation is good and that the proposers are open to amendments on Committee Stage and are willing to debate issues. There are ideas coming from the floor of this House that could be brought forward in order that we could come up with legislation that would deal with the issues at hand.

It is the right thing to do because the majority of families that will spend yet more time in emergency accommodation were made homeless by landlords who owned one property or two properties. It is welcome that some tenants who live in the properties of landlords who own ten or more properties will get additional protection, but the majority of families at risk of homelessness will get no more protection from the measures introduced by the Government before Christmas. For that reason, this is one of the most important measures that could be introduced in the Bill or via possible Government amendments. Let us not forget that many of the landlords in question bought their properties with buy-to-let mortgages from banks or availed of section 23 tax reliefs. On that basis alone, they should not be allowed to serve notice to quit on the grounds of sale. The landlord should sell the property with the tenant in situ, which is the purpose of the proposal, namely, to ensure the property remains in the rental stock.

The Bill seeks to amend the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 by bringing the vacant site levy into effect earlier than 2019, as per current Government plans. It also seeks to increase the vacant site levy from 3% to 5% and to remove the minimum size restriction that is currently set at 500 sq. m. Sinn Féin is firmly of the view that local authorities must have the first option to build housing developments on formerly vacant sites. The 3% annual levy which is due to kick in in 2019 should include measures to exclude land held by local authorities. There should also be provisions to include a higher band of 5% for land of a greater size than one acre. If site owners remain reluctant to comply, the levy should be increased annually for sites which remain idle in areas of high need.

Other measures we have argued for and which are relevant to this debate include providing for the hand-over of vacant sites to local authorities, which have been established to have no market value, the provision for use of levy receipts to be used by local authorities with an annual review by the Minister in conjunction with the Oireachtas committee on the environment and the reintroduction of the windfall tax at 40% on all zoned development land. The political reality is that Fianna Fáil holds the cards and, as has been said in these Houses previously, it is the party of auctioneers and developers. I have a certain sympathy for Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor. I take on board what she said as I believe she is genuinely in favour of the thrust of the Bill. However, it is very disappointing that the rest of her party is not backing her on the measures and not allowing the legislation to proceed to Committee Stage when we could thrash it out fully and come up with solutions.

The Bill is slightly flawed.

Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh should be allowed to speak without interruption.

As previous speakers said, it is a good Bill, but there are flaws in it.

Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh should conclude.

The proposers of the Bill would be delighted if the Senator was to supports it.

The Senator's time has elapsed.

As I have had some of it robbed from me, I will finish very quickly. Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor referred to introducing legislation on anti-social behaviour. If the Bill were passed and we got rid of the derelict sites, we would solve the problem. That is what we need to see happen.

Táimid ar son aon Bhille a thugann níos mó cosanta don tionónta agus níos mó soiléiriú don phróiseas ar fad. If we are talking about new politics, let us see it in action. Let us allow the Bill to go to the next Stage, but let us not leave it to die in Committee Stage limbo either, as we have seen that being used as a tactic. If sympathy were bankable, very few homeless people would not be millionaires at the moment with the amount of sympathy we hear. They need action rather than sympathy.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, who has spent a long day in the House.

This is important legislation and I commend the Senators responsible for bringing it forward because the more we debate such issues the clearer the understanding we will have of what is happening in the market. In principle, the Labour Party will support the Bill, but we would seek to amend it as we consider there are fundamental constitutional issues at stake. For example, it could be problematic to change the 2019 date. However, the Senator has clearly indicated that the Bill is open for discussion and debate on the next Stages. There is a responsibility on all Members of this House to allow that discussion and debate to take place. No one party should veto what is an excellent piece of work that has been put together by Senator Grace O'Sullivan who has argued her case most eloquently.

These issues will come up in the House over and over again because as we continue to point out the problem is one of supply. There is just not enough accommodation in the market to deal with the housing crisis, whether for homeless people or ordinary working people earning a good salary who seek rental accommodation. With Brexit and the possibility of other employment and job opportunities in urban areas and, hopefully, rural areas also, there is a necessity to make sure supply comes on-stream.

In fairness to the Minister, he has done his utmost. He has made every effort to try to stimulate the market and deal with the supply issue. In spite of the measures the Minister has introduced, we will not see progress if the areas of leakage are not addressed as a matter of priority. In the Irish Examiner this morning I noted a headline, "Airbnb Seeks Barcelona Truce Over Too Many Tourists." Barcelona is an area that is leaking accommodation that ordinary working people had traditionally rented but it is now going onto various rental platforms. Before coming into the Chamber I spent 75 minutes looking at how many apartments and houses in a number of Dublin postal districts are available on Airbnb. There were 75 units comprising 204 bedrooms in their entirety. I do not refer to people renting a bedroom to supplement their income, which is fine, or if someone is going on holidays for two weeks or a month who wishes to rent their home, I am talking about businesses in four Dublin postal districts. The question is how we can compete with that. One option was a boutique, beautiful two-bedroom Dublin city centre apartment for rent for €628 a night. That is €229,000 a year with full occupancy. In fairness, even 80% occupancy amounts to €114,000. What is more important is that is an apartment that would have been let to somebody who works or is on the housing list. In Donnybrook, not too far from where I live, there is a two-bedroom apartment for €187 a night. In Dublin 2 there is a clean, luxury apartment with three bedrooms for €220 a night. On average, the 75 apartments come in at €76,000 a year. I will pause for a moment while I wait for the Minister to come back into the Chamber because the issue is very important and he has provided circular letters on it.

Is it agreed that we suspend the sitting while the Minister is absent from the Chamber? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 6 p.m. and resumed at 6.05 p.m.

I will conclude briefly.

The Minister gets the idea about the impact of these platforms on the accommodation problem. In a recent development of nine units in Dublin 2 three are used for Airbnb. The Government under the rapid build programme is endeavouring to deliver 350 units or as many as possible, but if they are being leaked to these platforms at such a rate, the programme will have no impact on the market. I could give examples from Dublin 1 to Dublin 8 of apartments and houses moving into Airbnb, which does not help the economy. When the Minister attended the House before Christmas, I told him that I knew this was a question of choice. The majority of those who are using Airbnb are tourists. I would prefer it if someone had a home rather than a tourist staying in an apartment. The market has become ridiculous. There are homeless persons in hotels and tourists in apartments across the city.

In fairness to the Minister, he issued a circular after An Bord Pleanála made its decision. I will not read it in full, but it indicated that local authorities had some measure of responsibility. He wrote that he would receive a report by the end of the second quarter of this year, but that is too late. The evidence of a significant impact by Airbnb is already clear, especially in the Dublin, Cork and Galway markets. Action has been taken across the Continent from Barcelona to London and Brussels. I could continue.

I wish to pull up the Minister on one line in the circular. He wrote: "In the meantime, where it is brought to the attention of local authorities that particular properties may be exclusively used for short-term letting purposes, they should take the following steps...". These steps are investigation and enforcement, but a simple measure could be taken by Dublin, Cork and Galway city councils. Each of them should appoint a specific officer to enforce the planning regulations. Seventy-five apartments in 75 minutes received planning permission as residential developments, not bed and breakfast accommodation or aparthotels. There should be active enforcement. This could help to restore rental residential units for ordinary working people at lower market prices. The 75 units contain 240 beds. On average, on each apartment €76,000 is being earned. An ordinary landlord cannot compete with this. It would not make sense to keep renting apartments to ordinary people. That is why there is a shift to Airbnb. I encountered a landlord on the South Circular Road who had been trying to act decently. He had six apartments in his house and sought to find other accommodation for those persons in receipt of rent allowance, but he still moved the six apartments into Airbnb.

I call on the Minister to pick up the telephone and call the various city managers to ask them to put a single person in charge who would take enforcement action. We could quickly restore approximately 600 units to the Dublin market, certainly more swiftly than under the Minister's rapid build programme. This would have a ripple effect across urban markets. We need action now. There is a decision by An Bord Pleanála. The Minister could easily instruct managers to put a single person in charge to enforce it and issue enforcement letters to those landlords who have moved from the rental market to Airbnb. Let us house our own.

I thank the Minister for spending time with us in the House again.

This is good and constructive legislation that has been well drafted by Ms Sinéad Mercier with the support of Mr. Ed Davitt and others. It offers concrete and real proposals. Some speakers have focused on the abstract, pulling back again to the housing crisis and raising other issues, but we are here to debate the proposals made in the Bill, many of which have strong and clear merit such that it will be difficult to stand over any opposition to them. We recognise that there is a need to work across the House, something everyone in our group has done and something Senator Grace O'Sullivan has sought to do in that regard. We are willing to work with everyone and all parties to ensure that, when the Bill reaches Committee Stage, we can build on these valuable proposals which place important issues on the agenda and are facilitative of the Minister in driving forward the fifth pillar of the Rebuilding Ireland strategy in making the best use of existing stock.

I will not go through the details. All Senators have heard the litany of empty properties at local and national level. In one of the greatest homelessness and housing crises the nation has seen the Government has estimated that there are 198,358 vacant properties. We have heard that in the Dublin area 61 ha are vacant or derelict.

We have heard that in small towns, even in Macroom, there are up to 200 vacant properties, but the provisions in the legislation have been framed to target areas in which there is high demand and it is imperative that action be taken urgently.

I will now address a number of key proposals made in the Bill, on which I would like to hear the views of the Minister, as well as Members across the House. Should they not wish to support the Bill, I want to hear what their proposals are to address the real issues we have identified.

We know that the law on derelict houses is not working. Derelict houses and sites are an eyesore and visible in towns and villages throughout the country. While they are acknowledged by the man on the street as being derelict, in many cases, they are not registered as such because of the flaws in the system. We know that, in many cases, the windows are boarded up and painted black and that we are expected to regard the site as no longer being derelict. While I am aware that local authorities have some powers to contest the question, they do not have the resources to battle on each derelict site on each street. What is proposed in the Bill would facilitate the process by which derelict sites are entered on the register. We are allowing for the setting of clear criteria. If our proposals were to be taken up, it would become easier for local authorities to simply mark sites as being derelict if they met the criteria. The process would be transparent and we would be able to ensure the derelict sites that are holes in the fabric of communities would be marked appropriately.

Having a register publicly available online would ensure people who wanted to take action in their communities to have productive use made of space would be able to do so. Senator Colette Kelleher has given us some examples in this regard and other Members may give us others. The Bill would encourage communities to come up with proposals for derelict sites. It would support citizens in engaging in local innovation and devising a constructive collective response to how we should repair the fabric of cities and build the homes and social amenities we need so badly.

The proposals made are nuanced because we are trying to address in the Bill a gap when somebody is place in residential care. A key concern is ensuring that when vulnerable older persons are taken into care, they are not penalised unduly. We are open to looking at other such subtleties to ensure they would be taken on board on Committee Stage.

I will now address the proposals made to deal with vacant sites. We have heard that 0.05 ha, or the size of a basketball court, is considered to be too small. This proposal was brought forward by Dr. Lorcan Sirr and others and I think it is very constructive. One could build a home on a site of that size. More importantly, we could argue the detail of what the exact size should be. The current provision which refers to a figure of 0.5 ha, or over one acre, is far too wide.

For the purposes of clarity, the figure is not 0.5 but 0.05 ha.

There is a big difference.

I will not speak to Part 4 in which I think the proposal made is constructive. While I agree with Focus Ireland, I recognise that it is doing work that is different from that mentioned in the rest of the Bill. If the Bill reaches Committee Stage, Members will have an opportunity to amend or vote against various sections.

We heard about the constitutional constraints on property. Let me remind Fianna Fáil Members that they are not bound in the same way as the Minister by the advice of the Attorney General. They are free to take cognisance of and give it due consideration. Conservative rulings are consistently constraining our capacity as legislators to make good laws.

I beg permission to speak for an extra minute.

The Senator has spoken for eight minutes. If I were to give her an extra minute, it would be unfair to others.

I will take one minute of my colleague's time, as agreed.

I am trying to be fair to everybody. Some Members complain to me.

If the conservative interpretations of the Constitution are to block us constantly in making good policy and if they are correct, we have a problem with the Constitution which we need to address because a balance is not being achieved between property rights and the common good. If we are erring on the side of property rights and neglecting to see the balance achieved in the Constitution, let us test it appropriately. As legislators, we cannot act in a way that does not serve the common good. Article 43 is very clear - property rights may be delimited with a view to reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good. We need to have a debate on whether the Constitution is an obstacle in making good law and if the current interpretation is stopping us from moving forward in important areas.

The Senator has now taken nine and a half minutes. The Minister has to speak also. Somebody else will lose out. I call Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn

May I come in now, as otherwise I will sum up without having made an initial contribution? I am in the hands of the Chair.

As this is a Private Members' Bill, the Minister may make only one contribution. The rules state he may come in at any time. There are only two more speakers and the Minister will have 15 minutes.

I will take only three or four.

I am glad, as I am trying to be fair to everybody.

I appreciate that because it is very important that we hear the Minister. He is aware of the difficulty with the scale of vacant and derelict properties across the State. I know that some local authorities have identified sites which they have sought to purchase for housing. However, local authorities are not making things happen when it comes to derelict sites, leaving aside the housing issue which is at the core of what I think is an excellent Bill. Tidy Towns committees are doing their best to maintain towns by redecorating decaying buildings. However, when contact is made with the local authority to see who owns derelict sites with a view to making the owners responsible for the state they are in, they get nowhere. In rural areas many buildings are boarded up. The existing legislative provisions are not working in that they do not address the issues identified. It falls on the Minister to look at the matter.

Even in housing estates, where people are doing their best to take care of their patch, nothing is done to ensure the upkeep of derelict houses. This is a real issue in terms of the visual impact. Tidy Towns committees comprise civic minded people who hold communities together.

They have to work hand in hand with local authorities. I do not know whether local authorities lack the powers or the willingness to enforce laws. Perhaps the Minister might touch on that issue in his comments.

If one compares the housing lists across the State to the census figures on buildings that are unoccupied outside of holiday homes across the State, one finds there is a significant difference. I am sure it struck the Minister that the solution was staring him in the face. The Minister focused on the length of time it can take to go through the planning process and so on. Clear and unambiguous legislation that frees up local authorities to consider such properties as assets and opportunities would fast-forward the Minister's plans.

If, for some reason, the Bill is not acceptable, I would be intrigued to hear from the Minister the amendments to the current legislation he will introduce in order to make it practical for local authorities to deal with the housing issue, followed by partnerships with tidy towns, communities and residents' associations. They are exasperated. It is soul destroying when one does all one can to lift up one's community where there are ugly buildings dotted throughout the land and for the people responsible to face no repercussions and have to take no responsibility.

I thank the Minister for his time. It has been a long day for him. I also give my full support to my colleague, Senator Grace O'Sullivan, and the Bill as I feel it is dealing directly with the housing crisis the country is facing, something about which the Minister is passionate.

I know that the Minister is aware that, in 2016, some 20 families were evicted from their homes every month, including 40 children, which is shocking. These children have been left without a home and security, which must have had a detrimental impact on their lives. We owe it to the most vulnerable in our society, to whom Senator Colette Kelleher referred, to do our best to find solutions to improve these circumstances. The Bill is a step in the right direction.

As it stands, Ireland’s approach to housing provision to date has been disconnected. Home ownership, the private rented sector, social housing and homelessness have all been approached in isolation when, in fact, they are all interconnected. There are unused buildings and land in prime areas, yet there are homeless people sleeping on the streets. It just does not make sense.

Accessing unused buildings could be part of the solution to the housing crisis. The Bill suggests making the registration of derelict sites more transparent. This will make registration publicly accessible in order for the public to be aware of the process of registering derelict buildings.

We need incentives to get unused land back and the suggestion in the Bill to raise the levy to 5% will do this. It will help to discourage people from holding onto unused sites, which is doing very little to help the country and the housing crisis. The levy increase, therefore, should be strongly considered. It is important to note that this levy will only apply in areas where there is already a need for housing; therefore, there will be no tax imposed on empty sites in rural parts of Ireland.

It is extremely important that we get these sites back into circulation in order to create more stable and safer housing for citizens. This is an issue that needs immediate attention. I urge the Minister and all Senators to support the Bill.

I thank the House for affording me the opportunity to speak to the Derelict and Vacant Sites Bill 2017, proposed by a number of Senators, led by Senator Grace O'Sullivan. While the Bill is relatively short, it proposes to amend three existing Acts, namely, the Derelict Sites Act 1990, the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, as recently amended by the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016, and the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015.

The principal changes to the three Acts can be summarised as follows: to increase the levies applicable to derelict and vacant sites from the currently prescribed 3% of the market value to 5%; to extend the application of the vacant site levy to all vacant sites irrespective of size, including those below the current prescribed minimum threshold in the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015; to bring forward the commencement of the vacant site levy provisions; and to provide that Part 4 private rental tenancies may not be terminated where the dwelling is a buy-to-let property and the landlord proposes to sell it.

Before I elaborate further on the main provisions of the Bill, I acknowledge the constructive and positive engagement that has taken place between the Civil Engagement group which proposed the Bill and my office on the issues generally. I further acknowledge the good intentions behind the Bill, the general thrust of which I support in terms of its objectives and the need to secure the optimum occupancy of the existing housing stock and vacant lands.

When one compares Ireland to its closest neighbour, for example, one finds we have a vacancy rate for residential properties of close to 10% – the figure is about 9.5%. The equivalent figure in the United Kingdom and Netherlands is about 2.5%. Most other countries in Europe are somewhere in between. It is an issue which needs a comprehensive response, given the other pressures in the housing market.

I want to highlight, in particular, the importance the Government and I attach to taking action on empty buildings and sites as a means of addressing and securing additional housing supply in order to assist in countering the current housing supply and homelessness crisis. This approach to addressing vacancies will also simultaneously have the twin benefit of helping to breathe new life into many parts of cities and towns and villages where vacant sites are located. This priority is reflected in the Government's comprehensive action plan, Rebuilding Ireland, published last July. One of the five pillars in the plan, the fifth pillar, is specifically focused on using utilising existing housing stock with the core objective of ensuring the existing vacant housing stock throughout the country and across all forms of tenure is utilised to the optimum degree possible. In that regard, action 5.1 of Rebuilding Ireland commits to the development of a national vacant housing reuse strategy, informed by census 2016 data, to inform the compilation of a register of vacant units across the country; to identify the number, location and reasons for long-term vacancies in high demand areas; and to set out a range of actions to bring vacant units back into use. To that end, the Housing Agency, which has been assigned responsibility for co-ordinating the development of the strategy, has established a working group, comprising senior representatives of my Department, local authorities and representatives from the Housing Agency, to inform the strategy. It is intended that the strategy will provide a targeted, effective and co-ordinated approach to tackling the problem vacant dwellings. Work on it is progressing and relevant stakeholders are being jointly consulted by the Housing Agency and my Department to inform the finalisation of strategy which, it is hoped, will be completed by the end of March.

Before going into detail on the provisions in the Bill, it is important to mention three significant measures which have already been activated under the fifth pillar of the Rebuilding Ireland plan to incentivise the increased use of vacant housing stock. The repair and lease initiative provides funding to the owners of vacant properties for their refurbishment and subsequent long-term leasing to local authorities for social housing purposes, and €140 million has been put in place for the scheme. Some €25 million in 2017 and €50 million next year will be provided for the buy and repair initiative, which enables local authorities to purchase and renew housing units in need of remediation in order to make them available for social housing use. Last year we spent €203 million buying over 1,000 properties, the vast majority of which were vacant, to bring into use for social housing. It is not the case that we are not moving on these issues and spending a lot of taxpayers' money trying to address them.

The purchase by the Housing Agency of vacant buy-to-let properties on the portfolios of financial institutions and investors for social housing use is also under way.

We have given a rolling fund of €70 million to the Housing Agency to get the process under way and about 200 housing units are already in the process and have been secured.

Regarding the Private Members' Bill, sections 1, 2 and 6 are standard type legislative provisions relating to expenses, the definition of terms used elsewhere in the Bill, the Short Title and its proposed commencement. Accordingly, there is no reason to address these sections in my comments. Instead, I will focus on the three remaining sections.

Sections 3 and 5 provide for proposed amendments to the Derelict Sites Act 1990 and the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2016, respectively. These two issues are somewhat inter-related and any proposed measures impacting on private property owners require detailed consideration and scrutiny, having regard to the provisions of Article 43 of the Constitution and its associated legal complexities.

Land is a finite resource, particularly in urban areas. Therefore, it is important that it is used in the most efficient manner possible and put into the most productive use in the interests of the common good. The derelict site levy and the vacant site levy are two instruments that have been specifically introduced to incentivise the development and use of empty or under utilised sites in urban areas.

The development of the relatively recent vacant site levy provisions in the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 was a particularly complex exercise, having regard to the legal issues involved. I do not think I am disclosing State secrets by saying the following as I think it is already on the public record, but the original proposal by my ministerial predecessor, Deputy Alan Kelly, was to apply an initial rate of vacant site levy of 3% of the market value of the site, increasing incrementally by 1% per year thereafter, as Senator Paudie Coffey will remember, up to a maximum of 6% of the site's market value. This measure was to ratchet up the pressure if people were doing nothing.

It was also initially proposed that the levy would come into operation earlier than is now provided for in statute. The legal advice received from the Attorney General at that time was that having regard to the potential impacts on the constitutionally protected rights of property owners, arising from the levy proposals, the legislative provisions needed to be appropriately balanced and fair, while also being reasonable and proportionate, having regard to the objectives that the legislation sought to achieve.

The specific advice of the Attorney General on the vacant site levy provisions, also having regard to the principles of fair procedures and administration, was as follows: the levy should be limited both in its financial amount and size of the properties to which it should be applied; the rate of levy should not exceed the 3% rate applicable to derelict sites since 1990 on the basis that it was considered reasonable without being overly punitive; and sufficient time should be allowed before the coming into operation of the levy provisions to enable affected property owners to regularise their affairs, by way of selling their properties or initiating development of their sites, before becoming liable for the levy. In other words, if one is going to tax people for inactivity, one must give them due opportunity to ramp up activity through a planning process, securing finance, etc. If one does not do so, then one will have acted unreasonably, be open to a legal challenge and lose. That was the concern. Many people, including me, were impatient to try to disincentivise the sitting on land or the speculative nature of some of the land ownership in Dublin that is zoned, and in some cases has planning permission. We must make sure that we remedy the situation in a way that will stand up to legal scrutiny and challenge.

The proposals in Senator Grace O'Sullivan's Bill that the vacant site and derelict site levies should be increased from 3% to 5% of site market value and that the application of the vacant site levy should be brought forward by a year run counter to the legal advice provided to my Department. The proposals would, thereby, increase the risk of constitutional challenge, while also undermining the existing statutory provisions.

The Bill also proposes that persons who have moved into residential care and whose properties have become vacant as a result would be exempt from the derelict site levy. It should be noted that the derelict site levy provisions apply to sites that detract from the amenity, character or appearance of land in the neighbourhood, having regard to the existence of dangerous structures on the land or the deposit of litter or waste on same. Although not explicitly excluded from the provisions of the Derelict Sites Act, persons who have moved into residential care would generally not be targeted by local authorities for the purposes of the levy on the basis that the properties in question, which generally are not dangerous or structurally unsound, would not come under the definition of a derelict site.

The Bill further proposes that local authorities be empowered to acquire, by agreement or compulsorily, derelict sites within their area. As local authorities already have these powers, an extra provision is unnecessary. Legal experts will know more about this matter than me but a compulsory purchase order for a property is not straightforward. An order is often legally challenged, which means the process takes quite some time. The provision exists for local authorities to use that power should they choose to do so.

Section 4 proposes amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. The recently published strategy for the rental sector sets out a range of measures under the headings of security, supply, standards and services. The measures seek to address issues affecting the supply, cost and accessibility of private rental accommodation.

The subsequent Planning and Residential Tenancies Act 2016, about all of which this House knows, was enacted prior to Christmas. It gives legislative underpinning to certain measures in the rental strategy. They include the introduction of rent pressure zones to slow the rise in rents in areas of the country where rents are high and continuing to rise; the extension of the duration of tenancies from four to six years; and the limiting of landlords' rights to terminate ten or more tenancies at the same time in a single development on the grounds of sale, which is known as the Tyrrelstown amendment.

I acknowledge the merits and intentions of the Private Members' Bill in the context of the development of the residential rental sector. However, Senators will appreciate that the security of tenure proposals that the Bill seeks to address have already been discussed and addressed by the Oireachtas during the passage of the recent legislation before Christmas. The rental strategy is supported by 29 actions. It is premature to revisit these issues at such an early stage in the implementation of the strategy and of the Planning and Residential Tenancies Act 2016, which was only signed into law on 23 December.

I agree with the Senators' concerns about the number of buy-to-let mortgages in arrears. The consequent risk is that repossession by the lender and subsequent sale of these properties may result in tenants having to leave their homes as well as properties leaving the rental sector, precisely at a time when we need them most to bolster supply. That is why, in the rental strategy, we have committed to encouraging banks and landlord borrowers to agree sustainable solutions to buy-to-let arrears so as to protect tenancies and limit the loss of dwellings in the sector. My Department is also in the process of establishing a working group to explore the scope for the responsibilities of landlords to transfer to receivers, where appointed, to buy-to-let properties. The measure will be a big change in the system. We have committed to completing a report on the matter by the end of the first quarter of this year. Given the complexity of the issue and the law involved, this group will involve the Departments of Justice and Equality, Finance, and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, as well as the Office of the Attorney General. They will report by the end of March. I cannot support the proposal put forward as it is too broad and does not take into account the legal complexities involved. However, I am committed to finding other ways of addressing this issue.

I fully understand and appreciate the genuine motives and intentions behind the main proposals in the Private Members' Bill. I also share the same general objectives as the Senators in terms of many of the issues that have been raised. However, as I have outlined, the proposed amendments on derelict and vacant site levies run counter to the legal advice received during the development of the vacant site levy provisions and, accordingly, I cannot support them. The focus should be aimed at ensuring the vacant site levy provisions, as constituted, are actively implemented by local authorities, with a view to incentivising the development and use of under utilised sites and delivering on the objectives of the provisions.

I accept that the implementation of the derelict site levy by local authorities has been somewhat patchy in the years since its introduction.

In that connection, my Department proposes to proactively engage with local authorities in the coming months, with a view to ensuring a more effectively enforced and applied system is in place in the future. With regard to the proposed amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act, I believe I have made my position clear.

There have been calls by some Senators for less talk and more action. To be fair, I do not think I could be accused of not introducing lots of new initiatives. We practically introduce one a week at this stage. We have introduced legislation in an urgent way and have really tested the Oireachtas's capacity to pass legislation quickly in an effort to do this. Therefore, there is a sense of urgency coming from my Department and from me. However, it would be irresponsible of me to support legislation that I honestly believe has real legal problems in terms of its constitutionality and which revisits issues we debated only a few weeks ago. I will happily work with the Senators and the group concerned on practical issues. We are about to table some new initiatives dealing with vacant properties. We will be very open about that process and I will happily return to the House to go through how that is going to work and how effective it can be.

Before I allow Senator Grace O'Sullivan in, I wish to clarify something. Members by agreement can share time if the House agrees. However, one cannot borrow time from another if, for example, one Senator has eight minutes and wants ten. That is how the situation works. I was totting up the times in this debate. I know that the Civil Engagement group is very passionate about the Bill. It received 40 minutes or slightly more than that figure. That did not include the Labour Party or any other party. The Minister had 16 minutes. That adds up to close to an hour. If we look at the mathematics of it, 49 Senators had approximately an hour if they potentially wanted to use it. That is why I have to bí cúramach and fair.

About five years ago, with the agreement of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, the former Leader of the House extended the times. It used to be eight minutes and six minutes. It was changed to 12 minutes and eight minutes. That was an addition. As well as that, the Leader has been kind enough most weeks to schedule two Private Members' sessions. There has been a lot of latitude given. I just want to be fair. I hope that when my tenure is up, Members will say I was fair to everyone. I wanted to make that case. It is not that I am being Mr. Scrooge spoiling the debate. I have to apply the rules fairly across the board.

I re-emphasise that we are still in a crisis. I understand the Minister is doing everything in his power to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis. However, it is something that continues to evolve. I understand he is doing his best. With regard to our recent debates in the Seanad before Christmas and the changes in legislation, all Acts, even new ones, must be open to constructive change and to evolution. We only just discussed it. It is not good enough. We need to continue the process of discussion and debate in times of crisis.

Just to refer to some of the comments today, I had a sense of déjà vu when I heard Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor talking about her Fianna Fáil proposal and how she felt about the Bill. It is not so long ago that we were discussing microbeads in the Chamber and, once again, Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor attacked. To her I say, "You come up with the goods and the solutions."

She is all talk and we are not getting solutions from her. What we are getting is a load of rubbish. In fairness, it was a load of rubbish. We have done our best on the Bill.

I am not speaking rubbish. Withdraw that remark. I spoke a lot of-----

To hear that level of-----

Respect the Chair, please.

That was very poor.

Some of the Senator's amendments were flawed.

I know that the Senator agrees with what we have and I am so sorry that she cannot support it personally because her party does not support it.

I thank Senator Victor Boyhan for his considered contribution to the debate. I thank him for speaking to its actual content and for his appeal to allow it to continue to the next Stage. No Bill is perfect and the process we would like to propose for this legislation is one of improvement. I hope the House will hear his arguments and respond accordingly.

The points made by Senators Catherine Noone and Paudie Coffey are well taken and I appreciate the constitutional challenges that actions such as that outlined would create. Nevertheless, we are in a revolving and evolving situation. As I said previously, I argue that it is now time to proceed with a more stringent immediate approach and see what the courts say if that is how it goes. The Attorney General's advice has changed in the past and can change. We can and must challenge it. Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh suggested the Council of State could also play a role before the Bill is passed into law. Let us go and do it.

With regard to the tenancy aspects of the Bill, I again appreciate the time that Government Senators took to consider the detail. However, the aim of the amendment is to ensure that, at the same time as the Minister works to provide new homes, we do not facilitate the eviction of families from their existing homes. The Vancouver example is a good one. However, current size limits in existing Irish legislation mean that it would not be effective in providing homes for Irish families.

Senator Kevin Humphreys has concerns about the timescale of the implementation. I hear them and would be willing to work with and accept amendments on these matters. The size limitations on vacant sites are currently, to my mind, of greater importance. I agree strongly with the Senator and the Labour Party that leakage in the housing sector has to be stopped if we are to ensure supply is being added rather than being swapped out.

I take time to thank my Civil Engagement group colleagues who have been very supportive of me and have spoken very practically of the lived and living consequences of the current situation. Senators Colette Kelleher and Frances Black spoke about the good that could happen when unused sites were brought back to life. Senator Alice-Mary Higgins has shown our commitment to the issue and our willingness to work with any and all on advancing some of the agreed points in the Bill.

I know that the Minister has done his best to stimulate supply. I know that the repair and lease scheme and the buy and repair scheme are really good. In addition to these schemes, what we have in the Bill will actually move things faster, particularly now in this time of crisis. The idea behind putting this Bill together was to get at the low hanging fruit and the infrastructure that was already in place: the vacant housing and the derelict sites. Instead of just rebuilding Ireland, we could use this stock and rehouse Ireland as soon as we can. I do not think there is time to waste. I ask the Minister to consider what my colleagues and I have said and to try to find a solution to move forward with the Bill.

Question put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 25.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Dolan, John.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Kelleher, Colette.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Ó Céidigh, Pádraig.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Colette Kelleher and Grace O'Sullivan; Níl, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony.
Question declared lost.