Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Questions (44)

Mick Wallace


44. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the status of the Land Development Agency; and when legislation is expected in this regard. [24027/19]

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Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Housing)

Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Teachta Wallace, agus ádh mór air i bParlaimint na hEorpa.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. This question relates to the Land Development Agency. Specifically, I ask for an update on the status of the agency and when the legislation is expected. The agency was heralded as groundbreaking and its mandate is to use State land to contribute towards the stability and sustainability of Ireland's housing market. However, I would argue it has no mandate yet as no primary legislation has been enacted. Will the Minister tell me when the legislation is due before the House? I note that the LDA now has a Twitter page and is hiring a head of urban planning.

It is good to see the Deputy. I congratulate him on his recent campaign.

I thank the Minister.

The Land Development Agency was established on an interim basis in September 2018 by way of an establishment order made under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971, pending the enactment of primary legislation, when it will be established as a commercial State agency. An interim board has been appointed to the agency, an interim CEO and establishment team are in place, and recruitment to build the team is well under way. Funding of €20 million is being provided this year to support the agency's initial activities.

I expect these issues to be finalised shortly, which will clear the way for the publication of the general scheme and its submission to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government to be considered for pre-legislative scrutiny. The LDA will play a key role in the implementation of the national planning framework, particularly in the utilisation of public lands and the delivery of housing. The agency is already active in delivering on its remit, especially with the initial basket of public sites that it was requested to progress. These sites have near-term potential for the delivery of 3,000 homes, with the potential for a further 7,000 homes in due course.

It would be more transparent for the LDA to be established through primary legislation before it begins its work. The idea of a Minister setting up bodies with such vast power via statutory instrument is not necessarily the sign of a healthy democracy. A former employee of the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, is to be appointed as chief executive officer. Will the Minister explain how Mr. Tim Bouchier-Hayes got a job, given he is involved with McCann FitzGerald, which gave advice on the children's hospital? He was also on the board and involved in a serious fiasco there.

The statutory instrument setting up the LDA states that the services to be provided by the agency include the development and regeneration of land and property, including structures, for the purposes of delivering housing and the achievement of wider physical, social and economic development and regeneration, as well as supporting the consolidation and replenishment of the publicly owned development landbank, expediting the most effective use of such land. Identifying land for social and economic development is a start but the main goal of the LDA should be to facilitate the development of social and affordable housing. If the LDA is to function properly, it requires complementary legislation to be enacted that deals with landbanking. The Government is currently refusing to address it but I have it going through the system.

The Deputy is correct that this requires primary legislation, and once we put it on a statutory footing, we can then capitalise it to the tune of €1.25 billion. That will make the Land Development Agency one of the biggest, if not the biggest, players in the land market in the country. It is the State bringing forward State and private land, developing it in a strategic interest for the State and as a public good in the form of social, subsidised and private housing, as well as other things that may be required in the area. We do not want unnecessary delays, so if we can do some preparatory work before the primary legislation, it is what we should do and what we have done. We have an interim chief executive officer and an interim board, and these are in place until the agency goes on a statutory footing. As we have them in place, it is able to progress the eight sites it has. I briefed the Taoiseach only last month on the progress that is happening on each of these sites. It is proceeding in a very transparent way. It is tweeting about the vacancies in the organisation as it gets up and running.

It is important to progress legislation as quickly as possible and that is why I spoke to the Attorney General again on the matter this morning. It is about getting something published as quickly as possible because I do not want any unnecessary delays. At the same time, the agency has its temporary offices and interim board and chief executive officer. It is working on sites.

Mr. John Moran has said that delivering sustainable and affordable homes for people near their workplaces and social networks is a core part of the agency's work. This will not be achieved if the Government does not address the elephant in the room, which relates to land and the problems around that. The Government is not taking landbanking legislation seriously and it just wants the issue to go away. It is nuts as it would favour 99% of the Government's supporters. Will the Government's need to seek approval from the European Commission on the matter of state aid? As the Minister is aware, Article 107 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union prohibits state aid that distorts or threatens to distort competition. For the LDA to function properly, it would have to distort competition somewhat, as the State needs to lower the price of land if the Government is serious about tackling the challenges around the supply of housing in the country. Will the Minister provide insight into whether discussions with the European Commission are taking place? The Minister did not answer my question as to how someone like Mr. Tim Bouchier-Hayes, who made such a dog's dinner of the children's hospital when on the board and working with the advisers, McCann FitzGerald, gets another job from the State?

The Deputy's time may be short here but he should not mention names.

If the Land Development Agency had been established 20 years ago, we would not have the crisis that we now have in housing or land. It is a very important piece in rebuilding our housing sector in a way that will not break it again like it did in the past. We must proceed very carefully, and that is why we are putting it on a statutory footing. That is why we have had a number of engagements with the Attorney General on the legislation, which is coming shortly. As a result of the existing Acts, I was able to set it up on an interim basis to get work going on the key sites we have identified. The Deputy has said we are not addressing the land issues, but the purpose of the Land Development Agency is to take State land, as well as private land in the public interest for strategic reasons, into strategic use. We also have a vacant site levy, with €300 million of land under that levy.

It is useless. The Minister knows it is useless.

More than 40 sites that had not been developed are under development since the levy came into effect.

If this land issue is not dealt with correctly, it will be more of a problem than a solution.