I propose to take Questions Nos. 1531 and 1532 together.
Pillar 5 of the Government's Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan on Housing sets out a range of measures to assist in meeting Ireland’s housing needs by ensuring that Ireland’s existing housing stock is used to the greatest extent possible. An overarching action within that Pillar was a commitment to develop a National Vacant Housing Reuse Strategy. This Strategy, which I published last July, strives to provide a targeted, effective and co-ordinated approach to identifying and tackling vacancy across Ireland and draws together all of the strands of ongoing work in one document with a clear vision for moving forward in the next few years.
The Strategy acts as an overarching roadmap and a focal point for the co-ordination and implementation of initiatives right across Government to ensure that we are utilising our existing housing stock to the fullest extent possible, aiming to return as many recoverable vacant properties back to viable use as possible, increasing the supply of sustainable housing, while also revitalising the vibrancy of local communities.
Specifically with regard to potentially vacant space above retail premises, my Department has recently launched the Bringing Back Homes – Manual for the Reuse of Existing Buildings, to help property owners, the public, local authorities and the construction industry to develop vacant buildings and space over commercial property. Bringing Back Homes aims to help increase housing supply as well as rejuvenate town centres and city streets. Publication of the manual was a commitment under both Rebuilding Ireland and the National Vacant Housing Reuse Strategy.
The manual provides clear and detailed guidance on the current policy and regulatory requirements applying to development of vacant buildings, containing an outline of the process and issues to be considered when developing existing buildings for residential purposes. It applies these procedures to common building types that lie vacant in towns and cities across Ireland. The manual also provides a suite of reuse options for those common building types and elaborates on the complexity associated with each option giving an overview of the technical requirements associated with creating ‘over the shop’ space into residential units.
My Department has also made legislative amendments in support of the reactivation of the optimum number of vacant residential properties. New exempted development Regulations, which came into operation in early 2018, allow for the change of use, and any related works, of certain vacant commercial premises to residential use without the need to obtain planning permission. This measure is aimed at facilitating the increased use of existing resources by enabling the productive re-use of qualifying vacant commercial buildings as homes, while also facilitating urban renewal and the bringing on stream of increased housing supply. Regulations were also introduced late last year to provide clarity on the application of Disability Access Certificates to existing buildings when brought back into reuse.
In order to more accurately determine the levels of long-term vacant but recoverable dwellings that can be re-introduced into the liveable housing stock, my Department, in conjunction with the Housing Agency, the CSO and the local government sector, have developed a survey methodology in relation to locating vacant housing and a pilot field-based survey has commenced across 6 local authorities. Each participating local authority is visually inspecting approximately 1,200 homes each, recording the location of potentially vacant properties, and where possible, recording apparent reasons for vacancy and categorising each vacant home (with a view to prioritising those which are seen as most likely to be re-introduced into the liveable housing stock). To identify long-term vacancy, the pilot requires two visual inspections, six months apart, with those homes occupied between the two inspections disregarded. The pilot survey will be concluded shortly and the results will be analysed, to assess whether there would be significant value in rolling out the survey on a national basis.
My Department and local authorities have already been proactive in dealing with vacant properties and there are a number of schemes available to incentivise reactivating suitable dwellings into the liveable housing stock. Where the initial national rollout of the innovative Repair and Lease Scheme did not yield the results hoped for, improvements have been made to its terms to make it more desirable to those who wish to bring their vacant property back into use. A Buy and Renew Scheme is also in place through which local authorities can acquire and refurbish vacant residential property for social housing use.
Any financial/taxation measures for employers to renovate or upgrade residential accommodation for employees would, in the first instance, be a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Finance.